The Julius House


Chapter Seven



WE PULLED INTO OUR very own gravel driveway, groggy from the trip, glad to be home. I knew Martin had started thinking about the plant again, and I had been visualizing my own - our own - bed, and my washing machine, and staying in my nightgown until I was good and ready to get dressed. And my own coffee! Our honeymoon, which had been as sweet as honeymoons are supposed to be, had been wonderful, but I was really ready to be back in Lawrenceton. It was hard to believe we had to get through the rest of the day before going to bed. Martin had slept some on the airplane coming across the ocean, and I had too, but it wasn't especially restful sleep.

The house looked wonderful. The new carpet, paint, and the bookshelves were in. God bless the Youngbloods; they'd arranged the furniture I'd thought would be lined up against the walls. I'd left diagrams of how I wanted the bedrooms to be situated, but I hadn't been able to visualize the living room. It actually looked very nice, though I was sure I'd want to change a couple of things. Madeleine had already chosen a chair and mastered the pet door in the kitchen. Judging by her girth, the Youngbloods had been feeding her too well. She seemed faintly pleased to see me, and as always, totally ignored Martin. In that distracted way people have when they come home from a trip and can't settle, we wandered separately around the house. Martin went to the large box of mail on the coffee table and began to sort through it - his pile, my pile - while I roamed through the dining room, noting all the wrapped presents on the table, to check out the kitchen. I'd moved most of my kitchen things here myself and gotten them in place before the wedding, and Martin's household goods had been retrieved from storage before the wedding, too, but there was a box or two yet to unpack; the essential things that I'd kept at my apartment until the day of the wedding. I'd have cleaned out the apartment and moved in with Mother if the furniture left me by Jane Engle hadn't already been taking up the third bedroom, and the second one had been promised to Barby Lampton for the week of the wedding.

I knew, catching sight of the back of Martin's head as I began to open the belated wedding presents stacked on the dining-room table, that I was going to experience an after-wedding slump, as we began the day-to-day part of our life together, so I was glad there was some work left to do on the house. I stared blearily at yet another set of wine glasses, and checked the box to see if they were from the Lawrenceton gift shop; they were. I could take them back tomorrow and trade them in on something we really needed, though what that might be, I didn't know, since it seemed to me we had enough things to last us our lifetimes.

The next package contained purple and silver placemats of such stunning hideousness that I had to call Martin to see them. We puzzled over the enclosed card together, and I finally deciphered the crabbed handwriting. "Martin! These are from Mrs. Totino!"

"Mrs. who?"

"The mother-in-law! The one who found out they were all missing! Why has she sent us a present?"

"Probably glad to have the house off her hands after all these years."

"The money. I guess she's glad to have the money. The house did belong to her?"

A sudden thought occurred to me. "Has the family been officially declared dead?" "Not yet. Later this year, in a few months, in fact. The check to buy the house went into the estate. It was a strange house closing. Bubba Sewell represented the estate. Mrs. Totino, evidently, was appointed the conservator for the estate after a year. I don't think there are any other relatives." I lifted one of the suitcases to take it upstairs. "I am headed for our own shower in our own bathroom with our own soap."

"And a nap in our bed?" he asked.

"Yep. Right after I call Mother and tell her we're back."

"Can I join you?"

"The phone call? The shower? The nap?"

"Maybe we can delay the phone call and work something in between the shower and the nap?"

"Could be," I said musingly. "But you'd better catch me quick, or the nap will claim me first."

"I don't know if I can move fast enough," Martin admitted, tucking the card back in the box with the placemats and walking through the living room to join me at the stairs, "but I can try."

He was fast enough. We inaugurated our new house in a very satisfactory manner.

After a day to rest, Martin went happily to work, and I settled into the rest of my life. The downstairs bathroom hadn't been completed, and I had to harass a few people over that, but the upstairs had been finished and it was beautiful. Our bedroom was French blue, gray, and white; I'd used Martin's bedroom furniture in the guest room, and his bedspread had been maroon and navy, so I had worked those colors in there. The anonymous little room now housed Martin's exercise equipment and the clothes that couldn't fit in our closet. The wood of the stairs had been refinished and polished and the carpet that ran throughout the top floor ran down the stairs, too, a light blue. When I'd had the carpet ripped up downstairs, I'd found the floors were all hardwood, and had had them refinished. There was a large oriental rug in the living room, another in the dining room, and a runner going down the hall. We'd turned the downstairs bedroom into an informal "family" sitting room. Martin's desk was in one corner, the television was in there, and a couple of comfortable chairs grouped with tables and lamps.

Jane Engle's mother's antique dining-room table and chairs now graced our dining room, and our living room was composed of things from Jane's, mine, and Martin's households, an eclectic mix but one that pleased the eye, I thought. And the built-in bookcases lining the hall looked wonderful. Any space not taken up by books was filled with knickknacks we'd gotten as wedding presents, a china bird here, a vase there. Two of Jane's bookcases - they were lawyer bookcases with wonderful glass doors - were in the family room, and the rest of the bookcases were in a storage lockup with some of Martin's things, awaiting our final decision.

I wondered what had happened to the Julius family's belongings. I was sitting at the butcher-block table in the kitchen, drinking my coffee and trying to suppress the desire for another piece of toast, when I saw Shelby Youngblood coming down the stairs to the apartment. He walked around the far side of the garage and I heard a car start. They must have decided that was the most discreet place to park. He backed out, used the concrete turnaround apron, and left (I presumed) for work. His car crunched as it hit the gravel; sooner or later we would have to have the rest of the driveway paved. I thought about Angel Youngblood in her peach and green apartment, and I remembered what Amina had blurted out before the wedding. Amina's concern had stuck to me like a cockleburr, irritating and hard to dislodge.

I found myself wondering what Angel would do with herself all day. It wasn't really any of my business; but I am curious about the people around me. They're what I use to keep myself entertained.

I put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, wiped the counters, and went upstairs to get dressed. After wearing all my new "honeymoon" clothes, it was nice to get back into my oldest blue jeans and my mystery bookstore Tshirt. I did put on some makeup, so as not to give Martin too complete a shock when he came home today. I had picked out my red-framed glasses to wear and was brushing my hair and planning my day when I heard a double rap on the kitchen door. Angel was wearing one of those spandex exercise outfits that practically outline your arteries and veins. This bra-and-shorts combination was in a striking black and pink flame design. She had a warmup jacket on over the bra. Her legs were long columns of muscle ending in heavy pink socks and black running shoes. "Welcome back," she said briefly.

"Come in."

"Just for a minute."

"Thanks for arranging all the furniture."

She shrugged and managed a smile. It suddenly dawned on me that Angel was shy. "I just dropped by before my run to tell you that later, when you're ready, I can come help you move the living-room stuff into the position you want. We just kind of put it to where it looked like a real room, but I figured you would want to rearrange when you got home." Angel had to look down and down at me, but she didn't seem either to mind or to feel it gave her an edge. "Angel, what are you exactly?"

"Huh?"

"Are you my employee? Martin's employee, like Shelby? If so, what's your job description? I feel like I'm missing something." I hoped I wasn't being rude, but it made me feel uneasy, her doing me all these favors, since she wasn't a personal friend. If she was getting paid for it, that was another matter.

That proved to be the case.

"Martin pays Shelby and me," she answered after looking at me consideringly for a moment. "Of course, Shelby gets a paycheck from the plant, but we get some money besides. For helping you all out here. Because this house is a little far from town, out of earshot. .. and Martin's gone a lot, Shelby tells me." "Sit down, please." We faced each other over the table. "What does helping me out include?"

"Ah... well. Working in the yard, this is a lot of yard to keep trimmed and mowed and planted. And if you need heavy things done in the house. And to house-sit when you go somewhere and Martin's gone, too... like that." We regarded each other intently. This was very interesting. What on earth had this woman's life been like?

"Thanks, Angel," I said finally, and she shifted a little in her chair. "Have a good run." She rose without haste, nodded, and drifted to the kitchen door, which opened onto the backyard.

"I'll be thinking about the living room while you run, and maybe later after you shower and everything, you could come over."

"Sure," she said, sounding relieved. "Should be about an hour, maybe a little longer."

"Fine." And I closed the door behind her, leaned against it, and wondered what she hadn't told me.

At the end of a morning spent moving heavy objects, I knew a little more about Angel. She and Shelby had been married for seven years. They had worked together on their previous job. What that job was, was vague. I am southern enough to have trouble asking direct questions; I'd used up my quota for the day that morning in the kitchen. And Angel, whether deliberately or not, did not respond to anything but flat-out bald-faced directness. I still had no clear fix on her character.

Martin had a lunch meeting that day, and Mother was taking some clients out, so I sat down at the kitchen table and worked out a meal plan for the week, which was one of the things I'd heard good housewives did, and shopped at the grocery accordingly. I'd cooked for Martin before, of course, and he'd grilled meat for us many times, but this would be the first meal I'd cooked for him as his wife in our new home, and I thought it should be fancy, but not so fancy that he got inflated ideas about what our daily cuisine would be: and also not so difficult that I ruined it. We'd gotten at least five cookbooks as wedding presents, and I mildly looked forward to our eating our way through them. I sat in our little family room and watched the news, reading through our backlog of magazines during the ads. Then I wrote some more thank-you's, managing to acknowledge over half the gifts that had arrived in our absence. When I walked to the end of the drive to put the notes in the mailbox, I noticed for the first time that the Youngbloods had put up their own mailbox. That made sense, since we had the same address; it was a problem I hadn't thought of before, and here it was already solved. I ambled back up the drive, looking idly through the load of bills and occupant notices and free samples I'd found in the box. As we'd decided in our premarital counseling, I would be responsible for paying the month-to-month bills from our joint account, into which Martin and I each deposited a predetermined amount from our separate incomes. So I pulled out our brand-new joint checkbook, paid the bills, and signed the checks "Aurora Teagarden."

Okay, okay. I'd kept my name, that absurd and ridiculous name that had been my bane my whole life. When it got right down to it, I just couldn't become anyone else. Martin had had a hard time about that, but I had a gut feeling I was right. When I feel like that, I am fairly immovable. And I can't tell you how much better it made me feel. I had my own money, I had my own friends and family, I had my own name. I was one lucky woman, I told myself as I sliced strawberries.

Martin opened the front door and yelled gleefully, "Hi, honey! I'm home!"

I started laughing.

I was actually able to turn from the sink and say, "Hello, dear. How did your day go?" just like a sitcom mom.

I was one lucky, uneasy woman.

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