ShadowSoul 4-Family Dinner

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Chapter 4: 'Family Dinner' or 'Hell on Earth'

Enoch seemed unusually quiet as I finished dressing, but I knew that mom was waiting, so I had to hurry.

"I'm sorry that I have to go, but I'll be back as soon as I can." I said as I looked in the mirror.

I got a strange feeling from Enoch that I couldn't identify, it was kind of distant and troubled, but not really upset.

It took me a few minutes to get my hair to lay down. I'm used to letting the mop kind of hang however it wants to. But once it was gelled into submission, I checked myself over in the mirror one last time, then turned to Enoch who was at my side.

"I'll miss you too." I whispered with regret, then hurried downstairs.

* * * * *

"Mark? Wow, your grandparents aren't going to know what to think of you." Mom said with surprise.

"Does it look okay?" I asked hesitantly.

I thought I looked good, but I didn't want to take the chance of looking like some kind of big dork being dressed like this.

"You look wonderful. I thought it was strange when you decided to get the old clothes cleaned, but if it means you'll be dressing like this, I'm all for it. Now I can't wait to show you off." Mom said with a smile.

"Okay. Thanks." I said with relief.

"We'd better get going. Your grandma gets a little put out when she makes a meal and people are late." Mom said as she started walking toward the door.

I started to follow as I was trying to get used to the feeling of wearing a long sleeved shirt.

"Did you remember to shut your window?" Mom asked as we reached the front door.

"Yeah. It's closed up tight." I said seriously.

"Good. Otherwise you'd be coming home to a sandbox in your bedroom." Mom said as she walked out.

It wasn't nearly as hot outside as it was the day before. It was still somewhere between hell and the surface of the sun, but at least I could breathe.

"Aren't you going to lock the house?" I asked as we walked toward the car.

"Why? There's probably not another living soul for at least twenty miles in any direction." Mom said frankly.

"Oh. Um, okay." I said, not feeling reassured by the statement.

* * * * *

The trip to my grandparents' place was made in silence.

I can't say that there was any real scenery to look at along the way, but I kept looking out the window, absorbing the surroundings of my new home.

Finally Mom broke the silence by saying, "When we get there I'll need you to get out and open the gate."

"Sure." I muttered as we made a left turn at a little convenience store in the middle of nowhere.

"It's not far now." Mom said, and I could hear bubbling happiness in her voice.

I felt a flutter of anxiety begin in my stomach.

I had never met my grandmother before. I didn't really know what to expect.

"Get ready Mark." Mom said as we made a right turn onto a dirt road.

"I'm ready." I said cautiously as I noticed that the road was running parallel to a fence.

"This is your grandfather's property." Mom said happily.

I looked through the fence at a big open field of... nothing.

"This place has been in the family almost as long as the main house." Mom said as she guided the car down the uneven road.

I looked out the back window to see the cloud of dust that she was kicking up behind us.

"There it is." Mom said and began to slow the car.

I turned and looked ahead, expecting to see a house. Instead, I saw a gate at the side of the road.

I got out of the car and ran ahead to open the gate.

Once Mom had driven the car through, I closed the gate behind her, then got back in the car.

"Why do they have a gate? I mean, do they have cows or something?" I asked as I settled back into my seat.

"Yes. I don't know how many they have now, but dad keeps all kinds of livestock." Mom said happily as she drove us down a bumpy road.

I nodded silently as I watched ahead of us, hoping to catch a glimpse of my grandparents' house.

The road started to curve to the left and I looked over to see if that's where the house was.

The place was big. Not nearly as big as our house, but still pretty big. The entire house was all on one level, but it was really spread out.

"Here we are!" Mom said with excitement.

The butterflies in my stomach seemed to have grown claws.

Grandpa was okay when I met him, but... I just didn't know what to expect.

* * * * *

"Patsy! Come on in. Your mother was worried that you'd be held up at the store. She always swears that she's going to get lost in that place." Grandpa said as he pulled Mom into a hug.

"Well, I can see how that could happen. That place is huge. I actually asked them to page Mark when I got there rather than try to find him on my own." Mom said happily as she let him go.

"Well look at you Mark. You're looking very proper today." Grandpa said and gave me a quick squeeze on my shoulder.

"This is one of the things I got dry cleaned." I said shyly.

"It looks very nice." Grandpa said fondly as he led us into the house.

"Let's go into the kitchen. I know your grandmother has been on pins and needles about meeting you since we found out that you were coming." Grandpa said, then led us out of the living room and into a hallway.

"I think Mark is a little nervous about it too." Mom said with a smile.

Sometimes I just want to smack her.

* * * * *

"Hattie, Patsy and Mark are here." Grandpa said as he led us into the kitchen.

"Oh, Patsy. Come here." My grandmother said as she moved a skillet off the burner of the stove.

"Hi mom. How are you doing?" My mom asked, sounding like she was about to cry.

My grandmother kissed her on the cheek and said, "As good as ever. Did you get plenty of rest after your trip? Your father said that you looked like you'd been rode hard and put up wet."

I don't know exactly what that means, but it sounds kind of nasty.

"Yeah. I'm fine now." Mom said quietly.

"Now introduce me to my grandson." my grandmother said firmly as she released Mom from the hug.

"Mom, this is Mark." my mom said proudly.

"Hi." I said timidly, not really sure just what I was feeling at that moment.

"Well come here Mark. Aren't you the proper little gentleman." Grandma said, then engulfed me in a hug.

"Hattie, it looks like you're scorching the gravy." Grandpa said a moment later.

"Then go over and stir it. Or did your arms suddenly stop working?" She asked firmly while she was still hugging me.

"Yes dear." Grandpa said with resignation and walked to the stove.

"Why don't you men get some iced tea and go into the living room? Everyone should be showing up soon and you need to be out there to welcome them." Grandma said as she released me.

"You heard the boss. Come on Mark." Grandpa said as he walked to my side.

I smiled and walked with him back out into the hallway.

* * * * *

"Who else is coming?" I asked as we walked into the living room.

"Joe Bob and his brood and your Aunt Prissy." Grandpa said as he took a seat in a recliner.

"Prissy?" I asked cautiously then took a seat on the couch.

"Short for Priscilla. But I think Prissy describes her best." Grandpa said frankly.

"Oh, um. Sounds great." I said without enthusiasm.

"My boy. You can pick your friends, but you're stuck with your family. You've got no choice but to accept them how they are." Grandpa said sagely.

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm probably not going to like my Aunt Prissy?" I asked cautiously.

"Because you probably won't. At least, I don't think I've ever met anyone who did... well, except for that husband of hers. But they're two of a kind." Grandpa said distantly.

A honking horn interrupted any further conversation.

"Sounds like Joe Bob's here." Grandpa said with a smile.

"Do you want me to answer the door?" I asked when I noticed that Grandpa wasn't getting up from his recliner.

"No. Joe Bob knows he's always welcomed here. He'll just let himself in. You remember that Mark. You and your mom are family. Act like it." Grandpa said firmly.

"I will." I said with a smile.

My grandpa seems to be a really great guy.

"GRANDPA!" A teenage girl said as she ran into the room and climbed onto grandpa's lap.

"How's my little Emmylou doing today?" Grandpa asked gently as he hugged the girl.

"I'm doing good. Daddy says that he's gonna take me to the mall next week and let me buy somethin nice for my birthday." Emmylou said joyfully.

"Well, you need to make sure you stop by here and show me what you bought the next time you come out." Grandpa said warmly.

"I will. I promise." The girl said, then gave grandpa a kiss on the cheek.

"You must be Mark." A tall thin man who looked to be about thirty years old said as he walked up to me.

I stood and said, "That's right."

"I'm Joe Bob. That there's my daughter Emmylou." He said in a low, casual voice that held an unmistakable Texas drawl.

Then he pointed behind him and said, "This here's my second son, Jim Bob and his little brother Beau."

I looked behind Joe Bob to see two boys, one tall and thin, the other shorter and thin.

"Joe Bob James?" I asked cautiously.

"Nope, Parker. Joe Bob Parker. My momma was a James just like yours." He said with a warm smile.

Emmylou had climbed off Grandpa's lap and walked up to face me.

The girl had some really big breasts and was wearing a half tee shirt and cut off blue jeans... I mean really cut off.

"Daddy says you're my cousin Mark. It's nice to meet you. I'm Emmylou." She said in a soft voice as she pulled me into a hug.

She started rubbing against me and I looked at Joe Bob helplessly.

"Emmylou, you git down off that boy and git in the kitchen. Go see if yer gramma needs some help." Joe Bob said firmly.

"But daddy..." Emmylou said in a whine as she slowly released me.

"Go on now. You'll have time to visit with your cousin later." Joe Bob said firmly.

Emmylou hung her head, then slowly walked away.

I watched her go, not quite sure of what I was feeling.

"She's gittin to be more like her momma every day." Joe Bob said as he took a seat on the couch.

I looked at Joe Bob with surprise at the statement.

"The way she's doin, it's a wonder that she's gonna make it to fourteen without gettin pregnant." Joe Bob said frankly.

"She's thirteen?" I asked in a squeak.

"Yeah, she's what they call an 'early bloomer'." Joe Bob said with a worried look.

"She needs to learn to cover up her petals or she's gonna get plucked." Grandpa said frankly.

Joe Bob nodded, then looked over at me.

"Mark, has Harlan shown you around the place yet?" Joe Bob asked curiously.

It took me a second to realize that he was talking about Grandpa, but I finally said, "No. I got here right before you did."

"Jim Bob, why don't you and Beau show Mark around the place? I need to talk to y'all's grandpa for a minute." Joe Bob said seriously.

A shy nod was Jim Bob's only answer as he stood.

I waited a moment to see which way the two boys were going, then followed them out of the room.

* * * * *

"That's the chicken pen." Beau said happily as he pointed.

After glancing at the chicken pen, I nodded then looked carefully at Jim Bob.

From his posture, I got the sense that he was horribly shy.

"There's the rabbit hutch! Let's go see the rabbits." Beau said with excitement and raced ahead of us.

Jim Bob altered his course and walked with me to the small, open ended building.

I decided to try to break the ice and quietly asked Jim Bob, "So what are the schools like around here?"

"They suck!" Beau said firmly.

I smiled at the younger boy as he was going from cage to cage looking at the rabbits.

I decided to try again and quietly asked, "Are the classes hard?"

"Jim Bob gets really good grades, so he probably doesn't think so. But I think that history is really hard and just stupid." Beau said seriously.

I decided to give the interrogation a rest for a while and let Jim Bob make the next move.

As we left the rabbit hutch, Beau happily said, "That's Tommy."

I looked where he was pointing and smiled when I saw a large turkey slowly walking toward us.

"Grandpa sometimes puts his tool belt on Tommy's back because Tommy likes to follow him around." Beau said as he walked up to the turkey and petted it gently.

I smiled at the story and could easily imagine Grandpa walking around the place doing chores with his turkey helper following close behind.

"Shit! Prissy's here." Beau said as he looked past the house at the road.

"Language." Jim Bob said in nearly a whisper, then turned away to hide his face from me.

I turned my attention back to Beau so Jim Bob wouldn't feel like I was staring at him.

"Prissy being here is worth a shit or two. Ask daddy, he'll tell you." Beau said firmly.

I smiled at the statement, having no doubt that Beau was right.

"We'd better get back in the house or Grandpa will send Dougie out here." Beau said with a sour look.

Jim Bob nodded and started walking toward the house.

"Who's Dougie?" I asked quietly.

"He's Aunt Prissy's kid. He's stuck up and mean and he picks his nose and eats his boogers." Beau said with disgust.

"Um, okay." I said reluctantly as I followed.

* * * * *

The three of us walked in through the back door and made our way to the living room.

Just as we walked in from the hallway, two people walked in the front door.

The woman had to be my Aunt Prissy. She had the same dark hair and eyes as my mother, but her face seemed to be more pointy and her hair... well, I've just never seen anyone with hair quite that tall before.

I mean, it wasn't Marie Antoinette tall, but it was definitely stacked higher than the average hair.

"Oh, you must be Mark!" Prissy said in a really fake sounding high voice, like she was just putting it on for show.

"Yes Ma'am." I said reluctantly, not quite sure how to deal with this woman.

"It's hard to believe that Patsy and that policeman of hers could produce such a fine looking young man." Prissy said in a gushing voice.

What are you supposed to say when someone insults both your parents and gives you a compliment in the same breath?

I decided to play it safe and just be polite.

"I've been told that the James family genes really stand out in me." I said carefully.

It was true.

Mom and Dad always said that I had the James family features. I had the same dark hair and eyes as my mom.

"Yes they do. And you dress so nicely. Maybe you would like to come to church with my family this Sunday." She said in her false polite way.

"No thank you. I don't go to church." I said as courteously as I could.

Well, the silence that followed was deafening.

I looked around and was surprised to see that even Grandpa and Joe Bob were frozen in place, watching to see what Prissy's reaction was going to be.

I glanced at the pudgy kid at her hip in time to see him stick his finger in his nose.

"Y'all get in here. We're puttin the food on the table." Grandma's voice called from the hallway.

Relief washed through the room as everyone stood.

* * * * *

"Do you need any help?" I asked as I saw Mom carrying two bowls into the room.

"No honey, we've got it. Why don't you take the second seat on this side of the table so you'll be by me?" Mom asked as she sat the bowls down.

I went to the chair and sat down, then looked down the long table at everyone else taking their places.

"Is Lindie alright? I expected you to bring the whole squad." Grandpa said casually as he took his seat.

"Oh, she'll be fine. She's feelin queasy like she always does when she's this far along. Besides, she doesn't like to take the twins out when she knows there's gonna be a dust storm. She wants to keep 'em in the bedroom with the humidifier goin." Joe Bob said seriously.

"What about Joe Bob Junior?" Grandpa asked curiously.

"Oh, I didn't get to tell you. He got promoted to assistant manager, so he's working the early shift now." Joe Bob said proudly.

"That boy's a real go getter. I'm sure he'll have his own McDonalds store before you know it." Grandpa said with a fond smile.

I watched Joe Bob's expression carefully. He was looking so proud of his son that he was about to burst.

When Mom walked back into the room with a big bowl of salad, Aunt Prissy said, "So Mark tells me you're raising him to be a heathen."

I couldn't believe that she said that and looked at Mom to see what her reaction would be.

Mom leaned in and placed the salad on the table, then said, "Derek and I thought it would be better for Mark to grow up feeling free to believe what he thinks is right."

"How's he supposed to learn right from wrong without a good Christian upbringing?" Aunt Prissy asked firmly.

"From his parents. We provided the example and taught him what we believe. I don't think forcing him to sit while someone screams it him from a pulpit would make him a better person." Mom said, then took the seat beside mine.

"He's going to burn in hell and it's going to be your fault for not raising him to be a Christian." Aunt Prissy said with a cold stare across the table at my mother.

Mom looked like she was about to lose it. I don't think I've ever seen her so mad.

"Priss. How I raise my son is none of your damned business." Mom said in a growl.

Aunt Prissy quickly reached over and put her hands over Dougie's ears as she harshly whispered, "You don't have to swear in front of the children! Now I can see what kind of example you're setting for Mark."

Silence fell over the room again.

Beau tugged on his father's arm and quietly asked, "When did she swear?"

Joe Bob smiled at his son and said in a low voice, "Prissy thinks 'damn' is a swear word that kids your age shouldn't hear."

Beau looked at his father with surprise and said, "Oh. I thought she said 'fuck' or something and I missed it."

Everyone except Prissy was trying to contain their chuckles at the innocent statement.

Joe Bob leaned over and gave Beau a firm hug and a kiss on the top of the head.

"Where did mom go?" My mom asked from beside me.

"She's probably back getting your Aunt Alma." Grandpa said without concern.

"Aunt Alma is here?" Mom asked with surprise.

"Oh, I thought you knew that she moved in with us last year." Grandpa said frankly.

"No. I thought she was living in Florida with Uncle Buddy." Mom said slowly.

"She wanted to come home to Texas... She said that Uncle George didn't like it there." Grandpa said in a disturbed voice.

"But Uncle George is dead... Oh." Mom finished quietly.

"Don't worry Patsy. She's still pretty sharp except for that. And she's just as feisty as ever." Joe Bob said cheerfully.

Mom smiled at him and nodded.

"Come on Alma, it's right in here." Grandma said gently from the hallway.

"I know where it is. I'm not so feeble minded that I can't find my way around." An elderly woman, Aunt Alma, said as she walked slowly into the room at Grandma's side.

"If that's the case, why did I find you knocking around in the pantry the other night at two in the morning?" Grandma asked seriously.

"I was hungry for some peaches." Aunt Alma said immediately.

"Whatever you say Alma." Grandma said with an indulgent smile as she guided the elderly woman to the chair across from Mom's.

As soon as Aunt Alma was seated, she looked around the table and her gaze stopped on me.

"Mark?" She asked in shock.

"Yes." I said hesitantly.

"Oh, you came back! Come around here and give me a hug. I've missed you so much!" She said as tears filled her eyes.

I looked at Mom with question to find her looking back with complete confusion.

I hesitantly stood and walked around the table.

Aunt Alma looked at me as I approached and said, "You haven't changed a lick in... what is it? Ninety... Nearly a hundred years."

Everyone around the table shared looks of confusion as I finally walked to her side.

I leaned in to give her a gentle hug and she grabbed hold of me with an iron grip.

I could feel her boney fingers digging into my arms and I was sure that she was going to leave bruises.

"I still have your picture, the one you took the day you left." Aunt Alma said seriously as she looked me in the eyes.

I was so shocked that I didn't know what to say.

"Mark, Alma is your Great Great Aunt." Grandma explained quietly.

That little bit of information wasn't going to help me at the moment. It felt like Great Great Aunt She-Hulk was about to rip my arms out of their sockets and she didn't show any signs of being ready to let go.

"Come on Mark. I want to show you the picture. But you'll have to help me up. I'm not as limber as I used to be." She finished with a sad chuckle.

"Aunt Alma, we're sitting down to eat right now." Grandma said in a gentle voice.

"Hattie, my big brother and I are going to my room for a few minutes. You can wait for us or eat without us. It's of no concern to me." Aunt Alma said firmly then slowly stood.

"Then I guess you'd better get going so we won't have so long to wait." Grandma said with resignation.

Aunt Alma was holding tightly to my arm and started walking us toward the door.

* * * * *

"George says that you're not really my Mark, is that true?" Aunt Alma asked quietly as we slowly walked down the hallway.

"I'm afraid so. I'm Patsy's son. I guess I'm your great great nephew." I said gently.

"But you are the spitting image of him. When you see the picture you'll see what I mean." She said quietly.

"I'm sorry that I couldn't be him for you. It was nice to see you so happy."

She chuckled, then asked, "Would you do me one small favor?"

"Sure, I'll do whatever I can." I said seriously.

"Would you call me Allie? That's what my big brother Mark used to call me and I've wanted to hear it again for so long." She said in a voice of desperate longing.

"Of course I will Allie. If it means that I'll get to see you happy, I'll even be your big brother if you want me to." I said as I placed my hand over hers.

"Thank you, I think I would like that... what did you say your name was?" Aunt Alma asked curiously.

"Well Allie, my name really is Mark. Mark Taylor." I said with a smile.

She chuckled, then pulled on my arm to guide me into one of the bedrooms.

* * * * *

I walked with her into the room and to the dresser.

She picked up a jewelry box from the center of the dresser, then carried it with her to an arm chair by the bed.

"Sit down Mark. This will just take me a minute." She said as she got settled into the chair, then opened the jewelry box.

I took a moment to look around the room, then noticed something strange.

I blinked my eyes and looked again, then realized that it was the same kind of thing I almost saw when I was looking at Enoch.

"Are you George?" I asked as I looked at the vague presence.

Between one heartbeat and the next, he was gone.

"What dear?" Aunt Alma asked as she looked up from the jewelry box and over her shoulder where the presence was now standing.

"Oh..." She said with a nod then looked at me.

"You scared the hell out of him." She said frankly.

I stood and faced the presence, then said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to surprise you. I just thought that since Gr... Allie talks to someone named George that it was probably you."

Aunt Alma pulled an old envelope out of the bottom of the jewelry box, then said, "George is my late husband... I suppose that would make him your great great uncle."

"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance Great Great Uncle George." I said then bowed slowly, doing my best estimation of a proper greeting.

"He wants you to call him George." Aunt Alma said with a peaceful smile, then patted the bed beside her chair, indicating for me to take a seat.

I took the offered seat, then looked down at something that Aunt Alma was holding.

"This is my older brother, Mark." she said quietly.

I carefully took the picture from her, then realized that it wasn't printed on paper, it was on tin.

"That was taken the day you... he left. The man I met some forty years later who claimed to be my brother... that wasn't him." she said sadly as she pointed at the picture in my hand with one shaky finger.

I looked at the picture and stared in shock.

It was me.

The guy in the picture was even dressed like me, except that he was wearing a suit jacket but... his hair was just exactly like mine. Even his eyebrows were just like mine. But somehow, the look in his eyes was different. A look that I'd never want to have.

"When he left I was so unhappy. I kept to my room for weeks, just crying." She said distantly.

"I'm sure he had his reasons..." I said helplessly since I was sure of no such thing.

"It wasn't just me. The one he hurt the most was his friend... goodness... what was his name?" She said as she strained to remember.

"Enoch." I whispered, hoping I was wrong.

"Yes. Of course. Oh, that poor boy. As heartbroken as I was about my big brother leaving, it was even worse for poor Enoch. They were the best of friends." Alma said gravely.

"Will you tell me what happened to Enoch?" I asked quietly as my heart lurched.

"That's just the thing. No one really knows. Whatever happened, I know for a fact that he never left the house. I heard him too many nights and I even thought I saw him a few times. Father swore that he ran away, but eventually he even admitted that he didn't know what happened to the poor boy. Father had a grave stone made for him in the family graveyard even though his body was never found." Alma said quietly.

"Gramma wants to know if you're almost ready." Dougie said from Alma's doorway and his finger was quickly approaching his nose.

"If I EVER see you put that finger in your nose again, I'm going to break it clean off." Alma said in an icy voice that sent a shiver up my spine.

"MOMMY!" Dougie screamed as he ran off down the hallway.

"Allie, I don't think scaring him like that is going to stop him for very long." I said regretfully.

She nodded and said, "I know, but maybe we'll be able to make it through dinner without watching him eat it."

"Then it was worth it." I said as I extended my arm to her in my best attempt at gentlemanly manners.

She smiled as she took hold of my arm and slowly stood.

"Don't worry George, Allie's my little sister. I'll take good care of her." I said to the vague presence behind her.

Once Alma was sure of her footing, we started walking toward the bedroom door.

* * * * *

"You've done more good for me today than you'll ever know." Alma said quietly.

"All I did is call you Allie." I said as we walked slowly down the hallway.

"You talked to George. After all this time, I thought they might be right and maybe I am going a little bit mad." Alma said frankly.

"Well, they'd better never say it around me. No one is allowed to talk bad about my little sister." I said as seriously as I could.

She chuckled and said, "Thank you for that Mark. Even though I know you're not him, having you here is like passing a signpost that says I'm on the way home."

After a moment, she quietly asked, "Did that make any kind of sense at all?"

I smiled as I said, "Yes Allie, it made perfect sense."

"Have you noticed that the rest of our family are idiots?" She asked from out of the blue.

I had to fight to keep from laughing out loud at the statement, then said, "Yes Allie. I've noticed. But they're our idiots."

She nodded slowly and said, "Yes. They are."

* * * * *

"Here you go Allie." I said as I helped her into her chair.

"Will you sit here next to me?" Alma asked hopefully.

"Aunt Prissy is sitting there." I said gently.

"Well she can move." Alma said firmly and flashed a quick glare at Prissy.

"Allie, that's no way to act. I'll be sitting right across from you." I said quietly.

"Alright Mark." She said reluctantly.

I leaned in to give her a gentle kiss on the forehead, then walked around the table.

You could have heard a pin drop in the room as everyone stared at me.

I looked around as I took my seat, then asked, "Is it okay to eat now?"

"We need to bless the food." Aunt Prissy said with a glare at my mom.

"Then hurry the hell up. I'm not getting any younger here." Aunt Alma said sternly.

Way to go Alma!

"Please Aunt Alma, not in front of the children." Aunt Prissy said in a scandalized whisper.

Beau tugged on his father's arm again then looked at him with question.

"She said 'hell'." Joe Bob said with a smile.

"You mean I been cussin all this time when I said 'damn' and 'hell' and never even knew it?" Beau asked in confusion.

"That's right. You're my foul mouthed boy." Joe Bob said as he gave Beau a quick hug.

"LORD! Please bless this food..." Aunt Prissy called out, obviously trying to draw all attention to her.

"...and guide your lost children to repent from their sinful ways." She continued in a tone of voice that signaled that she was just getting started.

From the sound of it, we might need a snack to get us through the blessing.

"As it says in your Holy word, 'Yea verily..."

"Amen." Grandpa snapped.

"Amen." Everyone else around the table quickly repeated and started to eat.

"Daddy. Mark's my second cousin. So that means we could get married, right?" Emmylou asked from a few places down the table from me.

Before I could even think to say anything, Joe Bob said, "You don't need to be worryin about that Emmylou. Just worry bout that plate of food in front of you for right now."

"Yes Daddy." Emmylou said quietly.

Aunt Prissy looked at Emmylou with disgust.

"So Patsy, how are you two settling into the big house?" Grandma asked from out of nowhere.

It took a second for mom to swallow the food she had been eating, but finally she said, "We're doing very well. Mark unloaded everything from the car while I was sleeping last night and even helped me do the shopping this morning. With all his help it really hasn't been that difficult."

I smiled at mom's praise. I really haven't been that much help. I left her to put all the groceries away on her own. But still, it's nice to be appreciated.

"Oh. It's good to know that Mark is helping you out. That should make things go much more smoothly." Grandma said with a fond smile at me.

I couldn't help but blush at all the attention. Maybe family isn't such a bad thing.

"Is that all you're eating? We have plenty of food." Grandma asked with concern as she looked at my plate.

I don't usually eat very much, but my plate was looking a little empty.

I only had some salad and a small portion of peas and carrots.

I reached over and grabbed a piece of chicken from the platter in front of me, then looked at grandma with question.

"Try a dab of mashed potatoes and gravy too." she said gently.

I nodded, then looked around the table to see where they were.

"Jim Bob? Would you pass me the mashed potatoes?" I asked quietly.

Jim Bob grabbed the mashed potatoes, then started them down the line of people toward me.

He seemed to be blushing and I wondered why he was so horribly shy.

Once I got the mashed potatoes, I put a reasonable sized spoon of them on my plate and made a little well for the gravy.

"Here's the gravy." Mom said from beside me.

I handed her the mashed potatoes and took the gravy from her.

It wasn't the brown gravy that I'm used to, it was white. I spooned a little over the mashed potatoes then sat the gravy in a small open space on the table in front of me.

As I picked up the piece of chicken, I noticed that it was oddly shaped.

"So Mark, did y'all eat rabbit back in Michigan?" Joe Bob asked casually as I raised the piece of meat to take a bite.

I put it back down and said, "No. I don't think so, did we Mom?"

"No honey. There's not a lot of rabbit in the supermarkets there." Mom said with a smile.

I smiled at Joe Bob for letting me know what I was about to eat.

I'm not squeamish about trying new things, but it's just nice to be prepared first.

Slowly, I picked up the piece of rabbit and took a bite.

Wow! Guess what. It tastes like chicken.

"It's good." I said with a smile at Grandma.

"I used the drippings to make the gravy. Give it a try." Grandma said with pride.

I took a small bite of the mashed potatoes and gravy. It was pretty good.

"Tastes great." I said with a smile.

"Hold it!" Aunt Prissy hissed at Dougie in a harsh whisper.

"But I gotta go." Dougie said in a whine.

"You need to learn to hold it so you won't disrupt our dinner." Aunt Prissy said firmly.

"Priss. If he shits his pants while we're eating it's going to 'disrupt' our dinner a whole lot worse." Joe Bob said seriously, then continued, "Dougie, go on and do what you need to do now. I'm gonna talk to your momma."

Dougie hopped up from his chair and ran out of the room.

"This is none of your business Joe Bob. I don't even know what you're doing here. Today should be for family." Aunt Prissy snarled.

"Hold it right there Prissy." Grandpa said in a firm voice.

"Joe Bob is family. He's your cousin. He's got a full-time job and eight kids, and he still finds the time to come over here and help me out. The only time you and yours show up is when there's free food laying out on the table." Grandpa said as he looked her in the eyes.

Aunt Prissy stood and said in a dramatic voice, "I know when I'm not welcomed."

"Prissy, you're welcomed to come over, you're welcomed to eat dinner. But you're not welcomed to disrespect my other guests. Now sit your ass down and eat, you're too thin." Grandpa said as he held her gaze.

Aunt Prissy thought for a moment, then sat down as she quietly said, "I'm sorry Joe Bob. I shouldn't have said that."

"I ain't worried about it Priss. But try to ease up on Dougie, you're putting too much pressure on him. He needs to be a kid." Joe Bob said with concern.

"What do you know about it?" Aunt Prissy asked defensively.

"After the first three or four kids, I kinda got a feel for the right thing to do. I'm just saying that it may be time to loosen the apron strings a little bit. The boy needs to start making some decisions for himself." Joe Bob said quietly.

Aunt Prissy didn't look convinced, but she nodded and went back to eating.

Dougie walked back into the room and took the seat at his mother's side.

Before anyone else could say anything, I heard the house creak and the windows rattle.

Grandpa got up and walked to the large window.

"I hate to cut the meal short, but it looks like the storm's gonna be here in about half an hour. If y'all are gonna be headin out, now would be the time." Grandpa said seriously.

"I think we should be goin. I know Lindie gets a little skittish in a dust storm. She's always afraid the roof of the trailer is going to come off." Joe Bob said frankly.

"What do you think Mark?" Mom asked from beside me.

"I think we should go too. I'm still kinda tired after the trip." I said as I thought about how badly I wanted to get back to Enoch.

"You slept almost the entire time. I was the one who was driving." Mom said incredulously.

"Yeah, it just wore me out watching you do that." I said with a teasing smile.

Mom chuckled and said, "Let's go."

"Harlan. I'm going to walk around the place to make sure everything is closed up before we leave. Mark, do you want to come with me?" Joe Bob asked as he walked toward the hallway.

By the way he asked, it wasn't really a question. But even if it was, I would want to help him. I really like Joe Bob.

I got up from the table and hurried to Joe Bob's side.

"Why don't you young'uns help your grandma clear off the table?" Joe Bob said before we left the room.

* * * * *

We walked outside and I noticed that there was something like a brownish-red cloud on the horizon.

"Help me put the tarp down on the rabbit hutch." Joe Bob said in a voice of distant thought.

"You'll have to tell me what to do." I said as I followed him.

"Just take an end and help me unroll it." He said as he reached up and unfastened a rolled up tarp at the top of the doorway.

I reached up and did the same at the other end, then we slowly unrolled the tarp until it reached the ground.

"Harlan tells me that you're gay." Joe Bob said quietly.

I stopped all movement as I looked at him with surprise.

After a moment, Joe Bob looked at me and said, "I got no problem with it. I just wanted to ask you about some things."

"Um... Okay, but... how did he know?" I asked cautiously.

"Your momma told him a while back. I guess when you told her, she wasn't sure about what to do so she asked your grandpa." Joe Bob said with a shrug, then started to tie off the bottom of the tarp to a post at the side of the rabbit hutch.

I found the loose pieces of rope at the bottom of the tarp and started doing the same at my end.

I thought about how I felt about everyone knowing that I was gay. I didn't plan on keeping it a secret or anything, but I kind of thought that I'd be able to tell people after I got to know them.

"I'm worried about Jim Bob. I'm thinkin that maybe he's gay too but I don't know how to talk to him about it to find out." Joe Bob said with concern.

Joe Bob's worry drew me out of my thoughts of myself and I considered what he was saying.

"I thought that since you was gay, that maybe you could help me figure out what to do for him." Joe Bob said, then motioned for me to walk with him toward the chicken pen.

"Does he know that I'm gay?" I asked in thought.

"No. I didn't think it was my place to tell him." Joe Bob said frankly, then motioned for me to help him pull a tarp down on one side of the chicken wire enclosure.

I started to unroll the tarp as I said, "Well, maybe you could talk to him and tell him that you know that I'm gay and that it's okay with you."

Joe Bob nodded as he started to tie off his end of the tarp.

"That way he knows that you don't have a problem with it and he might feel comfortable enough to talk to you about it. Or maybe if he knows that I'm gay, he'll come to me to ask some questions." I said uncertainly.

"Yeah. I can do that on the drive back home. That is, if you don't mind that I tell Beau and Emmylou at the same time." Joe Bob said distantly.

I smiled and said, "I don't mind at all. Maybe Emmylou will stop being so interested in me."

Joe Bob chuckled and said, "She might take it as a challenge."

I smiled as Joe Bob handed me the end of a water hose.

"Hold that in the trough over there so the livestock can have some water if they need it." Joe Bob said as he pointed at a long trough on the other side of a fence.

I reached through the fence and held the hose in the trough, then watched as water started pouring.

"C'mon Tommy, you need to get in'ta the barn now." Joe Bob said to the large turkey who was a few feet away from him.

The turkey walked slowly to Joe Bob's side, then followed him into the shed behind the rabbit hutch.

I looked out onto the horizon and saw that the reddish cloud was a little bit closer to us, but still quite a way off.

* * * * *

"That's good enough." Joe Bob said as he turned off the water.

I took the hose back to him and he coiled it up into the box beside the faucet.

"What would you think if Jim Bob and maybe Beau spent a few days at your house with you and your ma?" Joe Bob asked as he walked to my side.

"They both seem really nice, so it would be fine with me, but I guess it depends on if they want to." I said cautiously.

Joe Bob smiled and said, "We'll see how things go with our talk and take it from there."

"Yeah. Sounds good." I said happily.

"We're done out here. We'd better get going if we're gonna get home before the storm hits." Joe Bob said as he put an arm around my shoulders and guided me toward the house.

"Thanks Joe Bob." I said as I put an arm around his waist and gave him a quick hug.

"It's me that should be thanking you Mark. Something's wrong with Jim Bob and you're the only one I know who might be able to help." Joe Bob said seriously.

"I'll do whatever I can. I promise." I said as we reached the back door.

* * * * *

"You need to say your goodbyes so we can go." Mom said as Joe Bob and I walked into the living room.

"Okay." I said, then walked to Grandpa and said, "I hope I can come over and visit a lot. I really like it here."

"It was nice having you Mark. You're always welcome." Grandpa said as he hugged me.

As soon as Grandpa had released me, Grandma pulled me into a hug and said, "Your mom's been telling us about you since the day you were born. It's good to know that she wasn't exaggerating."

"Thanks Grandma." I said as I hugged her tightly and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Next was Aunt Prissy.

Uncomfortable was an understatement, but like Grandpa said, 'You're stuck with your family. You've got no choice but to accept them how they are.'

"Maybe after I get settled in, I could go to church with you one Sunday, just to try it out?" I said cautiously.

Aunt Prissy looked at me with surprise, then a big smile came over her face.

"I tell you what Mark. If I find out that the preacher is about to have a really good sermon one week, I'll give you a call to invite you." She said in a voice that sounded sincere.

"Thanks Aunt Prissy." I said quietly.

As I walked away from Aunt Prissy, I saw Aunt Alma sitting in the recliner.

"I'm going to have to go now Allie." I said as I squatted to be closer to her eye level.

"I know. Here, take this." Allie said and handed me the tin photograph.

"I can't take this, it's your brother." I said in shock.

"I don't need it anymore. Now that you're here, that chapter of my life is finally closed." She said with contentment.

"I'm glad. I'll be back to visit again just as soon as I can." I said gently.

"Thank you Mark. I love you." Aunt Alma said peacefully.

"I love you too Allie." I said, then leaned in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek.

"We'd better get going." Mom said from beside the door.

I gave Aunt Alma a quick hug, then hurried to Mom's side.

After one last look at our family, we left for home.

To Be Continued...