tagIncest/TabooWhile the Cat's Away

While the Cat's Away


"Oh, thanks a million, Eddie."

"No problem, Kat. We need to get her out of the house anyway. She's driving me and Carol both crazy. What time do you need her there tomorrow?"

"Pastor Sternhagen is picking me up at noon. So if she could be here by eleven so we can talk things over before I leave, that would be great."

"Will do. Have a great time at the conference."

"Thanks. Love you. Bye."

"Love you, too. Goodbye."


"You have got to be kidding me."

Katherine Swenson hung up the phone and glared at her only daughter.

"Don't even think about arguing, Dawn. It's settled. And if you don't like it, just remember who's responsible. I was ready to let you and Donny stay here on your own, but you showed me you can't be trusted."

"Can't be trusted?" Dawn's voice was high with disbelief. "It was one beer. I didn't get drunk. I didn't drive drunk. I..."

"It only takes one," said Katherine. "I know that for a fact. One beer with your deadbeat father. Then another one. And the next thing I knew I was pregnant with you and Donny and he was long gone."

Dawn sighed and raked a hand through her blond hair. She knew arguing with her mother when she was in this sort of mood was useless. Her teenage pregnancy was a stick she used to beat her and her brother with whenever they misbehaved.

Besides, it was true about the beer. Dammit.

"So Cindy is going to be here the entire time you're gone? Where is she going to sleep?"

"My room," her mother said calmly, hiding the anger she had felt since she had found out about Dawn's underage drinking. "She'll help out with meals and around the house. Truth be told..."

"Oh, yes, we have to be sure to tell the truth," said Dawn sarcastically.

Katherine shot her a quelling look. "Truth be told, I wasn't sure about leaving you two here alone anyway while I was in Omaha. A week is a long time for you two to be by yourselves. I'll feel better if I know you're safe. Cindy has been out in the world more than you have. If there's an emergency I trust her to take care of you."

"Right. An emergency. Here. In Morning Glory, Illinois," she said flatly. She looked around the old farmhouse incredulously. With a put-upon sigh, she left the kitchen.

"This blows," she said, stomping into her brother's bedroom. She flopped down in his chair with an angry sigh.

"Your own fault," said Donald quietly. He was stretched out on his bed, reading a paperback. He had returned from his job at the garage a little bit ago, and despite the shower he had taken, Dawn could see traces of grease and engine oil on his long fingers.

"Dammit, Donny," she said quietly, "how was I supposed to know that Mrs. Thatcher would be driving past when Bobby gave me the beer? And that she was on her way to bible study? And that the first person she saw when she got to the church would be Mom? Five more minutes and the senile old bat would have forgotten everything.

"God, I cannot wait to get out of this town and into college," she continued, scraping sweaty strands of hair away from her face. Her thick white blouse showed sweat stains along the sides, and her heavy black skirt clung damply to her shins. "Nothing to do but eat, sleep, and pray. I swear, Donny, once I get out of here I'm never going to live like this again."

Her twin nodded, turning a page. In deference to their mother's wishes, he was dressed in dark slacks and a button-down shirt, despite the hot August weather that drove the temperature on the second floor of the farmhouse to well over a hundred degrees.

"How much do you think we can get away with while Cindy's here?" he asked.

"How the heck should I know?" she griped. "When she married Todd, I never thought we'd see her back down here. Who would come back here after living in Chicago?"

"Someone who is twenty-six, divorced, and has nowhere else to go, apparently," Donny said, a quick smile flickering over his face.

"Right. Anyway, she's been with Uncle Eddie and Aunt Carol since she got back. And they are even stricter than Mom. And I never heard her complain about it when we hung out when we were kids."

"She's eight years older than we are," Donny pointed out. "Would you tell a ten-year-old cousin how much you hated your life?"

"Well...no," Dawn admitted.

"We'll take it slow," Donny decided. He put down his book and stood up, stretching to his full six-foot height. Dawn eyed him enviously. She took after her mother, and her legs were barely long enough to reach the ground.

"We'll take it slow," he repeated. "Nothing crazy. No alcohol, of course. Even if we could find someone is this piss-ant town who would sell to a couple of underage kids, someone would be sure to tell Mom as soon as she got home, and then she'd really go through the roof. But maybe we can ditch these clothes and wear something normal, stay up past ten o'clock, go to a movie. Go to the mall in Macomb. That sort of thing. You know. Live like normal people for once."

"God, I hope so," she moaned. "We've been looking forward to this for weeks, and I blew it for us. I'm so sorry, Donny." She went in for a hug, her head folding in under his chin.

"Don't worry about it, Dawn. Even with Cindy around, I'm sure we'll have some fun."


Donny was at work the next morning when her cousin arrived, announcing her presence with a plume of dust as her car negotiated the long gravel driveway which lead off of State Highway 101. She bounced happily out of the car and ran to meet them.

"Aunt Katherine!" she cried, giving her a big hug. Dawn smiled, and even Katherine thawed a bit, her habitually grim expression softening as she looked at her niece.

Cindy was taller than either of them, with dark eyes and chocolate brown hair which she had inherited from their grandfather. Slender, she vibrated with a nervous energy which seemed to be always on the verge of sending her in five directions at once. She was dressed in a long, dark skirt and a beige blouse, virtually identical to Katherine's clothes. A light sweater was buttoned over her small bust.

God, we look like some sort of Mormon revival tour, Dawn thought sourly. How can she be wearing all those clothes? I'm sweating just standing here. She had somehow managed to convince her mother to let her wear a lighter skirt than the day before, but moisture still beaded her upper lip, and she shifted uncomfortably as her tight waistband bit into her stomach.

"And Dawn!" Cindy exclaimed happily, taking her hands. "All grown up and off to college in two weeks! That's fantastic. Do you know what you're going to study?"

Dawn was about to answer when the growl of an engine interrupted her. The loud motor abruptly cut off and Walter Sternhagen, pastor of Mount Hebron Church, climbed out of his Lincoln. Several years older than Katherine, his wispy brown hair floated in the breeze. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie, but he looked cool and collected, evidence of a quality air-conditioner in the car.

"Katherine," he nodded, a greasy smile creasing his cheeks. His eyebrows rose. "Dawn, you are looking more lovely every day. A good thing I'm a married man, or I might just run off with you." He slapped his paunch and laughed at his own humor.

Dawn smiled humorlessly. "Pastor Sternhagen," she murmured, voice noncommittal. "Cindy, let me help you get your clothes upstairs. Mom, we'll be back down in a second."

She and Cindy pulled her bags out of the back of her car. As they entered the farmhouse, Cindy grimaced. "Whoa. I forgot how hot it got in this place. How can you stand it?"

"We take a lot of cold showers," Dawn answered as they climbed up the front stairs. "I've begged Mom to put central air in here, or maybe even a couple of window units, but this place is just too big and AC would be too expensive. We'd spend all of our money on the electric bills."

She nudged a door open with her hip. "This is Mom's room," she said. "You'll be sleeping here. Now I better go downstairs and tell her good-bye." She slipped past her cousin and clattered down the stairs, emerging through the front door.

To her surprise, her mother's luggage was still stacked on the porch, and Pastor Sternhagen hadn't made a move to help Katherine get ready to leave. They were chatting amiably in the front yard when Dawn came outside, her mother showing him the trees they had planted earlier that spring.

"Ah, Dawn," the pastor said. "We've been waiting for you. Put your mother's luggage in the trunk of my car, would you?" He pulled a key fob from his pocket and hit a button, making the trunk rise with an ostentatious beep.

And when was the last time you lifted anything heavier than a collection plate, Pastor? Dawn fumed as she lifted her mother's suitcase and hauled it across the lawn to his car. She sensed a presence at her shoulder, and looked over to see Cindy carrying Katherine's overnight bag.

"Real chivalrous fellow, isn't he?" Cindy muttered, causing Dawn to snort laughter. She put her mother's suitcase in the trunk, and after Cindy had deposited the overnight bag, closed the trunk with just a little more force than needed, the wham of the slamming hatch causing the pastor to jump and frown.

"That wasn't necessary, Dawn," he said, waving the fob. "The trunk closes automatically, too."

"Does it?" she asked, eyes wide in surprise. "Goodness me. What a remarkable thing."

Katherine raised her eyebrows at her daughter's tone, but chose not to pursue the matter. Instead she turned to Cindy.

"I have all the important numbers on the refrigerator," she said. "There should be plenty of food in the fridge and the icebox. Make sure the kids behave themselves. You know the rules here. They are the same as at your house when you were growing up."

"Yes, Aunt Katherine," Cindy said meekly, a small smile playing around the corners of her mouth.

"I would like them to keep the garden weeded and the lawn mowed," Katherine added. "Try to keep ahead of the tomatoes, they are ripening. Drop some off at the co-op in town if you have too many." Sternhagen cleared his throat impatiently, jangling his keys. She looked at him, then finished in a rush.

"We should be back a week from tonight. Call me if you have any problems. Make sure you go to church Sunday morning. The service is at ten, bible study at nine. The kids can stay up until..." she trailed off, fought a visible battle with herself, then finished. "...eleven o'clock."

"We have to go, Katherine," the pastor said.

She nodded, then hugged Cindy. She turned to her daughter, enfolding her in a loving embrace.

"Be good," she whispered. "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too, Momma," Dawn said, her voice tight. She hugged her fiercely, then released her. Wiping her eyes, Katherine got into the car. Dawn and Cindy watched as it growled to life and pulled out of the driveway, quickly accelerating out of sight.


Together they walked into the steamy farmhouse, which suddenly seemed empty.

Seven days, Dawn thought, on the verge of panic. She had never been away from her mother for more than a day or two in her life. Despite her carping about her mother's restrictions, they had provided a framework of firm boundaries for her and Donny.

And now they were gone, and she felt adrift.

For the first time, she was glad that Cindy was here. Her cousin shot her a sympathetic look as they went back into the farmhouse.

"You OK?" she asked.

"Yes," she said, then gave the lie to that comment by sniffling loudly. Cindy smiled at her.

"Don't worry, kiddo. We'll be fine. Where's your brother?"

"Donny has a job in the repair department of the Ford dealership in Rushville," she stated proudly. "He's working full-time."

"Not going to college like you?" Cindy sounded surprised. Dawn shrugged.

"He could if he wanted to. But he doesn't want both of us to be a drain on Mom. You know how he is. Once he has made up his mind you'd have a better chance of lifting a cow on your shoulders."

Cindy nodded. "I'm going upstairs to change. I wore this to keep your mom happy, but I'm not wearing clothes like this all week. I'll be down in a bit."

She pounded up the stairs, echoes of her footsteps rebounding off the walls. When she came downstairs, she was dressed in a loose ivory sundress, falling below her knees.

"Damn, it's like a sauna up there," she said, fanning her face. She cocked a look at Dawn. "You can't tell me you're comfortable wearing that. Why don't you change, too? Your mom isn't going to be back for a week, and I promise not to take pictures of you and post them on Facebook," she finished, waving her smartphone.

Dawn didn't need to be told twice. She was upstairs in a flash, and had pulled off the hated clothes as soon as her door was closed. She dithered for a moment, then pulled on a pair of loose shorts and a MGHS t-shirt. Feeling at least ten degrees cooler, she made her way downstairs.

"Damn, girlfriend, you look good," her cousin drawled, her downstate accept thickening as she looked her over. "Looks like the Titty Fairy paid you a visit, huh?"

Dawn blushed and shrugged. "They're not so big. I'm just short. Momma's got pretty big boobs for her size too," she said, taken aback by Cindy's crudeness.

Cindy poured herself a big glass of iced tea. "But you're going to need to get some sun, girl. Look at you. You look like you just crawled out of a cave. How can an Illinois farm girl be so pale?"

"Because Mom makes us wear those dang clothes all the time. I feel like I'm in one of those stupid Amish reality TV shows. Long skirts and long sleeves and no skin showing at all."

"Well, she's not here now," Cindy pointed out. "Let's go out on the porch, have a glass of tea, and soak up some rays. Can't have a girl named Dawn looking like you do. Those college boys won't take a second look at you. You should be nice and tan."

They sat out together, both on the old chaise longues that Grandma and Grandpa Swenson had bought years ago. Cindy set her glass on the glass-topped patio table with a slight clink.

She turned her face up to the sun, high and clear in a dark blue sky, puffy cumulus clouds drifting slowly past.

"I love it here," she said softly, her brown eyes rapt with pleasure. "It's so quiet."

The facts matched her statement. There was a gentle buzzing of insects in the high grass in the east meadow, off to their left. Once in a while came a soft bellow from their small herd of heifers. But beside the occasional drone of a car speeding by on 101, they could have been in a different century.

"I know," Dawn replied, eyes distant, looking towards the future. "But I can't wait to leave. And I suppose I won't be able to wait until I can come back, either."

"Mmmm," Cindy replied, not disagreeing, but not wanting to be drawn into a discussion. She wiggled her bare toes, then pulled up the hem of her dress until it lay only a few inches from the tops of her thighs. "Oh, that feels good," she said, stretching sensually. Dawn eyed her, eyebrows raised.

"What?" she asked. "Who in the wide green world is going to see me here? Hell, if I didn't think you'd freak out, I'd strip down and sunbathe naked."

"You're acting a lot different than the last time I saw you," Dawn said cautiously, not challenging her statement.

"The last time you saw me," Cindy sighed, "your mom was in full freak-out mode after I got divorced." She took a sip of tea. "And neither my parents nor I were going to start a fight during Easter dinner.

"Dawn, I'm not like your mother. And my parents aren't as conservative as we let you and Donny believe. But Aunt Katherine isn't here. And I'm not going to dress like a damned nun to keep her happy. Especially since she isn't here anyway. Do you have a problem with that?"

"No," said Dawn. "It just takes some getting used to. You were always the good girl. The one Mom told me I should be more like."

"Trust me, Dawn. I was never that good."


They sat in the sun for several hours, talking or reading or napping, and breaking for lunch around one o'clock. Cindy offered to help her put on some suntan lotion, which Dawn appreciated. In the late afternoon, Cindy turned over, flipping the hem up her dress up past her waist, sighing happily as the sun warmed the skin of her buttocks, covered only by her cotton panties. Dawn watched her from under her lashes as she wiggled deeper into the cushions of the chaise, her chin propped on one arm, relaxed as a napping kitten.

Part of her was fiercely jealous. The other part just as fiercely happy. Here was proof at last that once she left Morning Glory, she could live her life the way she chose, not constrained by arbitrary rules about clothing and religion.

Seventeen days, she chanted in her head, counting them off as she had ever since that day last winter when the acceptance letter from Western Illinois University had been waiting for her when she came home from school. Seventeen days until I move into the dorms.

She noticed the angle of the sun and caught her breath. She glanced at her watch and peeped worriedly. Nearly five o'clock! She would have to hurry to get supper ready. She picked up her book and glass and rose from the chaise.

"Where you going?" Cindy asked sleepily, voice groggy.

"Donny's going to be home soon. It's time to start supper."

"OK," she said, getting up as well. They went back into the house together.


Donny got home just before six PM, reeking of engine oil, gasoline, and sweat. His "Ford Motors" shirt was begrimed with dirt and crud. Dawn took one look at him and said, "Upstairs. Shower. Now," before turning back to the stove and the skillet of fried chicken she was cooking. At the kitchen counter, Cindy was preparing a salad made of vegetables from the garden.

"Hello, country mouse," she said, grinning, as Donny passed her.

"Hello, city mouse," he said quietly, heading for the front stairs, the slightest twinkle in his eye.

"So what's new in town?" Cindy asked. It was thirty minutes later, and they were sitting at the big table in the dining room. A warm, soft breeze, scented with corn, came through the huge open windows. Over Donny's shoulder, she could see blue-black thunderheads piling up in the northwestern sky.

Dawn looked at Donny. He looked back, his face a careful blank. He had washed and a faint hint of soap clung to him as they ate.

"Well," she said slowly, "we graduated from high school."

"I'm working full-time," he added.

"Ooh. I know!" she said in a voice full of false excitement. "The church put up a new billboard on one-oh-one right when you come into town."

"I think I saw that one," Cindy said, darkly amused. "Is that the one that says 'Hell is Real'?"

"It says 'Repent' on the other side," Donny noted. He had taken Dawn's example and was wearing a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans. His dark hair was still wet from his shower and clung to his head in damp waves. "I'm not sure if the church is trying to warn people not to live here or not."

Cindy laughed out loud. "So what do you crazy kids have planned for the weekend? It'll be Friday in a couple of days. What do you guys do around here for fun?"

Donny snorted softly. Dawn made an expansive gesture at the house. "This is it. Party time." At Cindy's pained expression, she said, "There's really not a whole lot to do, Cindy. But I was thinking we could thaw out some hamburger meat and Donny could grill some burgers. Maybe go into town for ice cream afterward."

"I was thinking about fishing and listening to the ballgame on the radio Saturday afternoon," Donny said.

"Wild times," Cindy said sardonically. "I can understand why you look like you're about ready to chew your own leg off to get out of here, Dawn."

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