Invitations

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It was odd enough that there had been no eggs for four days in any of the coops, but now she was missing a pillowcase. Every Tuesday for forty-eight years she had hung her bedsheets on the back three lines with the pillowcases right up front, all in a row. All of her bedding was milky white and it gave her pleasure to see it floating on the line, soaking in the smell of air and sun. Today however, there was a gap, like a missing tooth in a first-grader's mouth. The pillowcase-shaped hole in the tidy line of sheets announced, in no uncertain terms, that one of its number had gone missing.

It was late afternoon and Augusta stood with crossed arms surveying the gap and thinking about how unusual it was for all of the hens to stop laying at once. Maurice had checked the coops and found no sign of varmints. She supposed that snakes could still get in, but it would take a pretty passel of snakes to eat all of the eggs for four days running. There had been a kerflufffle in the pasture this morning too – something about two sheep being shorn in the middle of the night. And her pillowcase hadn't blown away, she was sure of that – the clothespins were missing too. No, thought Augusta, something is out of sorts. The uneasy feeling she had in her spleen was as reliable as midnight; she had learned to trust it over the years.

A scuffle at the front of the house followed by a terrified scream brought Augusta's musings to an abrupt halt. She hurried around the house towards the commotion and, rounding the corner, found Sallie dancing on her toes atop the picnic table waving a letter and a box of tissues.

"Help me!" Sallie wailed, "Aunt Gus, do something!"

The goose, neck out, wings spread wide and hissing for all it was worth, marched around the table like a Leavenworth prison guard on high alert. Augusta grabbed the broom by the kitchen door and ran at the goose just as Kate arrived at the gate. She took in the scene and began to laugh. Sallie, still standing on the table, turned to her, annoyed.

"It's not funny. That miserable bird of hers attacked me!'

Kate laughed harder, unable to stop.

"Stop it!" Sallie cried, stamping her foot. The goose honked loudly as Augusta herded it down the path towards the back of the house.

"I'm sorry," Kate wheezed, trying to catch her breath, "you look so funny!"

Augusta reappeared from behind the house, sans goose. "That silly bird has no manners," she said.

"No manners!" Sallie howled, "That bird tried to eat me!"

"Geese don't eat people," Kate observed helpfully, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her old barn coat.

Sallie growled in frustration and blew her nose, "That goose is a danger to anything on two legs. You need to get rid of it Aunt Gus."

"I'll do no such thing," replied Augusta calmly, "I enjoy its company. Besides, with all the strangeness around here lately I don't much mind having a guard goose by my door."

Sallie and Kate glanced at each other. Augusta was right. No one had said it out loud, but all of the random little mysteries of this past week were beginning to add up to a picture bigger than its parts. It was no longer a matter of a few errant objects, no, something strange was going on and they needed to find out what it was.

"Now get down off that table," Augusta said, "you can come inside, both of you, and tell me what you're here for."

** ** **

Three white envelopes with big purple letters lay on the little table in Augusta's front room, each proudly proclaiming itself to be MALE. Kate read aloud from a matching paper, also in purple letters, embellished with an enthusiastic drawing of a birthday cake:

"ples cum to my party at my hows on frida at 1 o clok"

"Well I can't go," Sallie said in exasperation, "that's the day before the Mardi Gras party – I have too much to do. And this cold is only making it worse." She sniffed thickly for emphasis.

"What I don't understand," said Kate, "is why we were invited at all. We don't even know these people. They keep to themselves. I see the little girl wandering around the property, but I never see her mom and dad."

"Exactly," Sallie added, "they don't even seem to care what she does. Felix told me she was asleep in the driveway yesterday – he almost ran over her! And now at the last minute we're supposed to drop everything and come running with birthday presents?"

"What do you think Aunt Augusta?" Kate asked, "I walked down here to get your opinion – I didn't know all of us had been invited."

Augusta rocked back and forth in her rocking chair looking out the window behind Sallie's head. "An invitation,' she said at last, "is an open door. If you don't walk through it, you'll never know what's on the other side."

"We've been in that house plenty of times – we own it for heaven's sake!" Sallie said in exasperation, "they're only renters. I don't need to see what's on the other side of their door."

"You know that's not what she's talking about," said Kate.

"You do what you want," replied Augusta, "I'm going." She stood abruptly and turned towards the kitchen, the rocking chair seesawing behind her.

Kate stood up as well. "I'm going too," she said, picking up her letter and following Augusta out.

Impatiently, Sallie grabbed her own letter, pressed her lips together and hurried after Kate. They each ducked in turn as they went through the kitchen avoiding the plastic zipper bags hanging like translucent flags throughout the crowded room.

"Nevermind the bags girls," said Augusta invisibly from somewhere near the sink, "the door's open, go straight through."

"Thanks Aunt Augusta," called Kate heading out.

Sallie cleared her throat and gritted her teeth, "What do you get for a little girl you don't even know?"

"It'll come to you," Augusta said.

Sallie nodded and slipped out the door.

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