After climbing the steep, rocky bank with the beam of a single flashlight to guide them through the dark, Anders and Eirik returned to the car with the talking panda cub which, since being given to them, hadn’t shut up. Shivering terribly, Eirik opened up the back of the Land Rover and started stripping off soaked layers.
“You should consider everything your Nana ever told you to be true ’cause it is,” said the bear. “Aaaall of it. Oh boy, you two! She really liked sharing things with you, but she didn’t want to share everything. You know, she didn’t want to doom you to a life of everyone thinkin’ you’re crazy, not too early on anyway.”
“But now we can live like we’re nuts?” said Anders.
The bear cuddled under his chin. “Someone has to.”
This is definitely Nana’s panda. Anders rolled his eyes mildly toward Eirik who grinned as he zipped up a dry, cerulean coat.
“But, before you ruin your reputation – the island bungalow,” said the bear. “We need to get the key from Nana’s personal aide.” It giggled, or snickered. It was difficult to tell. “Let’s go, let’s ride, let’s go that way! I know the way!”
Eirik unburied a fresh pair of pants from a bag. “I’ll be up in a sec,” he said.
“‘Kay.” Walking toward the driver’s side door, Anders resisted smothering the animal as it tried to eat his dark hair. “Stop it.”
With the bear’s guidance, they drove for some time; pulled over for a brief stint of sleep before dawn for which they asked, coaxed, and eventually threatened the animal to be silent; afterward, they found a remote fuel station where they topped off the depleted tank. Two other vehicles appeared to them during the night including the rust red car at the station, a sleepy beacon of color in the early hours.
“The 15th floor,” said the bear when Anders brought the Land Rover back to life. “Apartment number 1520.”
“Out here?” Anders exchanged a glance with his friend. This is a remote area. “An apartment with fifteen floors?”
Eirik shrugged, equally dubious but open minded. “Trolls and pandas?”
Checking the rear view, Anders put the vehicle in reverse, thinking he hadn’t known his grandmother at all. “Yeah.”
A curve in the lonely tree-blinded road abruptly opened up to looming multi-story structure surrounded by a fresh black parking area with crisp white lines like an inky moat. Parking in the spot nearest the main entrance, they strode in through open doors into an elegant, spacious lobby bearing the strong scent of a craft store without a single scuff on a floor so bright it produced the illusion of walking on ice. Every light was on without a soul in sight.
At the front desk Anders hit the bell twice. When no one appeared, He leaned over the counter. “Hello?”
Hands full of panda, Eirik nudged his friend with an elbow. “Let’s see if we can go up with out a key.”
Following signage to two lifts, Anders punched the button and both sets of brilliant brass doors opened instantly. Sharing a pleased look, they stepped into one, rode it up, and walked off on the fifteen floor; the bear’s squirming worsened, causing Eirik to fumble with and nearly drop it, repeatedly. Watching Eirik’s plight with amusement, Anders rapped on #1520.
A lady’s voice startled them. “Take it and go.”
A woman in a pink-and-white hand knit sweater with short wavy hair and reading glasses stood beside them as though she’d been there all along, holding out a ponderous iron key with a plain index card attached.
The panda fought Eirik, furiously. “MELISSAAAAA!”
She ignored the bear. “I’m Ana’s aide.” She cleared her throat of emotion, shrugging. “I was. She didn’t tell anyone about me because I didn’t like people who weren’t her. For years I helped her organize her things…” She studied the pair. “You’ll figure it out when you find the bungalow.” She shook the key. “Take it.”
“Er, thank you.”
“You’ll need these, too.” She passed between them and opened the door to #1520.
Inside #1520, a busy pattern on the wall grabbed Anders’ eye. Initially, he supposed it was wallpaper that looked like book spines to, perhaps, give the living space the feel of a library or book store. However, after a moment, he realized the walls were concealed by actual books, every corner, but without blocking a pair of tall, charming windows.
She grabbed something from behind the door and put in Eirik’s hands a of Spinach-Mango Smoothie bottle, empty and rinsed out, and in Anders’ an empty green collapsible box which read ‘Green Tea.’
Anders scowled. Trash?
“Those will keep you safe when you walk through the woods to get to the bungalow, ”
Eirik blinked. “Green!” He said to his puzzled friend, “Artificially green things, remember? Nana said it keeps evil away.”
She sighed like a librarian who finally managed to arrange all of her children (books) as they should be, thus completing her life’s mission, leaving her free to read and cook and ignore the world to her heart’s content. “Evil lives in all woods,” she said with serenity, “so good luck, be careful, and go away.”
Hey, wait. Anders checked the key, hopefully. There’s a note. Reading it with a glance, he straightened and quickly glanced about for someone else.
“What’s it say?” said Eirik,
Anders showed him the handwritten note: ‘Keep your back straight.’ Nana. It’s like she’s watching me. “She couldn’t leave a helpful note?”
Eirik smiled. “Not her style.”
“Listen, Miss Melissa,” said Anders, glancing over. “Thank -.”
The sweater woman had disappeared, the door was closed, and the panda had gone as limp as a fluffy bath towel over Eirik’s arms, crying quietly for Melissa.