Aunt Claire left for home.
I just looked at those words again, the words I wrote near the end of the previous chapter. So easily I wrote them. So carelessly. Thoughtlessly.
Aunt Claire left for home.
Before my sixth birthday I guess I’d never thought about where Aunt Claire lived. All that was important to me was that she knew where we lived. She came every day, right on time. She left not long after Father got home. He used to offer her a ride, but she declined every time, so pretty soon he just quit asking her. I guess he knew what the answer would be and figured that if she needed a ride, she’d ask. But she never did.
Sometimes I would watch her, out the window, walking briskly down the driveway in all kinds of weather. Sometimes she would turn left, sometimes right. I don’t know that I ever thought that was strange. I mean, people go different directions for different reasons, right? Nothing unusual about it.
But that same year I turned six, I began to get curious about where she lived. I tried to picture the place. A house? A room or apartment in someone else’s house?
So one day, one Saturday morning when she came over because Father had some kind of emergency down at the paper, I just came right out and asked her. We were in the kitchen getting ready for lunch. Father was supposed to be home a little before noon.
She looked at me sharply. “Why do you want to know?”
I was putting silverware on the kitchen table, where we almost always ate, and was surprised by a hardness in her tone, an iron I’d never felt.
“I was just wondering,” I said. “No real reason.”
“Well, maybe you should think about what you say before you say it,” she said, then turned back to the stovetop to stir the soup she was preparing. And she mumbled something I couldn’t quite hear.
Aunt Claire was a very smart woman. She must have known that when she answered me that way, I would not let it go.
I’m not too dumb either, so I knew better than to just ask her outright again. I didn’t want to hear again that sound in her voice. So I’d try a more indirect way.
After she left that day, I asked Father where she lived.
He looked at me oddly. “You know,” he said, “I’ve wondered that myself a little. I mean, she must be in an apartment or in some rooms downtown … somewhere …”
But I could tell his mind was on something else, so I didn’t say anything more. But now I was really curious and later, up in my room, tried to figure out a way I could discover this … secret, if that’s what it was.
In a couple of weeks, Aunt Claire was again at our house on a Saturday; Father was again down at the paper. And he again came home for lunch.
But this time—after we ate, and after we cleaned up, and after Aunt Claire was walking down the driveway, I told Father I was going to run over to Harriet’s, and he mumbled an okay. My father’s usual distraction, in this case, was a factor in my favor.
I had noticed that Aunt Claire had turned right, the way toward downtown. So I ran over to Harriet’s, but headed behind her house, as if I were going in the back door, but instead I moved toward the street. I stood behind one of the large maple trees that forming a line between the street and her house and peeked around. I could see Aunt Claire, still gliding quickly down the road. Her feet seemed barely to make any contact with the ground.
We lived only a couple of blocks from downtown, the entire way lined with trees, both sides, so I moved carefully, one to the next, always keeping an eye on her. I saw her turn right by the drugstore, so I hurried to that corner and peeked around it.
I moved carefully down the rest of the block, then looked both right and left on the next street.
Had she entered the back door of one of the stores? Did she live upstairs in one of them?
But at that time I came up with an answer that answer seemed much simpler—and much more complicated:
Aunt Claire had vanished.
Monday, after school, Aunt Claire was waiting for me at home. Like always. I ran into the kitchen, where she was already working on supper. Like always.
She seemed to be talking to herself as she fingered some of the vegetables she was preparing, holding up some raw carrots, examining them disapprovingly.
“You just can’t always find,” she was saying—to herself? to me?—“exactly what you want.” She looked back at me. “Or need.”
She put the carrot on the counter. Began chopping it into pieces with our largest kitchen knife, the heavy blade hitting the board with a sharp solid cracking sound. Aunt Claire, unsmiling.