His gaze locked with Serena’s briefly and the ambient local temperature went up about fifty degrees. Then he was walking away and it was April in New Iceland again and my nose was cold. “Nice guy,” I said experimentally.
“Don’t you start,” said Serena.
“Ah?” I said. “Start?” I added, preparing to back away quickly if she took a swing at me.
She sighed. “I have to go back to work. You’re not going to get the story out of me today. But yeah. Nice guy. Lorraine’s, you turn left out of the parking lot here, a block back on Dane, right on McIntyre, and it’s next to the craft shop which, last time I looked, had fuzzy purple acrylic yarn in the window.”
“You know,” I said, “there’s a theory that some of the dinosaurs were really bright colors.”
“Okay, purple,” said Serena. “But fuzzy?”
“Art creates its own reality,” I said, thinking about attack mushrooms and mummified possum hearts.
“You are so from out of town,” said Serena. “Go away before I forget how to be polite to strangers.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, and picked up Sid’s lead. I wouldn’t be able to hang around for Lorraine’s cross-examination if I had a dog tied to the parking meter or lamppost outside her door. The three of us straggled across the parking lot together. At the curb we paused. “Good luck,” said Serena. She hesitated. “You have my phone number too.”
“Thanks,” I said. “The memory of that pear and ginger crumble will keep me strong and brave.”
She grinned. “That’ll be because the pears were picked by a crack troop of apprentice ninjas. Apparently fruit-picking is a really good way of practising your shuriken technique. So they tell me. Let me know how it goes with the new house and everything.”
“I will,” I said. Especially the everything. But I didn’t say this out loud.
She hesitated again. “This would be a bad time to make a joke about things that go bump in the night, right?”
“A very bad time,” I said. Feelingly.
“You aren’t buying milk for a hob, by any chance, are you?” said Serena.
I didn’t say anything.
“Okay, you write fantasy for a living, maybe you just think in terms of milk for the hob, moving into a new house. And the old military dress sword you bought at a garage sale because it looked like it might be enchanted is leaning against the wall next to the front door. So maybe you don’t already have reason for thinking Rose Manor has—or needs—a hob.”
“I don’t have a sword,” I said. “And I didn’t pack the chef’s knife because it was too big and threatening-looking. Pancakes are good. Scrambled eggs. Hamburgers.” The Manhattan penthouse hadn’t had a hob. It had had Joe the Doorman. You didn’t put milk out for him. You gave him a whopping bonus at Christmas. I hoped a rural hob would get by on milk.
“I kept telling myself that I was getting a nice house cheap because it was haunted,” said Serena after a pause. “I did waste some time trying to avoid the cold spot in the hall, but it didn’t like being avoided and not knowing where it was going to be was worse than just walking through it.”
“Did the ticking thing in the living room ever . . . do anything else?”
“No,” said Serena. “But I have a son. It’s easy to blame funny noises on resident offspring and their friends. When he was little he used to roar a lot. Now he’s older he mainly just collides with things. Including the floor he’s walking on. His friends have similar talents. And feet.”
“At least I have a dog,” I said. “Maybe I could teach her to roar.”
“At least you have a dog,” said Serena. She and Sid looked at each other. I saw out of the corner of my eye Sid essaying a small tail-wag, and I saw Serena’s face soften, not unlike the way she’d looked at Mike when he said he’d told JoJo they can always use a good mechanic. Good. Maybe she’d forgive all of us if Sid and Gus hit it off a little too well.
I could feel the seconds ticking by. It was a tickly sensation like spiders walking on your skin. It was not a pleasant tickly sensation—like spiders walking on your skin. JoJo had taken the van back to Manhattan. I was stranded here—with my new house, my new vehicle and my new dog. My first night as a resident had begun.
I was probably staring blankly into space, thinking about spiders. Serena touched my arm. “It gets easier.”
I looked at her and tried to smile.
“I know I keep saying that. I’m going to keep saying it till you don’t need to hear it any more,” said Serena.
“Okay,” I said.
“The hob’ll like the milk,” said Serena. “Us rural creatures are simple folk.”
This was so close to what I had been thinking I really did smile. And tried not to let my heart sink as Serena climbed the steps to the office door, leaving us behind.
It was nearly dark already.
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