“We can take my car,” said Hayley, “and then we can chat on the way. I think you are new to this area?” I didn’t have to nod: Hayley already knew I was not a returning native, burnt out on the big city and re-establishing her hometown roots. She had identified me, like a bird-watcher running her finger down the description in her bird book: was she marking me as transient or lost?
“I’ve lived all my life in New York City,” I said as neutrally as possible. “It was time for a change.”
We were walking down the street. She pointed her keys at a small bright yellow car that went eeooeeooeeoo as its locks unsnapped. To each her own. I wanted a Silent Wonder Car to go with the dog. “I have the info on three other houses in Cold Valley that you might be interested in,” she said, pulling some pages out of her briefcase. “Perhaps you would care to look at these on the way.”
I took them a bit dubiously. My experience was limited, but real estate flyers tend to have their own unique relationship with what the rest of us call reality. “Thanks,” I said.
I climbed into the passenger seat. I am not all that seriously tall but I was pretty much peering through my knees by the time I got the door closed. There was a back seat but the briefcase and a box of tissues filled it. Clearly families of one and a half took their own car. I wasn’t sure there was room for me and five pages of house info, as well as my over-large and over-heavy knapsack, because I wasn’t going to leave my laptop in a motel room. I was sure the friendly campfire in the window would lead it astray.
The top two pages were the houses I’d already met—oh, fabulous, the big one had a tower. Where the cackling madwoman lived, probably, eating the wallpaper in strips and muttering under the door sills. I hadn’t realised I’d said any of this aloud—I hope I had not mentioned the madwoman—till Hayley said, “Yes, there were a number of rather grand houses built early last century, when the railroad came here, and Cold Valley was briefly a fashionable resort town. Most of them were summer cottages, and there are only a few of them left. There weren’t too many year-round houses to begin with. Yours—I mean,” she said, blushing through her face powder, “I mean the one you are going to look at, is one of only two that are still lived in. The other one is on the far side of the lake. It has,” breathed the real estate agent reverentially, “six bedrooms. A member of that family owns y—I mean, the one you are looking at, but he lives in Europe,” (she said disdainfully) “and I have never met him.”
And you graduated from high school last June, I thought. You have time to meet him later. But I wanted her friendly, and my ever-fertile writer’s imagination suggested: “If it’s a family house, maybe there’s some family stuff that makes him reluctant either to deal with it or sell.” I glanced at her. She was staring at the road, chin up, shoulders back, hands at ten and two, her button-down shirt blindingly white and crisp with recent ironing, a small tactful gold pin on the lapel of her blue blazer, looking every inch of twenty-one years old and invincibly professional. Okay, maybe she graduated from college last June. With a major in cartwheels.
She said thoughtfully, “There are stories —”, and then remembered she was talking to a prospective renter and said hastily, “but there are always stories. It would be a lovely house if someone put some time and effort into renovating it.”
Not me, babe, I thought. Getting the lid off a new jar of peanut butter is as practical as I go.
We left New Iceland behind in the first ten seconds. We passed the high school—I know it was the high school because it said GENERAL JAMES B. CABELL HIGH SCHOOL across the front of the building, and it took up about as much front as the building had, which is to say I guess the graduating class was about twelve. Maybe fourteen. And then we were out in the country. Oh gods. Cows. I may have clutched the arm rest.
I looked back at the house descriptions. The first new one had aluminum siding. Not just aluminum siding but the weird kind of aluminum siding, which is sort of pitted and knobbly, as if there had been a terrible accident at the aluminum-siding factory. In this case it was also mauve. I’d rather live with a madwoman. The second one should have been fine but even clever real-estate photography couldn’t disguise the fact that it had road on two sides and neighbors on the other two sides, and I needed somewhere to keep a rose-bush. Oh, and a car. Also the Silent Wonder Dog would need a place to pee in the mornings while we were both waiting for the caffeine to work and my legs become capable of going for a walk.
The final house was trying to be a log cabin. Please. Although self-delusion wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker: I write fantasy for a living. But it was tiny and dark, tucked in a grove of gigantic, grotty looking pine trees. I don’t know much about living in the country, but I know the noise pine trees make with the wind in them. No thanks.
Which left one perfectly normal house that didn’t allow pets. And my doom.
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