The door clicked open, and Sam and Katy came face-to-face with their missing uncle.
Sam’s first thought was that he looked average. Maybe even a little ugly. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, maybe a fluffy cat and an eyepatch, or something. However, the man before him was so ordinary that it was almost disappointing.
His simple look was made even more obvious by the lavish room behind him. Beautiful rose colored wood floors, and light grey walls filled the office. A huge desk, covered in ornate carvings of vines and flowers dominated most of the room. There was a very comfortable chair resting behind it. On the back wall, instead of the beautiful windows covering the rest of the house, was a wall of screens. Each one of them flashed with text, and Sam noticed one of them had a map displayed on it. That was all he managed to see, before his uncle pushed the door shut.
Then, Sam had no choice but to study his long lost relative.
Uncle Gerald was a man of medium height. He had unnaturally pale skin, with a lumpy nose covered in small pockmarks. There were wrinkles around his mouth and crows feet around his eyes. His salt-and-pepper hair was cropped short, almost in a crew-cut. His mouth formed a small line, and his eyes were bright green and sharp. They glittered like flints, and looked like they could cut just as much. Sam could feel those eyes scanning over him, sizing him up like a chef at the fish market. He stiffened in response as he stared right back.
“Ah, you’re here,” their uncle said. Like a college professor giving a lecture, his voice was dry and bland. Sam opened his mouth to respond, before Katy elbowed him in the ribs. The girl might have been small, but she had elbows like harpoons.
“Hi Uncle Gerald,” She chirped, “I’m Katy and this is my brother Sam. It’s really nice to meet you.”
“Ahm, it’s nice to meet you too,” Uncle Gerald replied. There was an awkward moment where Uncle Gerald seemed to be trying to decide whether to hug his niece, or shake her hand. After the odd looking dance between the two motions, he finally pulled Katy into a quick, sideways hug. He reached out to do the same to Sam, before hesitating. His nose wrinkled a bit.
“What in the world is that smell?” He asked. Sam wasn’t sure whether to be relieved that he’d gotten out of the hug, or insulted that those words were the first thing his uncle had said to him.
“It’s the new perfume I’m trying, Ode De Puke. Do you like it?” Sam said.
Uncle Gerald sniffed, and blinked a few times.
“I, ah, see,” He mumbled, taking a few steps back, “You might want to change, then.”
“What?” Sam said in a mock horrified voice, “But this is how I smell all the time. Don’t you like it?” Uncle Gerald just stared at him. He didn’t seem sure of how to respond to Sam’s wiseass comments.
Katy let out a loud, forced sounding laugh.
“That’s my brother. Isn’t he such a great comedian?” She said.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Uncle Gerald replied. There was a period of silence where all four of them just stared at each other. It was one of those painful silences, like ripping off a bandaid an inch at a time. Everybody wanted to end it, but nobody seemed to know how to do so. Finally, Ben broke the spell.
“Perhaps you’d like to see your rooms,” He said “It might be nice to get those bags off your backs, and then eat a good meal, right?.”
“Yes, let’s do that,” Uncle Gerald said “Ben, please show my niece and nephew to their rooms.” He ducked back into his office.
“Wait, um,” Katy started, before trailing off.
“I’ll see you at dinner. Come down whenever you feel like it,” Uncle Gerald told them as he closed the door.
For a few seconds, Sam and Katy stared at the door. Then Ben tapped them on the shoulders, and led them back down the hallway.
“Sorry about that,” He said as they walked, “Your uncle has really been looking forward to your visit. Just bide your time, he’ll warm up eventually.” Whether it was the comforting smile, or the fact that he treated them like people, Sam was beginning to warm up to Ben. He led them through the confusing corridors, pointing out different rooms.
“Allright, here’s your room, Katy,” He said. He pushed open the white door to open a large, light lavender room. There were huge windows that looked out over the front yard. Katy smiled and launched herself inside. She landed on the bed.
“All this is for me?” She asked in awe.
“Yes. Sam, your room is two doors down the hallway,” Ben pointed at one of the other doors. Sam nodded, and walked into his new room. It was a little smaller than Katy’s, but was still bigger than any room he’d ever been in before. The walls were painted beige, and he even had a balcony. There was a large bed, covered in white sheets and more pillows than Sam could count. There was a bureau shoved in the corner, covered in black-and-white prints of ships and sea shells. Like a hotel room, it wasn’t very personalized. Sam didn’t feel uncomfortable in it, though. Unlike a hotel room, he got the feeling that he could customize it however he liked.
Sam poked his head outside, and glanced down. He had a wonderful view of the ocean crashing into the cliffs far below.
“Wow,” He whistled. He flopped back onto his bed, and stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes. Then he zipped open his backpack, and dug around for a new shirt. Despite what he’d said, Sam did want to get along with this new uncle of his. That, and he really didn’t want to keep smelling gross anymore.
“Hey,” Katy whispered to Sam. They were following Ben back downstairs. He was taking them to the dining room, apparently.
“What?” Sam growled back.
“Just let me do all the talking. The second you open your mouth, we always end up kicked out.”
“Yeah right, name one time I’ve ever gotten us thrown out of a house?”
“Are you kidding me? Alright, let’s see. There were the Charlesons,’ the Promsmas,’ the Sears,’ that nice old couple with the unpronounceable name… Shall I go on, or do you concede your point?”
“Fine, fine, you win. I’ll keep my mouth shut. But really, he was asking for that last one.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Katy snapped, before dropping her voice, “I really like this place. We’ve got to try to make this work. I mean, I know he’s our uncle and all, but it doesn’t feel like he’s a big fan of kids. Just because we’re related doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down.”
“I said I would keep quiet. Sheesh, you don’t have to scold me so much. I’m not some little kid who poked holes in the wall with a screwdriver!”
By now, they were crossing through the foyer into a giant room. The wooden trim and beige walls framed the giant table in the middle. There were already three place settings on the dark brown surface. Ben stopped in the doorway, and shot Sam and Katy a smile. With a jaunty wave, he disappeared off into the hallway.
Uncle Gerald sat down at the head of the table, motioning for Sam and Katy to follow suit. Sam dutifully kept his mouth shut, even as he watched the servers come in. They set down platters of lobster, steak, and countless other dishes Sam had never seen. Katy’s eyes glittered in amazement. Sam, on the other hand, had to bite down into his tongue to keep from muttering a glib comment or two.
“This is,” Katy paused to nervously glance around, “Quite a bit. I don’t think we’ll be able to eat it all.”
Uncle Gerald appeared confused.
“You don’t have to eat it all. Just have what you like, and ignore the rest,” He told them.
“Um, really? Well, doesn’t that seem a little wasteful. I’ve never really had anything like…,” Katy trailed off.
“Yeah,” Sam mumbled, “It feels like we’re robbing starving children, or something.” Most everything looked delicious, except for the fish eggs, and he was already digging in. Katy kicked him in the shin under the table.
“What? I’m starving. You didn’t vomit up your stomach contents earlier, did you?” He asked around a mouthful of food. Uncle Gerald didn’t appear to have heard, and was already dishing food out onto his plate. For a while, there was only the noise of utensils clinking against plates. Uncle Gerald tried to cast around for a few topics of conversation. However, after getting falsely cheerful, nervous responses from Katy, and a few monosyllabic, remarks from Sam, he gave up.
“So, Uncle Gerald,” Katy said, relaxing enough to go beyond pleasantries, “I don’t remember seeing you at the funeral.” There were a thousand questions, it seemed, hidden behind that statement. Sam knew Katy was just as curious as he was about why their uncle had only just shown up.
“Huh?” Uncle Gerald said.
“The funeral, you know, for Mom. You’re supposed to be her brother, so why didn’t you show up?”
“I was busy,” Uncle Gerald replied. Sam paused from shoveling food into his mouth.
“You were busy?” He asked incredulously, “Busy with what?”
What could be more important than our mom’s death, He thought to himself.
“Work. Nothing that concerns you kids,” Uncle Gerald replied. Then, seeming to notice how harsh that sounded, he looked up at them. He gave a sad little smile.
“Sorry about it, I meant to show up, it’s just..,” He was interrupted by a loud series of beeps. Both Sam and Katy jumped in surprise. Their uncle drew in a sharp breath and drew a pager out of his pocket. The small, mechanical box kept beeping like an annoying bird. As he read the message, Uncle Gerald stood up so suddenly that his chair was nearly knocked over.
“What is it?” Katy asked.
“It’s nothing, just something from work,” Uncle Gerald said. It didn’t really seem like nothing. He seemed even more sour than before. He started out of the room.
“Hey, can’t this wait until later? We were just getting to know you,” Sam called after him. Their uncle glanced back at them.
“Sorry, but no,” He said shortly, “I’ve got to take care of this.”
“Is it a matter of life or death, or are you just leaving ‘cause you didn’t want to talk to us?” Sam asked.
“Neither. My work’s just important. Maybe you’ll understand when you’re older, Sam.” Sam gritted his teeth. He hated it when people talked to him in that slightly patronizing tone. It wasn’t like he was a small a child. He opened his mouth, but yet again Katy interrupted him.
“Is this the same thing that kept you from helping us out when we lost our mom?” Katy said. Her face was flushed red and her forehead wrinkled in an expression Sam rarely saw. She kept her eyes fixed on her plate, and was methodically mashing the fish that was on her plate.
“Yes,” Uncle Gerald replied simply. He was starting to look a little flustered.
“Is it the same thing that kept you from taking us in when we kept getting thrown out on the streets? Is it the same thing that kept you from visiting every time Mom’s cancer relapsed, and Sam had to carry her to the hospital because we didn’t have a phone anymore?” Katy’s voice was getting louder and louder, “You know, Mom taught us that family is the most important thing in the universe! What sort of work could be more important than seeing us for the very first time?”
Then, in a split second, she stopped screaming and covered her mouth with both hands. Now, instead of looking angry, she looked hopelessly embarrassed.
Sam sighed and covered his face with his hands.
“Oh crap, you said it all. Now who’s the one getting us kicked out?” He said with a bitter little laugh.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no,” Katy whispered to herself. Uncle Gerald stood there with his mouth open. He looked to be in shock. He opened his mouth a few times, like a fish trying to breath on land, before closing it with a snap. Without a word, he turned on his heel and left.
Sam got a feeling of goosebumps on the back of his neck. He glanced around, and saw some of the kitchen staff peeking through the door at them. Their strangely blank stares were starting to freak him out. Between that, and Katy’s frantic hyperventilating, Sam made a decision. He jumped to his feet and nearly tipped Katy out of her chair. She didn’t even protest as she almost tumbled to the ground.
“Come on, we’re getting out of here. You need some fresh air,” He said. Katy nodded wordlessly as she let him haul her to her feet. Sam gently pushed her out of the dining room, through the hallway, past the entryway, and through the front door. Then they were out into the hot, sunny evening. The two siblings trotted over the path, running from their shame and the prying eyes of strangers.