Hope pranced cheerfully down the stairs after Tommy. He was so sweet to her, fixing her up all nice. She knew she looked like a monster but he was pretending not to see how bad she looked. And after he got her dolled up like that, he didn't have to pretend anymore, it looked like. She was happy to follow him because in all her life, she couldn't remember anyone ever treating her as nice as Tommy was treating her. All she could remember was pain and being referred to as a worthless whore.

Yeah, she liked Tommy.

She stepped into the kitchen and Luda Mae greeted them at the door. She smiled and took Hope's face in her hands. "Why don't you just look like the cutest thing! Did you manage all this by yourself?"

Hope felt her face flush as she glanced over at Tommy, clasping her hands down at her waist. "Well... Tommy helped me a lot. He cleaned my face off and washed my hair and pulled down my sleeves for me."

Luda Mae looked at Tommy, raising an eyebrow at him. "Why was you in the bathroom with her?"

Tommy waved his hands in front of him, as if telling her he hadn't been doing anything she thought he was doing. He pointed to Hope and then covered his face, then went over and took Hope in his arms, rubbing her back and nodding. She thought she heard him make a noise like babble or something as he tried to explain what had happened, but she couldn't be sure.

"Oh, I see. So she got scared when she saw herself in the mirror, did she?" Luda Mae laughed and patted Hope's head. "I told you you was dirty, girl. Thanks for helpin' her clean up, Tommy." She stood on her tiptoes and smiled, planting a soft, light kiss on Tommy's cheek before heading back into the kitchen. "That's my good boy." She pointed to the table with her soup ladle, nodding at them both. "You two take a seat. All I gotta do is mix in the last spices and call everyone."

Tommy clapped and then hurried over to the stairs.

"Thank you, Tommy," Luda Mae said with a smile.

He made an expression that was probably a smile back and stomped a couple of times, banging on the banister.

"What's he doin'?" Hope asked, walking over to the stove where Luda Mae was.

"He's callin' the family for dinner. What's it look like he's doin'?"

If Hope had to give an honest answer, she would have to say that he was just making a lot of noise and trying to annoy people. "Oh. I see." She glanced over into Luda Mae's pot, but Luda Mae blocked her view. It smelled pretty good though. "Is he... I mean, does he ever talk?"

"Nope." Luda Mae stirred something in the pot, and brushed some bangs away from her face. "Don't worry though. Longer you stay here, better you understand what he's tryin' to tell ya. He'll make noises and sometimes he says 'uh-uh', but other than that he don't talk much."

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "It's his choice. I don't tell him he gotta talk."

Before Hope could say anything else, Tommy joined them in the kitchen again. He tugged lightly on Hope's hand and jerked his head in the direction of the table in the dining room.

She had to laugh; he was telling her to hurry it up. "I'm coming, Tommy." She followed him to the table and looked down at it. It was all set and everything with bowls and all. When she looked back up, Tommy had pulled out a chair and was gesturing to the seat, nodding at her.

She accept his hand as he helped her sit down (probably knowing she was still a little sore from all her wandering and walking) and felt the heat rise to her face when he pushed her chair in. She smiled back at him and squeezed his hand before letting go. "What a gentleman! Thanks, Tommy."

He looked away and nodded, closing his eyes.

Hope couldn't tell if he was trying to say anything to her or if he was just thinking. "Tommy?"

Coming into the dining room with her pot, Luda Mae chuckled. She ruffled Tommy's hair after setting the pot down in the middle of the table. "He's just embarrassed, Hope. Don't fret none, more you're around the more he'll get used to you sayin' things like that to him." She gave him a little swat on the back of the head. "Now you sit down, boy."

He nodded and took a seat directly across from Hope. He gave a grin and waved at her, gesturing wildly. Hope paid close attention and from what he did, she got that he was happy because they were sitting across from each other.

"I'm glad about that too, Tommy." She gave a wave back to him, fluttering her fingers.

At that point, three more people came down the stairs. Luda Mae pointed them out to Hope. She first pointed at the man in the sheriff uniform. "That's Hoyt, the one you heard before. He's my son and Tommy's big brother. Sit down, Junior."

Hoyt grumbled but took his seat next to Hope. "Just so you know, Mama, I hope you ain't expectin' me to act all nice to her."

"Well, if you don't I guess I'll hafta steal Monty's cane and give you a good spankin'. You wanna repeat the kindergarten a third time? Speakin' of Monty." She swept her hand out to help the older man sit down next to Tommy, on the other side of Hoyt. "This is my big brother, Uncle Monty. Don't let that grouchy face fool ya, Hope, he don't bite none."

Monty chuckled and placed the cane that Luda Mae had just mentioned against the table. "Naw, you just ain't around when I bite, Lulu."

"And I thought you ain't supposed to call me that no more."

"I'm older, I can do what I want."

Luda Mae sighed, but put her hands on the shoulders of the last one, a boy who was even taller than Tommy and heavier too it looked like. "And this is our cousin Clay. He's just visitin' with us while his folks are outta town."

"Whose cousin is he?" Hope asked, cocking her head. "Yours or Tommy's?"

Luda Mae laughed, sitting Clay down between Hope and herself as she took her seat. "He's all of our cousin."

"Oh..." Hope felt her face flush again, as she felt a little stupid for not recognizing.

"Alright. Now Junior, say grace please."

Folding his hands, Hoyt shifted in his chair. "I don't see why I gotta do it every time, Mama. Tommy could do it if he wasn't such a God-damned-"

"Junior!" Luda Mae said sharply, reaching over Hope to give her son a good smack to the back of the head. It wasn't like she'd hit T ommy - when she'd given Tommy a tap on the back of the head, it was an affectionate "you-little-rascal" gesture. When she did it to Hoyt, it was a stern "you-oughta-behave" whack. "I didn't ask Tommy to do it. I asked you to do it. Now you just be a good boy and do as I say."

"You don't never call me a good boy but when it comes to the retard..."

"Boy, you mind your ma!" Monty reached over the table and smacked Hoyt on the head with the cane.

Hope giggled despite herself, hiding her mouth behind her hand and looking down. She was a little ashamed that she found someone else's pain funny.

When she looked up, however, she saw Tommy across the table mimicking her actions. His shoulders shook with laughter and when she looked up at him, he looked at her. Was he trying to tell her there was nothing to be embarrassed about?

"Now just do it," Luda Mae demanded, folding her own hands and tilting her head downward.

Everyone else did so, and Hope copied them. Hoyt mumbled a prayer, and then began to dish out his own food.

Luda Mae rolled her eyes, and pushed some of her bangs back. "For God's sake, the boy don't learn. He don't wait two seconds 'fore gettin' at the food."

When Hoyt was done, he passed the pot over to Monty instead of giving it to Hope. "There ya are, Uncle."

Monty sighed and spooned out his own stew, shaking his head at Hoyt. "Boy, didn't no one ever teach you manners?"

"I taught him fine enough," Luda Mae protested.

"Well, obviously he ain't learn nothin' from it."

"I ain't gonna argue about that, but don't say I ain't a good mother, Monty."

Monty finished and passed the pot over to Tommy. A hungry expression on his face, Tommy eagerly poured out several ladlefuls of the stew into his own bowl. He licked his lips and was halfway to handing the pot over to Luda Mae when he looked up and was reminded of Hope. Quickly he switched his train of thought and held the pot out to Hope, some of the liquid sloshing out over the sides and his hands. Looking proud of himself for thinking of her, he held it out more.

Hope felt a red glow seep up into her face as she reached over to take it from him. "I-I... thank you, Tommy. That's, um... very sweet."

He nodded and made motions for her to get her food.

She smiled and ladled a little bit into her bowl - certainly less than everyone else was taking. Then she gave the pot to Luda Mae. "Thank you."

"Ain't no trouble, we got plenty." Luda Mae began to spoon some into her bowl. As she did, she spoke. "Tommy, you ain't afraid of this girl? Usually you don't trust nobody."

Hope looked at Tommy to see his answer, and he simply shrugged. He had his hands folded in his lap, calmly waiting until his mother was done.

Luda Mae grinned as she put the pot back in the middle of the table, and she took a spoonful of her food. "Looks like my boy's takin' a likin' to you, Hope. You be grateful for that 'cause usually he'll try to attack people come in here."

"I'm definitely... you've been very nice, Luda Mae. You and Tommy and... everyone else." She just about squeezed that last part out. She didn't really mind Monty, but she couldn't say the same for Hoyt and Clay. She didn't really know Clay yet, that was true, but automatically meant he was someone to be wary of. She had been wary of Tommy when she'd met him at first, and she had to be careful about everyone else.

Luda Mae smiled at her. "Happy to help anyway I can. Now you eat up, Tommy worked hard to get that for us."

Hope took a little of the stew in her spoon and just looked at it for a few seconds. She couldn't remember any kind of meat ever looking so... well, it was cleanly cut, was what she decided. There weren't any ridges or bumps like there usually were on things like beef or pork. "Hmm? Oh. Tommy got the meat for you, Miss Luda Mae?"

"Darn right he did. Always does." Luda Mae reached over and ruffled Tommy's hair, smiling and enjoying his smile back as she did so. "He's my good boy, does his mama proud."

"That's very nice of you, Tommy," Hope commented. She then cautiously slid her spoon into her mouth, unsure of what she'd taste. It was delicious, though, a flavor somewhere between chicken and pork that was enhanced with the spices that Luda Mae had put in it. "It's really good. Thanks, Tommy, you did a good job."

Tommy just smiled and looked down, nodding. She had the feeling that under his mask, he might be blushing even.

Hope blinked at him a few times. "Tommy?"

"He can't talk, bitch," Hoyt suddenly answered her, not even pausing in his eating. "He's too stupid."

"I told ya to stop callin' him that, Junior!" Luda Mae leaned over and smacked Hoyt on the head with her spoon. "Ain't nothin' wrong with my boy!"

"I'm your boy too! Somethin' wrong with me?"

"Junior, shut up and eat your damn supper!"

After briefly wondering if they argued like this every night, Hope took another bite of her stew. "Well, it's really good." She looked up at everybody, tilting her head. "This doesn't taste like anything I've ever had. What is it, anyway?"

Hoyt chortled. "Prob'ly the last unlucky person wandered either in here or into the gas station." He elbowed her in the side. "Ain't much different from anything else, is it?"

Hope's eyes widened as she realized that the stuff they were eating - and she was eating - was actually human flesh. She looked down and dropped her spoon like it was a snake, then whipped her head up to look at everybody. Her eyes finally rested upon Tommy, who was looking at her with a pitying expression.

She pushed herself away from the table and ran up the stairs to the bathroom.

Wow, a little longer than last time. Sorry I let this go so long, it seemed like every time I went to go finish it I thought about something else and went off to write that and left this all by its lonesome. XD

Hope you like it! ^^