Frost was pretty much the worst. It was like a promise with nothing behind it. It was like not enough icing on a cookie, not enough butter on toast. It was like the big gilt-framed antique mirror in his parents’ bedroom: from a distance it was shiny and beautiful, but once you got close enough, you could see the plain old everyday wood peeking through the gold paint. Frost, at least when you wanted snow, was about as disappointing as anything in this world had a right to be—?assuming you figured things had a right to be disappointing. Milo Pine wasn’t feeling that generous at the moment.
He knelt and leaned on the sill of one of the house’s two big bow windows, examining the yard critically through a circle of clear glass in the middle of one white-rimed pane. An English-Mandarin dictionary and a notebook lay forgotten by one knee. Admittedly, the current spectacle was pretty impressive. The frost perfectly mimicked a dusting of snow, and because the temperature outside was so frigid, it had lasted through the day. It had crunched satisfyingly underfoot, too, which was a nice complement to the clouds that had puffed into the air with each breath as he’d crossed the lawn after his last day of school, headed back to the big old inn he and his parents called home. But it wasn’t snow, which made it almost worse than nothing at all.
This was good. Being cranky about the weather was just what he needed to keep from thinking about the other things he didn’t want to let up from the mental depths at which he could just barely manage to ignore them.
His mom sat down on the loveseat behind him and held out a steaming cup. “Want to talk about it?”
“I hate frost,” Milo said in a tone that he hoped would signal to his mother to please not dare to suggest that the weather wasn’t what was really bothering him.
Twilight was coming on, and he could sort of see her reflection in the glass. She had a look on her face that was both unimpressed and thoughtful, as if she had gotten the message and was debating whether or not to call him on it. But then, the glass was old, wavy and uneven, so maybe it was just twisting up her reflection funny. He reached back to take the cup.
On top of the hot chocolate was a float of unreasonably thick whipped cream that he’d heard Mrs. Caraway, the inn’s cook, making about ten minutes ago. The cream was dusted with smashed candy cane bits, which was probably his mother’s touch. He hazarded a look at her . . . she definitely knew he was upset about something other than weather. She was just waiting him out. Well, he could play that game too.
“Thanks,” he said, and turned resolutely back to the window.
“First hot chocolate of winter vacation.” Mrs. Pine raised her own cup. “Cheers.”
“Cheers.” As they sipped, footsteps approached on the stairs. Reluctantly, Milo pivoted to look over his mom’s shoulder, following the sound. The ground level of the inn was big and open, with one room flowing into the next, and from where he was, Milo could see pretty much the entire floor. “When’s he leaving?” he asked, watching the bottom of the staircase on the other side of the dining room.
“Tomorrow at some point. Supposedly,” Mrs. Pine said quietly. Then she turned to the young man who appeared at the bottom of the stairs, a pencil behind one ear and glasses askew on his nose. “Drinks on the stove if you’re done for the day, Mr. Syebuck.”
Emmett Syebuck, their only guest, sighed happily. “I could just stay here forever. This place is amazing.”
“Well, we’re so glad you’ve enjoyed your visit.”
“Hey, about that, Mrs. P.”
Oh, no. Milo stifled a groan. His mom patted his shoulder.
The young man crossed the dining room and came to lean on the back of the loveseat. “I was thinking,” he said. “One more day and I’ll have every window at least sketched. Would it be a huge pain in the neck if I checked out day after tomorrow?”
Milo slurped in a huge mouthful to keep himself from answering. Yes, yes, it would, actually. I, personally, would find it a huge pain in the neck.
His mother, of course, said what Milo had known she’d say. “That’s no problem, Mr. Syebuck.”
Their guest beamed. “Thanks, ma’am. And I wish you all would just call me Emmett.”
“You’re welcome, and I’ll try, Emmett, but you know, old habits die hard.” Mrs. Pine glanced into the kitchen. “Mrs. Caraway leaves tonight, though, so just be aware that meals will be a little less fancy tomorrow.”
“It could be toast and instant noodle soup and I’d be perfectly content,” Emmett assured her. “I’m a simple fellow at heart. And in a pinch, some of my colored pencils are kind of tasty—?not that I’ve tried them or anything.”
Milo’s mother laughed. “It won’t come to that.”
“Well, thanks again. And hey, thank you, too, Milo.”
Milo turned, surprised. “What for?”
“For letting me impose on your holidays. I promise I’ll be out of your hair before Christmas Eve. I know how it is.”
“It’s okay,” Milo said gruffly.
“Well, I appreciate it. And now that I don’t have to pack tonight, I think I’ll relax and just stare at the fire awhile.” He drummed a short ba-da-ba-bump on the back of the loveseat with his palms, then straightened and went into the kitchen.
“You think he’s really an art student?” Mrs. Pine asked in an undertone.
“Probably,” Milo said. “That or he’s Skellansen in disguise, wanting to make sure his precious chandelier’s being looked after properly.” They’d been amusing themselves with speculations like this since the day Emmett had showed up.
“He’s too young for Skellansen.”
Milo eyed the guest’s back critically. “Lots of makeup. And super-thin rubber prosthetics, like in the movies. You can do miracles with that stuff.”
Among the many occurrences that had made last year’s winter break about the strangest time in Milo’s life was the discovery at Greenglass House of a cartoon: a valuable drawing of a stained-glass window by a mysterious artist named Lowell Skellansen. One of the inn’s guests at the...