Clay sighed. "It's been so long. A long long time to think someone's involved without having any proof."
I stood up and went to the stove, bringing the pot with me and refilling the mugs. I worked to keep my voice calm and non-judgmental. "Was there someone you thought was guilty?" Any reason you didn't turn them in?
He snorted. "It's a small town, Kitty. I've been thinking about this for years."
Porter moved to grab an apple out of the big copper bowl I kept on the table. "Dad, who do you think did it?"
His father looked old. Old, and tired. "I've thought it was just about everyone at one point or another. When the posters started getting papered over with lost dog and flea market notices, your Great-Aunt came down and stayed with you kids while your father got reacquainted with a bottle.When Maud took you two and moved away, people ...stopped talking about it. Then your Daddy's Mama claimed the house after your Dad died, the trees grew in so you couldn't tell anything was here, and people just....forgot. Shit, (he looked at me guiltily, and I nodded to acknowledge the slip, and he went on) after the Fosters' house burnt a couple of years ago, this place stopped being the 'haunted' house for the kids, even. People just pushed Alice into the past, and forgot her."
He raised his head and caught my eye. "I didn't forget."
I was holding Porter's hand now, clutching it tightly, his hand running soothingly over my knuckles.
"So help me, Clay. Tell me what you know."
He began hesitantly. Life living near the woman he'd always had a soft spot for had been hard. It was hard being near her, seeing that (he threw me an apologetic glance) the man she'd married didn't deserve her, that she was big-bellied with another child that would tie her to this man forever. She was so happy, so overjoyed to be having another baby, even after the bad time she'd had with her first.
"She loved you from the moment she knew you were coming," Clay said gently. "Don't ever, ever forget that."
I was swallowing back sobs that wanted to rise in my throat. How, I wanted to say, do you go from loving a baby with your whole heart to leaving, just leaving, and never coming home? How do you leave? And how do you not come back?
I just nodded. There didn't seem to be much to say.
"I stayed near, you know. I tried to help as much as I could. I've never let your mother's gardens go wild, not even the ones down by the river.And when your grandfather said I could live here, I did. I couldn't (he reddened) bear to stay here, not here where she lived, but I love the little house. It keeps me close to her."
Porter put a peeled orange in front of me. I was suddenly bemused by the thought that we were going to eat the fruit bowl for breakfast, the three of us, and had a quick second of shame that I hadn't cooked something. Then I caught myself, thanked him with a quiet word, and got back to the conversation.
"Who did you suspect?"
He shot me a crooked grin. "Right off the bat, your father. I think most of the town did. He and Alice had been having rows since they found out she was pregnant again, and having Maud come by all the time didn't help much. She was.."
I stopped him. "Maud was here?"
Clay wore a quizzical smile. "She was here a lot, Kitty. She'd come down, spend a few days, help your mother, then leave again and do the same thing the next weekend. I thought Phillip must have bitten his tongue a lot, having an extra wife. But she was a great help, especially after you were born. She organized people to fill sand-bags when the river started rising, you know. The night your Mom disappeared."
"Huh" I said. "I don't think I ever knew she was here when that happened."
Clay shook his head. "It musta just never come up. Look, Maud was heartbroken when Alice disappeared. She clung to you and your brother like a life raft, and she wouldn't let anyone - not even your father - express any doubt that your Mama was coming home soon. She believed that with her heart and soul."
"Clay," I said, changing the question, "why doesn't Maud like Minna?"
His face changed, became harder and less transparent. This Clay wasn't going to give me answers.
"I don't know, Kitty."
And for the first time, I didn't believe him.