On the Porch
Elisabeth took the pot off the stove then hurried onto the porch. There was still no sign of the boys, but the afternoon sun had tempered the chill so she lingered. The stew could be reheated if need be.
Plopping onto the swing, she eyed the peeled paint on the arm. Some women took snuff in private or sipped from a flask hidden on the back stoop, like Mrs. McCullough across the way. Elisabeth Hunter dug at her worries while gazing down the ridge toward Hadley. If you ignored the hacked up hillside, the view was pleasant enough. Such were the perks of a quarryman’s wife.
Her gaze drifted closer, to the cloth moving slow in the breeze. The service banner had taunted her daily for over a year. She’d come close to removing it the week prior, but had grown superstitious at doing so before Josh was home. Besides, as she’d told the ladies at church, she wanted him to see how proud they were.
The remark was true, of course. What she’d failed to mention was the nagging guilt each time she saw it. Had she and Wayne driven him away?
Other boys had joined . . . drafted. Josh had volunteered shortly after graduation, clear out of the blue. So she couldn’t help but wonder, never quite shaking the suspicion.
Josh was the more temperamental of her sons. Though eager to please, he could be moody and defiant, which infuriated Wayne. Then again, Josh and his father had never seen eye to eye, both as stubborn as all get out.
By the time he’d reached his teens, Josh had withdrawn from her as well. She wanted to chalk it up to him becoming a man, pulling away as boys did. But Josh had a tendency to spurn everyone, even classmates. He’d be glum for days, up in his room buried in a book or out wandering the ridge. When Elisabeth would prod, he’d snap out of it for a time. But she never knew where his mind went, and was never convinced his returns were anything more than temporary appeasement.
Then there was Katie Dalton, the closest thing he’d had to a girl. Who knew his intentions there? She had sights on Joshua for certain, which Elisabeth didn’t mind. Katie was sensible and came from a solid family. The two were good together, compatible. Even Wayne, notably oblivious of such things, once commented she had a knack for pulling Josh from his shell. Poor thing. She’d been as blindsided as the rest of them by his enlistment.
Initially Elisabeth had been encouraged by the young couple’s correspondence. But though Elisabeth’s letters had continued, the notes to Katie had ceased during his time in France.
Elisabeth wondered why, her imagination running wild as always. Had he fallen in love overseas? She knew it happened. Seemed everyone knew of some relationship forged in the heat of the moment, at home and abroad. Times were tough. People grew desperate for attachment.
She wasn’t blind to the ways of the world. One couldn’t blame folks for seeking comfort. But running away with your passions wasn’t God’s plan. Spontaneous liaisons destroyed the spirit and always ended badly. Most youth didn’t care, not these days. They wanted it all now. It was disrespectful, unhealthy. Her boy Josh had never been like that.
Still, she wondered. Truth be told, it might come as a relief. Perhaps he had feelings for that nurse who’d written? Elisabeth had found the letter, though brief, strangely intimate. Claire Laurent . . . sounded French.
Elisabeth was grateful the woman had taken the time to refute the official notice that Joshua was missing. After that torture, the news had been a godsend. But as relief faded, questions had emerged. Wayne dismissed her fretting. Yet each time Elisabeth read the letter, something tugged at her.
She glanced down, finding herself digging again at the scarred wood. She rattled off a prayer, another plea for grace. Lord knows she needed to abandon her bushel of worries, else she’d best start sitting on the opposite end before the whole contraption crashed down around her one fine afternoon.
Josh was coming home! She gripped the arm tight. Wayne would scold her something fierce if he came up to find her weeping. Frantic, she glanced about, her gaze settling on the sweetbay over the rail.
Its blooms had browned in the recent frost. Though the leaves weren’t far behind, a few remained defiantly green.
The local ladies had laughed at the foolishness of planting a southern specimen so deep in the Virginia ridges. “It’ll die in the first cold snap,” Olympia Dalton had declared at a Daughters of the Confederacy gathering shortly after Wayne planted it. Only Eloise Pipken had appreciated its significance. The sweetbay was Elisabeth’s last connection to Adeleine, a stone’s throw from Eufaula.
Wayne had brought the sapling back after a visit to her father’s grave. Though sheltered along the southern flank of the house, winter blasts had taken their toll. It never brimmed with the creamy blossoms of her youth. Yet it held on, producing a handful each summer. A single waft of the vanilla scent could stir images of her mother, forever young in her mind. The association soothed her, if only for a while.
She recalled Wayne lugging it aboard the train, and how he’d locked horns until the flustered steward relented. Her husband’s gruffness had its merits, even if some couldn’t see them, her elder being one.
Before she got wound up again in that particular knot, Wayne appeared on the lane. He appeared almost chipper so she hoped it was a good day. There were so few lately.
She drew a deep breath as she moved to the top step.
Wayne trudged up the bluff to the patchy yard. “Sakes alive, Eli! You look pretty as a picture standing there.”
She bounded down, and he reached for her. A peck on her cheek became a full kiss on the lips. He could still charm her with his randy spirit, even with the doctor warning the cancer would take him within a year.
“Bullshit!” had been Wayne’s curt response. “I’ll outlive that bloodsucker,” he’d snarled to the nurse, leaving Elisabeth to smooth things over. He was back at the quarry the next morning, and every day since. Once his mind was set, there was nothing more to say. So she pretended not to notice his hacking when it came and didn’t speak of the growing hollowness in his cheeks.
They broke their embrace, his hand lingering on the cusp of her face. “I suppose you want to wait for the boys.”
“I can whip up a plate. You left right after Scott pulled out. Imagine you’re starved by now.”
“I grabbed a couple biscuits, so I’m good. And they ought to be home anytime. Is Katie coming?”
She sighed. Just when she got accustomed to his growling, he’d find his manners. “She’s stopping by with her mother. After not hearing from Josh, she wasn’t sure. But I said it’d be fine.”
“Don’t the girl realize he’s been busy fighting the Huns, then holed up in some damn hospital?” The final words caught in his throat.
“Honey, she knows that. She’s just young. Her whole family’s reeling. Losing Deek shook them up something horrible.” She scoured the hillside for the wagon. “Too young for the war, taken by the flu. It’s like we’re all under siege.”
Glancing back, she saw fear in his eyes. She’d said the wrong thing again. She clasped his hand, “Our boy’s coming home! Eloise sent her youngest up with two cherry pies. We could spoil ourselves while we wait.” She tugged him toward the steps, hoping to elicit a grin.
He obliged. “Pie, huh? Hmm. Now that you mention it, maybe I am hungry.”
* * *
Elisabeth heard the wagon first. Dropping her fork, she rushed outside.
Wayne caught up then moved ahead as she slowed, watching their approach. She stopped on the steps when she saw the scar. Wayne looked back from the lane, puzzled.
The wagon drew to a halt, and Joshua nodded to his father. His movements were deliberate as he descended. When he stumbled, Wayne reached to steady him. Joshua bristled then grabbed for his duffel.
Brows furrowed, Wayne stepped back.
Wayne went to shake hands but stopped upon seeing the bag. Hugging was out of the question. Wayne hadn’t coddled the boys since they were infants, and only rarely then. So they stood, off kilter, each awaiting the other’s move.
Elisabeth shook her head. Separated by an ocean and a war, only to pick up right where they left off. She wanted to scold them, but knew better. Back when she used to, it had made matters worse. So she said nothing, watching them fumble another exchange.
She drifted closer. Joshua was pale and gaunt, his stance haggard. The young man who’d bounded onto the train eighteen months past was nowhere to be seen. When she saw the cane handle poking out of the duffel, her heart sank. His letters from the hospital had been so vague. The nagging worries bubbled anew.
How bad were the injuries? Were they lasting?
Joshua looked over. He was alive . . . it was enough. She flew the final steps.
“Mom,” he breathed.
She hugged him tight, and a tear escaped.
“Don’t cry. I’m here.”
She stepped back, wiping her cheek. “I know.”
Wayne tried again as they made their way to the house. “How was the trip?”
“Long,” Joshua replied. “I’m stiff. Damn near froze on the Elkton platform.”
“Then let’s get you inside. Your mother made some stew.”
“Save me a bowl,” Scott called out.
She watched him unhitch Butterscotch. “Thanks, son.”
“No problem,” he yelled, moving toward the shed.
“Hurry. There’s pie as well. Mrs. Pipken made a couple.”
He glanced back. “What kind?”
“Cherry. Your favorite.”
“Mine too,” Joshua chimed in.
She smiled, but her frown returned when she saw him on the steps. The ascent was quick, but the movement off, clumsy. Wayne noticed too and held the door.
The gesture startled Joshua. “I’ll need a few minutes,” he mumbled.
She followed his uneven progress up the stairs inside.
“You comin’?” Wayne scowled.
“Sure am. Just moving at my leisure, old man.”
They exchanged daggers before Wayne softened, holding out his hand. They knew how to needle each other good, but now wasn’t the time.