“Damn and squirrel turds,” said Serena. “I thought Jan said he’d fixed that step. You know you’re allowed to complain about things like exploding refrigerators, leaking ceilings and death-trap steps.”
“I thought it was a design feature,” I said. “It’s supposed to emulate the rough wilderness experience. Like the neon campfire.”
“Ha ha freaking ha,” said Serena. “I don’t see any fresh damage to Merry’s paintwork. All well?”
I gestured at the bags under the desk. “If the learning curve gets any steeper, I’ll fall off. It’s not just driving something the size of Guam, I haven’t been to a mall in years.” And then mostly at cons. Where you could always score a local gofer if you needed help, advice, or rescue.
“The Majormojo is a little overwhelming till you’re used to it. But you can get most of life’s necessities there. Chocolate. Pizza. A decent haircut. A dry cleaner who will have a try at almost anything, and the probability of finding a complete new outfit at the last minute if the dry cleaner fails.”
“There are powerful advantages to leading an All Stars and t-shirts sort of life,” I said.
“Tell me about it,” said Serena. “I knew I wanted the job when Jan interviewed me wearing a shirt that looked like he’d been cleaning engines with it. In hindsight I think he was testing my nerve. He’s usually pretty smudge-free when he’s working here.”
I was still holding my phone warily, as if it were a snappy Ghastly. Serena nodded at it. “Bad news?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I suppose I’ll have to try to find out tomorrow morning. The good news is that I have the van through till evening. So I can drive it out to Cold Valley tomorrow and unload and then bring it back here and . . .” My voice tailed away. I hadn’t gotten beyond “and” in my own mind. I laid the phone down. I wasn’t really going to break out in a rash if I put it back in my pocket, even if it was holding recordings of both Mr W and his secretary. Was I?
“You can have the cabin another night, no prob,” said Serena. “We’re only about half full.”
I attempted to think about it. “I . . . think,” I said slowly. I think therefore I am. Sometimes. “I think I’m going to try to sleep out there tomorrow. Get on with my new life and everything.” I glanced at my phone. It did not growl or show its teeth.
“You go girl,” said Serena. “Look, I’m really not stalking you or anything, and as soon as you’ve hired my son to mow your lawn once a week for the next seventy years I’ll leave you alone, but I wondered”—she looked uncertain, which was strangely comforting, I felt I’d had PATHETIC tattooed on my forehead the day that Gelasio had told me he was leaving—“I wondered if you might like to have dinner with us tonight? I mean at home. The food’s better at Eats, but . . . um . . . sometimes it’s nice to use a bathroom that doesn’t have now wash your hands pinned over the sink, isn’t it? And I bought some good loose tea, so there’s at least one foolproof course at this banquet. If quiche and salad counts as a banquet.”
“I’d love to,” I said, and meant it. “That’s really kind.”
Serena shrugged, but she was smiling. “It’ll be nice to have another grown-up around. Gus often has friends over and even aside from the grunts and the gobbling they speak a different language.”
“We can discuss grand opera and Latin declensions,” I said. “We’re cool.”
“Arma virumque cano,” said Serena. “Ille robur et aes triplex. I’ll have you know I took Latin at my depressing preppie school.”
“Great,” I said, “I’m better at opera.” I was looking out the door where there was a very large grinning grille still visible, Cheshire-cat-like, in the deepening twilight, as the thundercloud-red body faded to a general sense of loom.
“Although I’ve devoted more effort to forgetting it than I ever did to learning it,” added Serena. “And I’ll drive. It would be unfair to make you drive Merry after dark so early in your acquaintance. Your new house is furnished, right? It’s got stuff like beds and skillets and curtains?”
“Um,” I said. “The beds look like something out of The Pit and the Pendulum. I’ve still got my air mattress”—from bracing back-to-nature holidays in Adirondack cabins with whooshing pine trees—“I think I’ll sleep by the stove till I can buy something I recognise as a bed.”
“Sleep by the stove?” said Serena.
“Yeah. There’s a huge solid-fuel stove in a corner of the kitchen.” I looked at the gleaming grille and added, “His name is Caedmon. I think he and Merry will be good friends.”
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