“The Return of Andy Hope” by Kate Folk
Laura woke the next morning before dawn, having slept off any remnants of hangover. The air conditioner rattled in the window. Will’s arm was hooked over her chest. His hand was next to her face, curled in a loose fist; his thumb had a hangnail.
Laura lifted Will’s arm and rolled out of bed. Her mouth felt furry and tasted like death. She was still in her swimsuit; the bandeau top had shifted so that her left breast was exposed. Laura took it off, put on one of Will’s T-shirts and some gray shorts. She brushed her teeth and went downstairs.
The living room’s giant front window didn’t have any curtains or blinds. The curtains that had been there when they moved in were ponderous, gray velvet, faded in patches from the sun. Will had thrown them out and hadn’t bothered to replace them, since the window faced a wall of forest. In the predawn twilight, the window was a tepid gray, like the screen of a powered-off TV.
She went out onto the porch. The air was moist. Laura leaned over the liver-colored rail and looked right, to the yolk of sun breaking on the horizon. To the left was Main Street, swamped in darkness.
Laura went inside and started coffee for Will. Usually she was still in bed when he left for work, but today she was eager to prove she could be useful. She tidied the kitchen, listening to the creak of floorboards when Will got out of bed, the trickle of water through pipes while he showered. She scrambled some eggs and made toast. She was sitting at the table when Will came downstairs.
“This for me?” Will said from the kitchen.
“Yeah,” Laura said. “It’s probably cold now. Sorry.”
Will brought the plate in and sat at the table.
“I could get used to this!” Will said. Laura smiled, and kept typing. “How’s the snow baby trade?”
“Not great.” Laura sighed and closed the laptop.
“Want some coffee?”
“No.” Laura never drank coffee.
“Aren’t you eating? Want this?” He placed a piece of toast on the table close to her. This gesture irritated Laura. She shook her head, and put the toast back on Will’s plate.
“I’ll have something later.”
Will was wearing a white undershirt and his work trousers. His blue striped, button-down shirt was waiting on a hanger, but he wouldn’t put it on until he reached his air-conditioned office; otherwise it would be soaked through with sweat long before he got there.
They said goodbye. Laura watched through the front window as Will crossed the front porch.
The moment Will left, Laura got up and turned on the TV. It was still early, several hours until The Price is Right. Laura settled on an episode of Judge Joe Brown.
The antique, German snow babies had all been listed. Laura had worked her way down to the contemporary statuettes she knew were not worth the price it would take to ship them. She decided to list them all together: Lot of Sixteen Authentic Snow Babies!
Laura couldn’t wait to expunge the snow babies from her house. If they didn’t sell in the first round of auctions, Laura decided she would hurl them one at a time against the wall of an abandoned barn down the road.
Laura drank some lemonade, ate a breakfast of ten raw almonds, did some abdominal exercises. Then she returned to the table and wrapped the remaining figurines. The lot of sixteen would be stored in a plastic grocery bag while their fate was decided on the free market.
Laura looked up just as a figure passed across the front porch. She hadn’t gotten a good look; it was like glimpsing a bat in one’s peripheral vision. Except for the occasional appearance of the UPS man, visitors rarely came to their door. From the road, the house looked derelict, especially during the day, when Will’s car was gone.
A knock at the door. The door had no window or peephole; when Laura opened it, she surrendered herself to whatever waited on the other side.
There stood a man, an inch or two taller than Laura, with dark hair and blue eyes. Laura stood, gawking, struck dumb for one of those stretched moments, time dilating to immense proportions before it collapsed under its own weight.
Laura felt herself grinning psychotically, a grotesque mask that combined ecstasy and terror.
“Just a second,” she mumbled, and took a few small steps back towards the kitchen. The blood pounded in her head, her knees buckled, and she hit the ground.
When she came to, she was lying on the couch. Andy sat beside her, gently fanning her with an issue of People magazine.
Laura did not move, hardly dared to blink. Her first thought was that Andy had come to kill her. She had always assumed that if he was alive, he must hate her for having been set free. Despite everyone’s assurances that she’d done the right thing in disclosing the whole truth about her time in Ray Leopold’s basement, she had never stopped feeling queasy about it. The last ten years had buckled under Laura and sent her crashing to the ground.
“It’s okay,” Andy said. “I told you you’d see me again.”
Laura didn’t move. “Aren’t you going to say something?” Andy said.
“Hi,” she said. “I thought you were dead.”
“Nope. You got any coffee?”
Laura made a fresh pot of coffee. Her hands were shaking. She paid great attention to how much coffee she scooped into the filter. She had a feeling Andy would notice if she fucked it up.
Laura stood in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room. Andy was looking out over the backyard.
“The coffee will be ready in a second,” Laura said.
“Cool. Thanks.” Andy scratched the back of his neck. He turned slowly, taking in the dining room and the living room.
“Can I check my email?” he said. Laura nodded. Andy sat in Laura’s chair and opened her laptop. She went back into the kitchen.
“You take cream and sugar?”
Laura placed the coffee next to Andy, then sat where Will had sat an hour before. She waited for Andy to finish checking his email. It seemed to take a long time.
Andy finally snapped the laptop shut, stretched his arms above his head and yawned. He gazed at Laura through watery eyes, and smiled. “What’s up?” he said.
“Where have you been?” she said. She couldn’t help her tone, which was petulant, carping, the voice of a wife who has been kept waiting.
“Lots of places,” he said. He took a big gulp of coffee.
“What did they do to you?”
“Got me out of Iowa.”
“They kidnapped you.”
“Yeah. That was a long time ago.”
Andy had already finished his coffee. He went to the kitchen for more. When he sat down again, Laura tried a different approach.
“Sorry about your mom,” Laura said.
“What about her?”
“Well. That she died.”
“Wasn’t your fault.”
Laura flushed with annoyance. “I know that,” she said, “it’s just something people say.”
“I know they say it. It’s still stupid.”
Laura was quiet.
“You live here with that guy Will, huh?” Andy said.
“I remember you talking about him.”
“He’s different now.”
“I’m sure he is.”
“Andy, what are you doing here?”
“I was passing through Iowa. Thought I’d look you up.”
“I thought you were dead,” Laura said again.
“Well, I’m not.”
“So why didn’t you come sooner?”
Andy shrugged. “I’ve been busy.”
* * *
They sat on the porch. Laura was still wearing Will’s T-shirt and her old gym shorts. She wanted to change but didn’t want to let Andy out of her sight.
“I thought about you all the time,” Andy said. “Every day.”
“I thought about you, too,” Laura said. She felt guilty, because she hadn’t thought about him every day–not, at least, since the first two years after their abduction. “I was waiting for you to come back. But after a couple years I just accepted that I’d never see you again.”
“I told you that you would, though,” Andy said irritably. “You thought I was lying?”
“No, not lying. I mean, I thought it was just something you said. To comfort me.”
“Nah. I don’t do that.”
They were quiet. Then Andy said, “You’re probably gonna marry that Will guy, huh?”
“Yeah,” Laura said. Her engagement ring was being resized at a jeweler’s in Iowanus. “Probably.”
“How did you know we lived here?”
Andy shrugged. “It’s not like it’s a secret.”
“Who else knows you’re in Iowa?”
“No one. Just you.”
“Don’t you want to see your family? Your dad’s family?”
“Nah. I haven’t talked to them in ten years.”
Laura didn’t know what to say. Everything she said seemed clumsy and wrong. She was quiet for a minute. Then she looked over at Andy’s teal Nissan, sitting in the driveway.
“Can we drive somewhere?” she said. “I should eat something.”
“Yeah. Let’s get out of here.”
Laura ran upstairs and threw on a pair of denim shorts and a tank top, then hurried back out. It was just before noon. Andy’s car was a Nissan Maxima, a few years old, with gray upholstery. It was spotlessly clean.
They drove south on Highway One, to where the highway met Interstate 80. Andy took I-80 west, then turned off at the exit to the Coralville Strip. He slowed on Highway Six as they approached the lot where Morningside Fruit Market had been. It was now occupied by an Outback Steakhouse.
Andy pulled into the parking lot, which was paved with smooth, black asphalt. Gleaming white lines demarcated the parking spaces. The two dying oak trees had been removed, and the long, low building swept away.
Andy sat with one hand on the steering wheel. He stared at the dashboard.
“Are you okay?” Laura said.
“I was going to tear down the fruit market myself. I wanted to open a bar.” He shook his head. “Oh well. Should we eat here?”
The restaurant was aggressively air conditioned, and Laura wished she had brought a jacket. They were shown to a booth by a young woman with a slick blond ponytail. Andy ordered steak, rare. Laura got a salad. When the check came, Andy picked it up. He took out his wallet, extracted some bills.
“You want some money?” Laura said. She pulled out her own wallet.
“Nah,” Andy said. “Should we get out of here?”
Laura couldn’t believe that no one seemed to notice them. Didn’t they remember the saga of Laura Ahrens and Andy Hope? She had imagined their reunion swarmed by paparazzi. Laura still had her Andy Hope scrapbook, now stowed at the bottom of a box of notebooks in the spare bedroom.
Laura and Andy spent the rest of the afternoon on the porch. Andy inspected the flooring, the roof, the seal around the window. He told her that when winter came, they’d be fucked.
“This place is a death trap,” he said. “No offense. There’s mold in the kitchen.”
“Will says it’s temporary. He wants to tear the whole thing down and start fresh.”
“He’d better get that done before the ground freezes.”
“I never wanted to move here.”
“Remember what we talked about in the basement?”
“We talked about a lot of things.”
“Getting out of Iowa. Going to New York or California.”
Laura was suddenly angry. “You know, I could have moved, but I didn’t, because I wanted to be here if you came back.”
“You didn’t need to do that.”
“Well, I wanted to.”
“I would have found you even if you’d moved away.” He smiled and gave her thigh a comradely pat. “You look good,” he said.
Laura blushed. “So do you.” Their eyes lingered on each other’s faces. Laura made a sudden move to get up, kicking over the glass of lemonade she’d set by her feet.
“Shit,” she said. She picked up the glass. “What time is it?”
Andy consulted his watch. “Almost five.”
“Will’s coming home soon.”
Andy nodded, stood and stretched. Laura noticed how developed his biceps were. When he stretched his arms above his head, his stomach was exposed, and it too was rippled with muscle.
“Damn, Andy,” Laura said. “You do look good. What do you do?”
Andy chuckled. “Yoga and weights. No sugar or refined carbs. In Colorado I got pretty into rock climbing. You ever go rock climbing? I’ll take you sometime.”
“Yeah. Or wherever.”
Andy said goodbye. He wrapped Laura in a quick hug.
“How long will you be in Iowa?” Laura said.
“A couple weeks. Helping a friend build this thing.”
“Can I see you again?”
“Sure. I’ll come by tomorrow.”
“Okay. Will leaves for work around seven-thirty.” She realized how deceitful this sounded, so she added hurriedly, “You should meet him! You guys would get along.”
Andy just smiled and left.
* * *
Laura took a long shower. She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror when she heard the screen door snap shut.
“Hello?” Will called out in a singsong. Laura finished coating the lashes of her left eye with drugstore mascara. She took her damp hair out of the towel and shook it so it fell on her shoulders. She went into the bedroom, put on a dress and a pair of cork platform sandals, and applied lotion to her freshly shaven legs. Then she went downstairs.
Will was lying on the couch where six hours earlier Laura had been unconscious with Andy hovering over her. Will had turned the TV on ESPN, in obedience to a lifetime of conditioning. He looked up when the pressure of Laura’s foot made the final stair squeak.
“You look hot,” he said, both surprised and pleased.
“Thank you.” Laura stood in the middle of the room. She tousled her hair with her fingers.
“Come here,” Will said. She sat next to him on the couch and slung her bare legs over his lap. He ran his hands over her shins and kissed her behind her earlobe. They had sex on the couch, and when it was over, Laura still had her dress on. She stood up and located her underwear.
“What’s for dinner?” Will said.
Laura shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“Sure.” Laura volunteered to go pick up the food. Will offered to go with her, but she said no, he should rest. She wanted to be alone for a few more minutes.
Laura drove south on Highway One toward Iowanus. She passed the turnoff to Palmer Road, and farther down, the entrance to Ripple Ridge Road. The family house had been sold years ago, when Laura’s parents divorced. The strain of their daughter’s disappearance had caused the stress fractures in their marriage to widen into crevasses of mutual contempt. Laura’s father moved to Seattle, where he had been offered a job by an old law school friend. Her mother lived in an apartment downtown and was dating a widower. His name was Walter and he had fluffy white hair and a white beard that grew into his mouth.
Laura got a parking spot right in front of Flavors of China. She paid for the order and took her time making the drive back, wending through side streets and the parking lot of her old elementary school. The town appeared bathed in a new kind of light. Andy was not only alive, but close, accessible by no more than a text message, a phone call, a brief drive down country roads.
* * *
Laura peppered Will with questions about his day, to avoid the subject of her own afternoon. In bed that night, she waited for Will’s breathing to grow steady. Then she rolled out from under his arm, went downstairs, and opened her laptop. She hadn’t had a chance to check the browser history since Andy had used it. It wasn’t that she was looking for anything in particular; her interest was undiscriminating, ravenous and pure. She would have been satisfied with the knowledge of which email server he used.
But the browser’s history had been erased.
* * *
The next morning, Laura guarded herself against the possibility that Andy might not come. She dressed carefully, aiming to look her best while not admitting to herself that she was really trying. She kept the TV off and focused on her work. The Lot of Sixteen had not been bid on; Laura couldn’t wait for the auction to expire so she could hurl the snow babies against the barn wall.
It was around noon when Laura heard a car pull in to the driveway. She pretended to be absorbed in eBay, in case Andy should look in the window. But when she answered the door, it was just the UPS man.
“Good morning!” he said. He was a relentlessly cheerful man, who never failed to make some well-intentioned comment that filled Laura with self-loathing. “Nice dress!” he said.
Laura grimaced and thanked him. The package was from Amazon, probably some volume of classic literature Will had ordered in an attempt at culture.
The teal Nissan appeared on the road. Andy drove by slowly. He didn’t pull in; he would have blocked the UPS man’s big brown truck.
Laura closed the door and pressed herself against the wall so she wouldn’t be seen from the driveway. She listened to the UPS van start up, coughing and sputtering like a giant old man. It pulled away, and then she heard the finer, lighter hum of Andy’s car.
Andy was holding a plastic grocery bag with a package of raw bacon and a pound of coffee. He asked to use the stove, and placed the whole package of bacon in a single layer in Laura’s largest skillet.
“Want any?” he said. He picked the strips up with a fork and laid them out on a paper towel.
Andy took his seat at the table.
“What’s all this?” Andy said, nodding at the holiday-themed snow globes that had occupied the next box in the queue. There was just enough room for him to set down the plate of bacon.
Laura told him about Aunt Mary’s collections and the eBay store, which Laura had titled “Aunty M’s Treasure Trove.” She told him about the Lot of Sixteen Snow Babies and her plan for them.
“So what are you waiting for?” Andy said. “Let’s break those fuckers.”
“Shouldn’t I wait to see if anyone will buy them?” But her resolve was already crumbling.
* * *
Half an hour later they stood in front of the barn down the road. It was made of rotting gray wood, with holes punched through, jagged as rotting mouths. Inside the barn was a rusty tractor, ghostlike under layers of dust and cobweb.
Andy stood back twenty feet and pitched the first snow baby like a baseball. It shattered on impact. Andy had thrown it so hard Laura was afraid of being hit by fragments.
Then it was Laura’s turn. She tried to mimic Andy’s stance, but the snow baby just bounced off the wood and landed, intact, in the grass.
“I’ve got another idea,” Andy said.
They got in his car and drove to the reservoir. Andy parked beneath the concrete spillway. Laura remembered coming here with her father in 1993, during the Great Flood. The brown water had surged over the wall, a deluge that stripped the earth to new depths, exposing a network of fossils and leaving little pools of stagnant water inhabited by crawfish and tiny frogs.
Laura and Andy stood on the sloping wall of the spillway and threw the Snow Babies out into the parking lot below. Each figurine shattered into white bonelike shards. They climbed down from the wall to inspect their work. Laura ground some of the shards under the heels of her leather sandals, reducing them to white dust.
A patrol car approached from the West, winding through the forested hills. Andy spotted it first and said, “Come on, let’s go.” They got in the car and drove away.
Andy said he had to run an errand, so they drove south through Iowanus, where Andy parked in front of a house in a new development. It was the kind of neighborhood Laura’s parents would have turned their noses up at, small yards and identically structured houses with vinyl siding.
“Wait here,” Andy said. He went to the front door and opened it with a key. After a few minutes a white SUV pulled into the driveway. A tall, pale man got out. He went into the house, and a few minutes later Andy came out, carrying a brown grocery bag.
“What was that about?” Laura said.
“Just some bullshit,” Andy said. They drove back to Dockett. On the way, Andy bought Laura a dip cone at Dairy Queen.
* * *
Laura had forgotten that the bacon pan was still in the sink. By the time Andy dropped her off, it was after five. She scoured the skillet, letting the grease coat her fingers and stain them orange with flecks of black.
Will wouldn’t have noticed the pan, much less the fact that it contained the residue of a pork product, but Laura didn’t want to allow evidence of Andy to exist in the same room as Will. She dried the pan and replaced it in the cupboard. Will still wasn’t home, so she took a shower, and when she came downstairs he was laying on the couch. Laura sat in the armchair, crossing her legs under her.
“Hi,” Will said. He looked tired, but smiled at her. “How was your day?”
“I got a call from my mom today,” Laura said, and from there she wove lies as she had once, at summer camp, woven superfluous potholders out of cloth-coated elastic bands. She said Andy had gotten in touch with her mother, that he was back in town and wanted to see her. Will didn’t sit up right away, but his muscles tensed.
“Are you going to see him?” Will said.
“Of course. How could I not see him? After what we went through.”
“You said he was dead.”
“I was wrong.”
“Why did he come back? What does he want?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him yet.” Laura winced at the commission of this blatant lie. “My mom gave me his email address. I emailed him, asking if he could meet for coffee tomorrow.”
Will sat up. “You didn’t talk to me about it first?”
Laura bit the inside of her cheek, feeling righteous and wronged. “I didn’t realize I had to get your permission.”
“It’s not a matter of giving permission. I’m your fiancé. I would hope you’d let me know before you made a date with some weird guy from your past.”
“This isn’t about you, Will!” Laura was exasperated. If she had expected this much resistance, she would have crafted a different, more comprehensive lie.
“I just wish you felt the need to discuss things with me. I’m never the one you turn to for support.” He’d accused her of this before. Laura rolled her eyes.
“I don’t want to argue about this.”
“I want to meet Andy.”
Laura laughed at him. “Really?”
“Dinner, tomorrow. Get coffee with him in the afternoon. Can your mom give you a ride?”
“All right, then. Your mom can drop you off downtown. You and Andy can catch up, and then I’ll meet you and we’ll all have dinner.”
Laura knew that the easiest way to ride out this mood of Will’s was to agree to his terms, make him feel like he was in control. She went to her laptop and pretended to write Andy an email.
After that, Will was almost bashful. He offered to cook them chicken pot pies from the deep freezer.
* * *
The next day, Andy called Laura’s cell an hour after Will left for work. Laura’s heart flopped fishlike in her chest when the phone vibrated on the table.
She explained the situation to Andy, apologizing for Will’s boorishness.
“It’s cool,” Andy said. “We’ll handle it.”
“You can come over now if you want.”
“Nah, I’ve got a bunch of shit to take care of today.”
“Oh. Okay.” Laura had assumed he’d be spending the day with her. Andy said he would pick her up at four, and his line clicked off.
Laura stood with the phone in her hand. She had been pacing between kitchen, dining and living rooms without noticing. Now she ran up to the room that had been set aside for her darkroom. She and Will had ripped off the wallpaper in strips, but left the job incomplete. The tile floor was littered with plaster, dust, and hunks of pink insulation. The single, narrow window was covered with a black garbage bag. It was the coolest and darkest room in the house.
Laura shut the door behind her. She kneeled on the plaster and it cut into her knees and shins. She cried for several minutes. It felt like she was purging a toxic grief that had pooled in her for a very long time. Once she had cried all she could, Laura took deep breaths, and a frightening calm descended upon her.
Andy hadn’t snubbed her. He was picking her up at four. Laura stood and brushed the plaster from her legs. Her eyelids and lips were swollen and inflamed. She thought it looked sort of sexy, and hoped the swelling would last until dinnertime.
* * *
Laura debated what to wear. She didn’t want Will to accuse her of tarting herself up for Andy’s benefit. She settled on a simple cotton dress, blue gingham with a hem of scalloped lace.
When Andy arrived, promptly, at four, Laura was waiting on the porch. She got into his car without looking at him or saying hello.
“What’s with you?” Andy said.
“Nothing,” Laura said.
They drove around the perimeter of Iowanus. Laura stared out the window at the fields. The land was relentlessly green; the soybean fields undulated, their slick leaves shining in the sun.
Laura coached Andy on what he should not mention of their history. She had never told Will about the sexual element of their relationship in the basement. In her interviews with the newspapers, too, she had glossed over this. Will had always been jealous of Andy. When Laura got drunk, she would occasionally reveal how much she missed him. Whenever Will accused her of being in love with Andy, she scoffed and said, “It wasn’t like that.” She claimed he was like a brother to her.
At one point, Will had insisted on knowing the truth. “You’re saying you two were alone for four months and you never fucked?” he had said. But eventually Will dropped the issue.
“You really care what he thinks, huh?” Andy said.
“Well, of course. I live with him. He’s my fiancé.”
“Even though yesterday you said you wanted to get out of Iowa.”
“Yes. I do.”
“Then why wait? Tell him tonight. You can stay with me until I’m done with this thing.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“No, Andy. I’m not ready.”
“Okay.” Andy pulled into a parking garage downtown. There were spaces on the lower levels, but he drove to the rooftop, and when he had parked, he took Laura’s hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it.
“I want you to come with me to Los Angeles,” he said.
“Andy,” Laura said. She was embarrassed. She craned her neck in all directions, worried someone was watching. But theirs was the only car on the top level, five stories up, taller than any of the surrounding buildings.
“I’m only going to ask you once,” Andy said. “I need to know if we’re on the same page. Otherwise I’m wasting my time and yours.” Laura nodded, frightened by his serious tone. “So, Laura. Are you coming with me to Los Angeles?”
Laura’s head should have been a mess of conflicting thoughts, emotions, arguments and counterarguments. But she felt nothing. She searched the sky for a sign and found not even a wisp of cloud. She knew if she said no, Andy would leave and never return. She would go to Gringo’s, meet Will, tell him that Andy couldn’t come to dinner after all. Or she could say he hadn’t shown up. Life would continue; she would not hurt anyone.
“Yes,” Laura said. “I want to come.”
Andy smiled. “Good,” he said. He cupped her neck and kissed her on the mouth.
Laura got out of the car and leaned against the concrete wall. She was nauseous. Black waves washed across her vision; there was a ringing in her ears. The sun’s heat felt personal and specific, searing the plains of her skin, penetrating straight to her treacherous heart.
“Here,” Andy said. He held out a bottle of water, unopened, glistening and cold.
“Thanks,” Laura said. She opened the bottle, and drank.