Daddy’s friends all wore camouflage clothes, just like he did. Mottled green and brown tee shirts, pants with pockets on the legs and tight brown boots that laced up around their ankles. One of the guys had a bushy brown beard and mustache. I thought he looked like even his face was wearing camo.
Daddy was neater and cleaner than the other guys, though. I noticed that right away. I could smell them as soon as I got in the door. An acrid scent of sweat, dirt, and another smell I associated with parties Mama had sometimes. The air in the front room was hazy with smoke and the table was littered with dirty plates and beer cans. So maybe we were having a party?
But how did these men get here? I spent the morning down by the road watching the farm. Nobody came up our road and there were no vehicles parked outside. Yet here they were, four of them counting Daddy.
He was looking at me with a scowl on his face – an expression I hadn’t seen before. “Where have you been? Didn’t I tell you to stay on the place?”
“I just went for a walk.”
“Why didn’t you stay here like I told you? Girl, if you are going to live with me – you gotta learn how to mind!”
“There’s nothing to do here!” I could feel the tears in the back of my throat, but I swallowed them back and met Bobby Carter’s eyes defiantly. He raised his hand just a little and I thought he was going to swat me, like Mama did sometimes.
“You never could keep your women at home, could you, Bobby?” The bearded guy’s voice was mild, but his words were followed by a raucous shout of laughter from the other men.
My father turned on them. “Mind your own dam business!” He swung back around and pointed a long finger at me. “You girl, go on in your room. We’ll talk later.”
I didn’t think so. I could see almost empty packages of ham and pickle loaf set out on the counter, along with a jar of mayonnaise and two jars of pickles. They were eating up all our food and I wanted to make sure I got my part before it was all gone.
I stepped over the bushy faced man’s boots and squeezed between the back of another man’s chair to get into the kitchen part of the room. I grabbed the last three slices of bread and made one and a half thick sandwiches out of the remaining ham. The pickle loaf, my favorite, was all gone.
I carefully avoided looking at my father. By the time I finished making my sandwiches, he had gone back to the table and sat down. It was the same with Mama. She yelled but if I didn’t cry or argue she ran out of steam pretty fast.
There was a space between the refrigerator and the wall that was just about my size. I scooted back there to eat my lunch and listen. I could see and hear everything, and they could see me if they looked for me, but I knew if I stayed quiet they would forget I was there.
After a while I realized there was one man who hadn’t forgotten. He was sitting back listening to the others talk, but seldom saying a word himself. He was older, with thin greying hair and pale blue eyes. He saw me looking at him and winked, one corner of his mouth turning up in a little secret grin. I winked back. It was a new skill for me, another lesson from the middle school neighbor, and I was still proud I could do it.
Daddy happened to look up at just that moment. He frowned, glanced from me to the friendly blue eyed man, and abruptly pushed his chair back from the table. “It’s time to get back to work.”
I was surprised when he opened the door to the pantry. The wall at the back of it was another door I had never noticed when we put the groceries away. Bushy-face opened it and led the way down steep steps. All the men followed and I ran over to watch as they disappeared one by one into the darkness far below.
My father hung back until last. Before he stepped into the pantry he crouched down and looked directly into my eyes. “Please, this time, stay here and be good, okay?”
I nodded. “Okay.”
Then he was gone. He pulled the back of the pantry shut behind him. With the opening to the steps closed the door seemed to disappear because it was just like the rough wood all around it. But I stepped in closer and easily found the edges. The handle looked like just another one of the pegs that marched across the back of the pantry.
I pulled the handle, opened the door about an inch and knelt on the floor, straining my eyes and ears trying to penetrate the darkness at the bottom of the steps. I couldn’t see a thing and there was no sound, but I definitely could feel a draft on my hot face. The steps led outside. No matter what promises I made my father, I knew I was going to go down into the darkness.