I turned to look at Mr. Stokes as he walked casually into the dining room. I had forgotten that he was still in the house with us. He shifted uneasily as he stood silently with a glass of water near the archway waiting for permission to join us. As much as I was grateful for his assistance in bringing Aunt Rachel back from whichever plane of existence she had been trapped in, I was still suspicious of him. I knew he held knowledge and significant information that was invaluable to me and it frustrated me that he wasn’t eagerly sharing it when I had been abundantly clear about how much I hungered for it. I felt as if he was attempting to keep me in an invisible cage of ignorance, leashed and controlled by how much or how little I knew, but I wouldn’t have it any longer. I would find out what he knew and what he was keeping from me. Perhaps the diaries he spoke of were the answer or maybe Aunt Rachel could be persuaded to share more information with me, it didn’t matter. I would find a way to gain access to what he knew. While Mr. Stokes may be my teacher, one I admittedly enjoyed learning from in the mundane academic sense; he was nothing more to me than a tutor regardless of what Aunt Rachel suggested. He was not my parent. He was not an elder family member. And he would never be my friend. He was a paid educator and as being such had only limited authority over my actions and behavior.
Aunt Rachel held out her hand towards where he waited. “Come in, Gerald.”
He entered the dining room still wearing the wrinkled, light blue button up shirt and khaki colored trousers he had been wearing since yesterday morning when he showed up for our usual Friday tutoring session. So much had happened in the span of forty-eight hours that when I stopped to think about it, it hurt my brain. He sat down in the empty chair next to my aunt and across from me; Daniel’s usual spot when he was home and ate meals with the family. He placed the glass of water on the table in front of him.
Aunt Rachel reached out and gently caressed his hand. “Would you like something to eat?”
“Yes, thank you,” he said, grasping a hold of her hand with his own and kissing her palm.
She smiled at my tutor and stood setting the white cloth napkin that had been lying in her lap on the table.
“Do you need anything from the kitchen, Angie?” she gestured to the glass I was drinking from. “More water?”
“No, thank you.”
I watched her disappear through archway that led into the kitchen. I placed my glass gently down on the table as I studied the man sitting in Daniel’s place across from me at the table. With my fork I pushed a lone piece of broccoli through the scattered remnants of the brown rice that still occupied my near empty dinner plate. I glanced across the table at Mr. Stokes as I considered all that Aunt Rachel had said about him; the fact that she considered him to be a valuable ally for someone like me to have. He could offer me guidance and support, but what was her relationship with him? Why did there seem to be some sort of bond or connection between them? Was it possible they … no, I couldn’t even imagine that … that was just disgusting! Christian’s father was much more attractive than creepy, old Mr. Stokes! Revolted yet motivated by my personal thoughts, I placed my fork next to my plate and crossed my arms.
“So … what’s going on between you two?” I nodded from Mr. Stokes to the archway that my aunt had disappeared through. “I didn’t even know you knew each other.”
“Oh, that,” blushed Mr. Stokes as he cleared his throat before nervously taking a sip from his water glass. Mother would have a fit if she knew he was using a kitchen glass in the dining room. “I think it would be best if your aunt answered that question.”
As if on cue, Aunt Rachel returned to the dining room with a steaming plate of vegetable fried rice for my tutor. She placed the plate of food on the table in front of him along with a set of silverware wrapped in a cloth napkin. It seemed to me that he was incapable of looking at anything or anyone, except her when she was present in the room. I knew he was worried about her, as I was, but she since she was clearly out of danger his behavior seemed overly obsessive to me, and believe me, I was familiar with obsession. Anyone remember Ryan Fuller?
My aunt reclaimed her seat at the head of the table; the seat that Dad usually occupied during our less than frequent family meals, while Mr. Stokes carefully unwrapped the utensils, placed the napkin on his lap, and ate a mouthful of the steaming vegetables and rice. It was clear he was as hungry as I had been.
As he swallowed the generous bite of food, he nodded. “Delicious. Thank you, Rachel.”
“Your niece has made an inquiry of me that I believe would be most appropriate if you were to address it.”
“Oh?” With her elbows leaning on the table, for which Mother would have a nuclear meltdown, and clasping her hands together, Aunt Rachel turned to me. “What is it, Angie?”
“I was just curious about the two of you,” I said, wiping my mouth with a napkin and placing it on the table next to my plate. “But if it’s private, I understand.”
Aunt Rachel blushed and glanced nonchalantly at my tutor, who was enjoying his food, then back at me. “It’s a fair question and one – you’ll be glad to know – I can answer. You see, Gerald and I have a special relationship.”
“Yeah, I get that. I’m just confused as to why no one told me about the two of you or that I never noticed the … I don’t know … your relationship before,” I commented.
The two of them together just made no sense to me. I don’t ever remember Aunt Rachel bringing him to any of the parties that my parents hosted around the holidays, which was the time that everyone brought their significant others. When she was with Christian’s father, Keith she brought him everywhere; to every holiday party, cookout, picnic, birthday celebration or other family gathering. So, I was wary of this whole situation with Mr. Stokes. Was she embarrassed to be with him? I mean, he was a lot older than her from what I could determine and he wasn’t very attractive. I know, I know, it is shallow of me to consider his physical appearance, but seriously, if you’re going to be physically intimate with someone I would imagine that you would want them to be sexually attractive, right? I mean I may only be sixteen, but even I would rather have sex with Hugh Jackman than with Steve Buscemi. And in this particular scenario Keith is Hugh and Mr. Stokes well … you get the picture. Creepy, right? I couldn’t help but feel as if Aunt Rachel or the two of them were trying to convince me of something that actually didn’t exist or was more illicit than they were implying.
“How’d you two meet?”
My aunt smiled. I could see she cared about him, but not nearly as much as he seemed to care about her; there was a significant imbalance between them, and that made me suspicious.
“He’s been a family friend for many years,” she explained as she placed her utensils across her plate.
Wait, wait, wait, hold up a minute. Did she just say that he was a family friend? Whose family? Our family? Was she seriously implying that Mr. Stokes was our family’s friend? No. No. No. That was impossible. He wasn’t a family friend. Or … was he? Could he be? Was I just completely unaware and out of it? Did I forget? Or was she trying to get me to question my sanity? After our earlier conversation, the one that she made me feel normal … sane, she’s now playing this … what is it? A game. Now she’s playing this game with me? I don’t understand.
I felt myself drowning in confusion while trying to make some sort of sense of something that truly made no sense to me. The familiar doubt began creeping in from the edges of my mind. Perhaps my perception of reality was still fragmented. Perhaps I had imagined everything that had happened or I was imagining everything now in this moment. I’m certain I had missed at least three doses of my medication. Maybe even more. Maybe my mind was distorting everything, altering my memories and twisting my mind so that I couldn’t remember what was real and what was imagined. Could Mr. Stokes really be a family friend? Maybe it was a memory that I had blocked out for some reason.
“Aunt Rachel, I find it really strange that Mr. Stokes has been my tutor for an entire year and no one ever mentioned that he was a family friend,” I countered, trying to gain a sense of what I was experiencing and hoping to determine if I was having a psychotic episode.
My aunt stood with her plate and utensils in hand and reached over to collect mine. “It’s really not a big deal, Angie. There are more important things going on right now than worrying about how long you’ve known Gerald, don’t you think?”
I wasn’t giving up on this that quickly. They were keeping something from me and I was going to figure out what that something was … because this wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t making any sense. I looked across the table to Mr. Stokes, who was staring at Aunt Rachel.
“Is that why Mother and Dad decided to hire you, because you were a family friend?”
He smiled and chuckled. “You could say that.”
I was suspicious. Why was he laughing at me? I abruptly stood from my seat causing it to tip and fall backward. “What aren’t you telling me?”
My aunt startled by my outburst, stumbled backwards. The dinner plates she had been holding broke as they collided with the hardwood floor. “Angie … I –”
I shook my head holding out my hand, deflecting what she was about to say.
“I don’t want your excuses, and I don’t want to hear about your respect for my Dad,” I spat at her as I jolted over to the other side of the dining room table. I confronted Mr. Stokes, who had jumped up from his own chair when I did. I pointed my index finger in his face. “If you’ve been a family friend for years then why didn’t I ever see you before you were hired as my tutor?”
He sighed as he absently caressed the scar on his forehead. “You did see me, Angie, you just don’t recognize me.”
“I think I would remember if I had seen you before,” I scoffed.
He casually slipped his hands into his trouser pockets as he looked at me in the eyes. “Are you certain?”