Title: Connections
Author: N.J. Nidiffer
Genre/Rating: Gen/PG
Word Count: 13,010
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 17)
Summary: Willie travels to California by plane, and arrives to find the Logan family in pieces. He’s there to put them back together again, though he can barely stand himself.
A/N: Poor Willie!

***

Lisa noticed him when she came off her dinner break—the thin, hollow-eyed man in the green turtleneck and the nylon windbreaker that seemed much too light to protect him from the cold spring rain, huddled in the seat closest to the boarding gate with an ugly old suitcase parked at his knee.


He wasn’t hard to spot. Not just because Bangor International was as good as deserted after midnight, with only a smattering of bleary-eyed passengers waiting for the 2 a.m. shuttle to New York, but because of his haunted demeanor. He seemed so exhausted, yet so anxious at the same time, as though he needed to sleep but didn’t quite dare to close his eyes long enough to doze.

 

There was a cut on his cheek, too, she noticed. Not a big one. Nothing more startling than a shaving nick, really, except that this cut was too high on the bone to be caused by a razor. There was the faintest tinge of bruise beneath it, not color, but swelling, as though he’d gotten the wound some time that day. Maybe within the last six hours.

 

He was young. He was handsome. He was brooding.

 

He was perfect.

 

Lisa slid aside the paperback romance that would otherwise have whiled away the boring hours before dawn and prepared to play The Game. She had just over an hour to nail the guy down before he boarded his plane. After that she would have to find another subject—difficult this late in the day—or return to the heaving bosoms and daring deeds that another author had already captured on paper.

 

That was the way she thought of herself. As an author. Not as an attendant in an airport, keeping track of passengers and baggage and lost children, but as a writer who only needed one good story to put her on the path to success. And what was so strange about that? If the woman writing these dreadful pulp paperbacks year after year could get published, so could Lisa Burlington. All she needed was an angle.

 

Maybe this lonesome stranger was it.

 

My, but he was a handsome specimen. In a disturbing sort of way, that was. Bloodshot blue eyes that kept flicking left and right and back again were softened by dark mauve shadows that gave him a curious, child-like quality. He was sitting kind of funny, too, like a kid with the sulks, slouched down in the hard plastic chair with his left arm locked across his belly, one finger crooked into a belt loop as though it was the latch holding the rest of him together.

 

As she watched, the blond man’s chin drooped to his chest, the bruised eyes fluttering closed like birds attempting a landing on uncertain ground. Then he snapped awake again, only to repeat the performance a moment later.

 

Dead on his feet, poor fellah, Lisa thought. But maybe he doesn’t have much further to go. Maybe New York is where he belongs.

 

That’s it, she decided. He belongs in New York. Look at the plain working man’s clothing, clean but faded, and the sober black shoes that needed resoling. Look at the hands, rough even across the knuckles from hard work in all weathers. There was even a little smear of black stuff stuck to the edge of one palm. Tar. Motor oil. Some kind of thing.

 

He’s a construction worker. He’s been working in Maine, but now he’s going home. And not a moment too soon, either. He’s worn himself out working all day and partying all night. That’s how he got that cut on his cheek, you know—some bar brawl cruising the dark sides of Sidney or Belfast. Now he’s drawn his check and he’s scattering out of the wilderness just one step ahead of the cops. And when he gets home to New York there will be someone waiting for him, ready to hug him and feed him and put him to bed. Someone who doesn’t care that he has a wild side. Someone who really loves him.

 

There had to be a little romance, didn’t there? What was a story without a little romance?

 

Lisa smiled to herself and jotted a note on a scrap of paper. The oversized purse she kept hidden in the bottom drawer of the attendant’s desk and the pockets of her blue and gold uniform were stuffed with them. Fragments of notes littered with descriptions of potential characters that might or might not make it into a story some day. This guy would, she promised herself. He was too good not to use.

 

Self-reliant type, I’d say. Used to being on his own. He might have a certain boyish vulnerability to him, but he’s man enough not to like being fussed over. Man enough to fight. Whoever this chick is linking up with him in New York better keep that in mind or he’ll brush her off like sawdust from his sleeve.

 

Now … what else?

 

The boarding lists on her desk would reveal his name, if only she could match the face to the appropriate designation. Maybe the moniker would prove as interesting as the man. Lisa spread out the scant two sheets enumerating passengers with tickets for the 2 a.m. shuttle and scanned the coded columns, trailing her finger down the page as she considered her choices.

 

P.D. Arnold. No. That was probably the black-haired guy with his cheek planted on his fist, a drooling snorer that Lisa would have to wake before it was time to board.

 

Jack Pfetzer. Lisa measured the name, then her tar-get, then the name again. He didn’t look like a Pfetzer. He didn’t even look like a Jack. That was too sprightly a name for so serious a face, though he could conceivably be a John or an Andrew or a Peter.

 

William H. Loomis. No, that couldn’t be it. Sounded like a businessman on Wall Street, not a construction worker out of the back woods.

 

Tony Gonzalez. Definitely not.

 

Brian Meadows. Now that was a possibility. Just the right mix of breeding and back woods. No nickname, not for him. People would call him Brian or nothing at all.

 

A sudden, stifled cry made Lisa drop her papers and look up. Her target was settling back into his seat, tucking his arm into its former protective position, an unmistakable expression of pain on his face.

 

What in the world?He must’ve cracked his funny bone. Only he isn’t laughing, is he?

 

Lisa looked at the man she had considered such a wonderful character only the moment before. There was something new about him now that he wasn’t half asleep. Something awake and alert and distinctly disturbing. Not in a threatening manner. No, not at all. But something entirely too real to be described in ordinary words, locked in like a lunatic behind those feverish, slate-blue eyes.

 

Grief. And fear. And an almost unbearable anxiety. All tangled together with what she could swear was intense physical pain.

 

He wasn’t romantic. The farthest thing from it.

 

He was a study in despair.

 

Lisa crumbled up her notes in one faintly sweating palm and dropped them into the garbage can beneath her desk.

 

Writing romance was one thing. Tragedy quite another.

 

*

 

Willie jolted awake with his own screams echoing in his ears.

 

In the slippery second between sleep and waking his chin snapped upward off his chest at the same moment that his arms thrashed out to steady him. The elbow of his left arm cracked against the armrest of the plastic seat he was sprawled in, sending a bolt of electricity crackling through his forearm and making him grunt aloud with pain.

 

Only then did he realize that the cries that had awakened him were muffled in nightmare. He hadn’t shrieked them out loud.

 

At least not here, he hadn’t.

 

Slumping back into his seat, Willie folded his injured arm across his belly, hooking one finger in his belt loop to keep it there in a position he thought of as a poor man’s splint. The hurtful throbbing radiating through the fractured bone gradually eased to a maddening itch beneath the skin, like a swarm of angry red ants spilling out of a broken anthill, their spiny, chitenous feet scritching endlessly across his fraying nerves.

 

Aspirin would help to some extent. An over-the-counter tranquilizer would be even better. But the con-cession stand in the Bangor airport had closed after mid-night and wouldn’t reopen until six o’clock the following morning. Willie would be on a plane by then, headed to New York, then Chicago, then San Diego. He would have to pickup what he needed somewhere along the way, if he had a minute to catch his breath while dashing between gates. He didn’t dare miss a connecting flight, because if he did he would have to pay a fee to get on another plane, and even with Barnabas’ stack of hundreds in his pocket, Willie would eventually have to account for the money he spent. He hadn’t any dollars to spare.

 

The hard molded plastic of the chair sealed his sweat-dampened clothes against the lash marks that the vampire’s parting fury had left on him, making him wriggle in discomfort like a little kid who needed to go to the bathroom. Willie braced his good hand against the arm-rest and struggled to his feet, stretching tired muscles gone stiff from sitting in one position too long. He still had an hour to go before his plane would board, an hour in the air, and then a sprint to a gate in another unfamiliar terminal. He had to be limber enough to make it—assuming he got off the ground in the first place.

 

Truth be told, he still wasn’t sure that he would. He had Barnabas’ permission, every bitter word of it, lodged in his ears, and a wallet full of Barnabas’ cash in his pocket. But Willie wouldn’t believe he was safe until he was in the air, beyond the immediate threat of recall. Maybe not even then. He sure hadn’t felt secure in the three hours he’d been here, scrunched up in this too-small seat with Mrs. Johnson’s suitcase underfoot.

 

When he had first arrived at Bangor International, Willie had found the loudest, most public lobby in the terminal to shield him and his gear. He was afraid that Barnabas would appear at his elbow at any moment to drag him back to the Old House. All the vampire had to do was insist that Willie keep a low profile for a week, and then lie if anyone asked him how his trip to California went. Willie’s mission of mercy would be over before it began if Barnabas decided that’s the way it should go.

 

But as the hours ticked past the traffic in the lobby got thinner. The ringing din of public announcements and rumbling conversation and feet clacking on tile subsided to a sleepy, midnight murmur. Exhaustion dragged at Willie’s muscles, compounded by the weight of his over-wrought emotions and the stinging ache the thrashing had left him. He resisted sitting down as long as he could, until the throbbing in his arm wore him out and he was forced to find a corner by the boarding gate where he could rest without drawing attention to himself. He was sure by the time he settled into his chair that one of the bones that ran between his elbow and his wrist must be broken. Why else would it hurt so much? Why else would the tingle buzzing through his fingers stay so constant, no matter how much he tried to rub the maddening sensation away?

 

He hadn’t meant to fall asleep. But he had dozed off anyway, just for a second or two, until his nightmare jerked him awake again.

 

Lucky Vicki showed up like she promised she would, he thought, his good hand cloaking the hurt one in an automatic gesture of protection as Barnabas came to mind. He was mad enough to kill me.

 

Mad enough to hold me back, if he sits there and broods about it long enough. C’mon, people, let’s get on this plane, let’s get OUT of here!

 

A flicker of movement in his peripheral vision made Willie spin around toward the oversized windows that looked out over the airport’s runways. Spotlights frosted the foggy tarmac with rainy glitter. He could see the nose of a plane jutting out of the misty dark a hundred feet away. But that was all. Nothing was moving out there. Nothing but Willie’s over-active imagination.

 

He hoped.

 

Willie walked stiffly back to his seat, nudging Mrs. Johnson’s suitcase out of the way with his toe, and resumed his sprawl, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt too much. Sitting upright like a normal person was out of the question. The pressure on his bruises was excruciating if the full weight of his body pressed on them for very long. Relax, boy, he thought, making a conscious effort to stop searching for Barnabas in every shift of shadow. It’s gonna be all right. He said you could go. He didn’t want you to, but he said. He’s not gonna stop you now.

 

Except he might.

 

Willie got a grip on the armrest of his seat. Nothing was going to pry him loose, he promised himself. Not his control freak of a master nor anything else. Not until it was time to board, and he was safely on his way to Gina and her kids.

 

Somewhere over Illinois a stewardess took one look at Willie and brought him an extra pillow and a blanket. The pillow he had found on his seat upon boarding was crammed behind the small of his back, making it possible for him to sit down in the first place.

 

“Would you like a drink, sir?” the stewardess asked, tucking the padded slip of cloth between his ear and the metal porthole rim he was resting against. “Something to help you sleep?”

 

“Um. No. No thanks.” Her hovering had wakened him just as he was on the verge of dozing off. The pain he had been trying to escape flared anew in welts that were now welded to his clothing. He wriggled, trying to loosen up, and only managed to send the constant stinging in his backside to a higher, more irritated pitch. “But….”

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“If you’ve got any aspirin I could sure use some,” he said, low voiced. He was alone in this row of seats, but there were people ahead and behind him. He didn’t want to broadcast his discomfort any more than he had to.

 

The stewardess smiled at him, sympathy in her honey brown eyes. “I’m sorry, sir, but we aren’t allowed to dispense medications to passengers during flight.”

 

“Oh. Well, thanks anyway.”

 

Typical bureaucracy, Willie thought as the stewardess patted his shoulder and moved up the aisle to see to the needs of another sleepless passenger. They’d give him all the booze he wanted but wouldn’t think of offering him the one thing he really needed: a simple white tablet that would bring down his fever and ease his pain.

 

He waited until the aisle was clear, then unlocked his seatbelt and eased his way between the seats. The lavatory was only a dozen feet away, but it might as well have been a hundred miles. Every step told him where fluid had leaked from his wounds, sealing his clothing to his skin like a stamp to an envelope. Willie lurched down the aisle, trying not to jostle anybody, desperate not to let anyone jostle him. Most of the passengers were sleeping, save for one or two that were reading or staring out into space.

 

The sign on the lavatory door read ‘open.’ Willie snagged the latch with his good hand and stepped inside, bumping his backside against the sink as he turned to lock the door behind him. The polished metal mirror over the basin caught his wince of pain and flashed it back at him, mercilessly honest in the greenish-yellow light.

 

Willie stopped, startled by the sick, haggard man staring back at him from the mirror with glittering, red-rimmed eyes. No wonder people had been so helpful to him since he’d boarded the New York shuttle. He looked like the walking dead. His skin, stark white, shone sallow beneath the lavatory light. Purple shadows ringed his eyes. A mist of perspiration beaded his forehead; the hair at his temples was darkened with sweat.

 

Moving slowly in the tight, confined space, he unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. He didn’t have to urinate. He just wanted to peel his clothes away from his skin. Re-tucking his shirt took some doing. He was tempted to leave his sweater on the outside of his pants. But he wouldn’t look very neat that way, and even way up here, thirty thousand feet in the air and nine hundred miles away from the Old House, he had a feeling he better stick to code.

 

The water flowing from the basin faucet was thin and barely lukewarm. Willie dampened a paper towel and mopped his face with it, hoping it would make him feel better. He was just swabbing the makeshift washcloth across his forehead when he glanced into the mirror again and jolted backward in shock, his injured back slamming against the opposite wall.

 

You didn’t just see what you thought you saw. You didn’t you didn’t you didn’t. . . 

 

Vampires didn’t reflect in mirrors. Barnabas was no exception.

 

But for a moment—just for a moment, mind—Willie had been certain that Barnabas was there, staring out at him with angry, malevolent eyes.

 

Willie stumbled back to his seat. And this time, when the helpful stewardess offered him a drink, he didn’t turn her down.

 

It was raining over Collinwood. Fat, cold drops flung from the coat tails of a late spring squall were drip-ping down a windowpane turned leaden with the first pale light of morning. There was a faint reflection in that water-smudged glass, not a face, exactly, but more of an absence of light, made even more noticeable by the glimmer of dying firelight dancing at the edges of the pane. The coals in the hearth were banked, of course they were, Barnabas had done that, in preparation for a long, dangerous day in which Willie would not be there to see to them….

 

“Mister?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Mister? Do ya want me to go find a nurse to help ya inside? I can do that, it’s no trouble.”

 

Willie opened his eyes to find a very fat, very florid cab driver leaning over him through the cab’s rear door, leaving him no room in which to sit up—assuming Willie could manage such a thing in the first place. His whole battered body was locked down in a slump across the black vinyl seat, Mrs. Johnson’s suitcase wedged like a cotter pin between his knees.

 

“Mister?”

 

“Yeah. It’s . . . it’s okay. I’m okay. Move so I can get outta here, all right?”

 

The cab driver lumbered backward like a bear extricating itself from the bole of a honey tree. Willie tried to sit up and found that he couldn’t. His travel-weary muscles had finally mutinied. He couldn’t even lift his head from the curved slope of the seat.

 

“Mister?”

 

“Maybe a little help,” Willie admitted reluctantly. “Can you . . . no! Don’t do that!”

 

The muscles that had refused to obey him when he first asked suddenly launched Willie’s good arm forward in a parry that blocked the cabbie from taking him by the left hand. The rest of Willie’s body followed the lunge, until he was at least sitting upright, even if he was left panting like an asthmatic from the effort. A cold sweat beaded and broke beneath the breast of his sweater, chilling him from his collarbones to his ribs.

 

“Jeez, mister, I’m sorry. Can you make it from there?”

 

“Yeah,” Willie gulped. “Just give me a minute, okay?”

 

Warm San Diego sun baked through the open door as Willie huddled on the edge of his seat, sweating an invisible puddle of pain onto the vinyl beneath him. Sweet, comforting sun, even this early in the spring, when Collinwood was still battling rainstorms that left scrims of ice slicking the Old House’s worn, brick steps. Willie’s cabbie stood two paces away, watching him, a worried frown on his fat honey bear’s face. Waiting to see if his fare was going to faint, more likely than not.

 

But you aren’t, Willie told himself, taking a deep breath to ward away the spots that wanted to flicker in front of his eyes. You aren’t gonna faint. Not this late in the game, you’re not. Not with Polly waiting for ya a parking lot away.

 

“Sure you don’t want a nurse?” the cabbie asked.

 

“Yeah. I’m sure.” Willie straightened up and kneed the suitcase as far forward on the floorboards as it would go. The cabbie saw what he intended and reached in to help, grabbing the unwieldy bag by its handle and yanking it out onto the pavement. Then the man stepped forward to offer his bear-like paw again, leaving it up to Willie to decide whether to take it or not.

 

Willie did.

 

“Upsadaisy,” the cabbie said, and planted his considerable weight so Willie might anchor against it.

 

Willie tugged, unfolding his body from its slump until he was out of the cab and safely on his feet. He swayed there a moment, his shoulder blades bumping the doorframe at his back like a boat rubbing against a piling, then made himself stand up straight. The cold sweat that still tickled the back of his neck began to dry in the warm spring breeze. There was salt in the air, wafting in from an unseen ocean, and a sharper, more medicinal smell that Willie guessed was eucalyptus.

 

“Let me at least haul this bag in for ya,” the cabbie offered. “The emergency entrance is right through there. They’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

 

Willie blinked. They were parked in an ambulance zone, practically on top of a sign that read “ambulances only—all others use public lot.”

 

He hadn’t realized until that moment that the cabbie had assumed that the man in the back of his cab was no ordinary fare, but a patient desperate to get to an emergency room. Lucky for them both that no true emergency had come ripping around the corner, or they would have been smacked flat by the ambulance like bugs against a windshield.

 

“Thanks,” Willie managed, sounding only a little shaky as he settled his left arm into what was becoming a customary curve across his belly, “but I got it from here. What do I owe ya?”

 

“Emergency fare. No charge,” the cabbie said. “C’mon now, the docs won’t thank me if you don’t make it through the doors….”

 

“I got it,” Willie said, more firmly than before. He cleared his throat. “I’m not hurt, okay? Now. How much do I owe ya?”

 

For a brief stare-down minute, Willie was afraid that the cabbie was going to throw him into a fireman’s carry and drag William H. Loomis into the emergency room whether he wanted to go or not. It was obvious enough to both of them that Willie was lying; Willie really was hurt, and badly at that.

 

But after a tense moment in which Willie tried to look as healthy and as self-reliant as possible, the unwanted Samaritan relented. “Four bucks,” the cabbie said. “That’ll do.”

 

Willie thumbed a wad of dollar bills out of his jacket pocket with his right hand. At least six bucks, probably more—the fare plus a generous tip. He handed it to the cabbie, who accepted it with a raised eyebrow and a frustrated shake of his head. Thinks I’m nuts, Willie thought. But that didn’t matter. Willie was not detouring through the emergency room. As soon as the cabbie left, he was going to stash this damned heavy bag somewhere and walk around to the front entrance, where he hoped to find an information desk staffed with someone who could direct him to the ICU.

 

That’s where Polly was. And that’s where Willie intended to go. Quickly, before the last of his strength ran out and dropped him like a pole-axed steer in some hospital corridor.

 

That’s all Gina needed—somebody else in the hospital to worry about.

 

The ICU was on the third floor. Willie stepped off the elevator and scanned the hall for Gina. He didn’t see her, but he wasn’t particularly surprised about that. The attendant at the registration desk had said that she thought Mrs. Logan was standing vigil with her daughter Polly, but she might have stepped into the cafeteria for a bite to eat. Her brother, Mr. Loomis, might want to look for her there before he went upstairs, since the lunchroom was on the first floor, only two turns of the hallway away from the lobby.

 

Mrs. Logan told us you were coming, the attendant confided. She’s been here all night, poor soul. I’m just glad she’s got more family coming in to help her out. Maybe now she’ll go home and get a few hours sleep. You try to make her do it, all right?

 

Family? Willie thought, totally befuddled. Brother?? What the hell had Gina been telling these people? He was no more a part of the Logan family than a cowbird was brother to the mockingbirds it nested with. Furthermore, Willie was pretty sure that the only other family Gina had that she could rely upon were already here with her in San Diego.

 

But Willie didn’t bother to explain all this to the attendant, since she was kind enough to take charge of his bag. He simply promised that he would see to it that Gina got some rest and then skipped the cafeteria in favor of getting on the elevator and going on up to the third floor, where he reckoned his ‘sister’ would be. He spent every orange flicker of the floor indicator hoping that she wouldn’t be too upset when she saw the shape her younger ‘brother’ was in.

 

You shoulda stopped somewhere. Got a shower. Shaved. At least changed clothes. You look like a bum comin’ off a bender. Gina’s gonna flip.

 

Well, maybe not. If Willie was lucky, Gina would be too preoccupied with her own problems to worry about what Willie had gone through to get to her. He hoped she would put down his ragged appearance to jet lag. After all, he had worked all day before he got her call for help, and then spent the entire night leapfrogging from one plane to another. Surely the circles under his eyes could be explained away as lack of sleep, his stiff posture from spending too many hours crunched into uncomfortable airplane seats.

 

“Willie!”

 

A dark-haired woman standing at the nurse’s station had turned as the elevator doors opened. Now she was coming toward him, her hands outstretched in desperate welcome.

 

Willie hadn’t given the wraith at the desk a second look because nothing about her said “Gina” to him. But now that she was closer he could see who this stranger was. She was the friend he had braved a vampire’s wrath to reach.

 

My god, Willie thought, stunned. And you were worried about what she was gonna think when she got a look at YOU.

 

If she hadn’t been wearing the very same turquoise blouse that he remembered from the last time he had seen her, Willie would not have recognized Gina Lee Logan, not even after she called out his name. The bobbed black hair, usually combed so tidily behind her ears, was a swag of black broom straw bristling round her face. The plum dark eyes he associated with kindness and motherly com-passion were lost in blacker shadows ringing puffy, tear-swollen lids. Her clothes were a crumpled mess, dirtied with something stiff and matted, most noticeably across the breast and the whole of the right-hand sleeve. Willie hoped that the dark brown stains smearing the front of Gina’s blouse were nothing more than mud, but he was afraid that they represented something far more ominous. Something like Polly Logan’s blood.

 

“Gina. Oh honey….”

 

Willie rushed forward to gather her against him. After everything that he had suffered to reach her in this hospital corridor, he was as grateful to finally feel Gina’s arms closing around him as she was eager to greet him.

 

But he had forgotten about his injured arm. Gina’s abdomen, always so soft and unthreatening even in the fiercest of embraces, trapped the sluggish limb between their bodies, sending a lightning bolt shooting through Willie’s nerve endings from his wrist to his throat. Willie’s breath went out of him in a squeaking squeal, startling Gina into hugging him harder, like a woman who momentarily tightens her grip on a pot handle in the second before it scalds.

 

The additional pressure heightened the shock, sending Willie staggering against his friend, his vision blur-ring. He felt Gina grab him to keep him upright, her fingers clamping down on his bad elbow, and he almost screamed again, biting down on the exclamation only because he was better prepared for a second bolt of pain.

 

“Oh my god,” Gina cried, dismayed. “Willie! What’s happened to you?”

 

Through flooding eyes Willie watched his friend’s round, frightened face bleach white as she took him in, really saw him in his sweat-stained clothes, his rumpled jacket, his travel-mussed hair. He had a pretty good idea of what he looked like by now and he imagined fresh pain hadn’t improved him any.

 

He was right about that. Gina saw him, all right. And unlike the cabbie and the stewardess before him, she understood exactly what she was looking at—and exactly whom to blame.

 

“I’m going to kill him,” Gina grated through clenched teeth. “I’m going to kill that son of a bitch. How dare he? How dare he?

 

“Gina, honey, calm do….”

 

“Don’t you DARE tell me to calm down!”

 

Willie flinched, quite wisely under the circumstances. If he hadn’t, Gina would have clocked him with her upflung hands when she pushed him away from her.

 

“He tried to keep you from coming here, didn’t he? He tried to keep you in Collinsport. That son of a bitch, I should have turned him in when I had the chance. I should have spit in his gentrified face. That son of a bitch!

 

“Gina….”

 

People were starting to take note of the uproar, to turn and stare. Most of them were glaring at Willie, as though he was the one who had infuriated this poor, grieving woman to the point of public profanity when her little girl was struggling for her life in intensive care. How could you? their eyes accused him. Hasn’t she been through enough without you adding to her worries?

 

Willie wholeheartedly agreed. He wished he had checked into a hotel first. Had a wash. Had a shave. Had a drink before he had to face Gina, the one per-son who would understand that the nick on his cheekbone was not a shaving cut, and that he wasn’t holding his arm close to his body as an affectation.

 

It’s only cause you’re tired that you thought you could fool her, he thought helplessly. But Gina had a mother’s eyes, she saw everything, even when she seemed distracted by her own problems. Barnabas had underestimated her intelligence once and she had turned on him for it. Now Willie had done the same. Saying he had made a beeline to the hospital because he was afraid Polly would be gone by the time he got there was only partly true. In reality, he had misjudged Gina’s ability to read his pain.

 

“You aren’t going back, that’s all. Tell me you aren’t going back. You can’t go back to him, Willie, that man is a monster, he’s worse than Ezra ever was!”

 

“Gina, honey, will you please lower your voice? You’re gonna get me chucked out o’ the place.”

 

There was already a nurse headed in their direction, he was unnerved to notice, with a tiny, white-haired woman directly behind her, a worried look on her wizened face. Gina’s cousin Irene, he figured, though he had never seen so much as a picture of her. But who else would be with Gina in her time of need, if not the cousin who had offered her and the children refuge when Gina’s house had burned down?

 

A sudden surge of motion at the old woman’s hip made Willie realize that she had a familiar, denim-jacketed figure in tow. The little boy saw Willie at the same moment and darted forward to meet him, sideswiping the nurse along the way.

 

“Danny!” Willie yelped.

 

This time he got his arm out of the way, but only just. Danny launched himself at Willie, scrambling up his body like a cat up a tree. When he reached Willie’s hip he settled there, clinging to Willie’s neck with fierce little boy arms. Willie supported him with his good arm across the child’s bottom, snugging his damaged forearm across Danny’s back in the lightest of hugs, though he wished he could hug him hard, hard, hard, right into his heart where the aching burned the fiercest.

 

“I missed you too, sweetheart,” Willie whispered into the child’s ear. Tears stung his eyes, the release of a loneliness so constant that he had ceased to acknowledge it as a pain separate from himself. “Didn’t I, though. God. I really did.”

 

“Mrs. Logan.” The nurse had reached them, immediately after Danny’s mad hurdle into Willie’s arms. “Mrs. Logan, is everything all right?”

 

Gina was still breathing hard, as though she had plenty more she would like to say. But the sudden appearance of her son had interrupted her tirade, and had apparently restored some of her usual composure—at least for now. “Yes,” she said, never taking her eyes from Willie’s sweating face. “Everything’s fine. My brother and I haven’t seen each other for a while, that’s all.”

 

There it was again, this time from Gina’s own mouth. My brother. Willie wondered at it, but didn’t contradict her. If Gina was calling him her brother, she must have a reason for it. A good one, too. It wasn’t like her to lie.

 

“Come talk to me in the waiting room, won’t you, Willie? We can have some privacy there.”

 

Willie nodded, his cheek brushing the warm shell of Danny’s ear. He stepped around the nurse to the tiny woman that had accompanied Danny down the hall. She smiled up at him, pert as a wren on a nest. She had the same plum dark eyes as Gina Lee and Polly, an unmistakable Logan family trait. Only Irene couldn’t be a Logan, could she? She was from Gina’s line, not Ezra’s, and there-fore bore a surname that Willie wouldn’t recognize, ‘family’ though he was.

 

“I’ll wait here, shall I?” the woman offered, reaching for the little boy still wrapped around Willie’s neck. “Come along, baby, let the grown-ups talk, all right?”

 

Willie tightened his grip around Danny’s legs and took a step backward. He didn’t want to give the child up, especially not now. If he and Gina walked into an empty room alone, there would be nothing to stop Gina’s accusations. She couldn’t say as much, or say it as angrily, in front of Danny.

 

“I’ll keep him,” he said. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen him. Missus…?” He stopped, acknowledging that he didn’t know the woman’s full name.

 

“Irene Pereira,” the woman confirmed, giving the Portuguese name an Americanized lilt that made it sound like ‘Perry’ more than ‘Perrerah.’ “All right, then. Take him with you. It seems he’s missed you, too.”

 

Willie nodded again, this time in temporary fare-well. He followed Gina to the open door of the ICU waiting room. There were dim lights in there and plenty of chairs, the best comfort the hospital could offer to families waiting for news. Gina waited until Willie was settled in a chair with Danny in his lap, then closed the door behind them.

 

“Willie,” she said, coming to sit in the chair directly across from him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout at you like that, it’s just….”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Willie interrupted. “Really, Gina, it doesn’t matter. How’s Polly?”

 

“Better.” Gina took a deep breath, then let it out. “She’s in traction. She broke her femur when she landed.” Gina’s hand brushed across the long bone in her own leg, as though tracing her daughter’s pain. “She bumped her head, too. That’s why she’s in intensive care. They thought it best to keep her here a while since she was knocked out. They didn’t want to risk her on the children’s ward.”

 

“What about….” Willie motioned to the blood-stains on Gina’s blouse with the fingers of one hand. He didn’t want to say it aloud, not with Danny there to hear.

 

“Cuts and abrasions, and a bloody nose,” Gina said, understanding the gesture. “She looks much worse than she is, though the doctor said it’s bad enough. I wouldn’t have called you otherwise, Willie.”

 

“I know that, Gina. But I’m glad you did.” He was glad, too, he realized, even after all that Gina’s phone call had cost him. “I got here as quick as I could.”

 

“I was right, though. Wasn’t I?” Gina’s pained eyes were stabbing through him, diamond-edged with tears. “He didn’t want you to come. He tried to stop you.”

 

Gina never said Barnabas’ name if she could help it. Willie had noticed that before. She just said he, as though there was no one else in the world that qualified for the pronoun with the loathsome inflection that she gave it. She hated Willie’s boss, and it showed.

 

“He gave me the money to come,” Willie evaded, shifting his gaze from Gina’s eyes to her plain brown shoes. “He paid for the plane tickets, Gina. He paid for everything. I’ve got a week here, he said I could stay.”

 

“Did he?”  Gina sounded as though she’d taken a mouthful of alum. “Well. Wasn’t that kind of him!”

 

“Gina,” Willie said softly, hugging Danny to him. “Don’t.”

 

Gina took another long, wavering breath. Willie heard her, but didn’t see her do it because he was busy avoiding her eyes. Danny sat unresisting in Willie’s lap, a warm, silent shield against the spear of Gina’s stress-sharpened emotions.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said. The anger was still there, but reined in now with exhaustion and grief. “I keep shouting at you when I should be thanking you for coming when I called. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, Willie. I’m so worried about her. When I saw her there in the street I thought….” She stopped, remembering Danny, who must not have seen the accident first-hand.

 

Willie looked up, intuiting it, and saw the pain in Gina’s matronly face, her brow marked with far deeper lines than when he had last seen her. “You know what I thought,” she said. “I didn’t know until I touched her that she was still alive.”

 

“But she’s gonna be okay?”

 

“She’s doing better than they expected. That’s all that they’ll tell me. I can’t get them to commit to anything. Whether she’ll be all right. Whether she’ll walk again. Not anything.”

 

“Maybe I should talk to them. I dunno. Think they’d be straighter with me, seeing as they don’t want to upset you and all?”

 

“I was hoping so,” Gina admitted. “That’s why I’ve been telling them that you’re my brother. Only immediate family are allowed in intensive care. They wouldn’t even let you see Polly if they knew you were a friend rather than a blood relative.”

 

Willie smiled. “I was wonderin’ what that was all about. I can’t believe they’re buyin’ it, Gina, we don’t look anything alike.”

 

“Let them challenge it,” Gina said. “Let them dare. I’m tired of being stonewalled where my own child is concerned, Willie. Maybe you can get some solid information for us. All they do for me is offer me a sedative. I don’t need a pill, I need to be in the same room as my daughter!”

 

“I gotcha, Gina,” Willie soothed. He cupped his hand around the back of Danny’s head, stroking the soft hair of a child he had never thought to see again. “I don’t know if they’ll listen to me any more than they do to you, but you know I’ll try. I’ll do whatever I can.”

 

“I know you will, Willie. And Polly will be so glad to see you. She’s been asking for you from the moment she first woke up.”  Gina reached over and touched the back of Willie’s hand where it rested on Danny’s head. Lightly, a moth’s touch against his knuckles. “I’m glad to see you, too,” she said. “You don’t know how glad. Oh, but I’ve missed you, Willie!  So very much!”

 

The doctor wasn’t the monster that Willie feared he would be.

 

The lanky Swede leaning over the nurses’ station counter with an endless pile of paperwork in front of him wasn’t some power-mad tyrant intent on keeping a mother away from her child. He was only an overworked public servant trying to follow a bureaucratic policy that he personally thought was perfect bullshit. Willie could see that much from the start.

 

“Patients in ICU can have one familial visitor, one hour out of three,” the Swede said, as though he had recited the same inflexible rule countless times before. The blue stitching outlining his name on his crumpled white coat said J. Larsen, M.D. “That’s hospital policy, Mr. Loomis. I don’t set it, I just follow it.”

 

“But maybe there’s a way around it?” Willie suggested in the same conciliatory tones he used when he was wheedling a shopkeeper into performing some favor that Barnabas wanted. “There’s easy stuff Gina could do for Polly, isn’t there? Stuff that the nurses could show her. Then they would have more time to do the things they need to do, and Gina could have some time with her kid.”

 

The doctor never looked up from his paperwork, his pen flying over a perilous tower of forms that would surely have toppled without the pressure of the ballpoint nib to pin them into place. The hospital was understaffed, all right, Willie thought. Understaffed but not necessarily under-qualified, judging from this doctor’s calm refusal to let outside noise distract him, not to mention the compassionate professionalism of the nursing staff that Willie had met thus far.

 

“It wouldn’t have to be anything much,” Willie pressed. “Just so Gina can see that Polly’s all right. And it’s gotta make Polly feel better, doesn’t it, to know that her ma is around?”

 

The pen paused. Just for a moment. Then it resumed its mad scrabble, skimming page after page in its haste. Willie put his good hand down in the middle of the stack, forcing the doctor to stop or scribble over Willie’s knuckles—one or the other.

 

“Maybe then I can talk Gina into going home for a little while,” Willie continued, still in that quiet, patient tone that worked so well with the tradesmen of Collins-port. “She needs the rest, Doctor Larsen. I mean . . . look at her. She’s been here all night. You know how mothers are, she just wants to touch her little girl. You can let her do that, right?”

 

“Mr. Loomis….”

 

“Doctor Larsen, c’mon. I don’t know anything about medicine. I don’t know anything about hospitals. But I know Gina. She’s not leavin’ here until you let her spend some time with her daughter. She’ll hang out in this hall-way until she flat falls over, I’m tellin’ ya, she won’t leave. Let us spend some time with Polly and I’ll get Gina home. It’s the only way, Doctor Larsen, otherwise you’re gonna have two patients here, not just one.”

 

“Or maybe three?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You don’t look so good yourself,” the doctor observed. Now that he was paying attention, his eyes were locked on Willie. In his stark white coat, with his pale Swede’s hair sticking up in all directions and his gold-rimmed glasses, he reminded Willie of a lanky seagull inspecting a crab that it intended to gobble for lunch, claws and all.

 

“In fact,” the doctor continued, his irritation plain, “you don’t look like Mrs. Logan. Or her children. Or her cousin either, for that matter. They are all of Portuguese extraction, and you’re an Irishman, unless I seriously miss my guess. You aren’t a member of their immediate family at all, Mister Loomis. Are you?”

 

“I been on planes all night,” Willie said, avoiding the more pointed of the doctor’s accusations. “I ain’t gonna lie to you, Doc, I’m tired, too. But I can’t leave without seeing Polly, any more than Gina can. I know that baby’s been askin’ for me. I can’t leave till I see her. You know I can’t.”

 

Family or not, he added silently. And knew the doctor heard that, too.

 

Willie let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

 

“Don’t make me sorry I agreed to this, Mr. Loomis. I’ve got a supervisor that’ll set my shorts on fire with me in them if he finds out this happened. He doesn’t have much of a sense of humor where bending the rules is concerned.”

 

“I can understand that,” Willie said, the truth shining copper bright in his pain-dulled voice. Boy, did he understand unreasonable bosses. “We won’t cause you any trouble, Doc,” he promised. “I can swear to that much. We just wanna make sure Polly is okay.”

 

“Then ask Mrs. Logan to step this way,” the doctor said. He put his pen in his coat pocket, just as the tower of paperwork he’d been holding slumped to one side, spilling an avalanche of charts across the counter. “We need to get her into something more sterile than what she’s wearing right now. A lab coat, at the very least.”

 

“Persistent people, you Yanks,” the doctor said, put-ting down his pen. “I’ve heard as much.” He rubbed his hand through his feathery hair, showing bright pink scalp beneath. “Sometimes the stereotypes are true, aren’t they?” And then, in a sigh, “Dammit all.”

 

The guy sounded almost as tired as Willie felt. He probably was. Gina had said that the doctor had been on the ward as long as she had. Longer, even. He’d been there when Polly had first been wheeled in.

 

“All right,” Larsen said at last. “I’ll get a nurse to show Mrs. Logan how to bathe her daughter around the wires and bandages. With the strict understanding that she doesn’t touch anything we don’t directly tell her she can touch. And I mean anything. You got that?”

 

*

 

It was the silence of the ward that got to him. Not the bright lights that left no sanctuary for shadows. Or the half circle of elevated beds with the nurses’ station in the center, with trans-lucent curtains on railings offering patients the only semblance of privacy. Or the aura of death that hung over the beds like tarnish on silver, the frail human vessels tented beneath their starched hospital sheets battered almost beyond saving. It was the silence.

 

Polly wasn’t silent. Not even when she was supposed to be, when she having a meal in a public place or when the adults were talking or when a vampire was staring her down, wondering at her moral fiber. Polly was bubbly and impulsive and most of all loud.

 

Willie couldn’t find his chatterbox of a friend in that unnatural well of calm until Gina took his shoulders, mindful of his damaged arm, and turned him toward the bed farthest on the right. The one with the metal racks assembled around it like a painter’s scaffolding, with wires and weights strung from it, just like something Willie would put together if he was rigging a platform at the Old House.

 

He took a step forward, out of Gina’s hands, and finally found Polly beneath that mass of metal, a frail little doll of a child with bandages swathed around her head and her right leg braced in the air in front of her. There was a sheet covering her, but Willie could still make out the bulk of the cast that went from her elevated leg all the way up to her chest.

 

Hip spica, Willie thought, tasting the plaster grittiness of the word. Doctor Larsen had told him about it before letting him into the ICU. Traction would help align the edges of Polly’s fractured femur while the over-sized cast encouraged the break to fuse without further surgical intervention. That was the idea, anyway. The cast was ugly, unwieldy and cold, but it was nothing to be afraid of. Even if it looked like a plaster crocodile that was trying to swallow the little girl whole.

 

Willie stood there, frozen after that initial step, until Gina’s arm slipped around his waist. She nudged him toward the bed, and he went with her, one stiff shuffle after another; a journey of half a dozen feet that he would never have completed without Gina’s help.

 

“Sweetheart,” Gina said. “Look who came to see you. Polly?  Look who’s here.”

 

The little girl pinned beneath half a ton of metal and plaster didn’t open her eyes. Willie found the round stool on wheels waiting beside the bed and crouched down on it, his knees close to the floor, ducking his head beneath a web of wires so he could bend close to Polly’s sleeping face.

 

“Polly?” he whispered. He gave her a kiss, a light touch of his lips on her cheek, the only part of her he could see that wasn’t scraped or bruised. “Polly, baby. Wake up. Polly. Polly, honey, won’t you look at me?”

 

“She’s too deep beneath the drugs. . . .” Gina started to say. But then Polly’s lashes fluttered and she opened her eyes. She looked up at Willie, black pupils huge in the center of black friar irises, and the first traces of a grin tugged at the corners of her pale, dry lips.

 

She was missing two teeth. Two top ones, right up front. But that wasn’t from the accident. Couldn’t be. Her mouth wasn’t swollen. She’d lost them naturally, some time after leaving Collinsport. The Tooth Fairy had paid her a visit, wasn’t that what one of Gina’s letters had said? Thank god, Willie thought, as though that slight mercy was enough to salve the whole of the injured child. Thank god.

 

“Hey, baby,” he said again, his voice cracking as he tried to smile. “Whatchoo been up to, huh?”

 

Willie. That’s what Polly tried to say, but she was too hurt, too drugged, to manage it. Willie cupped his hands over hers, his own throat closed to words, and just smiled at her. A dopey, silly smile that was the only disguise he had against the tears that wanted to rise up and cloud his eyes. But he mustn’t allow that, not here, not now where Polly could see them. He wouldn’t scare her for anything in the world. So he only smiled at her, and kissed her cheek, and when he thought he could speak again, he told her that he loved her.

 

“Mrs. Logan?”

 

A nurse had come in. A quiet, smiling nurse, just like all of them seemed to be herein this silent place where children should never be, especially children as lively as Polly.

 

“Dr. Larsen sent me. If your brother will excuse us, I’ll teach you how to bathe your daughter.”

Willie was loath to leave, but Gina needed time with her little girl far more than he did. That was the prize that Willie’s fast talk out at the nurses’ station had been designed to win, and it looked like he had won it. He sat up a little, squeezing Polly’s hand, and said, “I’ll see ya in a little while, chief. Okay?  Don’t you worry, I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

Polly didn’t want him to go either. He could see wounded protest welling in her eyes. But the drugs soothing her pain smoothed her grief as well, and Willie saw the knowledge of him fade almost the moment he stood up, to be replaced by the image of Gina reflected in Polly’s eyes.

 

Willie backed out of the ICU. And when Irene met him in the hallway with Danny at her heels, he let her hug him with strong little wren’s wings until the image of Polly enmeshed in steel didn’t seem so horrible any more, and he was able to reach down and take Danny by the hand.

 

*

 

The Pereira house was big and it was old. That was about all that could be said for it.

 

Willie crawled out of the back of Irene’s rusty green Impala and looked up, up and up at a Frankenstein’s monster of architectural styles. Pink Spanish stucco seemed to be the dominant theme, but some well meaning but apparently blind carpenter had inserted Victorian gingerbreading on any porch, awning or casement that would accommodate it.

 

The result was the unfortunate crossing of a flamingo with an English pheasant. Willie was grateful that the gathering dusk hid most of the house’s ungainly lines, so he wouldn’t find himself comparing it to the smooth, regal austerity of the Old House. He was far from an architectural expert, but after working in an eighteenth century mansion for a master who had the money to properly restore it, Willie knew ugly when he saw it.

 

Irene’s sharp little elbow nudged him in the ribs. “Leaves you speechless, doesn’t it?” she chuckled.

 

“It’s . . . um . . . big,” he said, staring up at a wrought iron balcony swallowed in streamers of pink bougainvillea. The horse liniment scent of crushed eucalyptus was strong in the air.

 

“Three and a half stories,” Irene said. “A full four if I ever get the attic done.”

 

Willie only nodded and went round to the trunk to retrieve his suitcase. He could tell Irene was proud of her patchwork of a house. And who was he to argue?  Lord knew he had lived in far worse places when he was traveling the world with Jason, and even long before then, when he was a half-starved kid growing up in slums and miners’ shacks and crapped out apartments.

 

He’d lived in worse places after that, too, if he wanted to be honest about it. When he had first started working on the Old House. Back then it had been a crumbling ruin with water-stained walls, a sieve of a roof, and no heat save what could be coaxed from its few standing fireplaces. But Willie didn’t want to think about that now. He just wanted a sandwich. Maybe a glass of milk. And after that, bed. He felt like he hadn’t slept in a hundred years—and he still had a hotel room to walk to and rent, after he got Gina and her family settled in.

 

Stray particles of sand crunched beneath his shoes as Willie gained the sidewalk. He took his eyes off his feet long enough to check his bearings and couldn’t help but grimace. The house was uglier close up than it was from a distance. The stone steps leading up to the front door needed patching. The wrought iron gate leading to the street should be re-hung. The shrubbery and scrub oak was taking over the garden, and my god, was that an armadillo that had just scuttled into the prickly pear like a housecat caught rummaging in the trash bin?

 

Willie paused in his unintentional mental survey long enough to notice Gina glancing at the sidewalk that wound from the Pereira steps to the corner of the block. There was a dark spot on the street there, opposite a stand of jacaranda. That must be the place where it happened, he thought. The place where Polly got hit. Willie hoped the black smudge on the asphalt was oil or burned rubber rather than a dried pool of Polly’s blood.

 

“Hey, Gina,” he said softly, putting down his suitcase so he could take her hand. “Let’s go inside, huh? You must be tired.”

 

Gina squeezed his fingers and offered him the first smile he had kindled from her that day. Not much of one. But more than she had managed since he had stepped off the elevator onto the ICU. The warmth of the San Diego evening wafted over them as they stood there, dry and fragrant and sweet, as far away from Collinsport as Earth was from Mars.

 

“You must be tired, too,” Gina said. “Don’t worry, Willie. Irene has the guestroom made up for you. We’ll eat and then you can go to bed.”

 

“I was… um… just gonna find a hotel….” he began, but before he could finish Irene steamrolled past him, scooping up his suitcase along the way. Of the four of them, she was the only one who seemed to have an end-less store of energy. She certainly hadn’t burned out yet.

 

“Don’t be silly, my dear boy, you can’t stay in a hotel,” she chirruped, thumping the suitcase up the walk as she went. “You can see we’ve got plenty of room!” The front door popped open when she hit it with her hip. Apparently they didn’t use locks here. Irene marched inside her disaster of a house with Danny at her heels, her voice echoing in what must be a cavernous hallway leading to god knows where. “Well, come along you two,” she called. “Come along! We don’t stand on ceremony here!”

 

Willie chuckled, watching the door slam shut behind her. “No, I guess not,” he murmured, amused.

 

Gina smiled. A real smile this time. “That’s Irene,” she said, guiding Willie toward the porch with a light tug of her hand. “You’ll like her, Willie. You really will. She’s a godsend in more ways than one.”

 

Half an eternity later, both in the world and out of it, Willie woke up without the slightest notion of where he was or how he had gotten there.

 

All he knew was….

Dark. It was dark, and there was no sound, no sound at all except the panicked pounding of his own heart thud-ding in his ears. There was cool air pressing against his hot skin, but that’s all he could feel, swimming up from the perilous depths of sleep into a thinner darkness that remained as impenetrable as the shadows that swarmed his blackest dreams.

 

Darkness.

 

That, and an angry presence pulsing in his mind. Something not of himself, but alien, lodged in a secret spot behind his eyes that had coalesced the moment a vampire’s fangs had sliced into his wrist a dozen months before.

 

Darkness. And a presence, waiting to see what he would do.

 

Willie moaned, a hurt, frightened whimper that rose into a cry he knew would dissipate before it would be heeded. Because darkness and his master’s close proximity, sensed together in one place, could only mean. . . .

 

The basement cell. The Old House attic. Willie’s own third-floor room with the door locked against him. All were makeshift oubliettes that Barnabas had used to punish his erring servant in the past, when the vampire’s fury had flared too ferociously for Willie to escape with merely a beating. Knowing Willie’s soul-deep terror of the dark, Barnabas had more than once thrust his pleading captive into some close space where no light could com-fort him, leaving him to scream his voice away in an ever-increasing crescendo of panic.

 

Bloody, broken fingernails, a fractured voice box and a mind half-crazed with fear. That’s what Willie remembered from those rare but dreadful nights when Barnabas had stolen away the light. The most recent nightmare of that sort was still fresh in Willie’s memory, because it had been the night after he had cut down Josette’s tree, not knowing the value of the thing or even that he was doing anything but his duty in clearing away dangerous deadwood. And Barnabas, enraged past reason at a loss that Willie could not repair, had beaten his man-servant bloody and locked him in the basement.

 

But what had Willie done to deserve such treatment now? He couldn’t remember. Bewildered and blind with sleep, he scrambled upward on the slippery, yielding surface beneath him and discovered two things at once: he was in a bed, and his left forearm was still broken.

 

Stifling a shocked outcry, Willie jackknifed his upper body around his injured arm as his free hand shot out to grasp the matchbook and candle stubs that should be at his bedside, if Barnabas hadn’t taken them away. His scrabbling fingers bumped the metal base of an electric lamp instead, and that, finally, settled his jangled sense of place.

 

Electric lights rather than candles. Soft sheets infused with clean verbena rather than rough woolen blankets reeking of sweat and cheap detergent. The breath and sigh of a living home slumbering peace-fully around him rather than the cold, dead silence of the Old House pressing against his ears.

 

He was in Irene Pereira’s house in San Diego, that was all. He had come here with the old woman and Gina and Danny after visiting Polly at the hospital. They had sat around Irene’s French-tiled kitchen table, picking at a dinner comprised of the casseroles and salads and cakes that thoughtful neighbors had brought by after the accident. No one but Danny had been particularly hungry for the meal, but they had all made the effort anyway, for normalcy’s sake.

 

Afterward, Gina had gone next door to retrieve Carla from an obliging babysitter. Willie had kissed the baby hello, though she hadn’t remembered him and had cried when he held her. And then Irene had repeated her offer of the guestroom for the night. For the length of his stay, if Willie wished it.

 

That was it. That was all there was to it. There was nothing to be afraid of here. But Willie was terrified just the same.

 

Electric light, electric light, where in the hell was the switch that turned it on?  Willie’s fingers jittered up the lamp base until he touched the plastic pin he needed, just beneath the bulb socket. Three quick clicks and harsh white light—nothing like the soft yellow candle glow his eyes were most accustomed to—flooded the room, showing Willie every corner that he might care to see.

 

Rose-printed wallpaper, peeling in places. Plain white shades over the windows, open a bare inch at the bottom to let cool night air inside. A bureau with a mirror on the wall opposite the bed, with nothing but Willie’s wallet and a scattering of change glittering on its polished marble top. A chair with Mrs. Johnson’s suitcase resting on it, the top of the bag slumping where Willie had rooted through it to find his pajamas. A tiny nightlight he had bought in an airport, plugged into the baseboard socket, with its cheap, frosted bulb gone black—the loss of illumination that had doubtless wakened him.

 

And that was all.

 

What did you think was gonna be there?  Barnabas? He’s back in Collinwood. He’s back in Maine. He wouldn’t come here for you, he wouldn’t, he said you could come…!

 

But Willie kept his eyes off the mirror over the bureau, just in case. He’d had some strange visions since he had left the Old House the night before. He didn’t want to see another one here, in Irene Pereira’s rambling old house that was as ugly as it was spacious. Willie had grown superstitious about such things. He wouldn’t bring such filthy contagion as Barnabas’ ill will into a friend’s unsullied home. Not if he could help it.

 

He’s haunting ya, is what he’s doin’. Reminding you that you’re not out of reach.

 

Willie shivered, hugging himself on the blanket-strewn island of the bed. As if he needed reminding of Barnabas’ terrible hold over him. He had all the reminders he needed in the throbbing of his broken arm and the stinging in the welts criss-crossing his back and legs. He knew what would happen if he didn’t go back to Collinwood as he had promised he would. He would have to leave San Diego at the end of the week whether Polly was out of danger or not, or the whole Logan family would be in jeopardy. He couldn’t risk that, not even if Gina begged him to stay.

 

A soft knock at the bedroom door made him flinch. Willie cursed the reflex, then forced himself to relax. It had been a fearful reaction, that flinch, and it shamed him. But his body kept forgetting that he wasn’t back at the Old House, even if his mind knew perfectly well that it couldn’t be Barnabas on the other side of the door. Any-way, if it had been Barnabas, the vampire would never have knocked. He would simply have barged in and demanded to know why Willie was making such a racket in the middle of the night.

 

Someone must have heard ya yellin’ and they’ve come to see what the fuss is all about. Probably Gina. You must’ve scared her half to death!

 

Distressed at the thought that he might have alarmed his friend, Willie got up and snagged his robe off the back of the chair that held Mrs. Johnson’s suitcase. He slipped the cotton sleeves over his arms as he walked barefoot to the door, tying the sash round his waist in a loose half-knot. An excuse to explain away his nightmare was already forming on his lips when he opened the door and found the mistress of the house looking up at him, a plain white case tucked under her skinny wren’s wing.

 

“Missus Pereira?”

 

“Good evening, Willie. Do you mind if I come in for a while? I promise I won’t keep you long.”

 

“Wha . . . well . . . no. I mean, sure, okay, c’mon in.”

 

Willie opened the door wider and stepped out of her way, a quiver of unease making him mask his injured arm beneath the sleeve of his robe. He didn’t see how he could prevent the old woman from coming in if she wanted to do it. This was her house, after all, and he, like Gina, was only a guest in it. A noisy, nightmare-ridden guest with no blood ties or long-standing friendship to recommend him. There was only Gina’s good word to vouch for him. But since Willie didn’t know Irene, he wasn’t sure how much grace that second-hand endorsement might lend him.

 

“Missus Pereira,” he began, wishing his stutter wasn’t so obvious when he was nervous, “I-I’m sorry if I woke ya up, I was just, you know, dreamin’ and….”

 

“I thought,” Irene interrupted lightly, “that you might have rolled over on your arm.”

 

Willie stopped, nonplussed. “M-my . . . my arm?”

 

“Yes. A break of that sort is painful if it isn’t casted properly, isn’t it?” Irene plunked the white case on the bureau and opened it, revealing a medical kit of the variety an Army medic might carry in the field. “I can’t do so much as cast it, of course, I haven’t the necessary plaster here at home. But I can wrap it for you if you like. That should make you much more comfortable.”

 

Her cheerful, non-stop prattling was like a quail settling into its brush pile for the night, chirping one last call to friends in the neighboring shrubbery before piping down. There was never a thought that she might be embarrassing him. Never a thought that she should be embarrassed herself after walking into a bedroom with a strange man when she was dressed only in a nightgown, robe and slippers—and he but similarly attired.

 

Irene was to Gina what Polly was to Danny, Willie thought. The one quiet and steady and sober under ordinary circumstances. The other not exactly loud, but certainly . . . what was the word Willie was searching for? Perky? That might apply to Polly, but could you call a woman old enough to be your grandmother ‘perky’?

 

Well. Willie couldn’t help the comparison. That’s what she was.

 

“You’re lucky it’s not a more serious break than it is,” the old woman was twittering as she sorted out gauze and tape and snub-nosed medical scissors. “It can’t be, or you wouldn’t be able to use your hand at all. I’m guessing it’s a. . . .”

 

“What?” Willie interrupted, taking a step backward in the direction of the bed. “I mean . . . what makes ya think my arm is broken, Missus Pereira?”

 

Irene smiled and shook her head, as though laughing to find Danny snitching wafers from the cookie jar.

 

“My dear boy. You’ve held your arm across your waist since the moment I first saw you. When Gina hugged you I thought you were going to collapse in her arms. What makes me think your arm is broken, indeed! It’s perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes, isn’t it.”

 

Willie gave a non-committal shrug. Yeah. He guessed it was.

 

“I . . . um . . . slipped on some steps when I was tryin’ to get to the airport. I was in a rush an’ all? And someone was waiting to give me a lift an’….”

 

“No need to explain, my dear.” It was Irene’s turn to interrupt. “Breaks of this sort happen all the time. They aren’t quite as common as bloody noses, but they’re close. The radius and ulna are rather fragile, you know. It doesn’t take much to break one of them if you catch it just right.” She turned to him, motioning him to sit down on the bed. “Luckily for you, they heal as easily as they break. Most of the time.”

 

Willie perched on the edge of the mattress, uncertain of what to do next. He was startled when Irene reached over and slid the loose folds of his robe from his shoulders, as naturally as she would have had she done the same for Danny.

 

“That and your pajama shirt have to come off.” She pretended not to notice his discomfiture, but turned back to her kit to give him time to remove the necessary articles and resume some pose of modesty.

 

Willie noticed the gesture and was grateful for it, but made no move to take off anything but his robe. There was more beneath his pajama top than a broken arm, and he would be damned before he would let Irene see it. He scootched up his cotton sleeve instead, baring his arm from elbow to wrist, as though preparing to donate blood at the Red Cross.

 

Irene turned back to him, gauze in one hand, scissors in the other. Her smile froze when she saw that Willie had stopped short of completely obeying her, but she made no comment at the time. She merely placed the gauze and scissors on the bed where she could reach them. Then she moved Mrs. Johnson’s suitcase from the chair to the floor so she might have a place to sit while she ministered to Willie.

 

“You know,” she said as she settled across from him, eye to eye. “I’m old enough to be your mother. Your grandmother, more likely. Handsome as you are, there isn’t anything beneath that shirt that I haven’t seen before.”

 

Willie blushed. Bet there is, he thought, and bit down on a hysterical laugh before it could escape his lips. The simple fact was, there was no way to tell how far up Barnabas’ lash marks had branded him. Willie wasn’t about to discover that they were high on his back by taking his clothes off in front of Irene. Uh uh. No way. Not in this lifetime, sister. And what if she noted bruises, welts, open wounds leading down to his waistband?  What then? Take off his pants?  Willie shuddered at the thought. God help him, no. He wasn’t going to do it.

 

“I’m . . . I’m sorry, Missus Pereira,” he said, as though he wasn’t horrified by her suggestion that he disrobe, “but I’d just as soon keep it on.”

 

Irene shook her head. “If I wrap your arm while you are wearing your shirt, we’ll have to cut it off you in the morning. You’ll never get the sleeve over the bandaging otherwise.”

 

“Then maybe we better just leave it alone,” Willie shot back. “I mean,” he amended, realizing his rudeness, “it doesn’t hurt that much anyway. Maybe it’s not broken at all. Just bruised or somethin’?”

 

His words trailed off into Irene’s patient silence. She was looking at him with a deep, disconcerting honesty. An honesty that was difficult not to trust. That much she shared with her cousin Gina. That and those plum dark eyes.

 

“Willie,” Irene said at last. “I think I should tell you. I know it isn’t just your arm that’s hurt.”

 

She put out a hand to stay him when he moved to rise from the bed, anxious as he was to get away from her before she saw too much of the truth. Willie froze beneath that gentle imperative and trembled, his breath caught in a chest that was suddenly too tight to hold air.

 

“Gina didn’t tell me,” she assured him quietly. “She didn’t have to. I can see that you’re in pain. I could see it all day while you sat with Gina and held Danny and talked to the doctors. You’ve been so brave. So giving of your-self.” She patted his knee, grandmother to grandson. “But you don’t have to be brave anymore. Not with me.”

 

“Missus Pereira. . . .”  Willie’s protest stumbled past fear into open embarrassment. Not just because Irene had realized that he was hurt in a way that he didn’t want to talk about, but because she spoke of his perfectly ordinary actions as though they were more than they were. Willie couldn’t take credit for standing around in a hospital all day while Gina tended to her injured daughter. What kind of jerk would he be if he did?

 

“Willie,” Irene continued calmly, as though he hadn’t spoken. “I’ve seen a lot in my time. I told you. There is nothing beneath that shirt that I haven’t seen before.”

 

Willie swallowed, not looking at her. “Wh . . . what are you, then?  Some kinda nurse?”

 

“WAAC.”

 

“Huh?” He looked up, puzzled at the abrasive sound that didn’t have any meaning for him.

 

“Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps,” Irene said. “I served in World War II.”

 

“You were a soldier?” For a moment, fascination over-rode his distress, and Willie found himself leaning forward on the bed, curious for more of his hostess’ story.

 

“Not a soldier exactly.”  Irene’s lips made a disapproving moue. “We didn’t get full military status until 1943. But I served as a nurse. And yes, I was on the front lines. I wasn’t the only woman there, Willie. There were plenty of us serving then, just as there are now, in Vietnam. The names they call our units have changed, but our duties are much as they were. Some of us are there to tend the wounded.”

 

She reached out and rested her hand, very gently, across his broken forearm. Willie felt the pressure and almost gasped before he realized that her touch was so compassionate that the press of her fingers didn’t hurt.

 

“I promise you, Willie,” she said, the seriousness of the situation standing dark in her eyes, “I will never tell anyone what I see if you take your shirt off for me. I will do what I can to help you and that will be the end of it. I will never mention it to another soul.”

 

“Not….” Willie cleared his throat. “Not even to Gina?”

 

“Not even to Gina.”

 

“But what if she asks?”  Willie tried to clear his throat again and couldn’t. He was mortified to realize that he was on the verge of tears. Heat gathered behind his eyes and he blinked it away, even as other tears gathered and trembled, ready to fall.

 

“She will never ask. Never. You know that.”  Irene’s hand moved up to stroke Willie’s tousled hair. “She will never ask and I will never tell her. I promise.”

 

Willie didn’t answer. What else could he do?

 

He was hurt. He did need help. And he trusted Irene. She was a part of Gina, in a way. An older, less serous version of her, maybe, but like her inside, where it counted. And Gina, he knew, would never deliberately hurt him.

 

Willie swallowed a sob, then lifted clumsy fingers to the buttons of his shirt. Irene moved to help him and he let her, raising his good hand over her head so he could flick water from his eyes without her seeing him do it. On top of everything else she was about to discover, he couldn’t bear it if she saw him cry.

 

“Easy now,” Irene murmured, sliding the shirt from Willie’s body as naturally as she had the robe. “Easy now, Willie. Don’t you worry. It’s all going to be just fine.”