2 0 0

The freezer-burned green beans landed wetly on the ooze of old pumpkin in Augusta's kitchen trash. She pursed her lips in disgust. It was a sin to let good food go to waste. She'd found these bags of pumpkin and beans in the garbage by the barn and had brought them home to salvage the plastic zipper bags. It was bad enough to waste the vegetables, but to throw away a dozen perfectly good plastic zipper bags was more than she could endure. In Augusta's estimation, reusable plastic zipper bags were one of the most useful innovations of the twentieth century and as long as she had any say in it, they would not be squandered. She added the last bag to the pile in the sink and pushed up her sleeves to rinse them. A knock at the door interrupted her.

She strode impatiently across the room and looked out. No one was there. She returned to her bags. Just as her hands sank into the suds the knock repeated itself. She dried off her hands and went back to the door. No one. Mad Tom, she thought dryly, heading back to the sink. Or Charlie. It was just like Charlie to knock and run.

No sooner had she submerged her hands in the water than the insistent knocking resumed. Without stopping to dry her hands Augusta dove, dripping, for the door. She thrust it open and glared. Her yard was empty. Up the hill she could see people going about their business; Kate was in the paddock with the mule, the renter's little girl was lugging some kind of purse through the picnic grove and Charlie was headed towards her down the hill. He waved. She waved back. It couldn't be Charlie then.

"Ouch!" She jumped. Two beady eyes and a beak stared up from the vicinity of her knees and the business of the knocking was instantly resolved.

"You," said Augusta severely. The goose spread its wings and honked.

"Oh all right." She reached for a crust from the table by the door, broke it into pieces and scattered them in the yard.

"Hi Aunt Gus," called Charlie from the drive, "is it safe?"

"Safe enough," she called back, "she'll let you be as long as the bread holds out."

Charlie, keeping his eyes on the goose, sprinted down the walk and through the open door.

"Mum sent me for eggs," he said leaving muddy streaks across her kitchen floor, "Aunt Kate said there weren't any in the farm coop for four days and Mum said it was a puzzle and could she have some of yours." His mouse poked its nose out from the top of his ear, its tail curled in a comma on his bare neck.

Augusta regarded mouse and boy. Charlie was rummaging uninvited through her tins and cannisters looking, she knew, for cookies. There weren't any; he'd finished them all last week. His lack of manners set her teeth on edge. Augusta had grown up in a world where good manners meant something and children respected their elders. She had raised her own boys that way too. These things were civil. They smoothed the way. In Augusta's opinion, children who grew unchecked were weeds and Charlie was in danger of becoming one. Joe and Sallie left him to his own devices then wrung their hands when he misbehaved. It was obvious to Augusta what needed to be done. The child needed discipline, direction, routine, and she had experience in those very things – years and years of tried and true experience. She was ready with advice for anyone who asked, but no one did, no one ever asked, so she did her best in the margins.

Still, Augusta had a soft spot for Charlie, bad manners and all. There was a brightness about him, a spark, an indefatigable need to engage. He exuded purpose, he looked you in the eye. She appreciated that.

"Can I have these Aunt Gus?" Charlie asked backing out of the refrigerator with a jar of maraschino cherries.

"Absolutely not. Put them back."

He glared at her. She had, in fact, bought them to make ice cream sundaes with him as a treat but certainly not in the middle of a Tuesday morning when she had a sinkful of bags to wash.

"Now. Back in the fridge."

Reluctantly he put the cherries in the fridge, rearranging the milk and juice so the jar could sit, front and center, on the top shelf, then slowly, slowly shutting the refrigerator door, staring at the cherries with exaggerated longing and glancing over his shoulder to gauge the effect. She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. Charlie sighed; he wasn't getting the cherries.

"Now get the basket and we'll find some eggs for your mum. You can tell me why the fire trucks were at your house last night."

He opened the basement door, took the egg basket from the hook in the stairwell and followed Augusta to the henhouse.

"Dad bought a fog machine but I was punished in my room because of the shark and I thought it was real smoke so I got Maurice and we called 911 and everyone was mad at my dad."

"I see," said Augusta skipping over the shark and concentrating on the fog machine. What on earth did Joe want with a fog machine?

"It was on Clearance."

"What was?"

"The fog machine."

"Ah," said Augusta. Clearance explained everything. Her nephew couldn't turn down a deal.

Augusta shooed two hens out of the nest boxes and Charlie felt around for eggs in the straw.

"Nothing," Charlie said with a puzzled frown.

Augusta checked through the boxes herself. There were no eggs, no eggs at all.

Mad Tom Winter: Gray ManRead this story for FREE!