Title: Counting Costs
Author: N.J. Nidiffer
Genre/Rating: Gen/PG
Word Count: 3,117
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 15)
Summary: Willie receives a terrible phone call from Gina Lee. Polly’s been hurt, is in the hospital, and might die. He’s promises Gina that he’ll be there as soon as he can, even though there’s no way he can do this.
A/N: I was in tears the first time I read this.

***

A flurry of erasing tore the grubby leaf trapped beneath his hand as the overworked paper finally wore through. Willie puffed away the pile of pink shavings with a single, resigned breath and held up the sheet to examine the damage.

No saving it. The formula was obliterated from marking and erasing and marking again. Nothing was left but a ragged-edged hole.


An inconvenience. A minor one that might have caused him to spit out a curse and crumple up the paper in a frustrated fist, had it happened a month or so earlier. But as it was Willie merely slid the ruined sheet aside and pulled down a new one so he could copy down the formula the guy at the hardware store had written out for him.

 

Gallons  x (Total surface area)

sq. ft.

 

It was simple, the shopkeeper had promised him. Figure out the surface area of the section of roof that needed resealing — another formula even more confusing than the one that followed it, considering the convoluted shape of the leaking dormer. Find the coverage factor listed on the side of the sealant can and flip the numbers upside down. Then multiply the two.

 

Easy.

 

Only it wasn’t easy. Not easy at all for a man who sometimes still relied on counting on his fingers when making change. Willie understood money, all right, but any kind of higher math was beyond him. He had finished the sixth grade, but had stopped paying attention to math lessons long before that. He could add and subtract and divide and multiply — up to a point. But figuring out how much sealant he needed to fix a leaky roof was algebra, and therefore out of his league. He wasn’t even sure he had the surface area of the dormer right, and without that the whole formula was just so much guesswork. He could get just as accurate a result by flipping a coin: heads equaled one can of sealant, tails equaled five.

 

It was important that he get it right, though. At least somewhere in the ballpark, because Barnabas disapproved of wasting money. If Willie bought twice as many cans of sealant than he actually needed to do the job, the master of the Old House would not be pleased at the surplus cans stacked inside the tool shed. Similarly, if Willie purchased fewer cans than he required, and then had to stop working so he could go into town to replenish his supply, Barnabas would be annoyed by the delay. It was better for Willie to fight his way through the formula than to provoke the vampire’s ever-simmering censure over such a preventable thing.

 

1 g.  x  600 sq. ft. =

80 sq. ft.

 

The numbers were written carefully, painfully, in Willie’s plain, blocky style. He nipped his tongue between his teeth and scratched his head with the pencil eraser, thinking he would trade all the jewels in the Collins treasury for a slide rule and the wit to use it right about now. Outside the kitchen window a wisp of wind blew scales of mackerel cloud across the sky, blotting out the sun, reminding Willie that if he was going to finish this project before another spring storm hit, he better get with the program pretty damned quick. A squall was coming, and with it the rain that would continue to damage the ceilings of the Old House until Willie got the last of the leakage under control.

 

An unexpected sound echoing from the front of the house made him look up from his scribbling. Willie held his breath, listening hard, until the knock came again, muted beneath the moan of wind whispering around the eaves.

 

Someone was at the front door. And it was only four o’clock in the afternoon, a good three hours before the earliest moment that Barnabas, slumbering in his coffin in the basement, might hope to wake.

 

Another inconvenience. But Willie didn’t feel his frustration level rise. There was very little that bothered him anymore, at least when it came to the small stuff like torn sheets of paper and unwanted trespassers at the door. Unrelieved grief had numbed him so thoroughly that only the sharpest needles of life truly stung him anymore. The rest were pinpricks he ignored, plodding forward in his work at the Old House, doing what Barnabas demanded of him without question or concern, merely interested in exhausting himself to the point where he might sleep without dreams.

 

The knock came again, harder this time. Willie got up from the kitchen table and made his way through the servants’ hall and the parlor to the front foyer, where the big double doors loomed like thick-bodied sentries to the outside world. He unlatched the brass lock he had installed himself the previous winter and turned the doorknob, lifting upward as he did so to compensate for the swollen threshold birthed by a damp spring.

 

Victoria Winters was waiting on the other side. A pretty, dark-eyed girl in a modest dress and matching coat, a sky-blue ribbon holding back a sweep of thick black hair that was fluttering in streamers in the chill spring wind.

 

“Vicki!” Willie exclaimed. He let her in with a livelier interest than any other stimulus had wrung from him that afternoon. Here was the answer to his problem. Vicki was a governess, wasn’t she?  She knew all kinds of stuff. Surely she could work out the formula that had stumped him since lunchtime.

 

“Hello, Willie. I’m glad you’re home.”

 

“Barnabas, isn’t…ah…here. But…”  He meant to ask her if she would hold on a minute while he got his paper and pencil from the kitchen, but Vicki, usually so faultlessly polite that she was almost a caricature of gentility, interrupted him.

 

“It isn’t Barnabas I came to see. I came to see you, Willie, to give you a message. You must come back with me to the Great House at once.”

 

“Go with you?” Willie repeated, puzzled. “But why…wait a minute, nothin’s happened to Mrs. Johnson, has it?  She hasn’t wrecked that heap of hers…”

 

Willie was thinking of the housekeeper whose car he had once repaired. He had advised her then to go to Roger Collins and request a safer vehicle, but the stubborn old woman hadn’t yet done it. She was still driving a clunker whose brakes could fail on any hill or curve. If the car was giving her trouble now she’d be looking for Willie to fix it.

 

“No, Mrs. Johnson is fine. But Gina Logan called for you. She asked that you be at the Great House in half an hour so she can call you again. She said it was urgent that she speak to you as soon as possible.”

 

Willie’s heart stopped within his chest. His mouth dropped open. “G…gina called for me?  On the telephone?”   Of course on the telephone, what else would she use, smoke signals?  “Wh…what did she want?  Did she say?”  Willie restrained himself from grabbing Vicki by the shoulders so he could shake an answer out of her. “Did she sound okay?  What’s happened?”

 

“She didn’t say. She only asked that I find you and have you at the Great House in half an hour.”

 

“Well, let’s go.”  Willie shoveled Vicki out the door and followed her, so close on her heels that he almost tripped her up. He didn’t stop for his coat, for his keys, or even to lock the door behind him. All of that unimportant stuff could wait if Gina said she needed him. “I mean, she didn’t sound upset, did she?  Or nervous or anythin’?”

 

“No. She sounded quite calm. She was very polite. But she was insistent that I find you as soon as possible.”

 

“Hope nothin’s wrong,” Willie muttered under his breath. He realized he was leaving Vicki in the dust and tried to make himself shorten his stride, but anxiety was pushing him forward like hounds nipping at his heels. A cold wind blew in from the sea, knifing through his sweater, urging him up the woodland path even faster than before, like a giant icy hand pressed hard between his shoulderblades, pushing him along.

 

Nothing in Gina’s last letter had hinted at trouble. Polly was zooming though the first grade — she was the math whiz that Willie wasn’t, even if she was only up to counting apples and oranges. Daniel was starting to open up with another family member to talk to. He had taken to his mother’s cousin like a duck to a junebug and reportedly had more to say to her than he had bothered to confide in anyone in all of his three years of life, Willie included. Carla had begun to crawl and was always into something. Gina had taken to installing latches on cabinets to keep her daughter’s curious fingers out of harm’s way.

 

Maybe something had happened to the baby?  But Vicki had said that Gina didn’t sound upset. Maybe she was just calling to check up on him. Find out how he was doing. Willie answered her letters faithfully now that Barnabas insisted he do so, but he didn’t have much to say other than “I’m fine” and “how are you” and “tell the kids hello.” What was he supposed to say?  “I miss you?”  “Come home?”  He couldn’t say any of that. Gina was better off where she was. She was safe in San Diego. Willie mustn’t ever say anything to her that might bring her back to Collinsport, within Barnabas’ easy reach.

 

But…

 

She was calling long distance when she had no money. Every penny Gina earned went into the nursery that she and her Cousin Irene had started. There was nothing to spare.

 

She wasn’t calling to check up on him. Something was wrong.

 

Willie all but sprinted the last ten yards to the Great House. He waited for Vicki to catch up and open the door for him, then followed her to the table in the foyer where the telephone squatted like a blind, black toad, ugly in its refusal to ring.

 

“Come into the drawing room and sit down, Willie. You still have a few minutes until she calls.”  Vicki was shedding her coat, shaking her long hair into order after having it mussed by the wind. “I’m sure everything will be all right. Try not to worry. At least until you know there is something to worry about.”

 

“She’s never tried to call me before,” Willie said nervously. “She wouldn’t, unless something was wrong. If it was good news she would write to me. Wouldn’t she? I mean, she’s doin’ okay out there in California, but she hasn’t struck gold or anythin’ like that. She’s still scrapin’ by. She wouldn’t call unless…”

 

The phone rang. Willie snatched the receiver from its cradle.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Willie?”

 

“Yes!  Gina, are you okay?”

 

Her first inquiry had sounded calm enough. But now his ear was full of static, a breathy, ocean-shushing noise that Willie finally realized was not interference from wind blowing through the wires, but Gina sobbing into the phone.

 

“Oh Jesus,” he whispered. “Gina. Honey, what’s wrong?  Tell me what’s wrong.”

 

“Willie, I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “Wait a minute.”  The line went silent for a moment as Gina put the receiver down. Willie could hear rustling in the background as though she was breathing deeply, trying to gain control of herself. Then there was a click as the receiver snicked against some obstruction as she picked it up and returned it to her ear.

 

“Willie?”

 

“I’m here, honey. What’s happened? Tell me what’s wrong.”

 

“Polly’s in the hospital,” Gina said. After her outburst of weeping her voice sounded high and tight, as though she’d been breathing helium, but Willie knew she was only forcing the words out through a throat constricted with tears. “She ran in front of her school bus. The driver tried to stop but…but he couldn’t before he hit her.”

 

“Oh my god.”  Willie closed his eyes.

 

She’s not dead, she’s not dead, she’s in the hospital, she’s not dead.

 

“Willie, she’s in intensive care. They’ve got her sedated most of the time, but when she wakes up she’s asking for you.”

 

Polly. Pretty, impulsive, strong-willed Polly, who kept dashing into the road even after her mother and her best pal Willie had warned her to stop. For a moment Willie imagined the child as he had last observed her, curled on the Pederson’s couch with her little brother Daniel, napping the afternoon away with her lips curved in a soft cupid’s pout, a wisp of black hair clinging to her sleep-flushed cheek. Then the image behind his closed eyelids wavered and changed, grotesque in its realism, as though the accident was happening directly in front of him with Willie powerless to stop it. The innocence of a little girl snugged into a nap with her baby brother became the horror of a bloody-haired child in a plaid shirt and a denim jumper bouncing off the fender of a school bus to skitter bonelessly across the asphalt, landing in a heap in the gutter like a battered, broken doll.

 

God, no.

 

Willie’s eyes snapped open.

 

He had to get to her. Tonight, if it was humanly possibly. She was hurt. She was asking for him, for Christ’s sake. How could he do anything else?

 

You can’t go. You can’t. Barnabas will never let you. And you can’t leave unless he says you can. Hell, you can’t even get past the village limits without his okay!

 

“I’ll be there as quick as I can,” Willie blurted. “Gina, where are you?  Which hospital?”  He turned to Vicki and gestured frantically for something to write on. Vicki brought him a pad and pencil, her dark eyes wide with worry.

 

Gina gave him the hospital, along with the number of the room where she would most likely be waiting. “They won’t let me stay with her in intensive care,” Gina wept. “They might move her to the children’s ward in a day or two, but until then I only see her a few hours a day. Willie, they won’t let me stay with my baby.”

 

Strong, steadfast Gina reduced to helplessness. Willie would never have believed it if he hadn’t heard it for himself. But it wasn’t the doctors and nurses that were keeping Gina away. It was the extent of Polly’s injuries. It had to be. Otherwise they’d let the girl’s mother keep vigil by her bedside. Wouldn’t they?  Who would be hard-hearted enough to refuse her that?

 

“Gina, you just sit tight. I’m on my way.”  Not that he could do anything, even assuming he got there, but he’d worry about that later. If he could convince Barnabas to let him go to San Diego, bullying a doctor into letting Gina stay in the same room with her daughter ought to be a piece of cake. “You tell Polly I love her, hear me?  Tell her Willie’s coming to see her. Tell her anything you have to.”  Just keep her alive until I get there. “I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

 

“Thank you, Willie. We’ll be waiting for you.”  Gina choked on her tears. “But…Willie, please hurry. Please hurry.”

 

The pleading told him what Gina couldn’t bring herself to say. Please hurry, or she may not be here by the time you get here. She’s hurt that bad. Bad enough to die.

 

Polly, dead at the age of seven. Who could ever conceive of such a thing?

 

Jesus jumpin’ Christ, Willie thought, sick to his stomach with dread. I never got to hug her good-bye. Not Polly or Gina or any of them.

 

The receiver clicked in his ear as Gina hung up. Willie put down the phone, his hand quivering with adrenaline. He felt as though someone had stuck a cattle prod to his kidneys and hit him with a hundred volts, straight through the skin.

 

“I gotta get to California,” he said. He looked at Vicki, eyes wide with dismay. “How the hell am I going to get to California?”

 

“I’ll call the train station,” Vicki said. “If there’s an express I’ll find it for you. You go back to the Old House and pack your suitcase. I’ll bring the schedule to you as soon as I can get it.”

 

“But…”

 

He started to say that he didn’t have a suitcase. That even if he did, he wouldn’t be packing it. It didn’t matter if there was a train leaving within the hour that would drop him on Gina’s doorstep by the day after tomorrow. He couldn’t leave until Barnabas said he could.

 

Willie took a deep breath. He couldn’t worry about that now. He had to take one disaster at a time, the same way he always did. That’s all he could hope to deal with and stay sane.

 

“All right,” he said. “All right, Vicki, thanks. I appreciate the help.”

 

He felt Vicki catch his hand. The contact shocked through the electricity that was buzzing through him, steadying him like a cable anchoring a ship in a storm.

 

“Something’s happened to Polly Logan,” Vicki said. “Willie, what is it?  What else can I do to help?”

 

“She ran in front of her school bus,” Willie said. His voice sounded unnaturally calm in his own ears. Only a little shaky, and that was from adrenaline overload. “She’s in intensive care. Gina says she askin’ for me. I gotta get there. Get there quick.”

 

“Oh, that poor little girl,” Vicki breathed. “Oh, Willie. You’d better hurry and pack what you need. I’ll call the airport and get plane schedules, too. All right?”

 

Planes were quicker than trains. If Polly was so badly hurt, the hours saved could make the difference between Willie seeing her or not.

 

But where could he get the money for a ticket?  Plane or train, it had to come from Barnabas. Willie had no money of his own. There was no other way.

 

“Willie.” Vicki pushed him toward the door. “Go!”

 

Willie didn’t answer. He only nodded and headed across the foyer, where Barnabas’ portrait glared at him with red-tinged black eyes as he made his way out.

 

He had to get back to the Old House. Not to pack. But to figure out what he would say to Barnabas when the vampire finally rose.

 

The guy at the hardware store had said that there was a solution for every equation. Willie only prayed that he was right.