Crows croaking.

Snow thawing.

The usual.

"I'm here to, uh, talk to my uncle. Please, let me in."

Door opens.

I enter the mudroom. It's cold, but there's no point in bitching about it, Jack's still pissed at me and Anna, well, Anna's -- probably -- not there. She seldom is these days.

I can muster quite a few words to describe the room: austere, soulless, stiff, middle-class... Truthfully though, only one was occupying my mind at the time:

Empty.

Hints of human residence were to be found, sure, on closer inspection: dirt

on the linoleum, words quickly scribbled on the walls -- time had exerted its toll and many of them were barely noticeable -- in blue and red shades (my cousins' two favourite colours, one for each).

The most obvious sign of human existence was the maid doing her chores, just a few meters away, in the nearby lobby. She was the one who had let me in, moments ago, even though me and Jack -- my cousin -- hadn't spoken a word to each other in months.

Franka's not a beautiful woman, nor a young one, but she likes me and I return the favour. She's worked for my uncle's family -- his name is Edward, Uncle Ed, widower, 55, war hero, shot more gooks than the Vietcong, his phrase, not mine -- since before I was born. Dark circles under her eyes, the usual signs of too much work or too little sleep. Truth be told, she didn't strike me as the partying type.

"How's Jack?" I asked as I unbuttoned my vest. "Is he, you know, here, at the moment, right now?"

"You want him to be here?"

"God, no."

"He's not, same goes for his sister."

She paused. "I don't suppose you're after me?"

"Uh, no, sorry. I owe you a cup of coffee, I remember that, yeah, hey, uh, this is really important. Is Uncle Ed here?"

Smiling: "Up the stairs, third room on the left, don't bother him much. He's had a fight with your cousin."

"Thanks."

"Well, you gonna give me your vest already? You've been toying with it for minutes. What's wrong?"

"Nothing, uh, listen, I'll tell you later, I have to talk to my uncle now, there's things we need to talk about, man to man."

Laughing: "Give it to me and get outta those shoes, you're making the floor all dirty."

"Okay, okay."

There was a coat hanger (nearly always is, middle of the room, left wall, between a modern painting and a framed family photo, artsy black and white) with a red sleeveless shirt hanging upside-down -- (probably) tossed during one of Jack's hissy-fits -- and a rather conventional rock-daddy jacket, pretty clichéd: leather, stylised bald eagle, Harley-Davidson memorabilia.

My cousin Anna's one of those college girls -- ironic in her attire -- prime liberal vagina material with all their saintly poses and cutesy philosophies.