Title: Gift of the Master
Author: Sylvia Bond
Genre/Rating: Gen/PG
Word Count: 10,800
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 19)
Summary: It’s Christmas time. Again. Done Collinwood style, with too much work for Willie, and not enough heat in that damn Old House.
A/N: This was a fun story on account of Barn being a little nicer than usual. Plus it was fun to work with what would be in those wrapped packages under the tree. Of course, the story is still dark, I haven’t gotten all soft, even if it is the holidays.

***

It was a bad idea to be moping in the kitchen, and Willie knew it. But with a cold front barreling down through the woods from Canada, it was the warmest place in the house. He’d built the fire up and was sitting as close to it as he dared, scorching his toes as he propped his feet on a brick laid before the grate. Even with the heat seeping through him, battling territory for the raw, cold areas in his body, his fingers were still numb as he stared at the Christmas card in his hands.


From Gina and the kids it was, signed, Irene had signed too, all X’s and O’s, the hugs and kisses and love pulsing through the paper as if the family had been in the room with him.

 

Merry Christmas, Willie. We love you.

 

Love, clear as moonlight across a snowcovered field, and he with nothing to send them in return. Not even as much as a stray greeting card he could have filched, Barnabas looking upon them as a modern invention, an affront to his old-fashioned and undeniably more civilized customs. Wreaths could be sent out, or bottles of fine port, a crate of wine, perhaps, distributed among the more prominent families in town. This, which Willie had arranged for on his master’s behalf, so he knew who had gotten what and how much it had all cost. But paper cards? Mass produced by strangers somewhere in Kansas? Willie hadn’t even had to ask about this; he’d overheard the only slightly sharp remarks Barnabas had directed at Carolyn when she’d brought up the subject.

 

The Collins family’s Christmas cards were, of course, of the very best quality. Gold-embossed on the finest linen paper, and addressed by a fine, calligraphic hand, sent out to those to whom it was deserved or just or right that they should get one. Barnabas, however, with his continental tastes, had scoffed at the idea and now even Elizabeth Stoddard was looking askance at the whole matter. Too late for this year, the lot had been ordered in July and sent out the last week in November, directly after Thanksgiving. Willie had a feeling, though, that next year, the Collins family might be packing it in and switching to Barnabas’ way.

 

So, no card. Because a card, even though he could have afforded to send one, felt worse than sending nothing at all. He wanted to send them something. Even something small. Last year’s wreath that he’d given to two families had not even come close enough to match the warm feeling from the red scarf Gina’d given him that had lasted several months. Until Gina had gone away. Ages ago it had been, his one week visit with them long since gone a memory, though a letter, or a card, like this one, was enough to make him feel like he’d not been forgotten entirely in the world.

 

He’d tried saving money for weeks, skimping on lunches, or skipping them altogether, his gut gnawing at him all day long, not managing to pull together more than five dollars and twenty-three cents. Not enough to buy anything for everyone, let alone ship it all the way out to California. He’d much rather try and hitch out to see them and take his chances that way. But the pain at parting all over again would be so much worse the second time, not to mention the fact that Barnabas would skin him alive were he to attempt such a thing.

 

He got up, stiff, blood rushing through his legs and the backs of his arms, feeling hot, like it was trying to push through solid stone. Yesterday’s ruin of the Dunlop highboy had earned him a whipping as fierce as any Barnabas had ever given him. The highboy was scattered lathes and woodbone, and his penknife was broken in two, half of it still jammed in the wood. A beautiful piece it had been, with golden tiger maple throughout, hand-carved basketweave trim on the top and salamander scrollwork along the bottom. He’d been trying to unwedge two of the drawers, stuck together through use and age, and the penknife had snapped, leaving a scrawl mark across the glowing surface. Willie went sprawling, his legs tangling with the slender, curved legs of the highboy, sending the entire of it to shatter on the floor.

 

His regret at the sight of the ruined antique did not match the anger on Barnabas’ face when he’d walked into the back room where Willie had been working. Alerted to trouble by the sound of Willie’s body hitting the floor, he’d arrived just as Willie had been attempting to gather the pieces in his hands, mouth open, the shock of it not quite hitting his system. Barnabas had been quicker than that, hauling Willie off to the kitchen, and laid him out on the table without even a word. It was one of the few times that Willie could remember that a lecture had not accompanied a beating, but, then, both of them knew exactly how Willie had fucked up, although Willie doubted that Barnabas would have put it quite that way. Still, he felt bad about it, and tried to believe, as he hobbled now over to the table, that he deserved it as harshly as Barnabas had given it to him.

 

He placed the card on the table, in the center, where it would be safe from flames or other accidents. Propped open so he could see at a glance the bright red poinsettia flower on the front and the lace of signatures on the inside, Polly’s standing out from the others on account of the bold red heart she’d drawn and colored in next to her name.

 

A chill was soaking up through the floorboards, more intense now that he was away from the fire. One step backwards and he’d be in the realm of the heat given off by the stove. But now, in this moment, he was in a netherworld of cold. A circle island where no heat could reach, the welts and stripes from yesterday frozen in hard lines along the backs of his legs. Wrapping his arms across his waist, he dipped his head and closed his eyes. Shutting off the kitchen and the dipping light that shone from the mantelpiece.

 

Darkness for a moment. And then, in the flickering ebb of his memory, Gina was there. Right there. Wearing her best housedress, hair tumbling dark and loose, as if she’d just turned her head to look at him. Smiling. Handing him the baby and pulling Danny from the floor with one clean lift. Polly tugging on his shirt, asking him to bend down, wanting to giggle something into his ear.

 

A curling warmth enfolded him as Gina stepped close to slip an arm about his waist, and laugh, eyes like dark, deep stones, precious, and oh, so very rare.

 

Not alone. Not with Gina there.

 

The latch on the kitchen door snicked open and shut, and Willie was jolted back to the cold, still air of the kitchen. And saw Barnabas, in the doorway, the candelabra in his hand reaching to light every corner of the room and failing.

 

“Whatever are you doing, standing there, Willie?” Barnabas demanded. “Did you take the wreaths over to the Great House? It is the Hanging of the Greens tonight.”

 

Willie opened his mouth and tasted the dampness that had slipped down his cheeks, the salt of memory and of grief, and he tried wiping them away with the back of his hand, using the cuff of his flannel shirt. His chest hitching up, feeling like the spokes of a wheel were pushing through his heart. Of course he’d taken them over, who was he to let the small matter of a beating stand in the way of plowing through two feet of snow for hours in the cold to gather the boughs of fir, and holly, and whatnot? Then to create the wreathes, then to take them over to the Great House. Not that he’d ever tell Barnabas that it had been like walking on his knees through a layer of broken glass while he did it. Not that it would have made any difference if he had.

 

“And why are you weeping?”

 

The sudden question shook him, but it was probably only Barnabas’ haste and eagerness to be away that made it sound as if the vampire were actually interested in the answer, albeit mildly distracted by his plans for the evening. Not angry. Not yet, anyway.

 

Shaking his head, Willie kept his eyes averted, seeing the card on the table like a white flag in the darkness. Not wanting Barnabas to see it. Not wanting to have to drag his misery out into the open, either.

 

“Nothin’,” he said. “Just got somethin’ in my eye.”

 

Barnabas actually sighed. Came fully into the room and placed the candelabra on the table, his eyes alighting on the card and then flicking up to look at Willie.

 

“You never were a good liar, Willie, and of late, you’ve become uncommonly bad at it.”

 

Willie could only shrug, for how could anyone argue with a statement like that? It would hardly do to try and insist that he was, after all, a very good liar, and Barnabas had better agree with him or else!

 

“You may as well tell me now, Willie,” Barnabas said. “I could hear you weeping from down the hallway.”

 

That he could have been heard from so far away did not surprise Willie in the least. The Old House was forever broadcasting every sound, from the most silent whisper to the least scratchings of a mouse in the wainscoting. That Barnabas actually cared was another matter altogether and entirely and blatantly untrue. The vampire just wanted to know, like he wanted to know everything about what his servant was up to. It gave him something to think about, Willie supposed, to muse over and tumble in his mind as he lay in his coffin each day and waited for the darkness to take him. Why else would he keep badgering him?

 

“I’m tellin’ ya, it’s nothin’, okay?”

 

“You will not use that tone with me, I will not have it, do you understand?” In an instant, the slightly bored master of the house was replaced by the brittle-eyed vampire who ruled Willie’s every waking hour. “Do you?”

 

“Yes,” said Willie, feeling the chill of the vampire’s temper reach him through the cool air of the kitchen. He wanted to step closer to the stove, but Barnabas might read that as an attempt to avoid any further questions, or even as outright disobedience, so he could only stay where he was. Feeling the edges of the heat reaching out hesitant fingers, missing him by mere inches.

 

“Yes, what?”

 

The image of Gina and Polly and Danny and the baby were completely gone from his head now. Even the slight glow he’d managed at the thought of the sparkle in her eyes was wiped away, clean, as if he’d scrubbed at it for hours.

 

“Yes, I understand, Barnabas,” he said, trying not to shrug again. It would look bad, it would look so bad, Barnabas would think he was being belligerent and then the vampire’s departure for the Great House would be delayed for his attendance upon his servant problem.

 

“Then, without dissembling, if you please, tell me why you were standing in the kitchen weeping over a card from a widow woman and her children.”

 

Willie raised his eyes fully to meet Barnabas’. Darkness there, sharp enough to read the scattered print on the card from halfway across the room, even in the changing light. The vampire’s mouth hard, chipped in stone. Of course Barnabas already knew why. He just wanted to rip it out of him, so he could observe the disintegration of his servant’s heart. The way some people will throw glass against stone, just to watch it shatter.

 

Teeth grit together, Willie tried not to shout the answer, or to let go the scream forming in his brain.

 

None of your business. None of your fucking business.

 

But in Barnabas’ mind, everything about Willie was his business.

 

“You will oblige me, Willie.”

 

Willie wiped at the line of his jaw with the heel of his hand, erasing away the last of the tears and dampness that lingered there. And realized that there was no getting out of the telling of it. Barnabas was in one of those tell me or I’ll kill you moods, and the sooner Willie told him, the sooner it would be over. Best keep it simple though, best keep his answers to the point.

 

“You’re not gonna want to hear it.”

 

“Somehow, Willie, I do not doubt that in the slightest.”

 

There was nothing for it but to get it out. Give Barnabas what he wanted so that he would be on his way and out of the Old House. So that Willie could grieve in peace.

 

He pointed at the card that, no doubt, Barnabas had seen and recognized the significance of. “I wanted to get them something.”

 

“Why? They didn’t get you anything.”

 

It stung. Barnabas knew Gina didn’t have any money, let alone for sending a gift across the country. But he also knew full well and good that only days before Christmas, the card was the only thing that had arrived addressed to Willie. Not that Willie minded, he’d not been expecting anything anyway. Second only to the scarf, the card was the nicest gift he’d ever gotten.

 

Merry Christmas, Willie. We love you.

 

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, in reply, feeling something angry and dangerous welling up inside of him at the thought of Barnabas belittling Gina’s gift to him. Maybe he should have sent a card, even if it didn’t feel like enough. And why should the vampire care? Any gift that Barnabas might buy would not even be a ripple in his bankbooks, a simple matter of accounting from one column to the next, and in the end the motives for it would be for his own personal gain. From what Willie had seen anyway. He was willing to allow that there might be one or two people for whom Barnabas might be truly giving and loving. That is, if they weren’t already dead a hundred years or more. “What they gave me was worth more than money.”

 

The vampire paused, his eyebrows twitching as he seemed to be mulling over his servant’s response. “Altruism, Willie? You?”

 

Willie didn’t know what the word meant, but Barnabas seemed honestly surprised, instead of only mocking him.

 

“It means giving without the thought of receiving anything in return,” said Barnabas now, dipping his head the way he did when he was talking to Vicki Winters. Or Cousin David.

 

Willie felt a flicker of unease. Of course, kindness at Christmas was an impulse Barnabas gave into, either before or after the vampire wallowed in the trough of his own grief and loneliness and then exploded into a temper. After last year, Willie had made a pact with himself to stay out of Barnabas’ way. He didn’t like being witness to it, and he especially didn’t like feeling the aftereffects of it.

 

As his servant remained unresponsive, Barnabas pulled his head back, and surveyed Willie with a grave eye.

 

“And how were you going to manage to get them anything, Willie? I do not, as you know, pay you a salary.”

 

He felt the blankness well up inside his mind, his thoughts dashing behind it to come up with one lie and then another. But it was no use. The vampire could always tell, and with his gut roiling with acid, Willie knew was not going to be able to rise to the occasion of resisting a question and answer session.

 

“I was gonna…well, I had saved my pocket money, see, an’.…”

 

“Pocket money?” Barnabas’ brows lowered, as if he’d never heard the concept before. “Your pocket money?”

 

Again, Barnabas already knew the information, it was as if he wanted to mess with his servant and see how easy it was to pull the truth out of him. The hard line of the vampire’s body against the bright light from the candles on the table told Willie that the master of the Old House was going to dig in his heels until he got the results he wanted. Either answers, quick and plain, or his solitary servant a puddle of bruises on the floor. All for his own amusement.

 

“You know, what you give me sometimes? When we’re doin’ the books?”

 

There, that was plain enough, wasn’t it?

 

Barnabas didn’t spare even a second for his reply. “I give you that pocket money for you to tend to your own needs. Not to shower frivolous gifts on a woman and her family that are no longer your concern.”

 

“But—”

 

“But nothing.” Barnabas’ hands came down in front of him, fists clenched, as if by that means, and that means alone he was holding himself back from exploding. The candelabra bounced, the light from the candles plunged. “They are no longer your concern, when will you understand that?”

 

Willie could not answer. Not for breaths nor for the hammering of his heart.

 

“Do you understand?”

 

He opened his mouth. Still and cold, as though the chill north wind had taken root inside of him. And Barnabas’ eyes like pieces of black ice, sharpened and ready to pierce right through him.

 

“I said, do you understand?”

 

Willie took a breath. And then another, half-hitched one.

 

“No,” he said.

 

You will not take them away from me.

 

“What?” It came out a hiss. A disbelieving, outraged hiss.

 

“I said no.” Willie swallowed, his throat thickening. “I’m gonna take the money I got an’ send ‘em a card. That at least.” He decided even as he said it.

 

The vampire moved forward with two quick strides, catching Willie unawares, and trapping him with surprise. Willie froze, lifting his eyes, the blood pounding in his mouth.

 

“B-Barnabas—”

 

“You will hand over the money you have been given,” said Barnabas, his voice like a low river running to snow. “You will hand it over to me at once.”

 

Willie could only manage a strangled gurgle as the Thing made itself known with sharp mental spikes in his head and a hard clamp to his throat.

 

“You will hand over whatever money you, at present, have, and you will cease your concern for any matters that do not relate to my affairs.”

 

Hand over the money? Impossible.

 

But Barnabas let go of Willie suddenly and held out his hand. Level and flat, white in the flickering light. “It is not yours to spend as you please,” he said. “Least of all on that undeserving hoyden and her mass of brats.”

 

Barnabas had called her that once before, and Willie’d had a chance to look that particular word up. He felt a surge through him, like a tide of rising heat, boiling away the cold and the hesitation and the fear.

 

“She’s not a hoyden,” he said, chin jerking up. “At any rate, no more a hoyden than your precious Vicki Winters.” It felt pure as air when he said it, but the flash in Barnabas’ eyes felt hot enough to burn him to a cinder. The vampire’s shoulder pulsed, and the hand at his side opened. Willie saw it out of the corner of his eye, saw the twitch that would precede a slap, and he tucked his head into his shoulder and felt the heat in his eyes as he closed them tight as he could. Felt the pricking of tears and the swamp of dismay.

 

Christ and shit.

 

During the Christmas holidays, the vampire was a piece of flashpaper, looking for enough heat to explode with and Willie had just given him enough fodder to last into the New Year. And then a shudder as the tears crept down his cheeks and a folding of his heart as his anger tumbled beneath the utter sadness of missing Gina so bad he only wanted to die.

 

“I—I only wanted ta get ‘em something, ya see?” He spoke quickly, eyes still closed, head still down. “Like I could get somebody somethin’, give it back to ‘em the way they gave it to me. Cause they—”

 

His voice broke and he could now only tuck his head in the curve of his elbow and try to strangle it back, the overwhelming darkness at the thought that they were his only family, the only family he would know in this world, and now Barnabas wanted him to treat them like dirt. Like the way the townspeople treated him. Like he had felt before coming to know the gentle touch and the soft brown-eyed smiles of Gina and her kids. But the tears came anyway, slow-moving and hot, seeping into the cloth of his flannel shirt like pulses of lava.

 

Somewhere in the kitchen, beyond the darkness of Willie’s black-gripped thoughts, Barnabas was standing. Watching. Listening to the break of his servant’s sobs, sounds that Willie couldn’t even begin to stop.

 

“Your solitary focus on this woman and her children,” said Barnabas, his voice approaching as if through a fog, “is beyond my comprehension. I fail to see why—”

 

“Because I love them,” said Willie, before he could stop the words or the thoughts behind it. The miles of distance did not change the link that connected his heart to theirs, an entire country between them for the rest of his life and he would always know that singular embrace, a touch, a nod, the acceptance, and the smile that went so deep between him and Gina he could see it whenever he closed his eyes.

 

It calmed him, this thought of her, the tender spark of something in her expression that he knew was meant for only him. He could hear her voice as he could almost hear Barnabas’ doubt arising, even before he heard the sputter of disbelief from the vampire.

 

“As if you knew the first thing about it,” came the hard remark. In that tone that said that Barnabas had the utmost confidence whereof he spoke and would brook no disagreement.

 

Willie dropped his elbow, feeling the tears dry and his heart start to pound, and sparing the vampire a glance before he dug into his pocket, he pulled out the five one-dollar bills. He snapped it on the kitchen table, along with two dimes and three pennies. “There,” he said, clamping his jaw firm. “Take the money. Gina will still know how I feel about her, without me gettin’ her a thing, even Polly will know. Unlike—”

 

He stopped, knowing he courted pure death were he to finish that particular sentence.

 

Unlike your family.

 

The lines on Barnabas’ face deepened as if he’d heard the words just the same, and the only thing that saved Willie was that he had not say them aloud. He felt the back-handed smack, hard-knuckled, even before he saw Barnabas lift his hand, his face on fire as he landed against the table. Clinging to chair as he went down, he heard the pound of Barnabas’ footsteps as he crossed the floor; Willie and scooted his body as fast as he could under the table. Sweat building on his forehead, stomach gone ice cold, asking himself why, yet again, he’d let his mouth run away with him, scrambling for leverage until he heard the kitchen door slam and realized that the vampire had left. Was, in fact, walking away. Walking down the hall at a clip so fast that the echo sounded double time.

 

And then silence.

 

The front door did not open and close and he did not hear the faint, faraway clink of the silver-headed cane being taken down from the coat rack in the front hall. The only thing he could hear was the dizzying pound of his heart and the sizzle of the kitchen fire as snow hissed down the flue.

 

He waited, breath slowing, the side of his jaw thumping darkly with each beat of his heart. Then he heard it.

 

“Willie!”

 

And then again.

 

“Willie!”

 

The whole house shook with it, flakes of snow even falling from the leading of the windows outside the kitchen to land with muffled thumps in the snowbanks beneath.

 

“Come here now!”

 

Now his heart began a quick march as he scrambled from underneath the table, knocking it, sending the dollar bills to flutter to the floor. Not that he would dare gather them, let alone spend them. Barnabas had marked them as belonging to the master of the Old House, and with his gallant, fool-headed gesture Willie had forfeited even the right to them. He wiped the sweat from his hand on his pants and pulled open the kitchen door, letting the cool air sweep over him.

 

At the other end of the dark hallway, the front door stood open. Barnabas was pulling on his coat, settling the collar up high, smoothing the cloth over the buttons. Snow swirled in around him, and a shaken light, perhaps reflected from the candles in the front window, spread out into the snow, and settled on the flakes as they gathered in the air. Beyond that, the night was a shifting mass of grey and black as the snow pelted down.

 

“Come,” Barnabas said, with a snap.

 

Icy wind met him halfway, as Barnabas, now perfectly still in the moving air, his cane glinting at his side, watched him walk.

 

And Willie made himself keep walking, though his legs stiffened with every step. Heart thumping so hard it felt like it was going to break through his ribs. Breath catching in his throat with tiny, sharpened hooks, he only stopped when he was within arm’s reach.

 

“You will tend to this matter,” said Barnabas, “and then I wish to hear no more of it.”

 

What matter? All Willie could imagine was that Barnabas was going to insist that he throw himself off Widow’s Hill, for some reason it was the only thing he could think of. Less than an arm’s span from the vampire, so utterly still and frozen as if he’d been carved out of ice, and Willie’s mind’s eye could easily see his own body plunging to the rocks in a swirl of ice-tipped waves and foam, the snow scattering down like plundered angel’s wings.

 

“You will tend to it and you will leave me be.”

 

Willie blinked. Barnabas was holding out something in his hand, and his gesture told Willie that he was to take it, and without hesitation. So he did.

 

His stiffened fingers curled around a stack of bills even as Barnabas moved away, a flicker of dark wool swirling into the circular snow, the door slamming behind him, and then the vampire was gone. Leaving only the fading white specs settling onto the planks of the floor and along the edge of Willie’s hot brow.

 

He looked down at his hands, tipping them to reflect the fire’s light from the front room. A stack of tens, fifty dollars in all.

 

You will tend to this matter, Barnabas had said. And then leave me be.

 

Willie dropped his head down till his chin touched his chest. His cheeks felt aflame, even as his mind billowed with disbelief. How had this happened? Had he guilted Barnabas into it? The thought seemed impossible, yet what other explanation could there be? It wasn’t an act of kindness, it seemed more like something that could be described by that one word Barnabas had used and Willie had looked up. Attri-something. Feeling bad and wanting to make up for it.

 

Feel bad ‘cause you got it all and we got nothin’?

 

Willie smiled as he shoved the bills in his pocket. He’d take the money, he earned it. The morning’s paper had indicated that the snow would last until sunrise, and then the sun would come out. The village was already crowing about its white Christmas, the 129th one in a row, as if there wasn’t snow covering the whole of Maine entire. From one state line to the other. All winter. Every winter. Didn’t matter. Willie knew the first thing he’d be doing when he’d finished his chores.

 

He was going shopping.

 

You’re the one with nothing, Barnabas.

 

*

 

After two hours with the hyperactive crowd of last minute shoppers, Willie felt as if he’d been put through the mill. He was tired, legs shaky beneath him, as if he’d chopped wood all day. The remnants of his most recent beating didn’t help any either. The backs of his legs chafed against his trousers, and his waistband kept pulling over an ill-placed welt that had broken and started to bleed. He had a headache. He was hungry. And he was smiling as he headed back to his truck.

 

Polly was going to love the doll and clothes, and Danny the little garage box he’d be getting for all of his cars. For Carla, he’d found a soft squishy, er, thing, in a baby pink, a color that would mean more to her mother than to her. For Irene he’d found garden gloves and a cookbook full of Portuguese recipes.

 

His present to Gina had taken him the better part of an hour to find.

 

Only getting her the set of mixing bowls hadn’t seemed quite right, though he’d gotten those, and the trivet in the shape of a whale as well. Everything he saw that he connected with her had to do with the kitchen, which only made sense, since his happiest moments had been where she’d been cooking. But she needed something more than that. Something that stood out, so that when she looked at it, she would feel as good as he did when he thought of her.

 

And then he found it. In a shop on a side street, with little trinkets glinting in the window. The lady behind the counter pulled it out for him, a small silver seagull, on a chain, wings outstretched as if it were flying through a soft wind over blue seas. Wheeling beneath a bright sun and heading out to the distant, winking line of the horizon.

 

“It’s perfect,” he said, feeling his own joy reflected in her eyes as she rang it up for him.

 

Everything was easily wrapped and packaged, thanks to some helpful ladies doing charity work for the poor, doing grand things with paper and bows and only asking for a donation. Willie had slipped them a five, smiling at their thanks, hoping they wouldn’t expect the same when they saw him in future. If they’d known where the money had come from, they’d have faint dead away in shock.

 

He tucked the packages carefully on the passenger side of the bench seat and was about to start the truck when he realized he was parked in front of a bookstore.

 

Don’t be an idiot, Loomis.

 

But he was getting out anyway, locking the truck behind him and heading into the shop, breathless, fingering the five ones and the two dimes and the three pennies he still had nestled there. In his other pocket was the rest of Barnabas’ money, enough to send the packages via the fastest post that would take them to San Diego before Christmas Eve and then some. But the five and change.…

 

“Can I help you, sir?” asked the clerk as Willie let the door shut, feeling the slow, soft drift of the dry, warm air of the bookstore settle around him.

 

“No, I mean, yeah, I’m looking for a book, see—”

 

The clerk tried not to laugh, but it was in his face before Willie heard him whiffling through his nose with it, and Willie ducked his head as he realize how stupid it had sounded.

 

“Come, come, don’t be shy, now. Are you looking for a gift?”

 

Willie nodded, lifting his head slightly to see that the clerk was in a good mood, and probably didn’t know who he was. Which explained his willingness to help him.

 

“I’m lookin’ for a gift, an old book, like. Something old?”

 

“Your friend like old books then?”

 

The question gave him some pause. There were a number of words he could have used to describe his relationship with his boss, but friend wasn’t one of them. There was no way he could explain the situation in one sentence or less, not to mention how easy it would be for such a candid reply to get back to Barnabas. Or barring that, no explanation he could give that would not excite the clerk to report his boss to the authorities.

 

Fuck it.

 

“Ah, yeah, my friend likes old books.”

 

“How old?”

 

“Um, something from 1795?”

 

“Oh,” said the clerk, sucking at his teeth a bit. “I’m afraid we don’t have anything that old. You’d have to go to a rare bookstore, like Bauman’s in Bangor. You know them?”

 

Willie nodded, trying not to think about it. “Yeah, I know them.”

 

The clerk hummed under his breath. “Yes, a bit pricey for my blood too. Well, never mind. Over here,” he gestured with his arm, leading Willie into the narrow aisles between the towering shelves, “we have our older books. Nothing rare, mind you, but old. Like this one on Johnson.”

 

He picked up an alligator-green volume, and flipped open the yellowed pages. “It’s in nice shape, all about Boswell and Johnson.”

 

“They old?” Willie asked.

 

“Very,” said the clerk. “Old and dead and very famous. Johnson’s writings were popular for well over a hundred years after his death.”

 

Which meant that Barnabas knew about them, had maybe even read their stuff.

 

“Um, maybe he’s already read it, you know, he reads lotsa books….”

 

The clerk nodded, and then pointed at the book. “But this one includes a commentary, you see, a discussion. A scholar like your friend would appreciate a new slant like that, even if he’s read everything by Johnson. And he doesn’t have this particular book, does he.”

 

No, Willie shook his head, chewing on his lower lip as he thought. He’d never seen a book like that on Barnabas’ shelves and he was pretty familiar with most of them.

 

“How much is it?” he asked.

 

The clerk flipped to the frontspiece, and nodded as he snapped the book shut. “Four dollars even,” he said. “I’d charge more, but you see, there are several signatures in the front, and the little bit of graffiti there, well, I couldn’t charge you the full value of seven dollars. Not and sleep the sleep of the fair and the just.” The clerk seemed to laugh at his own joke that Willie didn’t even pretend to get. He could only thumb the fold of bills in his pocket and feel the coolness of the coins as they brushed against his knuckles.

 

Why you doin’ this, Loomis?

 

He did not know. It only seemed an impulse, perhaps brought on by the embarrassment of unexpected cash he’d been given the night before. Or the cold, clear lonely slice of Barnabas’ eyes as he’d vanished into the snow.

 

Or maybe even the vestiges of joy that he imagined would accompany the opening of his gifts to the Logans. Somehow, at that moment, he felt like the richest man on the planet.

 

“Wrap it up,” he said, pulling out the bills. “I’ll take it.”

 

*

 

Right up till Christmas Eve, the impulse sat at odds inside of him. Even as he’d tried to work it off, or ignore it while running errands, or making sure that Barnabas’ suit was ready on time, or dealing with the last-minute details that Barnabas wanted tending to. Surely, he had more on his mind than an off-hand gift he’d happened to purchase for his boss. Surely he did. Surely.

 

But he didn’t.

 

Barnabas was upstairs, adjusting his tie, though how he ever managed this without a mirror Willie would never know. Didn’t want to ask either, as he heard the click of Barnabas’ bootheels on the landing and went to see if there was anything the vampire wanted before he went up to the Great House for the holiday festivities. Willie owed him that much, the money the vampire had given him had gone a long way toward him make the holiday seem a little bit better. Not better than last year, of course, nothing would match last year. But it helped.

 

“You need anythin’, Barnabas?” he asked, coming up the hallway into the circle of light given off by the candle on the side table.

 

Barnabas threw him a glance as he adjusted the lapels on his suit and slipped on his greatcoat, his eyes like flat, still water against a dark sky. Idling in neutral, neither hungry nor angry. Except now, Willie had the odd notion that instead flying beneath Barnabas’ radar, the vampire was bemused by his servant’s sudden attendance. In his eyes, Willie was, obviously, grateful for the Christmas bonus and was showing it through his obedience. Willie was sure Barnabas thought it hysterical that Willie, wild boy from the streets, could be bought for a mere fifty dollars. The gift for his boss, were he to actually leave it on the table in the front room as he planned, would only prove this out.

 

Shifting back on his heels as he waited for Barnabas to finish fussing with his coat and cane, he knew he did not want to be thought of that way. He did not want Barnabas to think he was that kind of guy.

 

But why did he even care what Barnabas thought? He didn’t want Barnabas to think about him at all. The less attention the better.

 

“Willie, are you listening to me?”

 

He jerked with a start and stared at the vampire. He’d burn the book.

 

“Y-yeah, what, Barnabas?”

 

“The snow is too deep this evening for a call to be paid by my cousins after the party, but nevertheless, I want you to bank the coals in the front room instead of clearing the fire away. Have the decanters and glasses set out, and candles at the ready.”

 

“Sure, Barnabas,” he said, knowing that in spite of what Barnabas wanted to have happen, the snow would keep the Collins family indoors, and the glint from the banked fire off the crystal of the unused decanter would only serve as a sad reminder that the vampire was all alone. Upon his return from the Great House, he would see them there, and it would set him into a temper. Willie fully expected to be picking up glass shards in the morning.

 

Maybe I’ll leave the book on the table for him.

 

Why he cared was beyond him.

 

“You are staying in, I daresay?” asked Barnabas.

 

It was not a question, even Willie wasn’t as foolish as to believe that. It was an order, couched as a question, as though for Barnabas’ own amusement, to watch his servant sift through the layers of meaning.

 

Though, after all, where would he go with the snow piled thigh-deep and the roads impassable and him not having a friend in town? He’d taken a few dollars from Barnabas’ gift and bought slices of ham and some sweet potatoes and apple pie from the deli. He’d been saving them for just this night, though explaining all that to Barnabas would take far too long.

 

“Yes,” he said. “I was thinkin’ of makin’ it an early night.”

 

Barnabas nodded. “You have my leave to do so.”

 

Then, with a snap of his collar, he was out the door, closing it behind him, leaving Willie in the near darkness of the front hall.

 

“Your leave?” asked Willie to the panels of the door. He wanted to flip them the bird.

 

He stepped away, feeling the twinge down his hamstring, and the thudding of blood beneath his skin. A few days more and the beating would only be a shadow of a memory, but now, only four days out, it was still too fresh to be ignored. His walk through town while shopping hadn’t helped it any, nor had the shoveling of the front porch earlier that day. Too much activity had left his muscles feeling as raw as if the switch had left its mark only that morning. Did he have any aspirin left?

 

Maybe I could throw the book over Widow’s Hill.

 

Maybe he’d eat his Christmas dinner and think about it.

 

In the kitchen he found the aspirin and some coffee and fresh milk besides. He heated up the ham and sweet potatoes and pie. And even though they weren’t even near as good as Gina could make it, or even Mrs. Johnson, when she followed the directions in a book, it was better than stew or chili out of a can. The coffee was hot and he’d a jot of whiskey to put in it after he finished his pie. Bob at the Blue Whale had slipped a small bottle to him, discomfiting Willie, even as he had taken it. Bob had smiled, tipping his head, mentioning something about how cold it must get at the Old House and telling him it was a gift. On the house, he’d said. So Willie had taken it. Slipped it in his pocket and mumbled a thank you that bordered on rude, but gave Bob a glance that told the other man that he was grateful for the gift. And now, after adding a few tablespoons of white sugar, he could feel the soothing rush of the caffeine slide into his muscles along with the whiskey as he sipped his coffee down, and sitting himself down in front of the snapping fire, he felt the warmth slide into his bones.

 

Thanks, Bob.

 

He tucked his feet against the brick lined up against the grate, thinking again of the Logan’s card, not having to turn his head to see it on the table; it was memorized and safely in his mind’s eye. Barnabas could tear it to shreds and it wouldn’t matter. It was in his heart.

 

Why would you get this man anything? Anything at all?

 

Not that the book had cost Willie any of his own money. But though money wasn’t the point, the rich-man feel that he’d had when he’d bought the thing was being ground under the heel of the reality of the issue. Last year, Barnabas had bought him with a beating that wouldn’t have jarred a baby, and a friendship that Willie would value till the day he died. Barnabas had bought him, and Willie had let him. This year, he didn’t think he could take it. Not again.

 

Not even for Gina?

 

Well, for Gina, he would give the world.

 

As he stared into the rippling blue and orange flames, a flickering dance that kept the darkness and the cold at bay, he wondered what Gina would tell him to do at this moment.

 

She’d spit in his face, that’s what.

 

Gina would tear out his throat and as they dragged her off to the hangman’s noose, she’d be cursing Barnabas Collins’ name. And if she ever found out that he was a vampire, she’d be up at the crack of dawn to sharpen the first oak branch she came across and would spend the noon hour searching for the heaviest hammer she could heft. On that day, Barnabas would be ash before sunset.

 

It made him smile, even as it was so dark. Brave like a wolverine, she was. And as fierce, when protecting her own. Which, he supposed, he was now.

 

I’ll use the book as kindling.

 

He finished off his coffee, absorbing the last dregs of whiskey from the bottom of the cup, and made sure he’d polished off the last from the small bottle as well. Then he cleared away the dishes, and washed up, not wanting to leave dirty crockery in the sink for Barnabas to find. The vampire was fastidious and he expected Willie to be the same. Brushing his teeth by the light of the candle, he took down the coals in the stove and the fireplace, leaving enough to start a fire to cook breakfast over in the morning, but not enough for the vampire to say that he’d left an untended flame. As always, it was a fine line that Willie walked between Barnabas’ strictures and Willie’s own ease of living.

 

When he’d set out the decanter and glasses and candles and banked the fire in the front room in a fashion that would allow Barnabas to easily start a nice roaring fire, he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. By the time he got there and lit the courting candle, he was sorry he’d left the bottle of aspirin downstairs. His head was feeling the effects of the whiskey even now, and the back of his neck had tightened up like finely pulled silk. He rubbed at it, standing there, and stared at the glow of the courting candle. Coming through the glass, the still and unwavering light glowed, pulsing through sea-polished amber. It burned by his bedside nightly. It never went out to leave him in the dark, not since Barnabas had left it there.

 

He found himself looking out the window at the snow, shivering, his toes curling and uncurling against the bare floorboards while he waited for the fire to start drawing properly so that he could add more coal. The smoke was easing out of the room as the flames grew, sending a dance of shadows across the nightstand and the bedframe and his legs. Not as nice a light as the courting candle, of course, but the fire certainly gave off a lot more heat.

 

He added more coal, then he shucked off his clothes and slipped into the warm flannel pajamas that he’d come across at the Salvation Army. A steal for a dollar, they’d been worth every penny, and he was comfortable under the blankets with them on, even if he didn’t build a fire. Which of course he always did, seeing as it was usually 10 below zero outside his window, as it was tonight, with a clear sky reaching from the piled high snow drifts all the way up to the stars. Barnabas was welcome to his Christmas Eve outing. Willie was going to bed.

 

He was thinking he’d wash in the morning after he picked up the broken decanter pieces he was sure to find, when his eye caught the gift for Barnabas where he’d left it. On the mantelpiece. Just ready to be burned. He got up and took it down with both hands and sat on the rumpled bed with it. He’d gone back and had the church ladies wrap it in a dark cranberry colored paper, spread with green stripes and dotted with poinsettias. A bright red bow completed the gift, and it crinkled in his hands as he moved his fingers across the surface. In the steady light of the courting candle, it seemed a fine gift indeed. Something thoughtful from one friend to another.

 

He’s not my friend. And he never will be.

 

That much was certain.

 

But he was staring at the candle again, as he sometimes did when too stirred up to sleep or too tired to realize he should put his head on the pillow and close his eyes. An amber light, steady like a lighthouse across a churning sea, and there it sat. On his nightstand, always at attendance to guide him through to morning.

 

Barnabas had given it to him. A gift, pure and simple, and one Barnabas never spoke of, nor even hinted at, nor seemed to want anything in return for. And lately, for some reason, Willie had been finding small boxes of candles on the shelf inside the nightstand. New ones too, not just the odds and ends he was used to using. Barnabas brought them, from time to time, and sometimes, in the early hours before dawn, Willie might wake up to find Barnabas standing there, lighting a new taper, exchanging it for a stub that had gone out during the night.

 

He could feel Gina nodding inside of his head.

 

Yes, she was saying. That’s a true gift.

 

And maybe one for which Willie could give something in return. And hang what Barnabas might think the reason for it was. Willie would know the truth of it and that was enough.

 

Before he could change his mind, he jumped to his feet, and scurried down stairs, the cold air of the stairway and the hallway sliding past his bare toes. In the half dark of the front room, he felt for the smooth surface of the small side table beside Barnabas’ favorite reading chair. For all it was old and lumpy, the vampire was fond of sitting there, to flip through the Collinsport Star or to ponder his accounts in comfort. Willie let the gift slide out of his hands and into the wooden table. It slithered to a stop, and he could see the glint off the red bow, whose color was now dimmed to black.

 

He turned on his heel and hurried up the stairs before he could change his mind. Closed the door to his bedroom behind him and added coal to the fire. Slipped into bed and pulled the blankets up over his head, puffing out his lung-warmed air into the cocoon of sheets and wool, and made himself breathe slowly. Slowly. Letting the heat of the fire sneak over him, the light of the courting candle sing its soft and silent song, and the weight of his head sink into the pillow.

 

*

 

The gleam of the sun reflected off the snow and onto the ceiling, hitting his closed eyelids, and it took him a minute to realize he was awake. The air on his cheeks was warm, not chilly, but perhaps he was imagining this as he shook off the blankets and sat up. The second his feet hit the floorboards, he knew Barnabas had been in his room. The fire had been built up during the night, probably right before dawn by the size of the flames, and there was a small, wrapped package on his nightstand. And his foot nudged something on the floor, which as he looked down, revealed itself to be a brown package, tied with string. The postman’s scrawl on it did not hide the sender’s address, and he felt the smile forming inside as he realized it was from Gina. Misdelivered and then misdelivered again, it had finally made its way to him.

 

He reached over and tipped back the card on the gift on the nightstand with his fingertips.

 

Well done, good and faithful servant, it read in the curly script of Barnabas’ longhand, which he only used for the most formal of notes and letters. And it was signed, simply, B.C.

 

He jerked back his hand as if he’d been stung. Yes, it was from Barnabas.

 

The bizarre circumstance of it all hit him as he realized he was going to have to make a choice. Whether to open Gina’s gift first, or Barnabas’. Still, it was a choice that was no choice. He hauled the box from the floor onto the bed beside him and picked and pulled at the string until it came apart. Then he tore at the tape, wishing he had his penknife, and managed to open the box. A tumble of gifts spread themselves on the blankets, brightly wrapped in snowman-covered wrapping paper. This he ripped through, letting the colorful litter fall where it might. From Irene there was a pair of fingerless woolen gloves and handknitted woolen socks. From the kids was a box of chocolate candies, some with centers of crème and nuts, others solid chocolate through and through. He stuck one in his mouth to let it melt as he opened what Gina had sent him. A soft fleece pullover of moss green, which he slipped on, feeling the cush of warmth as if she’d wrapped her arms around him. He sat there for a moment, savoring it, letting his head sink to his chest, smelling the sweet trailing of her scent. From her hands it must have been, that lotion she always used, as she’d folded it and wrapped it and tucked it carefully in the box. He breathed it in slowly, knowing it would fade with time, centering the memory in his mind, his fingers clutching the edge of the garment as he fought the urge to bow his head and cry.

 

You’re becoming a sentimental fool, Loomis.

 

Who would have thought Christmas would have come to mean so much? Not him. Not in a million years.

 

Then he spied another wrapped package in the bottom of the box. It was not big, but had hard edges, which he ran his fingers over as he picked it up. And tore open, to reveal a photograph in a frame. A simple photograph, but a clever one. Capturing the action, somehow, and he almost remembered Gina taking it. Last winter before they’d moved away. Him, sitting on the couch at the Pedersen’s, trying to get up, Danny climbing up his side, clutching to his arm. Polly dragging on his leg so that he would have had to haul her entire body along if he’d taken so much as a step. His eyes, sparkling like blue diamonds, hair falling casually across one eye. Him, laughing hard enough to be unable to move, a full smile, teeth, and wide, and unafraid. It was as if he were looking at a stranger. Gina had taken the photograph, and in it he was looking directly at her. Is this what she saw when she looked at him?

 

He sat staring at it for a long while, till his fingers grew numb with gripping the frame and the image had burned itself on his soul. Then he placed it, dry-eyed, on his nightstand. And then took up the present from Barnabas.

 

Crinkly-fine paper, professionally wrapped, obviously, as Willie couldn’t imagine Barnabas turning his own hand to such a common task. He turned it over in his palm, hefting the weight, trying to concentrate on guessing what it was. Like it was an ordinary gift, from an ordinary friend. Not from the man who had not only had never given him anything before, but who had also, through a flip of fate, taken the course of his life from him. All the presents in the world couldn’t make up for something like that. Though part of his mind realized that that wasn’t what Barnabas was trying to do. Maybe, just maybe, it was like Willie’s present of the book, a gift with no strings attached.

 

Maybe. But with Barnabas, although anything was possible, the likelihood of selfless kindness was limited. At least in Willie’s experience.

 

You gonna dither over this till the sun goes down?

 

You should just open it.

 

So he did.

 

He slipped his fingers beneath the tape, and then, as the wrapping paper tore, realized there was no point in taking his time. He ripped the rest of the way down to the box, letting the paper fall to the floor.

 

As he stared at what it was, the silence that fell in the room was unbroken, save for the flicker and snap of the well-built fire, and the faraway hiss of the snow melting from the roof as the sun hit it. And his heart, thumping, hollow echoes in his chest.

 

It was a penknife. A nice one. He pulled it out of the box. It had a staghorn handle and two stainless steel blades. He unfolded them. They slid out as if they moved across polished ice. And on the handle were his initials, W. L., in strong, straight letters. He moved his finger across them, his mind bringing up the image of Barnabas setting the order to the clerk.

 

His initials are W and L, for William Loomis.

 

Right. Like that had ever happened.

 

But it must have. Otherwise, how had the letters gotten there?

 

He snapped the blades shut with the heel of his palm and felt the balance of the weight in his hand. Oh, it was a very nice knife indeed. Considering how Willie’d broken his last one, Barnabas had gone past his normal, unforgiving stance.

 

But what to do about it, what to say? Thank you? Knowing Barnabas, he’d not want to hear another word about it, like with the money or the courting candle. Or with any kindness that he happened to show his servant along the way. Best not to say anything then. Best to get on with his day, the chores wouldn’t wait, Christmas or no Christmas. Perhaps, at some point, he’d make sure that Barnabas saw him using the knife. Then the vampire would know that his gift was appreciated, even if Willie couldn’t openly acknowledge it.

 

He set the penknife on the nightstand and moved from the bed, muscles shifting through the slight uncomfortable twinges of sitting still so long, and changed into his clothes. Irene’s socks went straight on his feet, and another chocolate found its way into his mouth. He wondered if Gina would like her seagull, if she would sit and stare at it and think of him before she put it on. She would. She most very likely would. And the pullover, should he wear it while doing chores? It would be a shame if he got coal dust on it, or smeared it with something that would never come out. No, he would save it to sleep in, at night. When it was dark and he would think of her as he fell asleep.

 

Tucking the pullover under his pillow, he slipped the penknife into his pocket and pushed his feet into his boots, stopping only long enough to bend over and tie them up. Then he trotted down the stairs, feeling as if it were somehow warmer than it was. And saw, as he reached the landing, that the present he’d left in the front room was indeed gone. There was no trace of it ever having been there. As he walked into the room, he looked around. The coals from the banked fire of the night before were long since cold, and the decanter and glasses were still where he’d left them. No broken shards for him to pick up. No torn wrapping paper either, to show that a gift had been opened there. Had Barnabas gotten it? Had he even seen it?

 

Christ, Loomis, why should you care?

 

He didn’t care. It was a gesture, a token really. Something to show Barnabas he was as civilized as the next guy, someone who knew how to be altru-whatever.

 

By the end of the day, he’d strained his shoulder lifting the ash bucket and the new penknife had come in handy more ways than he could count. Shaving off pieces of thin tinder. Cutting open a box of new beeswax candles. Trimming the edge of a replacement panel for the library that he’d cut some days ago that had swelled in the dampness and no longer fit the space it had been measured for. It was a mighty nice knife alright, and he wiped the larger blade on the leg of his pants and pushed the knife shut just as he heard the cellar door open and close. The sound jump-started his heart, setting it to hammer little icicle beats. Silly really. He already knew that he would say nothing to Barnabas about the gift of the penknife, and that most likely Barnabas would say nothing to him. Nothing would ever be said about it, like it never was. As was always the way with the little acts of kindness Barnabas would perform, as if, for one second every century or so, he forgot how to be cruel, and the human he had been, before his death in 1795, fought its way to the surface of his soul.

 

But Willie, hard as he might try to stifle the stirrings of curiosity inside of him, still wanted to know: Had Barnabas liked the book?

 

He heard no call, or demands from the front room, though he could hear the shifting of the floorboards as he left the kitchen and headed out down the hallway. The heat from the fire he’d built earlier eased its way into the cooler air as Willie approached. Cat-footed, trying to pretend he wasn’t there, along the side of the hallway, where the wood was less worn. As if he didn’t want to know what he wanted to know.

 

Barnabas was indeed in the front room. Willie could see the shadows of his body, cast by the moving flames in the hearth and by the candles on the mantelpiece. The vampire was standing very still, as if waiting for something. For what, Willie did not know, but he took his time easing his head around the pillar, as he sometimes did when he was checking to see which way the wind was blowing.

 

There was Barnabas, standing in front of the fireplace. Stock still, holding something in his hands. Head bent toward it. Intent. Focused. Turning the pages with one, slow, careful hand, while he held it with the other as he read. A book. A green one. Yellowed pages and everything.

 

Barnabas was reading his new book. The one Willie had given him. Demonstrating his appreciation without a word.

 

Well, if that don’t beat all.

 

Willie pulled his head back slowly and headed toward the kitchen. He didn’t expect a call from the master of the Old House bidding his presence and he received none. Even as his foot trod upon a loose board and the snap was loud enough to sound like gunshot. Barnabas knew he was there, that was for certain, but wasn’t calling for him. Willie made it back to the kitchen, closing the door behind him, and went to stand in front of the fireplace. Pulled out the penknife, and opened it so that the larger blade lay itself across his palm. Bright silver in the firelight, the handle so well made it looked old and rare, even if it was new.

 

A funny easing of something tight from around the spot where his heart lodged in his chest. He snapped the blade shut and let it slide into his pocket once more.

 

So this is Christmas.

 

He wasn’t sure he liked it. But if it meant that he could give of his heart to Gina and her kids, then he was willing to give something to Barnabas, too. Although he knew that, like Barnabas, he would never be saying anything about it. Was best that way anyway.

 

The snow cracked and dashed itself against the panes in the windows over the sink and the door, and Willie looked out through the blinding white storm. Somewhere, across the miles, his heart and his soul were. Spread far and away, but just as real and just as strong as if it were here with him, in this very room. The Old House contained nothing like it. Barnabas’ flashes of kindness were too unpredictable, and now that he knew was like to have someone like Gina in his life, Willie knew he would never count on the vampire doing better than a smatter of mercy here or a sampling of approval there. He’d been in danger of doing that, the weight of the penknife pulling the corner of his pocket down. Fine and okay and thank you. It had been nice of Barnabas. But it wasn’t…it hadn’t been a gift of love.

 

Didn’t know it was like this.

 

Last year had been his first inkling of how it could be, how it should be. Gina had been so joyful in the face of her string of disasters, and he’d been puzzled and amazed that it could be so. Now he knew.

 

Merry Christmas, Gina Lee.

 

He turned back to the fire, and spread his hands before it. Smiling as he ducked his head down. It had been a better Christmas than he’d expected.