Title: Tree

Author: Sylvia Bond

Genre/Rating: Gen/PG

Word Count: 11,210

Fandom: Dark Shadows

Verse: Gina Lee (# 2)

Summary: Willie’s doing his best at the Old House, but he accidentally cuts down the tree that Josette planted many, many years ago. Barnabas, of course, punishes him, and then demands that he get rid of the wood. Willie, for some reason, decides that it would be a good idea to give the wood to the widow, Gina Lee Logan, as well as Sam Evans, to keep them warm through the winter.

A/N: It was Nik who said she wanted a development of a snippet of a scene from another story, where Willie references the time Barn locked him in the cellar, in the dark. She wanted to know why Barn would do that. Well, cutting down that damned tree is why, of course!

 

***

 

Willie sat in front of the kitchen fireplace, his chair pulled up close and his bare feet toasting on the flagstones laid along the hearth. The sun was just going down and a damp fog was setting in, and he’d been working outside in the weather for three days. Chilled to the very core of his muscles, the tree he’d just finished chopping and splitting and stacking gave off a bright, hot light. Moreso than the ordinary kindling he ordered from the local lumberyard. And the wood had been so hard, he’d had to sharpen the axe every hour or so on an old whetstone he’d found in the basement. He was worn through.

 


Wasn’t so very often the Old House kitchen was a warm and pleasant place to be, though. He leaned forward in his chair, tucking his elbows close to his sides, stretching out his fingers to the flames, savoring them as the very last of the almost-frostbite in his hands melted completely away. Even his hair, hanging over one eye, was thawing out. He slipped his shirt off, unnecessary in the warmth that was oozing into the room and saturating even the floorboards. The heat worked its way through his t-shirt, and he was just thinking how nice a cold beer would be when Barnabas entered the kitchen. Willie glanced at him and looked away, back at the flames. Barnabas had the expression of someone who was preparing to go out but who couldn’t and didn’t know why.

 

“What are you doing?” the vampire asked.

 

“Resting,” said Willie, keeping the surly tone out of his voice. “Warming up,” he finished, shrugging a bit, as if to ask, hope that’s okay.

 

Keeping his eyes on the fire, the back of his neck felt Barnabas come fully into the room. There was a pause, and then, “Where did all this wood come from?”

 

The kitchen was stacked with wood, there were slabs of it piled in the brick lined space next to the fireplace and in the empty back parlor. There was even more in the woodshed outside that Barnabas couldn’t even see. Willie didn’t need to ask what he meant. “I chopped down one of the trees a few days ago,” Willie replied, pleased with his own industry.

 

“Which tree?

 

Typical of the vampire, he was at his most irritable just after sundown, before he’d fed. And with that could come a mini-inquisition, which Willie tried to bear with considerable patience. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

 

“One of the ones out front,” he said, allowing himself one small, hidden roll of his eyes. “The trunk was starting to crack all the way to the ground and one more strong wind—”

 

“Why didn’t you ask my permission first?”

 

An exasperated sigh escaped him. “It was dead, Barnabas, and rotting away. It would have fallen right into Josette’s room if I hadn’t.”

 

Willie flexed his muscles, rolling his shoulders backwards to ease the kink there and regretted the quickly fleeing peacefulness that had been with him only seconds before. Barnabas could suck the joy out of a funeral without even trying.

 

A hand reached out from somewhere behind him, the clean white cuff stark against the dark, somber wool of Barnabas’ sleeve. The vampire’s cold proximity leeched some of the warmth out of him, and Willie leaned away, closer to the fire. The tips of Barnabas’ fingers followed the spirals on the end of one chunk of wood, slowly, as if reading the years there.

 

“And there was nothing that could be done with this wood, other than burn it?” Right. Like he had access to a lathe and could cut the wood into fine enough slices to re-panel the library.

 

“No, it was rotted through, like I said, wormholes and rot, good for nothing but fuel.”

 

“This is English Oak,” said Barnabas, not to Willie, but as if to himself.

 

“Yeah,” Willie cleared his throat with a shrug, not understanding this new mood. “Guess so. Might be. I dunno what it is.”

 

The vampire turned to look at him, and though Willie kept looking at the fire, at the warm cheerful flames, he could see Barnabas out of the corner of his eye. Looking at him.

 

“Where did you say you cut this tree down from?”

 

Swallowing his exasperation, he brought both hands up to sweep the hair back from his suddenly overly hot face. “I told you, out front. In front of one of the windows of Josette’s room.” He allowed himself one small glance at Barnabas, like a man checking a weather barometer when the wind suddenly picks up. “That tree would have come crashing in any day, and if it had, I couldn’t have fixed all that by myself. You woulda had to get contractors in.”

 

He let his hands drop and hang between his thighs, letting the obvious fact of what a bad idea that would be remain unspoken. Barnabas nodded as if he too realized it was a bad idea.

 

With one last sweep of his fingers across the wood, Barnabas stepped back, and Willie heard his feet moving across the floorboards. “Show me where this tree was.”

 

“What?” Willie watched over his shoulder as Barnabas strode from the kitchen. 

 

“I said, show me.”

 

That tone was one that could never be ignored, not even, not especially, when a warm fire and thoughts about a cold beer beckoned. He grabbed the flashlight from the shelf over the sink, and hurried down the hall. There was no time for shoes or a coat, Barnabas was already out the front door, and so Willie followed, skin prickling into goosebumps with the first gust of chill, damp air. His t-shirt was a poor shield, and his bare feet kept to the marble-cold flagstones along the path until they had to turn onto the scrubby lawn. Not enough time in the day to care for it as well as the house, though Willie was always thankful that Barnabas didn’t seem to care much.

 

Curling both hands around the icy ribs of the flashlight, he flicked it on, though there still seemed to be just enough light in the sky to make his way. Barnabas had found the stump unerringly, stopping in front of it, his head tucked down when Willie caught up with him. The beam from the flashlight caught the falling mist, sparking it into silver flecks as it tumbled down onto the stump and the sad, splintered remains of a hardwood tree.

 

“This is the tree?” the vampire asked.

 

“This was the tree.” Shrugging, Willie pulled his arms close to his chest, letting the flashlight dangle from one hand. “Like I said, it was rotted through.”

 

Barnabas remained silent, letting the mist settle on his hair and the lapels of his suit jacket.

His eyes were on the stump, and Willie couldn’t tell if he were memorizing it or remembering it.

 

He swallowed. “What’s the matter, Barnabas?” A pitch of the earth brought the sky closer to night, and with the clouds and no moon, it suddenly seemed a whole lot darker.

 

There was still no answer, and the silence filled Willie’s head. He looked down at his hands, clenched so tight around the flashlight that the steel ribs were embedding themselves into his palm. And then over at Barnabas’ hands, slowly folding themselves into fists. The vampire’s head was lifting and he was looking through the mist, and Willie felt a coldness all through his stomach that had nothing to do with the chill of the rain. “I think,” said Willie carefully, backing up, watching his breath form in a cloud in front of his face, “I think I’ll go inside now.”

 

He backed up, keeping his eye on the figure that remained absolutely still in the growing dark,  and kept backing up until his bare heels bumped against a flagstone. Barnabas was upset about something, and Willie didn’t want to wait around to find out what that something was. If he could get into the house, maybe he could make himself scarce until Barnabas had calmed down some, or gone out to get himself something to eat. His bare toes found purchase on the stone steps, and then the wooden porch, slick with cold and the new dampness, and his hand was just reaching for the door when another hand, cold and hard, clamped itself around the back of his neck.

 

The front door flew open as if of its own accord and the hand propelled him forward so hard and so fast that his heels slipped across the hallway floor. The flashlight fell to the floor and Willie vaguely heard the glass lens break with a crack.

 

Moving his feet fast enough to find purchase on the floor was his first concern, and throwing his arms up to protect his head when the hand pushed him against the door to the kitchen was his second. A close second. The door flew open and the hand shoved him against the kitchen table. He almost fell across it, arms splayed out, but he rolled, his hip pressing against the corner of the table.

 

Barnabas hissed at him, teeth bared, and Willie moved back, scooting along the edge of the table until his hands were out in front of him and there was a whole kitchen between him and Barnabas.

 

“What, Barnabas, what? W-what’s the matter with you?”

 

Narrow, slitted eyes, dark as death stared at him from a marble hard face. Rain fell from Barnabas’ hair onto his eyelashes, dropping like tears.

 

“Come here, Willie.” Barnabas said, low, only raising his voice when Willie did not instantly comply. “Come here, now!”

 

Willie came, his bare feet sensing rather than feeling the roughness of the floorboards, the chill turning to heat as he neared the fireplace almost unnoticeable.

 

Lightheaded, he was floating almost, even the heaviness in his stomach was not slowing him down any, until he came to a stop within arm’s reach of the vampire. A hand shot out and encircled the back of his neck, bringing his face in close to the bridled fury that vibrated from the vampire’s entire being.

 

“Do you know what you have done?” Willie shook his head, trying to pull back, his mouth moving, wordless, and Barnabas pulled him in even closer until he could feel the icy stir of the vampire’s breath across his mouth. “Do you know what you have done?” This, almost a whisper, a hiss that slid to the air and into Willie’s brain, and it was at this point that he began to shake.

 

“N-n-n-n-” But the word would not come.

 

Barnabas was not letting him go and the fingers on his neck clamped painfully tight until the nerves in his neck began to go thankfully numb. “Josette planted that tree on the day she arrived at Collinwood.”

 

With the impact of these words, all the feeling left him, from his neck down to the sore bottoms of his feet, he could feel nothing. Only sense the pain of disbelief rise in his throat, threatening to block all air to his lungs. The ringing in his ears cut off Barnabas’ words but held the sense of them, something about a planting on belated engagement party, Josette, with her own hands, a kiss, and a promise.

 

It would do no good to remind the vampire that the tree and Josette had been dead for some while now, and if the love between Josette and Barnabas had been possible, the time for it was long since past.

 

And yet, he felt a pang of what it must be like for Barnabas, to loose Josette and his chance of a life with her, only to wake up 175 years later and have to spend eternity without her. On top of which, the vampire had never mentioned the tree before now, which meant that he’d forgotten she’d planted it. All those years it had grown and lived and shed acorns, and now the only remains of the life that Josette had created was burning smartly in the fireplace.

 

The fury in Barnabas’ eyes was boiling down, even as Willie watched, coiling in on itself like a snake piling back on itself for a strike to come. He looked at Willie, his expression stone cold. And then he let go. Unclamped his hand and turned away so quickly that Willie was left, gasping, staring at the vampire’s broad, dark back.

 

He was left shaking, standing by himself in the middle of the kitchen, but it wasn’t over. It couldn’t be over. Willie could not imagine a Barnabas that would let something like this go, a mistake like the one he’d just made would have to be punished.

 

Of course it would. Even he could see that, though it had been an honest mistake, but maybe Barnabas wasn’t aware of that fact.

 

“I didn’t know, Barnabas, honest I didn’t,” he said, his hands out, voice rushing from his throat. “But even if I did, there was nothing woulda saved that tree, nothing, Barnabas.”

 

“So you admit to chopping it down,” came the question, slow as though tumbled through a rusty lock. “And burning it in the fireplace.”

 

Willie’s glance flicked to the flames in the hearth, still as bright and warm and cheerful as if the fire were newly built and freshly tended. Warm, sweet air plied the stillness of the kitchen; the wood from Josette’s tree made the best damn fire he’d ever built.

 

“Y-yes,” he said, his eyes moving to Barnabas’ still back. “It was dead, B-barnabas.”

 

The truth had a way of setting a person free, but not this time. It curled one of Barnabas’ hands into a fist as the other reached into a drawer next to the sink, and the vampire pulled out something and whirled around so fast that Willie had to take a step back to keep his toes from getting stepped on. The hand reached out to grab him again, finding its former clamp around his neck with dangerous ease. Something was shoved in his face, and Willie jerked his chin up and back to avoid it. It was a belt, a new belt, one he’d never seen before, circled around Barnabas’ large fist. Black leather, shiny, a workman’s belt, so roughly hewn that the edge of it was sharp as a blade.

 

As sharp as the axe he’d used to cut down the tree. A small moan worked its way up from the acidy pit of his stomach, almost becoming a word, but not quite. Air whistled past his lips as he sucked it in, quickly, before another sound escaped him. Before he ran out of air altogether.

 

One pause, as Barnabas’ shoulders bunched together, the hand tightened on his neck, and the vampire let the belt unwrap itself from around his hand, falling in one, long, black curl. Willie ripped his eyes away from it, focusing instead on Barnabas.

 

On that hard, marble face, on those dark, dead eyes that held no compassion whatsoever.

 

“I-I didn’t mean to do anything wrong, Barnabas,” he began, his voice near a whisper. But he knew even before he began that it wasn’t working, wasn’t going to work. And knowing this, his throat refused to give voice to anything else, and his mouth moved, alone and silent. “I’m sorry.”

 

Something shuttered itself in Barnabas’ face, and Willie closed his eyes and stiffened as the hand pushed him, in one solid motion, across the table. The wood met his chest and pushed all the air out of his lungs, and he lay there while they struggled to gather more in and he could hear the click of a belt buckle as Barnabas’ arranged the leather in his hand to his liking.

 

Utter silence, except for the crackle from the hearth, and then with a high whistle, the first blow caught him directly across the back of his knees. The tender flesh there felt it fast and hard and shot the fire up his spine and into his brain. His eyes began to water instantly. The leather whipped back through the air, and came down again, laying across his thighs so sharply that he thought they were being sliced open. Another blow, across his backside, and a warning hand placed in the small of his back as his body arched away. He didn’t actually try to move away, he knew too well that would only make it worse, and the hand, with its almost light touch, kept him where he was and he was grateful.

 

But it wasn’t fair, even as he fought against the pain, which didn’t help anyway, it only made it worse. It wasn’t fair because he hadn’t known that was her tree, Josette’s tree, of all people. It he had known, there were a thousand other ways he would have handled it, or, most simply, pointed it out to Barnabas and let the vampire decide. But here he was, the mistake made, the worst mistake, his hands clenching his own forearms so hard he could feel the bruises beginning there, and his head banged against the wooden table as his body rocked forward with each blow. He made his hands let go and they flew out to grab at something, anything to hold onto, as Barnabas never slowed, as the belt thudded down, laying a pattern that he began to see as lines of black and red across his body, like the slash marks against the tree as he’d chopped it down. Sweat laced the back of his neck, and the heat built in layers, like searing waves, with no time for the heat to dissipate between blows until his whole body felt like it was on fire.

 

Then suddenly there was nothing, and he opened his eyes to blink unbelievingly at the splotched, white kitchen walls, and heard the sound of Barnabas resettling the belt in his hand. It raced through the air again, he could hear it racing, screaming as it came, and he grit his teeth, his throat filling up with the cry that his lungs had no air for. It slammed into him so hard it lifted his bare feet, which slipped across the floorboards as if they were wet. Which they might have been, it could have been the rain from outside, but it was sticky. Cool air drafted up his right leg, something damp slapped against his bare skin and something began to itch as it cooled and dried against his ankle.

 

He was growing numb, his body was numbing itself to the blows, only the streaks of silver-hot dug themselves into his legs, across his backside, he could feel those, like lines of light that seared so hard he could barely breathe.

 

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, I’m so sorry.

 

The bottoms of his feet slipped again and he almost slid from the table, but Barnabas’ hand saved him, grabbing his t-shirt and ripping it as he pulled Willie up and held him there. Now the hand pressed into his back, now Willie no longer had to hold on himself, now he could brace himself and ride out each blow and feel the air creeping up his legs and the stiff cloth as it bounced against his thighs. And breathe, just breathe, as white spots danced behind his closed eyes and something inside of him clenched like a fist.

 

With one final slash across his hips, the blows stopped and the hand lifted and Willie allowed himself to crumple to his knees, his hands clutching the edge of the table, head bowed against them as if in prayer. His breath came in gasping chunks, sweat streaking into his eyes, and as he looked down, he realized he was kneeling in something. Something dark that soaked into the knees of his pants, and that moved in a slow march down the inside of one thigh.

 

“Get up.”

 

Willie tried, but his knees refused to unbend, and when he pushed against the table, he only managed to fall forward, his hands landing with a splat against the dampness soaking itself into the thirsty wood. Lifting one arm, he watched as his wrist, of its own accord, turned his hand over. He stared at his palm. It was red. Webbed with a thin red film that quickly moved to the edge of his hand and dripped off it. In the warm air of the firelit kitchen, the smell came to him easily, and the moan from his gut was cut off by clump of acid that raced its way to the back of his mouth.

 

“I said, get up!”

 

He couldn’t move, but Barnabas reached down and grabbed him by the wrist, fingers digging into the flesh there, his blood weaving its way onto Barnabas’ hand. The vampire pulled him upward and Willie felt something rip away from the flesh of his leg in a white sear, and he looked down. Blood was pooling beneath the instep of his right foot. A white haze began to fill the room and it was the white shroud coming, his old friend, but Barnabas shook him, and slashed the belt once more around his thighs.

 

His own scream shrieked in his ears, and he fell to get away from the belt that fell like molten metal, tripping over bare feet and the slippery floor, and into Barnabas’ arms. For a moment he hung there, fresh sweat dancing on his forehead, the scent of his own blood strong in the warm air, and the vampire’s nostrils flared at this. Pushing with his palms against the rough-woolen lapels of Barnabas’ jacket, he tried to put instant distance between them, but his arms wouldn’t work, and his bare feet could not get purchase on the floor, and it was Barnabas who grabbed him by one shoulder and pushed him back. Threw the belt on the table and dragged Willie out of the room.

 

Legs wouldn’t work, heart wouldn’t stop pounding, and Barnabas never slowed down or let go, even as Willie stumbled as he was dragged down the stairs behind him. The darkness of the basement was eased by two large candles, each as big as a man’s upper arm, and as Willie’s toes found the roughness of the basement floor, the sharpness of the stones was enough to wake him up to the fact that he was not being taken to his own room.

 

“W-what, Barnabas, what are, where are you—”

 

“Be quiet.”

 

Several more steps, and as Willie looked down, he realized his right leg was not lifting as well as the left one, and that a dark trail marked where they had walked. Barnabas stopped in front of the metal door that was the entrance to the cell in the basement, and he opened it, and before Willie could protest, he shoved him in, slammed and locked the door behind him, and turned away.

 

All without a word.

 

A second later, the candles in the main room were blown out darkness crashing down like a sudden, and unexpected black curtain. Stumbling towards the door, Willie blindly gripped the iron bars, banging his head against them as the door stopped him short.

 

“Barnabas?”

 

There was no answer.

 

“Barnabas?” he asked again, this time louder, though it seemed to him that his voice faded away all too quickly.

 

And then he could hear the vampire’s slow steps as he returned to the upper floor.

 

“Barnabas, p-please don’t leave me—”

 

The door at the top of the stairs opened and slammed shut, and with that came silence. And the realization of how black the blackness was, as the damp lowered itself from the low ceiling, and the bricks leaned inward, and the stone floor went icy cold.

 

A moan escaped him before he could stop it, and he clamped his hands over his mouth, clenching his fingers together.

 

It was the dark.

 

Please come back, oh god, please come back.

 

He stood there frozen in the blackness, the dank air creeping down the back of his neck, wafts of coldness down the backs of his arms. Somewhere in the Old House, a fire burned, its bright flames flickering shadows against the wall. And newly lit candles, somewhere up there, shedding the darkness wick by burning wick. But not here. If Barnabas was going to beat him and leave him to die, couldn’t he have done it in the light? He would much rather die in the light.

 

Shivering, he kept his eyes closed, thinking that if he couldn’t see the darkness, the black pit of nothingness, then it wouldn’t matter so much. It didn’t help. He knew the dark was there and, more importantly, it knew he was there. But there was nowhere to hide.

 

Maybe if he lay down, slipped underneath it somehow, and lay very still, it would forget he was there and leave him alone. Moving forward, he stopped when his knees bumped against the old cot, hard and dusty from disuse, and he lay himself down on it, on his stomach, and buried his head in his arms. Which only brought all of the heat in his legs to life, and the slow ooze of something from the back of his right leg.

 

He wasn’t going to cry, he was beyond that, his face felt stiff and he didn’t know if his eyes were opened or closed. All alone in the darkness, then. No blanket. No candle. No companionship.

 

Like Maggie had been.

 

No, don’t think about that.

 

Josette’s tree.

 

Oh, shit.

 

When he pictured her planting it, he pictured Maggie, dressed in some old gown, maybe like the one Josette wore in the portrait that hung in her room, planting it. Her lovely, dark hair caught up in curls and ribbons, lace dripping from her sleeves, and kneeling, her hands in the dirt, and smiling. Only smiling at him, not Barnabas, Barnabas was nowhere to be found, it was Willie who she was planting the tree for, rising to kiss him, love bright in her brown eyes as she brushed a stray hair away from his forehead, the sunlight shining all around on a beautiful, warm autumn day.

 

Something hard and nasty raced up the back of his right leg, and as his eyes snapped open there was only darkness, darkness and his leg, feeling like it was splitting open as the muscles cramped and buckled beneath his skin. He turned on his side, and reached down, his fingers finding the warm pool of blood under his thigh. The legs of his pants were in shreds, and without wanting to, he reached his fingers inside one of the tears, where they found the rough edges of flesh curling up and hard edged with dried blood.

 

He snatched his hand away, wishing the white shroud would come and take him away with it. But it didn’t. He could clearly smell his own sweat in the damp darkness, and the blood from his legs as it dried. And hear the creaking of the Old House around, not from movement of any being, but from the house itself, as it settled and aged and the wood whispered to itself in the night. The cot quivered beneath him and he realized he was shaking hard enough to move it. The darkness sucked all the warmth out of him and he was cold, so cold that even his own shivering was not enough to warm him.

 

And Maggie?

 

No.

 

He tucked his head down to his chest and crossed his arms in front of him.

 

You left me here.

 

Who was that?

 

Something popped and cracked in the darkness and though Willie’s eyes were wide open he may as well have been blind. Air moved past his face as if there were someone in the cell with him, as if someone moved past him and reached out to touch him.

 

Let me go.

 

“Maggie?”

 

Let me go, Willie, don’t leave me in here, please. . . .

 

Oh, Maggie.

 

He’d done this to her, left her in here, in the cold, still dampness of this tiny cell, sometimes being late with the candle or the food, locking her in, each time locking her in, ignoring her pleas, ignoring her desperation as she clutched at his shirt. Leaving her to die.

 

He wished he could have thrown open the cell and carried her out of here, set them both free and Barnabas be damned.

 

Something, he was sure something had brushed against him, and he struggled backwards on the cot, towards the wall, feeling the darkness wrap itself around him with hard, cold arms. If the time for saving Maggie was long since past, the time for saving himself had never even existed. And as he dug the heels of his hands into the cot and pushed, the back of his thighs met the hard, jagged brick, and the white shroud, at last, came winging through the darkness, settling over him with a thud.

 

I’m sorry, Josette. Didn’t know it was your tree.

 

*

 

He awoke at one point to feel the darkness pouring over him like a banked mist, and hands touching him, cold hands sucking the warmth out of his body, and he fought back. From the darkness had come a hard smack across his face and as his head banged against the cot, he realized who it was.

 

Oh, it’s Barnabas.

 

That was alright, then. The inevitable was nothing to fight against, not when it knew your every weakness, and could control you like you were a bug on a string. His head tipped back, and the hands lifted him, and he let the white shroud take him once more.

 

He awoke to find himself in his own bed. The sun wasn’t shining, and what was left of the daylight was cloaked by rain, and he was freezing under the single blanket and from the fact that he was only wearing his t-shirt and his pants. If he got up, he could put a thicker shirt on, and some socks, or build a fire in the place, or something, he would be warmer, he decided, and he moved his legs to the edge of the bed, but the right one refused to bear his weight and he went down on the floor with a thump. The bedding followed, slithering to the floor next to him, and as he moved backward to untangle himself, he realized that he was leaving a stain. A large, red smear on the sheets and on the floor and on his hand as he reached down. The leg of his pants was soaked through. His leg hurt like hell, and he could feel bits of cloth pull away from his skin with sharp tears.

 

He was not going to whimper, it didn’t hurt that much, at least he was in his own bedroom again, and as long as he could keep up the stream of thoughts in his brain, the lightning flashes from the back of his legs wouldn’t bother him at all. But his head was spinning by the time he managed to inch himself close enough to the bed, and facing in the right way, to pull himself onto it. Even with no fire, it would be warmer than laying on the floor. The door opened, and Barnabas stood there, his expression frozen, as if he’d been watching Willie and his struggles for some time. Rain splatted against the window, disguising Willie’s small cry of shock as he braced himself on his elbows and tried to move backward. Away from the door.

 

“Why didn’t you stay in bed?” demanded the vampire, as if Willie had committed a grievous error.

 

“I-I—” He began, but he was starting to feel a little light headed, and the sound in his throat stopped with a squeak as Barnabas marched over to him, and without preamble, scooped Willie up in his arms and placed him on the bed. He wasn’t exactly gentle, but Willie knew that he could have been a lot rougher about it, even though, as it was, the landing on the mattress jarred his right leg so badly it was as if something had been shoved into it. Sweat dappled his forehead as he crunched forward against the pain, holding his leg with both hands, knowing it wouldn’t help, and helpless to stop doing it.

 

Without another glance, Barnabas turned away and went to the doorway, leaning over to pick up what he had left there. As he came back, Willie could see through pain-narrowed eyes that it was a tray Barnabas carried in his hands, a tray with a pitcher and towels, and a long, folded white cloth.

 

“W-what—” he began, but Barnabas cut him off.

 

“Be quiet.”

 

Willie obeyed, his body falling back against the brass headboard as Barnabas placed the tray on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed next to Willie’s knees. And watched with wide eyes as Barnabas picked up a pair of scissors from the tray, and, placing his fingers in the loops, clicked them experimentally. His hands were very large in contrast, and Willie held up his hand, as if to block any movement Barnabas might make.

 

“H-hey, wait—”

 

Barnabas grabbed his wrist with his other free hand, bending it backwards until Willie thought he was going to break it. “I told you to be quiet.”

 

Letting go, Barnabas, placed his hand on Willie’s shin, and pushed until Willie bent his knee, wincing at the strain along the muscles on the back of his thigh. As Barnabas slid the edge of the scissors underneath the one of the tears of his pants, Willie was tempted to mention that his leg was bleeding, and that the blood was going to get everywhere, but Barnabas probably knew this already, besides which, if he said one more word, the vampire was going to backhand him.

 

The edge of the metal was cool as it slid across his skin, and when cloth fell away bit by bit, he felt the blood slipping down the back of his leg, where it pooled and began to dry. At one point, when the scissors were just snipping towards the waistband of his pants, the edge of them caught on his underwear. His hands in midflight of stopping Barnabas, froze, his stomach clenching. He couldn’t make a sound, but his mouth opened as he looked at Barnabas. And Barnabas, in return, tipped his head to one side and looked back at him. An eyebrow flicked up as if in answer to a question, the eyes dark and unreadable, and after a slight pause, the vampire bent his head and returned to the task at hand. The scissors withdrew and began again clipping through the waistband of his trousers and nothing else.

 

Pulling the separate pieces of his pant away, Barnabas threw the bloodstained cloth on the floor, where it fell in a lopsided clump. Then Barnabas made a motion with his hand that Willie didn’t understand. His confusion must have shown in his face.

 

“Roll over.”

 

Not daring to question this, Willie leaned back on one elbow and moved towards the wall, his chest sinking against a pillow, his legs frozen in place. With a shove, Barnabas pushed against his hip and Willie found himself mostly on his front, light headed, his breath moving in jumps and starts. Arms circling the pillow, he tried not to think about anything at all, to only look at the dappled light from the candles as it moved across the wall.

 

Willie heard the sounds of a cloth being soaked in water.

 

“If you’d stayed in bed, this wouldn’t have torn open,” Barnabas said.

 

Cold hands settled against his thigh and he shrank away, twitching as the damp cloth snagged against torn skin.

 

“Be still.”

 

He tried, he really did, he could tell his shivering was making it difficult for the vampire, but every time the cloth or Barnabas’ hands touched him, his body couldn’t help but pull away. And the worst part was knowing he was back there, with the scent of Willie’s blood in the air, seeing all that bare, human flesh exposed. The temptation was enormous, Willie knew that, and he of all people would be unable to fight back.

 

He waited, every second, to feel the silvery kiss against the side of his neck, but it never came. Instead, the vampire tended to him, Willie imagined, with as much care as he might give to an animal. Quickly, with cold water and a rough cloth cleaning out the torn flesh of his legs. There was salt in the water, to help clean the blood away, and it stung like crazy, making his eyes water, and unwilling, reaching back, his hand found the cloth of Barnabas’ sleeve.

 

“Release my arm.”

 

Willie dropped his hand instantly and gripped the sheets with his knuckles clenched. Held back the yelps as Barnabas scrubbed at his legs. The hands were quick on him, one cold cloth and then another until the bleeding was stopped and his leg lost all feeling from the cold numbness. Hands pulled at him, pulling him upright, helping him lean against the brass headboard, and then Barnabas placed a dark, folded pad of something that smelled vaguely like dirt against the back of his thigh. It stung, but not terribly bad. Not like salt water.

 

“Hold that there,” he said.

 

Willie reached on either side of his leg until his fingers touched the pad.

 

“What is it?” he asked, before he remembered the injunction against speaking.

 

“I told you to be quiet.” The Thing flitted in Barnabas’ eyes, and Willie shivered, wanting to obey.

 

“S-s-sorry,” he managed, his teeth clicking together.

 

“Do not,” said Barnabas with a snarl, “make me repeat myself.”

 

Willie jerked back at the tone in the vampire’s voice. Barnabas was really angry at him this time, angry about the tree, and thinking about Josette, and hating Willie for chopping down that tree. Willie was about to open his mouth to try to apologize again, when the vampire looked up at him.

 

Barnabas’ face was absolutely still, and hard, like a gravestone, but in his eyes flickered something that Willie had only seen there once or twice before. Something gentle and alive. It didn’t mean anything good, necessarily, but it was Willie’s chance and he took it.

 

“I’m sorry, Barnabas, I’m sorry about the tree. I didn’t know it was Josette’s tree, honest, I wished there was somethin’ I coulda done to save it, but I couldn’t, now, you gotta see that, an’ we can plant another oak, just like that one, we can—”

 

With a surge, Barnabas lunged to his feet, eyes boiling, arm raised across his chest, ready to backhand him, and Willie fell back, his own arms going up to protect his face, and he screwed his eyes shut against the inevitable. A sob rose in his throat, and then another half of one, as he tried hard to swallow against it. And then there was silence. And nothing.

 

Shivering, he lowered his arms, peering over the edge of them at Barnabas. The vampire had dropped his hand and was staring at it, and Willie stared at it too, not seeing anything unusual there, only that it was stained with the blood from his leg. Something in the vampire’s face shifted and he closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them, they looked at Willie, showing only what they usually did, darkness and hardness and no softness at all. Barnabas sat back on the bed as if nothing had happened, as if Willie were not shaking uncontrollably all over. It did not seem to matter to him. He picked the pad up and placed it again on the back of Willie’s thigh, and guided Willie’s trembling hands towards it.

 

“Hold that there,” he said again. “It’s packed with moss, which will help stop the bleeding.”

As Willie did this as best he could, fingers barely able to hold the pad still enough, Barnabas wound the bandage around his leg. Up, between his thighs, down, across the side of his leg, and then up again. It was somewhat chancy when Barnabas’ hands were reaching up between his legs, because his body insisted on twitching away, tightening, and his stomach clenched and unclenched with the rhythm of those hands. There was no stopping the nerve-wracking process until the final length of bandage was wrapped around and Barnabas tied off the ends with neat, quick motions.

 

“That should hold, provided you don’t get out of bed until you are told to,” said Barnabas, standing up. He collected the items he’d used, the scissors, the bloody rags, the pitcher and tray, and moved towards the door. “And you shall get out of bed when I deem it the appropriate time.”

 

Then he left, leaving the door open behind him, as both of his hands were full.

 

Willie sank against the pillows, breathing his first deep breath in what seemed like forever. He closed his eyes tight as his fingers explored the edge of the bandage. It was solid on his thigh, and his leg did feel better in the firmness of the cloth and with no weight on it. The rest of his body felt as stiff as a board. The beating had left a toll that Willie knew he’d be paying for some time, and though his mind refused to dwell on thoughts of Maggie in the cell, it turned quite easily to Josette and her tree. He felt bad about it, and thinking of her as she dreamed of the tree growing tall and strong in the yard outside her window made him feel worse.

 

Sorry, Josette.

 

Struggling to turn on his side, he knew he’d been in this house too long if he were apologizing to women he not only had never met but who had been dead almost 200 years. And feeling bad for Barnabas, as well, which was like having sympathy for the devil.

 

But it was the devil himself who took care of him over the next few nights, bringing him water and food, and carrying away the dirty dishes sometime later. Barnabas changed the bandage just before sunrise each morning, though Willie’s body refused to get used to the idea of another man’s hands between his legs like that, no matter what the reason. The devil never said anything either, but went about his duties as nurse in a cold, efficient manner. And when at last the vampire retired to his coffin, Willie fell asleep himself.

 

Just after the fourth sunset, he awoke feeling ansty and stiff, and managed to get his clothes on, and went down to the kitchen to see if he could get himself something more substantial than cold soup. Barnabas met him at the top of the stairs.

 

“What are you doing out of bed before I gave you leave?”

 

Limping past the vampire, Willie could see that the fireplace was stone cold, and a layer of dust blackened every surface. It was as if the house had used to opportunity of Willie’s absence to return itself to its former state of unoccupied shambles. Of the wood from Josette’s tree, it was still in existence, in the dark corners of the room. “Felt better,” he replied. Barnabas looked at him with steady, cold eyes for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders as if his servant’s foolishness were no concern of his.

 

“If you insist on being up and about, you can get rid of all this wood.”

 

“W-what do you w-want me to do with it?” he asked, not knowing if his shivers came from a fever or from the cold. Or from Barnabas staring at him like he was, eyes blank and dead, his face so thin, so pale and hateful that Willie had to take a step backwards to get away from it. His right thigh, tight in a wide bandage, protested this with a dull throb.

 

The bandage felt like it would stay in place for quite a while, and he hoped it wouldn’t slip or his leg start bleeding again. Barnabas would have to wrap his leg up. Again. And that only would make the vampire even more angry.

 

“I don’t care what you do with it, just get it out of my sight!”

 

Then with a swirl and a scowl, Barnabas put on his caped coat, grabbed his cane, and strode out into the night. Leaving Willie to stare at the piles and piles of wood. There had to be almost three cords of it, including the stuff in the shed, and now he had to load the truck all by himself. Better to follow orders on this one though, no telling when Barnabas would crack from his frozen shell and go ballistic again. Willie loaded the truck slowly, only bumping his thigh against the tailgate once in a while, taking the wood from the kitchen first, and half of what was in the back parlor. The back of the truck would only hold about half a cord of wood. Any more and the axle could break under the strain. Which then left him, as he stood next to the truck in the rain, with the decision of where to take the wood. No brilliant ideas came to him as he got into the truck, started it, and drove off towards town.

 

The cold front that had installed itself along the coast was still in place as Willie drove along the road, his body stiffening as he went. At least the rain had backed off, for which he was extremely grateful. He could not be sure if his left leg could shift between the gas and the break quick enough if the road got dicey. And it was the dinner hour, so the roads were pretty empty, so that was lucky.

 

A sudden right turn to avoid having to stop took him in the direction of the Blue Whale. Maybe it was time for that cool beer he’d longed for days ago. A cold beer on a cold day might not appeal to most, but it did to him. The only thing better was a cold beer on a hot day. He pulled the truck into a spot down the street and limped his way into the Blue Whale.

 

Like the street, it wasn’t overly crowded at this hour. And it must be a weekday as well. What was it, Wednesday? Thursday? He found he had no idea and with a shrug, he slowly and carefully planted himself at the end of the bar, near the door. Bob, the bartender, raised his eyebrows in a question, and Willie nodded his head once.

 

“Beer,” he said.

 

It was soon forthcoming and as he chucked back the first, sharp swallow, he knew he couldn’t put off what to do about the wood forever.

 

He could sell it, and squirrel the money away.

 

Not a good idea, because in a village the size of Collinsport, word would get back to Barnabas mighty fast that Willie had been peddling wood in town. At which point Barnabas would break him in two and not bother to patch him together this time.

 

Okay, that was out.

 

He could dump it in the ocean, but that seemed a horrible waste. Not to mention that a lot of the wood might drift ashore and make Barnabas upset all over again. Because that’s what he was, upset, and when he was upset, it was easy to make him angry. Something to be avoided at all costs. And even if Willie went miles up the coast to pitch the wood from a distant cliff, well, it just seemed a great deal of energy wasted all to throw away some wood that burned so wonderfully.

 

“Another?”

 

Willie looked up as Bob pushed the beer nuts in his direction and motioned towards his now empty mug.

 

“Yeah,” he said. “One more.”

 

Bob served it up with his usual careless efficiency and Willie tossed back the first swallow with a sigh, and followed it with a handful of nuts. His leg was starting to stiffen up from its bent position against the stool, and he straightened it, gritting his teeth as the muscles pulled past the bone. The bruises were going to last forever, it felt like, not to mention he might even have a scar back there. Not something he’d be able to explain away, if, at some point, he ever had anyone to explain it away to.

 

Jerking his thoughts away from their unpleasant path, Willie tipped his glass of beer back and finished half of it in a swallow. Barnabas had so much at his disposal that throwing away all that wood meant nothing to him. The vampire could always buy more, and the thought of all that waste was making the beer taste bitter.

 

Someone Willie didn’t recognize came up to the bar and leaned against it. “Hey, Bob, can we get another round back here?”

 

Bob nodded.

 

“Hey, Bob, did Sam Evans already leave?”

 

Bob nodded again. “‘Bout an hour ago. Said he was done drinking for the day.”

 

Something flickered in Willie’s brain. Done drinking for the day? It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet, just how early in the day had Sam gotten started? The stranger went back to his table with his two cronies, barely even sparing Willie a glance. And Bob was too lazy to care what Willie did, long as he paid his tab and didn’t start or finish any fights. Everyone knew, anyway, that Willie’s days as a tough customer were long since past.

 

The thought of Sam Evans drinking his days away bothered him almost as bad as his leg did. But there was nothing he could do, you couldn’t just make a man stop drinking if he didn’t want to. Especially a man who had good reason not to care about anything else but drinking. Or had nothing to think about but the loss of his only daughter, who—

 

Shut up. Knock it off.

 

“One more round?” asked Bob through this nasty, mental fog.

 

Willie rubbed his eyes and forehead with the spread fingers of one hand. No, his headache did not come from drinking too much beer too fast. It wasn’t even a real headache.

 

“No, thanks, Bob, I best be going.” He lay two dollars on the counter. “Keep the change,” he said, moving off the barstool, careful not to bump his leg.

 

Outside the clouds had lowered. There were no stars, only the damp pressing of weather that leached the warmth out of his truck heater almost as fast as it could be pumped through the vents. Not bone freezing weather, to be sure, but the kind that made you want to go home and light a fire and snuggle up in front of it with someone. Preferably someone you could explain unusual scars to without having them look at you strangely.

 

He drove through the maze of side streets now, his headlights picking up a turning that was vaguely familiar. Now, he knew no one down here, right? Unless you counted the Logan clan, minus the late Ezra, but no loss there.

 

Idly, he slowed the truck down as he neared the location where he remembered the house to be. At first he thought he’d mistaken the location as the headlights swept over the yard and he parked in front of it, driver’s side close to the yard. It was tidy. Winter dead, but tidy. Two little bikes on the freshly painted front porch that had what looked like a new storm door. Willie killed the engine. A dog yapped several doors down and stopped.

 

The streetlight overhead illuminated the roof with sections of new wood singles and the heavy curtains through which eked a strong, golden light. The place still needed a new coat of paint but it looked as if someone had prepped the wood in readiness of the next fine day.

 

Gina had probably up and sold out, and the new owners were fixing it up. That had to be it. He wanted to get out and check though, because the car in the driveway looked familiar. Peering through the windshield he could see that, yes, it was the same car with new tires. Last time he’d seen it, it had been parked askew on the roadside, leaving its passengers to walk in the growing sleet. Where they’d had to accept a lift from the caretaker of the town’s local eccentric. The kindness for which said caretaker had paid very dearly. Not the car’s fault, though. Ezra’s fault. But if Willie had paid, Ezra had paid even more. And given that, unless Gina had sold the car to the new owners as well, it was still her place.

 

He started the truck. He didn’t need to get out, and as he drove forward he saw a medium sized white sign at the edge of the fence. Willie pulled up and stopped again, rolling down his window to peer at it. Gina’s Play Care, it read. No, Day Care. Gina’s Day Care, six months through six years. Just the ages of her kids then.

 

Well, I’ll be go to hell.

 

That would explain it. She’d not given up, that Gina. She’d washed her hands of Ezra, dug in her heels, and started over.

 

Good for her.

 

As he drove slowly forward, past the drive, he considered where the money had come from. Might have been from insurance or from the sale of the Gina Lee. He had to smile, even though his hand ached when it snowed now, but that was Ezra’s fault, not Gina’s. Most of the time he liked to pretend he didn’t remember how his hand had gotten mangled in the first place. Because if he remembered that, then he would have to remember what had come afterwards. With Barnabas. And his questions. And the bowl of ice.

 

Through the moist air he could smell the comforting scent of fires burning, the smoky tufts drifting down with the growing mist. He rolled up his window, realizing that there was no smoke from the Logan residence, even though the chimney showed evidence of a fireplace. At the end of the street, he turned left instead of right, and then turned left again in the slatted and muddy alley. He drove through it very slowly, counting the houses until he knew he was in back of the right one. It was darker in the alleyway, but, with the aid of the single back porch light, he could see that the improvements had taken place here as well. Brand new windows on the small porch, so new that the shipping stickers were still in place. Everything was wintertight.

 

They would be even more ready for winter when he’d unloaded the truck, wouldn’t they. A streak of righteous anger flared through him. And Barnabas would never know because not only would he never be caught associating with Gina Logan, she in turn would have no idea who’d left the wood there.

 

It was the perfect solution.

 

It took him twice as long to unload the wood as it did to load it. Every step had to be taken in the dark, in utter silence, and he had to hurry. Any second and Gina would come out and catch him. And then turn away his charity. At which point he’d have to reload all that wood. His leg ached at every step, his whole body hated him, and he couldn’t stop smiling.

 

He made two trips with the truck and unloaded an entire cord of wood in the Logan‘s woodshed. There was so much wood that at least a quarter of it had to be piled next to the shed, and Willie hoped they would discover this and move the stuff to someplace where it would be drier. After his last trip, he shut the gate behind him, and drove off into the night, towards the Old House. When he got there, Barnabas was nowhere to be found. Probably up at Collinwood, helping family members keep the odd hours they liked to keep, or trying to beguile Vicki Winters with yet another story about the wonderful days of times past, when folks had to pee out of doors, and a man could get whipped to death for stealing a loaf of bread. Fine, fine times people had in the old days Barnabas loved so well.

 

What was he going to do with the rest of it, then? He still had almost two cords of wood left, which was about three truck loads. One cord of wood was outside in the woodshed, which Barnabas never visited and was not likely to recall, so it was probably safe to leave the wood there. Which still left about an entire cord hanging around in plain, irritating sight.

 

Bracing himself against another backbreaking task, Willie carried armful after armful and tucked every bit of wood from the kitchen and the parlor into the truck. The axles groaned as he drove slowly down the road and back towards town. He hoped they would hold because if they broke, there was no way he was ever going to be able to justify overloading the truck to Barnabas without him getting angry. And as he drove, he knew where he should take the last load, where it would be most useful and appreciated, and he pulled up in front of the Evans’ cottage just as the dawn was making its first false appearance over the edge of the sky.

 

The Evans woodshed was just about empty and Willie filled it to the brim, keeping a lookout over his shoulder as he did so, expecting that at any moment Sam would come barreling out of the house, fists clenched. He never did, not even when Willie dropped an entire armload on the front walk. He finished unloading the wood, and sensing something amiss, he even went as far as to go up to the front door and knock. There was no answer. He tried the knob and when he found it was unlocked, he opened the door and went in. The little cottage was dark except for a single lamp next to the easy chair in the living room. It showed Sam Evans, asleep in the chair, an empty bottle of scotch next to his dangling hand. And the room, layered in dust and littered with empty glasses, empty coffee cups, and overflowing ashtrays.

 

Willie stopped in his tracks, the grief of loss tracing its unfamiliar way down to his stomach. There was not much he could do now to help Sam Evans, and it shook him to think that he would have given anything not to be seeing what he was seeing.

 

I killed your daughter, Mr. Evans. I loved her and I killed her.

 

Any sympathy he had for the devil vanished at that moment.

 

He gathered up the dirty glasses and carried them into the kitchen, placing them in an already crowded sink. The bottle he picked up and threw into the garbage can, knowing from experience that a man who has pulled an all-nighter was not liable to be woken by the sounds of the cleaning staff, however inept they might be. When the room was picked up and the ashtrays emptied, he dusted. And then he brought in some of the wood and built a small fire. A cheery, hot fire to ease the stillness of a man who now lived alone. He pulled the crocheted blanket from the back of the couch and laid it over Sam’s sleeping form, and then left, closing the door quietly behind him.

 

The sun was well up by the time he returned to the Old House and he parked the truck and went straight down to the basement to light the candles next to the coffin. Then he staggered back upstairs to sweep out the back parlor and the kitchen. And then he threw himself, clothes and all, into bed.

 

With the sunset, he awoke with a start, feeling like he’d missed an appointment or something, and struggled down the stairs, pushing his hair out of his eyes, and wishing for the blackest, sweetest, hottest cup of coffee ever made. His entire body was stiff again, his legs felt as though they were packed with lead, and his hands were shaking. But all his hurrying was for naught, Barnabas was already ensconced in the sitting room, with the candles lit, sitting reading, and he lifted his eyes to watch Willie limp down the last of the stairs.

 

“Come here.”

 

“You want a fire, Barnabas?” asked Willie, hoping to forgo any real conversation until he could get some food inside of him. And some coffee. Maybe some aspirin.

 

“I want you to come here.”

 

Swallowing a sigh, feeling really too tired to deal with the vampire’s temper but knowing he needed to be on his best behavior, Willie approached the wing-backed chair.

 

“What did you do with the wood?” asked Barnabas without preamble.

 

“I got rid of it like you told me.”

 

“I know that, but what I’m asking is what did you do with it?”

 

Thoughts flickered through Willie’s mind like fireflies. He could lie and say he dumped it in the ocean, but for some reason, he didn’t want to do that. Barnabas had asked the question in a way that gave Willie pause. On occasion, he’d seen the vampire act like something didn’t matter when it mattered very much indeed, like the time he’d woken to find Jason McGuire standing over him. For all appearances, the vampire had seen nothing amiss in this, and had not been at all disturbed that Jason had found his lair. Calm, unruffled, his gaze at Willie steady and still, like he was doing now. Which meant that the question and its answer mattered a great deal indeed.

 

And then the vampire said, “The truth, Willie.”

 

That confirmed it.

 

Taking a swallow of air, he let it go slowly. “Well, I gave part of it to Gina Logan. You remember Missus Logan?”

 

Here Barnabas blinked as if dredging up her memory from far back in his mind like an insignificant detail.

 

“Yes,” he said, not a flicker on his face. “I

remember her.”

 

“And the rest. . . .” Willie trailed off uncertainly, knowing that his next words might make the vampire angry all over again. Maybe even mad enough to administer another whipping, and Willie knew he probably wouldn’t survive that. But, the truth was the truth after all, and that’s what Barnabas had asked for.

 

“I left it at the Evans’ place.”

 

When he finished saying this, he snapped his mouth shut and locked eyes with the vampire, as he used to with anyone who challenged him, as he used to a long time ago.

 

It was hard to figure which way the wind was blowing on this one. Barnabas was looking back at Willie as if he did not know him, had never met him, in fact.

 

“Sam Evans?” asked Barnabas, with just the slightest rise in his voice.

 

“Yeah,” said Willie in reply, knowing that saying anything more like yeah, you remember, the father of that girl you kidnapped because she looked so much like Josette you couldn’t help yourself? was liable to set Barnabas off. And that would be incredibly stupid.

 

“And does he know you left it?”

 

Willie shook his head. “No, he didn’t see me.” Sam Evans might not have seen him, but the image of the man, Maggie’s father, broken and drunk, asleep in a chair in a cold, dark house was still vivid in his mind’s eye. Of Gina Logan, he asked nothing, as if a poor widow woman was beneath his concern.

 

“I see,” said Barnabas, and Willie knew exactly what it was the vampire saw. Not the grieving man with no daughter, but himself, spreading largess to one of the yokels in the village. Word would get around about the wood, as word always did in a village the size of Collinsport, and with a passing comment here and a knowing smile there, Barnabas would make it seem as if the gift had been his idea, and that he’d arranged it all.

 

Closing his eyes against the burn of anger that he knew would be visible in them, Willie almost missed Barnabas’ next question.

 

“And there’s no more wood?”

 

“What? Oh, yeah, that’s all there was.” He opened his eyes and looked at the vampire sitting in his wingback chair like a lord of the manor. “I mean, there’s more wood, but it’s just ordinary wood.” Willie felt a tinge of alarm as the lie slid past Barnabas, but he only nodded, motioning with his hand that Willie was now dismissed. Willie turned to go, wanting the sanctuary of the kitchen, when Barnabas stopped him again.

 

“And Willie?”

 

“Yes, Barnabas?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the floor.

 

“See that you ask permission first, before you remove any of the other trees from the property.”

 

He swallowed. And then swallowed again, but the anger stayed in his throat until he could barely speak. “Okay, Barnabas,” he managed. “I’ll do that.”

 

The kitchen was reached with three long strides and he closed the door behind him, letting his head fall back against it. And then his eyes, wanting something to occupy them, to distract him, fell upon the small pile of logs he’d missed. An armful of Josette’s wood. In his hurry to load the truck all the way up, he’d missed some. Better get rid of that in a hurry, before Barnabas decided it was ample time that Willie’d had to lollygag about and he came marching into the kitchen to assign him work. At which time he would see the wood and kill Willie.

 

He knelt gingerly in front of the fire place and pushed the ashes back, letting them sift through the grate. Then he laid on the tinder of wood chips and scraps of paper. Over which he placed several of the logs. And then he lit the tinder. It took several more handfuls of tinder before the oak actually caught, and the hard wood smoked a bit before the flames began to grow.

 

In a little while, the fire was bright and hot, and cheerful, cutting through the gloom of the kitchen, whose dark windows reflected only the night outside. He heard the front door slam as Barnabas went out, and he pulled a chair close to the hearthstones and sat in it, holding his hands out to the flames. And smiled as he thought of Gina Logan and Sam Evans doing the same.