“Oh,” said Hayley. “Oh. Oh—that would be wonderful. I—oh—I —”
I had left my monster knapsack in the car, but the monster black leather jacket I wore eight or nine (or ten) months of the year had excellent pockets, and a pen was not a problem. (The fact that I had a weakness for fountain pens might have been a problem but the occasional black ink stain on black satin lining and black leather passed, ahem, unmarked. The one time there had been a situation producing language was when I’d been wearing a white silk shirt under an invisible but not-yet-dry stain. But what on earth had I been thinking of, wearing a white silk shirt? The error was not repeated. Not only because the permanently stained shirt in question went to the Salvation Army.) I pulled the top of the pen off, shook it, and gently opened the battered old book. Hayley had fallen silent. “ ‘To Hayley’?” I said.
“Yes please,” she said.
I knew her name was spelled ‘Hayley’ from her emails. You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to spell people’s names. Three hundred and sixty nine ways to spell ‘Mary’. Four hundred and twelve for ‘Laurie’. What’s bad is when you’re signing at a convention and you get twelve people in a row all of whose names are ‘Laurie’ or ‘Mary’ and each one is spelled differently. I wrote: “To Hayley with best wishes from someone else whose childhood was warped by H P Lovecraft. Cthulhuanly yours, Kes.’ I handed it back to her, but she didn’t look at what I’d written. She stood holding the book in a manner I refuse to call reverently.
“My brother gave it to me,” she said after a minute. “He’d bought it—er—for the cover.”
“The coffee stain is an improvement,” I said.
She laughed her startled-out-of-her laugh again. “Well—it’s not quite how I imagined Flowerhair, after I’d read it. But there hadn’t been anything else in the house to read that weekend that I hadn’t already read a million times, or WAR AND PEACE or CLARISSA or something, and my mother was too busy to take me to the library, and I did kind of like the idea of a woman with a sword. In spite of . . . er . . .”
“Yeah,” I said. “The separating of the sensitive teenage boy from his hard-earned money cover illustration.”
She laughed again. “I didn’t mean to spill coffee on it. But I used to read it on my 8 am class mornings at college—especially that scene when she’s just escaped from Syforian again, and she’s so tired she’s going to sleep for a week, and Wesna has actually paid her what he owes her for a change, so she’s going to hire a room at Ganorac’s inn, and sleep in a bed, and eat every time she wakes up . . .”
“I feel anxious about your state of mind at college,” I said.
“My parents both teach English—my mom at the state u extension in Distantville, and my dad at the community college in Xanadu. I was determined to do something practical.” She sighed. “The business course had a lot of 8 am classes.” She smoothed the un-smoothably ragged cover of her FLOWERHAIR. “I hadn’t realised just how awful it looks till I pulled it off the shelf this morning. I have the first hardback omnibus, which is very pretty and very clean, and I was going to bring that, but then I thought, why?” She looked up at me and smiled. “I wasn’t going to show it to you or anything. How embarrassing. How unprofessional.” She looked down again. “So I brought this one along. For luck. Or something. A habit of bringing it along for luck is one of the reasons it looks the way it does, although dropping it in the bath once or twice has contributed.”
“An author would much rather see a book that’s been carried around for luck and dropped in the bath than the pristine copy that lives on a shelf,” I said. “We’re vain, you know. We like the idea that our stuff is appreciated.”
She finally opened the cover, but she still didn’t look at what I’d written, which was a (coming-loose) page or two in, on the title page. I hadn’t noticed, but there was a series of rows of little marks on the inside cover. “I used to keep track of how many times I’d read it,” she said. “With a code, which I think I’ve mostly forgotten, for which adventure most nearly spoke to my current situation. Syforian was extremely popular in junior high, when I seemed to hate all my teachers. I reread the Osgil chapters obsessively after I had my heart broken for the first time.”
Osgil had been an unsatisfactory lover whom Flowerhair ended up killing in a fair fight. ‘Unsatisfactory’ was the polite version. He’d tried to sell her soul to Syforian so he could get his hands on Doomblade.
Hayley looked up again. “I’ll stop now. But—thank you, you know? Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said.
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