“Can I help you cut things down? I love cutting stuff down and so it shows, you know? The jobs I get are mostly just mowing and trimming stuff that’s looked like that forever and except they pay you you might as well have stayed home. Oh. You’re the one who’s just moving in to an old house, right? Maybe Mike’ll loan me some tools.”
“Mike’s selling Kes Merry,” said Serena.
“Mike’s selling you Merry?” said Gus. He brushed some of the hair out of his eyes so he could stare at me better. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m feeling a little wowed, but more from a ‘I wonder if they make snow tires for Vespas’ direction.”
Gus laughed, rather to my surprise. Either he was working on his successful entrepreneur routine or he had a surprising tolerance for feeble grown-up humor.
“You can hang your coat there,” said Serena, nodding at a tall round coatrack, mostly invisible under various semi-identifiable garments. I was pretty sure I recognised black velvet as well as tattered jersey hoodie and standard waterproof parka. I flung my jacket over a hummock and turned to follow. “We’ll eat in the kitchen,” said Serena, starting down the hall.
“That’s because Mom has her stuff all over the living room,” said Gus. “When I do that I get in trouble.”
“We can eat the hummus,” said Serena. “I bought crackers. I thought the quiche might be slightly delayed.” She looked at her son. “That’s because you have the attic. That was the deal. You got the attic in exchange for staying in the attic. And the only other big working surface in the house besides what you’ve got your computers all over is the dining table. Which we do manage to eat off of occasionally. But I don’t need to clear it for just the three of us.”
“Yah,” I said. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
I took a step backward and waved my arms around. “That. The Arctic blast. Or Antarctic. If I’m going to freeze to death I want penguins.”
“Did you think I didn’t mean it, about the cold spot in the front hall?”
“Um,” I said. “Yes.” Except I couldn’t find it again. Yes, it was a little chilly in the hall but. . . . There it was—no it wasn’t—I was not imagining things—was I?
I didn’t say it aloud, but Serena answered, “It likes its little joke. Now that it’s got your attention it’ll’ve run away and hid. First grade sense of humor, our cold spot. Mostly it’s there—and it’s actually pretty good about being there in August, Gus and I have been known to bring a couple of chairs and the floor lamp in here. I therefore choose to assume it’s benign. But it can’t resist doing a number on a new person. And if you’re thinking I might have warned you, come up with something I could say that doesn’t sound like a failed artist who has to earn a living checking people in and out of a motel trying to make herself sound interesting, and I’ll consider it.”
“You’re not a failed artist,” Gus said at the same time as I said, “But you have a cold spot in the front hall.”
“Whatever,” said Serena. She went into the kitchen and we followed her. I liked her kitchen. It was messy and had piles of books everywhere, and postcards and pictures torn out of magazines taped on walls and cupboard fronts. What you could see of the walls was burnt orange and turquoise. She pulled the hummus out of the refrigerator and put it on the kitchen table. Which was plenty big enough for four—possibly with the caveat that no more than two of them were teenage boys, and that the piles of books and magazines did not creep any farther out from the wall. There was a basket of yarn on top of the tallest pile. Serena put a spoon on the table next to the hummus and opened a cupboard door. “I bought those crackers you like, Gus,” she said. “The ones that are different kinds in the same box. What on earth did I do with them?”
Gus had, I thought, gone strangely still for a teenage boy. Awareness of this transferred itself to his mother and she turned around and looked at him. “Um,” he said. “Um. I. Um. Ate them.”
Serena slowly closed the cupboard door and sat down at the table. Slowly. Stared at the hummus. It was in a small round green pottery pot. She’d taken the lid off when she put it on the table.
“You didn’t say they were for dinner,” said Gus.
“No,” Serena said. “You’re right. I didn’t.” There was a little silence. She sighed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been a long day. I should be remembering the fabulous imported Italian breadsticks I picked up the other day when I was visiting a friend in Tenerife, but I must have left them on the plane.”
The timer went ping.
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