I jingled like the villain in a cheap western as we walked down the corridor and turned back toward the Friendly Campfire. Not spurs. Keys. Big curly spurs are romantic (as long as you don’t use them on a horse). Keys are not. I didn’t have a hand free to shut them up; I was holding a bag of life-sustaining muffins in one hand and Sid’s lead in the other. Halfway down Bradbury I stopped because the noise was making me slightly nuts, although this was mostly to do with the fact that I was in a mind-frame to be driven slightly nuts by almost anything. Sunlight. Breathing. Moving into my new house. Speaking of breathing. I was taking little tense shallow gasps like someone expecting an ambush. I set the muffin-bag on the sidewalk between my feet (Sid took no notice), put my freed hand in my pocket, grabbed the keys, and squeezed. Nice keys. Affable, amiable, benevolent, genial, companionable keys. Keys to my new (affable, amiable etc) house. I took a deep breath, willing my anxiety level to come back down out of the stratosphere again. I took another deep breath and opened my eyes.
Well, I thought I opened my eyes. I was standing on a rough track with a wood on one side and a lot of open grassy meadow on the other, and a big stream or a small river running through it. I said something like, What, and Sid turned her head to look up at me.
Except it wasn’t Sid. It looked a lot like her, tall and slim and sighthoundy—and it looked up at me the way she did—but it was golden, not black. And unbelievably beautifully kept. Not a long trailing hair out of place. Her—somehow I was sure she was another she—golden back was dazzling, and the white toes on her front feet nearly blinding. Even when I got Sid cleaned and fed up she was never going to look this good. She was going to be a jeans and All-Stars sort of dog because she had a jeans and All-Stars sort of owner. This one was silk and velvet, and I wasn’t even going to speculate about appropriate footgear. I felt embarrassed when she did a Sid-wave with her tail at me. “Oh, honey,” I said. “I’m the wrong one. Although I think you’re more topaz than honey.” Topaz’s gaze carried on past me and she did Sid’s getting-taller trick. I looked round nervously, hoping I wasn’t going to see Mr Melmoth again. What I saw instead was an enormous black horse, the kind you see pulling sledges of cement blocks at county fairs and that you don’t believe can canter, except this one was cantering. (I’d been to exactly one county fair, a day trip from horse camp one summer, but I remembered it extremely vividly, the pulling horses, the fried dough, and especially the throwing up after the Gonzo Jungle Gorilla Rage ride. I think it was less the being shaken to pieces by gorilla rage and more the background roaring and screaming that did it. Although I was contributing to the screaming.)
This enormous black horse was wearing an enormous black saddle, and an enormous black man was sitting in it. They made a rather glorious picture—he sat the canter like an international Grand Prix dressage rider—and I looked at them wistfully: they belonged to Topaz’s world, not mine. They were on the far side of the river and I could not see them very clearly; whatever the man was wearing, it was not standard riding gear.
I waited for them to canter on past. But the man saw me, and to my profound embarrassment he drew his horse up, turned its head toward the river, and bowed to me. They sure do teach them nice manners in this country, wherever it was. Sheepishly I raised a hand in acknowledgement . . . and saw the burgundy velvet sleeve with the cream silk ruffle at the wrist falling back from my arm.
“Eeep,” I said, or something equally intelligent, and shut my eyes again. Although of course I had never had them open. Whatever this had been, it had been something about an oxygen-deprived brain getting a sudden over-stimulating deep-breath dose. From here on I would be careful to breathe shallowly.
I opened my eyes again cautiously. New Iceland reconstructed itself around me. I could see the twinkle of neon in the Friendly Campfire’s office window. I looked down. Dilapidated leather jacket, bedraggled jeans, All Stars. Bag of muffins.
And Sid. “Hey, honey,” I said. “I’ve seen your twin, and how totally gorgeous you’re going to be. You’ll forgive me if I don’t buy the burgundy velvet with cream silk trim to set you off however. No, wait, for you we’d need something pastel.” Sid was looking at me attentively. “I’m raving,” I said. I let go of the keys in my pocket and picked up the muffins. “Let’s go to the pet store and buy you some protein.”
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