Title: Concussion
Author: Sylvia Bond
Genre/Rating: Gen/PG
Word Count: 12,922
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 8)
Summary: Willie’s concussion becomes very apparent when he snaps at the kids and can’t remember what Barnabas has told him to do. Even Gina Lee can’t make him slow down; it’s up to Barnabas, who brings out an old-fashioned remedy that actually works better than the prescription the doctor gave him.
A/N: Willie should get some rest, that’s all I have to say about it.


“Chocolate,” said Danny.

It was a proposal made with dignity, as only a small child could do it, his dark eyes wide and on Willie as he climbed back into Tom Pederson’s pristine Suburban.

“What, kiddo?” Willie asked, tucking the two bottles of pills and the tube of ointment in his jacket pockets along with, presumably, the receipt. Gina had never seen a man for keeping receipts as Willie was.

“He wants hot chocolate,” she translated, her glance flicking to Tom’s in the rearview mirror. He gave her a half-nod, his eyes barely closing as he did this, an acknowledgment and agreement, but with a warning: Not all day. I’m not driving him around all day. “And I want to make sure you take those and don’t just carry them around.”


The heat from the vents increased as Tom pulled out into the street from his parking spot in front of the drugstore along Main. Traffic was so light this early in the morning, on the road as well as at the drugstore, that Willie had been out of the car and back again before the children had had a chance to get restless. And they were on their way before Willie could protest.


Polly had been in the front seat, but now she was in back with her mother and little brother, snugging herself as close as possible to Willie’s side.


“You’re cold,” said Polly. “You can have hot chocolate, if you’ve been good, but I bet even if you weren’t you’d get some anyway, cause you fell down.”


“Hey, uh—” began Willie, reaching out to tousle her hair as he looked out the window, apparently only now realizing that they were headed in the opposite direction from the grocery store and his truck. The motion of his hand stopped, inches from her head and then he dropped it, where it fell, half-clenched, in his lap. “Hey, Gina. . . .”


He’d taken off the bandage they’d given him at the hospital, and the bruise on his head looked as bad as if he’d been whacked directly in the head with a two-by-four. On purpose. His eyes had been honest when he’d said he’d fallen from a ladder, and she supposed it was ironic that he apparently had. Only here he was, they’d come upon him walking into town on a frosty March morning, wearing only a jacket. Where was the scarf she had made him?  Where were his gloves?  She wanted to ask him, but his face was spare and hard, cast with a grey color that was only slightly less alarming than it had been the day before.


“We’re headed to the fish market in Clearwater,” she said instead. “And usually on the way there, we go get hot chocolate. Or the kids do, anyway. Tom and I have coffee, cause that hot chocolate is awfully sweet for so early in the morning.”  She tried to put the smile in her voice, tried to make it light, but there he was, looking at her, glassy-eyed as if he were about to be sick.


“Um, I don’t think I—”


They were nearing the small waffle house that boasted the best waffles on the Maine coastline, and Tom pulled into the parking lot without saying a word.


“C’mon, kids, out,” he said now, and Gina could hear the sharpness in his voice. He pulled seatbelts off, and took Danny up in his arms and Polly by the hand and began to walk away. Gina could hear them as they went, protesting, Danny saying Willie, and Polly’s pout that was almost as audible as her indignant, But I don’t wanna go.


Gina turned to Willie, knowing that she only had a few moments before they all had to go inside.


“Willie, why were you walking?”


He looked at her, his face a tad blank, as if the question were incredibly hard instead of incredibly simple. “Um, to pick up my truck?”


“But you were walking,” she said, feeling stern. “You had a concussion yesterday, I know that boss of yours probably doesn’t get up this early, but surely he could—”


“Gina, don’t start,” Willie snapped, interrupting her, casting them both into a shocked silence.


Then he looked at her, his eyes hard pieces of slate, chest rising and falling with sharp breaths, hard won in the cool push of air that had begun to creep into the Suburban. “Just don’t start about him, okay?  He told me to come get these pills, and I’m gettin’ ’em. Then I’m goan back to the Old House and take ’em, and do my regular chores, and that’s it, okay?  Just like he said, an’ it’s all gonna be okay, if you would just—”


Hands suddenly coming up to clench the hair over his neck, elbows jutting out like blinders on a horse, and his heart thudding so loud she could hear it. The tendons of his wrist stood up as the sleeve of his jacket pulled away from his skin, so tight and taut it was as if the muscles would sear themselves away from bone. And trembling, slight, constant quivers, as if he were holding on so very, very hard.


“Willie,” she said, her voice a whisper. Tugging at his sleeve, her own heart in her throat, even though she knew that this was probably from the concussion, knew that, but he was scaring her, and he wouldn’t like it if he knew that. She took a deep breath, and swallowed it down. “Willie, please, please, I’m sorry. I’m just worried about you. Please. . . .”


Gradually, she eased his arm down, her hand clasped around the coldness that quivered beneath her touch. His face was white, and he knew she was there, though his eyes seemed sightless as he stared ahead of him.


“M-my head hurts,” he said.


“I know,” she said, hiding the stab of shock as he said this, never having heard him admit such a thing before. Knowing from her own dark pit of memories how hard it was to say it out loud. “That’s what the pills are for. You come inside with me now and take them. Then Tom’ll take you right back to your truck, I promise. No more tricks, okay?”


It was then that he looked at her, so washed out that the bones were pushing through his skin, shaking. Looking at her with bleak dismay. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t—”


“No,” she said, bringing her hand up to cup the side of his face. Feeling the tremors there, beneath the flesh, the slight sandpaper of his early morning beard. The pulse of heat where her skin touched his and he pressed his cheek into her palm. Closing his eyes as he seemed to absorb the simple touch, lashes long against the half-circles of mottled purple beneath them. As if he were asleep as he paused there, as if all the comfort and warmth he would ever need were found there in the palm of her hand. Then he took a breath and opened his eyes, looking at her, newly wakened. He lifted his head, and then he clasped her hand in both of his. They were a bit warmer now, and steady as he squeezed her hand gently.


“‘M’okay. ‘M’gonna be okay.”


Sure he was. As they got out of the car, his hand nearly missed the handle on the door, but caught it, gripping it too hard, leaning into it. He should be in the hospital, or at the very least, in bed. Walking around like an accident victim, with no more sense than a child, and that boss of his— Stop, Gina, stop it.


Clasping his elbow for a second, she pulled him to her and then let go. “We’ll go inside where it’s warm, and have something to eat and you can take your pills, okay?”


He was shaking his head now as they crossed the parking lot and he opened the door for her. “I’m not really hungry,” he said, “but I’ll sit with you.”


Not hungry?  Willie? “When did you last eat?”


With a blank look in her direction, he turned away from her to wind his way through the tables to the booth where Tom and the kids were. It was almost as if he couldn’t answer her, as if his thoughts were vacant leaves floating in a scattered wind, though she could hear his distracted response inside her own head.


Maybe yesterday, or maybe this morning. Maybe before I began a five-mile hike along a coastal road in the early morning frost with the resultant aftereffects from a concussion serious enough to knock me out for five hours.


“Well, you’ll eat now,” she said, firmly. “They have waffles here, and you can get some eggs, okay?  You need to eat.”


“Gina, I . . . I’m not really hungry, okay, I’m fine—”


“Willie, Willie!” shrieked Polly. The excitement of eating with her favorite adult at a waffle house was almost too much as she tumbled out of the booth seat and started to skid across the linoleum toward them. At the last minute, before she collided with a waitress and a full tray, Tom had grabbed the back of her jacket and pulled her back. Out of harm’s way just as Willie slid into the booth across from her.


“Hey, now, kiddo, take it easy, huh?  It’s only Willie,” said Willie, looking at her in that way she so adored, adult to adult. But surely he could see the shine in the little girl’s dark eyes, and the way Danny moved in close enough to duck his head under Willie’s arm as the man reached for one of the glasses of water sitting in the center of the table. Only Tom’s expression was dour, his mouth pursing into a small frown, probably without his noticing it, even as Gina approached the table and he looked up at her.


“Are we all eating?” he asked her as she slid into the bench seat next to Willie. His tone was low and controlled, but she could hear the irritation.


“Yes,” she said, as if she didn’t notice this, reaching for the short square menu. “We are all eating.”


“Chocolate,” said Danny.


“But we already ate,” said Tom, almost under his breath, at the same time Willie said, “That kid’s got a one track mind.”


“Pills,” said Gina.


“Yes ma’am,” said Willie, pulling two brown bottles out of his pocket.


“I want some pills,” announced Polly, reaching for them from across the table.


“Damnit, Loomis, get those away, would you?” Now Tom was completely exasperated.


Willie tapped out what he needed and swallowed them down with one gulp of water, and tucked the bottles away. “Okay, now?”


“Yes,” said Gina, looking around, wanting the waitress so that they could order and be distracted by food instead of thinking about how white Willie was and how much she hated his boss, and how much she would like to march up to the Old House again and give him a piece of her mind. Even with the creepy memory of the last time she’d done that strong in her mind, she wanted to do it. Yes, food was what they needed, and then a trip to the fish market, and she would think about that, and not what she would say to Mr. Collins if she saw him.


“Coffee, sir?”


“Yes,” Willie said, looking up.


“No, said Gina, looking at him. Coffee was the last thing he needed, white and shaky as he was as if coming off from a three-day drunk.


His glance at her told her she was trying to take away one of his few pleasures in life, and she turned to Tom for support. All she got from him was a half-shrug and a slight roll of his eyes. Babying an ex-con caretaker who’d bumped his head was obviously not something Tom thought she should be doing.


“Coffee,” added Danny.


“Yeah, kiddo, I need some coffee,” replied Willie.


“Well?” the waitress asked, pad in hand, pencil poised over it. She stood there, only two seconds away from irritation, and yet the whole table waited. What’s more, Willie waited, fogged blue eyes only on Gina. And he would wait like that, she felt, wait to hear yes or no from her, and she’d never quite seen him like that. She didn’t know if it was the bump on the head, or the fact that it had brought the behavior she imagined he only saved for his boss into their midst, but she didn’t like it. With a sigh, she eased the sudden ache between her eyes with the heel of her hand.


“Okay, Willie, but not too much, right?  It can’t be good for your head.”


Willie nodded at her and then up at the waitress, who sped through the rest of their orders as if there was some heavy financial penalty if she took longer than half a minute with each of them.


When the coffee and food came, Willie fumbled with the sugar for his coffee, and concentrated on drinking it, hardly eating a thing. Tom, predictably, plowed through his order of waffles as if he’d not eaten already, and Danny picked at his, while Polly decided that only the eggs from Mister Loomis’ plate would do. When she reached to scoop up some with her spoon, Tom stopped her, only it was with slightly too much force, and Willie’s entire plate skidded across the table and onto the floor. Danny shrieked as the plate went past and his orange juice followed shortly thereafter.


The whole of the waffle house was entirely quiet, save for the sounds of bacon frying from the grill in the kitchen, and every pair of eyes was locked on their table. No, on Willie. As if he and he alone had caused the ruckus and the mess. Their waitress was coming over with a bussing tub and a cloth to wipe up everything, but she was frowning. And the manager stood by the front door frowning. And then Danny began to sniffle.


Willie ducked his head, low. “Gina, I’m gonna go, okay?”  His voice sounded gritted, as though he were clenching his teeth.


“No,” shrieked Polly, her voice loud enough to rise over the noise in the restaurant that was only now resuming its former, bustling pitch.


“Polly, that’s enough.”


“I wanna go with Willie!”  She was shouting now.


“Willie,” chimed in Danny, glaring up at Gina as if this were her fault.


Tom just raised his eyebrows as if he agreed with Danny. Bring a guy like that into a nice family restaurant, his eyes seemed to say, and this is what happens. Part of her knew that he realized it wasn’t Willie’s fault, but he was hardly going to say so with witnesses.


“Okay, Gina, I’m goin’,” said Willie again. “Goan go get my truck and go h-home.”


He was standing up now, quickly as if he couldn’t wait to get away, and she could hardly let him climb over the back of the booth in an undignified clamber, so she had to stand up, too. Back away to let him pass, and listen while Polly and Danny announced with shrill cries to all the world how they felt about it. His hand was so cold when it touched hers, sweeping by like a kiss of snow, and his face was even whiter now.


“‘M gonna be okay, huh?”


“Are you asking me or telling me,” she snapped in reply, vaguely hearing the tremble behind her own anger. “What are you doing, let us take you home.”


“I’m tellin’ you to leave me alone, that’s what I’m tellin’ you.”


A moment of full silence as they stared at each other. Then, with a slight shake of his head, Willie turned and strode out of the restaurant. Into the brisk morning, with only his jacket and no gloves or scarf. Danny tumbled from the bench seat against her leg, making the small sounds she’d heard so seldom, like he was about to cry but didn’t know how. Tom had a hold on Polly, who was kicking the bottom of the seat with angry, loud thumps.


Over the pulse of this, she heard Tom ask quietly, “You want me t’ go get him and give him a lift?”


She turned, pulling Danny into her arms. Felt the tears sting in her eyes and the heat of something that was only remotely anger flush across her face.


“Would you, Tom?”


Tom nodded, standing up. “But you keep these kids here, it’d be too much of a handful with them darting about.”


Only a few eyes in the restaurant were looking at them now, but she could tell that every ear was perked in their direction. Obviously this was too tasty to ignore, the town’s newest widow, braving the gossip to breakfast with Willie Loomis. What’s more, she’d brought her children.


“Okay, Tom. And thank you.”


Another silent nod, and Tom made his way out to the parking lot. He would start the Suburban, she knew and then plow down the main street to find Willie. It was only a mile or so into town, but far too cold to be walking about. Which was what Willie had been doing when they’d picked him up earlier. And why that boss of his—


Gina soothed the hair across her son’s forehead, and matched Polly’s scowl with her own.


“I wanna go with Willie,” Polly announced.


“Don’t start, Polly,” Gina replied. “It’s been a bad morning, and I need you to be quiet and eat your own eggs till Tom gets back.”


Something in her mother’s tone must have had an effect, for Gina saw Polly’s frown soften a bit. “A bad morning?” Polly asked.


“Bad,” added Danny.


Gina sat back down, feeling as tired as if she’d been up for three days. She tried a deep breath and placed Danny on the bench seat next to her, untangling his legs and shoving the stray fork out of the way on the tabletop. “Bad,” she agreed.


But it’ll get better.




She could only hope so. Only she didn’t know how.


The morning had been a disaster.


It only got worse after Tom had dropped him off at his truck. The second Tom pulled away, Willie felt his stomach heave and leaned over to cough up the cup of coffee he’d just had. And, presumably, the pills he’d taken, because something other than the coffee was leaving an acid trail in his throat as he braced one hand against the front tire of his truck. And the day wasn’t getting any younger either. It was getting older, felt as old as a man without rest for a hundred years, and just as his head began to spin again, his stomach decided there was still yet more coffee to be gotten rid of, and he had to kneel down against the cold asphalt to keep from tipping over.


Gina had been right. Coffee was the last thing he needed.


And she’d been mad, too. That or horribly confused, and he couldn’t explain it to himself, let alone to her. All he wanted to do was sleep now. The crisp air of the morning had now gotten under the surface of his skin, and he was so cold, and the length of his spine felt like it might snap in two if he didn’t lie down and stay very, very still for the remainder of his life. Even the awareness that Barnabas would hardly stand for that didn’t make much headway as he stood up and climbed into the cab of his truck.


It too was ice cold, and his hands were shaking as he started the engine. For some reason he couldn’t get the heater to work, and by the time he got to the Old House, a shudder was working its constant way from the top of his head to his heels and then up again.


Home, he’d told Gina. Home was where he wanted to go, and this was where he’d ended up. Only here, there were no shrieks from tiny bodies that didn’t quite understand how earsplitting the sound was, nor a waffle house with dozens of pairs of eyes that knew very well how improper it was for him to be there with the Widow Logan. And Tom, knowing well and good that Gina didn’t have time for him, properly or improperly. Or she shouldn’t have, if she knew what was good for her.


Which she didn’t.






Quietly, he opened the back door, the silence of the house sending back an echo of his footsteps as he crossed the floor to the fireplace. He built a fire with hands that luckily seemed to know what they were doing without his being aware of it, and then, when that was cracking, he went back to shut the door. Hadn’t he closed it earlier? He must have done. Must have been the wind.


And then the pills. He took some with a swallow of water from the pump, and took the ointment out and rubbed that on his forehead, sighing, as it seemed to cut off some of the ache. What remained was steadfast and solid and Willie wondered how long it would be before he felt normal again.


When you’re dead, Loomis, that’s when.




He pulled one of the chairs in front of the small gathering of flames and sat down, not bothering to take off his jacket. The heat reached him in slight pushes, one fading a too quickly before the next one built up, and he tucked his hands in his armpits and dropped his chin to his chest.


Barnabas said this would be okay, huh?


You asking me or telling me?


I’m tellin’ you to leave me alone.


Christ, Gina, I didn’t mean it to sound like that.


Neither had she, probably.


He couldn’t figure out why he’d snapped at her like that, or why the room had spun in such a crazy way when the cold air of March hit him when he crossed the threshold. He barely remembered Tom picking him up, but he had to have, because Willie clearly remembered getting out of the Suburban and waiting till Tom was out of sight before he’d leaned over to puke his guts out, yet again.


And now he couldn’t remember why the fireplace in the kitchen contained only coals, and how he’d gotten so stiff just sitting there. And his head hurt. And there was a knock at the back door.


He looked out the window. It seemed to be around noon by the slant of the sunlight across the floor, but who would be at the door of the Old House at this hour?  The back door, at that.


Pushing the chair back, he got up, rubbing the back of his neck almost without thought. Went to the door, and opened it. A young man stood there, and Willie hoped he wasn’t someone he should know because he was standing there with a clipboard in his hand and holding it out like he expected that Willie should know what to do with it. The young man was wearing a dark blue work-all jacket with the words Collinsport Grocery embroidered in white.


“C’n I help you?” Willie asked, trying to ignore the throb of a headache that suddenly decided to make itself known.


“Delivery,” said the young man, totally bored. “Sign.”  He held out the clipboard even higher.


“Delivery?” asked Willie, blinking. Had he ordered something and then forgotten?  Had Barnabas ordered something and then forgotten to tell him about it?  Or worse yet, had Barnabas told him and then he, Willie, had forgotten?  “Delivery of what?”


The young man pulled back the clipboard, sighing as if he found this activity totally taxing, and read from it. “Groceries.”




“Yeah,” the young man said, so bored, his eyes were half closing as he continued to read. “Manager, Bob Scott, sends this order of groceries, in view of Mr. Loomis’ accident in his store, with free delivery.”  The young man pushed the clipboard at Willie once more. “The groceries ain’t free, just the delivery, so you still got to sign for it.”


Somehow Willie’s mind could not grasp why everything seemed a little surreal, but one thing was clear, the groceries must be signed for, and so he signed, taking the clipboard and scribbling his name across the bottom.


“Okay,” said the young man, “where do you want it?”


Willie motioned behind him. “T-table?”




And then the young man stepped away to the truck Willie suddenly realized was parked in the driveway behind his own, leaving Willie to stand in the open doorway, feeling more tired than anything else. Within minutes, the young man brought in several crates of groceries, and after the third trip, placed the crate on the table with the others, nodded and waved farewell and got in his truck and drove off. Leaving Willie with three crates of groceries he was too tired to put away, and the sudden realization that he had no way, absolutely no way of hiding, let alone explaining, what had just happened.


The crates were crisp and new, the slats so raw he could still smell the sap on them. In sharp contrast to the worn wood of the kitchen table, they were utterly shiny and out of place. Willie approached them with the same caution he would normally save for approaching Barnabas with a question he knew would be unwanted, or an announcement that would surely lead to an explosion from the unpredictable vampire. But the crates neither moved nor spoke as he came close, and he caught the sudden sharp, sweet smell of apples, and the lower, more dusky odor of fresh meat. He could even see the group of paper-wrapped ovals, tucked into one side of the nearest crate.


He could almost feel the dust settle all around him as he looked at the crates. Who had arranged for this? Gina? No. He looked down at the flimsy paper that the young man had shoved into his hand. Bob Scott of Collinsport Groceries sent the order with his compliments. Willie was under no illusion that the compliment had been to himself. Mr. Scott would have sent along the same had Mrs. Johnson taken a spill, or Vicki Winters, even. No, the compliment was to a Collins, in this case, Barnabas Collins. Scott had obviously seen a way to get into the better graces of a member of the Collins family. Willie shook his head, trying to find humor in the face of this, wondering how he could understand this so clearly when he was unable to remember how he’d gotten back to his truck. Or where the day had gone.


Willie laid the paper on the table and reached into the first crate. A bag of apples, another of potatoes. Many brown-paper ovals which must amount to at least five pounds of meat, and which felt more like steak than hamburger. Carton of oatmeal, and one of cornmeal. Then next crate contained two quarts of milk, a carton of eggs, several tins of sardines, and a jar of peanut butter and one of jelly. The last crate contained a loaf of bread, and below that a bag of onions, a box of noodles, several cans of what turned out to be chicken and stars, and some of chili, a slab of cheese, and even a small bag of pastries from the store’s bakery. All in all more food than was normally seen in the kitchen of the Old House, particularly the steaks.


And all of them his favorites, or at least, things he normally bought on a regular basis. Someone, several someones perhaps, had been watching and was aware of his eating habits. In a village like Collinsport, perhaps not so unusual, but Willie, since he’d been grown, had never stayed in a single place long enough for that sort of familiarity to build up. He was not sure how he felt about it, but his stomach certainly didn’t care. It began to churn and Willie hoped it was from hunger and not from the desire to puke. Had the pills taken effect then?  He still had a headache, so maybe not all the way then, but his stomach seemed eager to eat.


Pulling out an apple, he stood there, chomping through it, thinking that at least he’d get this done, and then he’d see to the fires and the candles and the rest of it. Before Barnabas got up.




Gina pulled into the driveway behind Willie’s truck and parked, thinking about the day and how long it seemed, and sighing as she turned off the engine. It wouldn’t take long for her and Willie to sort this out, she’d seen in his eyes his own confusion at his angry words, and she’d regretted her own the second they’d left her mouth. But he’d stalked out of the waffle house so fast, and Tom had offered to go after him, it wasn’t till later that she’d been able to gather herself together enough to figure out what she needed to do. The doctor had mentioned to her that this was part and parcel with a concussion, and while Tom and Anne seemed more willing to put it off to Willie’s contrary nature than anything else, she knew he wasn’t himself. Knew he would rather cut off his own hands than push past Danny like he had, or not say goodbye. And how he’d been able to resist Polly’s pout was beyond her.


She got out of the car. As always, the closeness to the ocean brought with it that particular, salty chill, and she hurried to the back door, hoping to catch Willie in the kitchen so that she wouldn’t have to brave the front door and a possible encounter with Mr. Collins. For there was no telling what she’d say to him this time, no telling. That particular lump of anger still bubbled way deep inside of her, and all her good manners and training would fly right out the window if she saw him and he so much as said boo to her. And Willie’s job be damned, she’d fly right at that boss of his and make sure he knew what a heartless bastard she thought he was. And behind that, a certain violence she’d not known she possessed, didn’t want to possess really, since it reminded her too much of Ezra, waited in the wings for the slightest excuse to slap Mr. Collins right upside the head.


Knocking on the thick window, she thought she saw a figure get up from the table. It was Willie, she knew that right away from the image, vague through the rippled glass, of the slope of his shoulders, or the way he ducked his head as he opened the door. She saw instantly that he’d been sleeping, from the mark the press of shirtsleeve had left across his face. His eyes were bleary, and he squinted at her as though the sun were too bright.


“Gina?” he asked, as if she were the last person he’d expected to see.


“Can I come in?” she asked in return, feeling somewhat unwelcome as she stood there with her coat clenched tightly to her chest, realizing suddenly she’d forgotten her scarf and that a rather cold wind was insisting on slipping its way up her coat sleeves.


“Come in?”


This confused him, she could tell, and so she raised her hand to touch his sleeve. “Let me come in, Willie.”


As if from this touch she’d awakened him fully, he looked at her and smiled that sad, sweet smile of his, and then he frowned a bit, the corner of his eyes drawing down.






He stepped back and motioned her to cross the threshold, which she did, grateful to be out of the wind. She saw the groceries right away, in the bright, new crates that contrasted with the grey and dusty kitchen. One mostly-eaten apple core sat on the table next to the crates, but other than that, they had not been touched.


“And how did this come about?” she asked, pulling off her coat and laying it across the back of the nearest chair.


When he didn’t answer right away, she turned to look at him. “Willie?”


Then he tipped his head, and without meeting her gaze said, “B-Barnabas arranged it.”


It was like watching Polly trying to lie and not quite succeeding. A normally open child, she had a way of trying to close her face off, like the time the front window had been found broken and Polly the obvious culprit. Thank goodness it had been she to find out about it and not Ez. She’d gotten the confession and patched up the window and Ez had never been the wiser. Luckily.


Willie now had the same expression, but he couldn’t even manage as well as Polly. Besides, she could see the receipt from the store, and picked it up to read the handwritten note from Bob Scott.


“Willie,” she said, feeling the sternness from earlier in the day rising as hard as she tried to fight it. “Honestly Willie, that man could care less if you slept on a bed of nails, let alone worry about whether or not you have enough to eat.”


Caught out, he hung his head, his fists clenching a little at his sides, not wanting to look at her. His hair shifted down over his forehead, and it broke her heart to think that he felt he needed to lie to her.


“Did you think that knowing him like I know him that I’d believe a story like that?  He let you walk into the village this morning after what you’d been through yesterday, why must you try—”


“Gina,” said Willie, soft.


“—try and cover for him like you wanted me to think well of him? I won’t, you know, not ever, especially not after—”


“Gina,” said Willie again, his eyes, like two blue sparks, flicking up to catch hers. “Please stop.”


With a start, she stopped. It had never been her way to lecture like that, especially not to a man, and never to Willie. His face was as white as paper, and he swayed a little standing there before her, and her face flooded with heat as she realized how he must have taken it. He knew she didn’t like his boss, and Mr. Collins had probably taken no pains to hide his dislike of her in return. Caught between a hard rock and another rock, as Ez had sometimes liked to put it, and yet here she was keeping him standing there with her shrewish temper.


“Willie, I’m sorry.”  She reached out to clasp his arm, gently, feeling the shiver that ran through him at her touch. “I’m so sorry—”


He nodded as he tried to move away, stumbling across his own feet or the roughness of the floor, she didn’t know which, only that he had to sit down before he fell down.


“Willie, sit down. Okay?”  She tightened her grip, catching mostly cloth under her fingers, and pulled him toward the chair standing slightly ajar next to the table. She pushed the crates back with her free hand and coaxed him to the chair. “Sit down, and I’ll help you.”  Gentle now, like she would with one of the children, or Ez, even, in the days when their marriage had been new and his coming home drunk had seemed rather sweet as he did as she told him in that trusting way that drunks have. Only Willie wasn’t drunk.


He sat down, finally, and she wondered if there was a blanket nearby that she could put over him, or maybe . . . yes, the fire. She patted Willie gently on the shoulder.


“I’m going to stoke up that fire, okay?”


He nodded, letting her do it, though she knew from past experience, that Willie felt extremely uncomfortable to have anyone in the kitchen of the Old House, even on good days.


“Did you take your pills?” she asked as she went to the fireplace and began arranging logs and tinder on the coals.


“Uh-huh,” he answered in a muffled way that suggested he had his head buried in his hands. “‘M hungry, but my headache won’t go away.”


“How ’bout I cook you something with all these groceries and then at least you won’t be hungry.”


She looked up in time to see him nod silently, his head indeed in his hands. He was grey now, instead of paper white, and she took a glass and held it under the pump. She gave it to him.


“Drink some water, then and let me wait on you a while.” She watched as a small smile on his face answered the one in her voice, and put herself to work, adjusting to the strangeness of the location of everything in the kitchen with somewhat less ease than she did the vagaries of the stove. After drinking the glass of water, Willie got up to help her stoke up the coals a bit better, and moved slowly behind her to start putting things away.


“Leave the onions,” she told him at one point, “I’ll fry those with the steaks.”


“Sounds good,” he replied, as if they had always been this way, and her cooking in his kitchen wasn’t unusual at all. Reminding her of the first time they’d eaten together, and they’d found refuge not in polite and idle chitchat but in the nuts and bolts of getting food prepared and on the table.


“Got some coffee, here, you want some?” he offered, then cast a look at her. “For you, I mean, not me. I’ll stick with milk for a bit.”


“Yes, thank you,” she said, feeling the length of the day creep up on her.

Willie made coffee while she fried onions and then sliced some potatoes to boil quickly while she figured out which one of the ovals of meat contained a nice steak. Turned out all of them did, which surprised her a bit until she remembered that the bill was going straight to Mr. Collins this time. Bob obviously knew his customers fairly well.


She put the steak in to fry with the onions and started another pan for the potatoes. A rather heavy meal for someone who hadn’t eaten since yesterday, but it was quick and easy and she’d never met a man yet who didn’t like a good fry up. Plenty of salt and pepper over everything, and fresh butter she found floating in the bottom of one of the crates and she soon had a plateful of food to place on the table. Which, along with a glass of milk to help settle his stomach, she would coax Willie to eat.


“Order up,” she said, much as the waitress at the waffle house had done that morning, and Willie snorted a half-laugh as he sat down when she waved her hand at the chair.


“Eat slowly,” she said, sitting catty corner from him, a mug of hot and well-creamed coffee between her hands, “and take small bites. But you need to eat, okay? Probably why you still have a headache, from not eating.”


Willie never had been able to resist her cooking; even when he professed he was stuffed, if she offered seconds or thirds, he would hold out his plate before she’d finished talking. She was rewarded by the gusto with which he tucked into the steak, but warned him to slow down with a look. This he did, eating slowly, obviously enjoying each bite, color coming back slowly as he drank down a huge swallow of milk.


“Better?” she asked, when he was almost finished.


“Yeah, feel like I’ve not eaten since forever.”


“And the head?”


A half shrug was her answer to this, and his eyes avoiding hers. “Better.”


She nodded, knowing that if the pills continued not to work on his headache she’d insist he return to the doctor’s, with or without his boss’s permission.


“Pastries,” he said now.


“Pastries, what?”


“In that bag.”


She reached where he was pointing, to open the bag that turned out to contain two turnovers and two bear claws, both of which were Willie’s favorites. Bob had her custom for the rest of his life for thinking of this treat. Groceries were all well and good, but the store manager had remembered Willie’s sweet tooth in exacting detail.


“You have one,” Willie said when she pulled one of each out for him.


“I’m not hungry,” she replied, arching her brows as if she were offended that he would suggest that she eat in his company.


“Who you kidding, Gina, you know how good these are.”


He ripped the bear claw in half and handed it to her, and she could hardly refuse the gesture, which seemed, by the slight bow he made with his head, to be an apology. Not that she needed one. Not with the flakes of icing crumbling from the edge of the torn pastry.


“Oh, alright. It’ll help me finish my coffee.”


They ate the pastries in silence, and then Willie pushed his plate back from the edge of the table, and his chair back as well, half closing his eyes till his lashes fanned across his cheeks and tucking his chin down, taking a deep breath as if he meant to say something serious.


“Gina, I’m sorry about this morn—”


“Willie,” she said, stopping him as something sharp lurched inside of her. She’d once heard some rumor once about the time that Willie had been dragged from the Blue Whale all the way up to the great estate to apologize to one and all at the mighty house of Collinwood. Ez had told her, she remembered now, he’d been at the back of the bar when Willie had stumbled in one evening, looking like death warmed over, and that pal of his, that McGuire fellow, had first tried to get him to leave town and then suddenly decided that Willie needed to apologize for his behavior. (Something about him attacking that tramp Miss Carolyn Stoddard and that nice Vicki Winters, neither of whom she’d ever met face to face, but who she could hardly see being fearful of Willie.)  According to Ez, McGuire had a fine selling technique and that night Willie had been reduced to quivering jelly by the pressure from both McGuire and . . . Devlin was it?  Or Devlin had been against it, she couldn’t remember now. Only that by the time McGuire had finished, Ez said, Loomis was ready to jump off the nearest cliff, if that’s what McGuire had wanted.


You could sweet talk a man into saying something nice, or you could beat him to make him say anything you wanted. She knew that first hand, could imagine how convincing a fist could be to make you respond the way you were told, and knew what it had cost Willie that night to go up to that house and do what he’d been told. Only she didn’t want it to be that way now. Didn’t want Willie doing or saying anything because he was afraid of what she might say or do, or that she might never want to see him again if he didn’t apologize. And why would she think that he would?  Was it the tired tilt of his head, or the way his mouth turned down as he said it?  Did the words taste bitter to him, as she knew they could be?


“Willie,” she said, almost gulping the words quickly as she saw he was about to start again. “You have nothing to apologize for. The doctor said that this was part of being hit on the head. He told me all of the symptoms and being easily upset is one of them. So is being tired, or grumpy. Just the same as having a headache that won’t go away, there’s nothing that you’re doing that causes it. It just is. So you wouldn’t apologize for having a headache or a fever, would you?  So don’t apologize for snapping, if that’s what you’re on about. Because it doesn’t make any difference to me, I’ll always care about you.”


His body started at this expression of sentiment, even as she watched the stain of heat creep across his cheeks. With a stiff nod, he made a small sound that came out like a grunt. His eyes never left the table, hadn’t moved from the rim of his plate from the moment she started speaking. In the silence of the kitchen, broken only by the pop and hiss of coals building in the hearth, she rubbed his arm gently with the back of her hand.


“I’m the one who should apologize, putting you through a breakfast like that, at a restaurant, with children. They get excited when you’re around regardless, but Polly was never one to sit and enjoy something quietly. And I totally forgot about how loud they can be, and what the doctor said about loud noises, and then I—”


She halted as Willie finally looked up at her. Eyes so blue, like deepest part of the ocean that Ez had shown her once from the bow of the Gina Lee on one of the most beautiful days in her memory. Face absolutely still, his expression carved in marble. She’d never seen him look at her like that before, not at anyone. Not Danny or even Polly, and never at her. Yet there was something familiar about it, or perhaps it only seemed familiar as it slid inside of her and made its way to hear heart with a speed so fast it left her a little breathless.


“Gina,” he said, with the same gentleness that he used with the children when he had to tell them it was time for him to go. “Gina, if I can’t apologize,” he went on, his voice husky and low, “then neither can you.”


He had her there, she knew that, even as he slipped his hand around the one that was touching his arm and squeezed it gently. He tipped his head to smile up at her, hair falling forward over one eye. Then he got up, lifting his plate from the table to carry it to the sink and she saw that his hands were shaking.




She’d gotten to him as surely as McGuire had, or that boss of would his after ranting at him for half an hour. But he kept his back to her as he bent to scraped the bones from the steak into a pail he kept under the sink. Standing up straight was obviously an effort for him as he winced and rubbed the back of his neck, the spell of friendship and kindness that they’d built between them vanished in the hard afternoon light of the kitchen, warmed by a dying fire and sifted through with the scent of long-cooked steak.


“Okay, Willie, you’re right. Only I don’t have the excuse that you do, you know.”


He only shook his head, and she heard that sound again, the grunt that might pass as dismissal, or might be trapped laughter, she didn’t know which.


She got up from the table, wanting to help, but he transferred the two frying pans and the pot to the sink and began to rinse and scrub them out under the pump. Wondering if he were going to wash them in cold water, she realized belatedly that it would be easier than trying to heat up enough hot water to fill the sink, or even a plastic tub, were he to own one. Which, looking around the kitchen, she could see that he did not. Had he not thought of it, as was the way of most men she knew, or had his boss put a stop to such frivolous luxuries?


Mr. Barnabas Collins.


Her mind seized on this, wanting to get away from the squirrel maze of her worry over Willie and how she knew that he wanted help at the same time he didn’t want it. She’d been that way with Ez any number of times, or, rather, when she’d been dealing with the results of Ez. A neighbor lady, she couldn’t remember who, had come over once, when it was obvious that Gina’s recent fight with a door had left her unable to tend to the house or her child. Polly had only been a year old then, and a walking handful right from the getgo. Gina had let the woman cook and clean, for Polly’s sake, eyeing the woman with resentful eyes and, at the same time, being so grateful she’d felt like crying. Had that been the time she’d broken her arm?


If Willie felt anything like that, she ought to go, she knew that.


“Willie,” she began, stopping as he turned from the sink.


“Gina, ‘m okay, I can manage.”


“I know you can,” she replied, moving closer, not watching his hands turning red under the cold stream of water. “But I just wanted to say something because I need to say it, and then I’ll go.”


“Better not be an apology,” he said, in an almost joking tone as he turned back to the dishes.


“It’s not. It’s an observation.”


“Okay, shoot.”


“You’ve got to take better care of yourself, ” she began, realizing that now was not the time to start in on him about Mr. Collins’ treatment of Willie, and certainly not the time to expound on how to escape an abusive situation. But maybe she could say something, at least, about it “You’ve got to slow down and allow for the fact that for a little while, you won’t be able to go on like you normally do.”


“I know that,” he said, casting her a sideways look, keeping his attention on the dishes. “The doctor told me all this.”


“I know you know it, Willie, but you’ve got to think about it.”


He was finished with the dishes now, and, wiping his hands on his jeans, (no handy dishtowel, she noted), moved away from the sink and toward the fire, standing as close to it as he could. Head down, arms wrapped around his own waist. “What’s there to think about.”


“Your boss surely—”


With a shake of his head that set his whole body to wincing, he apparently didn’t even want to discuss it. “Gina, I told you. He’s the one that made me go after the pills, he knows I won’t be able to do much around this place for a few days, and he—”


Willie paused as Gina tried to contain her horror. A few days?  The man was a monster; it would take Willie at least a week to get back on his feet.


“—he knows all of this too. He doesn’t want me to be out of commission any longer than I have to, and so he—”


With one look at her face, Willie stopped himself short. He stepped forward, his hands falling to his sides, and then he froze. “P-please, Gina, don’t be mad. I’m doin’ the best I can here.”


She made herself stop, right then and there. On top of everything else, Willie did not need her harping on it, not on his boss, or on how he should take care of himself, or anything. She took a deep breath. “Alright Willie, I’ll stop. But you will take it easy, won’t you?”


Reaching out, like she had at the hospital, or in the Suburban in the parking lot of the waffle house, and she saw him tip his head to one side, just a fraction, his eyes half-closing as if she were actually touching his cheek, and then he smiled. Only a small smile, but it lit up his eyes just the same.


“For you, Gina, I will. Okay?”


She nodded. “Okay.”


She grabbed her coat and slipped it on, keeping her eyes on him the entire while. He was positively still, standing in front of the fireplace as if he meant to stay there all day, and she wondered if he’d be aware enough to realize that it was dying down, even now. Best not think about that, though, or she’d worry herself into a frazzle.


“I’ll come back and check on you tomorrow.”


“You don’ have to do that.”


“But I’m going to.”  Lips pressed firm, she nodded to emphasize this. “And now, I’m going on home.”  She shook her finger at him in mock severity. “And you, stay off those ladders.”


“Yes ma’am,” he said, with equal mock seriousness, almost resisting the joke, but the sparkle in his eyes told her that he liked it.


She turned and walked out of the kitchen of the Old House. Shutting the door behind her was one of the hardest things she’d had to do in a long time.




It took him an hour of standing in front of the fire till the pleasure of Gina’s concern faded behind the more pressing issue of remembering which chores he was supposed to tend to and which ones he could let slide. His head pounded as, taking a slow consideration of the kitchen, he attempted to list them in his head. The important ones. The ones that Barnabas considered regular chores. Candles, fireplace, curtains, that was probably it. Was there anything else?


No. Or, if there was, he couldn’t think of it. His head was grinding in his skull in a never-ceasing rhythm, much like the waves along the rocks at the bottom of Widow’s Hill. But he could ignore it, if he tried, if he didn’t think about it so much, if he worked at thinking about something else. Turning to the kitchen fireplace, he hunkered down and began tending to his chores.


They went on forever, ashes from the fire, lay in the new logs, and a million candles, it seemed like, that needed to be replaced. At one point, he managed to send a box of new candles tumbling to the floor. In his attempt to grab them, he stumbled on a fold in the carpet and stepped on them instead of over them. Only one broke, thank goodness, but as he stepped back, he realized that the heel of his shoe had ground a quarter-sized circle of blue wax into one of the faded rosettes. Instant panic raced through him with shards of ice as he sank to his knees, digging his fingernails beneath the edge of the stain. Scraped at it, fingers trembling. A few particles came up, but that was all. In fact, his efforts only seemed to press the wax further in instead of pulling it out and he felt cold all over. Sank back on his heels and closed his eyes as one hand came up uselessly to press against his forehead.


The carpet in the hall was new, but the carpet in the front room was an antique. An original from years back. There must be a way to fix it without ruining it.


“What are you doing on the floor?”


The mental images of a book he’d once read that showed exactly how to get wax from carpeting vanished in an instant as the cold question cut through the bones in his head. He froze. There was no way to answer this, besides which, the problem was obvious.


“What does it look like I’m doing,” he said, thinking for a moment, somehow that the person he was talking to was Jason. “‘M tryin’ to get this wax out of the wool before it gets ground in.”


“I beg your pardon?” came the icy question as a blanket of cold air descended all around him. “What did you just say to me?”


Willie snorted his irritation. “You heard me, I said, I’m trying to get this wax out before—”


He stopped, looking up, seeing Barnabas there instead of Jason. Shock washed over him as he stared at the silhouette against the single light in the hallway, where only the firmness of the vampire’s profile gave any indication at all as to his state of mind. It was enough. Thoughts dashing around so fast he could almost feel them, Willie began scrambling to his feet, only to find that his knees, stiffened by kneeling, would not unbend.


“Get up.”


Get up? He could barely move. Only he had to do it, and now, before a cold hand reached down to drag him to his feet. And it would, too, there was no question.




He did the best he could with the directness of the order leaving no doubt as to Barnabas’ temper. Willie got up, trembling, suddenly realizing that while he’d cleaned out the ashes in the fireplace of the front room, and laid on new logs, he’d forgotten to actually light the fire. The candles were all in place, but there was a pile of loose candles still on the floor. Luckily the drapes were opened; somehow he’d managed to remember that. His brain seemed to be stalling every other thought, like a truck with ice in the fuel line, as he waited, shivering. Standing as far away from the vampire without seeming to be trying to avoid a blow, Willie managed to raise his eyes as far as the first glistening button below Barnabas’ tie.


“Barnabas, I—” he began, stopping as a dark stab forced its way into his brain, throbbing there as if it were fighting its way out again.


“Into the kitchen,”came the order.


Ice braced through his heart, and clawing its way through the rest of him, left him feeling like an actual blow had already landed. “But, Barnabas, please—”


“Do not question me, Willie.”


Barnabas began by leading the way, striding down the hall with purpose, and Willie paused in the shadow of the hall, not wanting to follow, knowing that he had to. With grit teeth, he made his feet move, made himself breathe and walk into the kitchen behind the vampire. To resist would only make things worse, hadn’t he learned that by now?


The kitchen, now cloaked by the darkness pressing through the panes in the windows, was lit by the soft, cherry glow from the fireplace, and the deeper red ochre of the iron stove as chunks of coal still glowed through the grate along one side. It was slightly warmer, as well, and Barnabas lit the several candles along the mantelpiece, and turned to his servant. Looked at him for one severe second, and then tipped his head to one side.


“Whatever is the matter?” asked Barnabas without any sympathy whatsoever.


Willie swallowed. “My—” He stopped again, somehow not wanting to say simply that he had a headache. As if Barnabas would care. But he found that, in spite of his attempt at faking his way out of a true answer, his hand had reached up, on its own, to touch his head. The vampire’s eyes were on him fully now, like two bright bullets in the dusk of the kitchen.


“Did you not acquire and take the pills as both the doctor and I instructed?”  This question was accompanied by astonishment that Willie would ever dare do such a thing. “Did I not give you specific orders?”


Flinching back, Willie was staggered by the question. “Y-yes,” he managed. “I got them an’ I took them, but—” Here he shrugged, which eased the headache not at all.


“If you took them, they should have had an effect,” said Barnabas, “so I must assume that the fault lies in you.”


Willie’s hand shook as he grabbed one of the bottles from the table and thrust it at Barnabas. “Here,” he said, his voice grating, the pills rattling in his fist, “count ’em. Says 80 on the label, an’ now there’s eight less, cause I took ’em. Been takin’ ’em all day. And I ain’t lyin’ ’cause they ain’t working so just leave me the hell alone.”


A long, dark moment followed. The vampire’s gaze did not drop to look at the bottle in his servant’s unsteady hand. Instead Willie found himself being eyed as if he were a snake behind glass, a not very sturdy piece of glass that would soon be removed, much to the observer’s peril.


Something akin to the coldness of death began to clench around Willie’s heart, as his mouth opened to protest that he hadn’t meant anything by it, that it had just escaped from him between pulses of blood pounding through his skull.


“You would not normally speak to me thus,” Barnabas observed.




You snapped at him, not once but twice. And now you’ve just told him—


Christ, Loomis, when will you learn to shut the fuck up?


“B-Barnabas, I’m s-s—”


The vampire snatched the bottle of headache pills from Willie’s hand and looked at the label, and then his eyes flicked back to Willie. “I assume I can account for this behavior by your illness,” he said. “The doctor indicated as much, though he would hardly be able to explain such rudeness.”


Willie tried again, opening his mouth, bringing his hands forward, palms up, ready to apologize, ready to say anything to assuage the vampire’s anger. But Barnabas stayed this with a flick of his eyes.


“Theses are not working then,” Barnabas commented, his tone suggesting a dismissal of the whole concept of modern medicine. “I’ll deal with this.”


With a twitch of his wrist, he threw the bottle into the fireplace, where it clanked against the grate and disappeared into the simmering ash. Then he moved past Willie to take a knife out of the drawer, at which point, all the air left Willie’s chest in a rush that sounded like a gasp and left him reeling. “P-p-p—”


Barnabas lifted a hand to halt this, and Willie’s mouth skidded to a stop. Was it his imagination, or did the vampire’s eyes twitch with human exasperation. “I’m not going to punish you, idiot.”


No?  Then why was Barnabas striding toward him with as much purpose as he usually used when determined to put an end to his manservant’s willfulness? But then, the vampire continued on, and when he reached the back door, he paused and turned his head before stepping out into the darkness.


“Stoke up the stove, Willie, and put some water on to boil.”


The door slammed shut behind the vampire, and Willie moved to do as he was told. Jittering hands cast ash all over the top of the stove, but that didn’t seem to matter. He moved the lid back and brushed it in with his hands, and plunked more wood than was probably useful. With the amount he’d just put in, it would take all night for it to burn down. A fire hazard definitely, but he wanted to make sure that the water would be hot enough when Barnabas wanted it to be.




He raced to fill a pot from the pump, placing it on the stove. It came to a boil just as he heard the sounds of footsteps on the back steps.


The vampire returned with a bucket of large chunks of grey-brown bark. He set the bucket at Willie and went to wash his hands beneath the pump.


“Peel the inner bark from the outer,” he said, wiping his hands against each other in front of the fire, “and place the peeled bark into the hot water. You do have hot water prepared, do you not?”


Willie didn’t have to look to see, he could feel the arched brow of doubt that Barnabas raised in his direction. Though he did have a brief second where the question What, are your arms broken? popped into his head, he clamped his teeth tight and did as he was told.


Some of the peelings from the wood came away dry and almost dusty, as if they’d spent the winter dying, while other pieces had the spring of new sap running through them. At one point, a small spider scuttled across his hand and he shook it away, not wanting it to get into the water. His hands, when all the bark was peeled and soaking into limp, black ribbons, were scratched and dry.


“Let that steep,” Barnabas said, “while you explain to me this document.”


Turning, Willie looked at what Barnabas had in his hands. Yes, the receipt from the store.


“While it is no matter that you do not normally spend this much on foodstuffs, I have never given you leave to have them delivered.”


The tone was almost patient now, but it wouldn’t last, it never did, and a large, thumping twinge across Willie’s forehead forestalled an easy reply. He opened his mouth and tried anyway, wincing as he fought to think against tumble in his brain.


Barnabas actually sighed as he looked down at the paper, his eyes moving across it, taking in the message from Bob Scott, which for some reason, Willie found he could recall exactly. Along with the moment that Gina Logan had discovered the message, cutting through his sham about Barnabas with one shake of her head.


Honestly, Willie, that man could care less if you slept on a bed of nails, let alone worry about whether or not you have enough to eat.


It came to him with a kind of numbing clarity that Barnabas had not objected to the amount spent on groceries, surely several weeks worth, but on the delivery, which typically cost extra and spoke of a lack of effort on Willie’s part. A servant should tend to himself, Barnabas was likely to say about Bob Scott’s gift.


Barnabas raised his head, appraising his servant, apparently considering the matter. Willie braced himself for the storm of temper that would demand that Willie pack up all the food and return it immediately, and ensure that the grocery would not repeat the act in future. Which Barnabas was likely to do, if he felt that Willie would begin to take advantage of the situation.


“This was a considerate gesture,” said Barnabas, surprising him. “Most unnecessary, of course, but considerate just the same.”


Willie cast his eyes about the room, looking for something to grasp onto, instead of looking into those eyes that shimmered like dark glass and pulled at the focus of his attention. It made his head hurt worse, trying to resist, and he almost instantly buckled. Let his gaze rest on the unclenched hand that hung at Barnabas’ side, and felt exhaustion creep over him like an insidious fog.


“You will thank him on my account, Willie, when next you see him.”


He nodded, feeling his brain rock into his skull and freezing as the bolt, like it had been scored red-hot on the stove, roll down his spine.


The vampire came close now, seeming to look into the pot of seeping bark, but Willie felt the glance cast his way. Too close, Barnabas was too close, and Willie tensed against the shudder that rippled up his shoulders as the sleeve of woolen suitjacket brushed against him. Then, just as he thought that the next breath of air in his lungs would push him into contact, the vampire stepped away.


“It is ready. Strain the liquid through a cloth and drink it.”


“Drink it?”


“It is willow bark tea. It will aid your head.”


“But, Barnabas—” he began, thinking of the spider and the dirt that had clung to portions of the bark.


Barnabas whirled to descend on him. “Do not try my patience any longer, Willie,” he said, showing a flicker of teeth. “You will do as I say, or you will pay for the consequences, injury or no injury, do I make myself clear?”


There it went, the final shred of patience, bringing to the surface the spark of temper that could easily become a raging fire if Willie didn’t do as he was told.




“Y-yes, Barnabas,” he said, not understanding but not willing to push it any further. On top of which, his head was pounding with the force of a jackhammer and he would put his head in a vice if someone told him that would help.


With hands that he mostly managed to keep from shaking, he pulled a thin cloth from a drawer, and placed it over a bowl that he took down from the cupboard. When he tried to pour the liquid from the pan, the cloth, of course, slipped to one side.


“Would you h-hold that a minute?” he asked, looking up at Barnabas, hoping that it was as obvious to the vampire as it was to him that there was no way he could do this without help. Of course, if he got a string and tied the cloth round the bowl, it would work, but he sensed that Barnabas was too irritated for that type of delay and this was the best he could do. The shock of faint surprise as Barnabas did as Willie asked him was shot through with the sharp acrid tang rising up from the hot tea as he poured the liquid through the cloth.


The large, white hands were in contrast to the brown ceramic bowl, one made for common labor, the other completely foreign to it. Only as Willie poured the tea, he could see that there was a scratch on the back of one of Barnabas’ hands, presumably from the tree, and that the blood had dried and turned dark brown. It struck him that Barnabas had been hiking in the woods and tearing down bark from trees in the dark, and that, in fact, Barnabas had trekked some distance, as the only grove of willows that Willie knew of were at the edge of the property before it crossed into wilderness. Near the low area of land, where the bog formed from ground water seeping through the earth.


His hands jerked back, sending a stream of tea over one of Barnabas’ hands.


“Clumsy fool.”  The vampire let go of the bowl and grabbed the pan from Willie to slam it on the top of the stove.




“Never mind, just drink the tea and get out of my sight. Drink it and go to bed.”


Willie did exactly as he was told, not letting his mind wander, not complaining about the bitter taste as he swallowed it. As he managed the last bit, the cup resting against his lower lip, hot liquid streaming through him like waves, his eyes flicked up. Barnabas was watching him, as he always did, but his face was blank, like marble washed clean. No way to discern what he was thinking, to figure out which way the wind blew, but it was blowing. Better to keep doing exactly what Barnabas expected of him until he could figure it out. Or until he felt better, though at that moment, it seemed as if he’d felt this way forever.


He put the cup in the sink and ducked his head in Barnabas’ direction. He meant it as a thank you, of sorts, unable to manage saying it outright, and caught the lift of the vampire’s eyebrows in return.


Going down the hall and up the stairs to his room, he could feel the sting of tea in his belly, as if a fire were generating there, waves of it spreading through his limbs and up his spine. By the time he’d sat down to take off his shoes and his trousers, he felt warm all over. And somehow, somehow, the throbbing in his head had eased off. He was sure it wasn’t his imagination, hoped that the tea was working. Because there was no way that Barnabas would be willing to pay for more pills from the pharmacy, not if he felt they didn’t work.


He lit the courting candle at his bedside, too weary to start a fire, and slipped under the covers. Tucked his hands between his thighs, and his chin to his chest. Took a deep breath. And with his body heat beginning to bask away the pack of chill as he lay there, he slipped into the ease of solid sleep for the first time in what seemed forever.




A sound brought him to awareness, like the faint scritching of a mouse in the baseboard. A rather bold mouse looking for something to eat and not caring if something human heard it.


Willie opened his eyes. There was a round curve of light and warmth flooding the room from the fireplace, but more, there was Barnabas, standing at his bedside. Only his attention was not on his servant, supposedly asleep, it was on the courting candle. As Willie watched, the master of the house was removing a nearly burned out candle and using it to light a new one. Slowly, as if enjoying the moment, Barnabas put the candle in the glass basin, and then replaced the beveled top.


Catching Willie’s eyes on him, he turned, and Willie had a glimpse of Barnabas in another time, what must have been another time, face lit by candlelight and fireglow, and softened by that, was seeming to be gentled. That vanished in an instant, no, less than that as the vampire realized that Willie was awake. And aware. And watching.


“Now that you are up,” said Barnabas, face settling into its usual granite lines, his hand reaching for the nightstand, “you will drink this while it’s hot.”


Barnabas was handing him more tea, he realized, sitting up hurriedly, knowing that behind the bitter taste was unheard of relief from the pounding ache not only in his head, but all through the bumps and knocks that the fall from the ladder had brought. He took the cup and gulped it down, spilling some on his chin, wiping it away with the back of his hand.


“I have left more bark for you in the kitchen,” said Barnabas. “You will brew the inner bark, as I have showed you, and you will continue taking the tea and continue to rest until I determine you are well, at which point you will return to your usual duties.”


Willie nodded, putting the cup back on the nightstand. Whatever was in the tea worked. Someone should bottle it and sell it, they’d make a fortune.


“And we will, I presume, have no more outbursts such as the one I witnessed earlier in the kitchen, is that understood? Otherwise,” here Barnabas paused, tipping his head down, eyes darkened by shadows, “otherwise I will teach you the meaning of civility. Do you understand me?”


Again Willie nodded, his mouth opening, though he could think of nothing to say in reply. Knowing that he had to come up with something quick or irritate the vampire all over again with his non-verbal replies. “Yes, Barnabas,” he managed.


This seemed to satisfy Barnabas for he left the room without even a last glance of warning, and Willie found himself alone in his room, lit by soft flames, and the chill warmed into nothingness by a well-built fire. That Barnabas would take this much care was beyond his experience. Of course, there was the old argument, which insisted on trotting forward to be presented, that Barnabas wanted him well so that he could work. Another part of him slipped a new idea in between the ribs of the first, that Barnabas, who would have Willie crawl through glass and acid if that was what was required for the restoration of the Old House, had actually considered that Willie was unable to manage. Not that he was trying to beg off any hard work, but that he could not work, and as such, needed care. A care that was, perhaps, a fraction more gentle than he had delivered to his servant in the past.


Shaking his head, Willie eased himself under the covers once more, drawing them up under his chin more for comfort than for anything else. His belly was content with the memory of the meal that Gina had made him. His head had stopped aching, and the room was as comfortable as a summer morning. It had been so long since he’d felt this way, he wanted, with a desperation born of the rarity of comfort, to stay awake as long as he might. But the east of the room hovered over him to sink down, much like the white shroud sometimes did, but this time bringing a soft feeling, like rain on a tin roof in twilight. His eyes were sinking closed, hard as he fought to keep them open, until at last, the velvet of sleep took him in dark arms and carried him close until morning.