Sunshine originally appeared in 2003 and is being reissued by Berkley Trade (October 7, 2008). Available from Amazon US
I woke up too early, so started reading Robin McKinley's forthcoming novel Sunshine, in the bath. It's an astonishing piece of work. A gripping, funny, page-turning pretty much perfect work of magical literature that exists more or less at the unlikely crossroads of Chocolat, Interview With a Vampire, Misery and the tale of Beauty and the Beast. It's not quite SF, and it's not really horror, and only kind of a love story, and it's all three while still being solidly Fantastique. It also does that nice thing where the author assumes the readers are smart, and she treats us like we're smart, and we purr and get smarter and work harder for all that. It'll be nominated for awards, and win them; in the meantime I really hope it finds its audience, which is, potentially, huge. -- Neil Gaiman
It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn't that dumb. There hadn't been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.
Monday evening is our movie evening because we are celebrating having lived through another week. Sunday night we lock up at eleven or midnight and crawl home to die, and Monday (barring a few national holidays) is our day off. Ruby comes in on Mondays with her warrior cohort and attacks the coffeehouse with an assortment of high-tech blasting gear that would whack Godzilla into submission: those single-track military minds never think to ask their cleaning staff for help in giant lethal marauding creature matters. Thanks to Ruby, Charlie's Coffeehouse is probably the only place in Old Town where you are safe from the local cockroaches, which are approximately the size of chipmunks. You can hear them clicking when they canter across the cobblestones outside.
We'd begun the tradition of Monday evening movies seven years ago when I started slouching out of bed at four a.m. to get the bread going. Our first customers arrive at six-thirty and they want our Cinnamon Rolls as Big as Your Head and I am the one who makes them. I put the dough on to rise overnight and it is huge and puffy and waiting when I get there at four-thirty. By the time Charlie arrives at six to brew coffee and open the till (and, most of the year, start dragging the outdoor tables down the alley and out to the front), you can smell them baking. One of Ruby's lesser minions arrives at about five (except on Tuesdays, when the coffeehouse is gleaming and I am giving myself tendonitis trying to persuade stiff, surly, thirty-hour-refrigerated dough that it's time to loosen up) for the daily sweep- and mop-up. Ruby told me she has to have a strict rota system for this job. Everyone wants it, in spite of the time of day, because they get a cup of Charlie's coffee and a Charlie's cinnamon roll at the end of it.
Charlie is one of the big good guys in my universe. He gave me enough of a raise when I finished school (high school diploma by the skin of my teeth and the kindly intercession of my subversive English teacher) and began working for him full time that I could afford my own place, and, even more important, he talked Mom into letting me have it.
But getting up at four a.m. six days a week does put a cramp on your social life (although as Mom pointed out every time she was in a bad mood, if I still lived at home I could get up at four-twenty). At first Monday evening was just us, Mom and Charlie and Billy and Kenny and me, and sometimes one or two of the stalwarts from the coffeehouse. But over the years Monday evenings had evolved, and now it was pretty much any of the coffeehouse staff who wanted to turn up, plus a few of the customers who had become friends. (As Billy and Kenny got older the standard of movies improved too. The first Monday evening that featured a movie that wasn't rated "suitable for all ages" we opened a bottle of champagne.)
Charlie, who doesn't know how to sit still and likes do-it-yourselfing at home on his days off, had gradually knocked most of the walls down on the ground floor, so the increasing mob could mill around comfortably. But that was just it my entire life existed in relation to the coffeehouse. My only friends were staff and regulars. I started seeing Mel because he was single and not bad-looking and the weekday assistant cook at the coffeehouse, with that interesting bad-boy aura from driving a motorcycle and having a few too many tattoos, and no known serious drawbacks. (Baz had been single and not bad-looking too, but there'd always been something a little off about him, which resolved itself when Charlie found him with his hand in the till.) I was happy as far as that goes. I was happy in the bakery. I just sometimes felt when I got out of it I would like to get a little farther out.
Mom had been in one of her bad moods that particular week, sharp and short with everyone but the customers, not that she saw them much any more, she was in the office doing the paperwork and giving hell to any of our suppliers who didn't behave. I'd been having car trouble and was complaining about the garage bill to anyone who'd listen. No doubt Mom heard the story more than once, but then I heard her weekly stories about her hairdresser more than once too (she and Mary and Liz all used Lina, I think so they could get together after and discuss her love life, which was pretty fascinating). But Sunday evening she overheard me telling Kyoko, who had been out sick and was catching up after five days away, and Mom lost it. She shouted that if I lived at home I wouldn't need a car at all, and she was worried about me because I looked tired all the time, and when was I going to stop dreaming my life away and marry Mel and have some kids? Supposing that Mel and I wanted to get married, which hadn't been discussed. I wondered how Mom would take the appearance at the wedding of the remnants of Mel's old motorcycle gang which is to say the ones that were still alive with their hair and their Rocs and Griffins (even Mel still had an old Griffin for special occasions, although it hemorrhaged oil) and their attitude problems. They never showed up in force at the coffeehouse, but she'd notice them at the kind of wedding she'd expect me to have.
The obvious answer to the question of children was, who was going to look after the baby while I got up at four a.m. to make cinnamon rolls? Mel worked as appalling hours as I did, especially since he'd been promoted to head cook when Charlie had been forced by a mutiny of all hands to accept that he could either delegate something or drop dead of exhaustion. So househusbandry wasn't the answer. But in fact I knew my family would have got round this. When one of our waitresses got pregnant and the boyfriend left town and her own family threw her out, Mom and Charlie took her in and we all babysat in shifts, in and out of the coffeehouse. (We'd only just got rid of Mom's sister Evie and her four kids, who'd stayed for almost two years, and one mom and one baby seemed like pie in the sky in comparison. Especially after Evie, who is professionally helpless.) Barry was in second grade now, and Emmy was married to Henry. Henry was one of our regulars, and Emmy still waitressed for us. The coffeehouse is like that.
I liked living alone. I liked the silence. Nothing moving but me. I lived upstairs in a big old ex-farmhouse at the edge of a federal park, with my landlady on the ground floor. When I'd gone round to look at the place the old lady very tall, very straight, and a level stare that went right through you had looked at me and said she didn't like renting to Young People (she said this like you might say Dog Vomit) because they kept bad hours and made noise. I liked her immediately. I explained humbly that indeed I did keep bad hours because I had to get up at four a.m. to make cinnamon rolls for Charlie's Coffeehouse, whereupon she stopped scowling magisterially and invited me in.
It had taken three months after graduation for Mom to begin to consider my moving out, and that was with Charlie working on her. I was still reading the apartments-for-rent ads in the paper surreptitiously and making the phone calls when Mom was out of earshot. Most of them in my price range were dire. This apartment, up on the third floor at the barn end of the long rambling house, was perfect, and the old lady must have seen I meant it when I said so. I could feel my face light up when she opened the door at the top of the second flight of stairs, and the sun seemed to pour in from every direction. The living room balcony, cut down from the old hayloft platform but now overlooking the garden, still has no curtains.
By the time we signed the lease my future landlady and I were on our way to becoming fast friends, if you can be fast friends with someone who merely by the way she carries herself makes you feel like a troll. Maybe I was just curious: there was so obviously some mystery about her; even her name was odd. I wrote the check to Miss Yolande. No Smith or Jones or Fitzalan-Howard or anything. Just Miss Yolande. But she was always pleasant to me, and she wasn't wholly without human weakness: I brought her stuff from the coffeehouse and she ate it. I have that dominant feed-people gene which I think you have to have to survive in the small-restaurant business. You sure aren't doing it for the money or the hours. At first it was now and then I didn't want her to notice I was trying to feed her up but she was always so pleased it got to be a regular thing. Whereupon she lowered the rent which I have to admit was a godssend, since by then I'd found out what running a car was going to cost and told me to lose the "Miss".
Yolande had said soon after I moved in that I was welcome in the garden any time I liked too, it was just her and me (and the peanut-butter-baited electric deer fence), and occasionally her niece and the niece's three little girls. The little girls and I got along because they were good eaters and they thought it was the most exciting thing in the world to come in to the coffeehouse and be allowed behind the counter. Well, I could remember what that felt like, when Mom was first working for Charlie. But that's the coffeehouse in action again: it tends to sweep out and engulf people. I think only Yolande has ever held out against this irresistible force, but then I do bring her white bakery bags almost every day.
Usually I could let Mom's temper roll off me. But there'd been too much of it lately. Coffeehouse disasters are often hardest on Mom, because she does the money and the admin, and for example actually follows up people's references when they apply for jobs which Charlie never bothers with, but she isn't one for bearing trials quietly. That spring there'd been expensive repairs when it turned out the roof had been leaking for months and a whole corner of the ceiling in the main kitchen fell down one afternoon, one of our baking-goods suppliers went bust and we hadn't found another one we liked as well, and two of our wait staff and another one of the kitchen staff quit without warning. Plus Kenny had entered high school the previous autumn and he was goofing off and getting high instead of studying. He wasn't goofing off and getting high any more than I had done, but he had no gift for keeping a low profile. He was also very bright both my half brothers were and Mom and Charlie had high hopes for them. I'd always suspected that Charlie had pulled me off waitressing, which had bored me silly, and given me a real function in the kitchen to straighten me out. I had been only sixteen, so I was young for it, but he'd been letting me help him from time to time out back so he knew I could do it, the question was whether I would. Sudden scary responsibility had worked with me. But Kenny wasn't going to get a law degree by learning to make cinnamon rolls, and he didn't need to feed people the way Charlie or I did either.
Anyway Kenny hadn't come home till dawn that Sunday morning his curfew was midnight on Saturday nights and there had been hell to pay. There had been hell to pay all that day for all of us, and I went home that night smarting and cranky and my one night a week of twelve hours' sleep hadn't worked its usual rehabilitation. I took my tea and toast and Immortal Death (a favorite comfort book since under-the-covers-with-flashlight reading at the age of eleven or twelve) back to bed when I finally woke up at nearly noon and even that really spartan scene when the heroine escapes the Dark Other who's been pursuing her for three hundred pages by calling on her demon heritage (finally) and turning herself into a waterfall didn't cheer me up. I spent most of the afternoon housecleaning, which is my other standard answer to a bad mood, and that didn't work either. Maybe I was worried about Kenny too. I'd been lucky during my brief tearaway spell; he might not be. Also I take the quality of my flour very seriously, and I didn't think much of our latest trial baking-supply company.
When I arrived at Charlie and Mom's house that evening for Monday movies the tension was so thick it was like walking into a blanket. Charlie was popping corn and trying to pretend everything was fine. Kenny was sulking, which probably meant he was still hung over, because Kenny didn't sulk, and Billy was being hyper to make up for it, which of course didn't. Mary and Danny and Liz and Mel were there, and Consuela, hired as a waitress but also shaping up as Mom's latest assistant, who was beginning to look like the best piece of luck we'd had all year, and about half a dozen of our local regulars. Emmy and Barry were there too, as they often were when Henry was away, and Mel was playing with Barry, which gave Mom a chance to roll her eyes at me and glare, which I knew meant "see how good he is with children it's time he had some of his own." Yes. And in another fourteen years this hypothetical kid would be starting high school and learning better, more advanced, adolescent ways of how to screw up and make grown-ups crazy.
I loved every one of these people. They were all my favorite people in the world. And I couldn't take another minute of their company. Popcorn and a movie would make us all feel better, and it was a working day tomorrow, and you have only so much brain left over to worry with if you run a family restaurant. The Kenny crisis would go away like every other crisis had always gone away, worn down and eventually buried by an accumulation of order slips, till receipts, and shared stories of the amazing things the public gets up to.
But the thought of sitting for two hours even with Mel's arm around me and a bottomless supply of excellent popcorn (Charlie couldn't stop feeding people just because it was his day off) wasn't enough on that particular Monday. So I said I'd had a headache all day (which was true) and on second thought I would go home to bed, and I was sorry. I was out the door again not five minutes after I'd gone in.
Mel followed me. One of the things we'd had almost from the beginning was an ability not to talk about everything. These people who want to talk about their feelings all the time, and want you to talk about yours, make me nuts. Besides, Mel knows my mother. There's nothing to discuss. If my mom is the lightning bolt, I'm the tallest tree on the plain. That's the way it is.
There are two very distinct sides to Mel. There's the wild-boy side, the motorcycle tough. He's cleaned up his act, but it's still there. And then there's this strange vast serenity that seems to come from the fact that he doesn't feel he has to prove anything. The blend of anarchic thug and tranquil self-possession makes him curiously restful to be around, like walking proof that oil and water can mix. It's also great on those days that everyone else in the coffeehouse is screaming.
It was his day off, so he smelled of gasoline and paint rather than garlic and onions. He was absent-mindedly rubbing the oak tree tattoo on his shoulder. He was a tattoo-rubber when he was thinking about something else, which meant that whatever he was cooking or working on could get pretty liberally dispersed about his person on ruminative days.
"She'll sheer, day or so," he said. "I was thinking, maybe I'll talk to Kenny."
"Do it," I said. "It would be nice if he lived long enough to find out he doesn't want to be a lawyer." Kenny wanted to get into Other law, which is the dancing-on-the-edge-of-the-muttering-volcano branch of law, but a lawyer is still a lawyer.
Mel grunted. He probably had more reason than me to believe that lawyers are large botulism bacteria in three-piece suits.
"Enjoy the movie," I said.
"I know the real reason you're blowing, sweetheart," Mel said.
"Billy's turn to rent the movie," I said. "And I hate westerns."
Mel laughed, kissed me, and went back indoors, closing the door gently behind him.
I stood restlessly on the sidewalk. I might have tried the library's new-novels shelf, a dependable recourse in times of trouble, but Monday evening was early closing. Alternatively I could go for a walk. I didn't feel like reading: I didn't feel like looking at other people's imaginary lives in flat black and white from out here in my only too unimaginary life. It was getting a little late for solitary walking, even around Old Town, and besides, I didn't want a walk either. I just didn't know what I did want.
I wandered down the block and climbed into my fresh-from-the-mechanics car and turned the key. I listened to the nice healthy purr of the engine and out of nowhere decided it might be fun to go for a drive. I wasn't a going for a drive sort of person usually. But I thought of the lake.
When my mother had still been married to my father we'd had a summer cabin out there, along with hundreds of other people. After my parents split up I used to take the bus out there occasionally to see my gran. I didn't know where my gran lived it wasn't at the cabin but I would get a note or a phone call now and then suggesting that she hadn't seen me for a while, and we could meet at the lake. My mother, who would have loved to forbid these visits when Mom goes off someone, she goes off comprehensively, and when she went off my dad she went off his entire family, excepting me, whom she equally passionately demanded to keep didn't, but the result of her not-very-successfully restrained unease and disapproval made those trips out to the lake more of an adventure than they might otherwise have been, at least in the beginning. In the beginning I had kept hoping that my gran would do something really dramatic, which I was sure she was capable of, but she never did. It wasn't till after I'd stopped hoping . . . but that was later, and not at all what I had had in mind. And then when I was ten she disappeared.
When I was ten the Voodoo Wars started. They were of course nothing about voodoo, but they were about a lot of bad stuff, and some of the worst of them in our area happened around the lake. A lot of the cabins got burned down or levelled one way or another, and there were a few places around the lake where you still didn't go if you didn't want to have bad dreams or worse for months afterward. Mostly because of those bad spots (although also because there simply weren't as many people to have vacation homes anywhere any more) after the Wars were over and most of the mess cleared up, the lake never really caught on again. The wilderness was taking over which was a good thing because it meant that it could. There were a lot of places now where nothing was ever going to grow again.
It was pretty funny really, the only people who ever went out there regularly were the Supergreens, to see how the wilderness was getting on, and if as the urban populations of things like raccoons and foxes and rabbits and deer moved back out of town again if they started to look and behave like raccoons and foxes and rabbits and deer had used to look and behave. Supergreens also counted things like osprey and pine marten and some weird marsh grass which was another endangered species although not so interesting to look at, none of which seemed to care about bad human magic, or maybe the bad spots didn't give ospreys and pine martens and marsh grass bad dreams. I went out there occasionally with Mel we saw ospreys pretty often and pine martens once or twice, but all marsh grass looks like all other marsh grass to me but I hadn't been there after dark since I was a kid.
The road that went to what had been my parents' cabin was passable, if only just. I got out there and went and sat on the porch and looked at the lake. My parents' cabin was the only one still standing in this area, possibly because it had belonged to my father, whose name meant something even during the Voodoo Wars. There was a bad spot off to the east, but it was far enough away not to trouble me, though I could feel it was there.
I sat on the sagging porch, swinging my legs and feeling the troubles of the day draining out of me like water. The lake was beautiful: almost flat calm, the gentlest lapping against the shore, and silver with moonlight. I'd had many good times here: first with my parents, when they were still happy together, and later on with my gran. As I sat there I began to feel that if I sat there long enough I could get to the bottom of what was making me so cranky lately, find out if it was anything worse than poor quality flour and a somewhat errant little brother.
I never heard them coming. Of course you don't, when they're vampires.