Chapter Five – In Which Something is Up Day two of the investigation: Uncle Tom.

I’m on a trail to something because someone was in our basement. Someone switched those documents, I’m sure of it. If Paul “Angel Soft” has anything to do with this, Tom might know about it. Simone opened the front door without knocking—she usually doesn’t—and sat down in my mom’s rocking chair. I didn’t think Mom would mind because she was eating breakfast in the kitchen. “You ready?” Simone asked. She wore two braids today with little bows on the ends of each braid. Simone doesn’t usually dress up, but she had a dinner with her grandparents later that day and her mom made her put bows on. She’d have to wear a dress later. I ran to the kitchen, pulling my sneakers over my heels. Mom held the newspaper close to her face, but she wasn’t reading. She usually mouths the words when she’s reading, but she just stared at the paper today. I remembered what Maggie said about making sure I talked to Mom. “What are you reading about?” I asked, even though I knew Mom wasn’t reading at all. Mom looked up for a moment, then back at her paper, taking a sip of tea. “Just checking for coupons,” she mumbled, folding the paper and standing out of her chair. She looked at me once more, then fumbled in her purse. The water damage from the upstairs shower was starting to show through the ceiling again. I could see dark spots beginning to spread through the plaster like oil drops on fabric. Mom’s tangy perfume hit me as she walked past me and to the garage. “I’ll see you tonight, then,” I said. The back of her head nodded and she shut the door. Geen sensasie.1 I turned back to Simone who was chewing on the end of one braid.
1

No sensation.

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“Come on,” I said, taking my backpack with me out the front door.

Uncle Tom lived about five miles away in North Plains. Normally we’d bike, but Tom lived on a hill and it looked close to raining, so Simone borrowed her parents’ minivan. We didn’t say anything as we coasted up and down the road, passing farms and the church while Spongebob Squarepants played on the DVD screen in the backseat. I was never a fan of Spongebob. The clever protagonists always make better entertainment than the cute ones. That’s what my dad says. We pulled into Tom’s driveway next to his old, rusty Buick. His goat Peanut stood near the front porch, chewing weeds and staring at us with bug eyes that looked in different directions. Tom’s house was old, but bigger than mine. The yellow paint cracked around the doors and windows, but it made the home look cozy, like a bed and breakfast. “You okay, buddy?” Simone asked, turning the ignition off. Spongebob stopped talking. I nodded. “Why?” She shook her head. “Nothing.” Nothing always means something, it’s just too big of a something to mention without much time and attention spent talking about it. Today, however, I did not have time or attention to focus on Simone’s something. We had to talk to Uncle Tom. I knocked on the front door and rang the doorbell in case no one heard the knock. Simone locked the van and waited with me on the porch. At first it sounded like no one was home, but then heavy footsteps thudded toward us from inside the house and I knew they were Tom’s. He opened the door, letting his belly poke through the gap in the doorway. “Simone, Henry.” Tom smiled. His blond mustache shook with each breath out of his nose. “Good to see the both of you.” He opened the door wider and gestured for us to come in. “Sorry,”

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he muttered. “I just got home from a client’s house and was working up a bath.” His suspenders hung down from his waist, swaying against his thighs when he walked and turned. “So what are you doing out here?” he asked. Simone and I sunk into a floral loveseat against the window. The fabric smelled like how paisley looks. It smelled stiff and old, but not bad. I remember tipping this couch on its back when I was a kid and us cousins would battle in the living room. I broke the head off of Joseph from Aunt Debbie’s Nativity set, but she glued it back on. It still sits a little crooked, which always makes Joseph look like he’s hiding something from all the other people in the stable. “You kids staying busy this summer?” Tom sat down on the piano bench across from us, leaning against the covered keys with his arms sprawled out and hanging over the edges. I folded my arms over my notebook and crossed my legs, sinking into the couch because it made me look at ease and comfortable. “We’ve got a few assignments ahead of us, but we just wanted to talk to you for a little bit today.” Tom raised his eyebrows, nodding. “Yeah?” He let his eyebrows sink back down. “How’s your mom holding up?” “Tough as nails,” I said. “Yeah she is.” Tom smiled. “She held up mighty good at the funeral.” I sat up a little straighter. “About that, I met someone at the funeral.” I paused to make it seem like I didn’t remember exactly what Angel Soft looked like. “He said his name was… Paul?” Tom’s smile straightened into one line, now hidden by his mustache. He sat up from the piano and leaned forward on the bench. “Yeah, he knew your dad.” “Did you know him?” I asked.

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He nodded. “Paul was your dad’s roommate up at Portland State. Deb and I got to know him when your mom and dad started dating.” “I talked to him a little bit at the cemetery,” I said. “He seemed sort of weird.” Tom stood up. “Here, hold on a second.” He shuffled out of the room, going upstairs. The ceiling creaked a little where he walked around. “What are you looking for?” Simone asked. I shrugged. “Anything. What his personality was like, how long they stayed in touch, where he works.” Simone scrunched her forehead. “Where he works?” “I don’t know.” Tom’s feet thudded back toward the staircase. He rounded the banister and came back to the living room with a shoebox. “Your aunt Debbie likes to keep everything.” He opened the shoebox and set it on the coffee table. Inside were pictures and pieces of paper, crinkled and soft around the edges where they’d been folded. Tom pulled out the pictures and flicked through them, leaving faint loops of his fingerprints on the corners. I saw Mom’s face upside down in Tom’s hands. Her smile looked big, dramatic. Her hair was in the middle of spinning around, a brighter blonde than it was now. She stood next to a woman turned away from the camera, but it looked like Aunt Debbie from her thick black hair running straight down her back. She still styles it like that, but it’s more gray than black now. Tom kept dropping pictures from the top of his pile back into the box, shaking his head. “I know he’s in here somewhere.”

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I could see on the fronts of envelopes at the bottom of the box that some of these notes were from my dad. His handwriting packs together in dark capital letters like he’s in a hurry and everything he’s chosen to say is important. “Here he is.” I look up at the photo in Tom’s hand. It’s washed out like the saturation’s been turned down, but that’s how pictures looked back then. It was a Christmas party. A tree with tinsel and lights stood in the background. Mom and Dad held cups in their hands, laughing. They looked young and tan. Aunt Debbie stood next to Mom, wearing Daisy Duke shorts that would not look good on her now. I’d wonder why Debbie wore shorts to a Christmas party, but that seems like something she’d do. On the other side of Dad was Angel Soft, a younger Angel Soft. He seemed a little fuller, but his cheekbones still jutted out of his face like a malnourished runway model. He wore a red turtleneck with black pants and had his hand on Dad’s shoulder, laughing with my dad. He laughed with my dad at one point. This picture proves it.

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