Jack’s father got home just before six o’clock. The truck’s headlights flashed through the front door, and the heavy rattling thud of the old pickup’s door sounded, followed by the steady crunch of work boots on gravel.
They were comforting sounds. They were routine, regular. Something that happened like the sun coming up, the stars turning in the sky.
The steps paused, and Jack looked up at the sound of voices. His father stood at the foot of the porch stairs, saw that he was joined by two other figures. The sun was still some time from setting, and it painted the rounded lenses of the Professor’s glasses a brilliant orange, gave Beth’s hair an almost coppery glow.
Jack jumped up as he saw his father gesture with a sweep of his arm, and met the new neighbors at the front door.
“Professor, Beth, glad you could make it.”
“A home cooked meal, one that doesn’t come out of a box? Wouldn’t miss it!”
Jack held the door open, and the dinner guests stepped inside. He kept holding the door for his dad, and Jack simply shrugged at his father’s expression, glancing over at Charlotte. She was staring innocently at the ceiling.
“Welcome to our little stretch of Route 3,” Jack’s father said, shaking the Professor’s hand. “I’m Bill. My wife, the wonderful cook, is Margaret” Jack’s mother waved from the kitchen doorway. “Our daughters, Ellie, Hannah and Charlotte.” Ellie was sitting on the stairs, kicking her big monster-foot slippers. Hannah leaned on the arm of the sofa, her place marked in her summer reading book. Charlotte stood next to her sister, smiling broadly.
“I hear you two are already acquainted with Jack.”
The Professor nodded. “Bob Harrison,” he said, and set a hand on Beth’s shoulder, moving her out from where she seemed to be hiding behind him. “And this is Beth.”
Ellie’s monster feet stopped kicking, her mouth dropping open in a little “o” of surprise. Hannah dropped her book. Charlotte continued to smile.
“Can I get you two something to drink?” Jack’s mother asked. “Water, orange juice? Maybe something a little stronger?”
“Water, I think, will do nicely,” the Professor said. “For both myself and Beth.”
Jack’s mother nodded, disappearing into the kitchen. Bombs could be going off, Jack thought. The sky could be falling in, and it wouldn’t shake his mother.
“I’ll just go get the other two chairs,” Jack said, slipping around behind the dining room table. “Ellie, why don’t you come help me?”
She blinked, looking away from Beth, and hopped down the stairs to scurry after Jack.
The utility room sat behind the kitchen. It held the washer and dryer and a large washbasin. Jack’s father had installed a small work table and partitioned part of the room off to serve as a pantry. The furnace and hot water heater were tucked into their own alcoves along the back wall.
Jack took down two folding chairs from the rack on one wall, handed one to Ellie. It stood taller than she did. Jack squatted down so their eyes were level, staring at her through the slats of the chair back.
“You don’t know her, do you understand? You’ve never seen her before. She’s your new neighbor.”
“I know who she is.”
Ellie pouted. “Hannah and Charlotte know. Everybody knows but me!”
Jack sighed. “Ellie. Think about what you just said.”
“Everybody knows but….” Her face scrunched up as she thought about it, then brightened. “They don’t dream about her do they?”
Jack shook his head. “No. Just me and you. Everyone else only knows about her because of me.”
“They read your fairytale?”
“It’s… a bit of a longer story than that,” Jack said. “If you’re good, one night, I’ll tell you at bedtime.”
Jack’s stomach growled.
“Now come on, let’s go get the table ready for dinner.”
Jack helped Ellie carry the chair, as well as his own, out to the dining room.
* * * * *
“Now, it’s nothing fancy,” Jack’s mother said, as she brought out another steaming bowl. She set the green beans down next to the bowl of mashed potatoes. Jack’s father brought the two meatloaves out on an oversized cutting board. Jack played a balancing act with the gravy tureen.
The Professor positively drooled.
“I have to say, it has been a good long while since I had a decent home-cooked meal,” he said. “At the University, it was instant lunches, and out on the field, I lived on baloney sandwiches.” He glanced over at Beth. “I guess such fare won’t do, now.”
“I told you, I know how to cook,” Beth said.
Plates were passed around. Jack’s father sat at the head of the table, the three Jacobs girls seated to his left. Hannah had scooted her seat towards the middle, and Ellie sat beside her. The Professor took Ellie’s usual seat at the other end of the table. Beth sat beside him, and Jack beside her, after having moved his chair up closer to his mother. It was close, but not crowded. Nobody bumped elbows as the various dishes were served up.
The Professor seemed to relish each bite, and Beth gave the meatloaf a strange look, but found it to her liking as well.
“You didn’t say precisely how you two are related,” Jack’s father said, after a while.
The Professor dabbed at his chin with his napkin. “Truthfully, we’re still trying to find out precisely how ourselves. The lawyers were sort of vague on the phone, but said that I’m the ‘closest living relative.’ We’re still having to count branches on the family tree to see just what kind of cousins we are.”
“Lawyers?” Hannah asked.
“Grandfather passed away last week,” Beth said. “He had a will. Arrangements all made up.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, dear,” Jack’s mother said.
Beth shrugged. “It was a long time coming. You know what they say about the good dying young.”
More than one fork rattled on a plate. Charlotte snickered, then jumped as Hannah kicked her under the table.
Jack’s father cleared his throat. “We didn’t see a “sold” sign in front of the old house.”
“Ah, that was something else I apparently inherited,” the Professor said with a smile.
Beth gave him a sideways glance. “So I’m an heirloom, now?” Her smile showed that she wasn’t really upset. She turned to Jack. “The Professor is holding the house in trust until I come of age. It was Grandfather’s. He built it after the… the war.” She swallowed, and swirled a green bean through the gravy on her plate.
“World War II or the Korea?” Jack’s father asked.
Beth blinked, her expression suddenly blank. She looked over at the professor. He shrugged.
“Um… he didn’t really… talk about it much.”
“So, technically, you own that place next door?” Charlotte asked.
Beth nodded. “That, the land behind it, and most of the woods to the north.”
“How cool is that?”
Beth looked over at the Professor with a puzzled look.
“Very cool,” he said. “I feel like a bit of a freeloader, to be honest.”
“Since nobody wants to ask,” Hannah said, leaning to look past her sisters, “Professor, just what are you a professor of?”
“I teach several Archaeology courses at the university, but my Ph.D is actually in anthropology.”
“What’s an anthropotomy?” Ellie asked. “Is that like an hipolotamus?”
“Hippopotamus,” Hannah, Charlotte, and their mother corrected.
“Anthropology,” Charlotte said, pronouncing the word slowly for her sister, “is the study of people and their societies. The Professor studies people. Probably old, dead people.”
The Professor smiled, nodding. “I spent the most wonderful summer in Egypt several years ago.”
“Did you get to go in a pyramid?” Ellie’s eyes were about as big as her plate.
“Yes. Let me tell you, getting to see the hieroglyphics, right up close and personal…” The Professor sighed.
“Did you fight any mummies?”
The Professor didn’t do a very good job of hiding his smile. “No. They were all out when I visited.”
“That’s too bad,” Ellie said.
“The university? That’s a pretty long commute,” Jack’s dad said.
“Yes, well. I may have to stay at the university occasionally during the week. Not more than a few days at a time.”
“You’ll be leaving her alone in that big house?” Jack’s mother asked.
“Mrs. Jacobs, it won’t be much different from when I with Grandfather. The Professor even showed me how the telephone works, and gave me the numbers to reach him if anything should come up. I’ll be fine. I’ve lived on my own before.”
Jack’s father gave the Professor a long look down the length of the table. “Well,” he finally said. “I understand that your… inheritance… was something very sudden. I’m not sure how much you know about living out here in the country. Things can happen here, go from not so bad to even worse in the blink of an eye. We had some rains here a few years back that washed out a good portion of one of our neighbor’s fields, partially collapsed his front porch. Had to wade through three feet of water to get to his front door.”
The Professor nodded.
“I know you have your teaching. You can’t be expected to just give that up to take care of a little girl.”
Beth’s eyes flashed, her grip tightening on her fork. Jack thought that his father’s tone of voice suggested that the Professor was supposed to do just that.
“So I’m letting you both know that if anything should come up over there, if you should need anything, you can come over here, and knock on that door. Any time. Day or night. Margaret is here most of the day, I’m here in the evenings. Margaret spent a few years in the Army Medical Corps. She’s got a medical kit bigger than my fishing tackle box. She does a lot of the treatment for the neighbors here who have a harder time getting into town for the doctor.”
“What Dad is trying to say is, If you need anything, come see Mom,” Hannah said.
“Unless it’s a pickle jar that needs opening,” Charlotte added. She pointed a thumb towards her father. “That’s why she keeps him around.”
Jack’s father glared, but the corners of his mouth twitched.