Chapter 1: Staying
"I wanted to tell you something," she said, and her voice sounded slow and mumbly, even to herself. "I almost forgot. I wanted to tell you I'm still staying - but not for the Velvet Room. I'm staying for Gwen."
The next Saturday morning Robin woke up reluctantly. It was the Williamses' last day at Las Palmeras. The police wanted Robin handy in case there were more questions, but as she wasn't coming with them, the family had decided not to risk Uncle Joe's wrath by staying for the conclusion of the case.
Soon the bags and boxes would be back on the roof and running boards of the Model T, and the Williams family would be back on the road again - without her. The thought made Robin close her eyes tight and hope she really wasn't awake. But, of course, she was.
When she opened her eyes and thought about it clearly, she realised that she could not have made any other decision. She thought Bonita - how strange to be calling her that, but how right! - had probably meant to persuade her to go with her family, when she told her truth.
But it was the look in her eyes when she spoke about Eric Gunther which had really made up Robin's mind. She loved her family dearly, but there were different kinds of love.
She was sure Bonita would tell her she was too young for that kind of thought, but it wasn't like she was planning some kind of elaborate elopement. Gwen's parents had agreed that she was a good influence on her and should stay. They would have separate rooms - her own bed, after so long sharing with Theda!
But first she had to say goodbye to her family.
As she made her way through the well-tended fields of the rancho, she was quietly glad that she did not have to go to Uncle Joe's. It was not, she told herself, so much the desolate, run-down cottages and the endless dusty plains, but also the man himself. He'd had all the generosity of spirit and care for other humans as… well, as the Crileys seemed to.
Her parents would have each other, Theda would be happy they were nearer a major road so it was easier to get into town, and Rudy would have plenty of things to fix. And Cary and Shelly were still so young, they could work it out. Robin had always been the sore thumb of the family, and Uncle Joe's did not seem like a good place to be lonely.
It was Cary she felt most sorry for. He could read to Shirley, but not very well. Who was going to teach him his words, out there at Uncle Joe's? Bonita had told her that Cary was like her, and here she was abandoning him.
She scolded herself for thinking like that. If she could have kept Cary with them, she would have done that too - but she can already hear the conversation in her head. Cary's too young to be away from his parents. He still needs his real father and mother to finish raising him.
Dad and Rudy were working on the Model T when she got there. She had meant to talk to Cary in particular - maybe encourage him to write her some letters, so she could send him back big long letters with all the words that he wanted, she was sure the McCurdys would let her send him some stamps - but he was nowhere to be found.
Wandered off, she supposed, and for a moment her heart ached for her decision - but he had to be allowed to grow up for himself, the same as she had been allowed to.
Dad's head was out of sight under the Model T's hood, and only Rudy's legs protruded from under the front bumper.
"Dad," she called, "I'm here to help pack the car."
"That's very sweet of you, Big Enough," came the slightly muffled reply, followed by Dad extricating himself from the motor vehicle. "Theda's off with Mama returning some sugar to the Byrants, but I'm sure she'll have some folding that has to be done when she gets back. Why don't you sit down here and you can hand us tools when we need them?"
Robin spent a happy half hour handing them spanners and socket wrenches and whatnot until Mama, Theda and Shirley came in the front door. Mama insisted on hugging her tightly, and for a moment Robin thought she'd never let go. Maybe she meant to bundle Robin into the car like that, and never have to let her go. But eventually she did, and Robin caught her breath and ruffled Shirley's hair.
"Thought you'd be too busy to come help us pack," said Theda, but there was no venom to it; instead there was a kind of weariness, and from the way the little bit of makeup she'd managed to get on her eyes had smudged, it looked like she'd been crying.
Her resolve almost wavered then, especially as Shirley clutched her hand and looked up at her with big, trusting eyes. But she reminded herself that Theda had clearly been crying about losing her friends here - about Joy Byrant and the boys at school - rather than about her.
"I had to see you off," she said.
There was plenty to do, quickly enough, and the time flew by until the Model T was loaded up once again with boxes on the roof and running boards - although this time, there was more space in the back, of course.
Just as she was giving Shirley one last hug, she heard a car approaching. It was the McCurdy's big maroon Buick. Mr McCurdy got out and came over to where the family was gathered.
"Hello, Paul," he addressed Dad. "I'll be sorry to see such a good worker go, and your industrious family too."
Dad inclined his head, clearly embarrassed at being singled out for praise.
"I just wanted to express my profound gratitude that you would agree to loan us your prodigiously talented daughter," he continued. "If you ever have the means to visit, we would be very happy to see you. And here is a little something to be getting on with, and to make sure you can afford to stay in touch."
Dad was very good at schooling his expressions, and muttered an appropriately deferential thank-you; Mama usually was too, but the amount of money that was changing hands clearly surprised her, even so. Theda, of course, was practically salivating at the thought of all the clothes and shoes she could get out of just a portion of that fund.
"Well then, I won't detain you any longer." Then he turned his attention to Robin. "Would you like a ride back to the house, Robin?"
Robin would not really like a ride back to the house, she thought. She would have much preferred to wave the family off and then have some time to herself, walking back, to process everything that was happening to her. But it seemed churlish to refuse, after he has just been so generous.
"Sure," she replied, detaching Shirley and giving her hair a final ruffle.
Chapter 2: A Plan
"I've got a plan," announced Gwen, excitedly. She had burst into Robin's room without any notice, of course, and now sat down on her bed like it was her own. In some ways, Robin reminded herself, it was her own. Like everything in this room, everything Robin was wearing, and in many ways, Robin herself.
"A plan?" asked Robin, with what she hoped was an appropriate degree of enthusiasm. She had been re-reading a particularly awkward passage in one of their assigned books so that she could explain it properly later, so she carefully slipped a bookmark - a real, leather bookmark! - into the place and put it to one side before sitting up, to at least be somewhere near on a level with Gwen.
"A plan!" reiterated Gwen, beaming wider than she'd seen her in a while. As summer approached and life had just gone on, with no outward sign of their impending separation, things had got a little tense and wary between them. Gwen was clearly frustrated by the situation, but didn't want to let anyone else know - didn't want to show weakness.
"And what," asked Robin, drawing herself a little closer on the bed so that they were just touching, side by side, hoping to distract Gwen a little bit and draw her out of her pride in her own cleverness for long enough to explain what she actually meant, "is this great and glorious plan of yours, oh mighty Gwendolyn?"
Gwen couldn't help but burst out laughing at that overly grandiose question. "A plan for the holidays!" she triumphantly declaimed. "I know that you need to go and see your family. I've read Theda's letters and a bit of Cary's and I know your Mama needs to see you, if nothing else. So. I'm coming with you."
"You are?" Robin didn't like being on the back foot like this, never mind that it seemed to happen constantly around Gwen, who was still always larger than life. "How? Are we going to smuggle you there in the trunk?"
"No, no," laughed Gwen. "Your Uncle Joe runs a holiday village, doesn't he? And my parents always agree I need to get away for a bit after the school term, shake the dust off, you know? So I'll go on holiday to the holiday village - and they won't even need to send me with anyone, because I'll be with you."
Robin tried to picture Gwen in one of the dilapidated little motor cabins. It didn't quite fit, like someone had pasted something out of a glossy magazine onto an old, faded newspaper picture. It was clear Gwen expected her to say something, because she was beginning to look impatient.
"But it's very dusty there," she blurted out, immediately regretting her words. Very dusty, really? Like that was something Gwen would admit to caring about? Like that was the real problem?
Gwen laughed again, but there was a slightly disbelieving note to it. Robin shuffled a little closer, so that Gwen had no choice but to naturally wrap her arm around her, hoping it might remind her of her fondness and avoid her judging her too harshly.
"You told me about metaphors," Gwen reminded her, "so don't pretend you don't know one when it happens now! Aren't you excited?" Her hand wrapped around Robin's waist possessively, encompassing her territory. "After all this time stuck around here and at school, it will be an adventure!"
Robin's hand twinged, as it always did when she thought about adventures. "Of course," she said, trying to smile. "An adventure." She put her hand over Gwen's hand. "So they're driving us both down? How long after the end of term?" Suddenly, she thought of an upside which made her much happier about the whole idea. "Can I use some of your luggage to smuggle books for Cary?"
Chapter 3: Pulling Up
Pulling up in the Buick at Uncle Joe's was something Robin fretted about the whole journey through - if she had to live there after Gwen went back to school, she didn't want Uncle Joe to think she needed taking down a peg or two because of how she arrived.
His expression as he came out of the store to greet them didn't comfort her, either - a worrying gleam of pure avarice that faded into disappointment when he realised who it was arriving. Even though the McCurdys were paying full price for the little motor cabin they were letting Gwen take.
Mrs McCurdy began to look rather concerned as she got out of the car and took in the view; Gwen had undoubtedly spun her tales of a respectable establishment which were belied by the dust-stricken huddle of cabins that she now saw in front of her, and the weather-beaten proprietor trying to blink the dollar signs out of his eyes, or maybe just the sandy earth.
At least the screen door had a new lick of paint, or indeed as she looked closer was clearly a new door entirely, although probably pieced together out of materials never intended to be a door.
Gwen, of course, picked up on the mood immediately and plastered on her best winning social smile. "Good afternoon," she began. "I'm Gwen McCurdy and I'll be staying in one of your fine motor cabins for the summer, which I believe is all paid up?" Robin could almost feel the force of her will attempting to make sticking with the plan seem inevitable.
"Yes indeed, young lady," replied Joe. It was working - Gwen's confident projection that everything would fundamentally always work out for the best was clearly calming down her mother and making Joe straighten himself up and look more respectable. "Would you like a quick tour of Miss McCurdy's accommodation while we take the luggage in, ma'am?"
Mrs McCurdy smiled and acquiesced; Mr McCurdy said he would prefer to wait by the car.
The whole place was significantly neater, tidier and cleaner than Robin remembered it; clearly her family had been busy while she had been off enjoying her school year, learning to ride, spending long weekends off on the trail with Gwen. Guilt at not having been here to help out warred with relief that she'd missed the dull, repetitive work in the relentless heat.
Cary dived out from the scant shadow of a cabin, and if she hadn't put on considerable muscle with good feeding and the surprisingly taxing art of riding a horse, she would have been knocked straight off her feet - he was still clearly on the skinny side, but he'd been growing like a weed.
"Hey," she said, "how are you doing?"
"Missed you," he mumbled into her shoulder. Then he let go and straightened up, realising that other people were watching. "Uh, can I carry anything?"
Gwen's force of personality gradually wore through her mother's anxious objections to leaving her at Mr Spaulding's establishment, especially once Mama came out and got involved.
"Robin! How you've grown!" she exclaimed, on first emerging from the cabin she'd been cleaning to discover the moving-in party.
"It's good to see you too, Mama," Robin replied. And it was good to see her - especially, that some of the desperation had fallen away from her.
"And now I hear Gwen is coming to stay with us for the summer?" she continued, throwing a warm but speculative look towards Mrs McCurdy.
"That's right," interrupted Gwen. "And a brilliant job you've done with this place, too!"
Mrs McCurdy smiled in a long-suffering fashion. "Gwen is rather excited to be here, yes," she said, in a tone that only just stopped short of adding, 'but I can't imagine why'. "I trust you will take good care of her," which was not quite a question - that would be impolite - but had the hint of a question about it in any case.
"I've got this whole cabin, the whole time," interjected Gwen, "so I won't be any trouble. And I've got an allowance to pay for all the things I need."
"It looks like she is all set up to have an excellent time here," insisted Mama. "You've looked after Robin like your own; it's only fair of me to repay the favour."
There was a distinct edge to that last statement, and Mrs McCurdy clearly caught the underlying statement of the direction of reciprocation owed.
Robin felt kind of awkward watching this exchange, and tried to fade into the background like Cary could. Cary noticed her drawing back and shot her a sympathetic glance. "I got you some books," she whispered, while the others were distracted. "We can read them together if you like."
Theda came and stood just outside the door of the cabin, with Shirley in tow. Shirley was also noticeably larger, but not noticeably more happy with the world around her; she was practically hiding behind Theda's skirts. Robin called "Hi" and she waved, but didn't seem to think she could get much closer to the hustle and bustle with the nervous youngest in tow.
Eventually all Gwen's luggage was resettled, and attention turned to resettling Robin's meager collection - although significantly expanded from the few bits and bobs she'd brought to the McCurdy house. It was apparent there was a problem as soon as they got into the family cabin - Theda was now sharing a bed with Shirley, Rudy and Cary were in the other small bed, and there wasn't really anywhere to settle Robin.
The plan appeared to be that Shirley would move back in with Dad and Mama, but no-one seemed very happy about it.
"Look," said Gwen, when her mother had successfully been dispatched back to the car for a forgotten item. "There's a lot of room in my cabin. It doesn't have another proper bed but it does have a good couch…"
Mama looked somewhat skeptical at the notion, but Theda looked positively delighted, so she looked over at Robin for a casting vote.
"I have kind of got used to having a bit more space," admitted Theda, softly.
"I don't want to be a nuisance," began Robin - although she felt a bit worried that they didn't have much of a long term solution, and she liked the feeling of being back with her family - she didn't want to add to the distance.
"That's decided, then," pronounced Gwen, before Robin could finish in some other way.
Once her mother was back with the last shipment of stray items from the car, it was clear that Gwen was pushing her parents to make their goodbyes before they had any additional chances for second thoughts.
"Remember, we're just a phone call away," her mother said.
Chapter 4: Back
It was strange, being back with her family, but also not really being back with them. She had chores to do, and despite being on holiday Gwen insisted on helping with them - and Uncle Joe wasn't about to say no to an extra pair of hands.
But Gwen also then insisted on getting them done quickly and 'exploring', whereas Robin would have liked to spend some of the time reading to Cary, or watching Rudy's amazing work fixing up everything the accommodation and store required to run.
There wasn't really that much to explore, either. The land went on flat and empty in all directions. Mama had fretted at first about them wandering off too far - warning them this wasn't like the tamed land around Las Palmeras - but Gwen could even talk her into anything.
The cabins were the only interesting feature for a good way around, though - certainly further than even Gwen really wanted to explore on foot, as there were no good facilities for horses here.
Most of them were pretty straightforward, and every nook and cranny was easily accessible during the course of their duties - or Robin's duties, anyway. There was just the one which was locked up all the time.
"Now, don't you be bothering Mr Jones," Mama had told them, when they asked about it. "I know you like going off and befriending all kinds of folks, but Mr Jones just wants to be left alone. That's why we're not allowed in to clean his cabin, and you'll rarely see him out - sometimes he takes off in the early morning and comes back late with supplies, that's his old Ford out front there, but he keeps it locked up tight then too."
Naturally that was just extra inducement for Gwen to go poking around the edges of that cabin whenever she thought no-one was looking, although she didn't quite have the art of it - no practice fading into the background. Robin tried to show her, but Gwen was just too much part of the foreground to really manage it. After making a careful survey of the curtains and the times the lights went on and off and every little noise, Gwen insisted that they needed to stake out the place and catch him on one of his rare shopping trips.
"Maybe he does want to be left alone," Robin ventured, cautiously.
"Then I'll bid him good day and leave him to it," replied Gwen, "but we thought Bridget just wanted to be left alone, until you got her out of her shell."
Robin had started preparing to sleeping on the couch, but Gwen had proclaimed she couldn't stand the sight of it and invited her to share the big double bed. It wasn't like trying to sleep with Theda, without enough space - there was plenty of space for both of them to lay out flat at once.
And it wasn't like trying to sleep with Theda, carefully not touching each other as much as they could, although Robin wasn't sure what she felt about that bit. She never reached out to Gwen, but a sleepy Gwen would often reach out to her. And she definitely liked it, in a way that had just been annoying when Theda accidentally got in her way. But she wasn't sure how to talk about it, and she was pretty sure that something that she couldn't talk about with Gwen, or with Mama, was something she wasn't really meant to be enjoying.
Chapter 5: A Way
One morning, Mr Jones' car was gone. Robin noticed first, but she didn't say anything. She was still rather wary of the whole affair, and somehow hoped that Gwen might not notice; but while she might be oblivious to so many things, she was sharp at spotting the things that she was looking out for.
"We'll pretend to go to bed as usual," Gwen said, "then we'll sneak out later when it's properly dark and no-one will notice."
There are dim lights all over the place to deter thieves, but Uncle Joe wouldn't spring for either the decent bulbs or electricity to make them good enough, so the place is always full of shadows when it gets dark - which is quite late at this time of the year.
Gwen does manage not to talk about the plan in front of anyone else, but keeps shooting Robin conspiratorial glances enough that she is sure that at least Cary knows what's up. He's already asked her several times why they're so interested in 'that dumb cabin that's always locked up'.
But no-one confronts them about it, and so they find themselves anxiously waiting in the gloom just the other side of the store from the road, where Gwen had carefully checked the sight lines and determined they could walk out of this spot like they just happened to be going for a really late night stroll and happened past the arriving car when it came.
It was extremely quiet here at night, and Gwen was clearly itching to talk, but Robin had been over this several times - sound carries incredibly well here at night, Gwen is naturally incapable of keeping her voice down for any length of time, and someone would figure out that they were standing around in the middle of the path for no reason and come ask them what they were doing if they made too much noise.
Already their only real hope of not being discovered was that Cary had to share a bed, and so it was obvious if he got out to look for them.
Robin didn't think Gwen would have been able to stick it out if it had been an overcast night. The only thing that managed to calm her restlessness was being able to wordlessly gesture at the stars, and trace shapes in the air to identify the constellations and draw out her new proposals when the current set did not satisfy her.
They were still, much to her surprise, not discovered and challenged by the time they heard the sound of a vehicle arriving.
She instinctively reached out for Gwen, ready to tug her back if she was bounding out too eagerly, but Gwen was already walking with schooled nonchalance.
Mr Jones' car parked neatly in his space, carefully preserved from the day's comings and goings by Joe's direction to new overnight guests, and the man himself emerged from the car just as they came into full view - exactly as it had been planned.
He was sturdier-looking than Robin had expected - she had been imagining a wizened, stooped old man, worn down by the decades until he just wanted to live out his twilight years in a little peace and quiet. But Mr Jones was upright and broad-shouldered, and although his hair was grey and mostly hidden under his hat, there was plenty spilling out the sides in a slightly unruly thatch.
It was possible that he wouldn't have noticed them at all, if Gwen had kept quiet. He had turned to the back door of the car and was opening it to unload his supplies when she finished her approach, and with her best isn't-this-a-wonderful-surprise smile, said, "Would you like a hand with those bags?"
She'd practiced the line when she had apparently shared Robin's opinion of the likely state of Mr Jones, and it now seemed rather less convincing than it would have been if he had less obvious strength in him, but she delivered it brightly and confidently nevertheless.
Mr Jones startled like a raccoon that had been caught at the bins - Robin fancied that she could see his fur bristle as he backed up into what was clearly a defensive position, and his hand automatically reached down to his hip.
"Gwen, he's got a gun!" exclaimed Robin, already examining her options for cover.
"Isn't that pretty normal, all the way out here?" she replied carelessly, still trying to make eye contact and ready to smooth over the misunderstanding.
For his part, Mr Jones clearly recognised that he was facing down two girls, and while Gwen was a strapping lass and Robin had put a little muscle on her scrawny frame, there was no obvious threat in front of him. His next move was to nervously scan the darkness, appearing to assume that the girls were a distraction for an ambush that was forming elsewhere.
"Hey, it's okay," Gwen attempted to convince him. "We live here - we just wanted to help, that's all."
She held her hands out in what she clearly intended as a universal gesture of peace and affirmation of friendly intent.
Robin gradually released the breath she hadn't been aware she was holding as Mr Jones clearly relaxed a little and stood down from the heightened state of alertness he'd leapt into as soon as he was aware of them.
"No… no gracias," he rumbled, hesitantly, as if it hurt him to speak - as if he hadn't used his voice for some time.
Robin realised that it hadn't occurred to them at all that Mr Jones might not speak English.
"¿Estás seguro?" attempted Gwen, in clearly extremely rusty Spanish.
"Estoy... cierto," replied Mr Jones, still attempting to watch both us and the shadows very closely.
"¡Que... le... vaya bien!" replied Gwen cheerfully, pausing awkwardly over attempting to choose the correct form of address.
She then turned to Robin and said, "Well, at least the stars are beautiful tonight," and took her hand and made to walk towards Mr Jones, which was the direction they had been travelling in. Robin tugged urgently on her hand to pull her back; she didn't understand at first, just stopping and looking at her querulously, but then tried to make the transition of direction look natural - like she'd meant to do that all along - and let Robin drag her back behind the store.
"Can't we at least watch him unpack?" she hissed in what was more of a stage whisper than something than would really avoid carrying - but it seemed likely that Mr Jones couldn't understand them, so it seemed like no harm would be done.
"You heard him," insisted Robin. "He doesn't want to talk to us. It's his choice. It was bad enough ambushing him in the first place, without staring at him like some kind of museum exhibit."
"But…" started Gwen. She sighed. "I know it's my fault, I know I should have done better. I should have taken you on a nice trip to Los Angeles or got you into some kind of summer school or something. I just didn't want to keep you away from your family forever - I know you care for them." Gwen lapsed briefly into moody silence.
"But?" prompted Robin, not even bothering to lower her voice very much now that Gwen had started talking at almost conversational volume.
"But - I'm sorry - it's so boring here!" Gwen admitted. "Everything looks the same for miles and miles, people come and hide themselves away and look at you like you're dirt, and they don't want to talk to us, and they leave. At least Mr Jones thought we were something, even if it was a danger to him."
"You don't have to stay," Robin pointed out. "Your mother would come and pick you up any time you wanted to call her."
"But then I'd have to leave you!"
The quiet figure of Mr Jones became visible again around the corner of the store, carrying a significant pile of grocery bags towards his lonely cabin. He clearly wasn't going to be out again for a while.
"I'll be fine here," Robin tried to assure her. "Cary would love to spend some extra time…" she trailed off, as it was clear that this was the wrong thing to say. Gwen was looking at her with mingled incomprehension and horror.
"Have I…" she tried to say, but somehow the words tripped over themselves and couldn't get out - something that Robin had rarely seen happen to the garrulous Gwen, and tugged at something in her - something that wrenched and made her feel like letting Gwen down was the worst thing in the world that she could ever do.
"No!" Robin desperately exclaimed, trying frantically to find a way to fix it. "No, I - I mean - you…" She couldn't find the words either. She didn't really know what Gwen was getting at, only that it was vitally important that she didn't feel bad, that Gwen's happiness was somehow more important than her own.
"You never complained," Gwen went on. "You always seemed to - I don't know. I should have asked you. I should have said something. I've just been so - so afraid…"
"I don't want you to go away," replied Robin, latching onto something that was clearly a problem for Gwen. "I just don't want you to be unhappy here, either."
"I'm not unhappy here," Gwen insisted. "I don't think I could be unhappy anywhere that you are. I'm just… restless."
Mr Jones opened his door, dragged the bags inside, and closed it again. The sound of the lock echoed across the quiet plains.
"They're going to register me for school here," said Robin, not sure where she was going, but needing to get everything out now they had started. "They'll want me to go to the same school Cary does. Mama did miss me terribly, and Dad too, and even Shirley - she's only just started letting me sit with her again without hanging on like I might vanish at any moment…"
"I know." The anguish was back, but Robin felt like they needed to go through it, in order to get out the other side - if everything was left unsaid, it would be back again and again, until it hurt them too much to look at each other, until it drowned them.
"Then what are we going to do?" Robin asked. "What's your plan?"
Gwen shook her head, not in disagreement, but as if she was trying to clear it of some kind of buzzing thoughts, like insects. She seemed to be trying to say something but couldn't get it out.
"You don't have a plan," concluded Robin.
"I don't have a plan!" wailed Gwen, so loud that Robin was suddenly afraid again that it would wake her family, or even worse, Uncle Joe. Gwen reached out and took her by the shoulders, gripping her as if she might fade away into nonexistence if she let go. "I don't have a plan. I don't even know if I should have a plan. You have your family…"
"But I don't fit," replied Robin, in a much smaller voice. "I love them, but I don't fit." Partly she meant that there was physically no space for her, and partly she meant something else, something she thinks Bridget might have been trying to warn her about, but far too late.
It wasn't the house that Bridget should have been worrying about.
It was Gwen.
"We'll find a way," Gwen promised. "I will make there be a way."
Chapter 6: Want
Gwen didn't join her in her chores the next day - she was on the phone to her mother.
Robin had to go and help with the endless cycle of cleaning and laundry and maintenance, and when she got back the conversation was over, and Gwen was acting again like the cat that always gets the cream.
"I can't be sure until they actually go through with it," Gwen told her, after lunch when they managed to get some time alone together, "but I think I've persuaded them."
"Persuaded them of what?" Robin asked, impatiently.
"You know how my father was always going to re-open the house, as a museum?" replied Gwen. "Well, I reminded them of that, and I laid it on a bit thick about the conditions you were all living in here. Dad still regrets letting your dad go, although he did see that it wasn't good for him to be doing hard labour - I think he was hoping to get him up to supervisor, especially now the Crileys are in the doghouse for what Fred got up to. But it turns out he just enjoyed working with you all and having you around, too - having someone like your dad that he could talk to, that had an education, you know?"
Robin was fairly sure that some other people had also had an education but were just a bit quieter about it than her dad was, and that people could be interesting without an education at all, but she just nodded, rather than letting Gwen get off on a side track that might turn into an argument.
"So they're having another think about it, seeing if they can raise the funding to get it set up properly, and I laid it on a bit about you all having hospitality and tourism experience now too…"
"But what about Uncle Joe?" Robin regretted it as soon as she'd said it. It wasn't that she'd got much more fond of Uncle Joe; he was still a penny pincher and a hard taskmaster, without really seeming to lift a finger himself if he could get away with it. But he seemed to have been somehow relieved by the reopening of the cabins - maybe he was just revelling in the extra income, but she thought it probably put to rest some of his old regrets.
"He was doing okay before you got here, wasn't he?" Gwen retorted. "I'm not convinced he really likes the extra company - he just can't resist the extra money."
"He must have asked us here for a reason," Robin persisted. "Maybe he can't keep up the store on his own any more."
"Maybe he can come and run the gift shop," Gwen suggested, although it was clearly a half-hearted concession.
Robin suddenly didn't want to talk about it any more. The whole idea was exhausting. Either it would work out or it wouldn't, and she didn't think she had much say in the matter either way.
It was a few days later that the letter arrived, and Mama took her aside again - she noticed that it was done carefully out of sight of Gwen, so she couldn't even do as much as shoot Robin a knowing look.
"Is this your doing?" Mama asked her, with an uncharacteristic sternness.
"No," said Robin, entirely truthfully. She couldn't do anything other than tell the whole truth to that expression, so alien to the mother that always made the best of everything.
"I need to know," Mama continued, obviously not quite believing that was the answer she was looking for. "I need to know if this is a real, stable, permanent thing - and not just some flight of fancy that you and Gwen have had them cook up, that's going to fall through for us again. Cary doesn't need to be in two different schools again next year."
"It's…" Robin couldn't quite say, it's real - she didn't know that. "It's Gwen's idea," she finished, lamely. "But it's a thing they've been saying for ages and ages - it's not something they've just thrown together on the spot…"
"Yet somehow they didn't get around to it until now," replied Mama. "I'm just worried. Uncle Joe won't like it. We won't get an easy ride out here again. I've got to know everything before I even tell anyone else. Especially your father. He worries about you, you know."
Robin didn't know, but nodded like she did. Her father had been in better health, and more cheerful, but no less busy; and she'd been spending so many of her extra moments with Gwen, and anything she could snatch back from that with Cary or Shirley or Rudy - and sometimes even Theda, who wanted to know everything about what she'd done over the rest of the year and what everyone was wearing and a million trivial details that Robin recalled but wasn't convinced mattered to anyone -
"Gwen will just tell me what I want to hear," continued Mama, "and her parents are more concerned about her than us, of course they are. But you might be able to get some straight answers out of her, find out what is really going on here."
"I know what's going on," admitted Robin. "Gwen doesn't know any more about how - how stable this is - how likely it is to succeed… I don't think anyone knows, that's why they haven't done it already. But she couldn't think of any other way for… for us to stay together."
Mama gave her a searching look at that statement, one that made Robin slightly uncomfortable. Of course her mama could see right through her, but it was discomforting to be reminded of that, especially when she wasn't sure she approved - especially when she wasn't even sure what she felt herself.
There was a small, sad smile for a moment on Mama's lips, and she looked down, as if she didn't want Robin to read what she was thinking in her own face.
"You're… really fond of each other, aren't you?" she asked, softly.
Robin squeezed her eyes tightly shut, not really trusting herself to react appropriately, and she nodded. She opened her eyes again to find her mother looking at her, still tinged a little with sadness but also with all of the love and compassion she might have hoped for.
"I don't really know…" Robin attempted. "But I…"
"But you want to find out," Mama finished for her.
"Yes," admitted Robin. "Yes. I want to find out."
"Well," replied Mama, returning a little to her brisk, let's get things done attitude, "we had better at least get you your own separate rooms again…"
Chapter 7: Sort It All Out
In the end, Uncle Joe took it less badly than they had all been afraid of.
"It was a fine thing to try," he said, "but I was never sure I really wanted all these people around all the time anyhow."
That made Robin remember one more thing, though. Mr Jones. What would he do when the place was closed down again? He seemed to have settled in here as if he was here for good - it felt awful to be turfing him out after a few short months.
"Surely he was somewhere else before he was here," Gwen tried to reassure her. "There isn't a shortage of lonely motels in this country; if he's got enough money to live like he does, he can set up somewhere a little way down the road."
"I just feel bad about it, is all," Robin murmured.
"He's not your problem," Gwen attempted. "Anyway, you were the one who stopped me trying to get to know him. Are you saying we should start poking around now? He clearly didn't want our help - so why should we worry about him?"
"He didn't want us poking our noses in," said Robin, "but now we're hurting him. I just feel like we should be trying to put that right somehow."
"How are you even going to get in touch with him, without upsetting him again?" Gwen asked.
"I don't know," said Robin. "My Spanish really isn't any use at all. Otherwise, I'd slip him a note, under the door. That means he gets to respond to it without us having got up in his face."
"But what would you say?" probed Gwen. "I just don't think we have anything to offer him."
"We don't even know what he wants," replied Robin. "And, I mean… I guess we haven't… but I feel like I should at least offer him an apology? An explanation?"
"What kind of explanation?" asked Gwen. "I don't think many people… I don't think many people would appreciate any kind of explanation that was true."
"Mama did," Robin pointed out.
"Your mama loves you," Gwen retorted, "and wants the best for you. Mr Jones just wants us to leave him alone."
"...maybe that's it?" thought Robin, aloud. "Maybe we can get Uncle Joe to leave him alone?"
"Why would he do that?" asked Gwen. "I thought he was okay seeing the back of you because it meant he could see the back of everybody."
"But Mr Jones doesn't cause any trouble," Robin pointed out. "He keeps his own cabin and he keeps his own company. He's the ideal guest for Uncle Joe. And Uncle Joe does like money."
"I don't really understand your Uncle," Gwen admitted. "I don't think he really wants anyone to understand him, either."
"I think I know how he works," Robin asserted. "I don't know the why, but I know the how, I think."
"Okay, then?" Gwen yawned; she wasn't consciously signalling she was bored of this conversation, Robin thought, but she never was any good at keeping her feelings under the surface.
"If I talk to Uncle Joe," Robin said, "will you write Mr Jones a letter?"
"If you sort it all out with Joe," said Gwen, slightly confused, "what do we have to say to Mr Jones?"
"I want to check with him first," said Robin. "I don't want to try to do something for him that he doesn't want - not again - and I kind of want to apologise for the first time, too."
"I think we can sort something out," replied Gwen, still somewhat doubtfully but clearly wanting to please Robin. "Tomorrow. Go to sleep."
Chapter 8: Everything
Gwen looked somewhat taken aback when she discovered the note that had been pushed under their door, a couple of mornings after she had delivered her attempt to Mr Jones.
"Translate it for me," Robin insisted.
"He says he's sorry for being so nervous about us," Gwen tells her, slowly, dragging a finger along the lines to try and puzzle them out. "I think. And that - we don't owe him anything? But that he's grateful we are feeling considerate? I think… yes… he does want you to talk to Joe, if it won't be too much trouble."
There never seemed to be the right time to talk to Uncle Joe, not now that their departure was so imminent. They gave everything a final clean, closed it all up in good order, and Rudy had rigged up a few things to help Joe lift and split crates of stock himself rather than needing someone else to help him.
It was listening to Rudy explaining the contraptions that gave her the idea of how to approach the subject.
"Hey, Joe," she said, hoping she sounded more casual and less forced than it came across to her.
"Oh, out with it, girl," replied Joe, clearly not having anything to do with the pretense at small talk. "Aren't you glad to be almost gone already?"
"It's not that," said Robin, trying to stick together her courage and also work out how to string together the words that she wanted to say. "It's - Mr Jones…"
"Yes, Mister Jones down there will have to ship out with the lot of them," replied Joe. "Happy now?"
"It's just," tried Robin. "You know how you've been, you've been a bit worried about being able to keep up with shelf filling and all that on your own."
"Mighty late for you to be worrying about that, missy, now you've put ideas in your folks' heads and got them on the road again."
Robin swayed a little. Maybe she should have got someone else to do this. Maybe Rudy would have done a better job - or Dad - or even Mama, although she thought that Mama reminded Joe a little too much of his wife to get anything through to him.
"You've clearly got something to say, so get it said," Joe urged her.
"It's just, Mr Jones," she stumbled onwards. "He's - he can carry things - I've seen him…"
"And he's well off and has no reason to want to stack my shelves for me," retorted Joe, "better off than you or I will ever be, although you wouldn't know from looking at him."
"But he does want to stay here."
"Maybe you should have thought of that…"
"And he isn't any trouble," Robin ploughed on. "We haven't been in there the whole time, he keeps up his own cabin himself, so you wouldn't need an extra hand - and you barely see him - and even if you can't get him to help, he must bring in some money…"
"What's got you so concerned, kid?" asked Joe, in what appeared to be genuine incomprehension. "Is he paying you to put the moves on me?"
"No!" exclaimed Robin. "I just…"
"So you feel bad about the mysterious stranger you've never met, but not about your own uncle?"
Robin wished she could shrivel up and disappear, that she could just melt away and drain out through the door. She'd meant to fix one problem, but she'd really just wrecked everything, just by being here - just by wanting what she wanted.
"Ah, kid," said Joe, with a weary resignation and a measure of awkwardness around handling talking to a child. "I'm just messing with you. Let me think about it."
Robin never dared to ask him, and the Model T was once again piled high with bags and boxes - although not as high as it had been, because the McCurdy car would be picking up Gwen and her belongings didn't entirely fill it, so they'd generously offered some space and some of the entire worldly goods of Robin's family were dutifully sitting in piles for collection instead.
But as the Buick arrived, was loaded, and the two cars pulled away, Mr Jones' car was still in its place, long after all the other guests had been duly turfed out and the cabins locked up against the elements.