Title: Trial by Fire

Author:  N.J. Nidiffer

Genre/Rating: Gen/PG

Word Count:  7,243

Fandom: Dark Shadows

Verse: Gina Lee (# 5)

Summary: Willie has struck a bargain with Barnabas in which Barnabas will let Gina Lee and her babies live only if Willie behaves himself 100% for the rest of his life. Since Willie wasn’t born into bonded servitude, he has a hard time struggling under the yoke or staying away from Gina Lee.

A/N: There’s a friendship growing between Willie and Gina Lee that’s so strong, neither Nik nor I were able to resist writing about it.

 

***

 

The water in the basin steamed like a soup pot coming to a boil. Not because the water was so very hot, but because the room was so dreadfully cold.

 

Willie put the kettle back on the hearthstones where the faint circle of heat radiating from the coals would keep it simmering. He dropped a clean washcloth into the basin, added a sprinkling of shredded soap, and only then paused to peel off his sweater in jerky, shivery movements, like a locust shedding the last of its brittle summer skin.

 


Even sitting this close to the fire, it was impossible to stay comfortably warm in this meat locker of a room. His front roasted while his backside froze. But there was no way he was going to bed with a day’s worth of sweat and wood chips sticking to him. Sleeping cold was bad enough. Sleeping cold and dirty was nothing short of miserable.

 

It was snowing again, and miniature drifts were piling up along the window ledge to press against the windowpanes like the pallid cheeks of frosty ghosts begging to be let in. Frigid gusts of wind swirled down the chimney to spin drifts of ash across the rust-flecked grate. The hardwood floor creaked with the particles of ice that were swelling in its dampest fissures beneath the perpetually leaky window.

 

He’d have to make this quick, or he’d catch his death, clammy and sweaty as he was.

 

Catch his death. Now that was funny. But Willie hadn’t the energy or the spirit left to grimace at his own ghastly humor. He only shivered in the unrelenting cold and got on with his wash.

 

A quick sponge bath in front of the fire was the only way to get reasonably clean in mid-December.

 

The Old House had no functioning bathroom, no modern plumbing save the creaky hand-pump that fed the kitchen sink. There was a copper tub Willie might haul out of storage in the kitchen pantry if he wanted to take the trouble of heating the gallons of water it would take to fill it, but it was rarely worth the effort. On those occasions when nothing else would do—when he was disgustingly filthy but couldn’t shower at the Y without showing off his bruises—he bathed in the morning, with sunlight streaming through the thin gaps in the kitchen curtains.

 

Never at night, when Barnabas might walk in on him.

 

Well. At least he didn’t have to worry about that tonight. Barnabas was visiting at the Great House. Something about a hanging of the greens celebration that involved a great deal of fussing with evergreen boughs, holly sprigs, and mistletoe—all of which Willie had been sent into the woods to gather whenever he had a moment to spare from his regular chores throughout the preceding week. Barnabas had generously volunteered him for the job, as if Willie didn’t already have enough to do.

 

Willie hadn’t argued, but had accepted the time-consuming task with a silent nod of agreement.

 

He’d almost welcomed the additional work, even if it meant he had to get up earlier and stay up later to get everything else done. He’d gone into the woods with a freshly sharpened hatchet and taken out the anger he didn’t dare show to Barnabas on spruce saplings and holly branches, until his hands were gory with trees’ blood and his gut was shivery with freshly released rage.

 

Better a massacre of helpless trees than to scald Barnabas with an unexpected flash of Willie’s ever-simmering resentment. Better a string of curses stifled by a curtain of snow than to lose control in front of the vampire some evening and snarl what he really felt.

 

Sorrow, on the other hand, was safe, so Willie didn’t bother to hide it on those nights when the reality of his situation pressed too heavily on his heart, and it was all he could do to stay on his feet until Barnabas gave him leave to retire.

 

It took more energy than Willie had within him to disguise such encompassing emptiness—he was too exhausted to try. And it wasn’t as if Barnabas noticed, or even particularly cared. There was no point in concealing something the vampire couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see.

 

Almost shuddering now, Willie plucked the washcloth out of the rapidly cooling water and wrung it out. Its rough, pill-snagged surface was briefly warm on his skin, then freezing as circling drafts cooled the soapy film of water on his chest and arms.

 

He took the trouble to scrub the goose bumps from the back of his neck before lunging for the towel warming by the grate.

 

The bruises on his back and legs were healing, but were still too tender to subject to a bristly cloth and tepid water. Besides, he didn’t want to see them, even if he all he could make out in the firelight was the fading purple bands that wrapped around the fronts of his thighs. He wanted to forget they were there, so he only skimmed off his pants when he was ready to undress completely.

 

For a day or two following their confrontation in the drawing room, Willie had honestly believed that Barnabas was going to take him up on his desperate offer to submit to beatings every night  for a week if the vampire would only leave the Logans alone. He’d taken a terrible thrashing that first night.

 

Two more within the week, ostensibly for other reasons—once for failing to lock the front door, and again the very same evening for dropping a plain little porcelain vase that had once belonged to Barnabas’ Aunt Abigail.

 

Willie knew but did not say that the front door went unsecured half the time because Barnabas never locked it behind him. Nor did he point out that endless hours spent listening to reminiscences about people he’d never met told him that Abigail had never been one of the vampire’s favorite people, even if she’d been a close relative living in the same house.

 

Barely chipping something of hers, especially something as plain and cheap as the vase, shouldn’t qualify as a catastrophic offense.

 

But that time it had.

 

Two whippings in one night. He hadn’t known at the time where he would find the strength to withstand it. The first had been nothing much by Barnabas’ standards, only five or six fierce whacks with the belt. But even so, Willie could scarcely believe his eyes when the vampire once again held out his hand in a silent command for Willie to pass over the leather strap.

 

Thank god his shock at the unfairness of it all had rendered him temporarily mute, because that was the only thing that saved him. Willie had just begun to open his mouth to protest when he caught a curious expression behind the anger on the vampire’s face and realized with a sickening jolt that he was being set up.

 

You son of a bitch. Why are you doing this?

 

To test him, that was why. To measure the strength of his resolve. Punishing an infraction as minor as an unlocked door had been nothing but an excuse to see if Willie would continue to submit to his master’s will without struggle or protest, as he had promised Barnabas he would. The incident with the vase was the same thing, only more severe. Still nothing much compared to punishments Willie had taken in the past, but a brutal test of his future intentions nevertheless.

 

Willie had traded his unquestioning obedience for the lives of Gina Logan and her children.

 

This harsh treatment, as unfair as it was, was part of it. So he submitted—angrily, tearfully, but nonetheless silently—to two beatings in the same night for mistakes that together would normally warrant nothing more than a sharp reprimand.

 

But Willie knew even as he forced himself to bend over the kitchen table in bitter, defeated silence that this trial by fire was liable to go on for some time if Barnabas decided to make a game of it. Maybe see how hard he could push before Willie crumbled. The thought filled him with dread, because he knew that no matter what his intentions were at the start, he would break relatively quickly if Barnabas tortured him night after night. He could see a time when he would scream enough! Take the Logans if you want them, just leave me alone!

 

He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to believe he would die before he did. But he didn’t believe in the courage behind his own lie. He would panic, if the pain was bad enough. If Barnabas scared him enough. He would grieve about it afterwards, of course, but he would still sacrifice the Logans if he found himself in dire enough straits—he knew he would.

 

But not yet. Not over this. It’s not so bad. Just one of Barnabas’ games. He’s just pushing to see if you’ll take it. He won’t really hurt you. Not over a chipped vase. . . . . . At least I don’t think he will.

 

And that, thank god, seemed to be the end of it. Willie’s unprotesting acquiescence must have satisfied the vampire’s curiosity in the matter, because he hadn’t questioned his servant’s resolution again.

 

At least not yet.

 

The draft from the window was getting sharper as the wind picked up to a midnight howl.

Willie shivered his way into pajamas before folding the towel and cloth over the same fireside rack he used to keep his sweaters from turning clammy and mildewed in the perpetual damp. He pulled the kettle away from the grate so it wouldn’t boil dry, set the basin beside it to empty in the morning, and wrapped his sliver of soap in its protective square of wax paper. One more double handful of coal on the fire to see him through till dawn, and he was ready for bed.

 

Sliding between the frigid sheets made him hiss rueful air between his teeth. He pressed his hands flat between his thighs to warm them, drawing his knees up close to his chest. In a little while his body heat would spill a shallow island of warmth into the thin flannel sheets, and he would be able to sleep.

 

But he knew no matter how much coal he piled on the fire or how many blankets he doubled over his sockclad feet, he would still wake in the morning coiled as tight as a snail in the center of the bed, anxious to get dressed and get to the kitchen where he might thaw with the aid of hot coffee and a moment by the stove.

 

Now that he had nothing left to distract him—no work, no meal, no bath—the depression he’d kept at arm’s length throughout the day with constant, strenuous activity sidled closer to settle over him like a dark, foggy blanket, smothering the breath in his chest with its suffocating gloom.

 

Willie sighed to ease the dismal ache in his heart and closed tearing eyes against the false comfort of the fire. He couldn’t go on mourning Gina and the kids forever. Especially now that he knew they were safe from whatever horrible fate Barnabas might have concocted for them. But he couldn’t help it. He missed them terribly. Not so much their physical presence, but the idea of them: just a quiet widow woman and her children who didn’t buy into the local gossip trashing the town’s roughest character, but who thought enough of him to speak civilly to him on the street. Wave to him from the yard. Even invite him home for a meal every now and then.

 

They’d almost been friends.

 

Until Barnabas took them away from him, that was.

 

You gotta let them go, boy. They were never yours in the first place. You gotta let them go.

 

But it was so hard. So hard to admit that he had no one, now that he dared not do more than nod to Gina when he saw her buying bread in the Collinsport grocery or filling up her gas tank at the station.

 

He was afraid if he did, if he ever stopped to ask how the kids were doing, or how the day care was getting on, that Barnabas would find out that Willie was deliberately breaking his side of the bargain and taking up with the Logans again.

 

Willie would never do that. Never endanger Gina and her babies like that, even if it broke his heart to shut them out. But Gina might. She’d messed up once before, by innocently admitting to Barnabas that she’d had Willie to her house for lunch. Of course it had never occurred to her that Willie’s boss would object to such a harmless, friendly encounter. But Barnabas had objected, and quite strongly, too. That’s why Willie didn’t dare approach her, not even to explain that he couldn’t see her again.

 

He knew Gina was puzzled by his sudden and complete withdrawal from her company. But she was abiding by his unspoken wish and keeping their relationship as casual as she could. He’d seen her at the laundromat only the week before. The kids had been with her, and Polly had immediately squealed a delighted welcome and headed his way like a puppy rushing to tumble with its littermate. But her mom brought her up short by the back of her coat before the kid got three steps across the bleach-stained floor and gave her a brisk talking to about bugging people while they were supposed to be working.

 

All the time she was lecturing her daughter, Gina was glancing up at Willie with guarded eyes, as if asking is this what you want? Just say the word and I’ll send her straight to you. You know she wants to come.

 

But it wasn’t Gina’s face, cautious and confounded, that killed him. It was Polly’s. That fat lower lip pooched out in hurt disbelief that her Willie could ever be anything but glad to see her. That tearful tremble in the little girl’s voice as she protested,

 

“But Moooooom. . . .”

 

Willie had shoved his damp shirts and towels into his sea bag with unseemly haste and tossed them in his truck without giving the family a second glance. And then he’d pulled over on the side of the road two miles outside of town and cried like a little kid, until he’d given himself a headache he couldn’t shake for the rest of the day.

 

The holidays had never meant anything to him. He’d never had a family, not a real family that celebrated such things, so he’d never missed the closeness of it before. But he missed it now. He finally understood what it could have been, now that he had some glimmer of what a loving family was supposed to be. A family that was willing to include him in their inner circle, even if only on a casual, friendly basis.

 

For the briefest moment, fate had offered him a respite from the endless nightmare that was his life. A little girl’s conspiratorial giggle. A woman’s workroughened hand dishing up a second generous helping of his favorite food. A little boy’s sleep-slack body tucked trustingly against his own. It was a dream so normal, so ordinary, so sweet, that Willie had never dared hope it could truly be his.

 

Now that Barnabas had forbidden him to associate with the Logans, it never would be. He hadn’t even the illusion of friendship to comfort him now.

 

Willie’s sadness over his loss was such that nothing could rouse him. Not even the fleeting pleasure he’d once found in a job well done. He worked in mechanical, dogged silence, doing his best to re-plank a stairway or re-groove the stubborn sliding panel in a chest of drawers because mediocre work would only get him into trouble. He was so deep in his own misery that he barely acknowledged the rare word of praise Barnabas had given him the night before for figuring out a way to repair a cabinet’s fragile mother of pearl inlays that were slowly chipping away to dust. Once Willie was finished mixing thin layers of transparent glue with glossy, powdered abalone, the filled-in places were almost indistinguishable from the original antique carvings.

 

Barnabas had been pleased.

 

Willie couldn’t have cared less.

 

He’d spent today chopping wood until his muscles quivered with over-exertion, trying to exhaust himself into a night’s unbroken sleep. But it looked as though he wasn’t going to get it. He only shivered in his lonely bed, watching the dull red of the firelight play against the dark, tear-dampened screen of his closed eyelids, and waited wearily for the hour when it would be time for him to get up and see what new job Barnabas had left for him on the list tacked to the corkboard by the kitchen sink.

 

*

 

The job wasn’t anything he expected it to be.

 

You may take the afternoon off, read the terse, neatly scripted note pinned where the job list should be. Amuse yourself. There was a ten-dollar bill tacked to the cork beneath the slip of paper.

Willie fingered the money in disbelief, then looked at the note again. There was a post-script that the vampire needn’t have added, since Willie would have assumed it no matter what job he was set to do today: Return to the house before sundown.

 

What the hell was this, then? Was he so obviously depressed that even Barnabas felt sorry for him?

 

Hah! You know better than that, Loomis. He doesn’t care what you’re feeling. Never has, never will.

 

Maybe a reward for figuring out how to fix the Oriental cabinet? Nah. That was his job. He got room and board for that, nothing more.

 

But this was the holiday season, after all, and maybe employers in Barnabas’ time always gave their servants a day off to mark it. Or maybe Barnabas had decided he was tired of Willie moping around the Old House and wanted him in a better humor. If that was the case, he was going to be sorely disappointed when he rose, because this depression wasn’t lifting just because Willie had ten bucks he could spend on a decent meal and a matinee at Swanson’s.

 

I am NOT going to the friggin’ movies like some kid playin’ hooky from school. Lunch, yeah, okay, no problem. But that takes an hour, hour and a half, tops. Even if I stretch it with coffee and dessert.

 

Then what am I supposed to do?

 

Willie ran his hand roughly through his hair.

 

The last thing he wanted was an afternoon off. He needed to work—and work hard—to keep the worst of this creeping, crushing sorrow at bay. If he didn’t it would squash him like a bug. He had to keep busy, mindlessly busy, or he’d go crazy long before sundown.

 

He could pretend he had never found the note. Maybe finish chopping the wood he had started

to stack in the woodshed yesterday afternoon. He might get in another half a cord before the blustery wind sweeping in off the ocean made it too uncomfortable to work outside. Or he could retreat to the attic, see what bits and pieces of furniture might be left for him to refinish next spring. There seemed to be an endless supply up there. Maybe he could find something interesting to keep him occupied.

 

No. He better not do that. Barnabas meant for him to rest today. The money tacked beneath the note said that the vampire expected him to do it away from the house. If Willie snubbed such a generous offer and left evidence of a day’s work around the house, Barnabas would not take it well. He liked his infrequent moments of humanity to be properly appreciated.

 

So. What did that leave?

 

Go back to bed until he was hungry enough for lunch? No. It was freezing up there. Hang out in the kitchen? And do what, exactly? Watch the snow flick the windowpane and twiddle his thumbs?

 

This was ridiculous.

 

Willie tossed the note and the money onto the table with the same angry disdain Barnabas might show for a business proposal that did not carry the ironclad promise of a worthwhile return. He paced his way out of the kitchen to the front of the house, circled the drawing room like a cat in a cage, and finally stopped to rest his hands on the mantle of the fireplace.

 

If this offer for a day’s respite had come only few weeks beforehand, Willie would have wandered around town quite contentedly on the off chance that he might run into Gina Lee. Not to meet her for lunch or anything forward like that—she was still too new a widow for her to be seen dining in public with a man—but just to say hi. Ask how she and the kids were getting along. See if there was anything they needed that he might be able to provide for them, either openly or in secret.

 

Now going into town was nothing but a nuisance. Gina’s day care would be closed in the busy weeks before the holidays, so he would have to steer clear of the hangouts she was most likely to frequent. The grocery, the laundromat, the gas station, the diner. All places where he had seen her before. All places that were practically off limits to him now, unless he checked to make sure that Gina wasn’t there first.

 

Willie’s thumb was rubbing a compulsive circle on the soot-flecked marble fronting the massive drawing room fireplace. He looked at the smoothly polished groove the oil from his skin was leaving on the dusty stone, and suddenly had an idea.

 

There was an elaborate Dutch-tiled fireplace in Naomi’s room that needed extensive repair. The cost of replacing the tiles was astronomical, but Willie thought he might be able to re-cast the pieces that were already there, if he had some clue as to what he was doing before he got started.

 

So. How about a trip to the library? It was warm there. Willie could snag a seat as near to the upstairs radiator as possible and spend his day off reading up on the art of tile casting, assuming a manual on such an unusual skill even existed in a village as small as this.

 

It was work-related, but close enough to relaxation to count as a proper holiday. Barnabas would never know the difference, assuming he even bothered to ask.

 

Willie went back to the kitchen to tuck Barnabas’ ten dollars into the pocket of his workpants, figuring two or three bucks would go for the blue plate special at the diner before he gave Barnabas back the rest. He never even considered spending it on drinks in the Blue Whale. That was all he needed—liquid depressant to fuel the sadness that was already drowning him in a numbing, black-edged torpor as thick as a fog off the Georges Bank. Besides, “go get drunk” was not what Barnabas had in mind when he said “amuse yourself.” That much Willie knew without having to ask.

 

He pulled his woolen pea coat over the heavy cotton t-shirt and turtleneck sweater he was already wearing. Even then, swaddled fat as a harbor seal, he couldn’t help but shudder when the first blast of wind careening around the house nearly knocked him off the porch. He ran for the truck and cranked the engine as quickly as he could, turning up the heater full blast to clear his windshield before heading into town.

 

He didn’t really want to go. But there was nothing else he cared about any more than he did this pointless errand. Go to the library and hide in the musty warmth of the upstairs stacks, or brood around the Old House until Barnabas rose. One was as appealing as the other, now that Willie dragged his own cloud of despair with him everywhere he went. Well. At least one choice was by far the warmer one. Willie popped the transmission into first gear and stepped on the gas. Maybe he could thaw out enough during his reading to doze off in one of the study cubicles for an hour or two. The local bums did it. Why not him?

 

*

 

Gina Lee spotted him through the steady thwack thwack thwack of her windshield wipers. The snow wasn’t coming down very heavily, just enough to be annoying, but if she hadn’t had the wipers on she would surely have missed him in the feathery, windblown haze.

 

Gotcha. Oh, Mister Loomis, I finally gotcha. You’re not going to slip away from me, not this time.

 

Now was her chance. Polly was in school. The two younger kids were safe at Anne and Tom’s.

And there was Willie Loomis, away from the Old House and that creepy old boss of his. She wasn’t likely to get a better shot than this, not before the end of Christmas break filled her house with the chaos of kids again, anyway.

 

There were so many things she wanted to ask him, all of them requiring tact and privacy. She had the first in abundance. The second was proving somewhat harder to come by.

 

Sitting Mister Loomis down with a hot cup of coffee at her own kitchen table would have been

Gina’s first choice for such an intimate conversation, had an opportunity for such forthright hospitality ever presented itself. But the pale, sad-eyed man her children loved so much hadn’t been back to the Logan house since the night Barnabas Collins turned up on Gina’s doorstep and snapped Mister Loomis to heel like a naughty little boy who’d stayed out past his curfew.

 

She’d spotted him around town once or twice after that, even waved to him once when she spotted his truck pulling out of the drug store parking lot. But his hunched shoulders, shuttered face, and stubborn refusal to look at her all said quite plainly that he wanted to be left alone. Gina recognized the body language. She’d worn it herself often enough, whenever she’d had a fight with Ez and had a bruise on her face she couldn’t explain. It was easier to keep people away with abrupt, uncommunicative silence than to repeat “I walked into a door” a dozen times a day to neighbors who didn’t believe you anyway.

 

Mister Loomis was probably just uncomfortable about the incident with his boss—embarrassed enough not to want to face her again. She couldn’t blame him on that one. She’d been fairly taken aback herself. But she didn’t want such an unfortunate misunderstanding to drive a wedge between them forever—not something as silly as his boss getting into a huff because he’d been late coming back to work.

 

Now here he was—finally!—walking up the library steps with his hands jammed into his pockets and the wind whipping his hair back from his face in a dirty-blond ruff. He still didn’t have proper gloves, or even a scarf to help keep him warm. But if this worked, maybe Gina could amend that at Christmas. A woman with three kids to clothe in a town buried in winter nine months of the year learned how to knit.

 

He hadn’t spotted her yet. That was good. Once he did, he’d scat. Gina tapped her brakes, never minding the impatient honk of the car trapped in the lane behind her, to give him plenty of time to get inside. The Collinsport Library boasted but a single entrance. Once he entered the library’s narrow lobby, Gina could come in behind him and block his escape.

 

At least for a moment or two.

 

Gina didn’t really want to corner him. Didn’t want to shame him any more than his boss already had. But Mister Loomis was such a lonely man, such a good man. She knew it, no matter what the rest of the town might think. She wanted to make it plain that he was still welcome in her home—and maybe ask him an awkward question or two while she was about it, if there was any reasonable way she could find to approach the subject.

 

She swerved the station wagon with cautious haste into the next available parking space and shut off the engine. Checked her hair scarf in the mirror and snugged the top button of her coat against the cold.

 

She and Mister Loomis were about to have a long overdue conversation. If she could pin him down long enough to do it, that was.

 

*

 

There wasn’t a single book on tile-casting anywhere in the stacks.

 

Willie sighed. He should have expected that. This was the Collinsport Library, after all. The shelves were mostly stocked with out-of-date encyclopedias, ragged sporting journals, and cookbooks on the hundred and one ways to prepare dried cod. He might have better luck at the state-run library in Bangor, but he wasn’t headed there for at least another week, when the alabaster carvings destined for the upstairs hallway were supposed to come in from Florence.

 

Looked like Barnabas was going to have to shell out the money for new fireplace tiles after all.

Willie started to turn around to see if there were any blanks spots in the study cubicles where he

might snooze away the rest of the afternoon—and almost tromped right over Gina Lee Logan.

He spun his hands out to catch himself and knocked a scattering of electrical manuals to the waxed wooden floor. Gina caught him by the front of his coat to keep him from tipping over, and he floundered back in the other direction, desperate to get away from her.

 

“Whoa, Mister Loomis, take it easy! It’s only me.”

 

Willie stopped, his back pressed precariously against the shelves behind him, trapped in a box canyon of books with Gina between him and the only exit. She was reaching out to him with one blackgloved hand, alarmed by his over-reaction to her unexpected presence. Willie immediately flung up an arm in a warding off gesture to prevent her from touching him, and cursed himself when he saw a flicker of hurt cross her face.

 

“M-missus Logan,” he stuttered. “You half scared the life out of me.”

 

“I’m sorry, Mister Loomis. I thought you heard me come up.”

 

“No.”

 

He must have looked pretty panicked, because she took a step backward to give him more room. She was staring at him like she was wondering if he was going to bolt right over her, in which case she better have room to dodge into the next aisle. God, this wasn’t going well.

 

Don’t be rude. That’s what Barnabas had said. Right alongside with don’t associate with the

Logans. Which was he supposed to pick?

 

“I’m sorry,” Gina said again. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just saw you coming in and thought I would catch up, because I wanted to talk to you for a minute.”

 

“Yeah?” Willie tried to take a deep breath against the frenzied heartbeat pounding in his throat. He needed to keep this casual. Keep it cool. Not make Gina think he’d gone off the edge or something. Don’t attract attention, that’s what Barnabas kept saying, and here Willie was, having a panic attack over a woman approaching him in a public library. “What about?”

 

Gina’s matronly face turned serious, almost grim, and Willie suddenly wondered if maybe something had happened to one of the kids. “Is Polly okay, Missus Logan?” he asked nervously, his almost parental protectiveness of the youngsters suppressing the last of his own startlement. “Nothin’s happened to Danny or Carla, has it?”

 

“No, no, the children are fine,” she assured him, instantly warming into a smile at his concern for them. “But I need to ask you something that is maybe none of my business. I don’t want to offend you, or make you uncomfortable, but. . . .”

 

“Missus Logan, I can’t think of a thing you could say that would offend me,” Willie said, meaning it. “You’ve done so much for me. You know I’ll answer if I can.”

 

And that was the hitch. If he could. There were whole miles of territory he dared not enter with her, his job at the Old House chief among them. But anything he could answer for her, he would, and gladly. She had approached him. They were in a public place. Willie was only doing his best to be cordial.

 

Surely Barnabas couldn’t find any harm in that.

 

“Let’s go sit over there, where it’s private,” Gina said, waving towards the study cubicle tucked into the farthest corner behind the stacks. Willie followed her, settling back into the ease of her company in spite of his determination not to let her and her family any deeper into his life. Gina had that way about her, to make him comfortable when she wanted him near. Maybe it was because she watched and listened instead of talking all the time. You knew when she got around to telling you something that it wasn’t a snap judgment, but something she’d thought long and hard about. And you knew that if she liked you, that was a conscious decision, too. That made her friendship more of a privilege, rather than some cheap acquaintanceship handed out free to all and sundry, Willie thought.

 

“Mister Loomis,” she said, sitting down to face him across the double square of study table and pulling off her gloves, “there’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. It’s not something that’s easy to talk about, and I don’t want to embarrass you, but there’s something I really have to know.”

 

Willie looked back at her, nervous all over again. He had a very bad feeling that Gina was right.

This wasn’t going to be something he wanted to talk about. He could see it in her eyes, dark and serious and full of anxious pain—for her, and her kids, and maybe for Willie, too.

 

“After you were so kind as to pick me and the kids up off the highway that time, my . . . my husband caught you out,” she continued, stumbling a little over the phrasing. Willie heard what she was saying and immediately felt a sharp constriction in his gut. She wasn’t going to apologize for that mess, was she? If she was, Willie was going to cut her right off, because Gina and her kids had nothing to do with it. That was Ez Logan and his drunken temper, him and his crazy friends, and they’d paid for it, hadn’t they?

 

Paid in spades.

 

“Gina,” he began, feeling a flush of heat creep into his cheeks even before he realized he had just called her by her first name.

 

“No,” she interrupted, reaching across the table to touch him gently on the arm, not noticing his blunder while she was so intently focused on her own words. “Let me finish. I’ve been trying to say this a long time. I need to get it out.”

 

Willie nodded, subsiding. He wanted to keep his eyes on the neutral surface of the tabletop, but  e couldn’t quite do it. Gina and her question had him captivated. Like a deer in the headlights, he thought numbly.

 

“I know they hurt you,” she said quietly. “My husband and his friends. I heard later that they beat you up. I felt so bad about it, because I know you were only trying to help. You didn’t have to stop, and I bet afterwards you wished you hadn’t.”

 

Willie didn’t answer. He had been sorry he’d stopped, in the painful, blood-soaked hours after Ez and his pals had roughed him up. But later, he’d reconsidered. Gina’s friendship had been worth the hassle.

 

“I think . . . I think maybe they did more  than that, though,” Gina said uncertainly. “You see, I know the kind of man my husband was. I know the kind of violence he was capable of, especially if he had Mike and Ernie with him and thought you couldn’t fight back. I wanted you to tell me . . . if you would . . . what . . . what that something might have been.”

 

Willie stared at her silently. Then he said, “Why do you want to know?”

 

He realized as soon as he said it that he had just admitted that something more serious than the usual dust-up had taken place, that it wasn’t just a thoughtful widow’s guilty imagination. And knowing Gina, she wouldn’t be able to let it go until he told her. Her suspicions had been confirmed and now she would naturally want to hear the rest.

 

Dammit, Loomis, careful how you go. She’s not stupid, you know.

 

“Because it happened because of me,” she said softly. “Whatever it was, it was my fault.” She over-rode his immediate forceful objection with a slightly louder tone. “Yes, it was,” she insisted, then lowered her voice when she caught the reference librarian glancing their way. “I should have warned you he might come after you,” she said more quietly, reaching across the table again to touch his hand with that warm, familiar gesture she used so often with the children, and now with him. “I should never have gotten in your truck at all. But I did need a ride, you were right about that, it was too cold to drag the kids through the sleet. And I didn’t warn you, because I honestly never thought he would take it that far. So it was my fault. And now I have to know.”

 

“It won’t change anything,” Willie said low, staring at his hands. “I mean, it’s over and done with, and I’m all right. I’m not sorry I stopped. I’d do it again, even. Can’t you just leave it at that?”

 

“I can. But only if you won’t tell me.” She sounded sad at the thought. “I knew before I asked that you probably wouldn’t want to say. But I hope you will. Because I keep thinking about it. I can’t  let it go. You know?”

 

Willie nodded. He knew. Imagination was sometimes worse than the awful truth. Especially if you knew how bad the truth could be.

 

He remembered, suddenly, looking across the bench seat of his truck at Gina Logan’s battered face that freezing afternoon as she whispered, “Thank you, Mister Loomis.” He’d never dreamed at the time that the same fist that had marked that wind-chapped cheek would be beating the hell out of him before the month was out.

 

Jeez.

 

Willie came out of the depths of unwelcome memory to find he was compulsively rubbing the fingers on his right hand, where the ache in the joints was the sharpest on days like today, when it was snowy and cold.

 

He looked up guiltily, but it was too late.

 

Gina’s gaze was locked on the slow, repetitive motion. In a way, she already knew.

 

He reached out to put his hand flat on the table. The fingers were long healed, only slightly bent for not being properly set. But he saw her go pale as she realized what must have happened.

 

“That’s all it was,” he said softly. “A couple of dislocated fingers. Nothing much. I healed right up. See?”

 

“Oh Mister Loomis,” she whispered, tears welling in her eyes, “I’m . . . I’m so sorry. . . .”

 

“No,” he said, “stop that.” He drew his hand back into his lap. “It wasn’t your fault. None of it was.” Not even the part that followed. That was all me. And all Barnabas.

 

“You never reported it to the police.” She swiped at her eyes with a tissue from her coat pocket, her cold-reddened hand trembling as if with barely contained frustration at the unfairness of it all. “You never said anything.”

 

Willie shrugged. “Didn’t seem worth it.”

 

Especially after my boss decided to take care of matters himself.

 

“Like I said, it wasn’t anything much. I was back at work so quick it was like it never happened.”

 

“But. . . .”

 

“Missus Logan, I wouldn’t have told you if I thought it would upset you this much. I mean, it doesn’t make any difference now. It happened and it was awful, but it’s over. There’s nothin’ you or me or anyone else can do to change it. So just let it go now, okay?” He tilted his head until he caught her sad, dark eyes, insisting that she look at him. Agree with him. “Okay?”

 

Gina nodded reluctantly. “I know you’re right,” she said, tucking the tissue back in her pocket, “but I hate it. I hate him, all over again.”

 

She meant Ezra. Her drunken, abusive husband, whose bloodless body was now drifting somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

 

Willie couldn’t very well tell her that he himself had condemned her husband to death the moment he had turned up on the Old House porch looking like a smashed Halloween pumpkin. The moment Barnabas took Willie’s shattered fingers in his enormous grip and whispered tell me. The moment the pain became so great that Willie would do anything, anything, to make it stop.

 

Ezra. It was Ezra Logan.

 

That was part of the great unexplainable territory Gina must never explore. Or she and her kids might join her late husband at the bottom of the sea. And god, no please god, Willie would never forgive himself if that happened. He’d kill himself if it did.

 

“Don’t waste yourself on it,” he said grimly. “He’s gone now. Let the dead bury the dead.”

 

Gina nodded. She smoothed her hands behind her neck, as if rubbing away a heavy burden, and raised her dark eyes once more. “Thank you,” she said soberly, as if he had done her a great favor. “Thank you for telling me what I had to know.”

 

They sat in silence a moment longer. Then Willie stood up.

 

“I gotta get back,” he said. “Work. You know?”

 

“Yes.” Gina stayed where she was. “I understand. But Mister Loomis, if you are ever in our neighborhood, I hope you’ll stop by.” She smiled up at him hesitantly, tears of compassion and remorse still damp on her cheeks. “If you have a minute, you know, between errands. The kids would love to see you. And . . . and so would I.”

 

The lonely pain he had forgotten while he was talking to her welled in Willie’s chest once more, so sharp and hot he had to turn his back on her lest she see the anguish he knew must be plain on his face. He didn’t want her to see it. Not now. Not ever. Gina Lee was just too sharp. She had guessed about Ez messing him up. She might guess this too.

 

So he only said quietly, “Thanks, Missus Logan. I’ll remember that,” before he walked quickly, permanently away.