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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Snow Angels

A Novel

Stewart O'Nan



I WAS IN THE BAND the fall my father left, in the second row of trombones, in the middle because I was a freshman. Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school we practiced in the music room, but on Fridays Mr. Chervenick led us outside in our down jackets and tasseled Steeler hats and shitkicker boots and across the footbridge that spanned the interstate to the middle school soccer field, where, like the football team itself, we ran square-outs and curls and a maneuver Mr. Chervenick called an oblique, with which, for the finale of every halftime show, we described—all 122 of us—a whirling funnel approximating our school's nickname, the Golden Tornadoes. We never got it quite right, though every Friday Mr. Chervenick tried to inspire us, scampering across the frost-slicked grass in his chocolate leather coat and kid gloves and cordovans to herd us into formation until—in utter disgust—instead of steering a wayward oboe back on course he would simply arrest him or her by the shoulders so the entire block of winds had to stop, and then the brass and the drums, and we would have to start all over again.
Late one Friday in mid-December we were working on the tornado. Dusk had begun to fill the air and it was snowing, but Saturday was our last home game and Mr. Chervenick persuaded the janitor to turn on the lights. An inch or so had fallen during the day and it was impossible to see the lines. "Wrong, wrong, wrong!" Mr. Chervenick shouted. When the girl pulling the xylophone slipped and twisted her ankle, he blew his whistle three times, which meant we were to line up for a final chastising pep talk before we could leave. He climbed the three steps of his little wheeled podium and let us stand in silence for a minute so we would realize how disappointed he was. Snow piled up in our hair. Beyond the sea of flakes drifting through the high lights came the ringing drone of a tractortrailer's chains on the interstate. In the valley, muffled by a ceiling of clouds, lay the burning grid of Butler, the black river, the busy mills.
"We have all worked very hard this year," he said, and paused, breathing steam, as if speaking to a stadium, waiting for his words to circle. Beside me Warren Hardesty muttered something—a joke, a rejoinder—and then we heard what I immediately identified (from my own .22, my father's Mossberg, the nightly news from Vietnam) as gunshots. A clump of them. They crackled like fireworks, echoed over the bare trees on the other side of the highway. They were close. The band turned to them in unison, something Mr. Chervenick could never get us to do.
It had just turned deer season, and we all knew the power company had a clearcut through there behind the water tower, as well as the rights to the few overgrown fields carved out of the woods, but all of us with guns knew the land was posted, too close to the road and the school. And the time wasn't right for hunting, the light was gone. We looked to each other as if to confirm our surprise.
Mr. Chervenick seemed to understand too, though he was not the hunting type. He praised our dedication, excused us and, instead of leading us back over the footbridge, headed across the empty parking lot for the lit doors of the middle school and stood there rapping on the glass until the janitor let him in.
What we had heard was someone being murdered, someone most of us knew, if dimly. Her name was Annie Marchand, and I knew her first—years before this—merely as Annie the babysitter. Her name at that time was Annie Van Dorn. She lived, then, with her parents, the next house down the road from us. We were not strictly neighbors; between our new hi-ranch and their boxy Greek Revival stretched a mile-wide field Mr. Van Dorn leased to an old farmer named Carlsen. Yet whenever my mother and father decided to escape for dinner out or to a movie, Mr. Van Dorn's truck would pull up at the bottom of our drive and out would pop Annie with her purse and her schoolbooks, ready to whip me at Candyland and train my sister Astrid to draw on eyeliner.
I suspect that at first Astrid was more in love with her than I was. At thirteen Annie was taller than our mother, and strikingly thin. Her red hair came to her waist; her fingers were covered with rings from admirers. She smelled of the Van Dorns' oil furnace and Secret deodorant and Juicy Fruit gum, and she made pizza and sang "Ruby Tuesday" and, for me, "Mr. Big Stuff." Our daydreams, I admit, included her becoming our mother. Once we had an evening-long argument with her over the word "milk," which we—like most Western Pennsylvanians—pronounced "melk," but it did nothing to mediate our crush on her. This went on for years, like a grand affair. She left us only when my sister was old enough to watch me, and by then Annie was out of school and working, and sometimes my mother could not get her for Fridays anyway. We'd see her driving by in her brother Raymond's Maverick or riding behind her boyfriend on his Honda, but rarely. For a few years she became—by her proximity and absence—distant and mysterious. My bedroom faced the field, and at night I studied the yellow eyes of her house and pictured her in her darkened room looking back at me.
Since then she had moved out like her brothers and married and had a girl of her own, but things had not gone well for her. That spring, she and her husband had separated. Mrs. Van Dorn, now widowed, lived alone in the family house. My mother looked in on her every day after work, and often that fall Annie was there, in the kitchen, the two of them commiserating bitterly over coffee. The worst, they must have figured, had already happened.
According to my mother, Mrs. Van Dorn wanted Annie to move back in with her. Annie and her daughter were living alone above town by the high school. Her house was the only one on Turkey Hill Road, a wooded cul-de-sac that ended at the base of the county water tower. The road had once crossed Old Route 2 but when they laid the interstate the government bought up all the houses and blocked it off on both sides. Beyond a caution-striped guardrail the cracked blacktop wandered off into scrub. The other, unluckier houses were still back there, overgrown, shingles mossy; we used to party in them. Mrs. Van Dorn was worried about Annie's safety, but she and Annie—again, according to my mother—didn't get along well enough to live together, and Annie stayed where she was.
At the hearing her nearest neighbor, Clare Hardesty, said she'd heard the shots and gone to her window. The road was empty, the spotlit water tower half lost in the snow. Annie's lights were on; a colored string blinked around a tree. Clare didn't see any cars that didn't belong, meaning, she explained, the boyfriend's. The two had recently broken up; she would have noticed. When she called, no one answered, so she put on her boots and a wrap and walked down the road. The front door was open, the light spilling out onto the snow. (Here she was asked about footprints, a single broken pane, glass on the bathroom carpet; she didn't know, she didn't know.) Though the house was empty, something had happened inside. She tried the phone, then ran back to her place to call the state police.
And do you remember noticing, the transcript reads, if the back door was open at this time?
I don't remember, Clare Hardesty answers.
I know—and everyone I grew up with knows—that the back door was open and that a pair of tracks led across the backyard and into the woods. We followed them at first in our imaginations, those snowy nights alone in bed (their breath, her bare feet sinking in), and then when the brave had made their pilgrimage, at lunch we hauled on our boots and crossed the interstate and slid down the hill to the spot we as a whole had chosen, just to one side of the board bridge over the spillway of Marsden's Pond. Both the pond and the brook were iced over; only the spillway made noise. The more romantic of the tough girls had placed roses in a vase made of snow, every day a fresh one among the dead. Someone had tramped out a cross, which by January was neatly lined with beer cans. To one side sat a pile of lipsticked cigarette butts and burnt matches like an offering. We stood there, alone or in groups, looking back over the tangle of bare trees beyond which rose the water tower, and below it, invisible, her house. We passed a joint or bowl around and talked about how she was still there in the trees and the creek because the soul never dies. Someone always had gum, and I remember chewing and feeling my jaw harden and thinking that it was true, that I could feel Annie there. But at other times there was nothing, just munchies and a giddiness I would later be ashamed of.
March, cutting class, Warren Hardesty and I walked from the spot all the way to the edge of her backyard, retracing her last steps. It was farther than we thought, and we had to stop to stoke up a roach I'd saved. Warren had some blackberry brandy in a plastic Girl Scout canteen. It was Monday, around third period. The house was for sale but no one was going to buy it. The paint was peeling, the screenporch still full of her junk—lawnchairs, rabbit cages, deflated balls. Warren dared me to cross the lawn and just touch the house.
"You," I said.
"Shit, I live right up the road."
"So?" I said.
We did it together, leaving two sets of bootprints in the perfect snow. We each placed a gloved hand on the porch door. Through a casement window I could see a corner of a rug, and a chair, and light coming through the blue curtains of the front.
"Let's go inside," Warren said.
"Fuck you," I said.
"Pussy," he said, as if there were someone else there judging us.
I dropped my glove to the door handle.
"I'll be right behind you," Warren promised.
The spring protested, rang as if strummed. I stuck my head in. A hose lay coiled beneath a fraying chaise like a snake; above hung a pair of clotheslines, a few grayed pins still clinging. I thought of Annie with a basket of clothes and wondered if she had a dryer or even a washer, because at our old house we—my mother, that is—had always had both, and now we had neither.
Warren pushed me from behind and I fell across a picnic-table bench, knocking over a stack of boxes. One came open and out rolled a yellow mailbox for the Butler Eagle. I screamed as if it were a head. Warren was running for the woods, laughing his ass off. I scrambled up and went after him, shouting, "Fucker!"
Later we went back, at first partying at the picnic table and then, when we were more comfortable, in the house itself. We sat on the couch in the chilly living room, passing the canteen, toasting Annie. We never took anyone else and we were careful to clean up after ourselves. We pledged never to take or even move anything. The Prime Directive, Warren called it.
That was me when I was fourteen and I'm not proud of how we treated her place, but now I think I went there because even then I knew I was closer to Annie than all those girls with their roses and the people who went to her funeral. We had history. Stoned, I tried to picture her life there, and her death, though back then that was impossible for me to see clearly. I tried, I suppose, to say goodbye. The house hasn't changed much since then. Eventually someone less reverent broke in and set a fire, and the police boarded it up. It's still there, burnt furniture and all. I've been by.
My mother and I never really talked about what happened. We shared a few words of shocked consolation, and there was an air of mourning about the house, but while the papers were full of accounts, we did not discuss the killing itself, how and why it came about. I now see that she (and myself, though I did not acknowledge it at the time) was going through her own slow tragedy and needed her grief for both herself and me. She still called my father to make sure he would pick me up every other Saturday, but they did not talk beyond money and the logistics of visitation.