(Continued from page 23 of the Friday December 18, 2020 issued #3424 of the Amandala)
“Yes, ’ma,” Millie brightened. “See, it’s almost like hearing you speak. I can tell it’s you just by that!” She paused meditatively. “It felt so natural I, you know, thought little of it!”
“But that’s wonderful, darling,” gurgled Gilda, patting a strand of the child’s hair into place and embracing her. After a moment, she added: “Tell you what! Let’s make a little game of this for the family at supper tonight.” She outlined her idea and together they worked on the details.
When the meal was finished that evening, Gilda cleared her throat, getting everyone’s attention.
“Millie and I have a game we want to share. Everybody plays.” Excited eyes looked back at her. “Go to the den, all of you—excepting Millie. After a minute, start coming back one at a time. Count to 20 before the next one comes in. Whoever is last remains there till we call him/her. When you come in, take a chair other than your own.” She paused a moment.
“Why isn’t Millie leaving the room too?” Junior quizzed.
“Yeah,” mouthed Dort. “Still momma’s fav?” He tried to appear displeased, but they knew he was putting on, for he adored his older sis.
“Because,” Gilda waved a hand. “Because,” she repeated, “this is her game. She needs to remain here for it to work.”
“OK!” “OK!” Muttered Denny in support of his other half. Each made as if to rise, but Hendy waved them back to their seats.
“No one sits in my chair,” he grunted.
“It’s just a game, honey,” pleaded Gilda. “When it’s over no one will remember who sat where. Please? For Millie’s sake?” She rested a hand on his, massaging it tenderly.
“All right,” he consented, “but,” and he glared at each of them, “this will be the only time that happens. Understood?”
“And what will chummy Millie be doing?” Celi complained.
“i’ll be wearing a blindfold,” replied Millie.
“I like playing blindfold games,” brightened Celi. “Let’s go,” and everyone got up.
“One more thing.” It was Gilda. “Don’t talk or laugh as you come in. Millie is to ID the one left in the den.”
She took a red polka dot scarf from her apron and gave it to Hendy. “Here,” she chimed sweetly, “you knot the blindfold.”
He did so, and to test its efficacy, he quietly reached over, picked up a fork and held it in front of Millie. “What do I have in my hand?” He asked.
“Can’t tell, Dad!”
“Good!” He said. To the others he grinned. “Let’s go!” He murmured, and they filed from the room. Gilda then positioned Millie by the étagére across from the dinner table.
The first to return was Celi. She went directly to Hendy’s chair, pulling it roughly from the table as she usually did. Next was Junior, followed by Denny and Dort.
Then Millie asked: “Where’s Daddy?” There was cheering, and Gilda went to the doorway to call Hendy.
The routine was repeated a few more times and on each occasion Millie was able to name the missing member. When they were seated again, Gilda asked Millie to relate her experience at school that day.
“We could’ve just told you about it,” said Gilda when Millie finished, “but you may not have been convinced. Except for you, Hendy,” she purred. “You were needed for the numbers.” She paused, then said: “This way you’ve seen it for yourselves.”
“So, cue us in, Sis. How did you hack it?” Asked Junior.
“I recognized you by your footfalls,” she said quietly.
“That’s so cool,” he grinned lovingly at his sister. “Except that now, not only you, Celi, but all of us must step lightly.”
“Walk as I please,” pouted Celi, glaring at Millie.
“Look,” said Gilda, “it’s not Millie’s doing. This is something—a gift perhaps—which might be handy in the future.” She became contemplative. Finally she said, “In the meantime, we act as a family and be nice to one another, as usual.” She smiled all around.
“So, what do we get for being nice?” Grumbled Celi. She wasn’t joking. “Looks like that’s all we do these days!” She beaded Millie, and angrily tossed her wiry plaits.
“Okay, enough of that,” thundered Hendy, charging in. “Your Mum’s right.” He paused and glared bodingly. “We act as a family—always!
“I’m okay with it, Daddy.”
“And so will the rest of us,” he said firmly.
His tone was lofty as he launched into a well-worn spiel of the exemplary moral and cultural legacies left by their predecessors: “When our ancestor, the first Redfern to the settlement, started this family…”
Junior yawned; the twins nudged each other under the table; and Celi’s spoon “accidentally” fell noisily from her hands onto her empty desert dish. They had heard the Redfern narrative many times before, but for now there was homework and dishes to be done. Millie sat expectantly, for unlike her siblings she liked the account of the first Redferns to Belize back when. The story had the wonderland effect of transporting her back to a time when womanhood was ladylike, men were knights, and pleasure had its boundaries. She smiled as she adopted a listening poise, twirling her hair attentively. Gilda felt the same wonderment, and they nodded knowingly at each other.
“Well,” sighed Hendy resignedly, noticing the not-so obvious loss of interest in his clichéd account of papa Redfern, “maybe we can leave the rest of that for another time.” As chairs scraped he added the touchstone: “Just don’t forget, we are family!”
The way dinner ended that night was an unforgettable occasion. There were others, but none made such a telling impact on the way Millie was regarded. The rest of the family accepted her revelation graciously. Celi didn’t.
“What did you make of that, Dort?” She asked him the following day on their walk to school.
“What?” He asked airily. His thoughts were on his homework, especially those problems in arithmetic, his weakest subject.
“Millie’s little ‘game’ last night.” Dort detected a spit of envy and decided to add a little poison into the brew that bubbled in her mental galley.
“I don’t follow you,” he said defensively.
“I think ’ma and her had a code,” she said.
It was Dort’s turn to stew. “You’re not suggesting that ’ma would cheat for her, wouldja?”
“Well, we know how much she loves her, right?” She said, as she shifted the weight of her backpack of books. “Look at all those baby pictures she has of Millie!”
“c’mon, Celi. There are pictures of all of us, ain’t there?”
“Yeah, but not half as many as there are of her.” Dort didn’t like the way she said “her.” A moment passed.
“I think she’s a faker, Dort!”
“Who?” He was teasing then. They had reached the school gate and just as they parted she spat, “‘She,’ you know who!”
That night Dort shared the gist of these exchanges with Denny.
“What’s eating her?” Asked Denny dismissively.
“Jealousy, I believe.” When Denny remained silent, Dort finished his thought. “I think she has always felt diminished in Millie’s presence, don’tcha?”
“Why, why would she be jealous?”
“Well, you know, older sister, smarter, and taller. And most of all, prettier.”
“Can’t help her there, I’m afraid.”
Thereafter the twins did see instances of hostility in Celi’s attitude towards her older sister. Nothing grievous, but it was there: an ill-timed shrug, a raised voice, a delay in answering and matters like that.
Now it was Christmas time and the family waited for the ceremonial lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. City officials hoped the event would give some traction in the seasonal spending.
Hendy had barely settled into his recliner when there was a loud knock on the door.
“POLICE, Mr. Redfern,” someone at their door announced gruffly.
Everyone stood up on hearing the summons. Hendy signaled for them to be quiet, flipped the switch for the porch light and peered through the door viewer.
“It’s Corporal Jenkins from the corner kiosk,” he whispered, relieved. “Don’t worry,” he assured them, then opened the door.
There were two others with Jenkins: a burly policeman he didn’t know who held a familiar looking backpack in one hand and with the other gripped a disheveled youth in a hoodie, shorts and filthy sneakers. The boy’s eyes blazed with anger as he stared at Hendy who recognized him. Gilda had joined Hendy at the door and was shocked as she took in the situation.
“Rico?” She gasped, rapidly blinking to better focus while holding on to Hendy’s arm. The mention of Rico’s name brought the others to the door. Their appearance made the boy even more defiant.
“Do you know him, then?” Asked Jenkins.
“Yes.” Hendy gave the confirmation.
“His mother comes to help with the cleaning and washing once in a while when I need her,” Gilda explained. She would have pushed past Hendy to be closer to Rico, but Hendy stepped out onto the porch and she followed. The children wanted to also, but Hendy, sensing the negative effect their presence had on Rico, closed the door.
“Go back inside till we’re done here,” he said, satisfied in seeing how the lad relaxed as he watched them leave.
Back inside it was Dort who broke the silence.
“Did you see the backpack in that cop’s hands?” He asked.
“Yah!” Answered Denny. “It’s the one I gave Rico some time ago.” He explained.
“But why would that cop have it now,” asked Celi, “and bringing Rico here with it?”
It was Junior who made the connection. He looked at Millie and said speculatively: “Those footfalls you heard,” he mused, “Could they have been…?”
Denny wasn’t waiting for him to finish. He had a green Monster headphone that Rico had seen and liked. He raced upstairs. The others followed, as they all had treasures of their own.
Celi screamed: her Canon binoculars and camera were gone. Missing too was her Fitbit and tablet.
“He stole them,” she charged, in response to Millie’s query.
Millie had rushed to her room when she heard the scream. Her new Samsung ipad
She got on her last birthday was missing too.
“I’m so sorry, Celi,” said Millie, genuinely saddened by the loss, for she knew how much Celi liked birdwatching. She gently hugged her little sister.
“The thief also stole my…” she started to say, but Celi cut her off.
“To think…him and his ’ma.” Her sobbing was rapid.
Just then Junior and the twins appeared at the door. They also had items missing from their rooms—sneakers, a catcher’s mitt, and the like. Including Denny’s headphone.
“What happened here?” He asked. They spent some time comparing lists of missing items. Celi was the biggest loser.
“Daddy should’ve listened to you,” ventured Denny, turning to Millie. He looked at Celi. “Sorry about your losses, sis!”
“To me…?” Began Millie, but Hendy’s voice from downstairs interrupted the little confab.
“Come down here for a minute,” he called up to them. “In the kitchen,” he directed as they hurried down the stairs. There were gasps of delight. Spread out on the kitchen table were all the missing items!
And there too was Millie’s gilded medallion of her patron saint, St. Thérèse. The loss of the pendant created a stir at the time, as it was a gift from her best friend at her christening when she was 9-years old. She had suspected it was Celi who had taken it, which Celi denied, but she had no proof. She still didn’t. She picked it up wordlessly and held it to her tenderly.
“It was Rico, wasn’t it?” Blurted Denny, breaking the moment created by Millie’s discovery. There was a chorus of support to the accusation before Hendy spoke.
“Yes, it was.” He related what had happened, according to the confession Rico gave to the police. Then, turning to Millie, he said: “You warned us, sweetie! This could’ve been avoided. I’m so sorry.”
Junior, as usual, was the first to react. He moved next to Millie, hugged her and said: “You did it, sis. I now realize the blindfold was for real; you’re a gem.”
At that moment, Dort found Celi’s eyes and winked.
“No doubt about that,” he concurred, nodding at Junior.
Denny acknowledged the encouragement, then asked: “But how did they nab him so quickly, Dad? It’s like, were they waiting for him or something?”
“No, son. The policeman who came with Jenkins was on his way to shift duty when he saw Rico exiting from the side door. He called out, Rico dropped the bag and tried to get away, but was caught and taken to the kiosk, where he gave a confession. In his pocket was Celi’s Fitbit and your cellphone.”
“So,” Junior mused, “the almost perfect crime?”
“If the cop wasn’t passing then…!”
“True,” Hendy nodded, then quickly added, “but only because we didn’t pay attention to Nancy Drew here.” Approving smiles and nods greeted this reference to one of the family’s favorite literary characters. “Here’s the thing,” he went on. “Millie heard the footfall because Rico had slipped after climbing through the window. According to his confession, he remained quiet until he was sure no one was coming up to check.”
“Don’t blame yourself, darling,” coaxed Gilda. “None of us was thinking of burglars then.” As an afterthought she added: “Even Bumbles didn’t bark.”
“That’s because he recognized Rico, I’m sure,” said Denny. “Remember how he romped with the dog whenever his mom brought him around?”
“And thinking of burglars,” began Junior sagely, “what’s to become of him now?”
“Jenkins wanted to know if we’d prosecute. Your mother and I didn’t think we should,” he replied calmly. An instant chorus of challenges greeted that.
“It’s Christmas time, kids,” Gilda reminded them. “His mother needs him around now more than ever. Besides, he’s so young, and from what the officers said, it doesn’t look like the robbery was planned. And,” she finished by waving at the recovered items, “we got back everything. What’s there not to forgive?” Then she thought for a moment. “Remember,” she said airily, “it was forgiveness and restitution that spared that first Redfern from being banished from these shores!”
After she had said that she turned to Hendy. “Aren’t I right, my husband?”
Not sure what he was being asked to agree to, Hendy just grunted equivocatingly.
Later that night, Millie heard a knock on her door.
“Come in,” she said, and Celi entered.
“Didn’t know if you’d gone to bed yet,” she said, and before Millie could answer, Celi smiled, adding jokingly, “…Miss Nancy Drew.”
“How’s it going, Miss Bess?” Said Millie softly, noting Celi’s drawn features. A moment passed without either one speaking. Celi gestured awkwardly as someone would who had just given up trying to string a tiny needle. Finally she spoke.
“It’s about the medallion, Millie.”
And Millie knew that this was going to be the best Christmas ever, the hauntingly longed-for gift of a sister’s love. And it came as silently but as unmistakably as a footfall in the night.