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The endearment undid her. She’d not cried, not once, until now, until this woman she didn’t really know called her “baby.” Her aunt’s hands were stroking her back, her voice was low and soothing. “It’s all right, lovey. I promise you, everything will be all right now. Come in, Sally, and I’ll take care of you. That’s what I told your mama when I first saw you. You were the cutest little thing, so skinny, your arms and legs wobbly like a colt’s, and the biggest smile I’d ever seen. I wanted to take care of you then. You’ll be safe here. Come on, baby.”
The damnable tears wouldn’t stop. They just kept dripping down her face, ruining the god-awful thick black mascara. She even tasted it, and when she swiped her hand over her face it came away with black streaks.
“I look like a circus clown,” she said, swallowing hard to stop the tears, to smile, to make herself smile. She took out the green-colored contacts. With the crying, they hurt.
“No, you look like a little girl trying on her mama’s makeup. That’s right, take out those ugly contacts. Ah, now you’ve got your pretty blue eyes again. Come to the kitchen and I’ll make you some tea. I always put a drop of brandy in mine. It wouldn’t hurt you one little bit. How old are you now, Sally?”
“Twenty-six, I think.”
“What do you mean, you think?” her aunt said, cocking her head to one side, making the gold hoop earring hang straight down almost to her shoulder.
Sally couldn’t tell her that though she thought her birthday had come and gone in that place, she couldn’t seem to see the day in her mind, couldn’t dredge up anyone saying anything to her, not that she could imagine it anyway. She couldn’t even remember if her father had been there. She prayed he hadn’t. She couldn’t tell Amabel about that, she just couldn’t. She shook her head, smiled, and said, not lying well, “It was just a way of speaking, Aunt Amabel. I’d love some tea and a drop of brandy.”
Amabel sat her niece down in the kitchen at her old pine table that had three magazines under one leg to keep it steady. At least she’d made cushions for the wooden seats, so they were comfortable. She put the kettle on the gas burner and turned it on. “There,” she said. “That won’t take too long.”
Sally watched her put a Lipton tea bag into each cup and pour in the brandy. Amabel said, “I always pour the brandy in first. It soaks into the tea bag and makes the flavor stronger. Brandy’s expensive and I’ve got to make it last. This bottle”—she lifted the Christian Brothers—“is going on its third month. Not bad. You’ll see, you’ll like it.”
“No one followed me, Aunt Amabel. I was really careful. I imagine you know that everyone is after me. But I managed to get away. As far as I know, no one knows about you. Noelle never told a soul. Only Father knew about you, and he’s dead.”
Amabel just nodded. Sally sat quietly, watching Amabel move around her small kitchen, each action smooth and efficient. She was graceful, this aunt of hers in her hippie clothes. She looked at those strong hands, the long fingers, the short, buffed nails painted an awesome bright red. Amabel was an artist, she remembered that now. She couldn’t see any resemblance at all to Noelle, Amabel’s younger sister. Amabel was dark as a gypsy, while Noelle was blond and fair-complexioned, blue-eyed and soft as a pillow.
Like me, Sally thought. But Sally wasn’t soft anymore. She was hard as a brick.
She waited, expecting Amabel to whip out a deck of cards and tell her fortune. She wondered why none of Noelle’s family ever spoke of Amabel. What had she done that was so terrible?
Her fingers rubbed over the white band where the ring had been. She said as she looked around the old kitchen with its ancient refrigerator and porcelain sink, “You don’t mind that I’m here, Aunt Amabel?”
“Call me Amabel, honey, that’ll be just fine. I don’t mind at all. Both of us will protect your mama. As for you, why, I don’t think you could hurt that little bug that’s scurrying across the kitchen floor.”
Sally shook her head, got out of her seat, and squashed the bug beneath her heel. She sat down again. “I just want you to see me as I really am,” she said.
Amabel only shrugged, turned back to the stove when the teakettle whistled, and poured the water into the tea-cups. She said, not turning around, “Things happen to people, change them. Take your mama. Everyone always protected your mama, including me. Why wouldn’t her daughter do the same? You are protecting her, aren’t you, Sally?”