When I got back from the grocery store, Ian’s truck was gone. A shallow place in the snow and a set of tracks marked where it had been. I could hear a television murmuring from the end of the house opposite the kitchen, and went that way. The room to the left of the foyer had been a library once, with dusty, empty shelves built into the walls and an ancient Oriental rug that had a big rectangle of deeper color in the center where a piece of furniture had stood. There were nine or ten large boxes in one corner, and a precarious tower of books on top of each one. The room seemed to be in black and white, except for the brilliant color in the center of the carpet. I stopped and looked around the room, savoring the effect. It really was a pretty house, despite its condition. I found myself a little bit jealous of Lexi. The place made me want a big old house of my own.
Eddie was in the next room, which was a sort of den. There was a television on the floor next to a pair of VCRs. There was a tremendous pile of throw pillows in lieu of a couch, and a fireplace that would have looked a lot better with a fire in it. Eddie was sitting on the floor with his laptop in front of him, smoking a cigarette. He was paying no attention to the TV at all. “All stocked up?” he said, not looking up at me.
I didn’t feel like carrying all the grocery bags myself. “Help me bring the food in.”
“Coming, dear,” he replied, getting up. I ignored that completely. “The grocery store was bigger than you expected, eh?” he asked.
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t. Guesswork.”
“I have to be. Arrogant self-confidence has gotten me where I am today, Nicks.”
He had never called me Nicks before. I instantly disliked it more than Poppet, so I pretended not to notice in hopes that it would go away.
Lexi was in the kitchen when we got there. Her sleepshirt was gone; she wore a tank top and matching yellow panties and was eating cheesecake by the light of the refrigerator. I saw why the cheesecake was ring-shaped; she had a spoon and was eating it from the center outward.
“Afternoon,” Eddie said.
She looked up at us. “Mmm, cheesecake,” she said.
“Why are you eating it like that?” I asked.
“To…make you wonder why,” she replied after a moment of deliberation. Eddie laughed.
“Good to see you have a sense of humor back in there,” I said. I didn’t want to snap at her, but Eddie’s laughing had put an edge on my mood.
Eddie put his bags on the counter, and Lexi noticed them for the first time. “Oh, did we get groceries?” She forgot all about her cheesecake and started looking through the bags. “A cherry danish would be nice. Or cheese…cherry cheese. Maybe.”
Eddie looked at me and tapped his watch, tossing his hand and head back slightly, as if he were doing a shot of whiskey. It was time for Lexi’s pill. That made sense. She was somewhat lucid and animated compared to before. I liked her better this way, in spite of being a little annoyed with her. “Are you hungry, Lexi?” Eddie asked. He sounded too much like Dr. Zheng.
She stopped looking through the bags instantly. “No. Not a bit. I’ve hardly eaten all day. A little here, a little there. I shall waste away to nothing if I keep this up.” Lexi spread her arms and tilted her head back with a theatric sigh. She frowned. “There are cracks in the ceiling,” she said, as if they had appeared just to irritate her and were somehow our fault.
“It’s still a nice house,” I said.
“It has its moments,” Lexi replied.
“I could get you a cherry cheese danish, if you want.”
“Oh, stitch that,” she said, still looking at the ceiling. “I don’t need a silly danish, or a pecan spinwheel either.”
I looked at Eddie, who wasn’t helping a bit. He winked at me and headed back out to the car to get more groceries. Asshole.
“I am not hungry,” Lexi said. I opened my mouth to tell her I knew that, but she continued. “But cats are hungry. It’s time to feed cats.” She wandered over to the sink, looked into it for a long moment, then squatted so suddenly it looked as if she’d dropped into a hole. A bag crackled, the unmistakable sound of a pet food bag.
I’ve never owned a cat but I like them enough to know that even in that huge house both of them would hear it. Soon there would be two cats charging through the house to get an early evening meal. I smiled at the thought.
I was only half-right. I heard scuttling of rapidly approaching cats right on schedule, but the cats kept coming, and coming. Soon the bowls she had put out were a crowd of waving tails and crunching noises.
“Fuck me,” I said, momentarily forgetting my false face of professionalism. Lexi didn’t appear to have heard. Lexi didn’t have two cats; she had six. “You have more cats than I thought.”
She laughed. “I am the Queen of the Cats,” she said in a regal voice that didn’t go at all with her skimpy clothing. She looked down at the cats with a pleased smile on her face, the ghost of the sunshine smile she had flashed earlier.
“What are their names?”
Lexi squatted and began introducing me to her cats. Eddie came back in with four more bags of groceries, looked at us, at the cats, raised his eyebrows, and went back out again. “This is Amy-Ann,” Lexi said, indicating the tortie who had inspected me earlier. “The gray tabby next to her is Teague, and the big Maine coon,” the cat whom I had seen sitting on the rail that afternoon, “is Nance. Teague and Nance are–were–Ren’s cats.” Her voice cracked a little. Lexi touched the corner of her eye with a finger, dabbing at a tear I couldn’t see. “Mirror is the white cat with the mismatched eyes, Audrey is the longhaired calico, and this…” Lexi stood up, held out her arms, and made a little kissing noise. The last cat in line, a long-haired black cat, stopped eating and jumped right up into her arms. “This is Malice,” she said. “Malice is my familiar,” she added with a grin.
There was a little bit of malice in her smile, too. It was nothing like the sunshine smile I’d gotten earlier. A chill raced gleefully up my spine, as if Lexi had been reading my thoughts. For an instant I saw what Dr. Zheng must have seen when she’d thrown a wrench at him. Maybe. I resolved not to underestimate her, in any case. I looked into the cat’s gorgeous green eyes for a long moment. “She’s pretty,” I said finally.
Lexi hummed in agreement and let the cat jump to the floor. “You look uncomfortable,” she said. Her eyes were less muddy than they had been earlier.
“I was in California a few days ago. My body’s still adjusting to the weather.” Lexi just nodded. I tried not to look at Lexi’s bare thighs and feet, but failed. In a series of little glances I noticed a tremendous keloid scar running up Lexi’s right shin. It was straight, like a surgical scar, but irregular pockmarks stippled the area on both sides. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Yep. Freezing. You?”
I frowned and decided not to pursue it. “The house is creeping me out a little bit, too.”
“It’ll do that. Wait till it gets dark out. It’s haunted, you know. Oh, and some of the wiring is bad. Mice, I think.”
I grabbed the first grocery bag close to me and started putting the cold things in the refrigerator. “I’ll bet the lights in the room with the canopy bed don’t work.”
“How’d you know? Oh, the doctor told you. Doctor Edward. Is he really a doctor? I don’t think he is. I don’t think any of them are. Or were. I just wonder too much, too many things.” I opened my mouth to assure Lexi that Eddie was a real doctor, but her mind had already changed the subject. “I hope it snows more. I like snow.”
“Not even to look at?”
I shrugged. “Maybe to look at.”
Lexi handed me a can of frozen orange juice. “I like being cold. It’s easy to warm up when you’re cold, and it feels good.”
That and the cold can made me think about how much I hated to be cold. Just thinking about it made me cold. “I prefer to stay comfortable. Then I don’t require relief.”
“Relief, whatever. I just like the changes in scenery.”
I thought about it a second. “Yeah, I guess ups and downs are better than constantly being in the middle. But it’s hard to remember that during the down times.” My words were familiar, like I had heard them before but not said them myself.
Lexi smiled again. She looked like she was about to say something else, and then Eddie came back with the last bags of groceries. “Did I interrupt?” he said. “Heard you talking all the way out at the door.”
“We were talking about you,” Lexi said suddenly. “We’ve figured out your little ruse, and it’s not going to work, not for a minute.” She turned on her heel and left, taking her secret passage again.
I became aware that I was staring after her in open surprise. Eddie didn’t look surprised at all, and I tried to get the look off my face. Lexi was obviously being silly; she couldn’t know Eddie wasn’t really a doctor. Could she?
“She’s out of her head, Poppet,” Eddie said. “Don’t let it play mindgames with you.”
“This whole house is playing mindgames with me. You finish this, I’m going to my room.” I expected him to complain, but he let me go.
It wasn’t late, but I had been up early and driving all day and I was worn out. I liked Lexi okay, but wasn’t in the mood to be toyed with, even unintentionally. At the same time, if Ian and Zheng had been treating her like a Barbie doll, I could see why Lexi was being the way she was.
The second floor was split; Lexi’s bedroom and a bath on one side, guest bedrooms and another bath on the other. The hallways were parallel, the house seemed bigger because I could never see the length of it. I explored the side that Eddie and I were to sleep on. The fixtures had turned yellow, but the lights in the hallway worked. The first room at the top of the stairs was Eddie’s, then mine, then another empty bedroom. Unfortunately Lexi had been correct about there being no electricity in my room. I squinted at the dark, and could only make out the huge boxy shape of the canopy bed in the middle of the room. The window was a faint pale square in the darkness.
I had a penlight in my bag, so I dug it out. The little shaft of light speared a hole in the dark, and I saw a massive canopy bed that hadn’t been slept in by anything other than cats for a long time. Oval puddles of fur dotted the cover, like nests. My light found a chair and small table next to the bed, and more boxes in the corner. Otherwise the room was empty.
I pulled back the top cover, revealing clean sheets, and put my bag on the bed. The fishing line wasn’t holding, I noticed, and grimaced. There wasn’t much life left in it. Leather could only be mended so many times, and the thing was dry-rotting on top of that. Too many drenchings and not enough saddle soap.
I laid my afghan across the pillows. It’s a little ritual. At any temporary lodging, I put my afghan on the bed. It can make any little spot into home for me. I was tired. I needed to feel at home somewhere so I could sleep better, and the afghan helped. But first I needed to find a candle.
The bathroom had lights, and there were two votive candles on the sink. It looked as run-down as the rest of the house, except for a beautiful claw-foot bathtub. It looked new, or at least freshly restored. The tile on the floor and sink were stained, but the tub’s smooth white belly was pristine. The fixtures shone as well, shiny new chrome.
I turned the HOT knob. I didn’t expect it to work, but after a moment a gentle flow of surprisingly hot water began filling the tub. I made a little exclamation of happiness. A hot bath sounded better than sleep. I went back to my room and got my bag.