“Well, I don’t live in it yet,” I replied, possibly with asperity. I’d wasted five whole minutes chatting.
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “You got something to prop the door open? I’ll just bring stuff up and stack it inside, yeah?”
“Er,” I said. I’d closed the door against the draft. I moved one of the few pathetic boxes I’d brought up back in front of the door, by which time Mike was halfway up the stairs again with a book box and some dangerously-teetering dog food balanced on top of it. I hadn’t realised garage work gave you that kind of stamina. He set them down and turned back to the stairs. “Um,” I said.
He looked at me, eyebrows raised.
“Um,” I said again. “Why are you here?”
An expression it took me a moment to translate crept over his face. Sheepish. He looked sheepish. It made him look about eighteen. No, sixteen. “Serena likes you,” he said. “And I like Serena.”
“Ah,” I said, but he was gone down the stairs again.
Things went a lot faster after that. Boxes seemed to be steaming up the stairs by themselves, although I heard the tramp of human feet often enough not to get too worried about this possibility. (If one of them broke open revealing cascades of burgundy velvet and cream lace, then I’d worry.) Mike was booming along at such a rate that I’d only get in his way if I tried to help, so I settled cravenly for moving the boxes he heaved through the door a little further toward their eventual location, kitchen, parlour, bed, books. I did pelt down the stairs to the van once, avoiding Mike like Jason and Gwen dodging the chompers, with a box I’d emptied, and scooped up all the freshly-revealed loose plastic bags of underwear and t-shirts and a few pairs of All-Stars that hadn’t fit into the All-Stars box, and a few odds and ends I couldn’t remember ever having seen before, let alone expending valuable van space on, like the little silky bag of what looked like hair ribbons. Hair ribbons? I hadn’t held still for a hair ribbon since my mother had a brief spasm of pigtails when I was about six. Flowerhair had been known to indulge in hair ribbons. Not me. Well, little silky bags of what might be hair ribbons don’t take up much space.
By the time I’d tottered up the stairs again with my feeble addition to the mêlée there was a wall of boxes inside the front door. Between it and the house wall I could see something tall and narrow; I’d decided at the last minute to save my cheap but nicely framed Burne-Jones and Margaret MacDonald repro prints. I put my minimal contribution at the foot of the stairs to the second floor with the two other boxes of clothing and headed for the kitchen. I wanted my cup of tea and I wanted to offer Mike a sandwich, which meant I needed to take inventory of what had come out this trip that you could make a sandwich with. In light of Mike’s heroism I was even willing to sacrifice Eats’ muffins.
Sid reappeared from wherever she had been, terrorising the indoor vermin or possibly making friends with the madwoman in the attic. I wondered if she recognised a kitchen as a Place Where Food Happens (although her previous owner didn’t sound like the kind of person who would want a dog just hanging out being a dog) or whether she was learning the rustle of a biodegradable Godzilla Food grocery bag. I was holding a bag containing the end of a loaf of bread that Sid had had most of already, a can of parsnip soup and a tin of what should be rather good ham. She caught my eye and sat. Busted.
“You just ate,” I said. She gave me a that was dog food look and remained sitting.
“I don’t approve of feeding dogs ham,” I said. “But there might be more dog food.” I rummaged, and came up with a bag of Supa-Vit Chickee Deelite and a can of Blood and Chrome (“Make Your Dog a Galactic Hero!”). I rinsed out the brownie pan. I might still have my old brownie pan. It was green china with white polka dots and I could remember trying to decide whether it reminded me too much of late nights with Gelasio watching Galaxy Quest and Red Sonja and Serenity and eating brownies, but I couldn’t remember what I’d decided.
When I set it down Sid looked at it a minute, and then looked at me. “Yes,” I said. “It’s more dog food. It’s good for you. Muffins are not good for you.” Sid gave me a I would dispute that look, but she did then deign to eat her dog food. I put more water in her bowl and went to find Mike.
I found him setting another book box down. When he straightened up and spoke I was relieved that he was a little out of breath. “Your neighbors are here,” he said. “I thought I’d warn you.”
“They are?” I said in surprise. “Hayley said they’re never here. Uh . . . warn me?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Cautiously, with Sid at my heels, I walked through to the front of the house and opened the door. I went out on the porch, grabbing Sid’s collar with my other hand. We both looked down.
A vaguely familiar-looking young man was climbing down from a large old pick-up truck. It wasn’t as large as Merry, and it was probably twenty years younger, but it was still large and old. Although it was recognisably a color—in this case blue—which put it one up on my vehicular doom. He looked up at me and smiled. “Hi,” he called. He reached down and picked up an armful of the stuff I’d left next to the van. I was too bemused by the entire apparition to protest. He came up the stairs and as he got within ordinary speaking distance said, “Someone’s moving in, you don’t waste climbing stairs empty handed. Serena said you were moving in today and guessed you could use some help. And the garage can do without me for a few hours so I thought I’d come along.” He was by now at the top of the stairs, and he put his free hand out. “I’m Mike.”
I let go of Sid’s collar to take his hand. “Mike,” I said. “Mike? You mean the man—er—responsible for Merry?”
“That would be me, yeah,” he said, grinning.
“That blue thing is a pale shadow of the juggernaut magnificence that is Merry,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “But Nilesh there has several times the horsepower, and every winter as well as ploughing I spend a lot of time dragging people out of snowbanks.”
I sighed. “I want to say ‘don’t look at me’ but you probably will be looking at me. I hope you also run a winter taxi service for terrified urban exiles. Of course you will still be looking at me.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll get you fixed up with sandbags and chains ’long about October. Merry’ll handle better in snow than any car. If we have a late blizzard this spring I’ll make Dad give Serena time off to take you to Majormojo to stock up.”
“Late blizzard?” I said. “It’s April.”
“Sure,” he said. “We can have snow late as May. It’s not real common, but it happens. We had snow in June once when I was a kid, and we were really pissed off because school was already out.”
In the city we had two kinds of snow, mostly. We had the kind that didn’t happen when everyone was ready for it and the kind that did happen when nobody was. Gelasio missed a meeting with some millionaire client once because they closed the subways after one of the second kind of blizzard. We made snow angels in Central Park instead. I wasn’t thinking about Gelasio.
Sid had moved to sniff Mike’s trousers. Her tail began to wag. He bent down far enough to rub her ears in a person-familiar-with-dogs sort of way. “That’s Carmine or Otis or Poppy or Fred. Or Lorenzo. Bridget told me the Phantom had adopted you.”
I noticed his word order at the same time I realised why he looked familiar. Bridget. Eats. “You were sitting at the counter yesterday,” I began.
“When some strange woman with a city accent started talking to her tea cosy,” he said. “Yeah. That was me.”
“Which was the moment it dawned on you that here was some poor out of town yo-yo you could foist your primitive vehicle on.” Up close he was older than I’d thought. He might be my age.
“You could buy a car from Odin,” he said, grinning, “if you like doing a lot of walking.”
“The real estate flyer promised the underground would make it to Cold Valley by the end of the year,” I said blandly. Sid had worked her way around our visitor and was now sniffing his other pant leg with close attention.
“That the same real estate flyer that promised all the old lake houses have buried treasure in their back yards from the Great Depression? When all the high society ladies raced up here to bury their jewellery so it couldn’t be repossessed?”
“And didn’t dig it up again later? Wow. They all must have drunk too many martinis. That cheap bathtub gin’s a killer.”
“Yeah.” He looked up at the front door. My front door. I hadn’t noticed before, there was a narrow rectangle of stained glass above it. I could see it twinkle faintly in the shadow of the porch roof but I couldn’t see if it was an illustration of anything rather than just bits of colored glass. I hoped for roses rather than star-spawn. “At least you got a real one,” he went on. “They’ve insulated a few of the old summer houses for incomers who want glamor and don’t care about the fuel bills, but it’s mostly a botched job.”
“Hayley said there’s only one other year-round house left from Cold Valley’s boom years last century.”
“There are a few others,” he said. “They’ve just never come on the real estate radar.”
Was it my inner Cthulhu viewing humanity malignly or did he look shifty as he said that?
He looked back at me and smiled. “But this is a good house. I’m glad someone’s finally living in it.”
Rather shakily I let go of Sid, who sat down and had a thoughtful scratch. I rinsed and filled my kettle and put it on the now calmly-burning flame. I groped in the pocket of my leather jacket—which I’d taken off a couple of book boxes ago but was considering putting back on—found my house keys—my house keys!—and opened the back door. The air had that magical post-storm smell which was a little reassuring: maybe it hadn’t been King Kong. Or Cthulhu. I looked out across my garden (my garden). I thought I was facing the lake but I wasn’t sure; there were trees in the way. But boiling off in that direction was a large black cloud that seemed to be moving faster than either the wind or any of the other clouds.
My kettle began to sing. I went back indoors, warmed the smaller teapot and a mug that said 1987 Best in Show Hyacinth River Dog Show. That had been Chan Three. She was a much better natured dog than Chan Two but she didn’t win as much. I added three big pinches of tea and water and put the tea cosy over. Imagine. I’d packed the tea cosy in the same box as the teapot, the tea and several mugs. Anyone would think I’d been paying attention, those last few days in Manhattan.
A restless movement from Sid caught my eye. I looked at her. She looked at me, gave a tiny wriggle and sat. “Dog food,” I said. “Absolutely.” I found one of the sample bags of kibble and a tin of chicken and giant gorilla in gravy. I started opening drawers. The silverware drawer contained six bent spoons, two forks whose tines looked like false eyelashes and three blackened silver-plate knives. I sighed. The best of my old flea-market silverware from the pre-Gelasio era was in one of the boxes. I’d better find it before tomorrow night. You could eat pizza with your fingers but the salad a healthy modern nutritionally-correct young woman would expect to be served with it was problematic. Maybe I could do something artistic with a fruit bowl if I didn’t find the silverware in time. There was a can-opener in with the black knives. In the cupboard above the cutlery drawer there was an assortment of tired-looking dishes and a Pyrex brownie pan whose corners needed cleaning. No, make that excavating. I scooped out the chicken and giant gorilla into the brownie pan with the second-least-bent spoon, saving the best one for my tea, and mixed in a big handful of kibble.
I set this down in front of Sid, expecting her to suck up the lot in a flash of blinding speed. She was still sitting. She bowed her head to look at this feast, and then raised her head and looked at me again. It was an accusing look. It said, Dog food!!! “Yes, dog food, drat you,” I said. “You’re not a dog, you’re a silhouette of a dog, you have to eat.” I pulled out the rest of the cheese, broke off a chunk, and buried it in the chicken and gorilla. Sid stood up, carefully extracted the cheese and swallowed it. I tried not to hold my breath. She sat down, sighed, and began to work her way through the rest of it. I rinsed out her new water bowl, filled it, and put it down next to her. She was eating now as if she was enjoying it in spite of herself. That was something I was repressing remembering about both Salukis and Deerhounds: they were not great eaters. I was used to Ghastlies, who ate anything that would stand still long enough for them to grab hold of (including sofa legs).
My tea should be ready. My mug was still warm; I dumped the water back in the kettle, and poured my tea. This was Brandyleaf Extra Superlative that I used to buy from a tiny cramped shop in an alley off St Mark’s Place; I’d found it by accident on one of my pilgrimages to Trash & Vaudeville and it became an even stronger draw than T&V’s studs and spandex. I’d bought extra the last time I went, knowing I was leaving Manhattan soon. It had a web site; I could order more Brandyleaf Extra Superlative any time I wanted it. But it wasn’t the same. . . .
Oh, dung beetles and pond scum. I was crying again. I gulped my tea so that scalding my esophagus could provide an excuse for the tears in my eyes. Sid had finished her . . . um, let’s call it lunch . . . and was licking the encrusted corners of the Pyrex dish thoughtfully. Before I made my next batch of brownies I’d take a knife to those corners, or possibly a blowtorch.
I was indulging a distracting little fantasy about having fresh brownies to offer Hayley tomorrow night, with the pizza and the fruit bowl, when both Sid and I heard a sound outside. It didn’t sound like deinonychus or attack squirrels. Or King Kong. It sounded like a fairly large, van- or pick-up-type vehicle turning into my driveway, stopping, having its handbrake hauled on . . . and then the sound of a door opening.
* * *
* Saturday night KES going up early because I’m on my way to the paschal vigil at the monks’. Er. Wish me luck.
Eight boxes . . . it was only the first layer. There was an identical wall of boxes behind the first, and there would be another wall behind that. I may have whimpered. All right, wait. First eight boxes successfully accomplished. I wasn’t dead yet and the van was a whole layer emptier. Two layers, if you counted the rose-bush, the sofa, and some of the fruits of my two trips to the Majormojo Mall. The rose-bush was okay where she was but if I wanted to count the rest I needed to lug it up those villainous stairs.
I looked gloomily at the sofa. Well, it would make a change.
I will spare you the details. There was some shouting when, having hooked one of the legs over the railing and nearly pulled the stair out from under my own feet I staggered up the last steps rather too fast in recoil and got wedged under the porch roof. I hoped Hayley was right that my neighbours were never there. I was not making a good impression. And I’d really rather they never saw the van at all. Merry was going to be shock enough.
What I needed was a cup of tea. Supposing I could find my tea-making gear.
I could. Amazingly. As I groped around in the dark van, one of the boxes on top of the freshly revealed wall of pain rustled faintly when I pulled at it. It weighed nearly as much as any of the others, but its contents were clearly not solid and rectangular. You’d think I might have labelled them, wouldn’t you? But it hadn’t seemed necessary. They were almost all books.
Cautiously I opened this one. Inside was a lot of newspaper, bubble wrap, pots, pans, two china teapots and . . . tea. Hallelujah.
I wrestled my find up the stairs and into the kitchen, and slid it gratefully onto the no-bending-over-necessary table. Then I positively trotted down those wretched stairs to the van again. I gathered up an armful of plastic bags containing t shirts and underwear before they started scampering away across the landscape—there was a wind picking up, although it didn’t seem to be blowing the clouds away—grabbed the apples and chocolate and as much of the dog stuff as I could and elbowed the van doors shut. This time I felt rubbery going up the front steps. Which was an improvement on feeling like a ninety-five-year-old chain-gang escapee.
The next question was whether I could get water-boiling heat out of the college-dorm-reject stove. I looked at it dubiously. I turned one of the handles and there was a bogus clicking noise but I saw no spark and nothing lit. I sniffed. That was gas all right. I needed matches before striking one would make the kitchen explode. I found an elderly half-full box in one of the kitchen drawers, but the first six snapped without doing any more than making a faint match-striking-board smell. Arrgh.
Sid had followed me into the kitchen. The last time she saw plastic bags like these she’d had tuna and hash and cheese out of the situation. “In a minute,” I said. I went back out to the van, again blessing Mr Screaming Skull, and retrieved the matches from the glove box. I lit one of the burners. The flame was a little excitable, wanting to dance on the tabletop. I reproved it. It hissed at me. I turned the cold tap on and watched it spit and snarl and finally erupt in copper-colored semi-liquid. I pulled out my tea kettle and waited a little anxiously. I sidled closer to the now steadily, not to say sullenly, burning gas flame. When I wasn’t carrying boxes it was cold. Ugh. Even if Rose Manor had central heating I couldn’t pay for it. I would warm up one hand at a time over the gas burner. I glanced wistfully toward Caedmon, invisible in his shadowy alcove.
Sid was distracted from thoughts of cheese by the antics of the water supply. BLOOIE. POW. The sink shook. There was an ominous pause and then a blast like the last trump rattled the window. At the same time something that I hoped was only wind slammed into the back of the house. WHAM. Who needs Cthulhu in the cellar when King Kong is ripping the walls out? Sid barked. The wind was now having a go at prying the window sash off and—whackety-whackety-whackety slam—that was hail. And I still had 1,000,000,000 boxes of books to carry up a flight of outdoor stairs.
“If there’s a hob in earshot,” I said quaveringly, “I’d be very grateful for anything you can do. I’ll buy some milk when I go back in town. Unless you’d rather have a brownie. Er. The chocolate kind.”
Silence fell again, but Sid was still on alert and so was I. And then like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel, the pipes all over the house started serially banging in off key harmony. The furthest ones were first, so the sound got louder and closer. I hooked my fingers under Sid’s collar and tried not to whine. The bangs reached a crescendo, the long neck of the kitchen faucet trembled and . . . sparkling-clear water poured out.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
I unclipped her lead and left Sid exploring the wainscoting. I had a very full van to unload. I could hear my rose-bush calling to be let out of the dark. (Metaphorically. If I started hearing my rose-bush talking to me I would move back to the city after all, into one of those cockroach-infested studio apartments that were in my price range, because clearly the country was bad for me. I could probably adjust to Mr Melmoth and Watermelon Shoulders if I had to. Talking rose-bushes were a delusion too far. Maybe Sid could learn to catch cockroaches.)
I unlocked the van’s rear doors and opened them cautiously. A few dog toys and one of the small sample bags of kibble fell out. Nothing else. I looked at all the stuff and considered despairing. No. Didn’t have time. This was the moment to be grateful that I was poor and had only a small van’s worth of stuff to shift. —Nonsense. If I had more money I’d’ve hired someone to do the shifting.
Unenthusiastically I pulled out the bags from the pet store and piled them to one side. I needed to get started with the book boxes before I lost my nerve. Or twisted the other ankle. Gently I lifted my rose-bush out and set her by the edge of the driveway. She immediately improved the view. In spite of the ruts and the screaming skulls. This was Rose Manor, after all. Rose Manor should have a rose-bush in a knock-off Tiffany pot at the edge of the driveway. Rose Manor should have a phalanx of rose-bushes lining the driveway, but I only had one.
If I’d realised I’d have to carry all of my books up a flight of stairs I’d’ve stuck them in smaller boxes. No, probably not. I’d packed up my old life still under the aegis of Joe the Doorman and when I’d asked for packing boxes this is what one of his janitorial minions had brought. Those last weeks in New York I’d had as much of my brain turned off as I could manage and not set fire to anything that now belonged to Mr Diamond-Studded Shoelaces, like the entire apartment. I knew that Joe was being even more helpful than his demanding vocation required because he felt sorry for me, but I didn’t care. Here were boxes to put things in, and tape to finish the job. Thank you, Joe.
I propped Rose Manor’s front door open with the first book box and began stacking the rest of them immediately inside the door. I’d worry about where they ultimately went later. Like maybe next year. Who needs to read? Um. No. Bad suggestion from someone who earns what passes for her living by people reading. But maybe I’d think about an ereader a little more seriously after this. Supposing I survived, I thought, panting up with my third box. I set it down next to its friends. Sid, tired from her exertions at the wainscoting, was lying stretched out on her side in the middle of the parlour floor. She should have been dwarfed by the size and stark emptiness of the room but it had the opposite effect: she looked enormous. Skeletal but enormous, as if when she stood up her head would brush the ceiling. I hoped not. I really didn’t want to buy enough dog food to fatten up something that size. She raised her head, gave her tail a single thump, and let both head and tail flop back to the floor. Those mice in the wainscoting were very tiring. I scowled. I, however, did not need to gain half my body weight and there were 1,000,000,000 boxes of books out there waiting to help me burn off a little of what Eats had put on.
Five boxes. I was starting to see stars. I hoped this was my blood pressure and not that it had taken me six hours to carry five boxes of books up a flight of stairs and sunset was a while ago.
Six boxes. Maybe I’d just pile the rest of them in the middle of the front garden and have the biggest bonfire Cold Valley had ever seen. Except that I’d read my Ray Bradbury and knew that books don’t actually burn that well. I could siphon some gas out of the van to help the fire along a little. No, how would I explain the gigantic scorch march on the lawn to Hayley when she came to dinner—tomorrow? How could I have invited a real estate agent—my real estate agent—for dinner the day after I moved in? Besides, gigantic scorch marks would lower the tone that my rose-bush was trying so hard to raise.
Seven boxes. I was wheezing like a dragon with asthma. My ankle had stopped hurting—in shock, possibly—but my right knee was starting to protest and I was sure my feet were getting flatter. I had red streaks across the pads at the bottoms of my fingers where the edges of the boxes ground in and at least one blister starting.