Title: The Long Way Down

Author:  N.J. Nidiffer

Genre/Rating: Gen/PG

Word Count:  16,300

Fandom: Dark Shadows

Verse: Gina Lee (# 7)

Summary: Even when Willie is doing his best to be obedient, everything goes wrong when he falls off a ladder for real collapses in the grocery store. It gets even worse when Gina Lee is the one to discover him and call for an ambulance. Barnabas is non too pleased, Gina Lee is sure Barnabas is being cruel and stingy about the whole thing, and Willie just wants his headache to go away.

A/N: Part of the problem is that Nik and I felt what Polly and Danny and Gina Lee felt in that we couldn’t get enough of the boy, and we ended up torturing him beyond all reason.

 

***

 

 

 

There was an ominous screech of wood on wood.

 

A world that shifted precariously on its axis.

 

A moment of freefall.

 

And then nothing.


He woke with darkness pressed against his eyes, pain throbbing thick and hot behind the knot on his forehead. Willie moaned, fumbling at his face with one blind hand, finding a folded cloth there, damp against the clammy flush of his cheeks.

 

“No.” A voice rose out of that pounding, sparkling dark: a smooth, soft baritone that crept past the pain ringing in his ears, demanding obedience in spite of its seeming mildness. “Leave it there.”  Fingers closed around his wrist to enforce the command. “You are still bleeding.”

 

Nausea surged in his throat, the inevitable accompaniment to the relentless pain spiking through his temples. Bitter juices flooded his mouth, and he struggled to sit up, even as the hand around his wrist let go to press against his chest instead.

 

“M’ goin’ to be sick,” he muttered. He was, too, there was no way he could prevent it, though there was nothing in his stomach but water, and hadn’t been, not for hours now.

 

Strong hands grasped his shoulders to help him roll to his side, dislodging the cloth that shielded his eyes. Willie found himself hovering over a basin on the floor, retching his guts into his throat as Barnabas steadied him, holding him up so he wouldn’t fall head first off the bed.

 

Willie gasped again, painfully, helplessly, his body convulsing into a ball as the spasms rolled through his belly. Hot, sour water gushed up his throat and he spat it out, grimacing, the forced motion doing nothing to ease the pain that was hammering his eyeballs out of his head.

 

Barnabas held him steady until the last of the heaving passed, then pressed him back into the pillows. Cold, white fingers picked up the displaced cloth and dampened it with fresh water from the pitcher beside the bed. The same hands that had bruised him so cruelly in the past moved carefully now to wipe the sick perspiration from Willie’s quivering face.

 

“W-what happened?” Willie whispered. He couldn’t remember.

 

“You fell off a ladder.”  There was disgusted amusement in the vampire’s voice as he nudged the fouled basin out of the way with his foot; a hint of a joke underlying the plain words that Willie understood, but did not share. Of course, that was the joke: that the feeble excuse Willie had so often employed to explain away fresh cuts and bruises had actually come to pass. The people at Collinwood must think him the clumsiest carpenter in Maine by now. This latest incident would only reinforce that notion—especially since it was finally true.

 

“Did I break anything?”  Willie meant had he landed on some valuable antique, or perhaps rattled some fragile piece of glass from its dusty shelf. He hoped not. If his fall had taken out something Barnabas valued, there would be hell to pay for it later.

 

“Only your head,” Barnabas answered, still with that faint tinge of mockery. “It’s fortunate for you that you have a thick skull. You must have cracked it on the banister on your way down.”

 

Willie nodded, then winced. Moving his head was a very bad idea at the moment. “I was tryin’ to take care of that ceiling molding before it came all the way loose,” he said. “You know, the one over the stairway?  Guess I forgot I wasn’t still on the landing—that’s where I started, on the landing. But I couldn’t reach anythin’ from there without puttin’ up the ladder first.”

 

“You set up a ladder on a second floor landing that is too narrow to accommodate such a thing in the first place and then forgot you were on it?” Barnabas interrupted. The amusement was gone from his voice, replaced by a kind of hard, irritated incredulity.

 

“I couldn’t reach it without standin’ on something, Barnabas,” Willie protested weakly. He wished Barnabas wouldn’t speak so loudly. Every word the vampire threw at him was bouncing off the glassy pain in his head like a bumblebee caught in a mason jar. “The ceiling above the stairwell is. . . .”

 

“That is what scaffolding is for,” Barnabas snapped. “That was remarkably foolish of you, Willie. Your impatience might have killed you.”

 

Willie shut up. It was pointless to argue that he would have wasted half a day setting up scaffolding to nail one piece of molding into place, when he could set up the ladder, climb up to the top, and have the whole job done in less than fifteen minutes.

 

If he hadn’t fallen off, that was.

 

Now that he knew what had happened to him, the memory of his plunge from a second-story height was coming back in all its gory detail. The warning totter as the ladder’s over-extended wooden foot wobbled off the edge of the landing. The lurch as Willie’s center of gravity abruptly shifted, throwing him nose first over the edge of the banister. The awful realization that he was going to fall, just before the whole thing went south.

 

He’d grabbed at the fractured molding, at the banister, at the stairwell itself—anything to slow his descent. Must have worked, too, at least to some degree, because all he had to show for it was an aching head. At least, that’s all he thought was wrong. He really hadn’t moved around enough to know what else might be hurting.

 

“I hafta get up,” he said hesitantly. After Barnabas had so plainly indicated that he should stay put, he didn’t dare move until he was given leave to rise.

 

“To what purpose?”

 

“I need to see if I’m okay. I think I am, but I can’t tell fo’ sure.”  He didn’t say that he ached all over, so he wouldn’t know where the real damage was until he started moving and let the serious pain stab at him. “C’n I get up, Barnabas?”

 

“As you like,” Barnabas said, rising from the edge of the bed. He made it sound as though Willie was an idiot for ignoring his advice to stay prone, but what could one do with contrary, mule-headed servants who insisted on having their own way? Especially ones that were stupid enough to erect ladders on second-story landings when there was no one nearby to help them should they fall.

 

Willie waited until Barnabas had taken a step away from the bed before he tried to sit up. He regretted his decision almost immediately as the room took a nosedive that swept his upset stomach along with it.

 

“God. . . .”

 

The bed was moving. He could feel it sliding beneath his body to make a giddy swirl in the center of the room. Willie dropped, following a rapid spiral to the floor, and only came up short because Barnabas caught him before he landed.

 

The vampire didn’t have to say I told you so. The admonition was in the tenseness of his hands as he steadied Willie into the center of the bed, then helped him to lie down again. Willie closed his eyes, seeing the room still spinning behind his skewered lids, and swallowed hard so he wouldn’t start retching again.

 

“God,” he gulped again, a miserable whisper this time. “I think I knocked something loose.”

 

“What was left of your sense, I should think,” Barnabas said dryly. “Now do as I tell you and stay still. If you’ve cracked your skull you won’t help it by getting up when you can’t keep your feet. Stay where you are and mend. Or would you rather chance the remainder of your bones through your stubbornness?”

 

Willie started to shake his head, then thought better of it. “No,” he managed, chagrined. “I . . . I’ll stay still.”

 

“Good.” Barnabas dampened the reclaimed washcloth one last time. “Keep this over your eyes,” he ordered.

 

“Rest. If you are going to lie about in bed you might as well get some good out of it. I can see I’ll get no work from you tomorrow, in any case.”

 

“I’m sorry, Barnabas,” Willie whispered. He peeked up at his master to gauge his temper, looking up past the moist rim of cloth at a kaleidoscope of cold, dead faces that twinkled like individual snowflakes in the candlelight. “I didn’t mean to fall like that, I was just trying to get things done.”

 

“Have you never heard that haste makes waste?” Barnabas queried. “It was a cliché even in my time. Truly, there are some things that never change.”  He blew out the candles on the tabletop, all but the center one, the important one, that kept Willie tethered to the light. “Now be quiet and go to sleep. I imagine you’ll feel badly enough in the morning as it is.”

 

*

 

Hungry.

 

That’s mostly what he felt, in spite of Barnabas’ warning that he would probably feel like a vagrant coming off a three day drunk by the time the sun came up.

 

But famished as he was, Willie ignored his growing restlessness for a long stretch of minutes, wary of committing himself to any serious movement until he was sure that the previous night’s dizziness had passed. His stomach rumbled a protest at the necessary delay, loudly reminding him that he hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday’s breakfast—and that particular meal had consisted of nothing more substantial than peanut butter and toast.

 

Hurry up, his stomach complained. I’m starving in here.

 

Okay, okay. Willie stretched, finding himself a bit achy across the shoulders where he had crash-landed, but otherwise not too badly out of sorts. I’m getting’ up. I’m going. Just give me a sec, whydontcha?

 

Rising up on his elbows didn’t bring the expected plunge into nausea. Encouraged by that small but crucial accomplishment, he sat up the rest of the way and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His torso made a slight wobble to the left, an unplanned maneuver that he easily corrected by dropping his palm into the tangle of bedding beside him. But that tiny, tipsy waver was all the discomfort he felt. There was no headache. No nausea. No nothing.

 

Okay. Let’s do this.

 

Willie flexed his bare toes against the floor, making sure he had firm footing before he tried to stand. He grasped the brass railing at the end of his bed for extra security, just in case he got wobbly once he was upright.

 

One, two, three, stand!

 

Nothing. Not so much as a twinge.

 

Ooookay, he thought, frankly amazed that he hadn’t toppled back onto his butt the moment he gained his feet. That’s good. That’s real good. Now what? Head okay?

 

He reached up with curious fingers to examine the egg-shaped lump growing out of his forehead like a blind third eye. A closer survey in his shaving mirror showed a large, raw swelling with an ugly scrape across one side of it. Clotted blood thickened the edges, but the center was still moist and oozing fluid. Strands of his hair kept sticking in it, like flies attracted to a pitcher plant.

 

Jeez! Lookit that. You’re lucky you didn’t knock your brains clean out of your head!

 

But even the lump in all its purple glory couldn’t hold Willie’s attention for long. Not this late in the morning, with his stomach making such an infernal racket.

 

Okay, so the bruise was tender to the touch, extending its aching malevolence across the whole top of his face. Ugly as it looked, it didn’t hurt if he didn’t touch it, so the heck with it—he gave up prodding it in favor of finding his clothes so he could get down to the kitchen and find some breakfast.

 

He really was hungry. Hell, he was starving!

 

A quick wash and an even quicker slide into blue jeans and pullover, and he was ready to go. He left his rumpled bed unmade, thinking he would get back to it later, and trotted down the hall, eager to ransack the pantry for a sandwich or a boiled egg or some other simple, easily attainable fare.

 

But the narrow gap that led to the top of the servants’ stairway made him pause, as cautious as a child approaching a mongrel dog that has bitten him once before.

 

The splintery scream of wood as the ladder banged the banister and screeched across it. The responding shudder through the rungs that made Willie clutch the one beneath his hands even more tightly as the great, unwieldy tower of wood and metal see-sawed into open air, dragging him along with it. The heart-skipping drop as he began the long fall into nothingness.

 

What if a dizzy spell caught him as he was vaulting down the stairs and maybe pitched him on his head again?

 

Newly vigilant, he walked down the creaking, dusty risers to the main stairway with exaggerated care, gripping the handrail like an arthritic old man as he descended one more level to the foyer. He stepped over the still-sprawled corpse of the ladder resting half in and half out of the parlor, gained the hallway to the kitchen with smiling relief, then stood up tall and straight, stretching the last lingering ache from his muscles before resuming his trot down the hall, a full two floors lower than where he had started.

 

Must not have hurt myself after all, he thought, striding fast for the kitchen at the rear of the house. Barnabas is right. I must have a hard head. Lucky for me I. . . .

 

His cheerful thought ended the moment he cracked open a cabinet and found that he had no food. Not so much as a can of soup or a tin of sardines.

 

“Well, hell.”

 

He slammed the cabinet shut, happy to note no resounding echo of pain in his head, and scanned around the kitchen for a forgotten morsel left on the table or countertop. The previous morning’s peanut butter jar still rested on the cutting board near the sink, a knife jutting out of its sticky interior. He pulled it out hopefully, anticipating the mud-heavy suction of the blade mining through peanut butter, and found himself swiping at nothing more edible than air.

 

“Damn!”

 

The jar was abandoned by the sink because it was empty, ready to wash out before being relegated to the tool shed to hold nails or washers or what-have-you. Willie had meant to go to the grocery after nailing down the ceiling molding late yesterday afternoon—which was why he’d had no lunch or dinner. But since he had landed on his pumpkin head shortly after climbing the ladder, he hadn’t had the chance to make the trip.

 

Well, he would have to go now, that was all. There was nothing else to eat in the house. Not unless he wanted to settle for a drink of water out of the pump, and he didn’t want to do that. A glass of icy water drawn from the artesian well might numb his stomach when he wasn’t feeling up to snuff, but it would never hold him when he was as hungry as he was today.

 

He reached for the jacket hanging on the back door hook, digging for the truck keys before the nylon windbreaker even cleared the rack. It was frosty outside, but probably not cold enough to warrant a heavier coat. A winter in the Old House had ensured that Willie was thoroughly acclimated to cold weather.

 

But as his hand curled on the doorknob that led to the back porch, he stopped, just as he had at the head of the stairs. A tiny internal alarm was shrilling behind his sternum, warning him that maybe he should slow the hell up, since he might have forgotten something important.

 

Stay here, Barnabas had said. Rest.

 

Did that mean that Willie was forbidden to leave the house today?

 

No, surely not. Maybe if he was still too sick to stand, but he wasn’t. Willie felt just fine. Except for being hungry enough to eat a bear, that was.

 

But. . . .

 

I can see I’ll get no work out of you tomorrow, in any case.

 

That was a bit plainer. It meant that Barnabas expected Willie to take it easy this afternoon. But did taking it easy include a moratorium on trips into town?

 

Dammit, Willie didn’t know. But he did know that his stomach was rolling around like a bowling ball, knocking his ribs around like pins as it hunted for something more suitable to digest.

 

If he was this hungry he couldn’t possibly be hurt. Right?

 

Maybe you should wait until Barnabas rises, that annoying internal alarm suggested, still uneasy at the thought of Willie leaving the house. Maybe ask him to go instead.

 

No way! Willie snorted out loud. Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine Barnabas at the grocery, selecting apples and crackers and soup cans full of chicken n’ stars. Maybe bypassing the tomatoes while he was at it because they looked too mushy for slicing, and choosing a nice, fresh head of iceberg lettuce for Willie’s sandwiches instead.

 

Uh-uh. Never happen.

 

Still chuckling at the thought, Willie retrieved his keys from his jacket pocket and went out the door, taking care to lock it behind him before he left the porch so no trespassers could get in.

 

Ta hell with it. I’ll be to the store and back in an hour and a half. There’s nothin’ wrong with me but a bump and a bruise. It’ll be fine. Besides, I want some breakfast!  Real food, too, not cold stuff. I want hash browns and bacon and eggs over easy. Toast and jelly and a cup of hot coffee.

 

Maybe I’ll stop in at the diner instead. Then I won’t have to make breakfast. I can just order it.

 

He could always stop in at the grocery after he ate.

 

*

 

The warm breath of the diner strengthened his resolve. Willie wanted some of the food he smelled sizzling on the air as he swung open one side of the double glass door. Cold sandwiches and pump water be damned. Nothing less than the breakfast special was going to do today, served up with all the hot coffee he could savor.

 

“Hey, Debbie,” he said as he hopped onto a stool at the far end of the counter. He wasn’t surprised when the waitress only glanced at him in harried, beady-eyed annoyance and didn’t bid him welcome in return. “Eggsovereasyhashbrowns­baconandtoast,” he ordered in one breath, watching her scribble in her notepad to keep up. If she was in so much of a hurry that she had to be rude, let her scramble to get his order. “And coffee, too, please. Lots of it.”

 

The waitress waddled off, as unwelcoming as ever, to shout his order to the cook. Willie settled on his seat and pulled the sugar dispenser closer in preparation for his coffee. When the cup arrived he sent three quick streamers of pure white crystals into the oily black depths, cutting off the individual avalanches with an expert flick of his wrist. He would have bet a quarter that each one of those streamers had equaled exactly one teaspoon of sweetener. He had practiced it enough to know.

 

“Ummm.”

 

He snuggled up to the steaming cup and sipped his coffee experimentally, finding it just right. Hot, though. Hell, it was almost nuclear. He blew on it, cooling the surface as quickly as he could so he could gulp down half the contents at once. He pushed the cup back in the direction of the waitress as she delivered his plate, and she refilled it from the common pot, as grudging as a miser dispensing pennies to the poor.

 

Willie poured another three shots of sugar into his replenished cup, then dug into his plate like a badger going after its winter grub.

 

He was only halfway through when his stomach gave a burble, then a lurch.

 

Willie paused, nonplused his mouthful of hash browns and egg yolk only partially swallowed.

 

Uh oh. . . .

 

But hey, that was no problem. Too much coffee on a mostly empty stomach, that was all. He could fix himself up in a jiffy with another slice of toast. Willie swallowed his hash browns and reached for a crust, liberally slathered with butter and jam.

 

The partially chewed bread stuck in his mouth, as thick and tasteless as sawdust. He spat it into a paper napkin as discretely as he could, struggling not to gag as he got rid of it.

 

That’s what you get for bein’ greedy, he thought, staring down at his ravaged plate. Look how you demolished that breakfast, man. You musta ate a fourth of it in one swallow.

 

Willie pushed the remainder of the bacon and hash browns away, his enthusiasm for eating diminished by his growing nausea. He sipped another lukewarm swallow of his perfectly sweetened coffee and found that it had turned as thick and as bitter as bile.

 

“Ergh. . . .”

 

“Whatsamatta?” the waitress demanded, swooping his plate off the counter in a clatter of dirty cutlery. “Don’t like the cawfee?”

 

Willie shook his head.

 

“Then don’t drink it. That’ll be a dollar twenty-five.”

 

Willie rummaged in his pocket for some change, feeling a fine, light sweat breaking out on his upper lip as he did so. He left the money for his breakfast beside his abandoned coffee cup, along with a ten-cent tip for the woman who had ferried it to him. He really didn’t think Debbie’s half-assed waitressing qualified her for more than that.

 

The air in the crowded diner was suddenly much too warm, its sounds of cooking and washing and breakfast chatter far too loud. The whole of the place pressed in on him, clogging his ears and nostrils, suffocating him in a greasy, hash brown-scented cloud.

 

God. He had to get out of here and into the air or he was going to throw up for sure.

 

Willie tottered toward the door, feeling his gorge rising with every step. He saw the glass shimmer in front of him and automatically put up his hand to catch the bar. The door opened with more difficulty than it should have. Mostly, he belatedly realized, because he was trying to push his way through the side that said “pull.”  Someone coming in the opposite way finally solved the problem for him.

 

“Jeez, Loomis, learn to read,” the unnamed someone snapped at him as he lurched past them onto the sidewalk. Someone who recognized him, then, but he couldn’t spare the breath to apologize.

 

One step, two steps, three steps, four. Then the sturdy brick wall that made up the east alley side of the restaurant was in front of him, safe and steady for Willie to lean against while he puked.

 

A dollar twenty-five essentially wasted. An illogical thought to have between vomiting spasms, but nonetheless true. Barnabas wouldn’t like that. He’d have a cliché for it n’ everythin’.

 

Be that as it may. Willie didn’t think he would tell Barnabas about this particular detail concerning his breakfast at the diner. The vampire wouldn’t be interested anyway.

 

Willie leaned against the bricks, gasping until he was sure he was through. Then he reached over a couple of inches with one hand and kept himself braced while he shuffled his feet to bring the rest of his sagging body in line with his arm. He did it again, and then once more, until he was clear of the smell of vomit and the trash cans he had puked behind.

 

A cold breeze winging in like an ice-winged gull from the harbor bathed his sweating face and pushed the offensive smells farther behind him. Willie spat into the melting slush of the alleyway, clearing his mouth, and realized he felt a hundred times better without all that heavy food weighing on his stomach.

 

Strange. He’d felt like hell itself when he had stumbled into the alley. But a couple of deep gulps of clean ocean air and he was perfectly all right again. His stomach settled and his head clear. No sign of sickness in him at all.

 

Man, he thought, frowning as he stood up straight and let go of the wall before someone mistook him for a drunk. That was too weird.

 

Maybe I should get back to the house? Now, while I’m feeling good?  Because if that happens again I won’t be able to drive. Hell, I won’t be able to walk.

 

He waited, breathing deeply to see if the nausea and confusion would return, but he felt fine. As right as rain, as his ol’ pal Jason might have said. Not a tick out of time. Even the thought of grocery shopping didn’t disturb his stomach, which only a moment before had been trying its greasy damndest to crawl into the back of his mouth.

 

Maybe he was coming down with the flu.

 

Okay, then. He would take it very, very easy while he picked up the basics at the grocery store. Nothing that he might drop and break if a spell came on him again. Just the essentials. Bread and soup and ground coffee. He would leave the milk and eggs and peanut butter until he was sure he could carry them without fumbling the cartons and jars.

 

Better to be safe than sorry.

 

*

 

Bread and soup and ground coffee.

 

And maybe a box of crackers. And a package of cookies. And a small bag of sugar that he would use up long before it had a chance to clump in the perpetual dampness of the Old House. And an equally small wedge of cheese.

 

Willie surveyed his growing stack of purchases and thought he felt pretty good for a man who’d been vomiting in an alley less than twenty minutes beforehand. Maybe he could eat a cheese sandwich once he got back to the house. He was starting to feel kind of hungry again.

 

He added a couple of tins of sardines to his hoard, then went over his mental list one last time, wondering if he dared to go ahead and get the stuff in the breakable containers or if he should continue to play it safe until he was sure he was over this debilitating bug that kept sneaking up on him. Maybe he should get the milk at least? That might help settle his stomach if he started feeling queasy again. Was milk any good for the flu?  He couldn’t remember.

 

He had just about decided to go ahead and get a pint—why not?  At least it was on sale—when a tiny hand reached into the cooler ahead of him and snatched the bottle he’d been aiming to grab.

 

“Hey, Willie!”

 

A pretty little girl was hunkered down in the shadow of his body. She had scooted her slight, bluejeaned form into the gap between him and the cooler, practically eeling beneath him so she might boost his pint of milk. Now she was grinning up at him with elfin delight, offering him the bottle she had filched.

 

Willie took a step away from her so he wouldn’t squash her against the cooler—and also so he could get a better look at her mischievous, snub-nosed face as she stood up. He knew her. He knew he did. But for the life of him he couldn’t come up with her name.

 

“Jeezum crow, Willie, what did you do to your head? You got a bump right here, ya know that?”  The little girl thumped herself in the forehead, thankfully choosing the hand that wasn’t holding the milk bottle to show him the exact spot she meant. “It’s black and purple and everythin’!  Like my thumb got that time when Danny slammed my hand in the car door. Momma said it was an accident but. . . .”

 

The little girl kept chattering, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was staring at her, his mind as blank as a freshly washed chalkboard with only one letter of the erased word remaining to give him a clue. Her name started with a ‘P,’ didn’t it? What names started with a ‘P’?

 

“Polly Marie, who have you got there?” said a teasing voice from the aisle behind him.

 

Willie turned around, grateful to the woman who had named the child for him. Of course, the little girl was Polly Logan. She had picked up her habit of exclaiming ‘jeezum crow!’ from her old pal Willie. How could he possibly forget that?  And this woman with her must be her mother. Her mother . . . Gina! That was it.

 

What the hell was the matter with him?  These were friends of his. Close friends. His only friends. How could he ever forget their names like that?  As though they meant nothing to him?

 

Willie rubbed the unbruised side his forehead, feeling the first throb of a headache gathering beneath the infamous lump, and carefully lowered his basket of groceries to the floor. He was beginning to suspect that something was seriously wrong with him—and it sure as hell wasn’t the flu.

 

“Good morning, Willie,” Gina was saying. “Polly didn’t step on you, did sh. . . . Goodness gracious! What did you do to your forehead?”

 

The woman reached up as though she would touch the bruise that everyone seemed so set on admiring, but her hand hovered just short of actual contact, as though she realized that the merest brush would hurt him. Still, Willie couldn’t stop himself from flinching away from her. That cold, fine sweat that had beaded his face in the diner was coming back on him, stronger than before, sending an invisible shiver racing down the skin of his arms and legs.

 

“Willie?”  Gina Lee Logan was starting to look worried. “Willie? Are you all right?  You’ve gone very white.”

 

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Willie managed to answer, knowing his smile was coming out cock-eyed even as he offered it to her. “I fell off a ladder is all. Bumped my head. But I’m okay. I felt sick at first but now I’m     perfectly fine. . . .” He realized he was on the floor only because the woman and child were suddenly looking down at him.

 

Polly’s eyes were as big as black friar plums, and—Willie saw from this rare and wondrous vantage point—equally as beautifully colored. Kind of a royal black with a rim of purple round the irises. Funny he had never noticed that before.

 

And Gina’s mouth—that had changed, too. The lips that were usually curved in the sweetest and warmest of motherly smiles were now wide open, as though Gina had become a human siren shrieking out in high alarm. Warning Willie about something, maybe, though for the life of him he couldn’t imagine what might be threatening him in the aisles of the Collinsport Grocery.

 

Willie listened harder, straining to hear what Gina was screaming at him, but he couldn’t hear a thing.

 

Nothing but his own strong heartbeat thumping a ragtime in his ears, getting softer and slower as the whole grocery store faded away to black.

 

*

 

He knew he was in a hospital before he ever opened his eyes.

 

His nose told him. He could smell urine and sweat and old, clotted blood. Harsh, black odors indicative of pain, all muted beneath the bright, shiny gloss of fresh antiseptic.

 

His second clue was the fact that he had an intravenous needle stuck in his arm. He could feel it lodged, tick-like, deep inside the punctured vein, along with the pad of cotton and gauze crowding the inside of his elbow and the uncomfortable pull of tape holding the protective packing tight against his skin.

 

God, what had he got himself into?

 

Willie moaned and opened his eyes. The room shimmered in a soft gray fog around him, its edges all rubbed out as though by God’s own eraser. He thought he must be in an examining cubicle in Collinsport General’s emergency room, but since he had never been in this particular hospital before he couldn’t be sure. He couldn’t see enough detail to know what he was up against.

 

“Careful now,” a gentle voice intoned from out of the gloom. “No, don’t try to sit up. Stay where you are and let me get a look at your pupils. That’s it.”

 

A blob was hovering over him, slightly darker than the gray haze that surrounded it.

 

“Don’t be afraid,” the doctor said. Willie understood that’s who the undulating blob must be, since no one else seemed to be poking and prodding him at the moment, and that’s what doctors generally did.

“The lights are dimmed so they won’t hurt your eyes so much. But I need a pencil beam to check your pupils, so bear with me, all right?”

 

A fierce, angry light stabbed into his eyes. Willie cried out and turned his face away, confused by the fresh surge of pain that spiked through his forehead and out through his temples. His right hand jerked out and caught the edge of the gurney he was lying on, clawing at the table to lever him upright and away from the source of his pain.

 

“No, don’t do that. Stay still, Mr. Loomis. Mr. Loomis, can you hear me?”  Expert, invisible hands caught his shoulders and urged him down. “Mr. Loomis?”

 

“L-leave me alone!”

 

“I will, Mr. Loomis, as soon as you lie still and talk to me. Stop struggling, now.”

 

“Leave me alone!”

 

Ow!  Shouting was a mistake; it hurt his own head far more than it hurt the doctor’s, Willie was sure. And it wasn’t having very much effect anyway. The doctor wasn’t letting him go.

 

Might as well give it up, then. If he didn’t he was going to start throwing up again.

 

Very much against his will, Willie subsided against the gurney. He felt shivery and cold all over, as though he had taken a dip in the ocean and forgotten to bring a towel along to dry himself off with. His brain felt shivery and cold, too, as though it were trying to coagulate in one dark corner of his skull and quietly die there, like a poisoned cockroach expiring beneath a stove.

 

God, what a vision.

 

“That’s better,” the doctor said, quieter now that Willie wasn’t thrashing about. He released Willie’s shoulders and receded into the general gloom. “Can you hear me, Mr. Loomis?”

 

“Yeah.” God, yeah. Shut up, why dontcha? You’re killin’ me here.

 

“You’ve given yourself one heck of a concussion. That’s why your head hurts so much. But take it easy a few minutes longer and I’ll get you something for it. All right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Drugs. That sounded good right about now. That sounded freakin’ wonderful. Please, man, he pled silently, just knock me out. Give me anything you want, but knock me out. I’m begging ya, please, let’s go with the freakin’ drugs.

 

The pain in his head was throbbing hot and thick and viscous, like liquid tar slopping its way down a stairway one riser at a time: PLOP! Pause. PLOP! Pause. PLOP!  Willie lifted his hand to his face and took the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger with exquisite care, as if that would help at all. He thought he could feel the vibration rising out of his skull and into his fingerpads, leaving a lingering hum like a swarm of angry bees buzzing beneath the skin.

 

“God,” he mumbled to himself. “I feel awful.”

 

“I bet you do,” the doctor said.

 

Willie cringed. He hadn’t realized the physician was back in the room. If he had he wouldn’t have voiced his complaint aloud.

 

“How did you do this, eh, Mr. Loomis?  You’re lucky you didn’t fracture your skull. The x-rays say you didn’t, though I wouldn’t believe them if I hadn’t seen them for myself.”

 

The doctor was swabbing Willie’s bared arm with something that smelled as astringently cold and wet as it felt. Alcohol. That meant a shot. Not one of Willie’s favorite things, but at the moment he would take it if it would only stop the pain. He had experimented with some of the milder opiates in the not too distant past, traveling in the Orient with Jason, half a year before the two of them had landed in Collinsport and Willie had gone to work at the Old House. He sincerely hoped that whatever the doctor was dosing him with now was a concentrated derivative of one of those pain-numbing dream-makers.

 

“Fell off a ladder,” Willie answered, eventually remembering the doctor’s question. He kept his voice down so it wouldn’t ring in his own ears. Now that he had decided not to fight, he was eager to be accommodating, if only so the faceless doctor would hurry up with the drugs.

 

“What did you say?”

 

“Fell off a ladder,” Willie said, only a fraction louder. But the physician seemed to hear him this time, because he responded with a curt, “Umm-hmm.”

 

Willie’s heart jolted to a stop within his chest before it suddenly sped up to racing speed. Not because of the sting of yet another needle biting into the thin flesh of his arm, but because of the doctor’s noncommittal reply. Willie clutched at the inadequate hospital sheet that covered him to the waist and dragged it up to his chest the second the hypodermic was withdrawn, trying to assemble his scattered thoughts before they were further numbed by painkiller.

 

Did he have any fresh marks on him?

 

Did he?

 

No. He hadn’t given Barnabas any cause to beat him since the mid-winter holidays. There were no fresh welts or bruises to hide except for the bump glaring out from his forehead—and Barnabas couldn’t be blamed for that.

 

There were plenty of scars the vampire had caused, though. All across Willie’s legs and back and buttocks. None so severe as to be startlingly obvious on their own, but remarkable enough if seen as a collection. And it sure as hell sounded as though this doctor had seen them.

 

Oh my god.

 

Oh my god, the shit is gonna hit the fan this time. Barnabas is going to kill me. Maybe before they even let me out of here.

 

Willie started to get up again. He had to get back to the Old House before Barnabas found out he was missing—or worse yet, where he was. It was bad enough that Willie would show up at the Old House stoned on lord-knew-what. God, he shouldn’t have let the doctor give him the shot!  He shouldn’t have done that, but the pain had skewed his thinking. Like so many things that he did under the pressure of a stressful moment, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

“Where do you think you are going, Mr. Loomis?”

 

Willie didn’t bother to answer. He just sloughed off the sheet and tried to sit up. His bruised brain sloshed to the front of his skull, then jelly-fished back to its cold dark corner at the rear to whimper in distress at being disturbed anew. The washed-out, fuzzily lit room went black for a second, then gradually returned to its original no-color gray.

 

“Mr. Loomis,” the doctor said, as though reasoning with a small but headstrong child, “you still have a very large needle in your arm. If you tear it out you are going to bleed all over your clothes. Now will you please lie back down?”

 

Something in that admonition penetrated. Willie stopped struggling for a minute, trying to put it together, but the essential fact kept slipping away from him.

 

Huh. Okay. Wait a minute.

 

What did he say?

 

Concentrate, dammit!

 

Clothes.

 

That was it.

 

He said clothes.

 

Willie let one cold, limp hand fall onto his thigh. His fingers and palm slid across smooth, well-worn denim. Not bare skin. Not a thin hospital johnny. But the unmistakable paint-spattered cloth of his blue jeans. He could feel the round, rough spots that were dots of old acrylic that hadn’t quite come out in the wash after he’d done some detailing on the kitchen cabinets.

 

Oh, thank god.

 

If he was still dressed, the doctor hadn’t seen his scars after all.

 

That made sense, now that the drug was moving through him and he was becoming calm enough to think about it. He had a head injury. A concussion, the doctor had said. They wouldn’t undress him for that. Not unless he was admitted to the hospital, and Willie didn’t intend to let anyone admit him. Not for any reason whatsoever. Not even if the doctor told him he was as good as dead if he didn’t permit it.

 

He would certainly be dead if he did.

 

“How are you feeling?” the doctor asked after a few long, silent minutes had passed. “Any better?”

 

“A little,” Willie admitted, shifting his head into a more comfortable position on the gurney’s flimsy paper pillow. Which wasn’t very, but at least the muscles in his neck were starting to loosen up so they weren’t clenched quite so tight. The pain in his head was settling into a steady, hard pounding that, bad as it was, was bearable if he didn’t twist around too much.

 

“Sorry I can’t give you anything stronger, but I need to determine exactly what you did before I start prescribing what you need. Can you tell me when you hurt yourself?”

 

“Um. Yeah. Yesterday? Late yesterday afternoon. I fell off this ladder, see. . . .”

 

“How high?”

 

“Second story. I was inside, but I put the ladder up on a stair landing so I could reach close to the ceiling. It’s a big ol’ house, the ceilings are fourteen feet up if they’re an inch. I was up in the stairwell, so I don’t know exactly how high I really was. But it was a long way down.”

 

Talking without moaning was getting easier now. The best and most pain-resistant phase of the drug was starting to kick in. It didn’t entirely kill the ache throbbing in Willie’s head, but it did provide enough padding so he could think again. At this point he would take any relief he could get.

 

“Why didn’t you come to the hospital last night?”

 

Willie knew better than to answer that question honestly, even if he had whapped his head on a banister and scrambled his brains in the process. “Didn’t think I needed to,” he lied. “I thought it was just a bruise. I went to bed a little while after. Felt all right this morning. I was hungry an’ all. Really hungry. But after I ate I started throwin’ up. And about an hour after that I must have passed out. . . .” Willie’s eyes flew open and he startled up, until a sharp resurgence of pain drove him back down onto the gurney. “Oh, jeez!” he groaned, one hand pressed to his aching head. “What happened to Gina, is she okay? Is she here?  I passed out right in front of her and Polly, I musta scared ’em half to death!”

 

“Last I heard, your lady friend was in the waiting room next to the lobby,” the doctor said. He was more of a human figure now rather than a dull gray blob, though he still didn’t have a face. “I’ll send her a message in a few minutes that you are awake and talking lucidly. I’m sure she’ll be relieved to hear it.”

 

“Jeez, no kiddin’!  When I saw her in the store I didn’t even know who she was. That was right before I passed out, I think.”

 

“You are describing classic symptoms of a severe concussion, Mr. Loomis,” the doctor said. “That’s good and bad. Good, because if all goes well, you should heal with very little difficulty. Bad, because if anything does go wrong, it’s liable to go wrong in spectacular technicolor. In other words, complications from an injury of this sort can be serious, even life threatening. We’ll keep you overnight just to be sure you haven’t crossed any wires. Okay?”

 

“No.”

 

“No?”

 

“I gotta get back to work. What time is it anyway, my boss’ll be lookin’ for me if it’s much after dark.”

 

“It’s four o’clock. You’ve been here more than. . . .” There was a pause, as though the doctor was consulting a chart. “. . . five hours. Frankly, I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to wake up. Which is why you need to stay here for observation, Mr. Loomis. Concussions don’t usually knock people unconscious for hours. An ordinary injury might cause a few minutes’ lapse. No more. You need to stay here, where a doctor can keep an eye on you, at least until tomorrow morning.”

 

“No.”

 

“Have you got a death wish, Mr. Loomis?  Because you are certainly risking your life if. . . .”

 

“I don’t care,” Willie said stubbornly. “I’m leavin’ here today, as soon as I can, in fact. No way I’m staying here all night. No way.”

 

“I’m sure you are aware that we can’t keep you here against your will,” the doctor said stiffly. “But I seriously advise you to listen to me, Mr. Loomis. You’ve bruised your brain. Possibly quite severely. Bruises swell, and in the case of your brain, there is no place for the swollen tissue to go. You could go to sleep tonight and not wake up tomorrow.”

 

“I’ll take the chance,” Willie insisted. “Hey, help me sit up, will ya?  I need to tell Gina I’m okay.”

 

“Nope.” The doctor sounded as though he didn’t believe Willie was going anywhere, whether he wanted to leave the hospital or not. “Sit up on your own, if you think you can. Maybe then you’ll believe me when I say you aren’t fit to be discharged.”

 

Willie grimaced. He was more than a little tempted to flip the doctor a middle-finger salute. So stand there, you son of a bitch, he thought. I can get up on my own if I have to.

 

The awful thing was—he really could. A winter of confrontations with Barnabas Collins had taught Willie that he could do just about anything he had to do if the situation warranted it, and that included moving when he was in severe pain. So he gritted his teeth until his jaw ached with the strain, caught the edges of the gurney with clawed, clammy fingers, and wrenched himself upright in one hard, determined pull.

 

The room caromed downwards like soap on a slide, then settled into something resembling normalcy. Dark stars sparkled in front of his eyes, then dimmed. Willie relaxed his hunched shoulders and took a look around.

 

The room was brighter than it had been. He could see a counter lined with boxes of cotton balls and fat, glass jars of wooden tongue depressors. A metal rack stationed next to his gurney held a clear bottle of fluid that was connected to the tube sticking out of his arm. There was a chair in the corner by the door, presumably for visitors who might come to hold a patient’s hand between procedures. Fluorescent lights flickered at half-power overhead.

 

There was a human figure inhabiting the room now, too. The undulating gray blob had coalesced into a thin, sandy haired man with a frown on his snub-nosed, freckled face.

 

“Jeezum crow,” Willie exclaimed. “Are you even outta medical school?”

 

“Five years and counting.”

 

“You look like Howdy Doody’s little brother.”

 

The frown twitched, then turned into a grudging smile. “You must be feeling better,” the doctor said. “Let’s see you stand up. If you can walk without falling on your face, I’ll consider letting you out of here tonight.”

 

*

 

Whether he could walk straight or not, it seemed it was hospital policy that he had to go out of the building in a wheelchair.

 

Willie worried all the way out to the lobby, wondering how he was going to get back to his truck. The nurse who had taped a protective bandage across his forehead had told him that he’d arrived at the hospital in an ambulance with Gina and Polly riding along. Even if the two of them were still waiting for him—he couldn’t conceive that they would be after seven hours of unrelieved boredom, but say that they were—Gina no longer had reliable transportation of her own. How were any of them going to get back into Collinsport?

 

And who was going to settle the hospital bill?  Huh?

 

Willie rubbed the bridge of his nose again, feeling the hive of bees still buzzing there, but softly, still stunned by the smoke of the doctor’s magical hypodermic. Barnabas was going to find out about all this, there was no way to hide it from him. Willie had no money of his own, but since everyone in town knew he had a job, he could hardly be classified as indigent. Sooner or later the Collinsport General billing department would send him a notice, and then Barnabas would know all about Willie’s misspent afternoon.

 

He looked up as the nurse pushing his chair clattered him through a pair of double doors and into the lobby. He saw Gina Lee right away, standing in the center of the room, staring daggers at something just out of his line of sight.

 

Willie craned his neck so he could see what had Gina so up in arms—and discovered Barnabas’ black shape pausing at the entrance to the reception area, flanked by the brighter, more graceful figure of Victoria Winters. The vampire was glaring back at Gina with a look fully as poisonous as the one she was giving him.

 

“Gina!” Willie squawked. “Gina Lee!”

 

The angry trance shattered. Gina whirled at the sound of Willie’s voice. She rushed to him, kneeling down to take his hand in hers, her fine black brows knitted with concern. The nurse, seeing that her patient had someone waiting for him after all, patted Willie’s shoulder in farewell and went on her way.

 

“Willie, oh hon, are you all right? I’m so glad to see you!”  Gina brushed his hair off his forehead with careful, anxious, fingers. “They’ve bandaged that awful lump. Do you feel any better?  Are you going to be okay?”

 

“I-I’m okay, Gina. Really. I’m sorry if I scared ya, I didn’t mean to, but I banged my head yesterday, y’see, and the doctor said I gave myself a concussion. I. . . .” He stopped, wondering why Gina was looking at him so strangely. “What’s the matter?  Am I bleeding again?” He dabbed at the bandage, but it felt cool and dry beneath his fingertips.

 

Gina glanced meaningfully over her shoulder, at the desk where Barnabas was standing as if asking for directions, watching the two of them conspire without making a move to intervene. For the merest second the vampire’s eyes locked with his manservant’s, and Willie felt a cold, dark shudder move up his spine.

 

God. Who called him?  And what the hell am I going to tell him?

 

Gina squeezed his hand with gentle fingers, keeping up the pressure until Willie broke Barnabas’ stare. “Did you?” she asked softly when he met her eyes. “Did you bang your head, Willie?  Or did something else happen?”

 

“What? I don’t getcha.”  Willie was having a hard time paying attention. His gaze kept wanting to creep back to Barnabas, to see what the vampire might be doing. Right now he was talking to the doctor who had treated Willie in the emergency room, nodding his head at whatever Howdy Doody’s Brother was telling him. But his angry eyes hadn’t left Willie. Not since the moment he had entered the lobby.

 

“The last time I saw you with a bruise on your forehead, you told me you had walked into a door,” Gina said. She never raised her voice, but the tone had hardened, reminding him of the night when she had walked into the Old House mere moments after Barnabas had thrown Willie against a stairway.

 

Willie, are you okay?  Gina, wide-eyed in the darkness of the Old House’s foyer. And Willie, blood slipping between his fingers from his split lip and a bruise glowing on his forehead like a brand, intoning, I walked into a door.

 

I walked into a door. I fell off a ladder. Both excuses sounded equally flat, didn’t they?  Especially considering the history that Gina understood all too well, abused housewife that she had been.

 

“Willie? Did you fall off that ladder the same way you walked into that door?  Because if you did, there is no way you are going home with him. I won’t hear of it.”

 

“N-no!  No, Gina, I’m tellin’ ya. . . .”

 

“Tell me the truth, Willie. Did he?  Did he hurt you again?”

 

Willie flinched at the directness of the question. He’d seen Gina and the kids a handful of times since the holidays, but they had never discussed what had happened in the Old House’s foyer the night Gina’s house had burned down. They’d talked about the house, sure, and the station wagon that had melted into a soft sculpture in the driveway, and the loss of all sorts of personal things that no amount of insurance money could cover. But they had never spoken of Barnabas striking Willie, or of Gina turning her fury on the vampire as a result.

 

They had passed over it. Pretended that it had never happened. Like any other embarrassing moment that friends do not remind each other of, to save each other pain.

 

Now here was Gina, demanding to know if Barnabas had struck Willie again, and assuring him that he would not go home with Barnabas if that was the case because Gina would not allow it.

 

And where, exactly, did she think she could put him, assuming Barnabas let him go? On Anne and Tom Pederson’s living room couch?  She couldn’t. Polly and Daniel were already sleeping there. Eight people crammed into a cottage meant for four.

 

Oh boy.

 

“No, Gina,” Willie said clearly. “I swear to ya. I . . . I swear to ya on the lives of your kids, I fell off a ladder. It was dangerous and stupid and everythin’ like that, but it was my own fault. Nobody else’s. You understand me? My fault.”

 

Cold sweat was eeling down Willie’s back. He hoped he hadn’t just jinxed the children by swearing on their lives like that, but he needed a token strong enough for Gina to believe him. Polly and Daniel and Carla were the most potent good magic he could summon.

 

“I put up a ladder inside the stairwell so I could reach a piece of ceiling molding. I shoulda rigged a scaffold, but I didn’t want to take the time. So I set up the ladder, and when I overbalanced the whole thing came down. Are you hearin’ me, Gina?  That’s what happened. Nothin’ else. Not . . . not what you think. Okay?”

 

He was rushing now, begging her to believe him, because Barnabas was leaving the reception desk and walking over to them with Vicki at his heels. He would be on them at any second. There were witnesses—a nurse, Victoria Winters, other people waiting in the lobby—but that didn’t make Willie feel any better, because there was no telling what Gina might say in front of them all.

 

“Please, Gina. Don’t . . . don’t say anythin’ about it, okay?  Please!”

 

Gina glanced over her shoulder a second time and saw Barnabas bearing down on them, a wolf stalking a pair of rabbits huddled in plain sight. “I promise,” she whispered, and stood up in a rush, so she wouldn’t still be kneeling when Barnabas came up on her blind side.

 

“Well, Willie. I see you decided you were well enough to leave the house after all.”  Barnabas turned a blandly courteous face to Gina and gave her a brief nod. “Mrs. Logan. A pleasure to see you again.”

 

He didn’t sound as if he meant it, so Willie wasn’t surprised when Gina answered in kind. “Likewise, Mr. Collins,” she said, icy barbs bristling from every word.

 

“Will you excuse us, please?  I must make arrangements to transport Willie home.”

 

“I was just discussing that with him myself,” Gina said with a counterfeit smile. Her hand was on Willie’s shoulder, as obviously possessive as she might be with one of her children if confronted with a potentially dangerous stranger.

 

“Um. Gina?  How are you gonna get home?  An’ where’s Polly?” Willie felt he better interject himself into this conversation before Barnabas and Gina killed each other with kindness.

 

Gina looked down at him, her expression immediately warming, and squeezed his shoulder with a compassionate hand. She certainly wasn’t antagonistic towards him. “I called Tom Pederson to fetch Polly right after we got here. He’ll come back and get me when I’m ready to go.”

 

“There’s no need for that!” Victoria Winters exclaimed. “Mrs. Logan, I’m Vicki Winters. I brought Mr. Collins here in my car. We can drop you off at the Pedersons on the way back to Collinwood if you like. It would be no trouble at all.”

 

“That is very nice of you,” Gina said politely, no doubt noticing Barnabas’ faint scowl of displeasure at the notion. “But I wouldn’t want to take you out of your way.”

 

“Oh, but you wouldn’t be!  It’s only a few streets, after all.”

 

“Mrs. Logan has made her own arrangements, Victoria,” Barnabas interrupted, all smooth, courtly charm in which neither woman could take offense. “We mustn’t press her.” He looked down at Willie with hooded eyes, so only his manservant saw the full extent of his master’s displeasure. “But we should be getting Willie home as quickly as possible. He will need rest after his . . . ordeal.”

 

The pause let Willie know that whatever had befallen him this afternoon was nothing compared to what Barnabas had in store for him once they were both safely back at the Old House, where there would be no witnesses that needed cosseting. Willie felt himself shrinking into the farthest corners of the wheelchair and tried to make himself relax. If Gina thought he was afraid to go with Barnabas she would make a scene right there in the lobby in an effort to protect him. He knew that she would.

 

“I . . . I am feelin’ kind of sick,” he mumbled. Nothing but the truth there. “Thanks for comin’ to get me, Vicki. I guess we better get goin’.”

 

“It was no trouble, Willie,” Victoria smiled, the only genuinely gracious person in this uncomfortable quartet. “I hope you’re feeling better soon.”

 

“Yeah.” He started to stand up, but the wheelchair tried to scoot out from under him and he had to sit down quick to keep from landing on his butt on the floor. “Um.”

 

“Stay where you are,” Gina said. “You aren’t supposed to get out of the chair until you’re ready to get into a car, remember?  I’ll push you that far.”

 

Willie glanced up at Barnabas for a hint at what response he should make, but he saw nothing in the vampire’s face but disdain for his servant’s weakness. “Uh. Okay,” he muttered, dropping his eyes back o his hands, white-knuckled around the wheelchair’s armrests. “Th-thanks, Gina.”

 

“I’ll go get the car and meet you in front of the doors,” Victoria said.

 

“That would be very kind of you, Victoria,” Barnabas said. “Perhaps I had best accompany you. It is very dark outside.”

 

“All right, Barnabas.”

 

Only when Victoria and Barnabas were safely out of the lobby did Willie relax enough to realize that Gina’s fingers were digging into his shoulder as fiercely as his own were clutching the armrests. The only difference was, he could feel it, while the wheelchair couldn’t. He reached up and covered Gina’s hand in his, a gentle reminder for her to let him go.

 

“Oh! I’m sorry, Willie. I didn’t realize I had hold of you so tight.”  She rubbed his shoulder apologetically, kneading away the indentations her fingers had left in his skin after boring through the double layers of his pullover and nylon jacket.

 

“‘T’s okay,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt.”

 

“Willie,” Gina said, leaning over him once more so she could speak quietly enough that only he might hear her. “Are you sure you want to go with them?  I can call Tom Pederson.”

 

“No. You don’t have to do that, Gina. It’s all right. Really. It’s all right.”

 

She slipped around to the front of the chair so she could kneel in front of him again, searching his battered face as a worried mother might for any sign of fear or pain. Willie made himself look unflinchingly back at her. He even managed a sickly grin—his thanks for her protectiveness of him. “It’ll be okay, Gina,” he said. “I just need to go to bed, is all. My head still hurts. Ya know?”

 

“All right, Willie,” Gina said, finally standing up so she could take the wheelchair’s rubber push-grips in her hands. “If you say so. But if you need me you better find a way to call me. I’ll never forgive you if you don’t.”

 

*

 

Willie clumped up the Old House’s front steps with his heart leaping like a frost-crazed cricket in his throat. He fully expected Barnabas to order him to the kitchen the moment he cleared the doorway.

 

But Barnabas only slipped his Inverness from his broad, black-suited shoulders and looped the heavy cape onto the appropriate hook on the coat rack. He ignored his servant completely until Willie, afraid to move any farther without explicit orders, cleared his throat.

 

“Um . . . Barnabas?”

 

“Don’t,” Barnabas said without turning around. “Do not speak to me now. I am angry enough with you as it is. Go to bed. I will deal with you tomorrow evening.”

 

Willie nodded, gulping. The drug the doctor had given him at the hospital was wearing off. He had a pocketful of prescriptions for more painkiller, an anti­emetic to ease his stomach, and an antibiotic ointment for the scrape across his forehead, but he had been afraid to mention the scripts in the car. He had been pretty sure his so-called employer would never consent to stop at the pharmacy and get them filled, no matter what Vicki might think of the refusal. The trip up the winding coastal road had been painfully silent as it was, except for a comment or two from the young woman, who had probably assumed that they were all being so quiet in deference to Willie’s aching head.

 

Maybe it was the fresh seep of pain beneath his temples that made him crazy enough to whisper, “You never said not to leave the house.”  But he did it, regretting it the moment Barnabas wheeled on him. The vampire’s undead eyes were incredulous at his servant’s insistence on arguing with him, so hard upon the heels of all else Willie had done wrong that day.

 

“I told you to stay in bed until you could keep your feet,” Barnabas snarled. “Is that not plain enough for you?  Must I make every instruction as elementary as I might to one of Gina Logan’s brats?”

 

“But. . . .”

 

“Go to bed, Willie. I promise you, if you try me now, that bruise on your forehead will be the least of your pains. Go to bed!”

 

Willie went, edging between Barnabas and the newel post to reach the first riser of the stairway. He pulled himself upstairs as quickly as his trembling legs would carry him, glancing back every few steps to make sure that Barnabas had not changed his mind in favor of swift pursuit.

 

His bedroom door slammed shut behind him. Willie leaned against it, shaking and sweating as if with fever. The pain that had eased in the hospital was back full force now, pounding in his head with the same frightened tattoo that his feet had drummed on the risers on the way up the stairs. He pressed the heel of his palm hard against one eye as if to keep the orb from exploding into space, and felt the first hot tear slip down his cheek.

 

*

 

Willie didn’t dare go to sleep, at first because he interpreted every nocturnal creak and groan reverberating through the house as Barnabas coming to get him, and later because he was afraid that the emergency room doctor’s fatalistic warning might come to pass.

 

He said you could go to sleep and never wake up. And you might, too. What do you know about concussions? Nothin’ but they make your head hurt and your stomach turn all trembley. That and drop you on the floor when you least expect it.

 

But I couldn’t stay in the hospital. I couldn’t. And I couldn’t go with Gina, either. The only thing I could do was come back here.

 

The matter-of-factness of the thought made him claustrophobic. God, he wished he could have gone home with Gina, even knowing that he wasn’t totally welcome at the Pedersons’ house, and that one more person shoved into their tiny working class cottage would make the whole place pop at the seams. It would’ve been nice to wake up to the prospect of a baby dribbling fruit juice on his shirtfront rather than an angry vampire looming over his bed.

 

Willie opened the bedroom window, trying to dispel the sick, trapped feeling that had him pacing the room, but it wasn’t enough. He finally shed his pajama bottoms in favor of his jeans and slipped his jacket over his t-shirt so he could sneak down the stairs to the kitchen. He wasn’t planning to eat—the cupboards were still bare, thanks to his botched grocery run—but he thought a moment on the back porch might help calm him down. He could catch his breath out there. Stare up at the stars. Try to think about what he would say to Barnabas when the vampire finally decided it was time to ‘deal with him,’ whatever that meant.

 

You know what that means, he corrected himself with a shiver. What it always means. You didn’t mean to disobey him, but you did. There’s only one answer to that in Barnabas’ mind.

 

Let’s hope he settles for you instead of going after. . . .

 

Oh my god. Gina!

 

Willie’s fingers closed on the stairway banister in a convulsive grip so sudden that his palm made a squeaking noise when it collided with the wood. He made himself freeze on the second-story landing, breathing in soft, easy breaths so he could hear what was going on in the house around him. He had not forgotten his bargain with Barnabas—that Willie would obey his master absolutely in return for Gina’s continued safety—but in the pain-driven flurry of his topsy-turvy afternoon he had not considered the possibility that Barnabas might interpret Willie’s going into town not merely as an inconvenience, but as an intentional rebellion, no matter how small.

 

If he took it that way, the deal’s off. He’ll go after Gina.

 

I gotta stop him!

 

No.

 

Just stand here, fool. Breathe. And listen.

 

At first he could hear nothing but his own panicked heartbeat.

 

Then the sounds of the house began to filter through the drumming: the settling of the dusty floorboards beneath his feet; the tumble of fire-cracked logs rearranging the embers in the parlor fireplace; the creaking of the attic rafters as the house leaned into the wind.

 

And there. Hear that? On the second floor, the same floor whose landing he now stood upon—the same landing he had fallen from only the day before. Footsteps. A whisper of something solid lifted into thin air. And the clear, sweet tinkle of a music box.

 

Barnabas was still in the house, haunting Josette’s room as the vampire so often did this late in the evening. He hadn’t gone after Gina. At least not tonight.

 

Willie let out his breath and continued silently down the stairs. He would have to keep track of Barnabas until he was certain of his master’s intentions. Surely he wouldn’t hurt Gina for something as stupid as Willie passing out in a grocery store. It had been an accident, not a deliberate disobedience on Willie’s part at all. Willie had to make Barnabas see that as soon as the vampire was willing to talk to him.

 

Don’t push it. He’ll tell ya when he’s ready. Until then you’ll just set him off.

 

The doorknob that led onto the back porch was frigid beneath his hand. Warned of the potential for frost, Willie stepped out into the open air and sucked a deep, icy breath into the dustiest recesses of his lungs. The panicky feeling he’d been fleeing all evening began to slip mercifully away, taking with it the cobwebs of headache that had plagued him that afternoon.

 

That’s better. Man, but I needed that.

 

He walked across the water-warped plankings and found the ratty old chair he kept meaning to take to the dump. It was on the far end of the porch, just in front of the woodpile—a decrepit jumble of wicker that wasn’t worth the effort it would take to restore. Willie sat down in the sagging seat and kicked his feet out in front of him, stuffing his hands into his pockets to protect them from the chill. It was too cold out here for him to sit for very long, but it was nice while it lasted. Stars winked above him, as bright and as crisp as the spangles of frost in the grass below him, mirror images of ice on ice. A full moon made it almost as bright on the porch as it had been in his bedroom with the candles burning.

 

Wonder what happened to my groceries? he thought, feeling his stomach knead and turn in his belly like a restless cat searching for a snug place to sleep. I put ’em on the floor, didn’t I? Someone must have put them back on the shelves by now. Ah, well. I’m not really hungry anyway. Or very sick, either. The stuff that doctor gave me through that needle stuck in my arm must’ve helped.

 

Speakin’ o’ which. What else did he give me? Willie fingered the slips of paper in his pocket, promises of an easy stomach and peaceful repose. Doesn’t matter, I guess. There’s aspirin in the kitchen, even if there’s nothin’ else. I can get one on my way back to. . . .

 

“Does your head still pain you so very much, then, that you must come out here to clear it?”

 

Willie sat up so quickly he almost fell through the crumbling seat of his chair. A small needle of pain, no bigger than a carpet tack, slid into his temple and began to throb.

 

“N-no, I. . . .”

 

“Come inside. As long as you are awake, I have something to say to you.”

 

Willie scrambled up, following Barnabas into the kitchen in spite of his reluctance to join his master there. If Barnabas thought Willie had suddenly turned disobedient, Willie wanted to make sure that the vampire understood that nothing had changed. Willie would still snap to whatever job Barnabas set him on, even if it was something as simple as walking into the house when he was ordered to do so.

 

“Yeah, Barnabas?”

 

“Close the door.”

 

Willie did, again with more alacrity than such a simple instruction warranted. The renewed headache was stabbing him in the forehead, reminding him of the carelessness that had landed him in this mess in the first place. Saving a couple of hours by rigging a ladder instead of the more prudent scaffolding was turning out to be a pretty rotten deal as far as shortcuts went.

 

“Are you steady on your feet?  If you aren’t, then pray have the sense to sit down.”

 

“No, I’m . . . I’m okay.”  Willie pressed the door against his back, just to be sure he didn’t make himself out a liar. “I’m fine.”

 

“Then tell me, if you will, what you were doing in the village the day after you nearly caved in your skull through your own stupidity?  I thought I told you to stay in bed until you could keep your feet.”

 

“Y-you did. And I did, Barnabas, I swear I did. I thought I was gonna be wobbly too, when I first got up, but I didn’t feel bad, not bad at all. Just really hungry. And when I got downstairs there was nothin’ in the cabinets, so I thought. . . .”

 

He slowed the tumble of words, trying to make sure that Barnabas understood him. That the vampire was absolutely clear on the fact that no disobedience had been intended or committed.

 

“I thought I would go into town and get breakfast,” Willie explained, more coherently. “I was okay until then, Barnabas, honest I was, I didn’t feel sick until after I ate. And even then it went away in a few minutes. I thought I was okay or I would never have gone into the store. I would have come straight back to the house. I know I should have, I’m sorry I didn’t, but. . . .”

 

“How does Gina Logan fit into all this?”

 

“She was in the grocery, is all, Barnabas, she was shoppin’ with Polly and I ran into them right before I . . . right before I . . . I passed out.”  He was fumbling this, he was speeding up again, he knew he was, but he was so anxious to get Gina out of the equation that he couldn’t talk fast enough. “She must’ve had the store manager call an ambulance ’cause I woke up in the hospital”—a whole new set of problems, he saw, by Barnabas’ sharpening glare—”but they didn’t see anything, Barnabas, they didn’t see anything but this bump on my head, I swear, all the doctor said was I’d given myself a concussion. That’s all. He never got a chance to see anythin’ else.”

 

“You are sure of that.”

 

Willie nodded a bit hysterically. “Yeah, I’m sure. Absolutely sure.”

 

“No . . . blood tests?”

 

Willie froze. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of that before. Of course that would be the one question that would concern Barnabas the most. Not scars that might be explained away as part of Willie’s rough and tumble past, but a blood test that would reveal a far more enduring problem.

 

Willie’s mortal bloodstream boiled with a colony of strange, predatory cells—cells the vampire’s fangs had injected into Willie’s system the first time Barnabas had stolen a young thief’s blood the previous autumn. Barnabas had gone through no end of trouble to make sure that the medical community in Collinsport believed that Willie was cured of whatever mysterious ailment had afflicted him before he came into the Collins’ family employ.

 

But if the doctor at the hospital had taken a fresh sample without his patient’s knowledge and had happened to look at it under a microscope, all of Barnabas’ careful planning was essentially cancelled. Willie was in much deeper trouble than he had originally thought.

 

“N-no,” he said, his denial fractured with tremors of uncertainty. “N-no. No tests.”

 

“Really.”  Barnabas raised an eyebrow, clearly skeptical. “You do not sound so certain of that, now do you, Willie?  Not certain at all.”

 

No. He wasn’t. But he couldn’t say that, could he? Barnabas would kill him for being so incredibly, so needlessly careless. Then all the vampire would have to say was that Willie had abruptly withdrawn from the Collins’ payroll and left town late one night. Willie could hear it now. Blow to the head must have addled him, don’t you know. He was certainly acting strangely. . . .

 

“I . . . I am certain,” Willie said, striving for surety in his tone even if he couldn’t bring himself to meet Barnabas’ midnight eyes. “I’d have marks on my arms if they’d’ve done that. I don’t, except for the one in my elbow where they stuck in an I.V.”

 

“An I.V.?”

 

Willie shrugged. Realized the gesture showed Barnabas exactly how hard his servant’s hands were trembling, and dropped his arms again, locking his fingers in front of him. “I don’t know what it means. It’s a bottle full of medicine. They feed it into ya through a tube with a needle on the end.”

 

Barnabas let that concept sink in for a moment. Willie didn’t think it appealed to him much. It was too close to reverse vampirism, maybe.

 

“Let me see your arms,” Barnabas said at last.

 

“Wh-what?”

 

“You heard me.”

 

Willie heard him, all right, but for a handful of breaths he couldn’t bring himself to move. “But, Barnabas, I told ya, there’s. . . .”

 

“If you persist in refusing, Willie, I will have no choice but to believe that you have something to hide,” Barnabas pointed out. His manner was perfectly reasonable, but with an edge to it, as though he was telling his servant Keep arguing. See what happens.

 

Which, Willie knew, was exactly the message the vampire meant to convey.

 

The cuffs of Willie’s inexpensive windbreaker were nothing but cinched elastic sewn beneath a double layer of nylon. He wore nothing but a short-sleeved cotton t-shirt underneath. Fingers trembling with dread, he worked the right coat-sleeve up, opposite of the arm he expected to have marks, if either of them did. His left hand was quivering so badly that he couldn’t get the slick material to slide up in one smooth line. He had to yank on the elastic cuff to get it over his elbow. Once he had it there he let it go, eeling the band tighten around his upper arm like a tourniquet.

 

He turned his inner arm to shine in the candlelight glowing from the candelabra on the mantle. But he kept his eyes on Barnabas’ hands, not on his own smooth, pale flesh that rose in a sloped line from his cocked wrist. He didn’t want to see if there were any telltale marks on his arm. He would know fast enough if Barnabas grabbed for him.

 

But. . . .

 

“And the other one? Is it also unmarked?”

 

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

 

“That’s the one they stuck with the I.V. It’s gonna have a hole in it. A big one.”

 

“Could the doctor not have taken blood through this . . . contraption you describe?”

 

“No. It’s meant to put stuff in you, not take blood out. I’m sure about that much.”

 

He must have sounded it, because Barnabas didn’t demand to see for himself. Willie took another breath and rolled down the sleeve of his jacket, snapping the cuff back in place around his wrist. His sweat-dampened fingers left dark smudges on the light, oily nylon.

 

“And Mrs. Logan staying at the hospital, waiting for you. What of that?” That was like Barnabas. Entirely like him, to abandon one topic to pursue another in quick succession, just to see if he could trap Willie in a lie. “I understand she was there for more than six hours. Surely she had better things to do in all that time.”

 

A tiny flash of anger flared like a sunspot in Willie’s heart, but he swallowed hard to put it out. After the tension surrounding the blood sample, he was considerably more on edge than he had been when he had first entered the kitchen. But he couldn’t let Barnabas see that. The vampire would only use his servant’s own nervousness against him.

 

Still, Willie couldn’t help the fiery sparks of resentment he knew must be glowing in his eyes. Why wouldn’t she wait?  She’s my friend, isn’t she? he growled, mentally if never aloud. Never mind that Willie himself had wondered at Gina’s insistence on sticking around for him, when she probably had all kinds of things she would rather be doing.

 

“She doesn’t have a car, remember?” he said flatly, rather than voicing the more rebellious thoughts burning in his breast. “She didn’t have a way home.”

 

“Really, Willie. Do you take me for a fool?  Mrs. Logan herself said that she called her host, Tom Pederson, to retrieve her daughter. She could have left then. Why didn’t she?”

 

“She . . . um . . . wanted to make sure I was all right, I guess.”

 

“And what did you tell her?”

 

“What?”

 

“What did you tell her?”

 

Willie flinched back against the door, any internal trace of rebellion evaporating into fear as he finally understood what Barnabas wanted of him. “I told her the truth,” he gasped. “I . . . I told her I fell off a ladder. And bumped my head. But I’m fine.”

 

“And she believed you?”

 

“Yeah. I know she did. I told ya, I told her the truth.”

 

“How fortunate for her,” the vampire said. “A pity you do not often employ that virtue here, where it would most profit you.”

 

Willie had nothing to say to that, so he kept his mouth shut. His gut was trembling with renewed adrenaline, his hands shuffling back and forth in his pockets, looking for something to hold. He was only vaguely aware when a drift of displaced papers seesawed their way down to his shoes.

 

“You have dropped something,” Barnabas said.

 

Willie looked down at the litter of prescriptions he had inadvertently dragged out of his jacket. He bent down and scooped them up, stuffing them back where they had come from. “It’s nothin’,” he muttered.

 

Barnabas cocked an eyebrow. “Nothing?  Those did not appear to be receipts. Nor any of the instructions I have most recently left for you. So what exactly are they?”

 

“Um. Prescriptions,” Willie mumbled.

 

“I beg your pardon?  Do you mean instructions to an apothecary?”

 

Willie stared at him blankly, his fear temporarily forgotten in the confusion of the unfamiliar word.

 

“Apothecary?”

 

“A chemist, then.”

 

“Do you mean a pharmacist?”

 

“Yes, if that is term you prefer to use,” Barnabas snapped impatiently. He had not, it seemed, entirely forgiven Willie for winding up at the hospital in the first place. He held out a hand, demanding the papers that Willie had not offered him. “Let me see them, if you please.”

 

What the hell. Willie snagged the prescriptions out in one papery jumble and handed them over.

 

“Do you know what medicinal preparations this scribble may represent?” Barnabas asked, looking over the doctor’s scrawl with a disapproving eye. The vampire’s own copperplate was so perfect that even Willie could decipher the often unfamiliar words.

 

“The doc said some of it was painkiller. Somethin’ else is so I can eat without . . . without being sick.”  He had almost used a cruder term, but fortunately thought better of it. “There’s some antibiotic stuff to put on the scrape, too.”

 

“And this last one?”

 

“It’s supposed to get me back in the emergency room in a coupla days so the doc can look at me again.”

 

“When were you planning to mention this?  Or did you intend to go without informing me?”

 

“I didn’t plan to go at all,” Willie said, more sharply than was wise. But then, he was tired of Barnabas hectoring him. His head ached, and he was fervently wishing that he had ignored his need for air and stayed safe upstairs in bed. “I didn’t plan to go to the hospital in the first place. It was an accident. If I’d woken up in the store before the ambulance got there I wouldn’t have let anyone take me in. I wouldn’t’ve seen the doctor, I would’ve come back here.”

 

“But you did see him, and according to this . . . prescription. . . .” Barnabas pronounced the modern word as though every syllable personally offended him,” he expects you to come back.”

 

“Yeah, so? That doesn’t mean I have to go.”

 

Barnabas’ eyes narrowed. “Are you becoming flippant with me, Willie?”

 

“Wh-what?  No!”  That was the last thing he wanted. He had meant to show Barnabas how obedient he was, and here he was mouthing off and putting Gina in danger again. It was his fear, his exhaustion, his pain overwhelming him. That was all. But if he wasn’t careful, that would be more than enough to get Gina or her family killed. “No, I’m sorry, Barnabas,” he said more quietly, more contritely. “I didn’t mean to sound out o’ line.”

 

“Then stop arguing. If you feel as well as you say you do, you will walk to the village tomorrow morning and present these prescriptions wherever they might be filled. If you feel you are not capable of that, say so now and I will make arrangements for you to have them by tomorrow night.”

 

“N-no. I can make it. I have to pick up the truck anyway.”

 

“That can wait as well if it means risking another melodrama such as the village witnessed this afternoon,” Barnabas said. “I do not expect you to take foolhardy chances, Willie. This doctor apparently believes you have done yourself a serious injury. If that is the case, I would prefer you take the time to heal rather than go about fainting at inopportune moments. You are of no use to me if you are not reliable, do you understand?”

 

A fresh chill affixed itself to the bottom of Willie’s spine to send tendrils of Goosebumps rippling up his ribcage. “I . . . I understand, Barnabas,” he whispered. The threat was in no way veiled and had been voiced to him before. “I’ll be careful.”

 

“You will see this doctor at the appointed time because I wish it,” Barnabas continued. “You will take whatever medications he prescribes for you. Furthermore, you will take two days off from your restoration work in the Old House. You will tend to your regular chores, of course, but I do not want to be inconvenienced any further, so you will do as you are told. Is that clear?”

 

“Yes, Barnabas.”

 

“Then go back to bed. It is nearly dawn. You’ve little enough sleep ahead of you if you mean to walk to the village in the morning.”

 

Willie nodded. “Okay. ‘M going.”

 

He didn’t move, though. He still had something he wanted to ask, if only Barnabas would permit it.

 

“Well?” the vampire demanded after an uncomfortable moment. “Is there something preventing you?”

 

“I . . . um. . . .”  Oh, the heck with it, Willie, just come out with it already. “Barnabas?  Who . . . um . . . called you this afternoon?  I mean, who told ya I was at the hospital?”

 

Barnabas smiled at him. The cold, grim smile that showed no teeth, but which still managed to reveal all of the vampire’s cunning nature. “I have my sources, Willie,” he said. “You would do well to remember that. Now. Go to bed.”

 

*

 

Victoria told him, Willie thought, stumping along the coastal road in the first frost of dawn. She must’ve been in town when it happened, and she heard about it, and when Barnabas rose she went to the Old House and told him.

 

Except Vicki didn’t know when Barnabas would rise. She didn’t know her favorite historian was a vampire.

 

But she knows he’s never around till after dark. She would’ve waited till then no matter what. And she’s so nice. She prob’ly offered him a ride into town right then and there. That would be like her. Even if she had plans to go out with Burke or somethin’, she would have put ’em off if she thought she could help.

 

That had to be it, he decided. But he didn’t intend to ask Vicki if he was right. Because what if she said no? That meant that Barnabas really did have sources that Willie didn’t know about. And how scary a thought was that?

 

Vicki told him, he insisted to himself again. Or one of the nurses recognized the name and called Collinwood to leave a message. In which case, Vicki’s the one who answered the phone. Either way, it’s Vicki that told him. Sure. That’s it. I’m sure that’s the way it went.

 

Only he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure at all.

 

The pinwheel of thoughts that went nowhere was spinning a fresh headache behind the lump on his brow. Willie blinked rapidly to ward off the pain before it had a chance to get established. He was not fainting in town today, no matter what else happened. He’d been damned lucky that Barnabas hadn’t punished him for the furor he’d caused the first time around. Lucky, because Willie had been sure that some awful recompense was due, not only because he had embarrassed Barnabas in public, but because Gina Lee Logan had been involved.

 

Gina always put Barnabas on edge, but because of Willie, the vampire had been forced to meet with her again—and in front of witnesses, no less, where he couldn’t afford to be anything short of polite. That had to be worth a whipping from Barnabas’ point of view, even in the fragile condition Willie had been in the night before.

 

But Barnabas, acting from whatever mysterious reasons the vampire ever did, had decided to let it go. Had ordered Willie to bed. Had ordered him to go to a doctor, for heavens sake, when Barnabas was usually obsessive about keeping Willie as far away from medics as possible. He hadn’t even bothered to warn Willie not to permit a blood test, though perhaps he knew Willie understood that rule without being told.

 

Why had he done it?  Willie didn’t know. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to ask, just in case Barnabas decided a punishment was in order after all.

 

No. Willie was not going to tempt fate to have another go at him where concussions and their side effects were concerned. He was going into town. He was getting his prescriptions filled the minute the drug store opened. He was retrieving the truck. And he was going back to the Old House. No side trips. No grocery runs. No nothing. He could make due until he was sure he was okay, maybe buy a package of candy in the drug store to tide him over. It wasn’t like he hadn’t gone hungry before. This morning’s breakfast had been nothing more than weak tea, and he was getting along all right, wasn’t he?

 

He was so intent on putting one foot in front of the other that he didn’t realize that a car had stopped in front of him until he heard the rear door pop open. A second later he was almost bowled off his feet by a midget linebacker that hit him square across the knees.

 

“Willie!” Polly screeched. She was dancing all around him on the embankment, grabbing his hands to spin him around with her. Willie grinned and let her do it, only moving left or right when it was apparent his toes were in danger.

 

“Polly Marie, you get back in this car this instant!” Gina was stepping out of the passenger side of Tom Pederson’s wagon at the same moment she was struggling to stop Daniel from leaping from the vehicle to join his sister. She finally hefted the little boy onto her hip and started walking toward Willie, apparently deciding it was the easiest way to get her children out of the road before a car came along.

 

“Hey, Gina,” Willie said. He transferred his grin from Polly to her mother, happy to be able to give his friends a smile that wasn’t fogged with tension or pain. “Whatcha doin’ out so early?”

 

“Rounding up wild Indians,” Gina smiled back. “Polly, stop doing a rain dance on Willie’s toes. You’re going to hurt him.”

 

“No, she isn’t,” Willie said. Polly leaned against his knees and he hugged her to him, ruffling her hair with one hand. “How ya doin’, chief?”

 

“Willie, what happened to you?  You were talkin’ to us one minute and then BAM!”  Polly smacked her fist into her palm. “Down you went. You aren’t gonna do that again, are you?”

 

“No, sweetheart. I’m fine now. Did your mom tell ya what happened?”  He glanced up at Gina. Is it okay to talk about this? Gina nodded at him, and Willie smiled, relieved.

 

“Momma said you hit your head. That’s why you had that bruise, right?  Hey, you bandaged it!”  Polly sounded disappointed. “Danny didn’t get to see,” she said, as though she had been looking forward to showing her brother a five-legged frog or some other oddity of nature. “Will you show him?  Huh, Willie?  Will ya?”

 

“Danny doesn’t need to see anything of a sort,” Gina reproved. “Now give Willie a hug and go get back in the car. You scared Mr. Pederson half to death when you jumped out like that. You know better, Polly.”

 

“I waited till he stopped,” Polly protested. “Honest, I did. You saw me, didn’t you, Willie?”

 

“No, darlin’, I didn’t. You gotta be careful on roads, you’ll get hurt, you know. And then what would ol’ Willie do, huh?”  He gave her a quick hug. “Go on, now. I gotta talk to your mom.”

 

Polly went, dragging her feet through the frosty grass as though burdened by her mother’s unreasonable demands. But as she reached the side of the car she turned back and smiled at Willie, gave him a wave, and hopped into the back seat as though it was perfectly normal for her mother to be standing on an embankment talking to a man while flags of dead weeds and roadside litter fluttered around their ankles.

 

Hope Tom Pederson feels the same, Willie thought, seeing the big man’s bulky shadow waiting patiently behind the wheel. I doubt it, though.

 

“What am I going to do with her,” Gina said. Not a question, but a simple declaration of exasperation. She settled Daniel more comfortably on her hip. “She sees you and she takes off, every time.”

 

“Lucky there aren’t many cars out here,” Willie said seriously. “We gotta put some brakes on that kid, Gina Lee. That’s the second . . . no, the third time . . . she’s bounced into the road like that. . . .”  He stopped, suddenly realizing that he had spoken as though he had some authority over the child, when in reality he had none except the fragile bonds of friendship. “I mean,” he stammered, “um. . . .”

 

“It’s all right, Willie,” Gina soothed him. “I know what you meant, and I agree with you. Maybe you could talk to her. She’ll listen to you, you know.”

 

Danny chose that moment to reach out a questioning hand to Willie, as though rescuing him from an awkward situation—man to man.

 

“Bump,” he said, opening and closing his small fist in the direction of Willie’s forehead.

 

Willie offered a finger and Danny closed all five of his around it; clean, smooth child fingers hiding the tool-nicked skin and bitten nail of the adult’s. “Bump,” Willie said back. “It was a bump, all right. But it’s okay, Danny. Get it? Everything’s okay.”

 

“Is it?” Gina asked softly.

 

Willie looked up and met her eyes, the same beautiful black friar plum eyes that Polly had, only set in an older, more careworn face. “Yeah, Gina,” he said steadily, remembering that there was a child between them, listening, maybe reading undercurrents that Willie and Gina meant to hide. “It’s all right. Nothin’ to worry about. It’s all just fine. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Gina said.

 

And that, Willie thought, was that. She had decided to believe him. Not to question him any further unless he brought the matter up himself. Willie smiled tentatively, making sure of the gift, and Gina nodded understanding. It was true, then. Gina might worry about him, but she wouldn’t interfere in this matter unless Willie asked her to—and he would never, ever do that, because for once there was nothing to tell.

 

“Can we give you a lift somewhere?” she asked.

 

“Um. To the drug store?  If Mr. Pederson won’t mind. Is there room?”

 

“In that monster of a wagon of his?  Of course there is.” Gina put her hand on Willie’s elbow and started leaning him towards the car. “And don’t you worry about Tom Pederson. He’s a big old bear, but he’s just as sweet as Anne. Trust me. You’ll see.”

 

Willie shoved his hands into his pockets and walked alongside her, steady on the stone-pocked ground, easy in the company of the woman and the child. “If you say so, Gina,” he said. “If you say so.”

 

It was good to have a friend.