Title: Last Word

Author: N.J. Nidiffer

Genre/Rating: Gen/PG

Word Count:  13,041

Fandom: Dark Shadows

Verse: Gina Lee (# 13)

Summary: Gina Lee determines that the best thing for her family is if they all move out to California. Willie is devastated. Barnabas is predictably less than sympathetic.

A/N: This is probably one of the saddest stories in the whole bunch.

 

 ***

 

The wind freshened as the tide turned. Not that it helped the stench any.

 

Willie tucked his chin more tightly against his shoulder, closing his eyes against the sting of windblown sand. The random fingers of air that skimmed the scum-foamed tidal pools before rising to caress the tears from his cheeks were thick with the reek of fermenting seaweed, but he didn’t mind the odor much. Hardly noticed it, in fact, -though his nose couldn’t help but wrinkle whenever the wind puffed the worst of it up his nostrils.

 

He had far darker thoughts on his mind than what sort of offal might be decomposing at the base of his boulder. Strands of kelp. Tide-trapped minnows. The remnants of his careworn soul. Let them all be heaped together to swelter in the sun until the hungry waves came to suck them out to sea again. It was all the same to him.


It was all the same, but still.

 

How could she?  How could she leave him like this? No matter how reasonably he tried to think it out, it all came back to that.

 

Willie put his forehead down on his folded arms, let ting the temporary shadow ease the fiery burn of red behind his eyes. He was crying again.

 

*

 

“Willie?”

 

“Yeah, Gina?” He was sleepy. Full to the brim with roasted chicken and green beans and cheese-laced potato casserole. Danny was curled like a puppy in his lap, soothed to sleep by the gentle sweep of the rocker as Willie pushed off with his toes, then reversed the motion with the rounded edges of his heels, careful to keep the rhythm smooth and steady.

 

He had found the dilapidated old chair in a thrift shop. Talked the owner into selling it to him for even less than the five bucks that was on the price tag. Then he’d refurbished it, bit by bit in his meager spare time, careful not to take out every squeak and splinter so it might keep some character, just so he could present it as a late Christmas gift to Gina Lee.

 

It had turned out to be more of a gift to him and Danny than to anyone else, though. They’d spent their fair -share of afternoons in it, man and boy communing peace-fully together. Never more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time, that was true, but it seemed like no matter how much rocking time they got, it was always exactly as long as Willie needed to get his bearings again. To remember what was important again. To recall that yes, there was a life outside the Old House, even though he didn’t get to see much of it without his master directing the view.

 

Polly had started out coloring somewhere at Willie’s -feet, but she was snoozing now too, her rumpled head on her folded arms, her sock-clad toes only an inch from Willie’s own. Carla had gone down well before lunch, happy with her bottle in the makeshift crib lodged in the hallway between the Pedersons’ bedroom and the guest room where Gina ordinarily slept. No one had heard so much as a giggle or a coo out of her all afternoon.

 

It was getting to be spring. Good sleeping weather. Especially if you were a kid and your tummy was full and you’d worn yourself out playing in the company of your very best grown-up friend

 

T’wasn’t too bad if you were a man drifting on a lazy tide of contentment either

 

Willie wriggled into a more comfortable position on the rocker’s padded wooden seat, careful not to disturb the napping child. He had places he had to be, eventually, but he was in no hurry. Not with a sweet, warm breeze brushing through the open windows, stirring the curtains in the soft dappled darkness of the Pedersons’ living room. Not with so much soul-healing peace enveloping him like a drug until his muscles felt liquid with the morphine-like haze of it.

 

“Let me take him,” Gina whispered from the sun-spangled darkness somewhere above him. He could hear the smile in her voice even though he couldn’t see her face. “I’ll tuck him in with Polly. Then we can talk.”

 

Willie gave a faint, dozy smile in the direction he knew Gina must be. “Talk? Oh, uh-hmmm. Okay, here ya go.”

 

Lifting up ever so gently, he loosened his hug from around Danny’s small shoulders so Gina could scoop the boy into her arms without rousing him. Willie watched through drowsy, half-lidded eyes as the woman placed the toddler on the far side of the foldout couch, then returned to the carpeted circle in front of the cold fireplace to retrieve Polly. The little girl mumbled grumpily when her mother lifted her to her feet, but she was asleep again beside her brother before Gina finished snugging up the covers. Nothing but a sheet and a light blanket this early in the afternoon. It was getting too warm to need anything else.

 

“Do you want coffee?” the woman asked, keeping her voice hushed since they were still in the same room with the slumbering children.

 

“Yeah.” Willie stopped rocking and got reluctantly to his feet. He loved talking to Gina, but he’d been half asleep in the creaking old rocker, dozing with Daniel, comfortable in the little boy’s unquestioning trust of him. No matter how often that happened it still felt new to him. He hated to make himself wake up. “I’ll get it,” he said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the curled fingers of one hand. “A bit of cream, right?”

 

Gina nodded. She followed him into the adjoining kitchen that Willie had learned to navigate almost as well as she could these days, though he rarely did anything in it other than eat a meal or pour a cup of coffee for them both. He had watched Gina prepare a dozen lunches from Anne Pederson’s tidy breakfast nook, mostly on days when Anne and Tom were off somewhere else, leaving Gina and her children alone with their guest. The Pedersons liked him fine—at least Willie thought they did. But if he and Gina were to talk with anything resembling openness, they needed privacy. The Pedersons realized that. They were diplomatic enough to grant Willie solitary visiting privileges, at least every once in a while, even if they might not thoroughly approve of a young widow’s friendship with the village hardcase.

 

In any event, Anne and Tom and their two boys were out at the farmers’ market this afternoon, ostensibly shopping for the first spring peas, even though Willie knew perfectly well that they would have to wait at least another three weeks before the first crop of pods came in. It was a generous, if somewhat lame, excuse that ought to keep them out at least another hour. They’d come home with greens and potatoes even if they didn’t find peas, and Anne would turn the fresh vegetables into a suppertime feast.

 

Willie would be long gone by then. He had to get back to the Old House. Get something done before Barnabas rose and checked to see what he’d been up to all day. Which wasn’t much, at least not today, but Willie could fake it. Lord knew he’d had enough practice in such uncomplicated deceptions. All he had to do was move some paint pails around, and Barnabas would never know whether that was the first or second coat drying on the trim in the third floor hallway.

 

He fetched down mugs from the cabinet over the sink, choosing the thick, chunky ones that Anne had found at an art fair sometime after Christmas, then filled them from the percolator bubbling on the stove. A healthy dollop of fresh milk from the ceramic creamer went into Gina’s. Willie liked to tease her that she drank a little coffee with her cream. ‘Course, she could tease him right back if she wanted to, considering he added three heaping teaspoons of sugar to his own. But for some reason that Willie could never quite fathom, Gina never ragged him about it. She just made sure that the sugar bowl was full and encouraged him to use it, even though sugar had to be a luxury in a household of eight with only one paycheck between them.

 

Willie really appreciated that. There was no fuss about the expense of his sweet tooth. No bother. Just thoughtfulness. That was Gina all over, even in a home that wasn’t quite her castle. Tom and Anne had something to do with it, too, and he was grateful to them for that. Grateful for their unstinting kindness to him and to Gina. Someday, somehow, he would have to find a decent way to pay the Pedersons back.

 

Willie was so deep in luxuriating in the peacefulness of the moment that it never occurred to him that anything might be out of the ordinary. He simply slid Gina’s mug in front of her and found a seat on the opposite side of the table, catty-corner to the window where he could keep an eye on the sky. He didn’t want to lose track of the time like he had a couple of times before. If he abused the privilege of visiting Gina at lunchtime Barnabas would forbid him to come. So he glanced at the sun—still well above the treetops, he was relieved to see, it couldn’t be much past one—and then over at Gina’s well-loved face.

 

She was a perfectly ordinary woman, he thought fondly. Just a fisherman’s fortyish widow with a round, plain countenance, her coarse black hair cut in a working woman’s practical bob. It was her smile and only her smile that made her beautiful. That serene, matronly curve of the lips that told everyone who saw it that all was right with the world.

 

Except that his time there was a faint hint of sadness there, deepening the lines beside her mouth like an ebb tide stealing another layer of sand from an endlessly eroding beach. The change was barely discernable, but it was there if you knew the terrain you were looking at as well as you knew your own face.

 

Willie looked down at the table, then back up at Gina Lee, certain that he was seeing things. But that whisper of sorrow was still there, an alien shadow marring her natural serenity.

 

It was the same kind of smile professional people wore, Willie thought with a prickle of apprehension. Cops and EMTs and nurses on critical care wards. They put on a smile just like that one when they took you by the shoulder and told you something in soft, sympathetic tones that you didn’t want to hear. Your child is gone. Your kinfolk dead. Your house gone up in a fire.

 

All of Willie’s pleasure in his stolen afternoon evaporated within the space of a single heartbeat. He snapped instantly and completely awake, a wintry ball of dread tingling a warning frost through his stomach. He hadn’t felt such an awful sensation in Gina Lee’s presence since well before the New Year, when she had shouted at Barnabas Collins in the great man’s own foyer with Willie looking on, helpless to save her should Barnabas take her words amiss.

 

“What’s wrong?” he blurted, his alarm making him forget to keep his voice down. The napping children were only a room away. He glanced at the doorway, hoping he hadn’t waked them, then looked back at their mother, who still had that same sad smile on her face.

 

“Nothing,” Gina said, a denial that only convinced Willie that he was right to be afraid. “Everything’s fine.” She fiddled with her coffee mug, lifting it off the table, then lowering it again, leaving the milky brew untasted. “But I do have something important I have to tell you. And something I want to ask of you, too.”

 

“Yeah?” He wrapped his hands tight around his own steaming mug, as though such a fragile implement as a potter’s blue-glazed shell might anchor him when his thoughts were in such a stormy whirl. The fresh black coffee seeped its heat through the thick ceramic and into his palms, adding to the nervous sweat that had already begun to slick between his fingers. His body knew disaster was coming, no matter what his mind might say.

 

Gina reached over and curled her fingers over his, a familiar gesture meant to soothe him that only frightened him more. People didn’t touch him like that. No one touched him like that. Not even Gina Lee. Not unless she was preparing him for something.

 

Which, as it turned out, was exactly the case.

 

“Willie,” Gina Lee Logan said, “the children and I are moving to San Diego.”

 

She must have said other things after that. Lots of things. A few that Willie might even begin to remember if he ever had the chance to sit down and think about them in some sort of rational manner. But at that shell-shocked moment nothing coherent penetrated. Anne Pederson’s kitchen table might as well have been sitting out on Collinsport Point with a mid-winter fog shrouding its sugar bowl and creamer and matching salt and pepper shakers. Willie half expected to hear the foghorn booming out, warning him away from the rocks that threatened to tear his keel right out from under him.

 

Bu-oooooohm.

 

No more mid-day visits, rare as they were, that together made up the lifeline that drew him through the individual uselessness of his days.

 

Bu-oooooohm.

 

No more spontaneous gifts of warm apple crumble or double fudge brownies, sliced and packed into neat waxpaper squares so they could be tucked into the bread-box where Barnabas wouldn’t notice them.

 

Bu-oooooohm.

 

No more silly card games with Polly the seven-year-old card sharp, with Willie slyly loading the deck so that all of the aces fell in her favor. No more rocking sweet, trusting little Daniel until he fell asleep in the refuge of Willie’s arms. No more cuddling baby Carla beneath his chin, smelling the warm, milky smell of her as she breathed her baby’s breath against the damp wall of his chest.

 

Bu-oooooohm.

 

No more Gina. No more friendship. No more anything.

 

All of his hard-won treasures gone. Just like that. He felt a slight shake on his cupped hands, where his fingers were still locked around his mug. The ghostly fog-horn faded, leaving a painful ringing in his ears. The coffee in his grasp wobbled, sending out wild concentric circles that slopped dangerously up the sides of his mug before settling again. A single warm drop, blackly sweet with sugar, spilled over the rim and slipped between the lacing of his fingers, secret as a midnight tear.

 

“Willie,” Gina said, apparently not for the first time. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

 

He stared at her, stunned. What did she expect him to say? “Willie?”

 

“Huhm?”

 

“Are you all right?”

 

Pull yourself together, man. You’re scaring her.

 

He forced himself upright, obeying his own desperate internal command, and opened his hands, encouraging her to release him as he let go of his mug. His fingers left a sweaty imprint on the shiny blue porcelain. “Yeah,” he said, gripping the edges of the tabletop instead. He had to hold onto something. “I’m . . . I’m fine. A little surprised is all.”

 

“I knew you would be,” Gina said seriously. “It’s why I waited until we could talk in private about it. Because I wanted to ask you something, too. Something really important.”

 

Willie waited, afraid to think what it might be. Surely she wouldn’t ask….

 

“We want you to come with us.”

 

Yes. She would.

 

For a moment his heart leapt up with a fierce, irrational joy, and he knew without a doubt that this was exactly what he was going to do. In his dazed state of mind it seemed entirely plausible. He would go with them. He would find a new life on the other side of the country, on the other side of the world, if need be. He would!

 

God.

 

No, he wouldn’t.

 

What the hell was he thinking?

 

He hunched down into his seat, his temporary insanity draining away as he stared into the depths of his cooling coffee, leaving him as sick and as miserable as he had ever been in his life. ‘Course, he reminded himself, it was still early in the day. It could still get worse if he waited.

 

“My cousin is a spinster,” Gina was saying. “I’m a widow. We can get a profitable nursery going between the two of us, I know we can. But it would be so much easier with a good man to help us with the carpentry and the painting and whatnot. We can’t pay you very much at first, not much more than room and board, but….”

 

She stopped, suddenly realizing that he wasn’t responding to her tumble of plans. Willie didn’t even bother to shake his head. He just stared into the depths of his mug, thinking that there was a bottom in there some-where, if he could only make it out before he hit it head on.

 

There was a long, stark silence left hanging between them. Thin as a spider web. Heavy as frustrated dreams.

 

Then Gina said, “Willie.”

 

He glanced up, startled. He had seen her angry—even furious—but he had never heard her use that gravelly tone of voice before. As though there was some long simmering outrage bubbling somewhere deep inside of her, and she was closing her own throat in an effort to keep it there, so she wouldn’t spit it out and burn him with it.

 

“Willie,” she said again, “you can come with us if you want to. He can’t hold you here. Not if you don’t let him.”

 

Willie stared at her, transfixed. She was leaning for-ward in her chair, her hands clenched into one big, white-knuckled fist in front of her, staring back at him, straight in the eye, as though she was daring him to disagree with her and drop his gaze. There was determination in her matronly face, and anger, and something else he didn’t quite recognize at first, because he hadn’t seen her show it since that first afternoon when he had picked up her and the kids on the side of the road and given them a lift home to good ol’ Ezra Logan, the abusive husband from hell.

 

The hard-clenched hands. The milk-white face. The lips drawn thin as wire. They all came down to staunchly concealed anxiety. At least they did in Gina Lee. Or maybe there was something deeper than that. Maybe it was something closer to fear that Willie saw. But it wasn’t for her this time, or even for her family. This time it was all for him.

 

There was no need for Willie to ask who the unnamed ‘he’ Gina referred to was. They both understood that it was Willie’s employer, Barnabas Collins. He of the strange habits and the charming voice and the quick, quick temper that Gina must have suspected long before she saw it in action. From the moment Polly Logan first invited her best pal Willie home to lunch, Gina must have seen him limping, must have noted his frequent and unexplained bruises. She had probably wondered what they were all about—until the night she saw Willie on the Old House’s stairway, freshly bruised and bleeding with Barnabas all but standing over him with an upraised fist.

 

There was no hiding it then. Barnabas had struck Willie, and while Gina had not actually witnessed it, she might as well have done. She had said as much—shouted as much—when she’d told Barnabas Collins exactly what she thought of him. In spades.

 

And later. That dreadful night that Polly had decided to brave the mysteries of the Old House so she could deliver her latest artwork to Willie in person. Gina had confronted Barnabas that night, too, but with more diplomacy and tact than she had used the first time. It wasn’t just because Polly was with her either. Gina understood what was going on by then. She’d come up to the house after Polly’s misadventure because she realized that her daughter’s misbehavior might cost Willie dear—and she meant to prevent that if she could.

 

Gina Lee knew the lay of the land, all right. She was afraid to leave Willie in Barnabas Collins’ clutches when she took her family out of Collinsport. It was as simple as that. She was afraid of what might happen to her shy, quiet friend if she wasn’t around to threaten or cajole his boss into submission.

 

Willie wanted to laugh, only it really wasn’t funny. Especially now, when the last fragile shards of his fractured world were collapsing in a heap around him. As if Gina had ever done anything but make Barnabas think she was a shrew. Willie knew she hadn’t. But Gina didn’t know that. All she knew was she had faced Barnabas Collins down on Willie’s behalf over the winter holidays, and that Willie’s life seemed to be somewhat easier because of it.

 

Willie had let her think it, believing that it was safer than the truth—that Willie had bargained his last smidgen of freedom for Gina and her children’s continued existence. Barnabas would leave the Logans alone as long as Willie obeyed him, submitting his natural rebelliousness to his master’s will, absolutely and without question. That was the deal. Willie might even steal an hour or two of peace with his adopted family, as long as it didn’t interfere with his regular duties.

 

He had done that, too. Snuck off for an hour here and fifteen minutes there, never discussing it with Barnabas unless the vampire asked him about it directly, which he almost ever did. What did Barnabas care if Willie ate his lunch with the Logans or at the village diner? His trips into town took the same amount of time either way, didn’t they?  And if a week of Willie’s lunch money went to buy Gina Lee a new rocking chair or Polly a set of birthday pencils, what difference did that make, huh?  The same amount of money got spent whether it was for a rocker or a week’s worth of cheeseburgers.

 

As long as Willie wasn’t too blatant about the corners he was cutting so he could enjoy the Logans’ company, Barnabas wouldn’t call him on it. The brief respites made Willie more stable than he had been before. They made him more productive around the Old House. And that’s what Barnabas cared about when it came down to brass tacks, wasn’t it? He wanted the Old House in top-notch shape, no matter what measures Willie had to take to achieve it. If those measures happened to include an occasional lunchtime visit to the Logans, Barnabas would go along with it, as long as Willie didn’t abuse the privilege.

 

But now look what Willie’s selfishness had done. Gina had got the novel idea that she could protect him. Protect him! When it had been him protecting her all along.

 

Better to let her get across the country, to get her and her family safely away, before he screwed up somehow and gave Barnabas reason to go after them. Better to let her go before he truly, irretrievably lost her.

 

Even if it broke his heart to do it.

 

“I can’t go anywhere with you, Gina,” Willie whispered, the seven words that doomed him no louder than the rustle of the window curtains fluttering in the breeze. “This is .. . is where I … I belong….”

 

The words choked him, clogging like a wet wad of leaves in his windpipe. He could barely stand to say them—especially since they were true.

 

But he had to do it. He had to make her believe him. If she didn’t believe him she wouldn’t go. And what if she stayed?  Willie would be overjoyed, of course he would. Their friendship would remain intact. But how would he feel if two weeks from now Gina wound up dead in a ditch simply because Willie had let his mouth get ahead of his brain one dark night and snapped back at the vampire in a moment of rage?  That’s all it would take. One unguarded moment and Gina and her family would be so much dust moldering in the ground, as cold and as dead as the late, unlamented Ezra Logan ever was.

 

Gina’s drowned husband sometimes stared out at Willie from the watery well of nightmare, his eyes and nose nibbled down to black holes by carnivorous fish, his lank hair stirring in the tidal breeze. Imagine Gina and the kids somehow joining him down there. Imagine her whispering to Willie from the depths of dream: why?

 

Because of me, he answered himself, shivering at the thought. Because of me. But now that doesn’t have to happen. Not ever. Not if I play it right.

 

“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he finished, conviction finally finding its way into his voice, even if it didn’t take root in his heart. “But you should. It’s . . . it’s a great idea. A great chance for you and the kids. You should take it.”

 

“I intend to,” Gina said flatly, as close to outright rudeness as a woman of her steady disposition ever got with the people she most cared about. “It’s the only chance the children and I have to find a life of our own. We can’t impose on the Pedersons forever. But it doesn’t have to be a fresh start just for us, Willie. You could come with us. You could.”

 

Anger was making her rougher than she had ever been with him. Anger and that precognizant maternal instinct that had to be telling her that Willie would be worse off without her than he was when she was some-where nearby.

 

He had to disabuse her of that notion, and do it damned fast, or Gina might take it into her head to con-front Barnabas on the matter. Willie hoped she wasn’t angry enough to do that, but she might be. There was no telling what a mother lion like Gina would do if she believed those she loved were threatened, even if the threat lay largely beyond her ken.

 

And she does love you, Willie thought, realizing the certainty of it for the first time, even though the evidence had always been there for him to treasure. Not hearts n’ roses love, no, not like that. Not like a boyfriend or a husband or anything close to it. But just as a true friend.

 

A friend she would fight for.

 

Willie felt tears welling up in his eyes and fought them back. Gina really would go to war for him if he needed her to. Not just stand up for him like she had last winter, but charge in with an all-guns-blazing, no-holds-barred, claws-unsheathed-until-they-drew-blood war. She really would.

 

He loved her for that. But he couldn’t let her do it. She didn’t understand what she was taking on.

 

“Gina,” he said gently. “You know I’d do anything for you and the kids. You know I would. But I can’t do this.” He reached out to her this time, something he had dared no more than twice in the whole time he had known her, and took her hand, stiff and clenched with anger as it was. “Please,” he said. “I’m askin’ you as a friend. Please don’t ask me to go with you. Not now. Not ever. ‘Cause I can’t. I can’t do it. Please don’t ask me again.”

 

She scared the life out of him by bursting into tears. Gina pulled her hand violently through his and swung around to lean against the kitchen sink. Her fingers were splayed over her face, as though she could push her grief back inside her again.

 

But she couldn’t do that, Willie thought sadly. He could have told her that much, had he possessed the voice to speak. He was having a damned hard time holding his own pain inside of him, so he knew exactly how she felt.

 

He got up and walked over behind her, silently put-ting his hands on her shoulders in a mute gesture that meant Gina, I’m sorry. That was all he could offer her. He couldn’t say the words out loud. They were wrapped in barbed wire, bristling with glass, locked tight inside his throat. He felt Gina shaking beneath his hands, sobbing the way he wanted to sob, and he knew right then that he had to get out of there before he broke down with her. If she saw him cry he would never convince her that he didn’t want to go. She would have him then—and Barnabas would have her.

 

So he did the only thing he could think of to do under the circumstances. He kissed her on the top of the head, just as he might Polly if she had fallen and skinned her knee.

 

And then he walked out of the Pederson house as quickly and as silently as he could. Silently. So he wouldn’t wake the children.

 

*

 

He made himself wait until he reached the rocks before he allowed himself to cry.

 

He didn’t want to break down within the village limits. Someone might see him. Wonder at the outpouring of raw emotion. Mention it to Barnabas. Or worse yet, to Gina Lee.

 

So he made himself wait until he found the familiar black granite boulder on the beach beneath Widows’ Hill. The one that had the hollow worn into it from a thousand years of dripping water and seaborne wind. The one that fit him as though it was made for him.

 

His last sanctuary, now that the Logan house was burned and the Pederson cottage off limits. He would never go there again. Not while Gina was still there, packing up the remnants of her life in Collinsport, nor when she left it, either. It would be as if the little street of working class bungalows near the Collinsport Cannery didn’t exist for him. He couldn’t bear to drive down it and know that Gina and the children were no longer there, waiting halfway down the row to greet him with hugs and home-made pie.

 

That street was shadowland now. The same twilight territory that Barnabas occupied. A place that was neither in the here-and-now nor in the future, but lost somewhere in the dim, misty past. The vampire had lost his family in just such a place, and now Willie had lost his there, too. But unlike Barnabas, Willie was still mortal. He couldn’t stay there, existing on memories. Not if he wanted to survive.

 

It amazed him that some small, struggling part of him did still seem to want such a thing, though he couldn’t imagine why. It wasn’t as though he had anything left to live for. Not now that his only friends were as good as gone.

 

The top of the boulder was warm with absorbed sunlight. He sat there, staring off at the horizon where a line of heavy black clouds were moving in from northeast. A storm was coming. A harbinger of sighs yet to come.

 

Willie sat on his hard, lonely boulder, watching the tide roll in over seaweed-stinking stone.

 

And wept.

 

*

 

Gina stayed at the kitchen sink with a paper tissue hiding her face until she was sure she had stopped sobbing.

 

She felt sick, almost nauseated with weeping.

 

She also felt three kinds of a fool.

 

Why had she broken down like that? She hadn’t meant to. Before Willie had arrived for lunch she had planned out what she would say to him, down to the last detail. She had hoped that he would jump at the chance to go with them, to get away from a life of drudgery in that drafty old Collins’ house, to start fresh somewhere far away from Barnabas Collins and his unreasonable rules.

 

She should have known better. A man as controlling as Barnabas Collins would no more allow his servant leave Collinsport than Gina’s late husband Ezra would have let her leave him, had he still been alive to prevent her.

 

Some part of her must have realized that before she even opened her mouth to ask, she thought ruefully. She had felt a strange sadness clouding her intentions directly before she posed the question. A small, nagging premonition that the time to ask Willie to go with them was not yet ripe.

 

But Gina had asked him anyway, uncertain of the trustworthiness of her unwanted prophecy until she had seen the misery on Willie’s face. That first heady spark of jubilance—of imminent freedom—that lasted all of a second before it was squashed beneath the heavy heel of reality.

 

Then his brave face, immediately after. The one he wore when he told her what a great chance San Diego was. That she should take it. Knowing all the while that he couldn’t go with them, not even if Gina had the money to pay his way. The white-faced purity of the grief he had struggled to contain behind the tear-shimmering wall of his blue-gray eyes had sunk sharp, silvery talons deep into her heart.

 

Gina had recognized that sad, brave look. She had worn it once too often herself.

 

That’s why she had been so rude with him. And why she had burst into tears when she had meant to be cool and logical and kind. She had known in that miserable instant that she couldn’t argue him into it. Not without fracturing their friendship and forestalling any possibility of him maybe coming along afterward, if some miracle should occur and he could possibly manage it.

 

Thank goodness she hadn’t mentioned Willie coming to San Diego to the children, not even in fun. She had kept the news of the trip from the youngsters altogether. Just in case the details didn’t turn out like she’d planned.

 

What is it between them? she wondered, running water over a dishrag so she could wipe the heat from her tear-flushed face. What is it between Willie and that awful man? Why can’t Willie leave if he wants to?

 

Even after all she had witnessed that winter, Gina didn’t know. But she did know that she couldn’t force him to go, any more than well-meaning friends could have forced her to leave Ezra when she had first realized she was trapped in an abusive marriage with her children held hostage to her husband’s uncertain temper. She hadn’t dared leave Collinsport when Ezra was alive, for fear of what he might do if he came after them.

 

Not if, she corrected herself grimly. When. When he came after them.

 

Willie had the same fear now where Barnabas Collins was concerned. Gina was certain of it. Only Willie wasn’t a woman or a child in terror for his life. He was a grown man. What was Gina supposed to do? Go to the sheriff and say someone was abusing Willie Loomis? And not just any someone, but Barnabas Collins, whose family half the town depended upon for steady employment.

 

Oh-ho! Wouldn’t that be a moment for the record books? Gina could see it now. Not only would the sheriff say ‘Willie’s an adult, let him leave if he wants to,’ he would probably laugh in her face and say ‘good!’ as well. Gina knew how most people in town felt about Willie Loomis. If they knew he was getting knocked around they would figure he deserved it—with interest—for the wicked life he had led before Barnabas Collins took him in hand.

 

Was that what Mr. Collins held over Willie?  Some-thing from the younger man’s previous life that Willie didn’t want revealed for fear of returning to prison? Or perhaps something even worse.

 

What could be worse?

 

For the life of her, Gina couldn’t conceive of any-thing awful enough that Willie might have done that would bind him so permanently to that moldering old estate on the lea of Widows’ Hill. But Barnabas Collins had something on him. Something so damning that Willie didn’t dare to try to leave, even though he desperately wanted to. Gina had seen that much in his face.

 

You could ask him. You could ask Mr. Collins. You could march right up that hill and face that pompous old jaybird down, just like you did last winter. Only this time don’t cry.

 

No. That wouldn’t work. It would just make things worse for Willie. Gina remembered the one and only time someone from her church had tried to take Ezra aside when Gina had turned up at Sunday services with not one, but two black eyes. Ez had looked at that well-meaning deacon as though he were some kind of cockroach and had cussed him up one side and down the other. Chucked him off the property, too. And then he had come after Gina even worse than before. He had to teach her, he said, not to drag outsiders into family business.

 

She hadn’t done that. She hadn’t said a word. That poor old deacon had taken it on himself after he’d seen her bruises, much good it had done either one of them.

 

Gina knew that Mr. Collins wouldn’t cuss her, not even if she provoked him on his own front step. No, he was too much of a gentleman for that. He had proved that twice already. She could almost tweak his nose at will, and he would only say ‘Madame, don’t do that’ in that prissy, upper class voice of his.

 

But once she left the Old House it would be Willie Loomis left in the hot seat to answer for her sins. He would be the one that Barnabas Collins took his anger out on—even though Willie wouldn’t have done a thing to deserve it. Gina had no doubt about that, not now, she didn’t. She sometimes wondered if she had inadvertently caused Willie pain that last time she had taken his employer on, but she had been too afraid of what Willie might say to actually ask him.

 

No. Much as it hurt her, she had to let Willie Loomis be. The best she could do for him was to write him a letter to let him know where the Logan family would be in San Diego, just in case he ever had a chance to get away and decided to come to them. He might, some day. She had gotten free of Ezra, hadn’t she? Miracles did happen. Some day Willie just might find a way to get free of Barnabas Collins.

 

She could always hope.

 

*

 

It wasn’t anything personal.

 

He had to understand that.

 

Gina wasn’t leaving Collinsport because of him. Because he had done something wrong or had somehow defiled her and driven her away. She was leaving because she had a chance at lifting her struggling family out of poverty. She had a shot at a real life again. A golden opportunity for home and family and true tribal community.

 

Who wouldn’t want something like that?

 

What was it she had said? A spinster cousin, some-where out on the west coast. Someone with a house too big for her, who could take in a woman and three children and maybe start up a nursery besides without ever noticing a loss of space. She and Gina would start up a business together. If they never struck it big, at least they would manage to scurry by the poorhouse. The two single women would never be completely alone in a hostile world. The kids would never go hungry.

 

He should be happy for Gina. Happy for the kids. They would be an independent family again, somewhere far from the evil that had changed their lives forever, if only they knew the truth of it all.

 

But Willie wasn’t happy. The grief that he had kept sealed away until he reached his boulder was rising within him now like naturally carbonated water gurgling up the throat of an artesian well. There was a wayward stone blocking the head of that black spring of sorrow, but it wouldn’t be there for long. In a while the little storms of weeping that had kept the pressure under control wouldn’t be enough. The stress would grow too great. The stone would blast free.

 

And when that happened he would really lose it. He really would lose his mind.

 

*

 

The storm was closer now, sending whirling emissaries of rain and sand to drive Willie from his boulder.

 

Willie refused to go.

 

He ducked his head down on his folded arms as the first cold pellets hit, ice-cold shards of rain smacking into his neck and shoulders. Wind ruffled his hair in all directions. The stench of soured seaweed fluttered odiferously away, along with the sand flies and midges that had swarmed around the tidal pools.

 

Warm condensation built up in the cave of arms and knees that his face sheltered in. He concentrated on that, ignoring the discomfort of icy water trickling down his spine to soak the waist of his pants. Spring might be coming, but it wasn’t entirely here yet. The tail end of this storm could bring snow as surely as its vanguard brought rain. Willie wouldn’t know for sure until it got here.

 

Well, what did it matter? He wouldn’t feel it, except for a slightly sharper sting against his skin than the rain was already inflicting. No matter how it hurt, he wasn’t going anywhere.

 

No, a vicious voice inside him said. You aren’t.

 

But Gina is.

 

He waited, heart thudding, eyes screwed shut, for a torrent of tears to follow. He wanted to cry, even though he had been doing nothing but sniveling for most of the afternoon. He could still feel pressure building up in his chest. A pressure that was nothing but the grief of Gina leaving him pooling in a pit beneath his heart.

 

But he didn’t cry this time.

 

He felt the tightening of his throat. The swelling of his sinuses. The maddening sting of tears behind his puffy eyes. But he didn’t cry.

 

He was beginning to accept it, then.

 

How can you accept it? he berated himself, intent on priming the painful well of tears if they wouldn’t flood on their own. She’s leaving you, you idiot! Maybe not you specifically. She did ask you to come along, after all. But the end result is the same. You’ll be right back where you were a year ago, alone in this godforsaken town, without anyone who gives a tinker’s damn whether Willie Loomis lives or dies.

 

After knowing the difference a real friend can make, how can you possibly accept that?

 

Because he didn’t have a choice, that was how. Gina was going, whether he went with her or not. He couldn’t go with her. So he better get busy and finish the business he had begun last December when Barnabas had temporarily forbidden him to associate with the Logan clan. He had to find a way to let her go.

 

If you go back into the dumps like you were last winter, Barnabas ain’t gonna take it too well. He might hurt you on general principle, just to remind you what hurtin’ really feels like.

 

Willie shuddered. He didn’t want that. But he didn’t know how he was going to avoid it. He couldn’t go back to the Old House and pretend that nothing had happened. Something had happened. Something that was deeply important to him. Barnabas wouldn’t give a damn, of course, but Willie did. He might hide a lesser hurt, but not something like this. It would be like trying to pretend a shotgun blast to the belly was nothing but a stomach cramp.

 

He’s gonna ask you what’s wrong. Maybe not tonight, but sooner or later he will. What are you going to tell him?

 

Nothing. Nothing more than he absolutely had to.

 

Willie relaxed his spine into a looser curve, breathing steadily into the warm cave created by his own huddled body.

 

Without meaning to, he slept.

 

*

 

He woke with the nothingness of mist about him. Darkness. And damp.

 

Oh shit, he thought, his senses still befuddled with dream. I’ve overslept.

 

He lifted his nose into the rush of wind skipping off the invisible waves in front of him, shaking off the last of a recurring nightmare in which he had fallen from a great height into deep water, sinking down, down and down through layers of turquoise and indigo and black, feeling his heart thudding slower and slower with every drowning beat.

 

He blinked, nonplused.

 

He was still on the beach.

 

How the hell had that happened?

 

He hadn’t meant to go to sleep on his boulder. The wind and the rain had been scuffling around him like bullies in a schoolyard. Shouldn’t that have kept him awake?

 

It hadn’t, though. He had drifted off to sleep and it was full dark now. Full dark, and the candles in the parlor left unlit. The drapes left drawn. The fires left cold black coal with no flame set to warm them.

 

He was in trouble. Even if he made it back to the Old House in record time, his skin would wear the proof of it.

 

He lifted his head fully off his arms, and as he did, he caught a shadow from the corner of his eye, a phantom of mist lying in wait off to his left. He jerked away from it without thinking, knowing even before he moved that no shadow lurked that silently save Barnabas, and that the vampire had come hunting him, wondering where his servant was loitering on such a dark cold night as this.

 

*

 

“Get to the house,” Barnabas said.

 

Willie slid timorously off his boulder, anxious to keep as much of the stone between him and the vampire as possible. His shoes squished into cold, wet sand and tangles of kelp left by the retreating tide.

 

God. The tide had been coming in when he first took his perch. How long had he been out here?  How late was it, anyway?

 

Barnabas was going to kill him.

 

He didn’t want to navigate the sand-spattered path up to the house with the vampire stalking in the dark behind him, but he didn’t have a choice. He scuttled upward as quickly as he could with cold-stiffened muscles, guided by moonlight that flickered between banks of low-lying clouds like a dying firefly. After the first switchback the bulk of the house loomed in front of him, black against the horizon’s softer gray.

 

Nine o’clock? Ten? Maybe later than that. It was hard to tell with the clouds scudding over the stars like they were. His internal time sense was shot, scrambled by exhaustion and the rollercoaster of emotion he’d been riding since Gina gave him her news.

 

He made the back porch and fumbled for the slick brass knob of the unlocked kitchen door. Inside the pitch-black room, the coals he had banked that morning in the old iron stove still glowed a feeble red. Willie went straight to the woodbox without being told, building up the fire and lighting candles not just because Barnabas expected it of him, but because he needed the illumination to hold his fear at bay.

 

What must the vampire have thought, finding his manservant asleep on a wind-scoured rock like that?

 

He didn’t wake you up. He just settled in beside you and waited.

 

How long was he there?

 

And what’s he got in mind for you now?

 

Willie shivered in his wet clothes, feeling the fiery ache of muscles that had clenched against the cold for far too long, drawn taut and tense as hawsers even as he slept. His shoes squelched with moisture and scratchy particles of sand that had worked their way through his socks to sting against his skin. He dripped rainwater whenever he moved

 

Get a towel?

 

No. Look at him, standing there staring at you like that. He’s mad.

 

But Barnabas wasn’t saying anything. He had only closed the door behind him as he came in and now stood with his back to the counter, silently watching Willie take care of the chores he should have completed hours ago.

 

The match he was trying to strike snapped against the sandpaper strip. Willie hurried to open the box, get another match, strike it into flame. But his hands were shaking so badly that all he managed to do was scatter matches all over the floor.

 

Barnabas was suddenly standing beside him, his hand held out for the depleted matchbox.

 

“Give it to me,” he said impatiently, when Willie made no move to hand it over.

 

Willie did, anxiety making him shrink away from the vampire even as his hand reached out to do as he was told. He dropped the slim rectangle of cardboard into Barnabas’ palm and took a step back, closer to the stove. The heat from the replenished fire baked into the small of his back, reminding him how very cold the rest of him was. He took another small, hesitant step backward, hearing as much as feeling the wet squish of his sock inside his sodden shoe.

 

Barnabas looked up from the row of candles he was lighting, his eyes sparking black in the glow from the wax-fed wicks.

 

“Sit down,” he said tersely. “Close to the stove. You’re soaking wet.”

 

Willie hurried to do as he was bid. He took the chair closest to the stove and sat on its farthermost edge, ready to spring up again if Barnabas came near him. His hands, nervous with no chore to occupy them, clenched in his lap, fingers twining in an endless spider of jitters.

 

Barnabas finished lighting the candles. He placed two on the fireplace mantle and left the third glowing on the kitchen table, just short of Willie’s reach.

 

The matchbox connected with the tabletop with a soft thup.

 

“Tell me,” Barnabas said, “what has happened.”

 

“Huh? N-nothin’, Barnabas, nothin’, I was just watching the tide come in an’….”

 

“And fell asleep in the middle of a rainstorm,” Barnabas interrupted shortly. The planes of his gaunt, undead face flickered with shadows in the candlelight, first bright, then dark, so Willie could not be certain of his expression. “I have often thought,” Barnabas said, “that you hadn’t the sense to come in out of the rain, but I never thought to have it so decisively proven.”

 

Willie didn’t answer. He only ducked his head in apparent humiliation, keeping Barnabas’ firelit form safely within the corner of his eye as he did so. Insults couldn’t hurt him, but a slap across the head might. He wanted to be able to see such a blow coming without being too obvious about it. If he saw it, he might dodge.

 

“I don’t believe for a moment that you simply fell asleep during an afternoon of wave watching,” Barnabas said into the lengthening silence. “Something kept you there.”

 

The vampire planted the tips of his long, white fingers on the tabletop and leaned toward Willie, making the younger man flinch backward. “If you have done something, Willie, it would be better for you to tell me now rather than have me find out about it later. Haven’t you learned that much in my service?”

 

“B-but I . . . I haven’t done anythin’,” Willie stammered. He was curling back in his seat, instinctively putting as much range between him and the vampire as his hampered position between the wall and the stove would allow. “Honest, Barnabas, I was just tired, that’s all, I….”

 

Barnabas was staring at him again, stripping away all of Willie’s defenses with the merciless flick flick flick of those knife-sharp obsidian eyes. Willie endured it miserably, shivering even as the warmth of the stove beside him began to dry the clammy shroud of his clothes.

 

The vampire abruptly stood up straight and stalked off to the other side of the room. He snapped open the linen cupboard and brought back a towel, flinging it onto the tabletop in front of his frightened manservant.

 

Willie hesitated, then took it in his trembling hands, though he did not use it. “Thanks,” he whispered. “Willie,” Barnabas said, more patiently than he had said anything all evening, “has there been another death in your family?” Willie looked up, startled. His father’s death earlier in the year had been one of the few instances that Barnabas had treated him humanely. “Huh? N-n . . . no.”

 

Not exactly.

 

Barnabas must have heard the unspoken words, because he sighed and pulled out the chair on the opposite side of the table. He took the seat like a regent sitting down to sign important documents of state and looked across at Willie, whose attention was wavering between his master’s face and the safer view of the innocuous cotton folds of the towel.

 

“No?” the vampire queried. “Then what has shaken you so badly that you forgot yourself so thoroughly? I daresay the tide could have taken you with it tonight and you wouldn’t have so much as stirred to save yourself.”

 

Willie swallowed. The grief he had thought to leave behind him on the beach was back in his throat, over-riding his fear of Barnabas’ earlier anger. He blinked against the fresh sting of ready tears and turned his face away, unwilling to let Barnabas see him cry.

 

“I asked you a question, Willie,” Barnabas said quietly.

 

“I….” Willie swallowed again, struggling for self-control. He was not going to bring Gina Lee into this, not if he could help it. She would be safer if she got away from Collinsport without Barnabas knowing where she was going. “I . . . I don’t wanna talk about it,” he finished, choking a bit, his words trembling on an unvoiced sob. “It’s private.”

 

Barnabas nodded once, as though his suspicions were confirmed. “Has this woman you were so enamored with cast you aside, then? This Mrs. Logan?”

 

Willie was on his feet before the full impact of his rage reached his brain. His chair scraped backward on the floorboards, tipping as he left it, and banged against the wall at his back. “Don’t you talk about her like that,” he gasped out in a low, strangled voice. The forgotten towel slipped from the tabletop to puddle at his feet. “Don’t you ever.”

 

Barnabas was not in the least bit threatened by his manservant’s furious outburst. He never even blinked. He merely caught Willie’s eye in his gimlet gaze and glared him down, until Willie realized the foolishness of his impulsive act and began to shiver with appalled reaction.

 

He couldn’t fight Barnabas. Not now. Not ever. If he tried, Barnabas would only smack him down, and maybe go hunting for Gina Lee a little later tonight, while Willie was still down and nursing his wounds. Gina wasn’t out of Collinsport yet. Willie’s bargain with his master was still very much in effect. The vampire could still get to her.

 

Her . . . or the Pedersons . . . or maybe one of the kids. Barnabas wouldn’t care which target he took. They were all the same to him. Just blood on the hoof that had the additional value of reminding his manservant who was in control inside the Old House.

 

“You forget yourself, Willie,” Barnabas said at last, as unblinking as a snake. He somehow managed to make his words sharp enough to flay flesh from bone without ever raising his voice. “I will speak of Gina Logan in any manner I choose and you will not object. Or I do assure you, you will regret opposing me. And so might she.”

 

The bald threat sent a spike of terror through Willie’s chest. He sat down again, almost missing the edge of his displaced chair, his quivering body rendered numb by the roiling waves of fear and anger and grief that battled for dominance in his breast.

 

“If the two of you have quarreled, it is of no import to me,” Barnabas continued testily. Gina Lee was a sore point with him since the night she had shouted at him, as Willie very well knew. “But you will not bring the dregs of your relationship with that woman back into this house, do you hear? I won’t have it.”

 

“I … I didn’t mean to, I….”

 

“You may believe you have been quite clever, but it has not escaped my attention that you have slighted your duties here that you might spend more time with that brood of hers.”  Barnabas pressed on, riding over his manservant as though Willie hadn’t spoken. “If you continue in this manner, I will forbid you to associate with them, Willie—and that will be the end of it. I will hear no pleas or protestations. You will not see Gina Logan or those brats of hers again. Do I make myself clear?”

 

“But….”

 

Grief. Rage. Terror. Despair. None of them could hold sway within Willie’s heart for long. They were all emotions that were too intense, all too immediately present, for him to be able to cope with them all at once. They were battling within him, all striking at him from different directions, until he didn’t know which way to turn.

 

“I said, do I make myself clear?” Barnabas barked at him.

 

Willie flinched backward, hand over his heart, unable to feel even its jackhammer pace through the pain that was already throbbing there.

 

You can’t take the Logans away from me, Barnabas, he thought helplessly from with in the maelstrom.

 

They are already gone.

 

The imaginary stone blocking the wellspring of Willie’s deepest emotions shuddered at the resurgence of pressure building below it, then suddenly shot free. A fresh torrent of pain boiled up to feed the passions that were already buffeting him. He thought for a moment that he might be having a heart attack, before he realized it was only the enormity of his grief tearing his soul in half.

 

Willie dropped his head into his trembling hands and sobbed. Then again, drawing air into his lungs in a gasping hiss before expelling it in a soft, choked cry.

 

For a moment, humiliation held the field. Then it was swallowed beneath a fresh breaker of overwhelming sorrow. He didn’t care if Barnabas saw him weep. He didn’t care if his angry words provoked the vampire into beating him. He almost hoped Barnabas would hurt him, if only to end this cycle of violent emotions that threatened to grind him into dust. Physical pain would give him something to concentrate on other than his own storm-battered heart.

 

Still, he dreaded it. A beating on top of all he had endured in this long, miserable day would be more horror than he could bear.

 

If he grabs me I’ll scream. I’ll scream and I’ll keep on screaming. I won’t be able to help myself.

 

But Barnabas never touched him.

 

Willie wept until exhaustion forced him to rest his elbows on the table lest he topple completely out of his chair.

 

Through a film of tears and candlelight he saw that the towel was once again folded in a neat square on the table in front of him.

 

And Barnabas was gone.

 

*

 

Gina sat at the tiny desk in the Pederson’s guest bedroom, nibbling on the cap of her ballpoint pen as she pondered what to write.

 

Dear Willie,

 

That part was easy. She hadn’t even debated whether to revert to the more formal ‘Mr. Loomis.’ Willie wasn’t a stranger to her. Not anymore. He was a friend. More than that, he was one of her staunchest defenders during one of the most difficult times she had survived in her life, no matter what evil the village gossips might believe of him.

 

Freedom could be as arduous as servitude, as Gina had discovered after Ezra’s death. But Willie had helped her to see that she could handle it—starting with nothing more eye-opening than an anonymous gift of firewood meant to keep her family comfortable through the long Maine winter.

 

The wood hadn’t managed that. The Logan house had gone up in a gas-fueled blaze long before the winter was over. But the empathy that Willie had exhibited for her struggling family still kept Gina warm in her heart, and in some ways still served to pry her eyes open to the possibilities in her future.

 

Willie had been a virtual stranger, yet he had reached out to help her in her time of need. Even after what her late husband Ezra and his friends had done to him, the Old House’s beleaguered caretaker hadn’t held a grudge. He had simply put the pain behind him and moved forward in a positive direction. In accomplishing such an impossible thing in that quiet, unassuming way of his, he had shown Gina Lee that she could move forward, too, if she only had the courage to put her fears behind her and try.

 

She wished with all of her heart that she could lend him a similar strength in return, now that she knew he needed it. She knew that staying with Barnabas Collins was not what Willie wanted. But maybe it was what he needed to do right now. He must have his reasons, even if he couldn’t share them with her.

 

How could she tell him she understood that?

 

Dear Willie, she read again.

 

Why was this so difficult? All she had to do was say it, for heaven’s sake!

 

“Mommy?”

 

Gina looked down in surprise at her eldest child, who was tugging earnestly at her mother’s skirt.

 

“Baby, what are you doing up? It’s late.”

 

“Mr. Pederson,” Polly said succinctly, wrinkling her snub nose in childish annoyance.

 

Gina smiled. Tom Pederson’s snoring could shake a bat out of an attic rafter. His wife and children were accustomed to it. Daniel and Carla could sleep through the Second Coming of Christ and remain undisturbed. But Gina and Polly sometimes woke in the night to bugles and bag-pipes and all sorts of fanfare, all originating from Mr. Pederson’s congested sinuses.

 

“Mommy? Watcha doin’?” Polly leaned up on tiptoe so she could see atop the desk, but there was nothing much to catch her interest but an innocently blank sheet of paper.

 

“I’m trying to write a letter, honey.” Gina reached out with one arm and gave her daughter a soft little hug. “But it isn’t going very well.”

 

“Is it a letter for Willie?” Polly wanted to know.

 

Now, how had her daughter intuited that? Gina thought, startled.

 

Wait. No. There was nothing odd in Polly’s assumption. Who else would Gina be writing to?  As far as the children were concerned, Willie was their pal. He was the first person they thought of when it came to virtually any social interaction. And besides, there was his name on Gina’s sheet of paper. Dear Willie. After four months in the first grade, even Polly could read that much.

 

“Yes, hon,” Gina admitted. “I’m telling him where we are going so he can write to us if he wants to.”

 

Gina had saved the news of the move to San Diego until after she had spoken to Willie that afternoon. She hadn’t wanted the youngsters bubbling over with the details before she was ready to tell him about it. The kids were excited, too. Sad about leaving their good friend Willie, of course, but otherwise ready to get on the train tomorrow if they didn’t have to wait until next week. It was all a big adventure to them.

 

The Pedersons were more reserved in their celebrating, perhaps afraid of making Gina feel unwelcome if they showed too much enthusiasm for her moving. But her family’s presence had to be a strain on them, even if they were too kind to show it. Tom and Anne and their unfailing kindness were among the small list of things Gina would miss when she left Collinsport.

 

Them and Willie Loomis.

 

“I wish Willie could come with us,” Polly said, wistfully echoing her mother’s unspoken thought.

 

“Me too, baby,” Gina replied softly. She hugged Polly again so the little girl wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. “Me too.”

 

*

 

His first thought was that Barnabas had gone after Gina.

 

Willie lurched to his feet, his tears forgotten, his hip banging hard into the sharp edge of the table in his panic to get to the kitchen door. But once through the doorway he could see the soft glow of the firelight in the parlor reflecting off the walls of the upper hall. He could hear Barnabas moving around up there, pacing as the vampire so often did late at night when he was restless and bored with no scheming to keep him occupied.

 

Barnabas had retreated to the other side of the house to avoid witnessing Willie’s emotional meltdown, that was all. Not because he was going after the Logans in retribution for his manservant’s rebellious words or neglected duties.

 

Willie slipped back into the kitchen without saying anything, unwilling to go past Barnabas to get to the stairs that led to his third-floor room. He felt completely hollowed out by the toll the day had taken from him, but he wasn’t ready to explain to Barnabas exactly what was happening with Gina Lee Logan. Let the vampire believe what he wanted to believe. That Willie and the Logans had argued or quarreled or even dumped each other altogether. It didn’t make any difference to Willie as long as Gina got her family safely out of Collinsport.

 

He went back to the cast iron stove and chucked another round of wood on the fire. When he had a blaze that would see him through the night he resumed his seat between the stove and the wall, rolling the towel into a makeshift pillow for his head.

 

He didn’t think he would drop off, even as tired and tear-worn as he was. But after a long while of listening to the rain patter against the windowpanes and his hollow heart thudding against his ribs he finally fell into a fitful, dream-plagued doze.

 

He was getting good at sleeping in odd and uncomfortable places.

 

*

 

“Give it up, Gina. He’s not coming.”

 

Gina turned away from her admittedly fruitless search of the train station parking lot and brought her attention back to the bedlam surrounding her: five over-excited children, one over-taxed luggage handler, and two very good friends who had come to see her and her family off to their new lives in San Diego.

 

“I know he isn’t, Tom,” she said. “But I wasn’t expecting him, anyway.”

 

“Don’t tease her about it, Tom,” Anne admonished her husband, thumping him lightly on the head with the rolled up drawing Polly had presented her as a keepsake. “You know Willie would be here if he could. He’s probably working and can’t get away.”

 

Tom shrugged, offering Gina a conciliatory grin. “I’m sorry, Geen. That didn’t come out the way I meant it.” He deftly separated his son Karl’s fingers from his younger son Peter’s hair whilst he spoke, never once looking down as he did it. A talent peculiar to parents with more than one small child, Gina thought. “I just thought he’d be here, that’s all,” Tom said. “Even if he had to sneak away. You’d think he’d want to say good-bye to the kids.”

 

“Tom!”

 

“What?” Tom looked at his wife, confused as to what he had said wrong this time.

 

“Just take the children to the other end of the platform and show them the train, will you, please? Before you dig yourself in any deeper.”

 

The big man swept his youngest child into the air and onto his shoulders. “C’mon, tiger,” he said. “You’re mom says I’ve opened my big mouth and stuck my foot in it again.” He smiled at Gina again, as open and ingenuous as one of his wildly giggling offspring. “Sorry, Gina,” he said again.

 

Gina smiled back to show there was no harm done, but the heart beating beneath her plain beige traveling suit was hurting. She had hoped that Willie would come to the station and see them off, but he probably didn’t even know they were leaving today. She hadn’t seen him since the afternoon she had asked him to come to San Diego. He hadn’t stopped in or called to ask what train they would take, and Gina hadn’t possessed the selfishness to force the knowledge on him.

 

“I’m sorry, Gina,” Anne said, reinforcing her husband’s apology. “Tom means well, but you know he doesn’t always think before he speaks.” She slipped her arm around her friend’s shoulder in a comforting hug. “Willie would be here, you know, if he could be.”

 

“I know,” Gina said. I know. But he couldn’t bear to see us leave. That’s what kept him away. I know it is.

 

If leaving Collinsport is hard for me, what must it be like for Willie, as alone and friendless as he is? It’s no wonder he decided not to come.

 

A thump and a curse brought her out of her reverie. “Be careful with that!” she called to the luggage handler, who was struggling to wrestle Willie’s rocker into the baggage car without scraping it against the hatchway. The man bared his teeth at her, irritated, but hastily glanced down again at Gina’s warning glare. Shipping the rocker was costing her a sheaf of money she didn’t have. She didn’t want it damaged in transport.

 

It had never occurred to her leave it behind, no matter what the cost to move it. That rocker was the only tangible link the Logans had with Willie now. That and Polly’s set of drawing pencils, which were worn almost to nubs a month after the child had unwrapped them.

 

Sure, the family had more fond memories of their friend than most people had the luck to collect in a lifetime. Even a photograph or two that camera-shy Willie hadn’t noticed Gina snapping, mostly when his attention was wrapped up in playing with the kids. But something they could touch—something that Willie had touched, too, something he had instilled with care and reverence and love—that was a treasure that existed solely in the refurbished rocker. Gina would no more leave it behind than she would have abandoned the baby pictures of the children, or the Bible her mother had given her when she started Sunday school, or the silver gravy boat that was the last surviving piece from her grandmother’s ornate set, had not all those familial treasures gone up in flames the day that the Logan house burned down.

 

No. No matter what the cost, Willie’s rocking chair was going to San Diego. If there was anything to the theory of sympathetic attraction, maybe it would draw its giver there some day, if the lure of the Logan family’s love wasn’t enough to do it.

 

Gina hoped so. For the life of her, she couldn’t think what else might bring him.

 

*

 

Willie read the letter one more time, standing over the open bottom drawer of his bureau.

 

It had come in Monday’s mail. A thicker envelope than one might expect for ordinary correspondence. He saw why when he opened it and found two pieces of construction paper folded inside, covered in pencil and Crayola drawings made especially for him. One with sailboats all over it from Polly, mostly done in pencil, and another with trains and stick-figure horses on it from Daniel. Polly had printed Carla’s name along with hers at the bottom of her artwork, just to be fair to the baby who was too young to send a picture of her own.

 

The letter was from Gina.

 

Dear Willie,

 

I am so sorry that I broke down the way I did. I didn’t mean to do that. I know it must have embarrassed you. I’m sorry for that.

 

Huh. She hadn’t embarrassed him. Not at all. Shocked him, yes. Grieved him, yes. But her tears had frightened more than mortified him. It wasn’t like Gina to lose control that way. The fact that she had gave him some indication of how deep her friendship for him went.

 

I know you can’t come with us now, but I hope you might find us some day, if you want to and your circumstances allow. You know you will always be welcome with us.

 

An address followed. A not too wealthy, not too poor street somewhere near the center of San Diego. Willie remembered the city vaguely from a jaunt he’d taken there with Jason, though to be perfectly honest what he mostly remembered were scads of seals on the waterfront and the stink of sailors’ taprooms.

 

Willie, I can’t thank you enough for all you did for the children and me this past winter. Your friendship is one of the few things of value we will take with us into our new lives. That and your rocking chair. In return, we hope you will keep our friendship there with you, in Collinsport, in case you should ever need it to help you through a hard time. I hope you won’t have too many of those. But I know how life is. It helps to have a friend when the world tries its best to hurt us. You showed me that this winter.

 

I know things aren’t easy for you, even if you never felt you could tell me exactly what the trouble is. I didn’t ask when I last saw you. I won’t ask now. But if you ever need us, you know where we are. All you have to do is call. We’ll have a train ticket out to you in the next day’s mail. I promise.

 

Good luck to you, Willie. I don’t think I will embarrass you if I tell you that we love you. I think you already know it. The children send you a hug good-bye. And so do I. I only wish I had kept the presence of mind to give it to you in person.

 

Your friend,

 

Gina Lee Logan

 

He hadn’t gone down to the station to see them off on the train. He hadn’t known what day’s express they would be taking anyway. He hadn’t wanted to call them to ask.

 

It was better this way, with them safely out of his life. There was no last-minute temptation for him to face. No fear that he might step onto the train at that last minute. Or under it, once Gina’s car had passed.

 

He’d lost another friend once. Jason McGuire. Jason had been good for drinking sprees and bar fights and cons on people too stupid to know what was good for them. Jason had been a good friend, in his way. Willie missed him terribly.

 

Gina was something else again. Another facet of friendship altogether. But she was just as gone as Jason was.

 

And both of them had been taken away from him the same way. By Barnabas Collins.

 

Jason was dead, but Gina might as well be. Willie didn’t dare contact her for fear Barnabas might be watching. He didn’t know if the vampire realized Gina wasn’t in Collinsport anymore or not, but if Barnabas hadn’t figured it out yet, Willie wasn’t going to be the one to tell him.

 

So he never wrote a word that went into an envelope to San Diego. He only imagined Daniel’s arms around his neck. Polly’s hand in his. Gina’s words of comfort in his ears.

 

They aren’t dead. They’re still out there somewhere, thinking of you as a friend. If good will can travel across a country, you know theirs is coming here to you.

 

That was true. It was the only thing that kept him going. The crying fits didn’t hit him so often now. In the first week or so all he had to do was something ordinary—open a can of soup for lunch or get in the truck to drive into town—and he’d be overcome with a storm of weeping that left him unable to function for minutes afterward. All he could do was cry and think that he would be better off dead, if this was what his life was going to be until he finally did expire.

 

Those fits of bitterness were passing now. Time was making them less intense. That and Gina’s letter that told him he was still wanted, even if he couldn’t respond to the overture she had made to him.

 

He held Gina’s last words to him close against his heart, pressing the thin stationary in a papery wedge against his sweater, imagining he could feel her arms around him, hugging him close. Stroking his hair like a mother would, and kissing his cheek to comfort him.

 

Come to us, she had written. Come to us if you can.

 

But he couldn’t.

 

He never, ever could.

 

And he had plenty of time to contemplate that, now didn’t he? Without the distraction of children’s laughter, or noonday naps, or lingering lunchtime conversations with friends.

 

He had all the time in the world.

 

Willie put the letter away. He shut his bureau drawer and wiped one last tear of tired regret from his cheek. Then he got up and went back into the hallway.

 

He still had a whole floor’s worth of wooden trim-work left to paint.

 

And all day left to do it in.