Mandy stood by her mother at the kitchen sink. Her mother was clucking almost as much as one of the nearly ninety hens on the farm.
“Here’s another freckled egg,” Muriel said. “Put it in with the others for your Aunt Anna.”
Mandy took the egg from her mother and dried it. Before placing it in the little basket meant for her aunt, she held and pondered it, looking at the dark red spots that mottled the light brown shell.
“Why do you give the freckled eggs to Aunt Anna and Uncle Eddy?”
Mandy noted her mother’s tiny pause; it happened more and more when Uncle Eddy’s name was mentioned. “Because your aunt grew up on this farm with your daddy and knows there ain’t nothing wrong with a freckled egg. City-bred people will think it’s bad and won’t buy it.”
The kitchen door banged shut as Mandy’s father came in. “That’s right,” Billy told his daughter. “Same reason we can’t sell you,” he said.
“You couldn’t sell me even if I wasn’t freckled!” the eight-year-old protested.
“Well, you’re right about that,” he agreed. “We couldn’t sell you even if you wasn’t freckled.”
Mandy placed the egg in the basket, feeling vindicated. Then she looked up sharply at her father’s grin and realized she’d been had. She put her fists on her hipbones and stared at him, trying to work up a reply.
“Another egg,” her mother said, interrupting the joyful war of words between father and daughter.
Mandy settled for a disgusted “hmpf” and returned to her work.
“When you’re done, Mother,” Billy said, “I’ll take the eggs into town today.” Muriel looked over at her shoulder to see her husband had lost his grin. “I want to look in on Anna.”
Muriel nodded, understanding. Mandy watched them carefully and knew she was missing out on some important information.
“Why do you want to look in on her, Daddy?”
Billy softened his look. “Well, she’s my sister, isn’t she? Can’t a man look in on his sister once in a blue moon?”
Mandy dried another egg, but the thoughtful look she gave her father put him on notice that his facile explanation would not long suffice. He had been to town to “look in on Anna” only a week earlier. Aunt Anna and her daddy had talked at length while she had been shuffled into the back yard to play with Nixie, her aunt’s dachshund. Neither of the adults had been happy and Aunt Anna looked as though she had been crying a little. But that day Mandy had known better than to ask about it.
Mandy made six trips to her father’s pickup truck, loading the cartons of eggs for the six Tuesday customers they would deliver to, and then took the wire basket of discolored and freckled eggs for her aunt. Billy kissed Muriel goodbye and Mandy yelled her farewell as she ran for the passenger door.
Billy drove into the city and to the homes of their egg customers. He let Mandy take the eggs to the door and collect for them. She had been doing so for nearly two years and had a spotless record for not breaking a single egg. That was more than Billy could claim after the incident with the Bartons’ welcome mat, so he kept the motor running.
“And now to Aunt Anna’s house!” Mandy cheerfully proclaimed.
“Am I going to have to go play with Nixie in the back yard again?”
“Don’t you like playing with Nixie?”
“Sure. It’s just that I never get to do more than say hi and goodbye to Aunt Anna.”
“Well, we’ll see.”
And Mandy noted again the sorrow her father tried to keep hidden. She knew she wouldn’t get a straight answer, just as she hadn’t gotten a straight answer about having to leave the company of adults once they got to Aunt Anna’s home.
Billy turned the truck onto the block where his sister lived and looked down the street toward her home. Where an empty front yard should have been, he saw a large knot of people; two police cars and a funeral home’s ambulance were parked out front.
“Oh, dear God.”
“What’s going on, Daddy?”
Billy parked the truck as close to Anna’s home as he could. He turned to Mandy. “Stay here. Stay right here.”
He shoved his door shut behind him and raced toward the house. He pushed through the crowd and took the three steps to the open door at one leap.
Mandy waited as long as she could — about a minute — before getting out of the truck and crossing the street. She could hear Nixie barking frantically in the back yard and had a momentary thought about going around the side of the house to check on the dog.
Instead, she gently threaded her way through the people in her aunt’s front yard. She caught pieces of conversation: “she didn’t have a chance … horrible blast, I heard it … a terrible man, always so violent … no idea where he’s run off to … poor woman.”
As she slowly crept up the stairs, a woman in the yard finally realized what Mandy was doing and cried out, “No, little girl! Don’t go in there!”
Mandy stopped just inside the threshold and was almost instantly swept up by her father. He kept moving and Mandy quickly found herself back in the truck.
“This time, stay put,” he said. “I’m going to bring Nixie over. Keep her with you.”
The misery in her father’s voice kept her glued to the seat. He was back in just a moment with the dog. She took hold of Nixie and petted her, trying to calm her down.
Mandy’s tears began to fall onto Nixie’s back. She had already been bracing for a disaster from the circus in the front yard, and one other piece of evidence clinched it. Before her father captured her, she had seen one formerly pristine white wall in her aunt’s home that was now as freckled as the eggs in the wire basket on the seat beside her.