Crooked [2.1]

“You should thank him, that’s all I’m saying, Lyn. You owe him a great deal.”

Lyn didn’t like the idea of owing anyone anything, especially a man she’d never really seen. His house was always closed, the windows darkened by heavy curtains. There had been rumors when she was a kid, after the rumors stopped being about her, about what kind of malady or malfeasance kept this patriarch of the village hidden away. But that’s how children were, and she’d dismissed them.

Marm June kneaded bread like she was fighting a war at the old counter, scarred by generations of missed knife strokes and angry glasses. Muscles in her forearms bunched and released, confident, concrete. Marm June kneaded bread as though she were kneading reality, pushing the world into a shape that was right and correct. Lyn stood in the corner, arrow-straight, right and correct, watching her arms move, the muscles beneath her skin bending streaks of flour like ghostly white snakes.

“Just go up there. Take him up a basket, try to show a little gratitude for once. You’re a grown woman now, you’re old enough to recognize charity.”

You are unwanted, the words pulsed back at her, a tiny thread of resentment working its way through the backmost fields of her mind where it was always winter.

Two loaves of bread steamed beneath her arm, their hot weight pressing through the material of her coat while autumn clawed beneath its hem. The crooked street lead toward a house whose profile had been in the corner of her vision her entire life. She stood at the end of the last straight stretch, looking at the weathered edifice. The house leaned a little, which she’d never noticed before. A neat series of sixteen steps up the gravel brought her to the stoop and she knocked twice, folding her hands after and trying to appear precisely as Marm June intended her to appear. Right and proper, nothing out of place, nothing that you would have to account for later.

The door swung open. Lyn hadn’t heard footsteps on the other side, despite listening for them. A woman stood in the shadows of the foyer, where high shafts of light came down from small windows, never quite reaching the floor but splashing the walls enough that she could make out the details of the old lady’s face.

Her skin prickled at the thought that this woman had been sitting in that foyer, just waiting for someone to walk up the drive and knock on that door, waiting to pull them into the house that was believed—as children believe—to be haunted.

More than likely, she or her husband, the house’s master, had looked down from one of the upper windows and seen her coming up the track on foot. There were no other houses out this far. As Lyn understood it, they owned a sweeping tract of land fanning out like a cape from this building. They liked being alone.

The woman didn’t say anything, and Lyn didn’t say anything either. Standing below one of those skew panels of light such that the diffuse illumination spilled down over the high ridges and deep furrows of his face, a man looked down on them from a stair that spiraled up toward more concrete darkness. No, he looked down at Lyn, looked down from the top of that high stair directly into her eyes. His expression fell into disappointment. Is this all? She wanted to believe it was merely the bread, perhaps, but she had a general idea that this might have been a great deal more personal.

“I came to say thank you,” Lyn said, extending the basket by way of sticking out the arm on which she’d slung the wicker handles.

“I’m sorry, that’s so very kind of you,” the old woman said in a dust-soft voice much more inviting than Lyn expected. “But I can’t imagine whatever for.”

“Don’t be unkind,” the man said from his perch. “You know very well who our guest is today. Why don’t you take her gift into the kitchen, darling.”

He came down, his gait precise and commanding. The woman slid the basket off Lyn’s arm while she watched the man and realized that part of that deliberation was because one of his legs didn’t move quite right beneath his weight. He made up for it with a steely grip on the banister, every gesture planned and almost seamless. Almost. He didn’t let go of the banister when he reached the tiled floor at the same moment the woman vanished into the kitchen.

A second appraisal yielded the same frown, and Lyn had half a mind to turn and leave, Marm June be damned, but he reached out and touched the bare skin of her arm where she’d rolled her sleeves back on the walk over.

“For what?” he said, looking down into her eyes.

“Beg pardon?” said Lyn.

“What did you come to thank me for?”

She dropped her gaze, her discomfort metabolizing swiftly into annoyance. “For… everything that you’ve done for me,” she said.

He inclined his head slightly, still watching her.

“For giving me the opportunity to live here. For making a place for me,” she went on, a little less certain.

The old man nodded slowly, weighing her response and eventually deciding it was acceptable. “Let’s go into the parlor.”

Lyn hadn’t intended to stay. Though her eyes followed, she didn’t move to go with him, opening her mouth to protest when his hand closed, firm and a little cold, around her wrist.

With his almost undiscernible limp, he pulled her into a parlor lit by a single skylight pouring in angled sunlight from several floors above. Lyn sat where he gestured for her to sit.

“I really can’t stay long,” she said, eyes wandering the dusty light. The parlor was small, the table ill-fitting.

The old woman came out of the narrow door to the kitchen with a board and slices of the fresh bread as well as a mug of something steaming. The aroma of bread accompanied her, but something else came with it, rising from the cup. The smell was thick and a little salty under a more familiar fragrance of rose petals. She set the cup down at Lyn’s elbow and settled into a chair across the table with an intent smile. The man remained standing, his glare searching the room as if for something to accuse.

“We really are glad that you came up to see us, aren’t we, dear?” the woman said without looking away from Lyn.

She looked from the woman up to the man, wishing one of them would have responded to her assertion that she couldn’t stay, which wasn’t strictly true. Marm June hadn’t told her she had to be back at any given time.

As an afterthought, he nodded, barely looking at either of them. Then, with a great lurch of motion that flowed through his wire-thin body like a wave of disturbed energy, he capered forward and bent at the waist like a doll, long fingers clawing open a cabinet just above the floor from which he withdrew a dust-covered dome of fabric stretched over some kind of skeletal frame beneath.

“Now I remember,” he said. For the first time, a smile split his face, and Lyn’s hand paused on the hot mug. Older though he was, he wasn’t a bad-looking man, with the sort of planar and slightly aquiline face that Lyn could imagine Marm June appreciating on the rare few occasions she expressed anything other than disdain. When he smiled, though, his hard mouth opened around a vortex of misaligned teeth. The row on top slanted against one another like river stones packed at angles by the current with a sharp near-peak at the front created by his incisors. His canines jutted from a little higher in his gums than the rest of his teeth. On the bottom row, the teeth pointed to the right, narrow and set at slightly different heights, the skyline of an ivory shanty-town. Lyn didn’t have time to count in that small moment of expressiveness, but it looked rather like there were too many.

“Remember what?” she said, intending to recover from staring and resenting her own curiosity.

“You’ll see,” said the man. He spoke without his mouth very far open, reducing the impact of the teeth, though now that Lyn knew what was back there behind his face it was difficult to ignore the hints any longer. “For now, drink your tea.”

She was starting to think that the longer she held it the colder she was going to get in that kitchen. “Like I said, I can’t really stay too long, I need to get back to…” Her voice drained out of her at the look he gave, his grey eyes—and they were grey, it struck her—as dull as flint in the diffuse light of the kitchen.

“You needn’t get back to anything,” he said with the un-arrogant inflection of someone who knew. “What, precisely, did Juna send you for? Or in response to, I suppose.” His eyes wandered to the woman across the table, and he smiled slightly, but without teeth.

Lyn frowned. She hadn’t heard anyone call Marm June “Juna” for a long time. When she tried to imagine the last person who used it, she couldn’t recall much more than the fact that it was a man. Could it have been this man?

“Well?” The snap of his voice was like a switch landing across her knuckles. She winced, and a little liquid from the cup sloshed down over the back of her hand, hotter than she was expecting.

“She said that it… was polite. That I should thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” she replied with a cautious frown.

“Why now?” he said, looking down at her with no sign of relenting in his questioning. “Why not before? You’ve been old enough to walk up here for years.”

Lyn shook her head, disliking the sensation that there was no way to lie to this man because he already knew something of the truth and she wasn’t sure what. “Because she thought I should come up here and speak with you before I left,” she confessed. The thick tea still burned against her skin. If the old woman noticed she’d spilled something, she didn’t make any indication that Lyn could see.

“Left?” The disappointment swayed firmly back into place on his features. “Exactly where do you think you have to go, young lady?”

“I could go,” she said, straightening. “There’s nothing stopping me from going. I might. I could.”

It sounded like she was more unsure of the fact than they were, and she could feel more than hear the old woman beside her laughing low in her throat.

“I didn’t ask whether you thought you could manage,” the old man said with a derisive huff as he lowered himself down into a chair, “I asked where you were intending to go.”

Lyn slid her hands off the mug, rubbing the back of the one where the tea had spilled against her trousers because it still stung her skin even though the heat had gone out of it. More and more, she didn’t want to drink the stuff in the cup, but the weight of the old woman’s eyes was still on her, heavy with expectation.

“I’m not sure,” she continued, determined to defend her choice. After all, she’d already had this conversation with Marm June a dozen times in the last year, even as recently as this morning. “But I’m allowed to travel, to be on my own. I’ll go where I like.”

“Will you.” The skepticism rode his voice hard, and she wanted to get up and walk out but felt anchored to the chair, waiting for them to pass some kind of judgment on her.

“I don’t know what I’ll do, but I know it’s my affair and no one else’s.”

A small smile twisted its way onto the old man’s mouth, but didn’t reveal his maw of snaggleteeth again. “Go ahead and drink your tea. It shouldn’t be too hot now, and we don’t want to keep you from going on your way, young lady.”

Lyn shifted her eyes from man to woman and in a motion almost removed from her own willpower, she brought the cup of viscous liquid to her lips. It tasted much like it smelled, like heavy roses and a little like raspberry, not on the whole unpleasant, though there was a slightly salty, slightly metallic current running underneath it. The taste hung on, coating her mouth, and she felt thanks that it wasn’t a very large mug.

“I do appreciate your making a place for me in the town and making sure that I was taken care of.” She tried to sound sincere; she did mean the words, she was glad, because she didn’t know what would have become of her if she’d been sent away.

“It’s all very well,” he said, an air of dismissal replacing the air of disdain he’d carried when he was standing up. “You still have a part to play.”

Midway through taking another sip of tea, Lyn coughed. “Excuse me?”

“You’ve a role to play, here. There’s something a few of us need from you.”

She started to get up, hands flat and cold on the table. “I think I’m finished, I think I’d better go.”

“Sit down and finish your drink,” the woman said, her voice a cold and solid as floating ice.

Lyn’s rear end hit the seat of the chair. She took another swallow of the thick red stuff in the cup and didn’t take her eyes off the man.

“It’s nothing improper, my dear,” the man said with a smile wide enough that she saw the teeth. She put the cup back in her mouth again to avoid grimacing, and took a deeper pull of its contents, hoping to get out of their kitchen faster. “I only hope to teach you a few things and hope that you might carry a little of my knowledge off with you when you go. You’re young, and as you can see, I am not.”

“What kind of things?” Lyn said, drinking.

“You’ll see,” the man said, patting the fabric-covered dome that he’d set on the table at his elbow. “Maybe a little patience will come with it.” He laughed at the barb, teeth flashing. They were very clean, very white, for how badly aligned they were. She was surprised that they didn’t distort the line of his mouth when it was closed.