Her father's house was situated on a postage-stamp acre of land that looked on undeveloped woodland to the south and west. To the east lay a field of soybeans, separated from the McKay property by a winding strip of blacktop road. A rambling and overgrown garden lay to the north, and beyond it, woody hills cut off the light from the nearest town at night. A dilapidated and ravaged wooden barn lay on the edge of the land, one side staved in by a half-remembered tornado. Ella kept expecting another big storm to come along and knock the other side down, but so far none had.
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As they pulled into the long gravel driveway, Ella saw a figure rise from the garden and turn toward them. In the light of the setting sun, it was just a silhouette, but she recognized the shape, knew the lines of back and shoulders, the hipshod set of the body.
The car crunched over gravel, pulling in closer to the house, and the face of her father swam into view, eyes shaded beneath a wide straw hat. He nodded to her as the car pulled up, then put his hands on the small of his back and stretched, grimacing.
Christopher turned off the car and Ella got out, stepping into the buzz of cicadas, the atonal ree of crickets tuning up for the evening. She ran to her father and hugged him, smelling the old familiar scents- Old Spice, cheap shampoo, fresh sweat- that opened doors inside of her, passages leading to memory images, flashbulb-clear but removed from her, like a half-remembered dream.
"Hey kid," George said, smiling down at the top of her head. "I'm sure I smell like a pig. Been in the garden all afternoon."
She let him go and stepped back, looking at him. He was both familiar and unfamiliar to her. She had visited only two months ago, but when had she last looked, really looked, at him? He had changed in sneaky, subtle ways. Time and care had worn away at him. It had plucked hairs from his head, shaken more and more salt into his beard, bent his shoulders and his back.
He looked at her, eyebrows raised, and she realized that she hadn't said anything yet.
"Hi yourself. I didn't grow a second head, did I?"
She was saved by Christopher, who came around the other side of the car. "No luck," he said. "Same old ugly one." He grinned, George grinned back- suddenly young again, despite everything- and the two of them met in a hug.
They stepped back and surveyed each other. "You get here all right?" George said.
"Oh yes. A little road construction, but it's not Baghdad. How's the garden?"
"Growing stuff. Weeds, mostly. Come on in, both of you, I've got dinner in the oven." He turned away and started toward the back porch.
They followed him inside through the cluttered living room, to a kitchen filled with warmth and smells of cooking. It was not the kitchen Ella had grown up with, but it was a descendant of that kitchen, and the bones of the old could be seen through the new.
"I'll pour us some wine, and then finish things up here." George went to the refrigerator and withdrew a bottle.
"George-" Christopher said.
"No serious talk until after dinner," George said. He turned and gave Christopher a look. "You know the rules. Food first."
Christopher rolled his eyes, but accepted the glass of wine George passed to him. "I thought you didn't care for ceremony."
"This isn't ceremony. I'm hungry." George turned toward his daughter. "So. School going well?"
Ella shrugged. "It's college. It's all right. Someone almost kicked me in the head, but we're friends now."
"Sounds like college."
"Look," she said. "Are we really going to just sit around and stare at each other until we've all finished your beef stroganoff or whatever?"
"It's chicken, actually."
"You know what I mean. I don't like this ceremony stuff, Dad."
George shrugged. "I just thought we shouldn't talk with food in our mouths." He opened the oven door and extracted a covered pan. "Most of it you know already. Christopher and Manuel and I, and some others, formed a group whose purpose was to shepherd secrets. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it, but it wasn't really a part of my life by the time you showed up, and I didn't want to complicate things."
"The night you told me about, Ella," Christopher said. "When you first saw me on the steps. That was also the night I decided- after years of letting the thing limp along- to officially disband the House."
Ella sampled her wine. It was red, and very dry. She set it aside. "That's fine. I get that. It's just a lot to take in. And I have no idea what I'm taking in. What happened to you? Did anything happen to you? What did you find out in the world?"
"Everything," Christopher said. "Look hard enough, and you'll find everything in the world. On some level, it's all real."
George shot him a look. "What he means is, we still don't really know. This is all a real gray area. The signal, when there is one, is hidden in the noise."
"I don't follow," Ella said.
"The louder something is shouting to be noticed," Christopher said. "The more likely it will turn out to be bollocks. Consider Manuel. He's so low-key, he's all but invisible. The genuine mystery is often that way. The thing shouting to be noticed is often smoke and mirrors. And yet..."
Christopher and George exchanged a look. "And yet, there's enough genuine strangeness around to freak anyone out who looks hard enough."
"This is by way of a kind of warning," Christopher said. "Information is equivalent to involvement, as I said. Just consider: It is real. Some of it, at any rate. Consider what that means."
George plated the chicken, spooned vegetables out of a pot on the stove. He set the plates out on the counter before him. Ella and Christopher joined him on tall chairs.
"Okay," Ella said. "But involvement in what? You just told me, you don't deal with this anymore. Your club disbanded."
George and Christopher exchanged another look, steam wafting up from the chicken in the glare of the overhead flourescent.
"We've talked it over," George said. "Now that Christopher is...involved in things again, and now that you've become part of it...we may consider reviving things...on a trial basis. Just to test the waters."
Christopher smiled. "We're getting the band back together."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.