“I’m sorry?” I offered.
“You missed dinner,” she said, opening the screen door. I walked inside, and she followed me. “Your plate’s in the microwave. Eat, then you can tell me where you’ve been.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, making a beeline past her. I passed the wooden, oval dining table to reach the kitchen, opening the microwave to see a foil-covered plate. My mouth instantly watered.
“Take that o—” Aunt Leigh began, but I had already ripped it off, shut the door, and pressed the two on the number pad.
I watched the plate turn in a circle under the glow of a warm yellow light. The steak began to sizzle, and the gravy on the mashed potatoes bubbled.
“Not yet,” Aunt Leigh snapped when I reached for the microwave handle.
My stomach gurgled.
“If you’re so hungry, why did you wait so long to get home?”
“I was stuck in a tree,” I said, reaching in the second the microwave beeped.
“Stuck in a tree?” Aunt Leigh handed me a fork as I passed and followed me to the table.
I shoveled the first bite in and hummed, taking two more before Aunt Leigh could ask another question. My mom was a good cook, too, but the older I got, the more starved I felt. No matter how many times I ate during the day or how much I ate at a time, I never felt full. I couldn’t get food—any food—in my stomach fast enough.
Aunt Leigh made a face as I hunched over my plate to create a shorter trip from the plate to my mouth.
“You’re gonna have to explain that,” Aunt Leigh said. When I didn’t stop, she leaned over to place her hand on my wrist. “Elliott, don’t make me ask again.”
I tried to chew quickly and swallow, nodding in compliance. “The huge house down the street has an oak tree. I climbed it.”
“So while I was up there waiting for a good shot with my camera, the people came out.”
“The Calhouns? Did they see you?”
I shook my head, sneaking another quick bite.
“You know that’s Uncle John’s boss, right?”
I stopped chewing. “No.”
Aunt Leigh sat back. “Of all the trees to pick.”
“They seemed nice . . . and sad.”
“Why?” At least for the moment, she forgot about being mad.
“They were burying something in the backyard. I think their dog died.”
“Aw, that’s too bad,” Aunt Leigh said, trying to muster up sympathy. She didn’t have children or dogs, and she seemed okay with that. She scratched her head, suddenly nervous. “Your mom called today.”
I nodded, taking another bite. She let me finish, waiting patiently for me to remember to use a napkin.
“What did she want?”
“Sounds like her and your dad are working things out. She sounds happy.”
I looked away, clenching my teeth. “She always is at first.” I turned to her. “Has her eye even healed?”
“Elliott . . .”
I stood, picking up my plate and fork, taking them to the sink.
“Did you tell him?” Uncle John said, scratching his round belly. He was standing in the hall, wearing the navy-blue pajama set Aunt Leigh had bought him last Christmas. She nodded. He looked to me, acknowledging the disgust on my face. “Yep. We don’t like it, either.”
“Just now,” Aunt Leigh said, crossing her arms.
“About Mom?” I asked. Uncle John nodded. “It’s bullshit.”
“Elliott,” Aunt Leigh scolded.
“It’s okay for us not to like her going back to someone who hits her,” I said.