The house looked emptier and less inhabited—or inhabitable—than ever with four hundred and thirty-seven book boxes crowding around the front door and a few random non-book items splotched here and there and looking lost. The plastic bags of underwear looked like collapsed balloons. Although the six rose-bushes lined up on the window seat in front of the garden window in the parlour provided a certain avant-garde air. Even the dirty dishes in the sink failed to give it that homey touch. I locked the kitchen door and slowly went down the short hall, across the front room, and through the front door, trailed by Sid. When I locked that door the pin tumblers engaging sounded like the crunch of small bones.
Of course I tripped, going down those stairs. I had just enough time to have a very vivid hallucination of disappearing down a hitherto-unsuspected-bottomless rut and emerging in the next universe with a lot of dirt and gravel and finding that snow plough the town council had been missing since ’87. And then I slammed into a hairy body. Sid squeaked but held her ground, or rather her stair, and I managed to grab the banister before we both plunged into the next universe.
“Steady,” said Mike. “Gravity works around here pretty much the way it works most places. Maybe not Manhattan. You’ll get used to it.”
“Ha ha,” I said, reminding myself that he’d carried most of the four hundred and thirty seven book boxes up these same stairs. Sid, still in Perfect Dog mode, jumped into the van without fuss. Tomorrow—never mind four hundred and thirty-seven boxes of books—I would figure out how to use the car harness I’d bought from Susanna. Tonight I did another cat’s-cradle with the lead and the seat belt.
“Remember,” said Mike through the window. “You’re driving real slow past your neighbors.”
I glanced toward the hedge between the two houses. Those might be fireflies, miniature demonic sprites wearing sequins, or the twinkle of house lights through last year’s leaves. It was already twilight. While I waited for Mike to climb into Nilesh and jolt out of the driveway first I fumbled for and flicked open my phone. Keeping my eyes carefully averted from the list of today’s messages I looked to see what the last one in was. Bus late. 6:45. C u. JJ Bless the bus company for incompetence.
My turn. I backed down the driveway as if the licensing examiner was sitting in the seat next to me (no, that was Sid, and she wasn’t carrying a clipboard) and my pass depended on it. I glanced up once at Rose Manor. What—? No, it was gone again. And I was imagining it anyway. If I could get half of what I was imagining out here in the real world down on paper/computer screen I’d have FLOWERHAIR THE DAUNTLESS in on time after all. But there had been something peeking out from behind the kitchen chimney. Too small for the madwoman. Wrong shape for a crow. Maybe it was the hob. Better not forget the milk.
I rolled slowly forward. Mike turned his headlights on. It’s not that dark yet. He just wants to give the Lanchesters every opportunity to admire their new neighbor’s moving van. Thanks Mike. Was it worth having four hundred and thirty-one of my book boxes carried upstairs at the price of an instant feud with my neighbors?
Yes. Next question.
I was going slowly enough to be able to look up unhurriedly at the Lanchesters’ house. As the demon (speaking of demons) of bad luck would have it, two people, presumably Mr and Mrs Lanchester, were standing in the big picture window at one end of their house—my end, in fact. If they had loud parties in what was presumably their living room I’d probably hear them. It would make a change from the rustling of deinonychus. The gay couple two floors down from us in Manhattan were notorious for the noisiness of their parties. They gave several weeks’ warning and invited everyone in the building as well as two hundred of their closest friends, but if you had to get your heroine out of the Gnargon sorceror’s dungeon by Monday, Saturday night was taken. I wasn’t ordinarily a fan of noisy parties but it only has to happen once that someone drives you bleeding to the hospital and creates the most amazing fuss at the front desk to have you seen now to earn as many noisy parties as they wanted. I hoped it was in Mr Diamond-Studded Shoelaces’ contract that Kurt and Dean’s parties were sacrosanct. Occasionally some new tenant had dared object but several of us had driven-to-the-hospital type stories, and we closed ranks.
Sheila didn’t sound like the driving-you-to-the-hospital-bleeding type. Where was the nearest hospital? What you probably wanted was a neighbor who was an EMT. That wouldn’t be Sheila either.
The two figures were too strongly backlit but they might have been standing with glasses in their hands, looking out at the view. I had to watch the road as I bumped through a pothole, but I looked up again in time to see the female silhouette put out a hand toward the window as if to fend off unspeakable abominations, sway—and collapse.
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