The dinner bell clanged and kept clanging, mixing with its own echo until Dara was sure that everyone in the house had heard. She swung the handle until she heard the first thudding footsteps overhead. Then she yanked it hard, one more time, encouraging Tadd to climb out of whatever book he had picked up.
Doors squeaked open and clapped shut. Lenor arrived with something less formal than promptness. Janni raced absolutely no one down the stairs, same as always, clattering on the wooden steps. Kal followed a few moments later, leisurely and they caught up with each other at the bottom with a smile.
Pela clapped through the back door, made for the table, and made a sharp turn for the washbasin when Dara glared at her. In the end, she ran upstairs to change her shirt, as if clean hands forced her to recognize the dirt scrubbed into the rest of her. She still managed to beat Tadd back to the table.
They all tumbled around the table for a moment, carrying plates, cups, napkins, juice jug, cutting board, hot-off-the-fire servers, sharp knife, big fork, extra napkins. They bumped into each other, and didn’t care, colliding in all the same old ways, and settling back into their paths without hesitation.
And then they slipped into their seats. Without a word, they left the corner chair closest to the back door empty. For the hundredth day in a row, Lenor did not ask who they were saving it for. Or why they were not there.
It was the only gap in the full house, the only place left consistently empty.
Lenor was curious. It was a bald sort of secret, obvious to anyone paying attention, and she turned over a new answer every time they all sat down at the table. Someone had died. Someone had been called away. Someone had run away.
But the rest of them were content in their silence. It seemed kindest to hold her own, to make up stories and discard them, to guess and never find a conclusion.
And maybe that chair simply had a broken plank in the seat that no one had told her about.