49 • 8-Ball
“You should take Joe to the front door, ” Cameron said, as Will turned down the alley behind Pearl’s house. “I’ll get him inside, and you can go around back and get the cat upstairs.”
“Emily hates me.”
“Will.” Cameron narrowed her eyes.
“If I’m the one who takes her into a strange place, she’ll remember and always associate me with that trauma. She’ll hate me more.”
“I know. I’ll drive around front.” He drove past the house and went around the corner, pulling up to the front sidewalk. The drape in the living room window fell closed and Pearl opened the front door momentarily.
“Bring his suitcase, too, ” Cameron said.
“But I’m bringing the cat.”
“And I’m telling Pearl you went around back to bring Joe’s suitcase up.” She opened her hands. “So bring Joe’s suitcase up.”
“I’ll bring the suitcase up.”
Joe sat silently in his seat, smiling out the window as Will put the truck in park. “Here you go, old man. Your new home away from home.”
“You two are still bantering, just like when you were small.”
“Joe?” Cameron put a hand on Joe’s knee.
He looked at Cameron, eyes moist and gray. “Your mother’s place looks different than I remember. Bigger.”
She gave Joe’s leg a little squeeze. “Let’s get you upstairs. You could probably use a little rest after all the excitement today.”
“Rest. Of course.” Joe stared out the front window, but didn’t move. Will returned Cameron’s glance with a shrug.
“Let’s do this.” He got out and jogged around to open Joe’s door. “Out you go, my friend. Cameron will get you inside while Emily and I sneak up the back.”
Joe stared ahead. Will reached and turned Joe’s face. “Hey. Look at me.” Joe smiled lightly. “Whatever you do, remember, we did not bring a cat to Pearl’s house.”
“We didn’t bring the cat? I thought we were bringing her along. I didn’t ask Midge—”
“No, we brought the cat. She’s in the back. But if Pearl finds out, it’s curtains for all of us.”
“Oh!” Joe laughed and slapped his leg. “Of course. I know that.” He pushed Will out of the way and got out of the truck. Ducking his head back into the cab, he grinned at Cameron. “You coming with me, or shall I advance on Mrs. Jenkins unsupervised?”
“Coming.” Cameron scooted across the seat and hopped out of the cab. “You will not be making any advances on anyone at the moment, thank you.”
“Of course, you’re right. More nuance. Timing is everything. I’ll work on it.” Joe started up the walk.
“You’d better keep an eye on him.” Will shook his head at Cameron. “I’ll meet you inside.”
“No diversions, Will. I need you inside.”
“Coming, ” he said, and started the truck.
Will parked in the back and pulled the cat carrier from behind the seat. He took it by its black plastic handle and tucked the bag of litter under his other arm and hurried up the back stairs. He set the carrier in the bathtub, as though the cat would need one more layer of captivity, and as though the sides of a bathtub would be fortress enough even if she were free of her carrier.
“Okay, cat. Sit tight. We’re in this together.” Emily sat with her back to the carrier window, but he heard her hiss as he patted the top of the crate. He strode out of the bathroom, down the hall, and descended the staircase where he found Cameron, Joe and Pearl huddled inside the front door. Pearl had on her best Sunday dress and if Will were not mistaken, had just had her hair done.
“Mrs. Jenkins, do you have a big event today?” he asked. “We’re so sorry if we disrupted your schedule.”
Pearl pressed her hands against the hair pulled up at the back of her neck, fussing as though there were errant strands, which there were not. “Why, no. I’m not off anywhere. Just an ordinary day greeting visitors at the humble Jenkins mansion.”
Cameron shot a scowl at Will who was too preoccupied to notice, and walked past her on his way to Pearl. “Well, you look simply radiant. Is this flowered dress new?”
Pearl’s cheeks looked suddenly rosy. “Mr. Phillips, since when do you notice what I’m wearing?”
“Will, let’s get Joe upstairs and settled in, okay?” Cameron put her hand on his shoulder and pushed him lightly toward the stairs. “You brought his suitcase up?”
“Oh, umm. No. I guess I should go do that.” Will darted toward the dining room.
“I swear, that boy.” Pearl ran her hands over the front of her skirt.
“Pearl, ” Cameron said, “I’ll get Joe upstairs and show him his room, and then I’ll stop back down before I go.”
“It’s the one on the right, dear, ” Pearl motioned with her hand up the stairs. “Oh, silly me. Of course, you’ve been upstairs and already know what’s what.”
Cameron blushed and turned quickly toward the stairs.
“Did you and Mr. Phillips have a nice time?”
“A nice time?” Cameron looked back at Pearl.
“Yes. On your date the other night.”
Cameron’s brow furrowed. “Date? I’m not sure—”
“My dear girl. You don’t have to play coy with me. Didn’t Mr. Phillips tell you I was in the kitchen when he came down to scavenge from my wine cabinet?”
“Oh! Right. With all this other business I’d totally forgotten.” She turned back to the stairs. “Hey, Joe, take it easy there. We’re not racing to the top, okay?”
“So it was a nice date then?” Pearl started up the stairs behind Cameron, holding firmly to the handrail.
“Yes, of course, It was nice.” She stopped on the landing and waved her hands in front of her. “But no, wait. It wasn’t a date. I ran into Will on my run. And then he fell and got a little woozy so I came back with him to make sure he was okay and we decided to go up onto the roof. I mean—”
“My roof?” Pearl reached the landing and rested her hand on the window sill. “And I thought he’d stopped doing that. You fall off my porch roof and I’ll have myself a nice lawsuit and you won’t be able to keep dating him.”
“We are not dating.”
“Yes, Dear.” She patted Cameron’s arm. “Of course you’re not. I don’t know what else to make of wine on the rooftop outside a man’s bedroom, but you go on calling it what you like.”
“We never even got on the roof, ” Cameron protested.
“Oh?” Pearl’s eyes widened.
“No, that’s not what I mean. We were reading.”
“Oh, now it’s reading? I do like the sound of that.”
“You girls coming up?” Joe leaned over the top rail outside his room. “I think you’re supposed to be keeping me out of trouble.”
“Coming, ” Pearl and Cameron said at once.
Pearl put her hand on Cameron’s shoulder. “We’ll talk more later.”
Cameron pointed a finger at Pearl. “No, there’s nothing more to talk about. We were reading. The Wild Swans, in fact. By Hans Christian Andersen.”
“Of course you were. Reading. Now go on up.” She smiled her most Pearl Jenkins-ish smile.
(to be continued)