We clattered over an old, overgrown railroad track, and then there was a sign: welcome to Cold Valley. Population . . . but my gaze wobbled, and then we were past the sign, and turning down a little street with big old trees heaving up the road surface. The houses were all big, and set back from the road . . . all, um, two of them. It was a short street. There were no cars in the driveways, but there was a old, beat-up-looking pick-up truck parked on the street. Hayley pulled in to the third driveway.
I got out of the car and stood staring up. I was sure the house was staring down. There was most of a flight of stairs up to the porch and the front door: oh good, lots of room for large things with teeth to marry and raise their families in the space under the porch. And drag their kills and play backgammon with the bones. You couldn’t see the tower from the front. I didn’t see anyone, potentially mad or debatably sane, watching from the windows.
The house looked empty. And cold.
Hayley bustled past me and up the steps. How do women wear four-inch heels all day, even sitting at a desk, let alone real estate agents who have to walk on tree-root-heaved pavement and up and down stairs? Hers were navy and cream. Cream. Cream-colored shoes. Okay, I had cream-colored All Stars (among many others), but in the first place you don’t want them too clean and in the second place they go in the washing machine. Hayley spent her evenings rubbing out scuff marks and reapplying shoe polish. And doing calf-stretching and pelvis-straightening exercises.
She reached the top of the steps and paused, groping in her handbag (red, to match her briefcase. Primary colors were evidently big in the New Iceland realty crowd). She pulled out the biggest damn key I’d ever seen in my life: it was nearly as long as my forearm. And the teeth at the business end of it looked like they belonged to one of the things that lived under the porch. I had come slowly up the steps behind her and was standing at what was perhaps a wary distance. She thrust this weapon of mass destruction in a keyhole the size of my hand, and turned it. KA-DINGBLASTED-CHUNK. The door shuddered in its frame. Hayley turned the handle and pushed it open. It was dark in there. I waited for her to go first. I’m so polite. And she had presumably been inside before, and knew where the black voids opened under your feet. MacFarquhar, get a grip. You’re expecting to be living here, remember?
Hayley had one (high-heeled) foot across the threshold when her phone rang. She could have answered it in the house, couldn’t she? But she didn’t. She went and stood at the edge of the porch, pulled her phone out, stared at it and frowned. She glanced up at me and away again in this funny sort of sidelong thing she’d done a couple of times before. Maybe middle-aged women in All Stars made her twitchy. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I had better take this. But you go ahead and look around. The house is empty—please poke in all the corners.” She gave me a smile that made her look like a real human being—except she turned it off too soon and her eyes slid away from mine again. “I’ll be back in five,” she said, and tittupped back down the steps to her car. Leaving me all alone with the house.
It was going to be hard to live somewhere you are afraid to go inside. Especially in the winter. There would be snow here. Maybe I could learn to build an igloo. (How badly did I want that dog? And a washing machine? At what point had I decided that sticking a pin in a map was a binding contract? Where was Flowerhair or Aldetruda when I needed her?) I stepped over the threshold.
I really did have a woozy moment. There’s nothing like fear of the unknown to make your blood pressure misbehave—and I’m really good at fear, and I’m good at unknowns too, mostly unfriendly ones, because they make a better story. For the second it took me to get both feet across the threshold and put my hand on the door frame I was somewhere else. I wasn’t in Cold Valley, or New Iceland—or Central Park in Manhattan. But there were trees, and I could see a meadow, and a glint of water beyond it. I barely had time to think what the—? when I was standing in the front hall of a big, old, empty house, with my hand on the door frame, feeling a little shaky and strange. There was a medium-sized room on my right, a hallway running straight away in front of me, and a gigantic full-length-of-the-house parlour on my left. Sunlight was pouring in from the garden through the windows at the far end and making the worn wooden floor shining gold.
“Oh,” I said.
Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.