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Risk and revelation

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It begins — well, Leena first notices, anyway — when H.G. steps out for her daily walk.

H.G. likes taking walks — constitutionals, she calls them — in the chill morning, usually a layer or two underdressed for the weather. It’s like the brisk air cleanses her somehow; she always comes back flushed and glowing, trailing the cold in as it haloes her clothes and hair.

Myka usually comes downstairs a little after H.G. sets off. Leena starts the coffee when she hears Myka’s footsteps, light and no-nonsense, and wipes down the countertops. Sometimes Myka is in the mood for breakfast and conversation; other times, she prefers to sip black coffee in silence. On these chilly fall days, she seems to relish the warm kitchen, the way the steam pours from her mug, and the quiet, brimming moments that precede Pete’s descent. She’s relaxed, as much as Myka can ever be relaxed, and the air is almost clear of the circuitous, troubled thoughts that often sweep in with Myka in the evenings.

The morning in question turns out to be a black coffee morning. To give Myka some space, Leena occupies herself with straightening the couch cushions in the next room.

When she peers back in, Myka looks — not troubled, but lost in thought. Her eyes flicker from her coffee mug to the window, and she seems to be looking, waiting for something. The warmth of her anticipation is something new.

“Everything all right?” Leena asks, and Myka shakes herself out of her reverie.

“Yes, of course,” she says. “Why?”

Leena shrugs and brings the coffee pot over to top off Myka’s cup.

“When did she leave?”

“H.G.? About twenty minutes ago. She should be back in not too long.”

Myka sips her coffee, looking out the window. She pauses with the cup an inch from her lips.

“Getting colder out in the mornings,” she comments. “I hope she wore a coat.”

“And a scarf,” Leena reassures her.

Myka finally turns to smile at Leena, as if they were sharing a secret. Their eyes meet for a beat before Myka turns back to the window.

For the last week or two, Leena has heard H.G. knocking on Myka’s door most evenings. She started by staying for just a few minutes, but the visits have gotten longer over time. The other night, Pete was still downstairs on the couch and turned when he heard Myka’s door open. The women exchanged soft greetings before Myka closed the door behind them.

“Apparently, H.G. has been raiding Myka’s bookshelves,” he said, casually. “They talk about it sometimes at work. Should have guessed those nerds would get along.”

“I’m glad she’s settling in,” says Leena.

She certainly seems to be settling in, more or less. H.G. has changed the atmosphere of the B&B, but not in the way Leena had expected. Her coming back into the world of the living, the trauma and terror of Leena’s role in it, didn’t exactly set their relationship up for success. But the H.G. Wells who moved into the B&B greeted her with a nice bottle of wine — “Don’t feel obligated to share this,” she’d said confidentially to Leena; “it’s just for you” — and insisted she take a break from chores so H.G. could get to know her. H.G. is incredibly charming, and while Leena is, as a rule, suspicious of charm, she can’t resist H.G.’s. She’s an attentive listener and remembers small details from their conversations. And her fascination with common household items — the microwave, the electric kettle, the food processor — is undeniably endearing.

This H.G. is — not domestic, exactly, but not dangerous. She moves with graceful purpose and does her best to put everyone at ease. Artie avoids her whenever possible, but with the others — Leena included — she’s warm, considerate, thoughtful. It’s easy to forget, at quiet moments, the series of events that brought her here.

She's unfailingly polite and gracious in ways that surprise Leena: always rinsing dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, folding blankets after she uses them, stripping her sheets and airing her duvet on Thursday mornings before Leena comes in to gather the laundry. Her energy is still palpable; she carries a lot of presence, a chaos of presence, that leaves an afterglow for minutes after she leaves the house, like freshly applied perfume. But Leena has seen plenty of strong personalities during her time with the Warehouse, and H.G.’s intensity is nothing she can’t handle.

The other unexpected thing about H.G.’s presence is how it’s changed the way Myka moves through the house. She storms less and contemplates more. Leena has wondered whether Myka’s edges are softening to make room for H.G., or whether it’s something more than that.

Leena watches Myka as she watches the window. She can feel Myka’s thoughts turning, over and over, like she’s turning a stone in her hand.

Yes, concludes Leena: it’s something more.

A few minutes later, when she hears footsteps on the porch, Myka smiles and straightens up. H.G. trails into the kitchen, bringing the snap of the autumn air in with her. She grins first at Myka, and then at Leena.

“Darling, would you mind bringing me some coffee?” she says to Leena, unwinding her scarf and shrugging off her jacket. “Black is fine.”

Leena fills a cup and sets it on the table. Usually, H.G. prefers tea, and often makes it herself, but a few times this week, she’s opted for the convenience of already-brewed coffee. She slides into a chair next to Myka.

“Thank you, love,” she says to Leena, and to Myka, a little softer, “Good morning, Myka.”

“Good morning,” says Myka, smiling again.

They look at each other a moment longer than usual. Leena observes them, subtly, under the guise of changing out the dish towels. The moment seems to stretch, to bloom.

Then the long moment passes, and the three of them begin to chat about ordinary things.

Leena is certain now that she knows what she saw. She wonders, idly, if they know it yet.

 


 

She wonders this again, many times, in the weeks that follow. H.G. has abandoned the formality of knocking on Myka’s door and spends hours, routinely, every night in Myka’s room. The days are getting shorter and colder, and Leena guesses their growing closeness helps them while away these dark, stretched-out evenings. It certainly seems like it does. She sometimes hears the hum of something playing on the TV and hears them laughing. A bottle of bourbon went missing one night; Leena found it the next day, a little less full and sitting next to two empty tumblers, on Myka’s nightstand.

Whatever H.G. is doing, it’s working. Myka has grown visibly happier over the last month. She hums, now and then, and her footsteps on the stairs are lighter in the mornings. She’s still serious, wary Myka, but with the intensity dialed down. She’s started to refer to returning to the B&B as coming home, which, after months of aloofness, feels like a seismic shift.

“What are you doing in your room all the time with H.G.?” Pete asks Myka one morning over breakfast. Myka coughs through a sip of coffee. Pete raises his hands. “Hang on, I wasn’t trying to imply anything. Just being nosy.”

Myka raises her eyebrows. “She borrows my books. We read together. And lately we’ve been watching movies.”

“Which ones?” Pete brightens at that, and when Myka explains her syllabus, Pete contributes a few suggestions.

“Can I get an invite to one of your movie nights? I’ll bring popcorn.”

“Not enough seating in my room, sorry.”

“I can bring a chair from my room.”

“Okay, I’m going to be honest. I don’t think H.G. would appreciate your color commentary. And you know how I feel about movie talkers.”

“Yikes, okay. Message received. I expect reviews, though.”

Myka smiles. “That sounds more like a plan.”

A minute later, H.G. returns pink and shivering from her morning walk, and again requests a cup of coffee. She keeps her coat and scarf on, but she removes her gloves and cups her coffee mug with bare, chapped hands, taking deep breaths and trying to return herself to equilibrium.

“You really shouldn’t go out without a hat in this weather,” scolds Myka, who goes and grabs a throw blanket to put over H.G.’s narrow, quaking shoulders.

“Yes, I know,” says H.G. impatiently, her chill shaking her voice. “I just washed my hair last night and didn’t want to muss it up so quickly.”

“Better hat hair than frostbitten ears,” Myka retorts. “Winters here are no joke.”

The conversation on its surface is easy, familiar, but it feels to Leena like they’re exchanging secrets. Pete, with his usual bluster, adds, “I’ve got a few hats you can borrow. And I’m sure you own a hairbrush to deal with the aftermath.”

Both women roll their eyes at his intrusion.

“Pete, I’d be surprised if you’ve washed any of your hats or scarves in years,” says Myka. “H.G. doesn’t want to smell like your sweaty head.”

“Fine,” he says, “get your own hat. Or borrow Myka’s. I’m sure she washes hers all the time.”

“I do,” says Myka, and H.G. shoots her a grin. “And you can. Borrow my hats, I mean.”

“Maybe I will,” says H.G. “I liked the ivory wool one you wore the other day.”

“That would look great with your hair,” Myka agrees.

“It certainly looked lovely on you.”

Pete’s coffee and cereal are gone, and he shakes his head at H.G.’s ingratitude before leaving the table to go get dressed.

H.G. sighs, now warm and content in her cocoon of blankets and outerwear. Myka peers into H.G.’s coffee mug and walks over to the coffee pot to bring her a refill. H.G. looks shy as she slides her cup over to accept the fresh coffee. Leena, busying herself with washing Pete’s dishes, pretends not to notice.

“At least it’s beautiful and clear outside,” continues H.G., swirling the coffee in her mug between sips. “You’d never know, sitting here in the kitchen, how cold it is out under that cloudless sky.”

“The clear days are the dangerous ones,” says Myka. “You don’t know what will hit you until you open the door.”

Leena leaves the two of them to chat, which they do, for nearly half an hour, before going up to their respective rooms.

 


 

If they didn’t see what was happening before, it seems they see it now.

One morning, when H.G. returns from her morning walk, bundled up properly and wearing Myka’s wool hat, she shuts the door gently behind her and walks straight to the kettle to start making tea. She glances at Myka’s usual seat, but Myka hasn’t yet come down. A frisson of concern darkens her expression.

“Shockingly cold this morning,” she says to Leena, in a falsely cheery voice. “Bundle up well if you go out.”

Myka tentatively comes downstairs a few minutes later. She and H.G. catch eyes and blush. Something powerful jumps between them in that moment, and Leena senses they’d prefer to be left alone.

They’re not in the kitchen together for long. H.G. takes her tea upstairs, and Myka stays at the table, contemplatively eating a bowl of cereal, staring at the box as she chews.

“How’s the cereal?” asks Leena. Myka jumps, startled; she didn’t notice that Leena had walked into the kitchen.

“It’s cereal,” says Myka, setting her spoon down in her bowl and looking up with a polite smile.

“Do you want eggs or something?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Don’t want a lot on my stomach.”

Leena hums in acknowledgment. Myka picks her spoon up and twirls it absently.

“Coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

Myka eats the rest of her cereal, still absently reading the back of the box. The coffee pot steams and sighs as it starts to brew.

“Something on your mind, Myka?”

“There’s always something on my mind,” she says, drily. “Not usually very interesting.”

Leena waits for a moment, but Myka is clearly not in a conversational mood.

“Let me know if there’s anything you need,” she says, and leaves the room.

The strange, tentative feeling lingers in the air all morning. Leena is relieved when they leave for the Warehouse and she can sit down with a book and clear her mind.

When they return that afternoon, the energy has changed from awkwardness to anticipation. Even Pete seems to notice something is different as he shovels potatoes into his mouth, glancing at Myka and H.G. in turn with curiosity.

After dinner, Myka makes an excuse and goes up to her room earlier than usual. H.G. heads up a few minutes later and, as Leena suspected, goes to Myka’s room. When Leena finally heads to bed, hours later, she finds H.G.’s door open and her room empty.

 


 

The next morning, Leena peeks into H.G.'s room as she heads down to the kitchen. It's still empty; the bed is impeccably made.

A few minutes later, H.G. and Myka come down together, both bundled up for a morning constitutional. H.G. is wearing Myka’s wool hat; Myka is wearing H.G.’s thick red scarf.

“Good morning,” says Leena.

“Good morning,” says Myka, and then H.G.

“You have company on your walk this morning,” Leena observes.

“Indeed,” says H.G. “We should be back in around twenty minutes, I think. Would you do us the kindness of having coffee ready by the time we return?”

“Of course,” says Leena, looking from one to the other. Their gloved hands brush and they exchange shy smiles. “Coffee and, maybe, some eggs?”

They look at each other and reach a silent agreement.

“Eggs would be lovely,” says Myka. H.G. looks like she would like to add something clever, but Myka places a hand on her arm and H.G. seems to think better of it.

“We’ll be back soon,” says Myka.

Looking out the window as they walk away, Leena notices their hands brush, tentatively again, until H.G. takes Myka’s hand in hers.

When they come back in, more flushed even than H.G. usually looks when returning from a walk, Leena is ready with two plates of scrambled eggs, toast points with butter, and two steaming mugs of coffee. They thank her profusely and invite her to sit down, but Leena shakes her head.

“I have some things to take care of,” she tells them. “Take your time.”

As she walks out of the kitchen, it feels like stepping away from a warm fireplace, despite the chill they brought in with them that still clings to their clothes. From around the corner, she can hear the whisper of fabric as they take off their hats and gloves and scarves.

“Do you think she knows?” she hears Myka whisper.

“Leena is very observant,” says Helena, softly. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Is it okay that I don’t want to tell anyone yet? I want to keep you to myself a little longer.”

“Fine by me. As long as I get to do this” — the sound of a soft, quick kiss — “now and then when we’re alone.”

“Yes, please.” Another kiss, and soft, tentative laughter.

Leena, hoping they don’t let their eggs get cold, smiles and walks back upstairs.