Martín rubbed between an anxious Winnie’s ears, making sure the bulldog sat obediently in the foot-well between his knees. They were impatiently waiting for Olga to come out to the car.
“I w—wish you liked car rides,” Martín whispered. “Be good, or you can’t…” Distressed at the thought, he finished off by signing, Or you can’t come with me to visit Harley, Ivy, Leta, and Phin.
Winnie’s ears perked as she watched Martín’s hands give the sign for each familiar name. She barked, jumping up to put one paw on the seat and the other over Martín’s right wrist.
“Shhh,” Martín hissed, setting her back on the floor as Olga’s shoes crunched toward the car. This is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.
“If you bark like this while I drive,” Olga teased as she opened the driver’s side door, “you stay.”
“She’s ju—just excited,” Martín protested while Olga carefully backed them down into the lane.
“Is remarkable, how this dog knows signs,” Olga said, her hands moving against the steering wheel, partly recognizable as the sign for Winnie’s name. “Sorry, cannot talk and watch road.”
It’s okay, Martín signed, knowing from experience that her peripheral vision was sharp.
The women Martín thought of as his aunts lived about three miles from the Van Dahl Estate, a short drive around part of the Palisades. He hadn’t learned to conceptualize their neighborhood as an island until his family had temporarily been driven from it, because it was during that time that he’d briefly been stranded on it with his unlikely new aunts and unlikelier new uncles.
Five minutes later, Winnie was still on her best behavior as Olga slowed their speed and took them up the long driveway that led to his aunts’ mansion. It was smaller than the one he lived in, and even smaller still than the one his uncles lived in, but it was secretly his favorite house on the island. That the kitchen never ran out of either Lucky Charms or Pop-Tarts was the main reason.
As soon as Olga had parked in the gravel roundabout encircling the crumbling fountain full of koi and water lilies, Martín dashed out of the car with Winnie at his heels. The door wasn’t open like the first time he’d ever turned the knob, and it was definitely too warm for him to see his breath. His memories of February last year were as profoundly sharp as the cold had been.
While Martín repeatedly rang the doorbell and Winnie started to bark her head off in response to Leta and Phin barking their heads off, Olga huffily joined them on the doormat. She was always grumpy this early on Saturday mornings, because she had to go to her other job.
Harley answered the door, pretty even though her face wasn’t painted and her hair was in a bun.
“There’s my favorite boy wonder!” she said, opening her arms to Martín while Leta and Phin tore past her out the door to play-chase Winnie into the back yard. “Oof. Whatcha been up to?”
“The same he is always up to, what do you think?” asked Olga, in the same long-suffering tone she used to talk about her niece. “Making Oswald crazy and trying to explode Edward’s lab.”
“Accident,” Martín insisted, cheeks burning, his face still buried against Harley’s shoulder.
“Hey, you gotta tell Uncle J about that when we see him later today,” Harley said, holding him out at arms’ length. “He’ll be proud.” She glanced at Olga, beaming. “We’ll bring him to the Manor around five this evening, how’s that?”
“Whatever you want,” Olga said, placing a hand on Martín’s head. “Bud’ khoroshim.”
Martín rolled his eyes, pleased when Harley covered her mouth to stifle a laugh. “Da.”
While Olga drove away, Harley took Martín’s hand and dragged him excitedly through the house’s homey, modern interior. His uncles had paid for the renovation, but Ed had helped Ivy to set up the greenhouse and her lab.
“You’ve gotta see these weird things Ives got to sprout last week,” Harley said, ushering Martín into the greenhouse. “I’ve only ever seen ’em in the woods, and that was when I was a kid. They’re kinda creepy.”
Ivy came from where she’d been hidden behind a row of impressively tall potted tomato plants.
“Ooh, right,” she said, adjusting her reading glasses, tossing her dirt-smudged textbook on the ground. She beckoned Harley and Martín around to the other side of the tomatoes and pointed to the mulchy space beneath the shade of one of them. “Scattered some Montropa uniflora in here, because why not. I heard they were impossible to cultivate.”
Not impossible for you, Martín signed, wide-eyed as he brushed one waxy white blossom in the alien-looking cluster. “Ghost pipe?”
“Yup,” Ivy said proudly. “Indian pipe, ghost plant, corpse plant. Got a buncha cheerful names.”
“She’s gonna make some kind of tincture if she can grow enough,” Harley said, strolling around behind Ivy to mess with her loose, wavy red hair. “Thinks it might help J’s nerve stuff, an’ one of my more hippie-dippy psych profs said it might calm some of Ed’s trauma symptoms.”
“Hey!” Ivy scolded, side-eyeing Harley before she winked at Martín. “This is coming from the lady who thought adopting a Dalmatian and a Morkie at the same time was a great idea.”
“Oh, like you coulda left Leta behind in that cage any more than I could after takin’ precious Delphinium away from her,” Harley griped. “Leta started cryin’ the second that guy at the pound got Phin out for us. I wasn’t gonna let that stand.”
Martín hugged Ivy and then looked at the plants again, noting how the eerie whiteness of them was accented with reddish pink. He thought of the skin around Jeremiah’s pale, perpetually tired eyes, and then of Ed’s fragile-seeming moodiness after a hard day.
Thanks, he signed once he’d released Ivy. Both of you. Can we make breakfast now?