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Fic: Valley of Shadows 1/2



Title: Valley of Shadows
Rating: Teen
Summary: Joan Girardi is home from college for the summer and her Boss has not one, but two summer jobs lined up for her: her work at the bookstore, and a second job working for the enigmatic Susan Walker.
Spoilers: Through the entire run of Joan of Arcadia, and the entire series of books for Chronicles of Narnia.
Warning: will contain character death

It was unusual for a complete stranger to come into the small bookstore. Arcadia was a small town and what little tourist trade they had tended to end up in the antique stores rather than the little hole in the wall shop where she worked. Mostly it was regulars who were anti-establishment types, trying to buck the trend of the massive bookstores in the strip mall at the edge of town. She’d gotten into the habit of treating the unknown customers with caution, since they had turned out to be a new incarnation of God on more than one occasion.

This woman was taller than Joan and stood up very straight despite a thick braided crown of snow-white hair. “I’m looking for ‘Metaphysics of Ethics,’” she said, crisp British accent tinting her words.

joannarnia1

Joan hurried from behind the counter, reluctantly leaving her textbook behind. She was trying to get ahead in her reading for next semester, but her art history book was proving to be surprisingly dull. The assigned texts for Middle Eastern History and Politics had been far more interesting in comparison. The philosophy section was tucked back in the corner of the store, but Sammy refused to label anything. Her boss liked the ‘personal approach,’ which basically boiled down to, ‘make Joan memorize the unlabeled and ever-changing layout so she would have to help the customers find things.’

The woman lingered amongst the shelves for close to an hour, despite the fact that Joan had made a beeline for that particular title, and ended up purchasing a half-dozen books by the time she left, all from that same general area. Not the book she originally asked for, Joan notices, but she wasn’t the book police and people were free to read whatever they choose. She was half-expecting a late-reveal from God, but the woman simply purchased her books and left the store without engaging in even the tiniest bit of small talk.

As the customer was walking through the door, though, Joan saw the individual she had been waiting for. The lean apparent teenaged girl held the door open for Mrs. Walker, a calm, almost sad smile on her face as the old woman left the store and headed out onto the narrow sidewalk. Joan steeled herself as God walked to the counter, a stack of flyers held in one arm.

“Hello, Joan. Would you mind putting up one of these flyers?” There was a slight smile as she handed over a sheet of papers asking for help in a recycling drive.

“Let me guess: you want me to volunteer?”

“Volunteering is always appreciated, Joan. But I think you might be too busy for this particular activity.”

Joan sighed. By now she could tell when she was being given a new assignment. “Why will I be too busy?”

“Well, working your new job will be taking up a lot of your time for a while,” God said, that same quirk to her lips.

Joan counted to ten in her head, even though she knew that God could hear her even there. “I already have a job,” she said.

“It’s good to stay busy, though. You should probably get a second job. You can always use the extra money for school.”

“I’m guessing you already have one in mind.”

“You’d make a very good assistant for someone,” God said, a little too cheerfully for Joan’s taste. “And it just so happens that Mrs. Walker could use a helping hand right now.”

She couldn’t help her glance toward the glass door, though the woman in question was out of sight by now. “Really? And how, exactly, am I supposed to ask her for that job? Run out into the street and follow her?”

“You could try reading the classifieds, Joan. She advertised.” There was another smile, this one more of a smirk, and then God left the shop with a backwards wave.

Joan had a fairly long shift that day, both opening and closing the bookstore since she’d somehow proven to Sammy that she could handle the responsibility. The fact that she didn’t really want the responsibility seemed to go unnoticed. That evening when she got home Joan demolished the paper looking for the ad God had mentioned. It was in the classifieds, which, okay, made sense. Joan had never gone looking for a job before. She hadn’t needed to learn how to read the papers in search of employment.

She still hadn’t decided what she was going to do about her current job. If this one wasn’t too terribly demanding, she would like to keep her spot at the bookstore. Sammy gave her a lot of responsibility and tended to be a little heavy-handed with the sarcasm when it came to her reading choices, but he’d also let her come back to work during breaks and once all the shelf-stocking was taken care of she could study or read between customers. It was pretty much an ideal job for a college student and she’d hate to lose it.

Mrs. Walker’s help wanted ad had been direct and short: Assistant required. Flexible hours, pay negotiable, please call this number. Joan had called and set up an appointment for the next afternoon.

The rest of her family was MIA for dinner; Kevin was out with Lily, Luke still in Massachusetts for some summer program, Mom at a school thing and Dad at the station. Joan ended up making a smoothie and some microwave popcorn and calling it a day, crashing on the couch and vegging out to the Cartoon Network.

The next morning was fairly laid back when you considered that she had a job interview hanging over her head. There wasn’t much Joan could think of to prepare herself for that interview. Father Ken would probably be willing to act as a character reference. What kind of things did you need to be able to do as a personal assistant? Obviously she could either learn them or already knew what how to do them, since God had sent her in this direction in the first place.

Joan was a little more worried about what she was supposed to be doing on the God side of the equation. He never made these requests unless she was supposed to be doing something above and beyond the things her potential new job would entail. She’d learned over the years to keep her eyes and ears open and her mouth shut, and most of the time she even managed to follow through with that plan. Still, Mrs. Walker had very much seemed like she had it together and Joan couldn’t imagine what she might need to do to help the older woman.

She was ten minutes early to the address Mrs. Walker had given her over the phone. The house still had a sign out front listing it for sale, with a ‘SOLD’ banner slapped on top of it, and it was bigger than she expected. Mrs. Walker met her at the door with little fanfare and brought her into an honest-to-you-know-who sitting room with a tea service set out. She gestured for Joan to sit and poured for both of them. Joan stifled a protest that she wasn’t really a tea person and sipped at the cup she was handed. “I need someone to help me with an array of errands,” Mrs. Walker began without preamble, her crisp British accent making the statement seem businesslike rather than abrupt. “I came to the states to do some research into my latest project. I do not wish to be burdened with things like groceries or getting a proper driver’s license. My time is precious and limited, Ms. Girardi, and I have work to do. Can you accomplish these tasks in a trustworthy manner?”

“Yes,” Joan said. “But I head back to school at the end of September.”

“I doubt that I would need you past then,” the woman said. “My doctors tell me that I have very little time left.”

The bluntness of the statement was a bit of a shock to Joan, and she took a moment to catch her breath. “Thank you for letting me know,” she finally said, almost wincing at the words and how lame they sounded out in the air. It was hard to know what she should say next, how she should approach this situation, but Kevin’s accident and Judith’s death had taught her that there wasn’t much that a stranger could say that would ease anything. “I would be happy to help out with anything you needed,” was the phrase she eventually settled for.

This seemed to be enough for Mrs. Walker, who nodded and stood up. “I’ll expect you at seven a.m. tomorrow, then. On time and ready to go to work.”

Joan nodded, standing up and holding out her hand, shaking Mrs. Walker’s hand. “I’ll be here,” she promised.

She spent the rest of the day arranging to work nights at the bookstore, which required a little fast-talking with her old boss, and checking in with Grace, who was the only friend she had that was currently in town. Working two jobs wasn’t actually going to be as much of a hardship as it could be; Adam hadn’t come back for the summer and Grace was taking online classes while she helped her father rebuild the synagogue. Things might have gotten very lonely without the presence of Mrs. Walker to distract her during the days.

On the walk home she stopped at the cemetery. She couldn’t quite make herself walk through the heavy iron gates, but she stood outside for almost half an hour watching the ghosts that no one else could see. They didn’t limit themselves to the graveyard, but most of the time the only ones Joan saw elsewhere were Judith and Rocky. She had a feeling that it was because she didn’t know anyone else who had died.

Her parents were both home when she made it back. Her dad was in the kitchen, cooking something that smelled like garlic and tomatoes and basil, and Joan slipped in for a taste before heading upstairs to change out of her skirt and jacket and into something more comfortable.

Kevin was out of the house again, an increasingly common occurrence this summer, so dinner was just the three of them. Joan broke the news of her second job to her parents without either of them making many waves, which surprised her. Her mom sometimes took every sign that she was growing up as a personal affront. Instead, this time she seemed more supportive than was strictly necessary. Joan didn’t really need her mother to pick out her work clothing. Mrs. Walker had assured her that her normal clothing would be sufficient for the task.

She was at Mrs. Walker’s house bright and early the next morning, arriving ten minutes before seven because she wasn’t sure if the woman was the kind of person who claimed that ‘on-time’ was actually late. One of her professors kept appointments that way and Joan had received a lecture from the man last year when she showed up at two-thirty on the dot.

Ms. Walker answered the door wrapped in some kind of silky robe, her snow-white hair hanging loose on her shoulders. “You’re early,” she said, somehow making the words sound like ‘you have the plague.’

Joan smiled, a little nervously. “I figured it was better to be early than late.”

Her employer let out a little sigh and retreated back into the dark coolness of the house. Joan followed after a moment of hesitation. “I thought I told you eight o’clock.”

“No, ma’am, you said seven,” Joan said promptly. She’d had to open up the bookstore at eight for about half of her summer break and so remembered that she’d need to be awake an hour earlier than normal. “I can go away for an hour and come back, if you want.”

“It’s fine,” the woman said, the British accent making her words a little clipped. “I suppose you can help me with breakfast and getting dressed. I have a list of errands I’ll need you to run this afternoon if possible. After that we’ll just see how it goes, shall we?”

Joan nodded and went into the kitchen. It was a little messier than the rest of the house, and the china tea service from her interview yesterday was still sitting unwashed on the counter. There wasn’t a dishwasher, so Joan set aside her coat and bag and started washing the delicate pieces by hand in the sink and leaving them to dry in the rack. Mrs. Walker was on the other side of the kitchen, preparing a second, plainer teapot and filling a kettle with water. She sat down once the kettle was heating, looking wan and frail in the sunlight that streamed into the kitchen. “There should be a loaf of bread in the cupboard to the right of the sink,” she said once Joan was finished with the tea service and had dried her hands on a dishtowel. “I would like two pieces of toast with marmalade, if you could. Then you can sit down with me while we wait for the water to boil and I’ll outline your tasks for the day.”

She did as requested, slipping two of the last three slices of bread into the toaster and hoping it was set for the way the woman liked toast. Marmalade turned out to be something like an orange jam that was kept in the fridge, and Joan brought that over to the table with a butter knife before retrieving the toast and setting it down on a plate in front of the woman. Mrs. Walker thanked her politely for the food before taking one neat bite from the toast. She chewed and swallowed in the creeping silence of the room. “I’m in need of groceries, to begin with. I’ll give you a list and some money once we’re done talking. Once you’ve taken care of that, I’ll need your help sorting through some of my things. I want to make the transition as easy as possible.”

It took Joan a second to realize that Mrs. Walker was talking about her death. Part of her wanted to ask about what was happening, but another part of her didn’t want to know. Once you knew something like this, like Rocky and his cystic fibrosis, it made it so much harder to look at the person and not see the disease that was killing them. She’d always seen Kevin before she’d seen the wheelchair, but that was because he was her brother. Joan didn’t want to look at Mrs. Walker and see the thing that was killing her. So instead of asking about that, she kept the conversation going in the same direction. “And after that?”

“I’m working on a book. Is there any chance you’d be willing to help me proofread this afternoon, after lunch?”

That was actually something she felt somewhat secure in promising, so Joan agreed and got up to stop the whistling kettle. “Do I just pour the water into the teapot?”

“There’s a diffuser with tea leaves down in the bottom. Just pour the water over that and we’ll let it steep for a few minutes. You can join me for a cup once we’re ready, if you’d like.”

The invitation should not really have surprised the girl, but it had. Sammy at the bookstore was a little more heavy-handed with his employees. Once she had set the teapot down on the table and found cups, saucers, spoons and the sugar bowl Joan ended up sitting across from Mrs. Walker, fidgeting a little with her cup. “What’s your book about?” she asked, desperate for anything to make this feel a little less awkward.

“It’s a memoir, of sorts.” There was a slight smile from the woman as she gracefully sipped her tea. “When I was a little girl, my brothers and my sister and I were all sent out to the country during the Blitz. We had this game we used to play; there was this very elaborate fantasy world where we were all kings and queens. I thought I might write about that. My little sister Lucy could create the most marvelous details of the whole thing, and my brothers invented a villain and plotted out a battle against her. It was the nicest summer we ever had, the one where we lived in Narnia, and since my siblings have long since passed on I thought I would write it down. It seems a shame for those memories to be lost.”

Joan took a sip from her own cup, just barely managed to not make a face at the bitter taste, and added sugar. “How did your family die?”

Mrs. Walker’s face didn’t technically change, but it was almost like shutters had been drawn over her expression. “There was a train accident. They told me it was likely none of them ever realized what happened before they died.” There was a long pause, the awkward silence filling up between them, before the woman spoke again. “I was twenty when it happened. I’ve long since recovered from the loss. Now, other than what I’ve mentioned I don’t really have anything else for the day. Tomorrow I have an appointment with a local doctor, and that will probably take most of the morning. My purse is on the dresser in my bedroom down the hall. If you bring it here, I’ll make your shopping list and give you some money to take care of the cost.”

Joan stood up and did as she was asked, since the conversation was obviously over. There were two bedrooms at the end of the hall, but one of them was completely empty save for a stack of boxes against one wall. She closed the door quickly, sure that those were the things they were going to sort through later that day, and moved to the other bedroom across the hall. This one was much more promising, with a queen-sized bed and a long, cluttered dresser running along one wall. The purse in question was perched on one end, next to a faded black and white photograph with faces that Joan didn’t really take the time to notice. She hurried back down the hall. Mrs. Walker was still sitting at the table, a cooling cup of tea sitting in front of her. “Is this what you needed?”

“Yes, thank you.” She reached one thin arm out for the item and Joan saw the dark bruises spotting the white skin there for the first time. She frowned at the sight, but didn’t say anything. They were probably further evidence of the illness that Mrs. Walker had mentioned. She would need to be careful when she touched the older woman. “Why don’t you sit and have a second cup of tea while I make my list?”

Joan didn’t really care for the taste of tea; she’d been a coffee girl since she’d gone away to college. She sat down and had a second cup anyway, since it seemed to relax Mrs. Walker a little. The only sounds in the room were the light scratching from the pen in Mrs. Walker’s hand and the occasional sips she took from the cup in front of her. In a way, it was more comfortable now that the older woman had a task to keep her thoughts occupied. “That should be enough for the week,” she said finally, passing the sheet of unlined paper to Joan. The writing on it was elegant in a way that Joan’s own cursive never had been. She reached into the purse that Joan had brought and came out with a hundred-dollar bill. “I’ll expect you back by ten o’clock,” she warned, and Joan took that for a dismissal and stood up. It took her less than a minute to get out of the door and to her car.

There were two grocery stores in Arcadia, and given how some of the things on the list were items Joan didn’t recognize she headed for the larger one on the other side of town. She was wandering down the aisles with the cart, wondering where in the world you would find crumpets, when she caught sight of someone a little more familiar than she was expecting.

She and Adam weren’t as close friends as they used to be. They’d never quite managed to rebuild their friendship after Adam had cheated with Bonnie due to reluctance on both of their parts. Still, he had told her that he’d be spending the summer on an internship somewhere else and not to expect a visit. Joan had been counting on that, to be honest. Things were still awkward between the two of them and she had been looking forward to entire summer of not bumping into him around town.

Unfortunately, though, that was most definitely Adam standing there in the cereal aisle looking lost. She could probably turn around and pretend she hadn’t seen him, but that would no doubt come back to bite her and Joan Girardi wasn’t exactly the type of person to back down. “Adam,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even. It was hard not to let her voice lilt a little. Up until the last three months of school, Adam had always been one of the people she greeted with happy enthusiasm.

He turned from his perusal of brightly colored cereal box, that familiar almost-smile on his face. “Joan, hey. Nice to see you.”

“I thought you were staying in California on an internship.” She’d been excited for him when that news came through, that a first-year student had managed to get that arranged. She knew it was because Adam had more talent than just about anyone she’d ever met.

“Three weeks off before I get started, and I hadn’t seen my dad all year, so I paid for a bus ticket here and back.” He was looking at her now, eyes scanning the semi-professional skirt and button-down shirt she’d decided to wear on her first day. “What’s going on with you?”

“I got a second job for the summer, working as a personal assistant.” Joan smiled and gestured at the cart. “Turns out personal assistant pretty much means lackey. Speaking of which, I better get moving. I promised Mrs. Walker that I’d be back by ten and I still haven’t found the crumpets.”

“I don’t even know what those are,” he admitted. “Good luck finding them.”

“Thanks,” she said, still smiling and pushing the cart the rest of the way down the aisle. She held a grip on the handle of the cart and didn’t turn back to look at him as she walked away. No matter what happened, she wasn’t going to turn back.

There was an employee dressed in a smock stocking canned goods in the next aisle, and he managed to direct her to the area where they stocked dairy and cookie dough. The rest of the items were fairly easy to locate and Joan finished the rest of Mrs. Walker’s shopping and headed back across town to the woman’s house.

She made it back with ten minutes to spare and used the back door she had noticed earlier to bring in the groceries, going through the front and unlocking it first. Mrs. Walker was sitting at a desk in the living room, typing away on a battered-looking laptop, and the sight was a little surprising. She’d never seen an older person using a computer before and had to bite her tongue from commenting on it. “I’m back with the groceries. Is there anything you need before I put them away?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” She didn’t turn around and Joan went about her business, bringing in the bags and tucking everything away after a thorough search of the cabinets. Her mother was one of those people who organized her kitchen to the inch, and Joan went by those standards as she placed cans and boxes as close to similar items as she could. The fridge was similarly stocked and the bags neatly tucked away under the sink. Joan even took the time to put away the delicate tea service she’d washed that morning and washed the cups from the tea she’d shared earlier with Mrs. Walker before venturing out of the kitchen again. Interrupting people when they were in the middle of some kind of artistic endeavor was something Joan always dreaded. It was one of the few times her mother ever raised her voice, and also pretty much the only time she’d seen Adam act frustrated.

The older woman had turned from her computer to look at Joan when she came back out of the kitchen. She was still wearing the robe she’d been wearing when she’d answered the door. “Would you mind assisting me? I need to get dressed and fix my hair.” There was a quick smile, surprisingly gentle. “I feel absolutely slovenly like this.”

This was something she hadn’t exactly been expecting, but she could understand why it was being asked of her. Mrs. Walker laid out a linen dress and a set of functional undergarments before slipping out of her robe. Underneath the silky material she was rail-thin, the outline of her ribcage visible beneath skin like paper. “I’ll need help with the clasp and the buttons on the dress,” she said, her voice as calm as it had been while making the grocery list. “I can’t reach back to fasten them anymore.” She slipped on a bra and Joan fastened the hooks quickly, trying to not make her presence too noticeable. The dress went over her head and Joan worked the buttons closed as smoothly as she could.

Mrs. Walker smoothed the front of the dress and regarded it in the mirror for a moment before nodding and sitting down at the vanity. Joan helped her brush out and rebraid her white hair before pinning it up according to the woman’s directions. “There,” she said, her voice ringing with satisfaction. “I almost feel civilized again. Thank you for the assistance.”

“No problem.” Joan tried to behave as if that hadn’t been at least a little bit embarrassing. “What would you like to do next?”

“I should eat something, I suppose,” the woman said, her tone indifferent. “I was going to have you help me go through the boxes in the other room, but I think that will wait until another day. If you can help me with some proofreading this afternoon, that should be a good start.”

“Are you going to need help getting undressed?” Joan asked. She had a sudden, horrible image of this woman being stuck in her dress until Joan came back the next morning.

“Getting out of my clothes has never been a problem,” the woman said, her mouth curving up into a surprising smile. “Now, let’s see about lunch, shall we?”

Lunch was as simple as breakfast, apparently, and while Joan was hungry she didn’t ask for anything. She sat down across from Mrs. Walker and sipped from a glass of water while the woman ate her toast, now from a fresh loaf of bread. It was surprisingly comfortable despite everything, and Joan didn’t want to say anything that might disrupt the vibe.

Mrs. Walker walked back into the other room and started printing pages from her computer while Joan cleaned up the dishes and crumbs from the woman’s meager lunch. “I’m not writing it in order,” she warned once Joan had wandered into the living room. “It’s been difficult, pulling together the memories from my childhood. So for now, why don’t you stick with checking for grammar and misspellings. Mark anything that’s questionable with the red pen and I’ll go back in and fix it later.”

Joan fell into an easy rhythm as she read through the chapter she’d be given. She could probably have done this faster, but instead she was reading through slowly and getting to know a lot more about Mrs. Walker. The book turned out to be the woman’s memoir and autobiography, probably written more as a personal whim than any consideration of publishing it.

Not every event was complimentary towards the writer; she had married a man for convenience and affection and financial security but hadn’t really loved him, for one. When she’d been younger she’d chased after men and had more than a few physical affairs, none of them with men she really loved. There had been more than a little social ladder-climbing when she was in her twenties and thirties. Through it all, though, Susan kept coming back to the idea that she should be a better person than this. More than once she’d been ashamed by the thought of disappointing the memory of her sister or brothers.

The next chapter went forward in time and Joan was drawn into the story as Susan used her wealth, both inherited from her parents and won through marriage, to start charities that reached out toward women and children recovering in war zones. Joan was about halfway through, having had to go back twice to start actually correcting things because she’d gotten caught up in the events written, when Mrs. Walker cleared her throat. “I think that should be enough for today,” she said, and Joan glanced up at the clock and realized it was almost five. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss Girardi. Lock up on your way out.” And with that the woman stood up abruptly and left the room. Joan heard the bedroom door click shut in the silence of the house, and she gathered her things and left, locking the door as instructed. She could take a hint sometimes.

Once she got home from Mrs. Walker’s house for the day, Joan changed into a t-shirt and a comfortable pair of gym shorts and went for a walk. She wasn’t scheduled for the bookstore today at her request, though she would be closing up there for the rest of the week, and was planning on making the most of her last free evening for the foreseeable future. The cemetery was its’ usual crowded self as she walked past, and Joan did her best to not make eye contact. She wanted the rest of her day to remain uncomplicated if it all possible. In comparison, the park wasn’t really busy at all for a late summer afternoon. Most of the kids had probably been called in for supper. The little girl with the glasses and the alien antenna waved and called her over and Joan did that with a sigh. She allowed the little girl to drag her over to the swings and started pushing on command. “How was your first day of work, Joan?”

“Why did you ask me to take the job with Mrs. Walker?” Joan asked, pushing the form of the little girl in the swings. “She doesn’t really seem to need any help.”

“We all need help sometimes, Joan,” God told her, pumping little-girl legs and letting the wind blow her hair. “You need to help Susan remember how to see.”

“Her name is Susan? She didn’t tell me that.”

“She hasn’t told you a lot of things,” God said matter-of-factly. “Susan likes to keep things to herself. She thinks it protects her from getting hurt.” Short legs pumped and hair blew in the breeze. “Susan used to see me,” God said, the tone almost wistfully. “Susan and Peter and Edmund and Lucy all saw me for a time, though they called me a different name then.”

“You mean like I see you, or Ryan Hunter?”

“It’s different for everyone, Joan. You know that. Susan and her brothers and sister saw me, and for a while after they no longer saw me they were still looking for me. And then Susan stopped looking.”

“What happened to her family?”

“I took them home,” God said simply. “It was time for them. Susan wasn’t ready, though.”

“Is she ready now?”

“She’s trying to be.” God hopped off the swings and grabbed Joan’s hand, leading her out of the park. “She’s still not looking in the right places, though, and she hasn’t been listening to me. I want you to help her with that.”

“How?” Joan asked, though she knew she probably wouldn’t receive an answer. “If she doesn’t listen to you, what makes you think she’ll listen to me?”

“You’re more convincing than you realize. Just remember, when Susan starts mentioning Narnia, that’s part of what’s real. “ God smiled, let go of Joan’s hand and skipped off, waving. “I know you’ll do your best, Joan!”

Joan huffed out an aggravated sigh. “Right. Do my best, help her see, help her listen. No problem.”

xxx

Joan reminded her of Lucy. It was nothing tangible, certainly not a physical resemblance or anything so concrete despite the fact that they both had dark eyes and hair. They both had this zest for life that was hard to contain. Susan could imagine Joan in Narnia, could picture her with a sword and in battle. The girl would have been a good match for Edmund, back when they’d been settling into their positions as the Kings and Queens of Narnia. It was startling, after having spent so long pretending it had never existed. She’d locked away Narnia decades ago, but now it was simply appearing in her mind unbidden.

The race to finish her book was increasing in pace, even as Susan was growing steadily weaker and more tired. The memories from her childhood and adolescence threatened to overwhelm her sometimes as she worked furiously to record them. Everything was being written, even Narnia. Even the way she’d alienated her siblings by pretending it had never been real. Susan had known she had hurt them with the things she’d said. She just couldn’t do it anymore. It hurt too much, looking for Aslan and Narnia in her boring, prosaic life when she’d been told point blank that she would never return, so Susan had walled it away and tried to never look back.

With everything that was happening, Joan seemed like a godsend. She took instruction well and was excellent at adapting those instructions to the moment, and she didn’t seem to mind helping out with just about any need that Susan had. Susan couldn’t tell you exactly why she’d decided to move here, but it had obviously been a good decision. Joan was exactly what she needed to take the edge from her loneliness. For the first time in a long time, Susan was looking forward to tomorrow.

Tonight was a different story entirely. The quiet loneliness of the empty house seemed a little overwhelming once the sun had gone down. Susan had tried to get to sleep before that happened, but it hadn’t worked out like that. It was worse now than it had been before, in some ways. Joan had a very vibrant presence, even when she was working quietly. Her absence left a hole in the fabric of Susan’s quiet little house. It was worth it, though, to have that warmth nearby for a few hours.

Susan sighed and turned onto her side. It would make her arm go a little numb, possibly leave a bruise or two at this point, but she’d always slept better curled on her side. She had one last fleeting thought as she drifted off to sleep, a faint longing for the warmth of her sister and a campfire behind them, before relaxing into vivid dreams.

xxx

There wasn’t exactly a routine when it came to working with Mrs. Walker. Joan got there at roughly the same time every day, usually somewhere between seven-thirty and eight. On her second day of work the older woman presented Joan with a key for the front and back doors of the house, which Joan promptly attached to her car keys for fear of losing it. “This way I don’t need to be awake when you get here,” she’d explained, and Joan accepted the explanation without quarrel. It made life easier for both of them.

She didn’t have a set list of the tasks she needed to accomplish. Instead she just tried to do anything that looked like it needed to be done. Most mornings she started in the kitchen, washing up any dishes that her employer might have dirtied the evening before (usually very little; the woman made her inner Italian want to tie her down and feed her pasta) and start the kettle for tea. One of the first things she learned how to do was make a pot of tea to the woman’s preferences and Joan made at least three in the course of a day. Mrs. Walker seemed to exist on tea and toast most of the time, but she could drink an entire pot in the course of about an hour if she was working on her book.

Once a week there was a grocery list and cash and Joan would take care of that right after she handled that first pot of tea. The list was usually simple, befitting the woman’s tastes (seriously, Joan wanted to make lasanga for this woman and force her to eat an entire plate) and even with driving time it took less than an hour to accomplish the grocery shopping for the week, even if she had to drop things off with the dry-cleaner on the way.

After tea and breakfast and sometimes the grocery shopping, Mrs. Walker always needed help getting dressed and fixing her hair. The older woman had difficulty reaching far enough to reach anything that went up the back and insisted in wearing bras that did not fasten in the front or dresses that buttoned in a straight line up her spine, and that had to go over head besides. Joan was definitely planning on wearing nothing but T-shirts and yoga pants when she got old and cutting her hair so short that she didn’t have to fix it. Life was way too short for this.

Mrs. Walker typically spent her morning typing away on her computer, working on the book she was apparently writing. She’d asked Joan to help out with her household chores during that time, so the mornings meant laundry and dusting and cleaning the bathroom while her employer wrote.

Afternoons were a little more interesting. Sometimes Mrs. Walker needed a ride to a library or bookstore for research purposes, always leaving Joan to carry an armload of books out to the car, and then back into the house. Research afternoons took up the whole rest of the day, when they happened, and other than the occasional help with something on a shelf she couldn’t reach, or to carry things to the desk or the copier, Joan was free to roam around the library until it was time to leave. College and working in a bookstore had softened her approach to reading, enough that she ended up in a corner with a stack of books that tangentially approached the classes she was registered for in the fall, and a few on the inner workings of the United States Judicial system. She was leaning more and more towards going into law school once she graduated, though she wasn’t sure how she was going to break that news to her parents. It was a good thing that Luke had managed to wrangle some really impressive scholarships to MIT.

On her second day of employment with Mrs. Walker, they walked into the spare bedroom and started sorting through all of the boxes. “I got rid of almost everything back in London,” she told Joan, sitting down gracefully on the chair they’d dragged into the room. “These are just the things I couldn’t bear to part with, but obviously I will have to eventually leave them behind.” Thus began the oddly delightful manual labor portion of Joan Girardi’s new summer job.

The boxes contained everything from knickknacks and books from her childhood home to some stunningly gorgeous vintage clothing. Mrs. Walker gave Joan the clothing without even being asked, saying that things like that deserved to be worn and that she hated letting them sit around in boxes. The knickknacks took the longest time of anything to parcel out. They’d all been saved from the last culling for a reason, after all, and every single one had a story connected to it. After the previous day’s quiet work habits, those stories were a little bit jarring. Mrs. Walker never talked about her husband and rarely about her adult life with the exception of a few funny tales connected to the children she’d mentored over the years. Instead, everything was about her siblings.

Joan had a faint understanding of who they were from her reading the day before. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy had all been important parts of her life, far more important than her parents by all accounts. Now, though, she was getting a pretty clear picture of what they’d really been like. Every once in a while Mrs. Walker would mention Narnia as she talked, usually incidentally, and would forget to cover that mention with some kind of explanation. Anyone other than Joan would have thought it was her mind slipping away, but Joan had a feeling it was more revealing than that. Mrs. Walker was starting to remember things she had forgotten, or things that she had pushed to the back of her mind. It was a very good sign for Joan’s tangential assignment from the Almighty.

She didn’t directly reference it, though, no matter how much she wanted to do so. She’d picked up some semblance of subtlety over the past year and knew better now. Instead, she let the woman talk and laugh and reminiscence over the things she’d done with her brothers and sister. Joan laughed when the stories were funny and helped the woman carefully repack whatever had brought the story up in the first place, dividing the things up the way Susan wanted them to go, labeling each box with post-its. Most of the things had nowhere to go once they’d passed from Susan’s hands; they weren’t particularly valuable as the outside world considered value, and there was no one that appreciate the sentimental worth that they represented to Susan.

It made Joan a little sad, taping up boxes of memories destined for the Goodwill truck. All of the furniture in the place was the kind of basic stuff you bought for temporary housing, none of it worth terribly much. There were a handful of framed photographs scattered around the house, obviously ones that Mrs. Walker valued more than anything else she had in the house. Joan caught her brushing her fingers along one in easy reach as she walked through the living room, adjusting another whenever she stepped into her bedroom. Those were the things her boss valued, and they weren’t things that would ever fetch a high price on ebay or be loved when she was gone. Did it all boil down to that, in the end?

The more structured counterpoint to sorting through the boxes came at least three afternoons a week. Mrs. Walker had gotten to the point where she could write about her childhood, no doubt prompted by the stories connected to the objects she was unearthing from those boxes. She was still dancing around the idea of Narnia, writing about life before World War II or immediately after, when she and her older brother had come to the States while her younger siblings stayed back in England. It was close enough to the truth to give Joan hope, though.

They’d been working together for about a month before Joan received the first chapter about Narnia.

She had been handed the pages in exactly the same way as all the others, with absolutely no commentary or context. The chapter before this had been about a young man she’d fostered in the early eighties, and the one before that had been about the charity she’d begun in the seventies. The transition between that and a rainy day spent playing hide and seek in a rambling old house out in the country was particularly jarring.

It was difficult not to fall in love with Lucy from the beginning. Susan wrote of her sister in rose-colored terms, but even so it was clear from the beginning that Lucy was the bravest of them all in a lot of ways. The story swept her up and Joan had to stop more than once and backtrack to do her actual job. Even more mind-boggling was the fact that she knew this had happened. She had the highest confirmation in existence that Narnia was real, and that Susan had experienced everything she was writing about now.

Her employer was watching her when she looked up at the end of the chapter. They had just gone on the run from the witch, trying to meet up with Aslan, and Joan was struck with the need to know what happened next. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Mrs. Walker, to coax the story from the older woman, but Joan clamped her mouth shut and resisted the impulse. She would find out what happened when she got the next chapter. If she tried to pry it out of her right now she had a feeling that the woman would abort the project all together, or possible just fire Joan so that she never knew how it ended. Instead, she handed over the papers without commenting on the content. “I didn’t find any problems in that one.”

Mrs. Walker relaxed fractionally, her ruler-straight spine sagging for just a second before she straightened. “Thank you,” she said. “I think that will be all for the day.”

It was only four, but Joan knew a dismissal when she heard it and headed for the door. She had to work at the bookstore this evening anyway. It would be nice to actually sit down for a meal between the two jobs.

Things at the bookstore were typically slow for a summer evening in a place that didn’t even serve iced mochas, and she was grateful for it. She would have just ended up behind the counter serving those mochas if they had a coffee shop anyway. Joan usually spent her evenings stocking shelves and checking in deliveries that had showed up during the morning, which took up about an hour, and then hung out behind the counter with a book. She desperately needed a distraction from the dangling cliff of a plotline, but nothing was really keeping her brain occupied. In the back of her mind, she kept seeing the three children running along with the beavers, wolves howling behind them. Her Elementary Latin textbook was sitting on the counter, still untouched. She’d been putting it off so far this summer, but she really should start looking through that one. It was going to be dry as dust, though.

She locked up just after nine and spent another forty-five minutes or so checking the doors and windows, emptying the trash, and reconciling the cash register with the receipts. There was a small safe underneath the front counter that Sammy left open during the day, and Joan tucked the receipts and the bundled cash into it and closed the door firmly. She didn’t have the combination, but it wasn’t something she really needed either.

There was an older man waiting for her when she locked the back door and turned around, making her jump in place automatically despite the fact that she knew who it was. “It’s a nice night, don’t you think Joan?”

It was, actually, cool enough to be comfortable without being cold, and the sky was clear. There wasn’t any moon and there weren’t a lot of street lights in this part of town, so she could see a lot of stars in the sky.

“You know, the stars never look the same from world to world,” God said, falling into step beside her as she walked down the alley. Sammy’s bookstore wasn’t more than a mile from her parent’s house and unless it was raining she usually walked there. Parking sucked around here. When she walked home at night, she usually had this companion on her journey as well. “Every single one has a unique perspective on the universe at large. I wanted it that way. Even other dimensions have their own special night sky.”

It was late and she was tired, but Joan couldn’t help but enjoy His company and the view as she walked. “You’re talking about Narnia,” she said.

“I’m talking about a lot of places,” he said. “There are a lot of worlds out there, after all. Someday I’ll show you one of them. You’ll learn a great deal.”

Her pulse jumped a little at the idea. Joan liked her life here, and she was beginning to fall in love with the idea of being a lawyer, but nothing had ever satisfied her as much as her assignments from Him. Traveling like that, seeing places that no one else had ever really dreamed about, would be so, so cool. “Think that will be happening anytime soon?”

He chuckled. “I’ll let you know when it happens. In the meantime, you have your jobs here. You should talk a little more to Susan. She’d be interested in learning about the future you’re mapping out.”

The two of them parted ways when they reached Joan’s house; he kept walking when she turned up the sidewalk toward the front porch and was out of sight by the time she got the door open and slipped inside. Her mother was still awake and in that oddly introspective mood that Helen usually fell into just before she started painting (or renewed her interest in the Catholic church) and they exchanged a few words before Joan headed up to her room.

As she could have predicted, she had a hard time falling asleep. The conversation she’d just had with God mingled with the things she’d read in Mrs. Walker’s book earlier in the day, and she wished she could have been allowed to know what happened next. The cliff-hanger was driving her crazy. Obviously they made it through the chase safely, since Susan had lived to marry and grow old, but how exactly did they do it?

When she finally managed to fall asleep, her dreams were the usual vivid ones that Joan associated with God meddling. She didn’t see any sign of him and soon forgot to look as she looked at the pageantry around her. Joan wasn’t a big mythology fan, but she knew enough to recognize centaurs and unicorns.

As far as she could tell, no one around her could see her, though she was dressed like she was on her way to a Renn Faire or something and blended in as well as possible. They didn’t walk through her, either, skirting around the space she was occupying without pausing at all. Some of the talking animals occasionally glanced in her direction but never actually focused on her, and that was the closest she would come to being noticed.

She started walking, exploring her surroundings while she had the opportunity. There was a sword belted to her waist, which should have looked out of place with the dress but felt natural on her hip. Every once in a while the tip would brush against something, tapestries or a column (and one time the thick fur of an enormous bear, which made her heart jump into her throat). If anyone noticed the disturbance they didn’t say anything.

There were four thrones at the front of the room, occupied by the only other humans she could see. Two of them were occupied by men, both of them tall and wearing beards, and the other two by young women. One of the women looked familiar, and as Joan studied her she realized that it was Susan Walker, obviously far younger than she was now. That must mean the other three were her siblings.

“This was called the Golden Age,” a familiar voice said at her side. God was standing beside her, in the familiar form of a teenage boy with his hands in his pockets. “They were very good at being kings and queens. There were still battles, of course, but after the last one hundred years it was the closest thing to real peace that the people here could conceive.”

“She doesn’t really believe in this anymore, does she?” Joan asked, watching as the young queen conversed with her sister. “But it was real. It all happened.”

“Susan still believes, deep down. She still remembers. And when she’s ready, she’ll embrace Narnia. Your job is to be there when that happens.” He smiled, the expression one that made her a little wary. “You should take the opportunity to do a little exploring while you have the chance. It was a beautiful place.”

“Did something happen to it?”

“The true Narnia is still there, still beautiful. That’s what Susan will see when the time comes. Go on, Joan. I know you want to look around, maybe spend a little time seeing if you can use the sword. You’ve got time.”

Joan fingered the weapon at her side and nodded, working her way back through the crowd and taking in everything she could see. Hours seemed to pass in a blur as she walked around, sometimes alone and sometimes falling in with one of the talking animals or the rare humans here. One offered to spar with her and she spent some time with him, swinging the sword in a way that was instinct but that she knew she’d never been taught. She couldn’t help but wonder if she’d be able to repeat this feat when she woke up.

When her alarm clock rang there was no transition between her dream and real life; she blinked and went from a nighttime clearing to her familiar bedroom. Sighing and knowing she’d never be able to recapture the dream, Joan got out of bed and into the shower. It was time to get ready for work.

Part 2