With her cornmeal mush halfway to her lips, Lily’s dumpy hand clenched and stopped. She sucked in her lips and pushed her eyebrows as high as they would go. She waited. It rattled again and thudded. Something shattered nearby.
Her mother stiffened. “Benedict!” she whispered. Her voice choked and fell to a hiss.
The lamp flickered, making shadows jump helter-skelter around the kitchen. Slowly, Bendy pulled himself up and groped at the coat beside the door. Lily’s stomach knotted to see him reach for that warm, dark leather coat – in such a storm. She reached for her mother’s hand, which was cold and stiff and barely moved at her touch.
Bendy tugged at the door. As he stepped out the wind banged it behind him, sending in a flurry of snowflakes.
Lily sat like a waxwork between each new sound that sent her jumping: a spark in the stove, a plop on the roof. Caroline was like a stone beside her.
Lily walked in her mind down the path to the lot next door at least a thousand times before Bendy burst into the little kitchen with a shove. His breath came slowly and evenly. He hung the coat silently, sat, and crunched a piece of cold toast.
“Benedict, speak to us!” Caroline implored. Her posture softened slightly. “What happened? It was at old Mrs. Paulson’s place, wasn’t it? Is she alright?”
Bendy sucked hard on his cheeks and stroked his stubbly chin, staring longingly at Lily and Caroline. He turned his words over carefully in his mind. “Kicked the bucket, that’s all.”
Lily’s face melted into a smile that lit up the room. She glanced up at her mother, whose face was white and taut. The room grew dark, and the smile disappeared.
“Well, then, are you not going right now to see what you can do? The poor woman! She never did have any family up there in that lonely mansion. I’ll make some calls in town. Dear, please hurry!”
Bendy grunted, “Guess I ought.” He turned for the door.
Caroline broke free from her position and strode to the telephone in the next room. Her lungs filled to bursting point, and stayed like a balloon. She ran her nails through her thin hair, streaked with grey. With a whoosh she exhaled and took the receiver. All the while she fretted with the hem of her blouse.
“Lindsay? So nice to hear your voice! Are you busy with the ladies’ meeting this morning? Can you make it out to the plot for coffee? Maybe something stronger for the stress? What’s that? Yes, the storm’s bad down this end, but slowing. Hurry! I’ve got dreadful news. Bring as many of the ladies from the meeting as you can.”
Soon the wind slowed a little, and ten ladies sat in the dingy kitchen, sipping glasses of strong coffee. Half of them held hankies on their laps, lifting them to their eyes at each breath.
“Run and play, now,” Caroline told Lily in a high, tight voice. Lily ran and took her rag doll. She propped it on her knees as she flumped in the doorway, unnoticed.
“Isn’t it simply terrible?”
“Of course, yes! But not untimely. If I may say it, she must have been over a hundred at least.”
“I, for one, was very well acquainted with the old woman. She lived through the Civil War!”
“Did she? I was on close terms all along, though I must say we fell out of touch these last years. She was a right grouch as she got on in age.”
“That she was!”
“But she had a sweet side.”
“Oh, yes she did!”
“Always had a tart or pie in the oven, poor soul.”
The door creaked open and Bendy shuffled in with two pails, frothing with milk. He clanked one onto the table where the ladies sat. “Morning,” he said slowly, and to finish he twisting his hand in a meaningless gesture.
Lily could no longer contain herself. She flew and tossed herself into Bendy’s arms. “What happened, Daddy? Did anyone do something wrong?”
Bendy turned and swept his shallow, green eyes over her. They moved constantly as he shunted all his thoughts back and forth. “Come along,” he sighed softly.
Caroline screeched and leapt from her chair. “Come back! What do you think you’re doing, you old fool?”
Bendy creased his forehead, and uncreased it several times. Bending down, he took Lily’s hand and they stomped outside. The wind touched them lightly, and the snow had almost stopped.
Bendy pushed aside the blackberry shrubs, knocking the snow onto the slushy path. Lily crept close behind him, not daring to look at the sagging sky. At an old, rusty gate Bendy lifted the latch and nudged Lily ahead of him. She skipped a few hops ahead, past the old barn, and waited for Bendy at the house.
The back door Bendy swung open without hesitating, and stomped inside. Lily tiptoed behind him. The kitchen was dark and empty. Yesterday’s fire was nothing but a small white mound on the grate, cold and lifeless.
The stairs were also dark, and Lily’s heart raced as they climbed. In the darkness, her own breathing filled her ears, but disappeared into the soft steps. “Daddy, was old Mrs. Paulson a grouch?”
Bendy’s eyes moistened and turned softly on her. He grunted, with no words, but Lily quickly stole a smile.
They slipped down a gloomy passage in wallpaper, and tapped the door at the end. There was silence. He pressed the door, and a dusty beam flooded the passage. Mrs. Paulson sat at her desk. Her hair was powdery, and her skin a rich, pale brown.
Bendy placed the bucket in Lily’s hand. Without a word, she skipped forward and heaved it beside the papers on the desk. A kiss she pressed lightly onto the old, soft cheek, then dashed and half hid behind Bendy.
“Thank you, darling. She always was a clumsy cow!”