Bridget rushed through the corridor in her uncle’s Georgian Colonial style home toward his Study. Her dark brown hair billowed like a blanket in a gust of air as she ran. When she reached the double glass doors she saw him standing in the middle of the room, stark naked with his back towards her, donning only a pair of wireless on-ear headphones. She felt as if she were unexpectedly dropping into a forbidden hole, so she shrunk back and leaned against the wall, covering her mouth. Her fingers smelled like garlic for she had just finished concocting a vegetable beef stir fry, one of Uncle Wesley’s favorites.
Slowly, she inched toward the doors and peeked in. Sure enough, her eyes had not deceived her. Two round, almost luminous buttock cheeks stared back at her. She opened one of the doors a smidgen, then hid behind the wall again. Uncle Wes hummed off-key in monotone fashion, and the longer Bridget stayed there, the louder and more obnoxious became his humming.
It would probably do no good to wait for him because who knew where his clothes were and what his reaction would be if he discovered her? He was ill-tempered and quite frightening on many occasions. In the nine years Bridget had lived under his roof, she had come to know that she only had to do everything he wanted in order to avoid his flare-ups and, better yet, if she could anticipate what he wanted and do it before he asked then he would reward her with smiles and affection.
Bridget’s brother, Ralph, who was three years younger, had not yet found a way to earn their uncle’s approval. He was freckled and rather plump for a twelve-year-old. Uncle Wes didn’t tolerate chubbiness and abhorred Ralph’s obsession with pinecones.
Uncle Wesley’s maid, Eva, entered the hall and gave Bridget a curious look.
“He’s naked in there!” said Bridget.
“What?” said Eva. She peeked in. “Good heavens!”
“He couldn’t carry a tune if his life depended on it,” Eva said.
“No,” said Bridget. “I cooked his favorite, but it’s probably best not to bother him at the moment.”
“Stir-fry?” Eva asked.
“Yeah. Come join me and we’ll eat.”
She raised her eyebrows, pointed with her thumb in Uncle Wesley’s direction and said, “I don’t think he’d like that. He chewed me out for not putting his DVDs back on the shelf in the proper order yesterday. I don’t wanna risk another outburst.”
When Bridget returned to the kitchen, Ralph was eating her stir-fry off the stove with a wooden spoon. “If Uncle Wes sees you doing that, you’re done for,” she said.
“I know. But he’s not here.”
“He’s in the Study. Naked.”
Ralph almost spat out his mouthful. “What?”
“I was going to invite him to eat with us, but he’s busy… being naked.”
He chuckled. “Uh, okay. All the more for me,” he said and plunked his chubby body onto a chair at the dining room table. It was a perfectly varnished table made of maple wood that Uncle Wes had bought from Lodestar Furniture at the edge of town. The elderly carpenter there, he said, knew how to make things properly.
Bridget set out plates and utensils and as she returned to the table with the stir-fry, Uncle Wes walked in, scowling, wearing a brown t-shirt and khaki pants. She diverted her eyes and grabbed the juice jug from the fridge.
He sat down at the head of the table with an air of importance. “Where’s my table setting? Why’s my plate not here?” His nose was getting red.
“We didn’t know if you’d be eating with us,” said Bridget. She rushed to the cupboards. He will want a spoon as well, and a crystal glass. He’ll be choked if I forget the napkin.
“Ralph,” he said, “Wipe that smirk off your face!”
“Would you like me to make you some coffee?” asked Bridget, as she laid out his place setting.
“Yes, thank-you,” he said and his face softened.
He will want something sweet after his meal. I’ll cut up fruit.
Uncle Wes ate slowly with precision. “Why is there no salt and pepper on the table? Ralph, go get it.”
Ralph, who had ferociously eaten three quarters of his plateful, mumbled something under his breath and snatched the salt and pepper from the counter. By the time Bridget gave Uncle Wes his coffee and sat down, Ralph was already finished his meal. “I’m going outside.”
“What’re you gonna do out there?” asked Uncle Wes.
“Pinecones,” Ralph said, and waddled away.
Uncle Wesley’s nose was getting red again. “This floor is filthy!”
Bridget looked down at her feet.
“That woman is insufferably lazy! A maid who doesn’t clean. Preposterous.”
She wanted to say something to defend Eva, but knew it was better not to argue with him. Change the subject. “I chose the fabric for my bedroom curtains.” Her current ones were a faded yellow.
“I chose the one you liked. The striped fabric.”
“Excellent,” he said, impressed. “It’s modern and sharp-looking. That’s why you like it.”
Bridget looked at the small chandelier above and felt her eyes glaze over. I don’t know why I like it.
After lunch, Bridget left through the backdoor and braved the winter air. It was made less frigid because of the nearby congregation of Norway pine trees that served as a wind barrier, but it was nippy, just the same. She scurried into the grove to search for Ralph and found him sitting at the base of a tree with a small basket of pinecones.
“More for your collection?” she asked.
“What’re you doing just sitting here?” she asked, as she rocked side to side on her feet. “It’s cold.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Just thinking.”
That night, warm and cozy in her bed, Bridget dreamed she was back in the grove. In her dream, a dark and faceless giant, three times taller than any pine trees, bellowed and reached for their trunks. The ground shook violently as the trees uprooted themselves and fell all around her. Then they rolled noisily, their branches cracking and catapulting, down a steep hill toward a massive lake of quicksand at the bottom. They rolled further and further away down the hill, so she held out her desperate arms and cried out. Then everything became blurry because the giant was upon her, and she woke up with a pounding heart.
The dream felt so real that after Bridget got dressed, she ran out to the grove. The trees were still standing. all forty-two of them.
When she got back inside she climbed atop Uncle Wesley’s maple dining table and sat under the chandelier with her head tilted back as if she were tanning on the beach, except she was wearing a sweat suit rather than a bikini. She raked her slender fingers through her dark brown hair and grinned triumphantly.
Her brother walked in, holding a glass jar.
“Ralph,” she said, “I think this could be the greatest moment of my life.”
“Because I’m breaking the rules and it’s glorious!”
Ralph smiled and gave her the jar. “Look.”
It contained flakes of real gold as numerous as his freckles.
“They weren’t no ordinary pinecones,” said Ralph.