Twenty-six: A Good Reason for Riding
I could stammer around and answer her question poorly, or I could blow right past it and put the ball in her court. That was the best option at the time. "When is she due?"
"Right around the same week as your mother," Aunt Sully said, sighing. "But with twins, you never know. Depends on the case, depends on the doctor, depends on the babies."
"And she's okay, right?"
"Yes. It seems so."
"At school, we're not supposed to ask the girl who the father was, not directly. That's considered rude. But one does wonder," I told her, knowing that she would forget my lapse of judgment in the face of society's.
"God. What a world you kids are growing up in. Andersol knows who the father is, but chooses not to make him a part of her life. He's not a creep, but she had a fling that flung more in her direction than she expected. She just wants to leave it behind her."
I decided to be a little more honest with her. "Uncle John came and talked to me last night before we had sandwiches."
"He did, did he?"
"Yes. Some of the situation we discussed. Did he share it with you?"
"No, not yet, anyway. Was it man-talk?"
"No, dear Aunt, although I'm not sure what you mean. I'm inclined to ask you to pull your mind out of the gutter, but as I said, I'm not sure what you mean."
She merely glared sideways at me.
"All right, we talked briefly about Aunt Andersol, and he told us to give her whatever space she needed. I agree. But then I asked him why we had heard her fly into rages and curse and throw things. And mention 'a court of law'. He didn't know. Do you?"
"Court of law?" she echoed. "No. Did she mention any names?" Aunt Sully wasn't all that upset that we overheard things -- she learned what was going on that way, too, although had she known about the recorder, I think she would have been furious.
"No. But she was truly enraged."
"I'll look into it," she said, "but give it some time."
She held Zigzag in, and let me pass her as we moved to the ascending ridge trail, which was little more than a wide path. My horse, Mackerel, knew the way well, and climbed without hesitation, his gray ears wagging with relaxed comfort. At the top of the ridge, we struck the fire-road, which was kept in order by the state under an easement declaration, so that fire-trucks could have access in case the forest of the estate caught fire. There had never been an incidence of fire, but the local officials' pomposity had aggravated my mother, and thus, if there was so much as a low-hanging branch on the road, or weeds higher than the Port Laughton City's Weed Abatement Policy, my mother would call them and harass them into cleaning the track up.
The fire-road ran all the way into town at Thornton Street, but we weren't riding five miles to town. We turned at the lane across the fields, and cut down toward the road. The track was in good condition, so we put our horses into a canter and rode side by side. We noticed that there was a car stopped in the road.
"Someone's watching us," said Aunt Sully. We brought the horses to a working trot. "Whoever it is has already gone to the end of the road and turned around. Do you think they're lost?"
The window of the car rolled down, and a head was visible, leaning out to look at us. A head with dark, curling hair falling down to her shoulders. "I know her," I said.
"Not Eleanor Roosevelt, surely?" asked my aunt.
"Please don't call her that, Aunt Sully. Her name is Rachel Owen."
"I promise I won't. Let's go," she said, cantering again.
"Hi," said Aunt Sully, puffing a bit with the strenuous riding. "How are you today?"
I pulled Mackerel up beside her. "Hullo, Rachel."
"I was out practicing driving, and I saw you," Rachel said, her face blushing. "Thought it would be all right since this is a dead end road."
"Rachel, this is my Aunt Sully that I've told you about."
She gaped at Aunt Sully, who pulled off her sunglasses, and showing off, edged Zigzag close enough to the car that she could bend down and shake hands. "Pleased to meet you," Aunt Sully said. "Owen speaks well of you."
"Pleased to meet you, Owen has told me about you, too. Beautiful horses! I had to stop and watch you ride -- it was like something you see in a movie!"
Knowing that Aunt Sully hated most of television and movies, I interjected with, "No, we really ride. Not like movies, like real life, where you have to be careful of gopher or ground squirrel burrows."
"What Owen means to say, is 'Thank you,'" my aunt amended for me. "Won't you come and join us for a cup of mid-morning tea?"
"Oh! I couldn't!" Rachel stuttered. "I'm not dressed for anything but -- "
" -- But visiting a friend," Aunt Sully answered for her. "Just turn left at the rude sign at the bottom of the lane, and continue up to the house. We'll meet you there, if not before."
"All right," said Rachel, looking bewildered.
Aunt Sully had replaced her sunglasses, and promptly turned her horse away and took Zigzag straight up the steep bank, rather than return to the dirt entry to the lane. I set my horse to follow her, after bidding Rachel a quick 'see you later.'
When we got to the top of the bank, Aunt Sully set off in a canter again, following the dirt track of the automobile trail that ran alongside the paved road. I almost thought she would put her horse into a gallop to outrace Rachel's car, but she didn't. When we reached the turn to head back to the estate, she tugged her horse into a slow jog.
"I thought you were going to pull a 'John Henry' there and show that muscles are faster and better than machines," I told her.
"Maybe if I was younger, and stupider," she laughed. "As it is, I'm going to be a virtual invalid for the rest of the day, begging John to bring me turkey sandwiches and glasses of wine."
"You need to do this more often," I countered.
"I do," she admitted. "It would do me good." After a bit, she said, "You told me Eleanor -- Rachel -- was mad at you. Seems like she got over it, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I was surprised to see she was the driver."
"Forgive her the anger, and be wary, Owen, nonetheless."
"Thank you, O sibyl Aunt."
"You're welcome, my nephew, and there is no charge, even though should you follow an ill-reckoned path against my advice, you come to heartbreak and ruin."
"Heartbreak and ruin. Did you remember anything you heard about why Aunt Andersol was thinking about taking someone to court?"
"No," she said, speculatively. "Nothing has been said. Andersol is an autonomous person; she can seek legal counsel without involving the rest of the family. We don't know what all is going on in her life, but apparently there is something more than babies, and we'll wait to see if she'll tell us what it is."
"Is that the accountant-for-lawyers point of view or a personal point of view?"
"The two merge into the same track, strangely enough." We jogged along quietly for a while, came around a turn of the drive, and saw Rachel's car idling. "She's afraid," Aunt Sully noted. "There's no one that's going to come screaming down the lane; let's go ride beside her. Unless you don't like her all that well, in which case we can let her sweat."
I looked at my aunt in shock. "No, I like her. She's a stranger in a strange land, and she reached out to me in friendship, not knowing who I was, really. Now she's curious -- isn't that all right?"
"It's a good idea, as a matter of fact. You could be some rich hedonistic lothario trashhound for all she knows. She's thrown down her cards; now it's time for you to do the same." She turned Zigzag and started down the bank for the road.
"Aunt Sully," I hissed loudly. "Wait. What are my cards?"
"Owen, you're a goob, did you know that?"
"Yes, but what are they? Come on, I don't want to look like a total goob in front of guests."
"You live here. You have an eccentric family; though all of us can be discovered by bits, you don't have to explain us up front. It's like playing blackjack. You've got a nine and a face card. Not necessarily a winning hand, but probably it is."
"Great, another mysterious simile that I have to figure out before I know what's going on."
As we approached the idling car, Aunt Sully said, "You take more thought of similes than you do of me saying, 'Be yourself, Owen, and quit worrying about your mother's housekeeping.' The estate is the estate, I've said that a hundred times to you. Just live there, and be a moral person. That's all. You'll come to know who real friends are."
She guided her horse to my left so that I could ride up to the car. "Come on, Rachel, it's okay."
Rachel put the car into gear and moved forward, matching the speed to my horse's jog. "Are you sure? I don't want to embarrass you."
"You would embarrass me if you tore off your shirt over brunch and demanded beads," I said.
"That's a horrible thing to say," she said, coloring in her cheeks. "Even if your family was so inclined."
Laughing, I admitted that the family was not. "Over there, pull in -- that's the stables. Do you want to come see the horses?"
"Sure!" she cried, parking the car. "Are there more?"
"Yeah, a bunch." I took my right foot from the stirrup, swiveled across the saddle, kicked my left foot free, and then shoved off to land on the ground.
Aunt Sully did the same, only she hung over the saddle for a few seconds before dropping off the horse, groaning, "Ohhwrrrr!" as she hit the ground.
"Oh," cried Rachel, "is she okay?"
"Yeah, she's just out of practice. Don't ask her about it or she'll lecture you about age and exercise." We followed Aunt Sully as she entered the stable, leading Zigzag.
She stroked his neck as she handed him off to Gary. "He was perfect, as always," she said to the groom and walked with them to the tack room.
Maida came to collect Mackerel from me, bowing and smiling at Rachel, which made her nervous. Her face was pale, and I thought she might be about to cut and run. She needs 'cute', I thought, and led her to Kelsa and Michel's ponies. "This is Berg, and this is Freddie," I told her. "My little brother and sister ride them."
"They're beautiful! I wish I had carrots or sugar or something for them."
"We're not supposed to give them treats by hand," I mentioned. "Gary -- the head of stable staff -- doesn't want them to get nippy. And it's better if they rely on petting and kind words for rewards and comfort, anyway. At least, that's what I've been taught, so you've brought everything they need."
"Your aunt is scary beautiful," Rachel said to me as we walked along, speaking to and petting horses.
"Yeah, she is. She's an accountant for some lawyer's group in Riverton. Accountant nine to five, super-aunt the rest of the time. We all want to grow up to be like her, only maybe not so scary." We'd reached Zigzag's stall, where Aunt Sully was still playing with the horse's nostrils and scratching his forehead. I knew she heard my last sentence.
"Is that my cue to be scary?" she asked, turning to us. "Rachel, have you called to let your parents know where you are?"
"No, not yet," Rachel said, blushing.
Aunt Sully nodded towards one of the stable phones. "Punch nine, and you'll get an outside line so you can call."
To me she muttered, "Is she already sixteen?"
"Age has not been a topic of conversation. She does, however, like Asimov's science fiction, and misses the snow of her native Rochester, New York."
"All set?" Aunt Sully said to her as she hung up the phone.
"Yes, she just told me not to be a pest and overstay my visit. Mom, that is."
"First visits are always tough," my aunt mused. "The first time I came here was for the reception after Owen's mother's wedding. Everything seemed Big, and Complicated. I was pretty much overwhelmed."
"Really? How did you handle it?"
"Ran like a rabbit as soon as I could politely leave."