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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill (10 page)

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
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“Should we go to the front door?” Haley asked. Seeing the back of the house close up like this unnerved her, the smell of things decaying and the darkened mansions
déshabillé.
Like seeing her grandmother once without her false teeth: she wanted to turn away and give the house a chance to pull itself together.

Linette stopped to scratch her foot. “Nah. It’ll be easier to just walk in if we go this way. If nobody’s home.” She straightened and peered back in the direction they’d come. Haley turned with her. The breeze felt good in her face. She could smell the distant dampness of Lake Muscanth, hear the croak of frogs and the rustling of leaves where deer stepped to water’s edge to drink. When the girls turned back to the big house each took a step forward. Then they gasped, Linette pawing at the air for Haley’s hand.

“Someone’s there!”

Haley nodded. She squeezed Linette’s fingers and then drew forward.

They had only looked away for an instant. But it had been long enough for lights to go on inside and out, so that now the girls blinked in the glare of spotlights. Someone had thrown open a set of French doors opening onto a sort of patio decorated with tubs of geraniums and very old wicker porch furniture, the wicker sprung in threatening and dangerous patterns. Against the brilliance the hollyhocks loomed black and crimson. A trailing length of white curtain blew from the French doors onto the patio. Haley giggled nervously, and heard Linette breathing hard behind her.

Someone stepped outside, a small figure not much taller than Haley. He held something in his arms, and cocked his head in a way that was, if not exactly welcoming, at least neutral enough to indicate that they should come closer.

Haley swallowed and looked away. She wondered if it would be too stupid just to run back to the cottage. But behind her Linette had frozen. On her face was the same look she had when caught passing notes in class, a look that meant it would be up to Haley, as usual, to get them out of this.

“Hum,” Haley said, clearing her throat. The man didn’t move. She shrugged, trying to think of something to say.

“Come on up,” a voice rang out; a rather high voice with the twangy undercurrent of a Texas accent. It was such a cheerful voice, as though they were expected guests, that for a moment she didn’t associate it with the stranger on the patio. “It’s okay, you’re looking for your pet, right?”

Behind her Linette gasped again, in relief. Then Haley was left behind as her friend raced up the hill, holding up her skirts and glancing back, laughing.

“Come on! He’s got Valentine—”

Haley followed her, walking deliberately slowly. Of a sudden she felt odd. The too-bright lights on a patio smelling of earth and mandarin oranges; the white curtain blowing in and out; the welcoming stranger holding Valentine. It all made her dizzy, fairly breathless with anticipation; but frightened, too. For a long moment she stood there, trying to catch her breath. Then she hurried after her friend.

When she got to the top Linette was holding the kinkajou, crooning over it the way Haley usually did. Linette herself hadn’t given it this much attention since its arrival last spring. Haley stopped, panting, next to a wicker chair, and bent to scratch her ankle. When she looked up again the stranger was staring at her.

“Hello,” he said. Haley smiled shyly and shrugged, then glanced at Linette.

“Hey! You got him back! I told you he was here—”

Linette smiled, settled onto a wicker loveseat with Valentine curled among the folds of her skirt. “Thanks,” she said softly, glancing up at the man. “He found him two days ago, he said. This is Haley—”

The man said hello again, still smiling. He was short, and wore a black T-shirt and loose white trousers, like hospital pants only cut from some fancy cloth. He had long black hair, thinning back from his forehead but still thick enough to pull into a pony tail. He reminded her of someone; she couldn’t think who. His hands were crossed on his chest and he nodded at Haley, as though he knew what she was thinking.

“You’re sisters,” he said; then when Linette giggled shook his head, laughing. “No, of course, that’s dumb: you’re just friends, right? Best friends, I see you all the time together.”

Haley couldn’t think of anything to say, so she stepped closer to Linette and stroked the kinkajou’s head. She wondered what happened now: if they stayed here on the porch with the stranger, or took Valentine and went home, or—

But what happened next was that a very old lady appeared in the French doors that led inside. She moved quickly, as though if she slowed down even for an instant she would be overtaken by one of the things that overtake old people, arthritis maybe, or sleep; and she swatted impatiently at the white curtains blowing in and out.

“Elijah,” she said accusingly. She wore a green polyester blouse and pants patterned with enormous orange poppies, and fashionable eyeglasses with very large green frames. Her white hair was carefully styled. As she stood in the doorway her gaze flicked from Linette and the kinkajou to the stranger, then back to Linette. And Haley saw something cross the old woman’s face as she looked at her friend, and then at the man again: an expression of pure alarm, terror almost. Then the woman turned and looked at Haley for the first time. She shook her head earnestly and continued to stare at Haley with very bright eyes, as though they knew each other from somewhere, or as though she had quickly sized up the situation and decided Haley was the only other person here with any common sense, which seemed precisely the kind of thing this old lady might think. “I’m Elijah’s grandmother,” she said at last, and very quickly crossed the patio to stand beside the stranger.

“Hi,”
said Linette, looking up from beneath waves of dark hair.

The man smiled, glancing at the old lady. His hand moved very slightly toward Linette’s head, as though he might stroke her hair. Haley desperately wanted to scratch her ankle again, but was suddenly embarrassed lest anyone see her. The old lady continued to stare at her, and Haley finally coughed.

“I’m Haley,” she said, then added, “Linette’s friend.” As though the lady knew who Linette was.

But maybe she did, because she nodded very slightly, glancing again at Linette and then at the man she had said was her grandson. “Well,” she said. Her voice was strong and a little shrill, and she too had a Texas accent. “Come on in, girls.
Elijah.
I put some water on for tea.”

Now this is too weird,
thought Haley. The old lady strode back across the patio and held aside the white curtains, waiting for them to follow her indoors. Linette stood, cradling the kinkajou and murmuring to it. She caught Haley’s eye and smiled triumphantly. Then she followed the old lady, her skirt rustling about her legs. That left Haley and the man still standing by the wicker furniture.

“Come on in, Haley,” he said to her softly. He extended one hand toward the door, a very long slender hand for such a short man. Around his wrist he wore a number of thin silver- and gold-colored bracelets. There came again that overpowering scent of oranges and fresh earth, and something else, too, a smoky musk like incense. Haley blinked and steadied herself by touching the edge of one wicker chair. “It’s okay, Haley—”

Is it?
she wondered. She looked behind her, down the hill to where the cottage lay sleeping. If she yelled would Aurora hear her? Would anyone? Because she was certain now that something was happening, maybe had already happened and it was just taking a while (as usual) to catch up with Haley. From the woods edging Lake Muscanth came the yapping of the fox again, and the wind brought her the smell of water. For a moment she shut her eyes and pretended she was there, safe with the frogs and foxes.

But even with her eyes closed she could feel the man staring at her with that intent dark gaze. It occurred to Haley then that the only reason he wanted her to come was that he was afraid Linette would go if Haley left. A wave of desolation swept over her, to think she was unwanted, that even here and now it was as it always was: Linette chosen first for teams, for dances, for secrets, and Haley waiting, waiting.

“Haley.”

The man touched her hand, a gesture so tentative that for a moment she wasn’t even sure it was him: it might have been the breeze, or a leaf falling against her wrist. She looked up and his eyes were pleading, but also apologetic; as though he really believed it wouldn’t be the same without her. And she knew that expression—now who stared at her just like that, who was it he looked like?

It was only after she had followed him across the patio, stooping to brush the grass from her bare feet as she stepped over the threshold into Kingdom Come, that she realized he reminded her of Linette.

The tea was Earl Grey, the same kind they drank in Linette’s kitchen. But this kitchen was huge: the whole cottage could practically have fit inside it. For all that it was a reassuring place, with all the normal kitchen things where they should be—microwave, refrigerator, ticking cat clock with its tail slicing back and forth, back and forth.

“Cream and sugar?”

The old lady’s hands shook as she put the little bowl on the table. Behind her Lie Vagal grinned, opened a cabinet and took out a golden jar.

“I bet she likes
honey
,” he pronounced, setting the jar in front of Linette.

She giggled delightedly “How did you know?”

“Yeah, how did you know?” echoed Haley, frowning a little. In Linette’s lap the kinkajou uncurled and yawned, and Linette dropped a spoonful of honey into its mouth. The old lady watched tight-lipped. Behind her glasses her eyes sought Haley’s, but the girl looked away, shy and uneasy.

“Just a feeling I had, just a lucky guess,” Lie Vagal sang. He took a steaming mug from the table, ignored his grandmother when she pointed meaningfully at the pill bottle beside it. “Now, would you girls like to tour the rest of the house?”

It was an amazing place. There were chairs of brass and ebony, chairs of antlers, chairs of neon tubes. Incense burners shaped like snakes and elephants sent up wisps of sweet smoke. From the living room wall gaped demonic masks, and a hideous stick figure that looked like something that Haley, shuddering, recalled from
Uncle Wiggly.
There was a glass ball that sent out runners of light when you touched it, and a jukebox that played a song about the Sandman.

And everywhere were the paintings. Not exactly what you would expect to find in a place like this: paintings that illustrated fairy tales. Puss in Boots and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Aladdin and the Monkey King and the Moon saying goodnight. Famous paintings, some of them—Haley recognized scenes from books she’d loved as a child, and framed animation cells from
Pinocchio
and
Snow White
and
Cinderella.

These were parceled out among the other wonders. A man-high tank seething with piranhas. A room filled with nothing but old record albums, thousands of them. A wall of gold and platinum records and framed clippings from
Rolling Stone
and NME and
New York Rocker.
And in the library a series of Andy Warhol silk-screens of a young man with very long hair, alternately colored green and blue, dated 1972.

Linette was entranced by the fairy-tale paintings. She walked right past the Warhol prints to peruse a watercolor of a tiny child and a sparrow, and dreamily traced the edge of its frame. Lie Vagal stared after her, curling a lock of his hair around one finger. Haley lingered in front of the Warhol prints and chewed her thumb thoughtfully.

After a long moment she turned to him and said, “I know who you are. You’re, like, this old rock star. Lie Vagal. You had some album that my babysitter liked when I was little.”

He smiled and turned from watching Linette. “Yeah, that’s me.”

Haley rubbed her lower lip, staring at the Warhol prints. “You must’ve been really famous, to get him to do those paintings. What was that album called? The Mountain King?”

“The Erl-King.”
He stepped to an ornate ormulu desk adrift with papers. He shuffled through them, finally withdrew a glossy pamphlet. “Let’s see—”

He turned back to Haley and handed it to her. A CD catalog, opened to a page headed
ROCK AND ROLL ARCHIVES
and filled with reproductions of album cover art. He pointed to one, reduced like the others to the size of a postage stamp. The illustration was of a midnight landscape speared by lightning. In the foreground loomed a hooded figure, in the background tiny specks that might have been other figures or trees or merely errors in the printing process.
The Erl-King,
read the legend that ran beneath the picture.

“Huh,” said Haley. She glanced up to call Linette, but her friend had wandered into the adjoining room. She could glimpse her standing at the shadowed foot of a set of stairs winding up to the next story. “Awesome,” Haley murmured, turning toward Lie Vagal. When he said nothing she awkwardly dropped the catalog onto a chair.

“Let’s go upstairs,” he said, already heading after Linette. Haley shrugged and followed him, glancing back once at the faces staring from the library wall.

Up here it was more like someone had just moved in. Their footsteps sounded louder, and the air smelled of fresh paint. There were boxes and bags piled against the walls. Amplifiers and speakers and other sound equipment loomed from corners, trailing cables and coils of wire. Only the paintings had been attended to, neatly hung in the corridors and beside windows. Haley thought it was weird, the way they were beside all the windows: not where you usually hung pictures. There were mirrors like that, too, beside or between windows, so that sometimes the darkness threw back the night, sometimes her own pale and surprised face.

They found Linette at the end of the long hallway. There was a door there, closed, an ornate antique door that had obviously come from somewhere else. It was of dark wood, carved with hundreds of tiny figures, animals and people and trees, and inlaid with tiny mirrors and bits of glass. Linette stood staring at it, her back to them. From her tangled hair peeked the kinkajou, blinking sleepily as Haley came up behind her.

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
3.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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