Slowly I unsnapped my seat belt. It made a noise like the clap of doom in the silence. I sat there breathing (audibly) for another half minute. It was so quiet. I could almost regret the whooshing pine trees Rose Manor didn’t have. Sid made a small restless movement and a polite grunt which I translated as, well, let’s get on with it then.
I opened Merry’s door and slid down cautiously. Yes, there was solid ground. I took a better grip on my flashlight and made sure the loop of Sid’s lead was over my wrist: I didn’t think she would decide to hit the road again but I was taking no chances. We—well, I—stumbled over the ground and up the overgrown path. The stairs to the front door went on forever. The stained glass over the door twinkled in my wildly swinging flashlight beam as I fished for keys. Tomorrow I would find out what it was. Tomorrow. Tomorrow was a long way off. I continued fishing. There was that bracelet Jan had told me to keep; there was the pebble I’d taken away from Sid. The keys had to be . . . yes. They were. There were advantages to quarter-ton keys: you know where they have to be by the direction you’re listing in. I could think of advantages I would prefer but I wasn’t in a mood (or a position) to argue with fate.
Okay, listen, I said to myself. The pile of fresh, real horse manure in the middle of the road proved that it wasn’t Murac. And let’s not examine this hypothesis. Let’s just cradle it gratefully. I was tired. My brain was skipping like a bent CD. Tick—ticktick—tick—ticktickticktick.
I swung the door open. I wished I’d thought of the whole coming-back-in-the-dark thing when Mike and I had left. I groped for a light switch. There had to be one but I couldn’t find it. We took a couple of steps inside the dark house. My footsteps creaked. “Hi, honey, we’re home,” I murmured. Nothing answered. Fortunately. There were stripes of faint moonlight lying on the parlour floor like wormhole ruts. I edged past them, trailing Sid, and went into the kitchen. Light switch. I turned it on. The shadows leaped back so quickly I was sure there had been things in them.
I was supposed to sleep here tonight? Totally impossible. Fall down in a sudden coma, possibly magically induced by the poltergeist who liked its solitude, very likely, but sleep? No way. No double-festering way.
I let the breath out I hadn’t realised I was holding. The uncurtained windows were grey with wiggly jaggedy black bits, which would be silhouettes of trees and climbing roses and things. Perfectly normal garden things. The kitchen table still looked solid and sturdy. It was probably a trick of the light, but the wood grain almost looked like dapples on a horse. The chairs from the parlour still looked forbidding and uncomfortable. The old gas stove still looked like a heap of trash. And I wanted a cup of tea.
I moved toward Caedmon’s niche. I knew he was still doing his wood-burner thing because the house was warm. Ish. Walking toward him and into his steady heat was like walking into the embrace of a friend. I was definitely sleeping on the floor next to him tonight. Maybe I should get a fan, as Mike had suggested. Not only would it move the warmth around a little more it would make a noise. I didn’t like listening to my own breathing.
“All right,” I said. Sid looked up at me. “We unload. We eat something. We do as little unpacking as possible but we rig up some kind of bed-like thing in front of Caedmon. If it isn’t late enough to go to bed by then I’ll write to Norah.” I thought about this. No, writing to Norah would be unwise. Something might slip out. Something like eeeeeeeeep. Much better to start rereading LOTR. Start at the beginning: A Long-Expected Party. I’d been rereading LOTR in times of stress for thirty years. An e-LOTR had been my first purchase after I’d downloaded the Kindle app, which had been my first download after I bought the iPad. Okay. We have a plan. The only drawback to it was the going back out in the dark again to unload Merry.
I managed to find some front porch lights and turned them all on. Hurrah for agencies that kept their rental properties’ light bulbs up to date. This made the front yard look far more like late-Saruman Orthanc than I liked, but it was still better from the ankle-breaking, or deinonychus-pouncing, standpoint than total darkness. I left Sid guarding the door, fumbled my way to ground level, pulled everything out of Merry and made a heap on the ground, and then ferried it up all those stairs in three trips.
I found the light switch for the front room and turned it on. The silvery frame of the Margaret MacDonald print leaning against the wall behind the book boxes flashed briefly as the lights came up. Later, I thought. I have no idea where I’m hanging anything yet. I hoisted the last bags over the threshold of the front door. I closed the door. I locked it.
The clunk of the bolt sounded different from the inside.
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