Eighteen: Anger and Heartbreak
Fall Break was upon us, meaning a short week of school, and the prospect of Aunt Sully staying with us for a four-day weekend or more. Aunt Andersol could hardly avoid the family table during such a holiday, so we were all in high spirits as we went to school Monday. The day was uneventful, though Rachel once again shared a seat with me on the ride home, and I wondered how to engage her interest outside of the bus.
Once I got home, I was stationed, Standard Operating Procedures now, in the downstairs parlor, with my notebook and my history text.
Aunt Andersol's truck pulled up outside. I heard the door slam, loudly. I heard her say, "Thanks" to the fellow who appeared to park her truck in the garage. Redell opened the door for her as she mounted the front steps.
I saw her breath misted on the air before she came in the door. It was cold outside. "Owen," she said, as she entered and saw me, and then went on up the stairs as though I wasn't there.
"Please tell me that I'm not completely invisible," I asked Redell politely.
"She did say your name, so you are at the very least, visible." He replied, his eyes searching my face for an explanation of her current and lately aberrant behavior.
I had no answer for him, and shrugged, following her up the stairs.
Kelsa waved at me from our wing. I met her at the corner of the hall's junction. Both of us were in socks, so our footsteps were quiet. "Michel's listening by her door," she said, in the faintest of whispers. "Her phone rang right as she went into her room."
There was a loud bang that reverberated along the hallway, followed seconds later by Michel skidding and scuttling in his socks to get to the old nursery room. We padded after him, looking at each other in consternation. We entered to find him in his usual spot, plastered up against the wall beside the door in the dimness. He was breathing hard.
"Did you do that?" asked Kelsa.
"No!" Michel gasped. "I had my ear to the dang door and she threw something at it and hit it! I fell down, it was so loud, and I was sure she'd heard me hit the floor."
"Well, did you hear anything prior to the 'thunk'?" I asked.
"Oh, God, did I hear," he said, peering around the doorjamb to make sure we would not be overheard. "I don't know who called her, but she said, 'I got a freakin' F! He counted that damn assignment I couldn't do as a test, like a mid-term!' Then she was quiet for a couple seconds, and then she shouted, 'That fucking son of a bitch! You're kidding! Did he really say that?'"
"Who was she talking about?" I asked.
"I don't know, she didn't mention any names. Then she got really cold-sounding and said, 'Would you swear to that statement in a court of law?'"
Then she mumbled some stuff, hung up, and that's when whatever it was hit the door, and she was shouting, 'Goddamn bastard!' I ran."
"The key words here are 'court of law' and 'did he really say that'. Something is definitely going on that has Aunt Andersol very upset."
"No shit, Owen, did you pull your squad car into the garage?" Kelsa said.
"It sounds like 'defamation of character' to me, but I propose that at the next family meal, we bring up this subject again, this time with more reason than evocative rhetoric and emotion than Marca did before."
"Evocative rhetoric, defamation of character," Michel said, sagging. "If we were normal kids, we wouldn't know what the hell you were saying."
Oesha appeared in the doorway, sliding around it like a snake. "Would you really want to be a normal kid, Michel?" she asked in a husky voice. "Would you really prefer to have your only reading material be the TV Guide and Dr. Suess? And maybe the high point of your days would be rushing home to watch reruns of Gilligan's Island."
"And Yogi Bear," added Kelsa, wickedly.
"I'd tell you all to piss off if you weren't such unrelenting tattletales," he replied.
"Sorry, Michel, that's our job, now isn't it, to make sure that you grow up just as wholesome and upright as we are?"
"Oh, heave. You guys make me want to become a priest."
"You could hear our confessions!" I said with glee.
After ten seconds of silence, Michel amended, "You guys make me want to become a toll booth operator."
After a communal cackle, we settled in to do our homework in the nursery room. In spite of our bickering and teasing, we enjoyed being near each other; we were a political party in and among ourselves. When Marca arrived after soccer practice, we helped her with her homework, Kelsa and Michel tackling her math, I coaching her on her English. Oesha talked about the people in their classes, what they wore, who looked stupid in what they wore, and who was sucking up to whom. Marca had no interest in math, but did understand that she had to be literate, so her interest alternated between the politics Oesha revealed and the points of grammar that I reviewed. "Redell says we're all on our own for dinner," she commented. "Mom and Uncle Bodie are having dinner out, Aunt Andersol and Grandmother are having trays in their rooms, whatever we want is fine."
"Let's have dinner in the little dining room," I suggested. "We have things to speculate about."
We were served tender New York steaks, small baked potatoes, and generous helpings of salad loaded with fresh vegetables in the breakfast room. No one in the house was big on breakfasts, so we had renamed the room as a little dining area. Marca ate her steak as though she were a starving wolf, and asked the maid in attendance if there was more. The soccer practice made her crave protein; if she could have had steak at breakfast as well as dinner, she would have been delighted. She had a second small steak while the rest of us ate dessert, poached pears with a caramel drizzle. While she gnawed her second portion of steak, we whispered what we had heard.
"Something is up," Marca agreed. "Do you think Sully is in on it? Is that why she's been so quiet?"
"Aunt, Mr. Favorite Nephew. Do you think she is?"
"No. Aunt Sully is pretty straightforward. I think she'd be worried, too."
"Have you emailed her and asked her flat out?"
As a matter of fact, I hadn't. Something about her reaction to my mother's pregnancy had spooked me, and I didn't want to ask her any deep questions since then. But things were getting weird, and we kids needed someone to help us make sense of it all. "I'll email her tonight," I said, and stood up from the table. Technically, it should have been Marca to do so, but she didn't give a damn about table manners, and Oesha would never call her on them.
The rest stood up, and as we left the table, the staff swarmed to pick up after us, as though they had been waiting all day to do so.
Once upstairs, we split to our various haunts, I to Father's office to use the computer, the rest to their bedrooms. I opened an email client and addressed a letter to Aunt Sully.
"Dear Aunt Sully,
How are you? We missed you this past weekend, and hope that you are all right. I finished reading "I, Claudius" last night and was really impressed.
About twenty minutes later I had my answer back from her, and understood why she had been absent over the weekend.
"It's been a tough time. Gabe stopped eating when we came home last week. He was hardly drinking any water, so I took him to the vet on Wednesday. His breathing had become strange, he was huffing even when he was resting. They did an x-ray and blood tests.
"Courageous heart that he had, he'd given little indication of how ill he was. The test results showed that he had cancer, all through his lungs and liver and blood. My poor boy. I heard the prognosis on Friday, and I couldn't bear to tell you.
"We spent his last weekend in quiet, him lying beside me on the floor. He wouldn't eat or drink; he was done.
"The vet put him to sleep this morning, and she cried as much as I did. He was a beautiful, wonderful dog, a great heart, and my faithful support back in those days when I thought my heart was permanently broken.
"Please print this out and show it to the family. I'm not out of touch, but relating this hurts so much.
"I'll be there Wednesday night, or early Thursday morning.
When the printer was done with its ugly task, I couldn't bring myself to look at the sheet of paper.
Within the hour, my mother and step-father were home, and I presented myself at their door with the printout. "Can you tell the others?" I asked.
Uncle Bodie read the sheet, winced. "Yeah, I'll tell them."
I retreated to my room. Aunt Andersol's drama was now unimportant; Gabe was gone. I felt like someone had torn something essential out of my chest. Even though he lived with Aunt Sully, he'd been our dog. I had thought he was on the mend, or at least, not in such eminent danger, but I had been wrong.
There was a sudden flash of memory, Gabe running with us kids in the cherry orchard, his white grin of teeth visible, and all of us certain we were safe because Gabe was with us. If there had been something unusual, be it deer or orchard-worker, Gabe would stop and stomp and bark in warning. We found out too late that if we kept running, Gabe would interpret our move as an "attack" and tree the orchard-worker, or chase the deer across most of the estate before he'd return to our calls. He taught us to be alert, and to have some restraint.
When I'd had my long visit with Aunt Sully the summer before, I'd had Gabe to myself while she was at work. I'd rejoiced in our early morning walks, the great beast prancing and puffing on the leash. When I wrote or painted, he was always near my feet, waiting for the next command.
He made her house seem so safe. What would Aunt Sully do without him? He made us feel safe when he was here. Who would look after us now? In the dark, I didn't cry that night. I'd known Gabe was not going to live much longer, but I had thought I'd have longer to prepare myself for his death.
"Dear God," I said when I laid myself down on my bed, "please let Gabe be in Heaven, and please let me get there, too. I'd like to see Gabe and Dad again." And then I shut my eyes to send myself away from the painful present, and imagined myself walking on the path from the back garden that wound down the hill and along the creek, a path I knew as well as the hallways of our house. Before I imagined the cluster of white birches in the lower garden, I fell asleep.