Title: Home Among the Dead
Author: Sylvia Bond
Word Count: 22,262
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 18)
Summary: Willie visits the Logan family in California and does his best to take care of them. Unfortunately, he’s only got a week, because Barnabas is expecting him back. Gina doesn’t want him to go and Willie doesn’t want to leave her. But with Barnabas’ threats hanging over his head, each day brings him closer to the ultimate parting.
A/N: Barnabas deserves a stake through the heart for being such a jerk. Perhaps, one day, he’ll get what he deserves.
Of modern morals, the beaten road Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread, Who travel to their home among the dead By the broad highway of the world, and so With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe, The dreariest and the longest journey go.
Remember, Willie, no situation will ever take you out of my reach.
He awoke with a jerk, feeling the press of a slight weight against his chest just as his mind swam up through layers of cotton wool and the dull grey awakening from exhausted sleep. His left arm felt tight and stiff and seemed to be detached from him and hooked over the weight at the same time. He took a breath to see if that would ease it some, and found it did only along one side, and then heard the returning sigh of someone close by. His eyes opened to see the black thatch of Danny’s hair pushing up from beneath his chin and the slightly curled and rather small hand tucked up against him. He was in a bed, he recalled lying down on it and someone saying something about rest and after that it was all dark. And Danny was now sleeping next to him, wedged in close, baking with warmth.
Danny stirred and Willie froze, not wanting to wake him, not wanting to bump his arm, so recently tended to by Irene. The room around him was dim, as if someone had drawn the curtains against the dawn, but the soft brightness and warmth of it eked through to him just the same, and the faint smell of something cooking not too far off. The air was peaceful but waiting, as if for an announcement or some other gratefully awaited message.
Or for you to get up.
Yes, that was probably it. Time to get up anyway, he wanted to go see Polly again and the smell of bacon pushed its way under the door. He’d not eaten in what felt like ages.
A faint knock came at the door.
“Willie, are you awake, son?”
For a second, Willie froze; no one had called him that since Gran had died, and he half expected it to be her when the door opened. And in a way it was. Irene came in, gently, as if expecting to see him still asleep, a dish-towel in her hand. Willie felt the scents from the kitchen swirl around her, and his stomach began to wake up, too. Her eyes caught his, and the cotton sheeting beneath him crinkled as he felt his body move back as she came closer. Barnabas would have walked in on him, not at dawn, no, but like that, coming forward, and he made himself stop. This was Irene and Gina’s house, not the Old House, though the voice in his head echoed even now. He didn’t want Barnabas in his head, not when Irene was standing there looking at him, a soft, good-morning smile on her face. Barnabas didn’t deserve to be any part of this household.
He made himself answer her. “Yeah,” he said, “but I don’t know about—”
Willie lifted his hand to wave it over the back of Danny’s head, watching as Irene nodded and then reached for the boy, pulling back the blankets just enough to pull him up in her arms. Danny was still nodding with sleep, and Willie pulled the blankets close to himself again.
“He needs to get up too,” she said, “we’ll have some-thing to eat and go to the hospital as soon as visiting hours start.” Irene snugged Danny close to her, and he opened his eyes in her arms as he looked down at Willie.
“Willie,” Danny said. “Willie, get up.”
“Okay, kiddo,” said Willie, feeling something bright bubble inside him. Beyond that, beyond the bright spring of hunger and the warm air that moved all through his bones, he could sense the cold air of winter. It lurked even now. He would be going back to
“Gina made that hash brown casserole you like so well. She made enough for an army, but said that you’ll probably eat most of it.”
His mouth began to water and the winds of winter were doused by the sudden crackly memory of potatoes hot out of the oven. He would keep the winter at bay, and in the meantime, he would try not to make a liar out of Gina.
And indeed he did not. The
Gina passed the hash brown casserole to him for the third time and he heaped his plate full with it. Not easy when he really only had the use of one arm, but he managed to fake it, setting down the dish as if it were very hot.
“You’ve missed my cooking I see,” she said, her voice smiling even as she looked tired enough to go right back to bed. He would bet all the money in his wallet, as yet unspent, that she’d not slept at all the night before.
“Only this casserole,” he replied, trying to be serious and failing.
Irene was just opening up her mouth to say something, in kind, Willie assumed, when Gina placed her hand on his arm. It was his left arm, and he counted each of her loving pats as he gritted his teeth and hung on. Hung on while her large, dark eyes sparked with moisture and held his gaze.
“Polly’s missed you, and Danny too.” Something hard grew in her voice, hard enough to break open in a heartbeat if she would let it. “I’ve missed you, Willie.”
An oddness struck him full on for the first time. Here he was, living with Gina and her family. For a span of days, finite in number, but stretching, at that moment, for-ever before him. A good, kind, decent woman, laying a bed for him, setting a place for him at her table. Sharing the space beneath her roof, at ease enough not to be alarmed that her son, her darling boy, had wandered down the hall in the wee hours of the morning to snuggle beneath the covers with him. A welcomed man. Not the stranger who at one point in time had been at the bottom of the list of people with who she’d want to pass on the street, let alone associate with. Patting his arm, her voice breaking because she’d missed him. Missed him. As much as he’d missed her, maybe more. And he’d not known.
Willie was long past being puzzled as to their friendship, or so he’d thought. The long span of time since he’d seen her last, since he’d sat at her table, been plied with warm, comforting food, now brought the situation to his attention.
This is what Barnabas doesn’t get.
Sometimes he didn’t get it either.
But that didn’t spoil the pleasure, the healing plea-sure deep inside of him, even as her fingers circled his forearm. Then her fingers tightened around the bandage beneath his sleeve and he had to duck his head to hide his wince, and then Irene came to his aid.
“Let the boy go and finish his breakfast, Gina,” she said, scooting her chair back. “Besides, I want to show him something.”
Gina released his arm, the blood singing now through his bones, trying to carry away the pain and failing. But she looked away, down at her own hands, not seeing the white sweat that felt like it was popping out of his skin. Instead, she watched as Irene picked up a narrow black box and placed it on the table between them. Danny watched them with silent eyes as Carla ignored them to stuff cereal bits into her mouth. Danny knew what it was, and as he laid eyes on it, so did Willie. It was the pencil box. Now scratched up a bit, but remarkably clean for the wear. Irene reached down to pop open the lid.
That’s all there was left. A rainbow of stubs, sharpened and at the ready, but left with only an inch or so of life, regardless of how many fields of flowers there were still left to be drawn. His throat thickened as he reached out the edge of his fingers to touch them. “I’ll—” he said, his voice husky, “I’ll get her some more.”
“Oh, Willie, no,” said Gina, “they’re so expensive, I know they are. I’ve priced them in the shops, and—”
“Let the boy be,” said Irene, shutting the box with a snap and taking it from the table. “And you all stop mooning over breakfast, we’ve got chores to do and then it’s off to the hospital you go. I’ll stay with Danny and the baby and go visit her this afternoon. Doctor said only so many visitors at a time.”
This clear speech was accompanied by a no-non-sense picking up of dirty plates and stacking them by the sink. Gina stirred, and Willie saw how good Irene was. How she knew when to say when, and how without her his sturdy, ever-brave Gina would have been as lost as a soul in the mist.
Gina watched Willie come to the breakfast table on the second morning. He was like an old man, shuffling slow, chin tucked to his chest. He barely seemed able to put one foot in front of the other, or maybe he was studying the pattern of the floor. Either way, his eyes were still half closed when he sat down opposite her. He squinted at her then, and blinked, as if remembering where he was, and why. Hair hung in his eyes, early morning stubble glinted on his chin, and for a moment his face was still. Then he smiled at her, flashing his teeth, and she got the very distinct impression that he was doing it for her benefit, rather than because he felt like it.
“Hey, is that coffee I smell?”
Gina jumped up to get it for him, pouring it into a cup, but leaving enough room at the top for his cream and sugar. She sat back down and pushed the bowl closer to him so that he wouldn’t have to reach, and leaned her chin in her hands to watch. Sure enough, he streamed the sugar in, four or five teaspoons at least, and then almost emptied the carton of cream. The coffee was milky white, almost, by the time he got to stirring it. The spoon went round and round, and she could tell he was thinking of something bright and cheerful to say to her, even while still waking up. For her, to distract and entertain, and she mentally shook her head. That he had come this far was enough; he didn’t have to be her one-man band.
And the bandage he had on one arm, wrapped from wrist to elbow beneath his rolled-up sleeves. She didn’t remember him having that on the first night, oh so long ago, when he’d arrived at the hospital like tumbled paper. He had it now, though, and was favoring that arm in an almost unconscious way, as if to say, yes, well, this part of me hurts now, so I won’t use it. As if another part of him would hurt the next day, and another the next, each day a completely different part, so commonplace as to not invite notice.
“Hey, Willie,” she said to get her mind off of this, the subject that wouldn’t go away but that could never be spoken of, “you know, you don’t have to spend the whole day at the hospital. Polly knows you’re here, and that what counts.”
The coffee cup stopped halfway to his mouth, brows dipping low over eyes that, for a moment, darkened with a flash of anger. “I’m gonna see her every day while I’m here,” he said. “Unless you don’t want me to.” There was a question there that he did not ask.
Gina shook her head. “Oh, no, that’s not it at all, I just figured—”
“Well, you figured wrong, okay?” It was almost a snap, but not quite. “I’m gonna see her every day, in the morning, like, and then, in the afternoons, if you’re willing to let me, I’ll work on the house. Fix things?”
Fix things? Her mind chased this a moment, wanting to tell him no, and then she realized it had never occurred to her. For a man used to doing repairs without the benefit of any electricity at all, doing anything else would be a snap, even favoring one arm. And he would feel useful. Needed. Men liked that. Ez sure had. He’d always loved it when she would greet him at the door with a stuck window or plumbing problem. It had made him feel powerful, he always told her. Well, at least in the old days. In the beginning.
Still, the usual courtesies applied. “Oh, I don’t know, Willie,” she said, making herself look doubtful. “I don’t want you working when you should be resting, you know?”
“Resting is the last thing I wanna do, okay? I’d rather be busy, so I don’t think so much.”
She didn’t have to ask him why.
Oh, that look. Blue-sky eyed. Impossible to resist, so why even try? She sighed and pretended to be reluctant. “Well, okay, if you insist.”
“But not too much, okay? I know you can find your-self mischief to get into, but I’d rather not have to call the ambulance because you fell off the roof, you hear me?”
“I hear ya,” he said, ducking his head to suck at the edge of the cup. He’d wrapped both hands around it as if to warm them. As if preparing for a long, chilly day doing his boss’s bidding in that ice cave of a dwelling. As if totally unaware that he was actually in southern
Irene arrived in the kitchen with Danny in her arms, still for all the world asleep, and Gina made herself let go of the bright anger that snapped in her head when she thought of that man and his arrogant attitude. It wouldn’t help Willie, or herself, and saying exactly what she felt at that moment would only upset Danny. And she didn’t want to see, yet again, the expression on Willie’s face when she went on a tirade about his boss. It made him all yes and no and hangdog at the same time, shoulders slumped, the sad darkness across his eyes like a cloud. He couldn’t and wouldn’t change his circumstances and she couldn’t very well yell him into doing it.
She let herself get caught up in the making of break-fast, helping to settle Danny in his chair, frying bacon till it was done and then doing the eggs sunnyside up. There was no potato casserole to go with this, but she fried some bread in the grease and then salted it. Watched as Willie bit into it, could almost imagine his tongue start up with surprise; the grease and the salt together soothed even the most aggressive lover of fried things. Irene settled for a corner of the treat to nibble on, leaving Willie and Danny to polish the pile off between them. A pot of coffee disappeared, and the rest of the milk as well, and Irene allowed that if Gina went off with Willie, she, Irene would take herself to the grocers with Danny, and the dishes could wait till later. At which point Gina found herself hustled into their old car and driven to the hospital by Willie with as much ease as if he’d been there a hundred times instead of only a handful.
The hospital, when they arrived, was quiet, the parking lot half empty. Perhaps the major accidents only happened on the weekends or maybe the emergencies waited until dark, she didn’t know. Willie was able to park quite close to the door they needed to go into, and after going up the corridor on the 3rd floor a short ways, they were met by a nurse. This was a new nurse, different from the one the night before, though she seemed to know them. She looked at them and then stopped them, pulling them to the attendant desk.
“Dr. Larson is going to need to speak with you,” she said, “but he’s with a patient right now. After you visit Polly, will you wait in the lounge? He shouldn’t be long.”
“Yes, certainly,” said Gina, wondering how long was not too long. “Is it Polly he wants to see us about?”
“No,” the nurse shook her head. “I believe it’s paper-work that needs to be filled out. Polly is stable, and they should be able to move her out of ICU towards the end of the week, if her chart is anything to go by.”
Willie and Gina nodded, and she heard him mutter something under his breath about hospitals and their promises. Still, it made her smile. That Willie was complaining meant that he felt relaxed enough to think he could.
Polly was asleep when they came in and looked too peaceful to disturb. But Gina kissed her and could see that Willie could barely pay attention to anything beyond the cast and the monitors to realize that she was asleep and not unconscious. For a moment the little girl woke up, and Willie leaned in to pet her hair and give her a smile before she slipped back into sleep again.
As they left the room, she felt she would never get the smell of hospital cleanser out of her system. It was soaking into her so that she almost didn’t notice it, though it would take her a while longer, she felt, to not notice the constant undercurrent of noise.
“Willie,” she said, “here,” she reminded him by tugging on his shirt. “We’ve got to wait in here.”
The little lounge was small, with a few chairs and one low-backed bench. The lighting was more subdued than in the hallway, and Gina sank into one of the chairs with a sigh. “I’d be great if I had a cup of coffee,” she said, more to herself than anyone.
But Willie, true to his nature, gave her a quick nod and stepped through the door, as if it had been an order she’d given him instead of just a request. He would hunt for coffee for her until he found it, and all she had to do was wait. How they would ever have managed without him? They would have managed, to be sure, but not very well. As she sat there, her gratitude turned into thoughts of him traveling here, and how long it would take to get home, and then, at the end of this, why, indeed, should he go home at all? But as he stepped back through the door-way with two cups of coffee, she knew she could not ask him. Not yet. Not with the painful picture of Polly in that bed, or under the wheels of the bus, so raw and sharp. He would only turn her down flat and she didn’t think she could bear it.
“Were you able to find sugar and cream for your-self?” she asked, taking one of the cups from him.
He landed himself in the chair next to her and lowered the cup to show her. She could see that he had. The coffee was almost white. “I think this might be real cream,” he said, taking a sip. “Course, the doctor’s lounge would be stocked up on all the best stuff.”
“Oh, Willie,” she said, not able to not laugh. He gave her a smile, wicked lights in his eyes, and she could not scold him.
Then the door to the lounge opened. In walked Harvey Weathers, looking about as hang-dogged as any a man could ever possibly be. If he’d had a hat, he’d be wrenching it between his hands. As always, his grey hair was cut short, his but-ton down short-sleeved shirt was neat and tucked in. A polished belt held up his pants, and the workingman shoes barely made it across the threshold when she stood up and held out her hands.
“It’s so good of you to come, Mr. Weathers,” she said. “Thank you so much, I know Polly will want to see you.”
“I hope it’s okay that I came, missus,” he said, in that careful way he had. “They said you were here, and I wanted to hear the good news in person; I don’t think I could bear it if anything more happened to that little girl.”
She could hear his heart breaking in his voice, seethe quiver as he shook her hand with both of his and held it. He was tearing himself up inside over what had happened, something which was everybody’s fault, and nobody’s. And his eyes were sincere, even as they could be tough. He would have to be tough to drive school bus of ornery, lively school kids back and forth every day.
As she looked back, she saw Willie put down his coffee cup and stand up. He wasn’t exactly wary as though waiting for danger, but he did seem extra-alert. His eyes flicked over Mr. Weathers, and she realized with a little snap that he had no idea who the other man was. Naturally he’d be curious, and he was, coming forward with a nod that told her he wanted to be introduced.
“Willie Loomis!” said
Willie shook the hand that was offered him, still puzzled, his brows drawing low. And a second before Gina opened her mouth to finish what she had been about to say, she knew she should not have. But it was too late.
“—bus driver, our bus driver. Polly’s bus driver.”
“Bus driver?” asked Willie, as if she’d suddenly used a word that was foreign to him. He was only looking at
“Willie, it’s not his fault.” She spoke quickly, but not quickly enough. “You know Polly, you know that girl, she would dash into a speedway without even a thought, no matter how many times we told her. Or that you told her, she never listened, she—”
In under a second, Willie’s jaw came down, his shoulders rounded, and on his face, an expression, caved-in dark, eyes narrowed as if he’d learned it somewhere, and it took her a second to realize where. Barnabas Collins had had that look when Willie had ended up in the emergency room, and then at Christmas, and then—well, frankly she couldn’t say when she’d seen him without it. And now. Now, there was a second, a sparked pause as Willie seemed to be trying to keep himself in check. To keep an explosion tamped tightly down. To reason his way through what ought to be. But as this unraveled, Gina felt as if she was watching the rage of years surface in his face and in his hands and she opened her mouth, searching for the one thing she could say to stop him.
But it was too late. Willie, fists flashing forward to grab Harvey Weathers by his freshly ironed lapels. Pushing the other man against the wall, slamming his head with a hard thunk. Poor
“Say your prayers, old man,” said Willie in a razor-edged voice. “You can’t just run over a little kid and expect to get away with it.” Hands tightening on
“I didn’t mean to, Mr. Loomis,” said
“I don’t give a crap about that,” said Willie tightening his grip. “You think you’re fucked up now, you wait till I get—”
“Willie,” she said.
He ignored her.
“Willie!” She reached out to touch him and he twitched her hand away.
In another second, he was going to strike and she had to stop him.
Knees shaking, she moved in close and slipped into the circle of Willie’s arms. In between the sweating fear of Harvey Weathers, and the tight, cold-strung barrier of Willie’s chest. He looked at her, blinking. Breath coming fast.
“Gina, move out of the way.” Grating, as though dragged over rocks.
“No.” Her own voice quavered. The pupils of Willie’s eyes were entirely black, and he’d gone white. “You stop this, Willie Loomis.”
His shoulders were bunching, he was drawing one arm back, a fist ready to strike.
Placing her hands on his chest, she could feel the pound of his heart beneath her palms.
“Don’t be like this,” she said, low. “Don’t be like this, it won’t save Polly, it won’t, Willie. Willie . . . don’t be like him.”
He knew who she meant without her actually having to say a name aloud. He was shivering now, skin growing hot beneath his shirt, and he looked at her. Wincing as if she’d wounded him. Somewhere deep, where he would never recover.
“Gina,” he whispered.
With a snap, his fist seared the air beside her head. She heard the crash and closed her eyes, cringing in the circle of his chest. Bam! Bam! Bam! the hard push of Willie’s shoulder banging into her each time, and then
“I’ll go, missus,” said
“Yes,” she said, watching him go, reaching for Willie, who danced out of her reach, just too far for her fingers to touch.
“Willie,” she said, “don’t look at me like that, please. You would have hated yourself in the morning for hurting
But he was gone. Hopefully in a different direction than
The hospital walls closed in on him and he couldn’t bear to visit Polly. Not now. Not just yet. Not when his hatred for Harvey Weathers burned through him like a fever. Polly needed someone upbeat just now, someone who could smile and pat her hand and bring her sweet toys to distract her from her discomfort.
Polly needed someone else.
He felt like he was on fire from the inside out. It felt like it did when he was younger, and traveling with Jason, and any feeling he ever had could be immediately expressed. He could beat the crap out of someone and then kick them while they were down. Or romance a lady into his arms in one moment, and then rob her blind the next. Only Barnabas had made a difference in this, only Barnabas had the power to hold him down tightly enough to keep him from doing these things. Except Barnabas wasn’t here, and there was no one to keep him from exploding except himself.
Fists tight, he grabbed for the keys to the car in his pocket and shoved through the glass doors into the parking lot. Pushed past other people, rudely, in a way that Barnabas would not have liked, and found himself on the sunny tarmac looking for an unfamiliar green car. All the cars seemed to be green, and he was lost for a moment, before he remembered he’d parked it next to a parking lot light. As was his custom. No sense trying to fish for keys in the darkness, not anywhere, and especially not in Collinsport. He had learned to look for what was coming at him.
The car presented it to him almost like it had hopped up and bit him and he looked at it. A used car when Gina had bought it shortly after coming out to the coast, and it showed. Balding tires, and engine that wouldn’t pull up a hill, and an odd smell of old milk that not even having all the windows rolled all the way down would dispel. He was sure it could use an oil change at the very least, and he could feel his body relax as he got in and started the engine. Focusing on it, the car, and not on something that lived and breathed, that was the way it needed to be done. Otherwise, he’d march right back into the hospital and remove Mr. Harvey Weathers to some private and dark place, where a disembowelment with a borrowed knife would attract exactly no attention. Even if it would make Gina Lee hate him till the day he died. No one, especially not some fucking old bastard like Weathers, should get away with running over a little girl. A little girl who, for all her experience with the nastier things in life, should not have to worry about large vehicles bearing down on her.
Willie made himself drive out of the parking lot, realized he was still shaking and that his knuckles hurt. And his arm, twinging and spiking with pain under the bandage. He’d used it too hard, holding
The winding boulevard in front of the hospital took him north, and he sucked at the skin, tasting plaster and blood and old dust. A flicker of the Old House rose with the taste, and he pushed it away. It was bad luck, and, even worse, it made his stomach start churning. For a brief moment, it flashed to him what Barnabas would say about the distance between his fist and Harvey Weathers. The hole in the wall he had made instead. And the propensity of street punks to sink to their lowest natures.
Hopefully Barnabas would never hear of it. Gina would never tell him, and
But he did know a good garage when he saw one, which he did, up on the right, looking tidy and somewhat busy. Plus he had a wallet full of cash and nowhere to be very soon. He pulled in to the empty bay, with no prompting from the attendant, turned off the engine and got out of the car.
Any argument about jumping ahead in line was soon forestalled by the flash of bills in his wallet. The manager even came over, the expression on his face telling Willie that the other man expected that Willie might be someone important. A movie star, maybe, come down from
He found the diner and sat on a stool at the counter and waited. He ordered coffee. Then he got a refill and a piece of pie. Finally, he ordered two cheeseburgers and fries and a coke, and ate everything with slow care, keeping other, darker thoughts away by concentrating on the taste. The texture. And the amazement of how good everything tasted when the air around it was warm. When was the last time he’d been warm in Collinsport? Did the sun ever even shine there?
And all the while his thoughts churned, he could see Polly in her hospital bed. Lying there, swathed in casts and bandages. Nasty tubes running in and out of her, the smell of cleaning fluid and iodine the undercurrent to everything.
Well, time enough for that shit later. He’d seen a hardware store on his way down the street, and so he left a five and some quarters to cover his tab and then some, walked out without looking at the bill. Too late he realized he should have gotten a receipt, but a fiver was of no con-sequence, not in the face of five thousand; he shrugged it off and kept walking. Sun on his shoulders, a little, teasing breeze, just smelling the sweet side of salt, and moist. Almost tropical, as if somewhere, quite close, there was a boat with white sails, just prepped and ready to take him out to sea.
The hardware store was small and friendly, with wooden floors and shelves full of goods that looked new and clean. Two clerks at the cash register greeted him with smiles and pleasant hellos. The boss was out, they told him, but they would be happy to fill and hold his order till he came back with the car. Three gallons of basic white paint? Fine. A new toolbox and a box full of standard tools? No problem. Caulking supplies? WD40 oil? Paintbrushes, cleaning rags, a collection of screws and nails? Absolutely. Willie paid for the items up front, took a receipt and stored it away, and then shoved his hands in his pockets and walked.
And walked. And walked.
He didn’t know where he walked to, or for how long. He just kept walking, up one block and down another. Past houses, past shops, more houses, and patches of green studded with palm trees. Walked till the wind started to turn cool, and the cut of salt water began to speak of dusk. He traced his steps some, cut down other blocks, and made his way back to the garage. The car didn’t look brand new with all of its repairs, but with new tires and several hundred dollars worth of work, it felt tighter somehow. Like it could carry Gina and Irene and the kids for many, many miles without trouble. They’d even vacuumed it out and filled it with gas, he noticed, when he got the bill. Didn’t matter. He handed over the cash, got another receipt, and then headed to the hard-ware store to load up. Once done with that, he found an art shop and picked up a box of new drawing pencils. This box was silver, and had at least half a dozen more colors than the first one had. He had them wrap it up, and then he headed back to the hospital to visit Polly and see if Gina Lee was even speaking to him.
She was and she wasn’t.
He found her in the same waiting room where he had left her earlier. Harvey Weathers was nowhere to be seen, and the hole in the wall had been given a first coating of plaster. Gina wasn’t looking at it, or at him, when he came in. She sat in one of the chairs, staring at a middle distance, hands in her lap, purse at her feet. Feet tucked together, she looked like she was waiting for a bus, though such an event shouldn’t leave her looking like she’d been smacked upside the head.
She didn’t look up.
“Gina, are you okay?”
When she did lift her head, her eyes were dark black, every amount of color gone. He wondered how long she’d been sitting there like that. It struck him that she’d gotten some very bad news.
“Is Polly okay?” It was his first thought and he was about to sprint down the hall, when she began to slowly shake her head.
“Then what is it? Gina?”
He knelt down beside her and took her hands in his. They remained clasped and she bent her head over them, sending the dark, inky trails of her hair over her cheek. How much more beautiful she was than when he’d first met her. Bruise free, the side of her face was clear, her shoulders sloped down in a graceful way. Except now, she was tense, her body as tight as if she were about to be shot out of a cannon. He stroked her forearm, wanted her to look at him.
“Gina what happened? Is um….” He wanted to ask about
She took a breath, one that stiffened her shoulders.
“I had a visit from the doctor, Dr. Larsen, just now.”
Willie nodded, keeping his eyes on the side of her face. “Is it about Polly?”
“Yes,” she said. “But not in the way you think.”
“He said,” she began, rubbing her thumb along her knuckle. “He said she was pretty stable, but that they wanted to keep her in ICU for the time being. He said she would need several operations. One for her hip, maybe two, one for her leg, maybe something for her spine. He didn’t go into detail, you know, but it sounded like a lot.”
Nodding, Willie scooted forward, determined to remain right by her side for as long as it took her to say what she had to say.
“Then he said, well, I don’t remember exactly, but, he said she would need physical therapy when she got out of the cast, and in between the operations. A year, perhaps two, if she was to walk again.”
“Walk?” The shock of astonishment rippled through him. “Why wouldn’t she be able to walk?”
“H-her pelvis was broken on one side. Hip . . . and thigh, but he says she’s young and with the right treatment, she’ll make a good recovery. Maybe she’ll limp, but it won’t be noticeable.”
“Not noticeable?” His voice broke. He couldn’t imagine Polly as anything other than the running and active kid that he’d always known. “But if it’s treatable, why’re you—”
“Because.” Now she went white, as if she’d been that way all her life. Stark white, like paper. “Because I have no insurance and they will have to move her to another hospital at the end of the week. When she’s fully stable.”
“But I thought the best treatment was here, in this hospital.”
“It is. But I can’t afford it, and they don’t take on indigent cases. She’ll have to go to a charity hospital. And while they will take care of her anywhere, this hospital specializes in cases like Polly’s.”
Willie could see the problem as if from a long way off and coming closer. Polly needed good care, the best. But Gina couldn’t afford it and the hospital wasn’t willing to foot the bill. She would be moved to a kind of hospital Willie had more than a passing acquaintance with. One with grey walls and cool, dim floors. Efficient but under-staffed, where anyone with anything less than a full-blown heart attack was left to languish in the hallway until a room opened up. Where she would never get the care she really needed, where her skin would absorb the grey until the laughing sunny child he had known would change into a solemn-faced cripple.
“No, no, no. . . .” He hadn’t realized he’d stood up until he felt Gina’s hands reaching for him.
“I was in with Polly when Dr. Larsen came by. He didn’t want to give me the news, I could see he didn’t, so don’t hurt him, Willie, promise me.”
He wanted to shrug her off with a snap. Surely she didn’t think he was an all-out thug like that, someone would kill the messenger. Larsen was the reason Polly had both her legs and arms and all her insides too. So he made himself, instead, reach calmly for her hand handhold it between both his palms.
“I can’t bear to let her see me like this, and she’s waiting to see you. Will you go in and say goodnight for me?”
He blinked. Yes, he could do this thing, this one small thing. Even though he couldn’t bear to think of him-self standing there, looking down at the little girl would not get the care she needed and would not walk as well as she might have.
Then a thought occurred to him.
“I’ve got money, you know, in my wallet.”
She looked at him almost blankly, then down at her purse as though it might suddenly contain money, too. “Money?”
“For whatever I needed while I was here.” He patted the wallet in his back pocket, somewhat thinner than it had been that morning. “I had the car fixed, and stocked up on supplies, paint and tools and stuff. So I could do repairs on your house. But I could take the supplies back, if I needed to. They’d give me a refund, I’m sure.”
“How much do you have?” There was a little flicker of hope in her eyes, and he felt she might take the money, if it would help. If there was enough.
“Well, Barnabas gave me about five thousand, and I’ve spent only about a third of that. I was gonna pay your grocery bill with it, and set you up with a credit to surprise you, but if it’ll help with the hospital bills, maybe that’s how it should be spent.”
She was on her feet before he could say another word, her face angry, chin jutting out. She clapped the purse to her side and looked at him as though she wanted to spit in his face. Except, with that glitter in her eyes, he realized even before she opened her mouth that it was Barnabas’ face she wanted to spit into.
“Take money from that man?” It came out as a snarl. “I would rather sell myself on the streets before I did that, and you know it!”
He wanted to back up. To be out of reach of the wolverine she’d become. But in her eyes, behind the bitter anger, was the sadness. And the searching.
“I would rather sell the house, though it’s not mine to sell, and how would I make a living then?”
Looking at him as though he had the answers. Wanting him to have them.
“Besides,” she finished, her chin dropping, her eyes filling with tears she would not shed. “Besides, the bill comes to a whole lot more than most of five thousand dollars. He wouldn’t tell me exactly, but his face told me, and his questions about any savings I had.”
She sat down again, dropping the purse at her feet, and letting her head fall into her hands. For one still second, Willie thought she was going to cry, when she took a deep breath and lifted her head to reveal a face that was set and resolute.
“Go and say goodnight to your girl, and I’ll wait here. We’ll figure something out. We have to.”
Willie left here there, only because she wanted him to and told himself that he was strong. Strong enough to lie to a little girl who loved him more than just about any-one. Who saved the things he sent her and showed them to her friends. Who talked about him every day, from the sounds of it, and who, when mangled beyond consciousness, had asked for him. How was he supposed to lie to her that everything was going to be okay?
The hospital corridor to Polly’s room was almost not long enough to let him screw up his courage. But if he could lie to Barnabas, then he could lie to a little girl. Or he could try. Maybe she would be too drugged up when he came in to be able to tell.
He opened the door and stepped in, keeping his shoes quiet on the linoleum and almost holding his breath in the stillness of her room. She was all alone, except for a small collection flowers sent by friends of the family, as well as a very large, new bouquet of stargazer lilies. Glancing at her dark head against the pillow, seeing that she was asleep, Willie walked over to the side table where the flowers stood at attention and read the card. It read, simply, and in some stranger’s script, “Collins.” Yes, and well. One would expect the Collins family to send expensive flowers, if one expected them to send flowers at all. No one at Collinwood had ever really met the little girl, to his knowledge, so he wasn’t sure what had prompted the gesture. He stared at the name for a moment and then heard a sound behind him.
Turned and saw Polly awake. And looking at him. Lips spreading into a smile meant only for him. Her small hand clenched and unclenched, and he watched the numbers on the monitor increase.
“Hey, kiddo,” he said, almost whispering.
“Hey, Willie,” she said in return, in a real whisper.
He wasn’t afraid now, as he went over to her. Only glad that her color was good and she didn’t look upset or in pain, though the drugs being pumped into her via an IV were the reason why. They probably had added some-thing in there to keep her calm as well. He rolled the little stool right up beside her bed and sat as close as he could. Took her hand in both of his, as he had her mother’s, and leaned in to kiss it.
“Mama said,” began Polly, talking first as she always did, “mama said you’ve been here before only I don’t remember. Did you sing me a song?”
“No, but I could,” he said, trying to concentrate on what she was saying while at the same time running through every song he knew to find one that would be suitable for a small girl to listen to. Most of the songs he knew were about dying or screwing, and he didn’t want to fill her mind with either of those kinds of thoughts.
“But I brought you these.” He handed her the wrapped box of pencils. Or at least he tried to. She couldn’t really hold them, but she cupped them with her small fingers and then smiled. Perhaps too drowsy to really appreciate them, her eyes still shone at him. He put them on the table next to the bed, where her mother would see them in the morning.
“You can sing me a song in a minute,” she said. “Where’s mama?”
“She was here before, do you remember?”
“Yes,” said Polly. “She went to talk to the doctor. Do you have any chapstick? Can I have some water?”
He found the chapstick and put some on her small mouth, his hand shaking, and saw the little sign above her bed just before he was about to give her some water. It said “ice chips only till tomorrow,” so he found the small Styrofoam cup and the spoon, and gave her several small chips of ice from a plastic spoon.
“How are they treating you in here, kiddo, you okay?”
She blinked a moment, and then smiled at him. Being very adult for a moment, as she tended to do when talking to him. As if she were his age and he the child. “As well as can be expected seeing as I’m going to be stuck in this bed forever and ever.”
“Not forever, kiddo,” he said, reaching up with one hand to smooth the hair from her forehead. “Just for a little while, till your bones set.”
So he told her how bones grow back together when they are in a cast and how she must drink lots of milk and take the medicine they gave her, and watched her eyes grow sleepy and still. A nurse came in and gave him the five-minutes signal and he realized he was going to have to leave. So he hummed a little bit of “Drunken Sailor” and then switched into the softer strains of “Liverpool Lou.” By the time the time he’d gotten to the second chorus, she was fast asleep. And the nurse was at the door, so he unfolded himself from the stool and stood up. Traced the line of her forehead with the edge of his palm, and took a deep breath. He’d think of something. Him and Gina together. Sweet Polly Marie wouldn’t even know that he worried.
The roofline of the house cut against the bright dusk turning to dark as Gina pulled the car into the driveway. Willie did not know what to say to ease the worry from Gina’s face, shadowed in the lamp from the front door. She held the folded papers from the hospital in her hand, and could not quite look at him, even as he waited for her and held the door. She walked past him, almost as if he wasn’t there, her shoulders steady as she went to the kitchen. To make tea, he assumed, and hoped she had a jot of something stronger to put into it. Irene met her in the hall, a quick hug and a kiss to the still face she held in both hands. Then Irene glanced at him, as if to question him, and then at the table in the front hall.
“There’s a message there for you, Willie,” she said. “Miss Winters from
Getting on was not quite how Victoria Winters would have put it, though the sentiment was the same. He watched Irene take Gina under her slender wing, the smell and cast of the long day at the hospital absorbed by the thick wood walls, and the glow of the overhead light on the checkerboard kitchen floor reflecting out to him. Shoulders bent, he looked at the written note there on the table, sitting next to the old-fashioned black phone. He pushed at it with one finger, thinking of the telephone wires connecting him to
But here it was. That feeling, the prickly stabs all along his spine, the dark, damp weight in his gut. Barnabas held him too tight to let go, whether or not he made the phone call. His left arm throbbed at the thought. Perhaps Vicki just wanted to see, as Irene had said, how he was getting on. She was sweet that way, her distress over Polly’s accident has been as heart-rendering as if the child had been her own charge. He did not think the two had ever met. Even so.
He picked up the receiver, a heavy weight in his slick palm, and dialed with the other hand, letting the receiver hang in the air. Listening to the tinny ring slice through the air. Waiting till someone answered at the other end, and he could tell the voice was feminine before putting the phone to his ear.
“Hey?” he said.
“Hello, is there anyone there?” said a female voice.
It was uncanny.
“Hey, Vicki,” he said. “It’s me, Willie.”
“Willie.” Her voice was soft, now. “Barnabas said you were to call collect.”
“Barnabas wanted you to call me?” He felt his throat tighten.
“No,” she said. “I told him I was going to call and he said to be sure that you called collect, when you returned my message.”
“I’ll cover it with the money Barnabas gave me.”
“Well, if you’re sure.”
Disobeying Barnabas at this point was moot. He was dead the second he got back, so anything he did or didn’t do between now and then tipped the scales not at all.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“How are you Willie? How’s Polly?”
Suddenly, he knew that if she had been in the room with him, looking as concerned as that voice sounded, he would have wept at her feet.
“Willie, are you still there?”
His voice was too tight to speak, and he had to clear it and swallow. And then swallow again.
“Willie, tell me what’s wrong, is Polly, is she—”
He made himself speak now. Took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Wished he could close his heart and not start talking, but the babble of word rose up any-way. “She’s fine, she’s gonna be fine, but Gina, my Gina Lee got the bad news, you see.”
“The doctor said, well, it’s gonna be one operation on top of another, and then years of therapy. And Polly, she’s only little, she’s so tiny in that cast, she can’t move and she can’t walk and she looks at me with those big eyes of hers, wanting me to make it better, and I can’t Vicki, I can’t, she—” His voice cracked like it had been struck with a hammer, and he could only breathe into the phone now. “But she can’t get the therapy, even if she could get the operations ’cause they ain’t got any money to pay for it all, and they’re gonna move her to the county hospital, and they don’t have the facilities there. You see? They’re gonna move her and she’ll always limp, if she even ever walks again. Now how’m I gonna pay for to keep her at the hospital that can make her well? I got Barnabas’ five thousand here, that’s
a drop in the bucket, and I can’t—”
“—can’t figure out a way to make it work, an’ I only got five more days here. Five days, Vicki, I can’t—”
“Willie, listen to me.”
“—figure out a way, ‘cept maybe rob a bank or some-thin’. Did I ever tell you about the time, me an’ Jason, we—well, it wasn’t a very big bank, an’ there weren’t hardly any money in there, but Jason said—”
“Willie!” The voice snapped through the phone at him with the force of a schoolteacher bringing a wayward student to heel. “Listen to me.”
It stopped him. Brought him up short. Shuddering, he held the receiver with both hands, feeling the sweat growing in his palms, the bones of his left arm creaking with the strain.
“Are you listening?” she asked.
“Yeah. Yeah, Vicki, I’m listening.” His heart was thudding. It wasn’t good to go off like that; there was nothing Vicki could do. Nothing anyone could do. He shouldn’t have burdened her with it. He was about to say so, when she interrupted him.
“I’ll think of something, Willie, you hear me? You’re doing the best you can, you’re the best medicine for that little girl, even Barnabas thinks so.”
“What?” he asked.
“Even Barnabas thinks so,” she said, making her tone light. “He was telling me how strong the bond was between you and that little girl. I think it surprised him, even has he said it.”
“Yes. Probably because you and he are so close, it’s hard for him to see you any other way than the way he is used to you. And he’s so used to having you at the Old House, well, I think he misses you more than he thought he would.”
“Oh,” Willie said, shrugging his shoulders even though she could not see him. “That’s because I’m not there to take care of things for him.”
“No, no, it’s more than that.” Here her voice grew gentle, as it tended to do when she was talking about Barnabas. “He’s got that look on his face, you know the one, where his eyebrows come down and he looks very con-fused.”
The sight of Barnabas’ confused face flashed in front of Willie. He’d seen it often, that expression. The confusion the vampire would have when his only servant couldn’t follow simple orders, or why regular thrashings could not keep him in line. The confusion over why Willie’s independent spirit continued on, in spite of Barnabas, and the confusion about how a lowly servant had managed to outsmart his master, with witnesses. The con-fusion had never served to do anything other than make Barnabas even madder, and Willie bore the brunt of it.
Not that this was anything Vicki Winters would ever understand, were she ever to find out.
“You know that look, Willie?”
“Yeah, I know it.” He took a deep breath. “Look, Vicki—”
“He’s wandering around like a ghost without you here, I think. Anyway, what I’m trying to tell you is that, well, you are missed, especially by Barnabas. But if it’s to help that little girl get better, then he’s willing to make the sacrifice. That’s basically what he said.”
“Sacrifice.” It was an odd word to use. Especially when applied to what Barnabas was doing. Sacrificing his own comfort for a little girl he could only despise because of her common birth.
“Thank you, Vicki,” he said. “You’re kind to say it.”
He hung up the phone, thinking that he wouldn’t mention to Gina anything that Barnabas had said. That would just set her off, and Willie knew it was important that she stay calm and that he did not upset her with any-thing over which she had no control. Namely his relation-ship with his boss.
After a restless night, Gina woke up to a breakfast already underway, with Carla in her highchair, stirring around scrambled eggs with a spoon, and with Willie plowing into what looked like his second helping of waffles, Irene standing over him with the spatula to make sure he enjoyed them. He had showered and shaved and was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, looking ready to go to work. The bandage on his arm looked newly wrapped and he seemed to be favoring it less. He gave her a serious look as he took a large swallow of coffee.
“You take Irene and the baby to visit the kid,” he said. “Danny and I are going to work on the house this morning.”
“Helping,” said Danny with some authority.
While she didn’t doubt Willie’s earnest desire to baby-sit, she did not think he could manage a four-year old boy, even a loving and adoring one, for more than half an hour by himself. Let alone while he was attempting house repairs.
“I think I’ll take him next door,” she said. To which Danny replied with a thump on the table.
“I yam helping,” he said, glowering at her.
Willie shrugged. “See? He’s helping me.”
“He can help me paint and oil hinges and pick up nails. You’re never too young to learn, they say.”
Willie’s shoulders were set and so were Danny’s. Perhaps Willie had had enough of the hospital for a while and wanted to make himself useful. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to see Polly in that bed one more minute. Well, neither could she. But what was she to tell Polly?
“What’ll I say to her, then? When she sees you’re not there today?”
“Tell ‘er I’ll be there tomorrow. That I’m painting her room pink and that I’ll have a present for her if she’s good.”
He paused. Looked up at her from the mouthful of waffles. “Purple?”
“Purple,” she said, feeling a smile grow within her. “But not too dark, okay?”
“Sure,” he said, swallowing. “More like lilac, then, ‘kay?”
She wanted to hug him. Polly would look forward to the new color of her room; it would give her something else to think about. And she would look forward to the expression on her daughter’s face when she told her. What she would do without Willie when he was gone, she simply did not know. And didn’t want to think about, so she went with the impulse and gave him a hug and kiss on the top of his head.
“Kiss me,” said Danny, “me too.” Scowling.
So she did, and then gathered up the baby and Irene, leaving the dishes to whomever would think to do them. Hearing Willie’s low voice and the soft tones he used when speaking to Danny as she headed out the front door.
At the hospital the next day, Willie headed down to the cafeteria to stretch his legs and to walk away, just a little bit, from the smell of the hospital and the stark and sanitary room where Polly was. Once there, he ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, and the lady behind the counter, remembering him from before, put in bread-and-butter pickles in between the slices of cheese before she grilled it without him having to say anything. He found a seat in the corner, half in the sunshine, half out, and swallowed the meal in several large bites, washing it down with a coke. Not liking the feeling of being far from Gina for long, he started to clean up so he could head back, only to be caught up by Dr. Larsen.
“Mr. Loomis, just the man I was looking for.”
This could not be good. Doctors didn’t come looking for people unless it was to deliver bad news.
“No, no, you sit down. I’ve got some-thing to tell you and you should be sitting for it.”
Definitely bad news, then. Willie wiped his mouth with a napkin and crumpled it in his fists. Dr. Larsen sat in the seat beside him and laid down a thick looking folder. It wasn’t a hospital folder, that was easy to see. It was glossy and embossed, and when Dr. Larsen opened it and pulled out a pen, it made a thick, rich sound.
“Son,” he began, making Willie instantly nervous at the friendliness in his voice, “I have some interesting news for you. And I need you to do the right thing today.”
“The right thing?” Willie asked. He reached for his coke and drank some. It moistened his throat for only a moment.
“You will recall the conversation I had with your sister, Gina, some days ago, yes? The one about the necessity of moving young Polly to a different hospital, one your family could afford?”
Willie nodded, looking at the crumbs on the table, and the heavy weight of papers stacked before him. His bank robbing idea still seemed good, but only if he had Jason to help him plan it. They would need a good get-away car and—
“Are you paying attention, Mr. Loomis?”
Snapping his head up, Willie nodded and drank some more coke, wishing he had something stronger to bear the weight of the exact numbers that would be needed to keep Polly right where the best care was available. He told himself it wasn’t Dr. Larsen’s fault about the policy for charity cases. But it was hard not to feel the blood behind his eyes coming to a boil as he looked at the doctor.
“I have here,” began the doctor as he pointed at the papers. “Well, let me begin again. You see . . . well, do you know what a philanthropist is? Or a philanthropic society?”
Willie shook his head no. Barnabas would have known, of course, but the vampire was miles away and in deep sleep inside of his coffin.
The doctor seemed to laugh then, scratching his head with the end of the pen as if confused by his own thoughts. “I mean, you hear about these things happening, but I’ve never happened here. This is a first for me.”
“What’s a first?” asked Willie, with a snap. “And what’s it gotta do with me? Or Polly?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me. I’m so excited I got ahead of myself.”
Was this a good thing, then? Willie did not know, but he leaned forward to let the doctor know he was ready to listen.
“Sometimes, with charity cases, you’ll forgive me, it’s a very difficult thing to do, but we have to send them to the charity hospital.”
Willie nodded. This he knew.
“But other times, well, someone, or some group, steps forward and offers to foot the bill, do you see?”
Dr. Larsen took his pen, which was shaking a bit, and pointed to the paper at the top of the stack. There were dollar amounts written all over it, and most of them were of six digits. Or more. One line had a dollar sign but was blank. Willie couldn’t imagine medial care for a little girl, even one as badly injured as Polly Logan costing that much. “That’s a lot of money,” he said, hearing himself sigh. “I don’t know that—”
“That’s not the bill, son,” said Dr. Larsen, smiling too broadly for Willie to even being imagining why. “That’s what this philanthropic society is giving you. Enough for the cost of the hospital, all operations, and even physical therapy.”
He pointed with his pen as the words jumped around in Willie’s head. “See this line here? Yes, this one. It’s got a blank space after it. Here’s what it says.” Dr. Larsen paused as he read it aloud to himself. “Unlimited care as long as the child shall live, yes, that’s what it says.”
“What? But who would—”
“It’s from something called the Naomi Foundation. Apparently they help out a lot of needy children. That’s what the bank told me this morning. And these papers came by special delivery just now.”
Willie’s mouth was still forming a question when he stood up. “I’ve got to tell Gina,” he said, already breathless.
“No, son, sit down. Let me tell you what you need to do.”
“Yes, sit. And listen to me. Your sister, well, she’s quite strong, and proud, I would imagine. Can you see her taking charity, even from a society wealthy enough to pump thousands upon thousands of dollars into her daughter’s care? No, she won’t sign, so you must. Sit down and sign, Willie.”
Dr. Larsen handed him the pen. Willie looked up and could see Gina coming through the doorway of the cafeteria. She had a stern look on her face, the one she’d worn ever since Dr. Larsen had said they would need to move Polly to the charity hospital. An expression that said she was willing to sell her soul to the devil to get the money necessary to keep her child in the right kind of hospital, if only she could find the devil and talk him into it. Which she would, had she five minutes alone with him.
“Here she comes, Willie,” said Dr. Larsen. “You, as her brother, are the man of the house. Somewhat archaic, but there you go. And once you sign these pages, there’s nothing she can do about it. The money will start pouring in this afternoon, with or without her consent.”
Gina had spotted him and Dr. Larsen sitting together. In the slanted sun coming through the windows he could see her brow furrow. Instantly worried that what they were talking about was Polly and that it was some-thing bad. In another minute she would be at their table, and the papers, and the money they promised, would all come under her scrutiny. Maybe she could be convinced to sign for the money, but it wasn’t for certain. Willie liked a sure thing. He grabbed the pen and scrawled his name as fast as he could on all the sheets. Was just finished when Gina stopped at his side.
“Figured you’d be here,” she said, her smile only for him, and her fondness for his hearty appetite. “Did you order seconds yet?”
“No, Gina,” he said, pushing the pen and the thin stack of paper back at Dr. Larsen. “But we’ve got some news for you.”
“Sit down, Mrs. Logan,” said Dr. Larsen, standing. “You can have my chair. Here Willie, you keep this folder. It explains everything, and I’ll take these,” he lifted the signed sheets, “and send them back to the bank.”
Gina watched him go, setting into the now vacant chair. With an absent reach, she pulled Willie’s half-drunk coke towards her and looked at him for a second. He nodded, and she took a sip. Not as good as a full meal, but at least she was taking a break for herself. And she didn’t look suspicious. Or mad. Yet.
“Hey, Gina,” he said, “I got something to tell ya, and it’s all done, okay. There ain’t nothing you c’n do about it.” “Do about what?” “Okay.” He stopped and took his coke back and took a swallow. Finished it off to ice, and placed the glass back down with a clink. “You know how there’s that money we needed to keep Polly in the hospital?”
“Yes.” Her voice rose with an unasked question. “Well, we have that money now, okay?”
“Have? But how, what did you—”
“I didn’t rob a bank or nothin’, so don’t worry about that. But you see—”
“Willie!” She stopped him with a snap. “How did you get the money?”
“There’s this philanthropic society, you see,” he said, watching her face. Knowing inside of a second that she knew what the word meant, “and they have just given us all the money we’ll need for Polly’s care. She can stay right where she is until she is well and can come home.”
He waited. Watched her work this over in her mind. Watched as it darkened her eyes, and pulled her mouth into an unhappy line.
She shook her head. “I can’t take charity, Willie,” she said, not looking at him.
“I know you think it’s foolish pride, but that’s how I feel. Charity would make me—”
“Too late to worry about how it makes you feel,” he said, interrupting her. Feeling a little mean as he did it. “I’ve already signed. Dr. Larsen is taking the papers to the bank right now. The money starts coming in this afternoon.”
“You signed? You?“
He nodded. Waited for her to get mad and smack him. Or jump up and find Dr. Larsen and tear the paper in two. Instead she sucked in her lower lip and Willie saw the tears pool in her eyes and spill down her face before he could take even a single breath. Then she folded her hands on the table, leaned her head on them, and wept. A silent weeping, where her back did not shake, and she did not make a single sound. With a tentative hand, Willie touched her shoulder, letting himself caress that single curve.
“You ain’t mad at me, are ya, Gina? I did it for Polly, for your little girl—”
With one hand, she reached up and patted his hand on her shoulder. Let her hand stay there for a long time. Willie watched the sun slanting in through the window. Knowing he should be delirious with joy and feeling only a deep, acid grief. So much could be accomplished, even this, this miracle. At the end of the week he was going home. And this woman’s touch would be only a memory.
He made the phone call before dinner. Reversing the charges, he waited while the operator dialed through to Collinwood and wondered who would pick up. If it was Roger, he was likely to snap and be rude, and Willie felt as though he were bound to shout right back and hang who it offended. If it was Vicki, he might feel like punching another wall, or fall to pieces as he had the last time he’d talked to her. Didn’t matter that Polly was going to be okay now. The end of this part of his life was coming soon in sight.
The line clicked in his ear.
“I have your party, sir,” said the operator.
Willie wasn’t sure if she was speaking to him or to someone at Collinwood, so he waited.
“Willie?” said a voice. “Are you there?”
The voice was deep and low and Willie knew it as he knew no other. He could hear the breathing across thou-sands of miles of phone line. As clear as if the vampire were right next to him.
“Yeah,” he said, his stomach dropping into the bottom of a loop. “I’m here.”
“And so,” said that voice, onerous tones, dripping with sarcasm. “You are coming home tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” He swallowed. A surly answer like that would have earned him a smack, were he within reach. Which he soon would be. “Around sunset, if the planes’re on time.”
And I ain’t responsible if they aren’t, you got me?
He wished he dared say it aloud.
“And—everything is well?” asked the vampire, in the same tone, but hesitating. Surprising him. “The child? The child is well?”
It confused him that the vampire even asked, though he supposed there was an audience standing around in the large foyer of the Great House, waiting to hear word of Willie’s trip, and how fared the reason for it. He imagined Vicki standing close by, her soft hands clasped under her breasts, and maybe Mrs. Stoddard was there, even, clutching a white, lace-edged handkerchief in one ladylike hand. Roger might be drinking to Polly’s health just inside the front parlor.
“Yeah,” he said again. “She’s gonna make it.”
“Your venture to the coast was worthwhile then,” said the vampire, in a voice so sure of itself Willie wanted to punch him. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Someone said something, and Barnabas must have turned his head aside to reply to it, though Willie could hear him speak quite clearly.
“Yes, the child is fine. I was right to send Willie, I’m sure it helped the family having him there.”
Right to send Willie. As if it had been the vampire’s idea. As if the vampire had not whipped Willie for it and then broken his forearm.
His stomach hurt now. Like someone had punched it. And his arm felt newly broken. After a week of decent people saying and doing nice things, going back to the quagmire of lies and passion and confusion that was the Collins family was almost impossible.
Almost, of course, but not quite. It had to be done, and he had to do it. Holding the phone in his damp palm, he waited for Barnabas to say something, but he didn’t. Had he hung up?
“Barnabas?” he asked.
“Yes, Willie,” said the vampire, as if he’d been waiting for hours for Willie to say something.
Willie paused. Feeling his chest tighten up, and his feet turn to blocks of ice. He wanted to say it. To make sure that Barnabas knew exactly how it was going to be.
“I will be home tomorrow,” he said. “You can look for me at sunset.”
A pause from the vampire this time, and a silvery breath, the effect of which was not lost across the long wires. “I will count on it,” he said. And then hung up.
Willie hung up as well, leaving his palm to rest on the receiver, in the cradle of the phone. After all he’d been through and done, nothing would ever be as hard again.
It was not a celebration, and yet it was. Irene had made a trip to the store while Willie was painting the upper hallway, in charge of Danny not getting too much paint in his hair, and she’d come back and started in the kitchen. Gina had not known how hungry she was until she crossed the threshold of her own home, the air from the kitchen smelling of garlic, and mustard, and the strong undercurrent of hot salt from the prosciutto. It was Frango Na Pucara, Portuguese roasted chicken, that Irene was making, a dish that took at least two hours and that, by tradition, was eaten with a glass or two of good, strong red wine. As she peeled off her shoes and her purse and left the keys in the dish by the door, her stomach growled, and part of her hoped that Irene had already opened the wine.
By the time she got to the kitchen, she could see that Irene had. Glasses sat out for the three adults and she realized with a sharp jump of her stomach that soon, only two big glasses would be put out. Irene turned to her, wiping her hands on her apron, smiling as she always did when in the midst of cooking.
“How’s our Polly?” asked Irene, as she lifted the cork out of the bottle and poured out a glass of wine.
“She’s doing very well, but she’s going to miss him,” Gina said. She took the wine glass in her hands, which felt ice cold as though chilled for hours. “She’s going to miss him, and Danny won’t know what to do with himself. I mean, who will he trot after all the hours of the after-noon?”
“And you’ll miss him,” said Irene. With one hand, she stroked Gina’s hair, the smell of the spice and the oil drifting through the air. If a man could be persuaded by a meal to stay, this would be the one. “As will I, the poor boy.”
If Irene meant that she felt even sorrier for Willie than she did for Gina, Gina didn’t feel up to arguing. Their lot, Polly in the hospital for an eternity aside, was the far better one. Willie only had his job to return to. She did not imagine that he’d made any friends in town since the
“You call Willie down, Gina,” said Irene. “I’ve got the potatoes roasting under the broiler even now, and they’ll be ready before he is. And Danny, too. It will take that long to get the paint off him.”
Gina smiled as she put her wine glass on the counter. The house was tight and tidy with the new repairs, and the coat of paint on the walls of the once-scuffed and dim upper hallway was Willie’s last effort before he left. The energy he’d put into all the repairs was somewhat astounding to imagine, and his tirelessness left her exhausted just to watch. They would manage without him, to be sure, but their lives would be that much emptier.
“I can’t believe he’s still at it. He’d be going to midnight if we let him.”
“Then don’t let him,” said Irene, almost scolding. “A man’s got to eat, especially that one. I think he burns it off in his sleep, he’s so thin.”
Gina walked to the bottom of the stairs. From above she heard Willie’s voice, gentle, as he talked to Danny. From Danny she heard only an occasional agreement, and all the while the creak of floorboards while the smell of paint drifted down to her.
“Willie,” she called, “come on now, it’s time to stop. You get yourself cleaned up, and Danny as well. You must be hungry after all that work.”
The sounds from above paused, and she caught the shadow of his shoulders across the wall as he leaned down to put down his paintbrush. Then his face appeared above the rail, a smear of paint on one cheek.
“Hungry? I’m not hungry,” he said, and it took her a moment to realize he was jesting. She wasn’t used to hearing him do it.
“Willie,” she said, in mock sternness. “If you don’t come eat Irene’s chicken, she will then decide that you don’t want any rice pudding, either.”
“Ice pudding,” she heard Danny say.
“Yeah,” said Willie. “Pudding.”
For a moment he smiled at her, that soft, half-lidded expression telling him that he felt no need to guard what was inside him. He was usually that way after a long spell with one of the children, in this case Danny, who could be charming even as he was tipping over a bucket of paint.
“We’ll be down before you can believe it,” he said, and then he disappeared.
The sounds from above bespoke of cleaning and arranging, and Gina went back into the kitchen to help with the last minute arrangements. If she knew Irene at all, there would be the lace tablecloth to set out and the good crystal. They only had one set of china to use, so that would have to do. Willie would see the tablecloth and the special glasses and know that he was loved. All without her having to say a word.
Irene took Danny upstairs, asleep in her arms. Carla was already abed, having no taste for chicken, and far better used to mashed peas. Gina saw the dishes and the bones of the chicken, and the polished bowl that had, at one point, held enough roasted potatoes for a family of six. Willie loved to eat and she loved to watch him, and never more so than something homemade. All the men that she had ever met loved good cooking. When it was home-made, it took a special man to appreciate it all the more. As Willie did.
He was still sucking on a spoon that late had held the last of the rice pudding. When he was able to let it go, he took a good swallow of wine and tipped his head back. Holding the moment, she thought, marking it in his mind. The wine was very good, the soft kind that warmed in the mouth and soothed the insides of her, even with the smallest sip.
“You’ll help me with the dishes, won’t you, Willie?” she asked.
“Sure, Gina,” he said, almost absently. “Let me just sit here a minute.”
For a moment they sat there, Willie and her, the warmth of the kitchen soaking into them, the garlic and butter and spices carried in the air even as the late spring night grew outside the windows. It would be a long time, if ever, that they sat together as they were, not hand in hand as lovers might, but cattycorner at the table, each with their own thoughts, as old friends who have almost no need for words when such a meal had been eaten together.
Yet the words were there. The question in her mind that she’d been wanting to ask all week. From the second Willie had arrived at the hospital and with each passing day as he’d woven himself into their lives. Not like a ribbon or anything flimsy like that. She thought of him as a rope, a strong, hand-braided one, like Ezra used to make for tying up the boat. One you could depend upon for your very life. To let that rope go would shatter her from the inside, although she knew she would have to let go of it, when the time came. Unless she could convince him to stay.
“Willie,” she said, soft, not wanting to break the silence of the kitchen.
“Hmmmm?” he asked, the spoon and his hand having found yet another bit of rice pudding and having conveyed it to his mouth. He took another swallow of wine, his eyes half closing and she wondered if he’d ever really had much experience with wine, as he was drinking it as though it were beer. He’d have a sore head in the morning, if the amount of it he was drinking told her anything.
“Willie, why are you going back tomorrow?”
“Going back?” he asked. The wine had flushed his face, along with the warmth of the kitchen, and he looked almost asleep.
“Why are you going back, I mean, what is so important that you have to go back to?”
“I’m going back,” he said, lingering, “because I do what nobody else can do, you see?”
“And what is that, that no one else can be hired for?”
His eyes closed all the way now, as if he were shielding himself against his own thoughts. And yet he spoke. “I guard the silence of my master, that’s what I do.”
For a moment, she thought she’d misheard him. “You do what?”
He looked at her, eyes opening slowly, as though he were coming awake after a solid night’s sleep. “What?”
“You guard what?”
“What do you mean, you guard what?”
She wanted to smack him. “You just said, I guard the silence of my master, now what do you mean? And don’t tell me you didn’t say it because I just heard you.”
She’d dumfounded him, if his expression was any-thing to go by. And like a man who has practiced lying for so long in front of a mirror he imagines he is very good at it, Willie shook his head.
“I don’t know what I meant. Maybe it’s the wine, gone to my head an’ all?”
Voice rising in that way she’d heard him use with his boss, or with her when he wanted her to believe him, to believe everything is alright, Gina, honest, don’t you worry ’bout me.
“You are not going back tomorrow,” she said. Knowing as she said it that she meant it. Over her dead body and whatever else it took. Willie was not going back to that icebox of a house, a job that held no rewards, to that man who would never treat him with a speck of kindness.
It was the wine that had gotten to her too. Making her lips numb and any reservation she’d held about not saying something about it vanish in the face of the warmth of the room, and the heat of the thumping of her heart.
“I have to go back,” said Willie. Foregone and all decided, even as he got up to start clearing the table of the remains of the fine meal. He scraped the dishes in the trash and stacked them with almost silent clinks next to the sink. With the ease that said he was as familiar with her kitchen as she was herself. “I’m on that plane tomorrow, Gina. You know that.”
He looked numb as he said it, and she could almost feel the vestiges of wine seeping out of him. Melting under her hard stare.
“You are not.”
At that point, she got out of her seat. Stepped over to him and took hold of his shirt, stroking the skin beneath it. She’d never touched him like this before, and the shock on his face told her this, even as her brain was screaming for her to stop, and she could not do it.
She took a deep breath. “You need to leave him, you need to leave Mr. Collins and find a new life, you need to—”
“Gina,” he said, his hands freezing around the edge of the frying pan.
“No, let me finish. You need to—” No she’d already said that, and he wasn’t listening to her.
With a slow and careful indrawn breath, he turned to look at her, expression frozen, a true mask that told her nothing. “Gina, please—”
She stroked his arm, almost as if she were admiring the cloth of his shirt, and nothing else. Looking at her own fingers, there in the curve of his elbow, as if what she were about to say was not at all shocking. “I cannot bear your leaving. But more than that, I cannot bear the thought of you going back to him.”
“I know—” he began, his concern for her worry for him pulsing out at her, a warmth like sunshine enfolding her. Nodding, she shushed him with a wave of her hand.
“Willie,” she said, knowing the wine was making her bold, “I met your boss all of five times. I will bet you, were I a betting woman, that he doesn’t even remember meeting me but half of that many. I am beneath his notice, and he does not even care that I know it. To him, I’m nothing but a villager, and I’m sure it astounded him that I had the guts to leave Collinsport without his permission.”
With a glance she saw that he agreed with her, though his hands had stilled on the dishes, and his mind was, somehow, already there. Far away from her.
“And I’m sure it astounded him that you had the guts to come visit me; I know for a fact he didn’t want you to.”
With a flick of his eyes, he told her that everything she was saying was true.
“He has everyone fooled but you and me, that man, and you won’t even admit it to me that you know.” Her voice rose, it was unfair, and it frustrated her. Willie knew what kind of man he was, but he would never say it. Had never said it. Well, she would make him. It needed to be said, and she was tired of secrets.
“Know what?” he asked, choking on the words.
“Know exactly and precisely what he is.”
His whole body jerked under her hand. And he was shivering, like a leaf in a high wind. And he was looking at her, eyes overbright, highly polished blue. “Wh-wh-what do you mean?” As if he would have rather died than have her find out the truth.
She felt her eyes narrow. Even Willie could not be so dense as to not know.
“Your boss is—” she almost couldn’t say it as she watched Willie tense up further, backing away from her. “Remember Christmas, when my house burned down? And I came up to the Old House? He had smashed you into the wall, that day, and carried on as if it were okay. And I don’t know how many times I’ve seen you with a black eye, or a cut lip, or you limping, you know this. You know I know it.”
He was not reacting now. His body had gone completely still, a mouse in a mouse hole, waiting, knowing the danger would soon be passed.
“And that switch, on the table, the time Polly sneaked up there without telling anyone. Did you think I didn’t see it?”
Willie’s mouth opened, his eyes softening just a fraction, as if she’d totally surprised him. Shaking his head, his face telling her that he did not know what to say.
“I saw it there, and don’t you tell me I didn’t,” she shook her finger in his face, feeling the bitterness of too many wrongs gone unpunished, too much violence done and gotten away with, and all by a man who assumed he was her better. “I saw it there, and I know damn well it wasn’t the only time there had been one. How many times, Willie, how many times did he whip you with it? And why on earth would you stay with a man who would do that to you? Why would you let him? WHY?”
“You don’t know anything about it Gina, so leave it, would ya please?”
All her breath left her at once, and then whooshed back in to fill her with a hot fire, with a bone-shaking rage that exploded as it shot up her spine.
“I do know.” Her voice sounded low and dangerous even to her own ears. “Nine years of marriage, and only one of them sweet. That’s eight years of waking up on the kitchen floor with blood soaked into my blouse, and my kids looking at me wanting to know where their breakfast was and why was mama on the floor again. Years of avoiding glances and walking through the pain in my legs so that I could go to the grocery store and no one would know. Years of praying that he’d be lost at sea, and then you know what? One day he was. I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t want to know. He’s gone, and it was only after that that I could see how freakish my life had been. How I crawled to please him so that he wouldn’t get mad and raise his fists to me. That’s how I know all about you and Mr. Barnabas Collins. How you crawl to him so he won’t hurt you. How he keeps you under his thumb and how you let him. Almost as if you want him to. But you’re miserable, I know you are and you know you are, so the question is, Willie Loomis, why do you stay?”
She’d all but called him a freak, and he looked at her like she’d run him through with something sharp. Cut him to the quick of his bones, a wound that could not be repaired or even patched over. Across his face she saw the truth of what she’d said, that he recognized it, even as it killed him to do so. Flickers of shame, a rush of red to his skin, a hard, high sound she recognized as air whistling too fast through his throat. His hands were shaking on the dish he held, and he closed his eyes. Blocking her out. Shutting her out, as if he never wanted to look at her again.
It was this moment or none. She had to know. Even if it tore him apart to hear it asked of him.
She said it again. Clearly and slowly.
“Why do you stay with him, Willie, tell me that.”
For a moment there was only silence, and the soft, sifting smell of a meal long eaten. His shoulders settled, he seemed to take a breath, taking a firmer grasp on the dish in his hands. Then he opened his eyes and looked at her. Blinked once, his gaze steady.
“Why did you stay with Ezra?” he asked.
Her mouth fell open a bit at that and the answer came almost without her thinking about it. “Because I promised. I promised with all my heart and soul to stay and I—”
Halfway through the sentence she stopped, watching the mask fall away from his face to reveal a landscape of emotion so bleak that she couldn’t imagine what it must be like to feel as though her heart were breaking with every second of every day, over and over and—
“That’s exactly what I did,” he said in the silence. “I promised. With all my heart and soul and—”
Now it was his turn to stop. He lowered his eyes and looked again at the frying pan in his hands. Moved the side of his thumb along the rim of the pan. In the silence, she could hear the slight grit-grit sound it made, and taste the acrid scent of the soap he’d used, and felt her heart pounding.
“All my heart and soul,” he said again.
She waited for a moment, expecting, with the way his voice rose, for him to say something more. But he only took a breath and returned to his washing up as if neither one of them had said anything amiss, and them being in the kitchen together were an ordinary event. And not, as was painfully lodged in her heart, an interlude that revealed the dark and brittle truth about all of it. He had made a promise just as she had. She’d be keeping hers still if Ez hadn’t drunk himself over the side of the boat, as the Coast Guard had reported he had. And Willie would keep his till the day Mr. Collins died, apparently, and between that time and this moment, there was nothing either one of them could do about it.
It felt odd to think that not nine months ago she had considered refusing a ride from this man when her only other option had been to freeze to death. Willie had opened his window and offered a ride to her and her small children. All of them wearing only thin cotton jackets and frozen with slush up to their knees.
She’d known who he was, of course, and that moment pushed though her mind now, as it so often did, of how different her life would have been had she said no. Would Ez still be alive, smacking her around? Would one of the children have taken with cold so badly so as to have caught pneumonia? But then Willie had swung his truck door open, insisting with his presence even before he respoke his offering. That exact moment, now, frozen in her mind, the warmth of his cab spreading over her like sweet summer, just as she turned to look at Polly and Danny and to clutch Carla to her a little tighter. Danny’s eyes had been blank beneath the iced-over fringe of his bangs. Almost unknowing, ready, it seemed, to trudge on until his three year-old legs gave out, till she told him to stop, or until the storm swallowed him whole. But Polly. No, her eldest was awake and aware and shivering. Looking at her mother with dark eyes. Not accusing, not exactly. More, questioning. As in, why not, Mama? Flecks of snow had gathered on Polly’s cheeks and had not melted, her hair, stuck together, frozen. And just at that moment, as Carla coughed in her arms, the warmth of the air from the truck cab became infused with the smell of bayberries and beeswax. A touch of castile soap and the dryness of vinyl gone to dust.
“For their sake,” she heard, and that decided her.
She’d not ridden again in his truck from that day to this and was likely never to do so again. And yet, she could trace every ridge on the seat, the cracks in the dash. Even recall the color of Willie’s socks and the sound of the swish of the wipers on the windshield. From that day to this, the memory reflected the first moment of peace she’d known in too many years, for while the car was in motion, she was not going to be called upon to do anything or make any decisions, or even to duck. Just to sit, and be carried to her destination. A gift given by a man whom she’d now shouted at so fiercely that his face was paper white and he looked ready to retreat fast as he was able. Back to the very man who was keeping him so close, and so very far away from her.
And of all, of everything that she could not solve, this seemed the worst. She knew this, as her heart broke, and she sank back into her chair at the table. Weak, some-how, her limbs shaking.
He knelt before her, taking his hands in hers and looking up at her, his face pale and cast like sculpted marble. And he seemed to be quivering even as he spoke words that seemed sensible and calm.
“That’s exactly what I did. I promised. With all my heart and soul.”
His eyes were lost, churning like breaking waves in moonlight. She pulled his hands toward her and then eased her palm behind his head. Lacing her fingers through shocks of hair.
“Rest a spell, Willie. Don’t let it worry you so.”
He closed his eyes and tucked down his chin, and his head came to rest against her thigh, snugging close against her hip with his arms coming to wrap around her. Like a small child instead of a grown man who’d spent the week fixing and repairing a home under whose roof he would likely never rest or eat again. A gift of effort to her and her small family, braced by sweat and given with love and never a thought to himself. Oh, yes, he’d practically eaten them out of house and home but that was good too. No sense cooking for just womenfolk, they seldom enjoyed it as a man would. And never with the concentration of a man, focused on his plate with an almost silent, moaning pleasure of what she’d prepared for him.
The weight of his head shifted against her and she smoothed the hair fallen over his eyes back along his fore-head. And then again, as it slipped down. And then again, over and over, slowly, like a slow tide coming in. The warmth of his skin laced through with the coolness of his hair. A cool breeze on a hot day. The contrast, dark and light. Good and evil.
She shook her head a little to clear it of these thoughts, formless dark blobs that she didn’t quite know what to do with. Looked at the empty kitchen, growing cold in their silence. Irene had figured it out, had heard the loud voices from the kitchen and had decided to keep Danny occupied elsewhere. She was like that. Thoughtfulness for the benefit of someone other than herself.
The day he’d picked them up on the roadside was the day her life had changed forever. Not the first time she’d thought it, and it wouldn’t be the last.
“Do you remember that day, Willie? That first snowy day?”
She asked it as if he’d been privy to her thoughts all along, realizing only a second too late that he couldn’t possibly know what she was talking about. Opening her mouth to explain herself better, she felt him nodding.
“I thought you were a weasel-eyed scoundrel, did you know that?”
He replied with a half-movement of his shoulders that could have been a shrug.
“Course, I was just listening to the villagers talk, you know how they are, and that was all I’d ever heard. So no, I wasn’t going to let you take me home.”
Letting her hand rest on the curve of his neck, she sensed the beat of his heart beneath her palm. The warmth building between his flesh and hers and let it do that for a while. Savoring it. When he left it would be a lifetime of years before she saw him again, she knew that. Whatever bargain he’d made with his boss, or threats, or promises, it wasn’t something he’d dare pull twice.
“But you know why I did?”
Stillness. Like a shy and waiting hound who knows the master has gone and wants to come out and play.
“Because I saw the way you looked at my kids. Sure, I was about to give in for their sake, just like you said. But your eyes . . . they softened when they looked at my babies. Not a lot, mind you, you were a hard-faced character alright. But the heat that poured out of your truck smelled of bayberries and beeswax. Anybody ever tell you that?”
She laughed under her breath, knowing that nobody ever had. And took to smoothing his hair again.
“That day you changed everything. Bet you’re sorry you picked us up sometimes. Specially like now, being pulled in two directions at once.”
He shifted as if to rise, and she eased him into stillness again, moving her hand down the length of his neck as well as along his scalp.
“You’d never say as much, never out loud. But inside. No inside, I know how that feels. You keep your fists clenched and your eyes down, and you march through it all. Years can go by as you do this. And then someone says something nice. Or even a smile from a stranger and it all comes apart. I’m sure you know that feeling. And then, then you’ve known a taste of decency, of kindness, and you still have to keep marching. Wanting more of what you can’t have. Worse than all the torture in the world.”
Pausing. Sighing. Tipping her head down to look at him. “And that’s what you regret. That first taste. You can’t go back after that. And yet you have to.”
She watched as slow, silent tears slid over the bridge of his nose to spread dampness across her apron. Not the way a man cries, with his face all screwed up and fighting it. But more, like a child too exhausted to know, or even care, why he is crying. His face was still, only his lips tightened as he took a breath, a small, wrenched sound breaking over the silence of the kitchen. She wanted to cry herself, knowing that she had done this to him. Knowing that if she’d not wanted to thank him for the gift of the wood, or insisted on feeding him, or on caring, and then caring some more, that he’d not be now regretting the memory of what had been, even while his arms tightened a bit around her, and she could start to feel the tremors in his body.
“I love you, Willie Loomis,” she said, tracing the length of hair in front of his ear. This gentle-eyed man had shown her her first taste of kindness in forever, opening the door to wanting it. Gave her more as he was able, and then, without a word, needing it in return, giving her a place to grow within. “And I’ll love you forever.”
He was shivering beneath her hands and yet she could not, would not stop. People leave and sometimes they died, and you had to tell them when you could. While you were touching them, while you moved their hair between your fingers like strands of silk-brown lace. “And if you need me, I’ll be there. Even if I’m a thousand miles away, I’ll be there.”
Now he rose on his knees and buried his head deep within the folds of her apron. Arms iron-cord tight, pressing against her. Low, choking sounds, now like a man fighting it, as he shook with sobs. As if the truth of what she’d said was too painful to bear, and his heart were truly breaking. No need to imagine that he’d not heard her, or even what he felt in return. There were a thousand ways to express it, and Willie did, in every action toward her, every caress of Danny’s hair, every good-natured holding of baby Carla. And Polly. He loved that child more than he knew, coming across the country for her at a single phone call. Arriving, looking like he’d been packaged in broken glass.
And he loved her. She knew he did.
She laid a hand along his back, stroking it, up and down slowly, smoothing out the tenseness. The heel of her palm tracing the length of his spine down between his shoulder blades and back again. And then again, until her apron was soaked with tears and his body had stilled beneath her touch.
“You’ll make it,” she said now, keeping her tone as steady as she could. “And I’ll make it. We’ll make it.” His grip around her was loosening now, shoulders relaxing against her knees and she could sense him listening.
“Miles apart, I know that. But between you and me? There’s a string. You need me? You tug on it. I’ll know.” A little laugh escaped her, helping to ease the tightness in her throat. “That boss of yours’ll be jealous, so don’t let him know you have it, okay?’
He nodded against her leg, pressing the damp cloth close against her skin.
“Okay?” she asked again. She wanted to hear his voice. Hear the clear and slow response he would give, the gravity with which he responded to anything she’d ever asked of him.
He knew that, it seemed. Cleared his throat, where she could feel the movement of muscles there and nodded. “Okay, Gina,” he said. “Whatever you say.”
She could have been asking for him to take out the trash in his stocking feet, for all the emotion in that voice, almost toneless in its reply. It might not be okay, but he would make it be okay, just by the force of wanting it. Because she wanted it for him. Feeling a smile forming in spite of herself she glimpsed the beginnings of a smile on his face and leaned down to lay her hand on the plane of his damp cheek.
“Scoot up, Willie,” she said.
“Huh?” He looked up at her as if she’d just awakened him from a sound sleep and she motioned with her hands and he lifted his head. Clean off her lap where the nerves began to dance from the release of pressure, and then she clasped his face in her hands. Made him look at her, with his eyes looking like the surface of the ocean with the fog about to roll away, face streaked with dampness. She pulled him in close and he was thrown a bit off balance, enough to have to brace his hands along the edges of the chair, his expression puzzled just before she kissed him. Not a lover’s kiss, not with the brace of passion and hot desire. But contact, feeling the plushness of his lips for the first and last time, the kiss of one soul to another who must soon be parted.
She pulled back, letting her hands drop slowly. Watching his eyes as they widened and the flush of color dance on his cheeks.
“You ever start doubting it, Willie, you think of that, will you?”
Willie splurged and let the cab driver drop him off at the top of the drive. Though it was just coming sunset, he was in no hurry, and did not doubt that this sunset would be his last. What point was there in trying to enjoy it? He’d seen at least one sunset on the west coast with Gina Logan, and for that pleasure, it would cost him everything.
The air was getting chill as he scanned the house, noting the scattered branches and leaves and spreading damp that a recent rain must have left. The road up to the house had been rutted and slightly muddy, no doubt spring was leaving a hard mark on the whole of the estate. More rain was on the way, too, he could smell it, remembering the smell and feeling his stomach ripple.
He bent to pay the driver and pull his bag out of the seat, watching for a moment as the cab did a three-point turn and trundle back the way it had come. Then he turned to face the house. And where before there had been only emptiness, as dusk built with rapid strides found only in that part of
Hefting the grip of his borrowed suitcase, Willie ducked his head and walked towards the house. Along the drive, as his shoes crunched across the pea gravel. Under the port-cochiere, but not on the porch. He didn’t want to go on the porch where Barnabas was. Not unless he was told to. Not until he had to.
The vampire matched him, step for pace, the press of his heel into the cold wood sending a snap in the air that bounced inside Willie’s head. Like a shadow, Barnabas was, following him along the walk. Keeping time in a silent way that spoke of the vampire’s fury.
When he reached the kitchen door, Willie tried to pretend the vampire wasn’t there, coming up alongside him. He’d promised that he’d come back, and here he was at sunset. If the vampire chose that moment to grab his servant, then so be it. His stomach churned as he swallowed, and then the door swung open beneath his out-stretched hand. Barnabas was no longer on the porch. No, he was inside the silent, dark kitchen, wafts of cold, icy air sweeping out to meet the growing night as Willie stood on the threshold.
“Come in,” said Barnabas in that voice he used when giving commands he expected to be obeyed. “And close the door behind you.”
Willie did this, feeling the cold of the Old House as he had never felt it. It soaked into him with a snap, and the shivering came up from his bones without him being able to stop it. He saw in a glance the layers of dust that had collected on the cast-iron stove, the walls darkened with grime that he’d grown not to notice, and the floor coated with ash as if it had blown out of the fireplace during a storm.
Then the vampire came close, something glinting off of him as the sky died beyond the windows along the wall. Blue-black light began to fill the air, and Willie could not stop the trembling.
The vampire was close enough now for Willie to feel that breath in his ear, silver-edged and slow. A cold, controlled fury engulfed him and he fought not to move away.
“If you ever,” said the vampire, his voice so low and almost soft, “ever play me for the fool again, I will skin you alive and send the uncured pelt to your precious Gina Logan. Do you understand this?”
Willie nodded slowly so there would be no misunderstanding. Not wanting to look in the vampire’s eyes while they held him in the grip of icy, soaking fury.
With a little hiss, the vampire turned away, and gestured to the table.
“Show me the receipts you incurred while away.”
Willie nodded again, although Barnabas wasn’t looking his way, hurrying to place the suitcase on the table without any noise. He opened it up to release the locked-in secret of sweet, coastal air, and clothes recently drenched with sunshine from being hung on the line. For a moment, it trapped him, that scent, warm and curving around him, and he knew that his clothes were drenched with the scent of Gina and her family. He didn’t dare touch them.
“The receipts, Willie.”
He pulled at the webbing in the lid of the suitcase that held the receipts, kept carefully from the first day, and pulled out the pile of papers. All of different sizes, some white, some yellow, all kept and stored for just this moment. Barnabas took them without any comment, and motioned with one hand to the fireplace, bare except for dust.
It was not hard to build the fire, even after a week without practice, because Willie kept his mind totally on that task. One layer of medium wood, a cluster of tinder, and then the match, applied to just the right spot to draw up the air beneath the fuel and set it alight. It sprang into flames in almost a moment, though Willie waited on one knee to make sure it would take. Then he stood in the little circle of light and warmth, listening to Barnabas rustle through the papers he held.
“I see this one for painting supplies,” said Barnabas, not asking.
“I painted the hallways,” said Willie, remembering. “I also fixed windows that wouldn’t open and doors that hung ajar, those ones are from the hardware store, at the bottom of the pile.” His voice felt dull and flat in his own ears.
“And this, for car repair?”
“The only have one car, and it needed tires and a tune-up.”
“And how much for groceries?” There was real surprise in the vampire’s voice now. “A family of five surely can’t have eaten that much, even if you were with them.”
It was getting tricky, now, and his shoulders sank. If Barnabas was going to make him dance to an unknown, never-before-heard tune, then perhaps he did not plan to kill his only servant. It seemed logical, but did not ease the screw turning in his gut.
“I paid off their bill and then I set up a credit for them, at the store, for groceries.” What had seemed like a good idea at the time was suddenly much harder to explain, and seemed far more foolish than it should have. “Gina, I mean, Mrs. Logan, she won’t be able to run that day care for a while yet, and I didn’t want them to star—”
Barnabas cut him off with a flick of his hand, and Willie felt the floorboards shift as the vampire stepped closer, holding the pile out in a fold towards Willie.
“So you spent it all, then. All of the five thousand I gave you in under a week’s time.”
“Then why are there no hospital receipts? I under-stood the hospital costs for the little girl to be quite dear.”
They had been, as Barnabas said, dear. But a miracle had occurred that no one could explain at the time. Willie didn’t think he could explain it now either, but as he looked up in the weighted silence at the vampire, he knew there was no getting around doing what he was asked. There was a dark expression there. He could almost read it, and it didn’t promise anything but a dire response if the answer was not to the vampire’s liking.
Willie swallowed. His lips felt tight against his teeth, and his heart was rattling along like a bird flinging itself against the bars of a cage.
“They—” he began, and then instantly ran out of air. He tried again, shifting his weight and licking his lips. “The hospital said to sign these papers, so I signed ’em, and the papers were for an account, to, well, to pay for every-thing.”
“You signed?” For some reason this seemed to shock the vampire, and Willie couldn’t understand why. “Why you?”
“Because the hospital thought, well, Gina had told them I was her brother, to get me into Polly’s room. Family only can go in, you see. Those are the rules.”
“I see,” said Barnabas, though Willie saw he was still confused.
“They thought I was the m—” He stopped. The last time he and Barnabas had had a conversation about his wanting the
The vampire regarded him. “They assumed you were the head of the household, I take it?”
“Yeah,” said Willie. Whispering.
The vampire almost snorted. It didn’t need saying what he thought of Willie being the head of anything, let alone his own little family. “And this account. To pay for all?”
“Yeah.” Now he nodded. “Till she’s better, they said. Some foundation. The, um, the Naomi Foundation.”
If he’d not been looking directly at the vampire, he might not have seen it. If the fire had not been going he most definitely would not have. A flicker there, across his face like a hand of velvet. And in his eyes, a spark of a gentle, cool star. Then it was gone, and Willie blinked.
And wondered that he’d not figured it out before.
Made himself not open his mouth, though the shock spiked through him and he suddenly felt an odd lightness. And gratitude.
The Naomi Foundation.
Yes. Oh, yes.
Barnabas’ mother would have approved. Even if the urchin her name was put in place to protect was only the child of a fishmonger’s widowed wife.
He didn’t say anything. Made himself not say any-thing. Or smile. Or relax. But it seeped from him, this knowledge, and he saw that he could not hide it, just as Barnabas could not. He knew what Barnabas had done. And the vampire knew that he knew, and it was not sitting well. In a second more, the spike-laced pride that Barnabas carried around with him as though it were a shield would split the night in two.
“And Gina,” Willie said, carrying on. Shrugging. Feeling a little as though he were sacrificing a sacred and private memory. “Well, she was pretty upset, taking charity an’ all?”
The air itself paused. “Upset? So she saw the papers, even if she didn’t sign them.”
Willie pressed forward. “Yeah. I guess she was mad ’cause she didn’t want anyone to think she couldn’t take care of her own child.”
“Prideful, was she?” asked the vampire. That dark head tilting back, eyes gleaming. And that smile. Flickering, trying to hide.
Willie made himself remember that there was thousands of dollars and years and years of the best care at stake. He shoved his hands in his pockets, hiding his fists, convincing himself that Gina would have done the same. Done anything to get Polly what she needed to walk again. No price was too high. She would have kissed the vampire’s feet, if that was what was needed.
Don’t worry, Gina. I’ll kiss them for you.
“I guess it took her a while to know she couldn’t do it on her own. Without help, you know? Without some-one who had more money than she could ever think about.”
“So she took the money, regardless, is that correct?”
“Sure she did. But you know, some women, they don’t think about practical stuff. They need someone more powerful to take over.”
The smugness on Barnabas’ face looked ugly in the firelight. It was dark now in the kitchen, except for that light, and it only told the truth. The vampire was looking at him, framed by inky, soaking shadows, and Willie felt the exhaustion of the day creep into him. Up through the floorboards, slicing through the bottoms of his feet, and up his legs. He’d done what he could to help the
The vampire seemed to take a breath then, deep, self-satisfied. His smile now was almost a smirk, and he looked down at his hands, steepled in front of him.
“You may have the evening hours,” he said, tossing the receipts into the fire. Magnanimous. “In the morning, I will leave you a list, from which you will start at the top. I expect to hear a good report from you come sundown.”
Silent with shock, Willie tried to make his shoulders relax all the way as he closed the suitcase and took it in his hand, but knew it would be impossible until his body was laid out in his own bed. The spring night was working its way into his skin, and he wondered if he would have enough energy to start a fire in his room before he collapsed.
“Yes, Barnabas,” he said. Trying to make his voice sound normal.
There was a gesture, the one that said, be on your way, I tire of you. Willie nodded, wanting to wait till the vampire preceded him. Which Barnabas did, shoulders pushing back the cool air without any effort at all. Then he followed the vampire down the black hallway, knowing his way even though it felt as though his eyes were closed. Barnabas stopped at the entry to the Front Room, and Willie could feel those eyes watching him as he mounted the first riser of the stairs.
He sensed a movement, and stopped. The suitcase handle bit into his palm and swung against his thigh. With one hand on the railing, he turned his head, not wanting to look at Barnabas and his horrid pleasure. Instead he looked at the floor. Saw that there had been mud tracked into the carpet runner from the vampire’s outings. That dampness had layered the flagstones with grime. And then the vampire moved close to the bottom of the stair, looking at Willie looking at the disaster the house had become.
“As you can see,” came a voice, a false start stopping, with an undercurrent that Willie did not recognize. “As you can see . . . the Old House has not fared well with-out you.”
A stolen light managed to find its way into the front hallway and Willie flicked up his gaze to see what it would show him. The vampire. Standing there, looking somewhat lost. Meaning every word. And perhaps a little more than that. Solemn, yes, but that was not unusual. More, in the in the slowly shrinking circle of any mortal man’s ability to see, Willie saw the uncertain, somewhat careful expression on the vampire’s face, as if it did not want to impose on anyone. As if it did not, perhaps, even wish to be known at all. The sad pull to the eyes as Barnabas looked away, the lonely darkness as he took a step backwards, the shadows of the hallway enfolding him with diffident and defensive arms.
Willie found himself astonished for the second time that night. It was almost not worth going away, if he had to endure this odd, unexplainable sentiment upon his return. He gave himself a mental cuff across the back of his head.
“Sure, Barnabas,” he said, almost chipper. “I’ll take care of it in the morning.”
Not able to bear looking at that face, he hurried up the stairs, not trip-ping in the dark. Finding his own room without thinking, putting the suit-case down where he would not stumble over it in the morning. Threw off his shoes and his trousers, and slipped himself under the musty, dust ladened covers. Flat on his back, wanting sleep to take him so he wouldn’t have to think.
But of course he would miss someone to fetch and carry and do every damn thing for him.
He pushed his head, hard into the pillow. Rubbed his closed eyes with the heels of his palms.
That Vicki had said it, was one thing. She liked things to be nice, for people to miss each other while they were apart. Though she was calm and logical about most things, Willie had long suspected, and been proved right, that she also looked for hearts and flowers wherever she could. He believed her when she said she thought Barnabas had missed him. To see it, in the flesh, however undead, was something he did not wish to see twice.
The vampire’s eyes. That look. That lonely, mortal look. If it had been anyone else, Willie would have felt quite sorry for the guy. He told himself that he did not, however, and never would. But something kept him thinking about it, even as he let his hands drop back to the covers, the wool scratching his skin, the sheets somewhat dank against his legs. They would warm up. And summer was coming.
But now, in the chilly, damp dark, he knew there was something else. Something Barnabas’ eyes had told him, all without a word, or a movement. Willie could fetch and carry all day long, and Barnabas needed him for that. But there was something more than that. Gina had known it, had demanded of him why someone else couldn’t do just as well in his place. Only he, he’d told her, could do what he did. Guard the silence of his master. Which had set Gina off like an explosion, and had scared him with its passion. What he’d meant was something he could never tell her about. And maybe couldn’t explain to himself, really. Was there pride in doing this thing, this thing without any acknowledgement, let alone honor?
Maybe it was that he knew Barnabas. Knew who he was, where he’d come from. What he’d done. The vampire’s plans were as well known to Willie as his own, per-haps even better so, especially since the vampire never stopped talking about them. But even when the vampire wasn’t orating, spelling out the details of the convoluted outline for each and every moment of his eternal future, pacing all the while, there was the silence. The silence sliced through by woolclad shoulders as they stood in front of the fireplace in the front room, or looked at the portrait in Josette’s room. Or the hand as it held the book, absently marking the pages, the face almost startled as Willie interrupted him. The pause as fingertips would come out to check the coolness of the windows before donning his great coat to venture out into the night. Or even the satisfaction he would express, wordless, his hands clasping together as he watched Willie lay out the brandy snifter and the glasses on their silver tray in front of the fire in the Front Room. The habits and gestures, the wide, framing glances, all through the hours of the evening, were known to Willie, as they were to no one else.
You’re the only one he doesn’t have to lie to.
This sank into him, a knowledge like a stone, his mind a slow, still pond. That was why Barnabas had missed him. Why the vampire would never let him go. He’d never see Gina again, unless she came east to
Sleep was coming. A seeping tide, sneaking up on him, and he welcomed it. An escape from the thoughts still racing in his head, mixing with the darkness of the vampire’s eyes. Somewhere, across the continent, miles and miles away, the
As he was her.
Forever, Gina Lee. I will carry you forever in my heart. And then, when the nights are long and cold and winter swirls all around, I will take you out and run you through my fingers like a string of seed pearls from some-place warm. I love you, Gina Lee.
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