The next morning (after being woken by a cold dog nose and a fine slop of slobber) I was drinking coffee and rubbing Wood absently with my foot, thinking about last night, when I heard a 'Hellooooo!" echo through the downstairs. It was Julia. Wood scrambled up and made a beeline for her, woofing the whole way. "Well, hello there, gorgeous." Julia said, leaning down and ruffling his head. The hound sighed and rolled over on his back, all paws in the air. Men seemed to do that around Julia.
She eyed me. "Taking the day off?" I nodded, suddenly aware of how my paint-splattered jeans and tee shirt looked less than crisp next to her own garb, and tried to resist the urge to pull at my clothes.
I was so glad to have a day off. I wanted nothing more than to hole up in the house, admire all the work I'd done, and maybe indulge in a giant bubble bath.
"I thought we could go over ......"she broke off, seeing my face fall, and revised (fairly obviously) what she had been going to say. "To Bangs Falls and look at dresses for the opening night of the festival. There'll be a dance, you know." She eyed me, a grin creeping over her face. "After, of course, we go over these figures for the refreshment tent."
Ah well, what was a bath compared to going shopping with a friend? I smiled back. "Of course. After the figures. Just give me a minute to change."
I was a tired girl that night. I'd spent far more than I'd planned to, but Julia had a talent for finding outfits that made me look as if I had a shape, and I'd enjoyed myself immensely. I'd even brought back a collar and lead for Wood. I was totally unprepared for my doorbell to ring as I held up clothes so the dog could stare puzzledly at them. (Wood's brain: Is a food? No? Oh. Next item: Is a food?)
I recouped a little as I went for the door. It must be Julia, I thought, and had a smile on my face as I swung the door open "Did you forget something? I think we forgot my......" and trailed off, because it wasn't Julia at the door.
It was Maud. I stared, open-mouthed. She stood silently regarding me for a few moments, then rolled her eyes and huffed. "Really, Kitty, I know I taught you more manners than this. Invite me in, girl, and close your mouth before the flies get in."
I gathered my thoughts. "Of course, Aunt Maud. Come in. Did Ford bring you here?"
Aunt Maud shook her head, her eyes darting everywhere, taking in all the changes I'd laboured over - the new soft paint colours, the lacy curtains, the furniture now covered in pale fabrics. She looked askance at Wood's dog bed, sitting near the fireplace. "Kitty! Do you have an...animal living here?"
I grinned. I couldn't help it. "Aunt Maud, meet Wood. He's the one sniffing your shoes right now."
She squeaked a bit and jumped back, then took in his waving tail and foolish look of doggy devotion, and ....smiled? Aunt Maud smiled? and put out her hand. My dog rose to the occasion, not jumping or slobbering, just calmly accepting her murmurings as his due and snorting when she stopped patting his head.
I'd never had a dog at the Rowland house because Maud was so set against them - they dropped hair everywhere and dragged dirt in the house and rolled in disgusting things and would probably eat the supper right off the table, to hear her tell it. So to see her calmly making friends with my hound was a little surreal.
She looked up after a minute, with a wistful smile on her face. "I've missed having a dog about." I goggled at her. She coloured a bit and then pulled some of the old steel back into her spine like a well-worn coat. "Kitty. What have you been doing this summer?"
"Aunt Maud. (I waved her to a seat.)You can see what I've been doing. I know you were here when Mama lived here, so you can recognize the changes. Otherwise than working hard, I've been co-chairing a committee for the local festival. You must remember Minna Clairborne? I'm working with her daughter."
Maud had begun to relax, but she snapped to attention. "Minna? Why on earth are you hanging around Minna? Katherine Alice, I do not want you near that woman. She is poison. She no more knows what happened to your mama than I do, and I do not want you to be listening to her tales."
Minna had seemed perfectly rational to me. "Aunt Maud" I said slowly, "why are you here? I'm happy to see you, but why now? And why didn't Ford drive you down?"
My great-aunt seemed to be growing angrier by the second. "I came" she said, biting the ends of her words off, "to see you, Kitty. To see what you have been doing. And to tell you that I know your grandfather has been filling your head with foolish tales about your mother. Katherine Alice, I knew your mother like a sister. Your mother no more ran off into the night without taking you and your brother than I would. Stanton has this idea that she's been" she groped for a word "....hiding from us all these years. Your Mama loved you. She would never leave her babies. No, Alice is dead. And I want you to leave her be."
I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. "Really, Aunt Maud? You think I should go on not knowing? I should just ignore the fact that while no one seems to think she was suicidal (Maud winced) there's no suggestion of who could possibly have hurt her? I should just let my father be the scapegoat for this? How did you explain this to Grand-Dad?"
I paused. "Except.... you didn't tell him, did you?"
Maud stood up, her face tight in the half-light. "I do not intend to discuss this, Katherine. And I don't want you to either. Let the dead stay where they are. And stay away from Minna Clairborne."