Silence draped over the suburban street like a hot and sticky blanket. Heat rippled up from the asphalt in waves. Only the low thrum of air conditioners disturbed the silence.
A neat row of identical brick-clad houses lined each side of the street. Red terra-cotta tiles adorned every roof. Only the layout and upkeep of the front yards and the colours of curtains in the windows hinted at the individual personalities of the occupants.
An intruder disturbed the silence – shattering the stillness of the scene with its sudden noise and movement.
A once-white minivan trundled noisily down the street – its engine labouring in the heat. A thick coating of dirt covered its entire surface except for the distinctive pattern left by the wipers on the front windscreen. It pulled up outside the third house from the end with a toot of its horn and a puff of smoke from its exhaust.
The van doors opened and people of all ages spilled from every available orifice – very much like a disturbed ant nest disgorging ants. Every one of them had the same dark hair, the same distinctively Mediterranean facial features and the same stocky build. Every one of this multitude clearly belonged to the same family. From the youngest child aged four or five up to the elderly grandparents well past their prime, they all looked alike. The clothing of choice was shorts and a t-shirt and a pair of flip-flops on their feet.
They were all clearly of the same family – all except for one.
Ten year old Sally Dunstan obviously did not belong with the rest. Her pale white skin, blue eyes, blond hair and slender form made her stand out like a beacon amongst the others. She was like a single dove in the middle of a flock of pigeons. The chaos and noise around the minivan decreased as one by one each of the crowd wrapped Sally in a warm embrace, kissed her, made some sort of personal farewell and then climbed back into the van. Soon the only ones left standing outside were Sally, her best friend Mona Puretti, and Mona's father who had stood patiently amongst the chaos – all the while holding Sally's bright pink travel bag in one large and meaty paw.
The three of them made their way up the path to the front door of the third house from the end, where Sally pressed the button. Chimes sounded somewhere deep inside the house.
Sally and Mona hugged and kissed again just as the door opened. In the doorway stood an older, taller, more formally dressed version of Sally.
"Hi Mum," said Sally. "I'm home."
She then turned to Mr Puretti.
"Thanks again for having me, Mr Puretti. I had such an awesome time."
Sally wrapped her arms around Mr Puretti and gave him one last hug – a hug which was returned in full.
"You are most welcome," said Mr Puretti as he broke from the hug. He kissed both of her cheeks. Then he handed Sally her bag and stepped back. "We'd love to have you again sometime."
Mrs Dunstan had watched all of the hugging and kissing with a slightly confused expression on her face.
"I hope Sally wasn't any trouble," Mrs Dunstan said to Mr Puretti
"She was quite delightful. I'm already looking forward to her visiting with us again," came the response.
Mr Puretti turned to Sally. "Well, ciao! Don't forget our deal."
"See you at school," said Mona. "Call me sometime. Ciao!"
"Ciao!" said Sally, with a giggle.
Mr Puretti put his arm around his daughter and led her back to the van. Sally stood on the doorstep and waved as the van started up with another puff of smoke and another toot of its horn. Soon enough the van was driving away down the road with what looked like a dozen waving hands barely visible through its grimy windows.
Sally waved until the van was out of sight and then turned to her mother.
"I had such an awesome time. You wouldn't believe how much fun I've had."
"Well, come inside then. You're letting the cool air out," said Sally's mother.
She stepped out of the way so that Sally could come into the house.
"Are you hungry? Dinner won't be for another hour."
"I'll be fine until then, Mum. I could do with a drink though. It was hot in that van."
"You know where the kitchen is. There's water in the tap and there's juice in the fridge. I'll need you to set the table for dinner. Off you go, then."
Sally's mother stood still and watched as Sally grinned cheerfully.
"Hey, Mum. Check this out!"
Sally lifted up the front of her shirt to reveal that her skin was decorated with a string of flowers that looped around her belly-button and then trailed its way up towards the centre of her chest.
"Well! Goodness!" she said – for want of anything better to say.
"Is that a tattoo?"
"No, Mum. It's just temporary – it's drawn on with ink. It will probably only last a couple of days."
"Why would anybody go to so much trouble to do something like that if it's only going to last such a short time?"
Sally shrugged. "Mona's Auntie is an artist. She likes doing stuff like this. Half the fun of it is because it's temporary."
"But it's under your shirt. Nobody is going to see it."
Sally laughed and pulled her shirt back down.
"They will if I don't wear a shirt!" said Sally.
Then she started lugging her bag two-handed down the hallway.
"But..." Mrs Dunstan stopped herself when she realised that Sally had finished the conversation.
"Dinner's ready in an hour!" Mrs Dunstan called out to her rapidly disappearing daughter.
Mrs Dunstan stared down the hallway after Sally for some time. Then she sighed and shook her head. She used her foot to straighten the doormat which Sally had somehow managed to shift out of place and went back to the front room where she resumed reading her magazine.
Sally dropped her bag in the entrance to the spotless kitchen. She went over to the counter and climbed onto it so she could reach the high cupboard where the glasses were stored. She took out a glass, jumped down off the counter and filled her glass at the tap. She tilted the glass and drank the entire contents in one long, continuous series of gulps. When she finished, she stood for a moment with her eyes closed and held the cold but empty glass against her sticky forehead.
"Aaah! That's better!" she said to the empty kitchen.
Sally took the glass over to the dishwasher and placed it inside. Then she opened the door of the cupboard below the sink, took out a cloth that was hanging there and carefully wiped away splashes of water from around the sink. She then hung the cloth back in its place below the sink and closed the cupboard door.
Thirst quenched – at least for the moment – Sally retrieved her bag from the doorway and lugged it down the hallway.
Sally pushed the door of the study open and stood in the doorway.
"Hey Daddy! I'm home!"
Mr Dunstan pushed his glasses up his nose and looked through them at his daughter.
"So I see."
"I had a great time, Daddy," said Sally.
"I'm pleased to hear it. Are you well? Are you injured? Do you still have all your fingers?"
"Yes, Daddy. See?" Sally held up both hands and wiggled her fingers. "I got a cut on my leg but Mrs Puretti put a band-aid on it. See?"
Sally lifted her leg and twisted so she could show her dad the brightly coloured band-aid on the side of her shin.
"What the dickens is that?"
"It's a Donald Duck band-aid. She had all different sorts of Disney band-aids for the little kids. She had normal ones too, but I thought this was more fun."
"Ah! So is this cut serious? Do you need to see a doctor?"
"I shouldn't think so, Daddy. If my leg drops off, I'll let you know and you can take me to a doctor then. Okay?"
Mr Dunstan adjusted his glasses again.
"The point is to see the doctor before your leg falls off. Preventative maintenance is important. It's always cheaper to maintain something properly than it is to repair it once it's broken. I'm quite sure that the same principle holds true for healthcare."
Sally giggled again.
"Yes, Daddy. I'll remember that. I'm going to my room to unpack my bag. Talk to you later. Bye Daddy!"
Sally used both hands to pick up her bag.
"Oof! Mum was right, Daddy. I packed way too much stuff."
"It sounds like you've learnt a valuable lesson. Perhaps, next time you'll listen to your mother."
"I always listen to my mother. I just don't always do what she says."
"Ah! The difference is significant."
"By the way. Mum said that dinner would be ready in an hour. We're having fried lizard brains on toast."
Mr Dunstan blinked at his daughter a couple of times.
"Well! That will be something different. I'll see you at dinner, then."
"Okay, Daddy. See ya later!"
Mr Dunstan stared at the empty doorway for a moment and then shook his head and turned back to his desk so that he could resume working.
Sally used her bum to push her bedroom door closed behind her and dropped her bag on the floor. She looked around the room. It was exactly the way she had left it a week before. Everything was in its place. The entire room was neat and tidy and spotlessly clean. Not a thing was out of place. It was the way her Mum wanted it. It was what Sally was used to. But after a week of living with the organised chaos that was the Puretti household, Sally was seeing her room with fresh eyes.
Sally wondered what her room would look like if it was messy. She tilted her head to one side and pursed her lips while she thought about it. Then she picked up her bag, up-ended it, and then she swung the bag so its contents flew out and spread all over the floor. She stepped back and looked around. No! She decided that she definitely liked it better when her room was tidy. But she figured she was fortunate to have a room so big and to have so much closet space that she could keep everything put away without her belongings spilling out into the room and piling up in the corners.
Sally spent the next five minutes picking up the mess she had made. All of the clothes went into the laundry basket concealed neatly behind her closet door. Her hair brush went into its place in the top drawer of her dresser. Her little toilet-bag with her tooth-brush and shampoo and deodorant and so forth went into the cupboard in the bathroom. The couple of books she had taken returned to their places in the bookshelf – filed alphabetically by author – and her shoes went into their special pockets on the side wall of her closet. Even her travel bag had a place up high on the top shelf of her closet – she had to climb up the shelves to put that away.
Five minutes later she stood back and looked around the room. It was back to its usual tidy condition. Anybody looking into the room wouldn't be able to tell she'd been there. She was quite pleased. That was the way it was supposed to be.
Sally went into the attached bathroom and ran the bath. Then she went back into her bedroom, removed the clothes she was wearing and added them to the laundry basket. A moment later she was sighing in relief as she sank into the bath.
A short time later, Sally returned to her bedroom wearing nothing but a smile. She carried a towel in her hand which she carefully laid down on the seat in front of her dresser before sitting down. She took a comb from the top drawer of her dresser and ran it through her still-damp hair. Sally returned the comb to its place and stood up, picking up the towel she'd been sitting on.
Sally went to her desk, laid out the towel again and sat down. From the desk drawer she took a ruler and several different coloured pens. She put the ruler down parallel to the edge of the desk and lined up the pens above the ruler. Then, from the bookshelf above her desk, she pulled out an exercise book which had the word "Experiments" written in large letters on the front cover.
Opening the book, she quickly flipped past page after page, each of which had a heading with "Experiment" followed by a number. Eventually she found the first unused page. She opened the book fully and pressed down so that it lay flat on her desk.
With her ruler and her red pen she carefully ruled a margin exactly 2.5cm in from the side of the page. Swapping between black, green and blue pens to distinguish between different sections, she started to write in her careful, primary-school-neat cursive script.
Hypothesis: Mr and Mrs Dunstan (aka Sally's parents) are aliens.
Aim: (a) To gather more evidence for or against the hypothesis and (b) To help Mr and Mrs Dunstan (aka Sally's parents) act more like humans.
Note: Part b is considered valuable regardless of whether the hypothesis is true or false.
Method: Add one Sally. Stir vigorously. Observe.
Sally stopped writing and held her pen loosely between her fingers – letting the pen tap repeatedly against the desk. She bit her lip nervously and then started writing again.
Note 1: Sally should be all that she can be.
Note 2: For maximum effect, Sally should be naked.
Note 3: Sticking to both Note 1 and Note 2 at the same time is expected to be difficuld.
Sally put her pen back down next to the ruler and read back through what she had written. She tsked to herself in annoyance when she read the last sentence. Carefully, she corrected her spelling of the word "difficult" and then sat back with a satisfied nod.
Sally closed the book and filed it back in its place on her bookshelf. She then returned her ruler and pens to their places in the desk drawer. She stood and walked over to her closet and opened the door. The inside of the closet door had a full length mirror attached to it.
Sally used the mirror to look herself carefully up and down. She took a moment to admire the floral pattern that trailed around her stomach and up onto her chest. She decided it really was quite pretty. And the colours seemed to go nicely with the colour of her eyes and her hair. She thought that Mona's auntie had done a really good job.
Sally held her hands down at her sides and shook her fingers. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She did that again.
"Come on, Sally," she said quietly to her naked reflection. "You can do this. Be all that you can be."
Sally flipped her hair back over her shoulders and strode to the door. She turned and cast one last critical glance around the room. Satisfied that the appearance of her room met her usual standards she spun and walked out through the door – as naked as the day she was born.
Sally pushed the door of the study open and stood in the doorway.
"Mmm!" came the response. Sally's father was in the middle of a complex calculation and didn't even spare his daughter a glance.
Sally giggled. "I'm just going to get some juice from the kitchen. Would you like some?"
"That would be lovely, Sally. Thank you."
"'Kay then. Back in a tick."
Sally spun on the spot and skipped away down the hallway, just as her father turned to look at her. He had a brief impression of flying hair and a pink back. He blinked twice and then shook his head. He took his glasses off and polished them. Very quickly he returned to his work.
Sally whistled tunelessly as she skipped into the kitchen. She climbed up onto the counter so that she could reach the high cupboard where the glasses were stored. Just as she had a glass in each hand, she heard a gasp from behind her.
"Sally! What are you doing?" asked her mother.
Sally giggled. "I'm just getting glasses to pour some juice. I told you before that I was thirsty."
Sally carefully placed the two glasses in a row on the counter.
"But where are your clothes?"
"Oh! That!" Sally jumped down from the counter.
"My clothes are in my room. Some of them are in the laundry basket, the rest are in the closet."
"Well you should probably go and put some of them on. What would your father say if he saw you like that?"
Sally shrugged. "I was just talking to Daddy. He didn't say anything about that. He didn't even say anything about my flowers. He said he'd like some juice. That's why there are two glasses."
Mrs Dunstan opened her mouth and then closed it again.
Sally went to the fridge and took out the carton of juice.
"So what's for dinner tonight, Mum?"
"Oh! After such a hot day, I didn't want to cook. We'll just have some cold cuts of roast lamb and some fresh salad. I made a mint sauce for the lamb."
"Awesome!" Sally giggled and started to pour. "I told Daddy we were having fried lizard brains."
"Why would you say that?"
"I didn't know what we were having so I made a guess. Looks like I guessed wrong, huh?"
Sally was thinking to herself that her mother had absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever. She decided to count that as evidence that her mother wasn't human.
Sally put the juice back in the fridge and closed the door.
"Ooh!" she said.
Sally opened the fridge door and then closed it again.
"That's the most awesome feeling. You should try this, Mum."
"Take off your clothes and stand in front of the fridge. When you close the door it makes a cold wind. It's the most awesome feeling. It's just the most perfect thing to do on a hot day."
"You should give it a try, Mum. See ya later!"
Sally picked up the two glasses of juice and walked carefully out of the kitchen – taking extra care to walk smoothly so the juice wouldn't spill.
"Er..." said Mrs Dunstan. Then she realised she was talking to an empty room and stopped talking. She sat down on one of the kitchen chairs.
"Well!" she said to the empty room. "Goodness!"
The study door was still open after Sally's last visit so it was easy for her to walk into the room. She was still walking extra carefully so as not to spill the juice she was carrying.
"I brought you juice, Daddy!" she called out. "Where should I put it down?"
"Hrrumph!" An arm waved and pointed at a clear spot on the desk.
"Daddy!" called Sally as sharply as she could. "You need to take a break from your work and drink your juice. If you don't watch what you're doing, you'll spill it and all your papers will be ruined."
Mr Dunstan cleared his throat and turned – pushing his glasses up his nose so that he could see beyond the paperwork.
"I do know how to drink ... wha???"
Mr Dunstan's eyes went wide – an action exaggerated by the magnification of his glasses so that from Sally's point of view they nearly popped out of his head.
"Uh ... uh! Sally! What happened to your clothes?"
"The clothes I was wearing were grotty after the long ride in the van so I took them off and put them in the hamper to be washed. The rest of my clothes are still in my closet. Nothing happened to them."
Sally shrugged and smiled at her father – as if she was doing the most normal thing in the world.
"But ... but ... uh! You should probably go and put something on. What would your mother say if she saw you like that?"
"I was just talking to Mum in the kitchen. She didn't seem to mind too much. We talked about what we'll be having for dinner. Turns out we aren't having fried lizard brains after all. I guess I was wrong about that."
"Oh? Er ... um! Well! I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies. What's that on your front?"
"Oh, this? It's kind of like a rash, isn't it? It just appeared on my skin while I was lying out on the grass. Mrs Puretti said it happens to her family a lot – mostly when they're staying at the cabin. She said it should fade away in a couple of days."
"It looks a lot like flowers."
"Yes, it does, doesn't it? Isn't that weird?"
Sally had figured out a long time ago that her father took everything she said as true, regardless of how outrageous it was. She couldn't decide if that was his idea of being funny or if he really believed everything she said. She didn't know whether that should count for or against her hypothesis. She shrugged to herself and decided to look for more evidence.
Sally sipped from her juice and put it down on the desk in one of the few small spaces clear of papers. She pulled a second chair up to the desk next to her fathers and sat on it.
"So Daddy! What'cha doin?"
"Are you really going to sit in here and talk to me while you're dressed like that?"
"Sure! It's way cooler than wearing stuffy clothes. You should try it, Daddy. You'll feel so much better."
"Er! I don't think I'm supposed to do that."
"Oh! Okay then, forget about that idea. I want to know what you're doing."
"I'm doing my job – surely that should be obvious."
"Yes, but what is that? I don't really know what you do."
"I'm a stock analyst – I'm sure I've told you that before."
"Yes, you have. But I don't really know what that means. What does a stock analyst do?"
Mr Dunstan turned and frowned at his desk as if he hoped the answer would be there.
"I look at the financial information about different companies. Then I make recommendations about whether my customers should buy or sell shares in those companies."
"Huh! So! Is it fun?"
"Is it fun? Do you enjoy doing that?"
Sally's father looked confused. "It's my job!"
"Yeah but ... oh ... never mind. What company are you looking at right now?"
"Telstra. It's the biggest phone company in Australia."
"Really? I've heard of Telstra. So what does that graph tell you?" Sally pointed at the computer screen.
"That is showing me the debt to equity ratio for Telstra over the last two years."
"What is the debt to equity ratio?"
Sally listened carefully while her father explained what he was doing – or at least, tried to explain what he was doing. She only understood about half of the explanation but she didn't let that worry her. More importantly, it was the first time she'd ever gotten her father to talk about his work and she was enjoying it. She figured she was on a roll and wanted to keep her father talking. Each time he wound down, she would pick something out of what he'd just been saying and ask another question about it. If she couldn't think of anything else, she would pick one of the documents scattered around the desk and ask what the document was for.
Sally's father started using the computer to display graph after graph. His explanation about the graphs used so many big words that she couldn't even guess what he was saying. Sally leaned back and looked at her father's face. He seemed to be excited about what he was saying. She suspected that she was seeing her father actually happy about what he was doing.
This was a good thing. Sally decided to count that as evidence for him being human with real feelings and emotions.
She wondered if her being naked had anything to do with getting her father talking in this way. He never talked like this before when she was wearing clothes. At the start it had almost seemed like he was relieved to look at his work and talk about that instead of looking at her. Sally didn't really understand why he might act like that just because she was naked. Sally decided that might be evidence that he wasn't human.
Sally realised with a start that her father had stopped talking and was rearranging the papers on his desk.
"So Daddy. People pay you to do all this work and tell them what you find out. Is that right?"
"That's about it, yes."
"And mostly you sit here in the study and email your reports to the people who pay you."
"So what were you doing on your business trip this week? Were you visiting the people you send reports to?"
"No. I don't need to meet them. I was visiting a few of the companies I do reviews on."
"Was it a good trip? Did you find out anything useful?"
"Yes, I did. The trip was very worthwhile."
"That's awesome. Well! I better go and set the table. See you at dinner, Daddy!"
Sally danced around the dining room as she set the table. The table was a large one with seating for eight people. Mr Dunstan usually sat at one end and Mrs Dunstan sat at the other end with Sally on the middle chair of one side. Out of habit, Sally set the table exactly the same way.
Sally shimmied sideways, spun and stepped as she took placemats and napkins out of their drawers and set them in the usual places. She moonwalked back from the table, then dipped and swung her head, sending her blond hair whipping around and around. Then she sashayed left and sashayed right as she made her way to the silverware drawer. Three sets of knives, forks and spoons glittered in the air as she held them above her head and moshed her way back to the table. To place the first set of items she leaned forward and held an arabesque with her back leg bent up behind her. She straightened and did a kind of breakdance sideways move to get into position for placing the second set of cutlery. This time she had more room behind her so she did a more formal arabesque, lifting her back leg straight out behind her and then up until it was pointing almost directly up – maybe ten or fifteen degrees short of making a perfectly straight line up and down between her two sets of toes.
Sally had felt extra tightness in her legs as she held that pose and knew she hadn't made the perfect form that she'd been aiming for. She came down out of it with a frown on her face.
"I must do more stretching," she told herself as she finished setting the table. "I really didn't do any proper stretching at all for the entire week I was with Mona and her family."
When Sally finished, she stepped back and looked at the table. With Mona's family, everybody had been crowded together on benches around their table. There had been so much conversation that she couldn't keep track of everything that was being said. Meal times had actually been fun instead of just being a time to eat food. The whole experience had been a revelation to Sally. She tilted her head to one side and looked at the table.
She was trying to think how she could get her parents talking during dinner.
"I know!" she exclaimed.
Quickly, Sally dashed around the table and moved all of the place settings. In a very short amount of time, she'd reset the table so that all three settings were grouped around one end of the table.
"That should help," she announced.
She went back to the cabinet and took out crystal tumblers and set one at each place. Then she took out two of the good crystal wine glasses and placed them where she wanted her parents to sit.
"Wine might help even more!"
Sally placed an extra mat on the table and took one of the carafes out of the cupboard. Then she walked into the kitchen to fill the carafe. Her mother was there, setting out plates ready to serve up dinner.
"Wait on, Mum," said Sally. "Don't use those plates."
Sally put the carafe down on the bench and raced back into the dining room. She took three of the good china plates out of the cupboard and took them back to the kitchen.
Mrs Dunstan frowned at the sight of them. "The china plates are only for special occasions."
"This is a special occasion, Mum. You are welcoming me home after my week away."
"Oh! I didn't think of that. I suppose it is a special occasion, isn't it? Do you think we should dress up properly?"
"I don't mind what you wear, Mum. You can stay like you are, or get all dressed up. I don't care about that. You could even wear nothing at all and we could all have dinner in the nude." Sally giggled. "After all, that's what I'll be doing."
Sally did a pirouette on the spot and finished it with a flourish of her arms.
"Oh! Well! Goodness! I would have thought it would be proper to be dressed for dinner. Don't you?"
"I am dressed for dinner, Mum. I'm wearing a suit – my birthday suit. This is my party after all, and I should be allowed to dress the way I want to. And this is the way I want to dress."
Sally picked up the carafe and filled it with water from the tap, completely ignoring the confused expression on her mother's face. She went to the fridge and took out a tray of ice-cubes – half of which she added to the water. Then she put the filled carafe into the fridge.
Sally opened the pantry door and took a random bottle from the wine rack.
"What about wine, Mum? Is this okay?" Sally asked as she held up the bottle.
"Well! I'm sure it'll be fine. Did you take it from the left end? I always take the one from the left and move the rest along one place. There are supposed to be rules for what type of wine to drink with different meals but my parents didn't drink wine so I never learnt them. Put the bottle in the fridge, Sally. In the hot weather, having the wine a bit chilled seems to make it better."
Mrs Dunstan lined up the three china plates along the counter ready to serve out dinner. She looked down at her clothes and back at the plates.
"This doesn't feel right, Sally. I should be dressed up properly to be eating off these plates. Can you wait ten minutes and then serve it all out? All the bits are in the fridge."
"Sure, Mum," said Sally. "Don't worry about this. I'll have it ready when you come back."
Sally watched her mother hurry out of the room and tried to decide if the way her mother had been acting was evidence of her being an alien.
Mrs Dunstan knocked on the study door.
"George, can you leave that now? It's time to get ready for dinner."
Mr Dunstan saved the file he was working on and stood up from the computer.
"No you aren't. Come with me to the bedroom. You need to put your tux on."
"Are we going out? There's nothing in our diary about going out."
"No, we aren't going out. We're having a special dinner to welcome Sally back."
"Oh! That wasn't in the diary, either."
"I know that, George, but we're doing it anyway."
"Oh!" Mr Dunstan frowned at the lack of proper notification, but decided not to argue about it.
The master bedroom was as neat and clean and organised as every other room in the house. The two Dunstans entered and immediately opened their closets. Mrs Dunstan reached into the section where she stored her more formal dresses and pulled out the one on the left. It was a green velvet that didn't quite suit her blue eyes and blond hair but since nobody had ever told her that, she didn't know. It had looked nice on the store mannequin so she'd found one that was her size and bought it.
On the other side of the room, Mr Dunstan didn't have a choice to make since he only had the one tux. He took it out and started changing clothes.
"Melody, is Sally behaving a bit strangely?" asked Mr Dunstan – without turning to look at his wife.
"Well! She's never run around the house without clothes before. That's certainly different. Is it strange?" said Mrs Dunstan.
"I don't know. It felt very unusual talking to her. I'm not used to talking to naked people," said Mr Dunstan. "She sat in my study and wanted to talk to me and all I could do was look at my desk and talk about my analysis work."
"Perhaps you should have told her to go and get dressed."
"She didn't seem to want to. And since you apparently didn't mind, I didn't want to make a scene."
"Oh! Well! It's not that I didn't mind," said Mrs Dunstan. "I just didn't know what to say. I never know what to say to Sally when she gets in one of these moods. I just don't understand her."
"I don't even understand you," said Mr Dunstan, "and Sally's more complicated than you."
Mr Dunstan frowned down at the belt he was in the process of doing up as he tried to decide whether or not he'd just insulted his wife.
"Yes. She is complicated, isn't she?" said Mrs Dunstan.
Mr Dunstan sighed quietly in relief.
Mrs Dunstan sighed and twisted her arm behind her back to zip up her dress. She wriggled it to settle it into place and tugged at the waist to straighten it. She sat down at her dresser and started arranging her hair into a loose bun.
"Did you see that she has this thing on her front?" said Mr Dunstan.
"Yes, I saw it," said Mrs Dunstan. "Don't worry. It's not permanent. Apparently it will fade away in a couple of days."
"Well, good," said Mr Dunstan. "I think I'd be concerned if it was permanent."
The two of them spent the rest of the time preparing for dinner in a thoughtful silence.
"Well, George? Do I look presentable?"
"You look very nice, Melody. Very nice."
Mr Dunstan held out his arm and Mrs Dunstan hooked her arm through it as they left the bedroom.
"Melody, will you talk to Sally about this nudity thing?" said Mr Dunstan.
"I think you should talk to her," she replied.
"I can't. Maybe it would be better if you did," said Mr Dunstan.
"I told you. I don't know what to say," said Mrs Dunstan.
"You could say that it isn't proper for her father to be looking at her when she's naked," said Mr Dunstan.
"Oh! I'll try saying that, then," she replied.
In the meantime, Sally had found a CD with soft guitar music. She'd set up her portable CD player in the dining room and had the guitar music CD on continuous play with the volume down low. She'd also gone into the front room and moved the furniture back against the walls and picked out a couple of CDs she wanted to play after dinner.
Sally had also taken the time to put a nice ribbon in her hair as her one concession to dressing up for dinner. For the rest, she figured her birthday suit was perfect for the occasion.
Sally saw her parents walking down the hallway towards the dining room and whistled softly.
"Wow! You two look really nice. I dressed up too. See? Do you like my ribbon? Well, let's go into the dining room. I have dinner all served up and ready."
She ushered her parents into the dining room and sat them so that they were facing each other and she was sitting on the end of the table and between them. The food was already sitting on the plates and set out in front of each of them.
"Why aren't we sitting in our normal places?" asked Sally's father.
"The other end of the table has been closed for maintenance," said Sally.
"Oh!" said her father and sat in the place Sally had indicated for him. "Maintenance is important."
He looked around the room, realising that he'd never seen it from this angle before. It looked familiar but different. He didn't particularly enjoy changes but he decided this was one he could manage.
"Well, this is nice, isn't it?" said Sally with a big smile. "Oh! Wait! I nearly forgot."
She bounced out of her chair and took the wine bottle out of its holder. She went up to beside her father and carefully tilted the bottle to pour wine into his glass – her lips pressed tightly together as she concentrated. She missed a bit and dribbled some onto the table but once she got going, she managed very well. She put down the bottle and ran for a spare napkin which she used to wipe up the spill – muttering to herself in annoyance at having made a mess. Then she took the bottle and trotted around to stand beside her mother and poured wine for her. This time she managed without spilling any. Finally, she put the bottle back in its holder and poured water from the now-chilled carafe for herself.
All the while, her parents sat in all of their finery and watched their naked daughter dashing around and serving them. Neither of them said a word.
Sally sat down at the head of the table and reached out a hand to each of her parents.
"Mum, Dad, take my hand."
"Why?" asked her mother.
"Just hold my hand. I want to say something and it's better if I say it when we're holding hands."
Unsure, but unwilling to make a scene, they both clasped hands with Sally.
"I just want to say thanks for coming to my welcome home party," said Sally. "I had a really good time with the Purettis but I missed being here with you and I'm glad to be back home."
"Well!" said her mother.
"That's nice," said her father.
"Tonight," said Sally, "the fried lizard brains are off the menu. Instead, we are going to have cold cuts of roast lamb with salad and mint sauce, followed by icecream sprinkled with nuts and topped off with chocolate sauce. Afterwards, we will have dancing in the front room and we will finish with coffee for you and flavoured milk for me while we have some pleasant conversation before bed. Any objections?"
"Er!" said her mother.
"That sounds very organised," said her father.
"It's important to have a plan," said Sally. "You taught me that, Daddy."
"Absolutely. You have a plan for everything. It seemed like a good thing for me to learn. Now, let's eat before the food gets cold."
"It is cold," said her mother. "It's supposed to be cold."
"Well, good then," said Sally and picked up her knife and fork. "Let's eat before it gets colder."
The usual silence descended as all three began eating. Unfortunately, silence wasn't part of Sally's plan. She wanted talking. But she was hungry and wanted to eat. She swallowed her current mouthful of lamb and pointed her knife at her mother.
"Daddy told me about his business trip, but I haven't heard about how yours went. How did you go at that conference?"
"Oh!" said her mother and hastily swallowed the food she had just put in her mouth. "Can't this wait until after dinner? Dinner time is for eating."
"This isn't a proper dinner time, Mum. It's a party. People talk and eat at the same time during a party. So tell me about your conference."
"Oh!" said her mother. "That's right, I'd forgotten this was a party."
She thought for a moment. "I don't particularly enjoy conferences – all the crowds bother me. But it's in my job description to attend a minimum of one every two years and my boss found out I hadn't been to one for more than five years. Quite frankly, I'd rather stay in my little office every day than staying in a strange hotel in a strange city and talking to strange people."
"Adelaide isn't that strange, is it?" said Sally. "Mrs Puretti said they have some nice churches. Did you go and visit any churches?"
"Well, no. You know I'm not very religious."