As we walked up the long dirt driveway, the dogs started barking, then quieted as they recognized us and came over wagging their tails. The driveway ran along the side yard of the house, past the well all the way to the barn. Stacey's car was parked at the top of the drive. As we approached the house, the side door opened to Mama and Papa's room. Papa was standing in the doorway. "'Bout time y'all got here," he said.
Mama quickly joined him, and Big Ma was right behind her. "What happened to you?" Mama asked. "Why weren't you on the bus?"
And Big Ma exclaimed, "Lord A-Mighty! We sho been worried 'bout y'all! Get on in here!"
Little Man and I stepped inside and put down our bags, then hugged Mama, Papa, and Big Ma. Stacey and Christopher-John came over and we hugged them too. "We were waiting for you up at the store when the bus came in," Stacey said. He looked at Man. "We thought maybe you didn't get in from Fort Hood and Cassie was waiting for you before heading home."
"Yeah," said Christopher-John, "we were thinking of running down to McComb first thing tomorrow if you didn't make it in." He slapped Little Man's arm fondly. "You looking good! Course, looks like the Army took a few pounds off you."
"They'll take a few pounds off you too when they call you up," Little Man wryly returned with a slow smile.
Stalwart Christopher-John punched at his own stomach. "Well, maybe I can use that!" Then he laughed.
"Y'all all right?" asked Big Ma.
"We're fine, just dead tired," I said.
Big Ma put her arm around me, hugging me to her again. "How'd y'all leave yo' Aunt Callie?"
"She's about the same," I replied, "but her spirits are good. She sent love. Everybody did."
"Come on, sit down," Papa ordered, and we all headed past Mama and Papa's bed to the wooden chairs, their seats covered in deer hide, that sat in a semicircle in front of the fireplace. Light from the fire lit the chairs, and two kerosene lamps—one on Mama's desk at the windows overlooking the drive, the other on the nightstand beside the bed—lit the remainder of the room. There was no electricity. Stacey's wife, Dee, sat in the rocker closest to the hearth. Stacey had married Dee in March of 1942. Their first child, Marie, called Rie by us all, had been born in December that same year. They were now expecting their second child. Both Man and I went over to greet Dee. She was in the seventh month of her pregnancy and did not get up. I kissed Dee and asked about Rie.
"Already in bed," said Dee. Then she turned to Man, now bending to kiss her. "How're you doing, Clayton?" she asked. Unlike the rest of us, Dee always called Man by his given name. Like Mama, she had been a teacher at Great Faith and had tolerated no nicknames in her classroom. I sat down with a heavy sigh beside Dee, kicked off my shoes, and rubbed my feet.
"Both of you look beat," Stacey said.
"Guess we should. Man and I walked all the way from the Wallace store and then some before that."
"What do you mean you walked some before that?" inquired Stacey. I didn't answer.
"Rob," Dee said, tightening the shawl around her shoulders and rubbing her arms, "honey, could you put some more wood on the fire? I'm feeling a bit chilly and I expect Cassie and Clayton are too."
Stacey gave me a questioning look before going over to the bin at the far side of the stone fireplace. He took several logs and piled them high on the flames, then turned to Dee. "That better?" he asked.
Dee smiled up at him. "Much better, Robert, thank you." Just as Dee had chosen to address Little Man by his given name, she had also chosen to address Stacey by his first name. She said she preferred to be the only person who called him that. Stacey smiled back and added still more logs to the fire.
When all of us but Stacey were seated, Papa turned to Little Man and me. "All right now," he said, "tell us what happened. Why weren't y'all on that bus?"
Man stared at the fire and didn't say anything, so I said, "We got off the bus. Got off at Parson's Corner."
"Parson's Corner?" Mama questioned in alarm. "Why? What were you doing getting off the bus there?"
Both Little Man and I were silent.