Fifty-eight: Signor Reich?
"I've got baby feet all over the place," Aunt Andersol told us when we joined her at the villa, referring to her belly. She looked happy and peaceful, sitting with her arms cradling her bulge. Her long blonde hair was freely hanging over her shoulders, her face had filled out, and her characteristic smile was back. "They sure do dance."
Amazingly, she had scant explanations for us as to where the rest of the family was. We'd been met in the airport by a driver, who had brought us to the villa, but there was no sign of Grandmother, Mother, Uncle Bodie, Kelsa and Michel, or Oesha. "They're ... tripping. Your mom and Bodie were in Pisa last I heard, and Claire dragged Oesha off to Bordeaux, but then they were going on to Budapest or somewhere. Michel and Kelsa left with some cousins for Paris or London or ... wait, was it Dublin?"
"Whaaat?" exploded Aunt Sully, as outraged as I had ever seen her. "Does Jesse at least know where everyone is?"
Aunt Andersol shrugged. "I'm the shut-in, remember? I count the hours of my days by meals, naps, sleep, and a slow walk around the garden. Nobody calls me to tell me shit, including you, so don't get all hissy with me. We've got your rooms ready, is there anything special you need? Oh, and the staff has a snack table ready for you if you're feeling hungry. I'm exhausted. Talk to you tomorrow, okay? Glad you're here safe and sound."
She rose from her chair with an effortful sigh, and left us.
John and I observed Aunt Sully's expression as she stared at the retreating back of her sister-in-law. I cleared my throat. "Well, I'm hungry, a little, even if you two are not." I waved at a -- maid, I guess -- she was in a black dress with a white apron. She immediately came to the door of the little salon. "I'm sorry," I started. "I don't speak Italian yet."
"That's all right," she smiled shyly. "Most of us, we speak English, too. How can I help you?"
"Andersol said there was a table with food available?" I felt cosmopolitan calling my aunt by name, and tall, and rather foreign. Actually, by comparison to the maid, I was tall. She would have hardly reached my armpit in height.
"Yes," she said, brightening. "Come with me, please!"
The 'snack' prepared for us was a roasted chicken, with breads surely baked within the last three hours, a heavenly garlic-laden vegetable soup, and a plate of fruit. One of the servants poured me a glass of white wine, which I accepted with a darting look at Aunt Sully.
"It's a beverage to accompany a meal here, not a rite of passage. Don't swill it -- you've been traveling too long, and if you drink too much, you'll get a headache."
With the wine, which was so delicate I could hardly believe I tasted it, the food, and the day's long flights, and finally, the luxurious shower with deliciously citrus-scented soap, I plopped onto the bed in my room and passed out within seconds. I didn't even think about prayers, or writing, or unpacking, or where I was.
When I awoke, it was to the sound of the last of the rain on the patio outside my room, and the vision of green lawn surrounded by amber-colored vineyards. The weather wasn't so different from home, but here, there were no heavy forests encroaching on the house from the ridge top. Rather, the villa was an island of habitation in the midst of agriculture. The few trees were for shade on the lawn, though I thought I recognized an olive orchard in the distant, misty air.
Even at that early hour, I had no trouble finding food. As soon as I exited my room, the villa staff seemed to swarm me, asking what I would like, what I hoped for in the day, from breakfast to a menu for dinner, as well as where would I like a car to take me?
They referred to me as "Signor Reich."
While I ate a sumptuous breakfast of poached eggs, toasted fresh bread, hand-cut bacon, and freshly-squeezed orange juice (oh, God, I prayed, remind me to have the gardeners plant some orange trees when we get back), I contemplated the staff's deference, and how they addressed me.
This isn't Grandmother Claire's property, I realized with a jolt of electric anti-stupidity, it belongs to the Reich family. Grandfather's. Dad's. ... Mine. The staff wants to make sure I'm satisfied, that my family is satisfied, lest the property get sold off to some ... holiday rental or something, like so many houses in Santa Cruz, like what the Port Laughton City Council is always up in arms about not happening. Right now, the place belongs to Mom, but she doesn't give a half a shit about it.
The staff knows that, and knows that I'm their next best hope.
"Tomorrow is Christmas Eve," Aunt Sully was pointing out to John when I came back from a short walk around the gardens. "I thought the whole point to this trip was to get everyone together for the Christmas holidays. No one even knows where the rest of the family is for sure."
John leaned back in his chair, not knowing that I was at the door of the breakfast room. "I know one thing: you're not riding off to check the fences here, so I'm good with this. And we know Andersol is okay, and the rest of the tribe is having fun. Are you really mad, or is this the hormone thing you were talking about?"
She looked at her plate for a few seconds, then turned from him and stared out the window. "Well. I don't honestly know any more. Now I am really mad."
"But not at the rest of the family."
"You got it, copper."
"Copper? You want I should pull you over and -- "
"Ahem," I said from the doorway.
"Owen!" they both sang at the same time.
"Good morning, Aunt and Uncle-in-law. While you have languished in slothful sleep, I have already breakfasted and walked about the property. Marca has joined some youths playing soccer on the back yard, and after she has worn their legs off, she will be coming to the house for a breakfast.
"She, too, is angry about her twin not being here to greet her," I added to my Aunt.
"They did know for two weeks or more when we'd be arriving," Aunt Sully growled. "If it wasn't a big deal, we could have stayed home at the estate and just emailed 'Happy Holidays.' It's not like there wasn't a lot to get done around there."
Foremost in my mind were the journals we'd found in that strange hidden room. "No kidding. Do you think I can move all those diaries to a bookcase in my suite on the third floor when we get back?"
"Your mother would probably prefer that to you wandering in and out of her closet. I just wonder what was written in them that they would get hidden away like that."
"Something sinister," I said, narrowing my eyes and speaking in my deepest voice.
"Probably something about a sister-in-law unexpectedly getting pregnant and being shipped off to Italy in secret," Aunt Andersol said from the door, startling all three of us. "What are you talking about?"
"Dad's journals. I've been trying to find them since I was about nine." For some reason, I thought it prudent not to mention grandfather's writing, or the hidden room, or the gold. If that stuff should be common family knowledge, Aunt Sully can bring it up.
"Oh," she murmured, not really interested. "I just had a call from Claire. She and Oesha will be back tonight, and she says that Kelsa and Michel should be here tomorrow."
"Just who is this 'cousin' who has the twins in tow?"
"Claire's favorite cousin's daughter, along with the grandson and his girlfriend. They live near here, apparently." One of the villa staff appeared with a covered dish, placed it before her, and lifted the lid to reveal a small mountain of eggs, spicy-smelling sausage, and green and red peppers. "All kinds of relatives wanted to meet the distant American cousins, so they got some kind of train passes and have just been hopping from place to place for the past week and a half." She pitched into her breakfast with a hearty appetite, which was good to see.
"You haven't been on the computer much with us," Aunt Sully said carefully. Perhaps she didn't want her temper to take over her mouth. "And the last email I had from you said you didn't want to talk about your health concerns. Are you all right?"
Aunt Andersol nodded until she could swallow. "Yes, I am. In fact, I'm doing great. So are the babies -- everything looks normal and good, thank God. But you know, I look at the news on the internet, and every other day I see where someone leaked the contents of an e-mail to someone or other, and I just don't want to take the chance of clueing some paparazzi bitch or tabloid rag into an article on my pregnancy. Jesse was right; I don't want the father to know anything about these kids.
"We moved from Riverton to Port Laughton so Bodie could marry Jesse -- Modesto was the biggest city I'd ever been in, and Port Laughton definitely the snootiest. The estate was big, but it was just us friends and relatives, and it was cool not to worry about the bills being paid on time ... I really didn't have a sense of what it was all about until we came here."
"I'm getting a little of that feeling, too," I muttered.
"Good, then I'm not the only one. God, Oesha and Michel and Kelsa just swam off like the world was their personal pond -- and of course, Claire was always going on about traveling around -- but I thought that was just Claire. Did anyone tell you about that Count Fladashmadamir -- I can't remember his name, sorry -- that was staying here, until Claire ran him off when we arrived? She told him she wanted only family here for a while, and he left! A Count! I thought those were just in fairy tales!"
"And Sesame Street, ah! ah! ah!" I put in.
She laughed wildly for a moment. "I missed you, Owen. But I'm glad you weren't here to say that when I met him!
"Anyway, Claire was a genius, saying I should come here. I honestly didn't understand at first, but now I do. If I knew then what I know now, I'd have been a complete nervous paranoid wreck staying at the estate. Now I can see why you and Jesse were so twitchy."
"It takes some getting used to," Aunt Sully admitted. "It's kind of like going out the back door to sled on the snow and finding out the back yard is Sweden. Okay, that's an exaggeration. Finding out the back yard is Montana, maybe."
When I was little, my father seemed like a giant. He was so tall, his voice so deep, his steps so long. He wore suits, with a tie, every day; he never looked mussed up. After his death, as the years went by, I thought that perhaps my memory of him had been skewed, because I was hardly more than a baby.
Child though I had been, my image of him had been correct. He was a giant, who had more power and wealth than I could have imagined. Than I can imagine even now. He never let on to us kids that we were anything but loved kids in his house. It's the love that I remember best, and I admire more than anything else that my memories of him are also never mussed up.