Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(7)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(7)
Author: K.F. Breene

Which, okay yes, was kind of awesome. I got to go exploring by myself. Looking in the nooks and crannies. Peering in cupboards. Hunting based on dusty memories made thirty years ago. If he wasn’t around, he couldn’t tell me no or warn me away. I was free to investigate my new surroundings without hindrance.

So here I was, in what was clearly Auntie Peggy’s bedroom, too afraid to argue with that nutcase Mr. Tom, and secretly delighted he didn’t expect me to.

The clock on my phone hit 7:53. I pushed away the dinner tray Mr. Tom had delivered to me earlier, every morsel eaten. The meal had been homemade and delicious, even more so because I hadn’t lifted a finger. Matt had always refused to learn to cook, leaving the task solely in my hands. Given that I hated cooking, and really hadn’t wanted to do it this evening, I couldn’t gush enough over Mr. Tom’s thoughtfulness. His oddity had been forgiven for the time being. The unmarked grave forgotten about. Mostly.

“What to do, what to do,” I said into the lofty surroundings.

Excitement swirled through my stomach. I felt like royalty. Or a rich person. This was easily the largest room I’d ever slept in.

I ran my thumb across my phone. I’d already FaceTimed with Jimmy so he could see the new digs, and vice versa. Although I’d helped him move into his dorm just a few weeks ago, it already looked like it had been through a tornado. He sounded excited, though—both for himself and for me—which took a weight off.

So now…I could find a home for my stuff, wander around the house, read, or…

I eyed my phone again. It was late to go out. I was usually heading home by eight o’clock. Matt had always liked to be in bed watching Sports Center by nine. Out of habit, I’d kept to our old schedule.

Why had I, though? I didn’t go to sleep until after ten if the book I was reading was halfway decent, and sometimes I’d stay up much later if I couldn’t put it down. Besides, Niamh was twice my age. If she could head out at eight, why couldn’t I? It’s not like I was tired…

Okay, yes, I was tired.

But it would probably take me a long time to fall asleep in this creaky old house…

Except I felt comfortable here, more comfortable than I ever had in the house I’d lived in with Matt. I felt…calm. Content. The divorce was final, Jimmy was doing well, the house payments were gone…

I felt liberated! It finally occurred to me that I could do whatever I wanted—even have ice cream for dinner if I wanted.

Screw it, I wanted to go out.

I would go have a drink with the rock-throwing granny across the street. There were worse ways to spend my time. Like hang out with Mr. Tom and probably get told a new name to call him.

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I looked around for my purse. The antique wood furniture, well-made with exquisite carvings, held all manner of interesting figurines and trinkets, but no purse. The coat rack was empty. The little table by the door had a plate holding the enormous key, but no handbag to put it in.

“Are you going out, ma’am?”

I jumped, spun, and held out a hand like a karate chop. I didn’t know karate, but sometimes a good bluff was the ticket.

“Yes,” I answered, dropping the hand within his unimpressed stare. “Where’s my handbag—oh.” I took it from his white gloved hand. For some inexplicable reason, he’d changed from his moth-eaten, tattered suit to a moth-eaten tux. He wasn’t much of a sweats guy, it seemed. His cape still hung down his back.

“You’re really into super heroes, huh?” I asked, pointing at the cape.

“Super heroes were created by miserable Dicks who can live greatness only through the page. I live it through my life.”

Oh super. He was delusional. I’d definitely be buried in the yard before all this was over.

“Okay, well…” I held up my purse for a moment. “Thanks for grabbing my—”

“You’ll want a light jacket, ma’am.” He left the room.

I waited for a moment, wondering if he planned to grab one. He’d grabbed my purse, after all. But since all my clothes were up in my room, and he wasn’t climbing either of the curved stairwells to the landing over the massive archway, it wasn’t likely. Besides, we were inland near the Sierras—the temperature didn’t drop that much or fast. I’d be fine. The alcohol would keep me warm.

I tucked the key into my purse, frowned at the weight, and let myself out. Was changing the locks out of the question? I’d have to wear that key in a holster when I went jogging.

“Good evening.” A man stood off the side of the porch with clippers in hand. His long face and loose jowls looked familiar.

“You’re the gardener, right?” I asked with a smile.

“Edgar, yes.” His lips pulled wide, showing yellowed teeth with somewhat long canines. “How nice of you to remember. It has been such a long time for you.”

By his tone, it sounded like he was commenting on my age. I nearly clapped back with, “For you too, buddy, don’t fool yourself.”

“It has, yes,” I said instead.

“You’ll have to come and see the labyrinth,” he said, opening the clippers but not leaning toward the perfectly tended hedge. “I’ve made some additions. You’ll be lost for days this time, I swear it.”

“Wow, good memory.” I remembered when Diana and I had explored it. She’d led the way in the beginning, winding deep into the heart of it. The problem had come when it was time to leave—each path she led us down came to a dead end. We’d been confused. Then scared. We’d worried we’d never find our way out. But then…I just kinda…started walking, I remember. I felt my way, as odd as that sounded, listening to my intuition. We’d eventually made our way out the exit, half a day after walking in the entrance. “How do you even remember that? I didn’t until you just brought it up.”

He closed the clippers again and winked. “I was waiting to save you girls. It was the shock of my life that you made it out. I knew then that you were destined for great things.”

“I was destined for great things because I made it out of a plant maze?” I asked, laughing.

“Yes,” he answered, clearly not seeing the humor.

“Oh.” I gave him my best please-don’t-kill-me-and-bury-me-in-the-maze smile. “Okay, well…see ya.”

“Yes.”

Niamh sat on her porch, rocking slowly, her pile of rocks at her side. It appeared she hadn’t had any more Mr. Tom sightings.

“Hey,” I said, coming to a stop in front of her house.

“Well,” she drawled back.

I looked down the street, suddenly socially unsure. Then back, wondering if I’d gotten it wrong. “Were you…headed to the pub, or…?”

“Right, yeah.” She leaned forward and labored out of her chair. “’Course.” She checked her rock pile, glanced down the street, then back at the big house. Her eyes narrowed, but when I looked back, all I saw was Edgar waving.

“Are you ready yet?” she asked, as though I were the one causing the delay.

She was wearing a tighter shirt than the one she’d had on earlier, and I couldn’t help but notice her chest. One breast pushed against the fabric, and the other…didn’t seem to be there at all.

Before I could pull my gaze away, Niamh said, “Lost it in the war.”

“Wh-what’s that?” I struggled to say, clearly caught looking. So embarrassing.

“The tit. Lost it in the war.”

“Oh…the Vietnam War, you mean?” I’d almost said World War Two.

“What do I look like, a yank? No, the war on breast cancer. Yeah, it won that battle, but I won the war.”

“Oh.” I was saying ‘oh’ a lot lately. “Congratulations.”

“For what? Getting rid of the tit, or winning the war? Because I’d be just as happy to lop off the other one while I’m at it. They’re a waste of space, aren’t they, flopping around like they do. Sure what good are they anyway? I don’t have an infant to feed—what do I need them for? They’re just needless weight, that’s what I say.”

I nodded because…well, yeah, that was the truth.

“Do you head to the bar every evening?” I asked as we left the porch and started walking down the street. Although I’d never excelled at small talk, I hated awkward silences even more.

“Eh,” she said on a sigh. “Not so much every evenin’, no. I shy away on Fridays and Saturdays because of all the Dicks and Janes that fall into da place.”

I scrunched my brow. “Dicks… Are there some really rowdy people in this town? Like bikers or something?”

“No—ahhhm.” She made a circular motion with her finger. “That’s just what I call…ahm…out-of-towners. Tourists.”

“Oh right. Because of all the tasting rooms, right? This is a big wine town, I noticed.”

“Oh yes, definitely. Harvest season is coming up and there’ll be loads of tourists all through here. They’ll swarm the place. Miserable bastards…”

She grumbled away until silence fell between us, which became increasingly heavy, gooey, and oppressive.

“And how is the wine?” I asked when I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Strong.”

“I meant…like the different kinds?”

“Red, white, that weird halvsie type—all strong.”

I’d expected her to walk slow, given her age, but as we continued up the street, I was embarrassed to realize her pace was making me break a sweat.

“Why’d ye leave him then?” she asked, and I half staggered at the unexpected personal question.

“He left me, actually.”

“Bastard.”

“No, it’s good. I was relieved. I didn’t want to be the one to initiate the end, but we both knew things had fizzled. Well, fizzled is putting it lightly.”

   
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