After supper Ford ferried Clary to her cousin's house, and I cleared up the kitchen and wandered out onto the porch, making notes about what I wanted to do first. I was still thinking about Mama and wondering why Grand-Dad hadn't told me this was her home - and what was I supposed to do with this information? - when Ford came back. He folded his long self into one of the (squeakily protesting) rockers and looked out over the shaggy yard. He took tea with a murmered thanks but stayed deep in thought until I poked at him.
"Ford? Why didn't Grand-Dad tell me he'd bought Mama's house? I know he didn't tell Maudie - she'd have been all over that as another excuse not to let me go. Another damned-fool reason to milk the past and hurt the girl, Stanton." My voice shook a bit, but I imitated Aunt Maud anyway.
My uncle shook his head. "I don't know, Kitty. It seems like something you should have been told." He looked around with a frown. "I must have been here before, but I don't really remember. I'm sure I don't remember Alice in this house."
Shaking off his pensive mood, Ford grinned. "Well now, girlie, what are you going to do next?"
Pump Grand-Dad for information was on the tip of my tongue, but I coughed back the words and took a long sip of my drink. "I think I'm going to spend tomorrow going through the house. I'd like to poke around a bit and explore, and then Grand-Dad is going to have to explain this 'business' he wants me to help with. "
My uncle checked his wristwatch. "I promised Clary I'd pick her up in an hour. But until then, what can I help you with? I heard you and Clary discussing a desk..."
That night I didn't sleep well. I blamed it on the strange creaks and groans the unfamiliar house made, and the wind busily dragged tree branches across my bedroom window. I decided I wasn't just going to lie there, and was up and in the shower at seven a.m, mind full of errands to run and paint colours to pick and....
Downstairs, I turned the corner and pulled up short when I realized there was a man in my kitchen. "Hi there" he said, holding out a mug of coffee. "You must be Miss Kitty. I'm Clay." I wanted to scream - should have screamed, most of my training had prepped me to scream - but his wide brown eyes and crinkly smile disarmed me a bit, and I took the offered drink. A few sips later and I was ready to talk.
"Just Kitty, please. You're the caretaker?"
He laughed softly and shrugged a shoulder. "Something like that. Now that there's actually someone living in the big house, I'll get BobbyKyle down here to thrash back those trees. It'll give you more light. And I'll be around if you need anything."
The coffee had loosened my tongue. "My uncle said you could tell me about the town."
He shrugged, easy. "Sure. Anytime you want to hear a bunch of old stories, you let me know. I grew up here, married a local girl, raised my kids a few blocks from here. My wife died a few years back. Her relatives owned our house, I had nowhere to go, and Stanton said I could stay here if I helped keep it tidy and running, just in case Miss Alice came back home. But it's too big for me - this place lost it's light when Miss Alice die....(he gulped and reddened a bit) ah....left - and so I stay here in the little house. It suits me better."
I raised an eyebrow. "The little house?"
He nodded. "It's at the foot of the driveway. I'm sure you saw it coming in."
I was aghast. "The shack?"
He chuckled. "Now that's what Ford calls it. I call it home. It suits me just fine. It's solid on the inside, dry and snug, and actually big enough for two."
So Grand-Dad had given me a house with a built-in watchdog at the gate. I wasn't sure whether to smile or give in to the slow-simmering tweak of anger I could feel twisting around in my belly. I chose to tamp it down and grinned at Clay. "So! What shall we do today? I wanted to look at the basement and the outbuildings and see what needs fixing and what might be stored everywhere."
He set down his empty cup. "Let's go."
I was running dirty sweat when we broke for lunch. Clay staggered in off the porch, arms piled high with boxes, and set them down with a grunt. I opened a few cupboards and realized, guiltily, that I hadn't done any food shopping yet, and was pathetically grateful when Clay offered to take me out for a bite.
We ended up across the street from the grocery, eating ham and cheese sandwiches and sour pickles at Martha's Eat-In. I was full and happy by the time my plate was clean, and peppered Clay with questions about the neighborhood, the house, and how he'd met Grand-Dad. He answered in between giant bites of peach pie, and by the time we left Martha grinning over the tip he'd left and headed into the Piggly-Wiggly to stock up on a few supplies, he and I were joking around like old friends.
It wasn't until we were back at the house and he was gathering his stuff to leave that I broached the subject I'd been thinking about all day.
"Clay, what do you think happened to my mother?"
He stilled and stopped loading wrenches back into his toolbox. "Kitty, I just....don't know." He shifted his weight and looked up at me, his eyes honest and kind. "I thought for a long time that your father had something to do with it, but we searched and searched - she's not here. Honey, I think she's just.....gone."
When your father was the last person to see your mother alive, you get used to the whispers and stares. Clay saying that my dad had killed my mother wasn't a exactly a new opinion, although it still stung. I swallowed hard - Mama! - and just nodded when Clay said he'd get BobbyKyle to come around in the morning and start mowing.
He left soon afterwards and I sat for awhile, letting the peace of the house soothe me.
"Mama, what happened to you?"