It was time to go down, but I didn't. I had a lot to do to get ready. My hair wasn't combed. My shoes weren't on, neither was my tie or vest.
I could hear Mother downstairs, ringing the little silver bell. The same one she always used when it was dinnertime. Whether the whole family was here or if it was just me and Father.
I could hear my cousins, Aunts, and Uncles pass by my room. I had so much to do to get ready.
Eventually Father knocked on my door.
"Did you hear the bell?"
"I'm coming." I got off the bed as he came in.
"Boy, you know what time to be downstairs." He saw my shoes and brought them to the bed, before going to my closet. "You been moving so slow lately, you ain't sick?"
I tied the laces tight, and stood up as Father put the tie around my neck.
"Why do we have to dress up for dinner? We're not fancy or anything."
"Family's here." He tossed the vest to me and went to my bathroom to get the comb.
"But we always gotta dress up."
Mother insisted on two things, very strictly. That I call my parents Mother and Father. And that we dress up for dinner.
I dunno why.
Father held my collar as we went down the stairs, like I was some kitten about to get away.
Everyone was waiting. All those eyes around the table watching me. But it was the only other pair of blue ones that I was worried about.
No one mentioned it. Or made a remark like you were supposed to do.
'Well look who decided to show up!' 'Thank you kindly, for gracing us with your presence, Sire. Now we may dig in!'
No, not us. We just sat down and joined hands as Uncle Beaumont said a prayer.
Uncle Beaumont and Aunt Judy. Cousin Davy, Jeannie, and Bobby.
Aunt Greta, Uncle Max, Cousin Ed.
Mother's siblings. I don't know why we never see Father's.
It's always the same conversation when they come for dinner.
One sentence each, someone makes a light joke. There's light laughter. Someone makes another light joke. Even lighter laughter.
The room is hot and my vest is heavy. Bobby keeps kicking me under the table, and I kick back, getting Aunt Greta instead.
Mother's already mad I was late, but she won't say anything until later-
There's a knock. A second one. Three real fast. Father slowly gets up and walks around the corner.
We can all hear the door open. And two voices.
A glance around the table, and I see everyone has stopped eating. They paused with the silverware still in their hands. Or like Davy, gravy on the corner of his mouth.
Father steps back in the dining room, and with him was a stranger.
I thought I heard a gasp when she came in, but all the adults had their lips sealed shut into thin lines.
Especially Mother. Her red lips were now in the thinnest line I have ever seen them.
The stranger was as tall as Father. She had long dark hair that was pulled back into what I thought was a ponytail, until she turned half way to say hi to Mother, and I saw it was a huge braid.
She was wearing farm clothes. Her boots were so heavy on the floor when she walked. I actually don't think they fit her. And she had blue eyes, like Mother and I.
Aunt Judy took a napkin and started cleaning Davy's face. Uncle Beaumont coughed, nudged Bobby, and nodded towards me.
Bobby stared at him til he whispered something. Then Bobby got up, took his plate and came over to my side of the table.
He put his plate next to mine and tried to sit on my lap, but I pushed him off.
"Emlen!" Mother's voice was so sharp I jumped.
"He was about to sit on my lap!"
"And you know we don't have a lot of good chairs!"
Bobby started crying because he knows when to start crying. And that made Aunt Greta snap at Aunt Judy, who was snapping at Mother.
I looked over at the stranger, who didn't seem to mind all the yelling. She had sat down in Bobby's place and was watching all the back and forth.
Kinda like when Father and I watched the dogs fight last week, before we had to pull them apart.
It was her speaking that made everyone, except Bobby, shut up.
"Back in our day, children had their own table, didn't they, Mary?" She looked at Mother, "Remember?"
Mother was staring back at her. She got up and went out, and came back with the fold out table.
Told Father to get the fold out chairs as she went into the living room.
Its funny; twenty minutes ago I would have done anything to not have to sit at the table. Now I'd do anything to stay.
The Stranger hadn't even said her name yet. She hadn't spoken more than that one sentence. And I have never seen anyone just come to dinner, wearing dirty boots and overalls, and messy hair, and just...sit down.
She was looking at me. I stared back. Took in her face. She was okay looking. I dunno, she wasn't wearing make up like Mother, Judy and Greta.
I mean I guess you wouldn't, working outside like she must have been doing. Or coming all the way from wherever she did.
I didn't even notice Bobby stopped crying. Or that Davy, and Jeannie, and Ed were getting up.
The Stranger and I kept staring at each other. I had so much to ask, but didn't know where to start.
"Can I stay?" I asked Mother.
She stared at me, and shook her head. "Go in with your cousins."
"But why not?" I kept on, looking back at the Stranger to her. Then Father. "Can I-"
"Listen to your Mother." He was looking into his plate. "Go on, I'm not gonna say again."
The Stranger was the only one who'd look directly at me. Her eyes followed from Father to me too. 'You better go.' They said, 'Wait til later.'
I left, took my plate and walked into the den.
My cousins were whispering already. Bent across the table, faces close together.
I already guessed she was our Aunt. A secret Aunt we ain't never heard of before.
"'Ain't' ain't a word." Bobby said already stuffing his mouth.
"You just said it." Ed pointed out, then moved on to the case at hand. "If she's our Aunt then why haven't we seen her before?"
"She probably ran off and got pregnant." Jeannie said this so matter of factly, we waited for more.
"Ran off, and got pregnant without a husband," Jeannie repeated, "She's probably had to do things on the street like Mama says happens when you run off."
"Like a hooker?" Davey whispered.
"She doesn't look like a hooker." I said.
"We duh," Jeannie rolled her eyes, "Listen, I bet she came here to get money from my Daddy, you wouldn't come dressed like a hooker to do that, would ya?"
"It's my house, why would she be coming to your Daddy?"
"Cause my Daddy is rich." Jeannie affirmed, as though it shouldn't have been a question.
"How would she know he was here then?" How did she even know where my house was?
And, well I dunno. I don't know a lot about hookers, but the way everyone acted when she came in, I didn't think they would have acted like that for a hooker.
Jeannie kept going on and on about how the Stranger is definitely a disgraced Aunt, who ended up being a hooker. And definitely came to get money from her Daddy.
That turned into her bragging about her Daddy's new car. And boat. And her new horse back home, and then I just got tired, and tuned it out after a while.
Her family wasn't even that rich. They were rich compared to us maybe. But I went to school with richer kids.
Mother came in after a while to tell us to take our plates to the sink and wash up.
Passing the Dining room I could see the adults had cleared away already. They were still around the table.
I could see the Stranger's braid, and the bits of dried leaves in her hair. Not a whole lot, but it was kinda sprinkled on there. Like pinched.
"Hey," I stepped in next to her chair. "Are you my Aunt?"
The whole table was quiet.
"What's your name?" I could see Father standing up from the corner of my eye. "Why haven't we met before?"
Someone was already grabbing my arm and pulling on me but I was like a statue. I felt bigger than Father. Bigger than Mother. Than Uncle Beaumont.
"Its okay, its okay, Clay!" The Stranger was saying to Father, before answering me, "I've been away."
"I don't know." She said, "But I'm back, now you need to go back with your Mama."
"She's not my Mama," I said.
And something funny happened. Something I didn't notice til much later, when I was laying in bed that night and thinking about it.
It was feeling, like when you read a book and they say there was a "change in the air". I could feel something, from all the grown-ups.
I could feel them, stop. Like someone said a curse word. I saw Aunt Judy's hand reach for the pearls around her neck, from where she sat next to the Stranger. The grip on my arm loosened for a moment, before becoming tighter.
"I call her Mother. I'm not allowed to call her Mama."
"You have to go with your Mother now." She said.
It was Mother gripping my arm.
"What's your name?"
"Sue. Now go on. Go on."
Mother tore me away, hard and didn't let go till I was in the kitchen. She was crying. She was hitting my bottom, hard.
I hadn't been spanked in years. I was too big for that. But she was holding on to me so tight, I felt my stomach drop.
Then I started crying and I didn't even know why.
"I am your Mother! Your Mother! You understand?!"
"Yes…" I tried to twist out her grip, like I did when I was little.
"Yes Ma'am!" She corrected, still hitting me, "Say it! Yes Ma'am!"
"Mary, for god's sake!" Father ripped her off me. I fell to the floor. We were both still crying.
She was waving her arms like she still was trying to whack me. Father was holding her up off the ground in a bear hug and yelling at me like I did something wrong.
"I hate you!" I yelled and ran out. Past the dining room, the den, and up the stairs.
I locked the door to my room. Kicked off my shoes, tore off the stupid vest and tie. I laid down, still crying.
I never said she wasn't my Mother. I didn't do anything wrong. What she hit me for? There was gonna be a bruise on my arm where she grabbed me. I could feel it already.
I could hear them fighting that night. Them. Father, Mother, Sue, Beaumont, and Greta. I couldn't hear them, they were outside.
My window looks out to the front yard, and I watched them for a while. There wasn't any hitting. No obscene gestures, like the teacher called them. No cursing.
Yelling. Crying. More yelling. I have never seen anything like this. Not my family.
I mean I know we all felt it. The yelling and crying, it was a feeling inside.
But I never seen it out.
Sue said something that I could hear clearly.
She got in her car, and left. Without looking back.