Tom was uncomfortable. Actually that was an overstatement. Here he was, riding in Kat’s father’s huge truck and heading to her parents’ house.
I must be out of my mind. Why didn’t I ask to be taken to the station?
It was too late for that now, as they were pulling into a gravel driveway that led down a lane the length of two football fields to a huge red house. It was the image of a mid-western fairy tale; the American dream in full glory. He wasn’t sure it existed anymore, but then again, that was one of the reasons he moved here. Whoever built the house some hundred and fifty odd years ago had good taste and he wondered if it had always been in her family.
As they got closer he saw that the driveway wrapped around to the back of the house and gravel thinned out to blacktop toward the barns and silos. They kept going on around and parked in front of the garage. Tom got out and held the door for Kat and closed it behind her. She still looked frazzled, her hair was limp with sweat and cold, and her face was pale except for the red rimmed eyes. He instinctively felt like wrapping his arm around her to protect her, keep her warm, but thought better of when her father came around the back of the truck with the dogs and did it himself. The dogs took off in the direction of the barns off to harass cows or whatever it was that was creating that smell. Tom was pretty sure he had never seen anything so awkward as a one-eyed, three-legged Jack Russell Terrier running around a farm.
The wrap-around porch opened to a wide set of stairs with pots of dirt on either side. Tom imagined they would be filled with some kind of flowers in the summer. Kat and her father were already heading in the back door so Tom took the steps two at a time to catch up. What he wasn’t ready for was the wonderful smell of baking garlic bread, chili and cinnamon. His stomach instantly growled, but he tried to ignored it when a woman in her fifties flung her arms around Kat. She had shoulder-length brown hair and seemed a little shorter than Kat, though she hunched a little. He remembered that he had already met Kat’s aunt and grandfather at the McNicol’s Hardware store and instantly saw the resemblances.
“Oh, honey. Come in and sit down, you look terrible,” Mrs. Foster guided her to a chair at the large wooden table and crouched to her knees the way she would to a child. “What’s been going on? Did they catch the guy?”
“No, they don’t know who it was. Jason said it was probably someone looking for cash since I couldn’t find anything missing,” Kat replied. Tom could see, feel a little tremor run through her and wondered if she would repeat the scene from the vet’s office.
“Well, just to be safe I think you should stay here tonight.” Kat’s mother stood up and kept a hand at Kat’s cheek. “Just to be safe. Or to help your mother sleep.”
Kat nodded. Tom feared she was going to start crying again and started to take a step in her direction-
“You must be Tom. I’m Susan.”
Startled, Tom nodded, smiled and extended his hand, “Yes, nice to meet you.” Why did everyone say that? It should be Hi. It’s very awkward to meet you. Did you know what I planned on doing with your daughter this afternoon?
“Come sit down and have some chili,” she said after shaking his hand, then walked over to the stove. “I hope you like it spicy. That’s all we have here. We just want you to know how grateful we are that you are an EMT. If it had been anyone else at that house when Kat fell off the railing they probably wouldn’t have know what to do.”
Tom sat next to Kat and she gave him a sympathetic look and mouthed sorry. he didn’t have time to respond when Mr. Foster placed a beer in front of him and opened one himself.
“Steve, don’t you think it’s a little early for that? How do you know he wants a beer? Maybe he wants a lemonade,” Kat’s mother started again.
“Look at the boy, Suse. Let him have a beer. He deserves it,” he replied.
Tom had just been about to pick up the can and take a swig but now he was frozen, didn’t know what to do. They were both looking at him waiting to see which way he would go. In that split second he felt like running and screaming for his life.
“Actually, Dad, I’ll have a beer, too,” Kat said glancing in Tom’s direction then back at her father.
Mrs. Foster gave a resolved “humph” and turned back to ladling out chili while Richard returned to the fridge for another beer.
Mrs. Foster was bringing over a tray of steaming bowls when an explosion of noise from the back door made him jump.
A high cheerful voice was behind the racket. It looked as though the kitchen had been invaded by three toe-headed creatures of various sizes.
“Now, boys, you know the rules. You have to eat a whole bowl of chili before you can play outside,” said the woman coming in behind them. She was followed by a tall skinny guy with a Red’s baseball cap with blond curls sticking out underneath. The ‘boys’, as she called them, all gathered at the table and chose seat. All but one, that is.
The shortest blonde boy had glasses and a large front tooth that jutted out beside a small gap where he probably just lost another baby tooth. He stood right beside Tom and stared at him.
“Who are you?” he asked without smiling, but showing off his gap when his top lip curled up.
“I’m Tom,” Tom replied, just as seriously. “Who are you?”
“I’m Jake. I’m seven. How old are you?” Jake had a lisp that was typical of a kid who has a front tooth missing.
“Are you a fireman?”
He really needed to stop wearing this hat.
They eyed one another for a minute and everyone around them was silent, watching the confrontation. Then Jake leaned in and whispered, “I always sit by Grandpa.”
Tom glanced to the other side of Kat’s father and saw that seat occupied by another blond boy of about nine. Realization hit him then that this was Kat’s family. He noticed that the woman with the high pitched voice looked a lot like her, but maybe a little shorter and a little more rounded at the hips.
He nodded and said, “I see.”
Kat’s sister moved on Jake then and said, “Honey, why don’t you sit on the other side of Aunt Kat,” and shooed him off to the other side of the table.
Tom immediately felt guilty for putting the little guy out, but he didn’t seem any worse for wear when Kat poked his side and he let out a howl of laughter. Still, Tom got out of his chair and pulled it out from the table giving about a three foot gap. Then he walked behind Jake’s chair, lifted it with him in it, and placed it beside his grandpa, Jake giggled the whole time, relishing in the attention. Tom then put his own chair, bowl, and beer on Kat’s other side.
“What do you say, Jake?” Kat’s sister said.
Tom winked and took his first bite of chili. It was spicy. Tom could taste the usual stuff: tomatoes, beef, beans, onions, green peppers, then he bit into one chunk of pepper and the inferno was released. He took another swallow of beer and coughed a little. Kat ducked her head as if to hide a giggle and her sister snickered.
“What do you think?” her mother asked him.
He nodded, eyes watering. Was this some kind of joke? He was a fire fighter and he thought this was hot.
“It’s good,” he rasped.
Kat and her sister both burst out laughing. Kat placed her hand on his arm.
“I’m so sorry, Tom. I should have warned you. My mom’s chili wins the Spiciest Chili Award every year at the fair.”
He nodded again and took another drink.
Mr. Foster slapped his back on his way to get another beer.
The tall man in the Red’s hat came over and extended his hand said, “Hi, I’m Richard, Claudia’s husband.”
Kat’s sister said in the same high-pitched voice, “I’m Claudia,” then pointed to the other boys and said, “and this is Alex, 9, and Mikey, 12. And you already met Jake.”
Tom gave a little wave and nod at each person as Mikey said, “It’s Mike, mom, not Mikey.”
She rolled her eyes behind his head and said, “Sorry, I forgot.”
“Mom, I’m hungry,” Jake started and then it was chaos as Claudia, Kat, and their mother bustled around the kitchen to get bowls of chili, bread, and drinks for everyone. It was loud as Kat asked each boy what drink they wanted and they all answered at once, and Richard and Steve started up their own conversation. The noise was incredible, but comfortable, practiced. It was a familiar routine; a mother and two daughters walking around seemingly chaotically, but never bumping into each other. Tom couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the dance.
Suddenly, it was as if Kat could feel him watching and she slanted a glance at him and perhaps swayed her hips a little more. Or perhaps it was his imagination. He reached down to take another swig of beer only to find it empty so he began to focus on his chili instead. The last thing he needed was her father beating him to a pulp for ogling his daughter in his own kitchen.
He choked when a hand slapped his shoulder and another slammed down another bottle of beer.
“Hey, Booker. Enjoying the view?” Jack said.
Tom hadn’t even noticed Jack and Tiffi walk in. He reached around to shake Jack’s hand and choked out, “Hey,” and waved at Tiffi.
She waved back and turned to whisper something in Kat’s ear and rub her back.
Right. They’re all here to comfort Kat because her house was broken into. Well, that’s why he was here, too. Only he didn’t feel like he was doing much comforting. He was the tag-along. The outsider. He didn’t know how to interact with this family that was apparently ruled by women.
He had a family once. He supposed he still did, even if they weren’t here. It wasn’t their fault anyway. They didn’t even know where he lived now as he hadn’t been home in over a year. Actually it was a year ago at Christmas, but he had left because it was too painful. His brother and his wife and their little family. It had all been too much to watch their happiness when his own had been ripped from him. His brother could take over the construction business from their dad; he was better at it anyway, more interested. His only regret was leaving his mother behind. She told him repeatedly that it wasn’t his fault. His father disagreed. If he had done the inspection himself he would have realized the problem right away, but he had hired a professional to get the house approved for purchase. The gas leak had seeped through all the vents, through the whole house…
But now was not the time to remember. He popped the cap off the bottle with a little hiss and drank again.
Jack said, “Hey, you need a ride into town tonight? We gotta start our shift early tomorrow.”
Tom nodded back. He had forgotten. It’s been his regulatory four days off so he starts bright and early for his next twenty-four hour shift. Earlier in the week he didn’t know how to fill his time, but it went faster than he anticipated. Normally, free time was not his friend. It allowed his mind to wonder in the dark shadows of his memories. It was a good thing Jack stopped by; Tom’s motorcycle was not the best on snow drifted roads and he had been unable to ride it recently. One, it was freaking cold outside, and two, it was freaking cold outside. A motorcycle couldn’t haul all the wood and building materials he needed to fix his new house. He would need a truck. The house really needed fixed, too. The owl on the second floor would be the first thing to go, then the floorboards and broken railing. Basically, the whole thing needed gutted out. He started thinking about renting a Dumpster when Jack waved a hand in front of his face, snapping him out of his day dream.
“Earth to Booker. Hey, I was thinking we should probably get to the bunkhouse early tonight. We want to be rested for training tomorrow,” Jack said. The look on his was intense. Tom had a feeling that Jack didn’t want to go to bed early but that it had something to do with Kat’s house getting broken into. Tom had the same thoughts. The police were done with their own investigation, but he had wanted to do his own looking around, make sure the place was safe.
“Yeah. Good idea.,” Tom replied, giving Jack the same look to signify he understood.
Jack leaned forward and whispered, “You know, the women are gonna want to cluck over Kat for the next couple of days so it’s best to do it before she goes home.” He leaned back in his chair and said loudly, “Great chili, Mrs. Foster. I’m gonna have to get the chief to commission you to cook some for the firehouse. ‘Course then we’d be too busy putting out our own fires to be any good for anyone else.”
Everyone chuckled a little and Mrs. Foster blushed and turned to Tom.
“So, what do you think of our little town so far?” she asked, finally sitting down to her own bowl of chili.
“Very nice. Everyone’s been friendly and welcoming. I actually met your sister and father the other day at the hardware store.”
She grimaced before saying, “Daddy wasn’t too harsh on you was he? He can get pretty mean…”
Tom shook his head, smiling and said, “Just a little grunting is all.”
Mr. Foster chuckled and said, “That’s all I could get out of him until about five years ago.”
“Awe,” Claudia started in. “You guys are too hard on grandpa. He’s a big sweetie.”
“Yeah,” Kat piped in. “The reason Grandpa doesn’t do anything but grunt is because he wants to appear tough but can’t really think of anything bad to say.”
Richard and Mr. Foster both cracked up and Jack shouted, “Right!”
Confused, Tom said, “Wait, didn’t you tell me to be careful because he had a sawed off shotgun behind the counter?”
“Oh, that old thing. The store got broken into about fifteen years ago so he thinks he has to protect it now,” Mrs. Foster said. “It wouldn’t have done any good to have it back then either. The break-in happened at night when he wasn’t even there.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Foster started, “but there hasn’t been a break-in since he started keeping it there either. Everyone with in inkling of thought to break in now thinks he’d hunt them down.”
The conversation went on and Tom listened intently, learning about his new home town and the families that lived there. He found out that Kat’s family was the most connected by marriage on her mother’s and father’s sides because the last several generations had had five or more children. Apparently you couldn’t throw a stick without hitting either a McNicol or a Foster family member. It was very surreal for him. He hadn’t had a large family in Akron and he virtually anonymous in Columbus. One more thing to get used to, and he wasn’t finding it all too unpleasant either.
Kat seemed perfectly relaxed beside him. She was laughing with her family, the hysterical little girl from earlier was gone. She was protected by her family here.
That particular thought slammed Tom back to the break-in scene earlier.
The cop had said that nothing was taken, that they were probably just looking for easy cash. What if they didn’t find what they were looking for? What if they were looking for Kat? What if they came back? What did she have that some would want to harm her? Maybe it was some sicko… and maybe he just had a very vivid imagination. What would someone want with this small town woman?
Either way, he planned on talking to Jack about it.
The Letter- Chapter 13 April 17, 2009