Eleven: Rainy Day
The clock said 11:30 by the time I woke up, and the house was quiet. The ache I felt for Gabe, and for my father, felt like a heavy rock in my chest. My eyes itched with tears, and I realized with a start that the question of Aunt Andersol's sickness and duplicity had been forgotten.
And she hadn't even stopped in to visit Gabe or see why we were all crammed in Aunt Sully's study. She didn't know what was happening -- or she didn't care, but that was unthinkable. Aunt Andersol always cared. Until now. I got up in the dark and used the bathroom, then lay back down again to think about what was wrong with Aunt Andersol's behavior. I think I got as far as formulating, "She's not acting the way we've come to expect," and fell asleep again.
Waking in the morning with the resolve to get to the bottom of things, I was instantly thwarted by the clock, which read an unbelievable 9:30. Appalled, I flung myself out of bed and rapped on the bathroom door. There was no reply, so Michel was either still asleep also or just not in there. I opened the door, turned on the shower, checked for dry towels, and as soon as the water was hot, jumped in and made myself presentable.
Soon, dressed and smelling disagreeably of the disgusting minty toothpaste the staff stocked, I ran downstairs to see what the day was going to bring. The rest of the family had gathered in the study before a roaring fire -- except for Aunt Andersol. "You slept in a good while," said my mother. "Want breakfast?"
Licking the taste of the toothpaste from my lips, I said, "Yes. Thank you. Should I just have some bread and jelly? When is lunch? If I eat a lot now, I won't be hungry."
"We have decreed it a rainy-day weekend," Uncle Bodie answered. "Noshes, salad, sandwiches, freezer-pizzas (I had the savvy to stop at the grocery on the way home yesterday and buy ten of them," he said, gloating, "you can thank me later) and the chef has accepted the weekend off, and will allow us to use the kitchen, so long as we clean it up properly and put everything away where it belongs."
"Where's Aunt Andersol?" I asked bluntly.
"Don't know," said Uncle Bodie. "She left a message that she had a date with her camera today, and was gone before the rest of us were up. Have you looked outside? We have one of those 'Storm of the Century' things in progress."
Probably the sound of the rain smashing against the windows was what kept me sleeping so late, and I told him so. I glanced at Aunt Sully, but she was bending over Gabe and stroking his ears. "I'm going to find some breakfast," I said. "Excuse me."
In the kitchen, I found that some saintly soul had made a huge platter of bacon. I greedily crunched down one piece while piling a fistful on a piece of bread and covering it with another slice of soft bread. I mashed it down to break up the bacon, then cut it in half with a kitchen knife. Rather than join the family in the study, I thought to slip out to the back porch to watch the storm and messily eat the sandwich without watchful eyes. But when I opened the door to the porch, Aunt Sully was there toweling Gabe's coat.
"I told them he wanted to go out," she said. "I was going to intercept you in the kitchen."
"This is good," I said, biting into the first half of the sandwich. "Gabe can eat the crumbs I drop."
"What's up, Owen?"
"Aunt Andersol," I said in reply, knowing that she had not completely forgotten the incongruity of me meeting her downstairs yesterday. "She's been sick and she's been acting funny lately. She lied to me yesterday -- said she'd gone to McDonald's, but she hadn't; she's hardly ever around anymore -- says she's studying. She's out of touch with everyone -- like not being there last night. No one has even talked to her since Wednesday."
"Just what I said! Mom and Uncle Bodie are in some kind of baby-haze, they're just ignoring it. We found out Aunt Andersol went to an OB/GYN on Tuesday -- don't even ask how we did that, please," I said, waving the uneaten half of my sandwich along with my other hand, as my aunt expressed outraged astonishment. I munched into the second half of the bacon sandwich. When I had swallowed, I added, "Yesterday she didn't take any of her textbooks or notebooks or her pen case with her, and came home before her classes would have ended."
Aunt Sully frowned, looking at the tile of the porch floor. "I'm not going to speculate," she said. "Although I have to say, that's all kind of weird."
A tiny piece of bacon fell onto the tiles, and Gabe got up from where he'd been lying at Aunt Sully's feet to sniff and lick it up. She smiled at me, beseeching. "Would you hook a piece of bacon for him?"
"On its way," I assured her, and returned to the kitchen.
When I came back out onto the porch with the bacon, Gabe smelled it instantly and came to stand in front of me. I broke off about a quarter of it. "Tell me," I said to him. He woofed, a low, commanding sound. I gave him the quarter. He ate it enthusiastically, so I fed him the remainder, piece by piece.
"He ate all his breakfast this morning," Aunt Sully said. "I'm hoping that he's just been under the weather with the change from sun to rain."
"Me, too." We went indoors again, glad to return to the front of the fire in the downstairs study. While I reported to my siblings that Gabe had eaten a piece of bacon as well as his own breakfast, I listened with half an ear to Aunt Sully muttering news and gossip to my mother and step-father.
Around noon, Kelsa asked, "Could I get an umbrella and go outside, please?"
"Wind like that will turn your umbrella inside out in a second. And I'd rather not see you walking near the trees; we're going to have broken branches to clean up by the end of this. If it was raining without the wind, it wouldn't be a problem," Uncle Bodie said. "The back porch off the kitchen would be all right, though."
"I think I'll go upstairs and see if Grandmother Claire wants some company," Oesha said, and stood to leave the room. It was less the company than that Grandmother kept her suite much warmer than the rest of the house, and kept chocolates out in dishes on the end tables all the time.
"Give her a call on the house phone and see if she wants anything for lunch. I think Chef left some soup," Aunt Sully said. "I can make a tray for her."
My mother waved a hand. "Nancy can make her a tray if she wants one, Sully, you don't have to do it. Relax!"
"Relax?" Aunt Sully countered. "If it wasn't for the wind, I'd be out in the rain with Kelsa."
"Oh, bull. You're just itching to get your hands on that kitchen unsupervised. I know you and your cooking frenzies."
Mom was right; Aunt Sully loved to cook for us. Her cooking was different from Chef's, though. Chef prepared meals designed to be eaten in tiny portions and appreciated for their artistry as well as taste; all of it was pretty, and some of it actually had an appealing taste. Aunt Sully made enormous pots of soups and chilis and mashed potatoes and roasts, and never made stuff we didn't like to eat. Never. If we asked Chef to make those kinds of things, he refused, saying he didn't make "peasant food." He was a snob, but his cooking was healthy and kept us trim. We were such hogs when Aunt Sully cooked for us, we'd probably all have been fat as toads if we got such meals every day.
The last time we all went to Aunt Sully's for the weekend (we kids got to sleep out in the back yard in tents) she made two huge vats of sauerkraut and spareribs, a recipe you could smell for blocks, but when my mother smelled it she couldn't stay out of the kitchen, saying, "My God, I haven't had this since I was -- what -- ten years old?" She ate three huge servings, too, and groaned about how full she was for hours afterwards. I think she was right about Aunt Sully wanting to get into Chef's kitchen and play with his toys, though.
Oesha hung up the phone. "She would like a tray and company."
Aunt Sully jumped up. "Don't call Nancy and don't tell Chef that I'm 'fixing' his soup."
"Claire will rat you out," Mother said.
"Not after she tastes it, she won't," Aunt Sully called over her shoulder.
I got up and followed her to see what she was so obviously enthusiastic about. The younger twins had put a DVD in the machine, some musical they liked to watch over and over, and Marca had disappeared. Mom and Uncle Bodie had fallen back to gentle bickering over baby names. Oesha trailed after us to the kitchen.
Aunt Sully was opening the refrigerators one after another, cataloging their contents. She pulled out the remains of last night's roast beef and set it on the big wooden prep table in the center of the kitchen. The soup Chef had left joined the roast. "Ha-ha!" she cackled, removing a jar from the side of the refrigerator. "I knew he'd have these."
Finding a small pot, she ladled two scoops of the soup out of the container, and put it on the back burner to warm.
Then she cut thin slices of the roast beef. "When you're cooking for elderly people," she told me, you have to think in terms of what is easy for them to chew. Remember that when you're bringing me goodies twenty years from now." She chopped the thin slices into shreds. Then she tasted the soup. She wrinkled her face. "What does he flavor this with, water?"
"He called it 'Spring Tomato Soup'," I offered, having hated it badly enough the night before to remember its name so as to avoid it in the future.
She dumped some grains of chicken bouillon into the palm of her hand and tossed them into the pot. Onion powder followed suit. She rummaged around in the vegetable fridge and found some spinach. Four or five of the dark green leaves she washed in the sink and then chopped into thin strips, and dumped them in the soup.
From the "junk food" side of one cooler, she got mayonnaise and a jar of sliced dill pickles. Half a dill pickle she chopped into tiny pieces, along with a shred of white onion, and some tiny dark things from the jar she'd triumphed over. "What's that?" I asked.
She held the jar under my nose. "Smell. Capers."
Spreading mayonnaise thinly over one slice of bread, she piled the shredded beef onto it, sprinkled some provolone cheese over it, and put it in the microwave for twenty seconds. She turned and tasted the soup. "Better," she pronounced and added a shake of salt.
She flung a teaspoon of mayonnaise onto the cutting board with the onion, pickle, and capers, and mixed them, then added part of a teaspoon of juice from the capers to that and mixed again, then spread them on the second slice of bread. As soon as the meat and cheese came out of the microwave, she slapped the slices together, cut the sandwich in fours, and put a cover on it. The soup she poured into a soup-dish with a cover as well. Grabbing a napkin from the linen cupboard, and a spoon, she handed the tray to Oesha, and found Marca there in workout clothes.
"That smells good," Marca said. "Can you make me some after I work out?"
"Yes, if you help me with cleanup after you eat," Aunt Sully said.
"Okay," my eldest sister said, and left again, with Oesha.
I put stuff back in the refrigerators while Aunt Sully scrubbed down the cutting board and the soup-pot. "Well, that was fun," she said.
"You could come be the cook and we could fire Chef," I suggested.
"No thanks, cooking is a pleasure for me, I don't want it to become a job."
"What do you have planned for the next hour or so?" I asked her.
"Nothing. Just watching the rain, I guess. Why do you ask?"
"I was wondering if you would be interested in a tour of the third storey and attic," I said.
"All the years I've been coming here, I have never been up there. No one offered a tour, and as a guest, I really couldn't ask. I know it's pretty much deserted, but that's all." Her eyes had lit, and I knew I had a partner in crime.
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