“Coffee?” said JoJo. “No.” There was a pause while a memory of interactions with human beings outside his garage perhaps struggled to surface, and then he added, “Thanks.” He then shrugged out of a knapsack, heretofore invisible among the hair and the blackness since the knapsack was black too, and said, “Got this.”
“Brownies?” said Serena. “Home-made brownies?”
He grew at least two extra inches as he came to alert: “Brownies?” His eyes gleamed. He went so far as to brush his hair back from his forehead. His forehead was tattooed. At least it wasn’t a screaming skull or an exploding head. It looked sort of like crenellations. He would make Gurgsmeel the Malevolent a fabulous assistant. He would of course rebel at a critical moment, giving Flowerhair a chance to escape. He had been sold to Gurgsmeel when barely more than an infant by parents so poor that allowing an evil magician to buy one of their offspring seemed like a good business move, and despite his upbringing retained a dislike of murder. Gurgsmeel was furious, of course, so JoJo—um, Joran, Jundo, I’d think about it later—ran away with Flowerhair. His skills were all of the evil magician’s apprentice variety, however; who owed Flowerhair a favor that she could leave him with, to learn useful things like goat-herding or rope-making or ploughshare sharpening?
I pulled myself back to standard reality with an effort. I almost looked around for my knapsack so I could make a note. (I carried pen and notebook, iPhone, iPad and iPad stylus as standard: who says technology simplifies your life? At least I’d managed to leave the laptop at Rose Manor—like I lived there or something. I hoped the hob was keeping an eye on it.) I was suffering writing withdrawal: I hadn’t been near any writing implements in a meaningful manner in over a week. This didn’t happen.
Serena said, “I’ll be right back.” She went toward the office at nearly a trot and I thought, why does she want to waste home-made brownies on JoJo? All right, not waste, expend. JoJo was about to disappear into the Manhattan conurbation and out of New Iceland forever (one assumed) and picking up a rented vehicle isn’t really the sort of situation where a home-made brownie welcome is expected. But I saw her face as she came toward us again, carrying a three-quarters-full brownie pan and staring at it with a look of intense concentration. She glanced up at JoJo and then down again at the brownies and the look of concentration deepened even farther. Gotcha, I thought, and almost laughed. Serena’s doing the representational artist’s version of reinventing JoJo as Gurgsmeel’s apprentice. I wondered if he’d appear in two dimensions or three.
JoJo apparently didn’t want to go far from the van, so we all sat on the steps of cabin number seven. I tried to pull my leather jacket closer around me surreptitiously. I would have been glad of Sid’s warmth on the step next to me except she was doing the huge sad eyes thing, and chocolate is bad for dogs. “No,” I said, talking through a mouthful. “It destroys your liver. Dogs die of eating chocolate.” She remained unconvinced.
“Dog,” said JoJo.
“Er,” I said. “Yes. She adopted me.” It couldn’t possibly be only last night. Couldn’t possibly be. Therefore wasn’t. I shoved her head away. She was about to lick brownie crumbs off my chin.
“My little sister has a dog,” said JoJo. I didn’t see Mike’s face, but Serena looked as startled as I felt. That was a complete sentence: My little sister has a dog. And it contained several sibilants.
He immediately lapsed back into silence and while it was hard to tell through the hair, I thought he looked embarrassed. But we were all now paying attention. It was Serena who got the story out of him. JoJo lived at home with his mom and his sister. His sister, Evie, was in a wheelchair. She’d been born with a lot of stuff wrong with her, and their dad had taken off because he couldn’t deal with it. Their mom was the designated carer and they got some money out of the government because she couldn’t work and take care of her disabled daughter, but there wasn’t enough money, which was where JoJo came in. Evie’s dog (Van Helsing, known as Hugh. You figure it out) was trained to warn her mom if Evie was about to have a seizure, and had taught himself to pick stuff up if Evie dropped it. “My sister wants to go to college,” JoJo said. “She’s really bright. She should go. Mom’s trying to get a scholarship for her.” He ate the last brownie without any embarrassment at all, and stood up. “Thanks,” he said. He leaned over to riffle the sticky-up hair along Sid’s ruff. “Gotta get going.”
I think we may have been kind of looking at him with our jaws hanging. I was revising my Gurgsmeel’s apprentice story. Having given Flowerhair a boost over the city wall Jugjug pauses to rescue five hundred children out of a burning orphanage despite Gurgsmeel coming after him with six dragons and a poison-tipped spear. When it turns out that the only daughter of the king was visiting a friend at the orphanage that day, the king buys his apprenticeship papers and has a statue of him put up in the palace courtyard.
JoJo grinned. “S’okay,” he said. “I like cars.”
You never know about people.
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