Some days, Lila thinks she will never be able to wash the smell off her hands.
She's imagining it, of course. After death, Mrs. Norma Bates had been treated with every chemical and preservative in the local funeral director's standard supply along with everything Norman could add to mummify her slowly crumbling corpse. Lila smelled nothing when she entered the Bates home, and she would have recognized the scent of death. When her father died, passing away in the middle of a muggy summer which ripened everything to rotten at the speed of racing lightning, their house stank for days, her and Marion bolting from one room to the next on their mother's tear-choked orders. She and Marion scurried around the house, opening windows and switching on fans, spritzing perfumes on pillows and trying not to breath through their small freckled noses.
The Bates house smelled of nothing, not even the stale musk abandoned buildings soak up like sponges. There was a void in the house, in the fruit cellar, in the space in Norman's head where Norman used to live.
But there was no smell.
Even as Lila washes her hands, scrubbing them constantly in the music store's bathroom throughout the workday, she knows what no one else will say. She's imagining it. She's remembering it in the Bates home because the Bates home's in her head now, right next door to a squat white home with all its windows yanked open and a sick old farmer lying dead in the bedroom.
Yet still, she washes.
On the phone, Sam says his ex-wife is getting remarried.
“It's a spur-of-the-moment thing,” he says, sounding as close to chipper as either of them as managed in months. “I should be able to save up first and last month's rent in a couple of months.”
“That's wonderful, Sam,” Lila says. Her voice comes out flat, dead and pale and floating in the air like a lead weight.
Sam doesn't seem to notice. “I've already found a decent place not far from the hardware store. It's not bad. Marion would have liked it, I think. There's a park across the street and the view from the window should be beautiful in the spring.”
Sam keeps talking about this mythical apartment, this magical castle that he and Marion were supposed to invade and conquer with their cheerful kisses and matching wedding bands. Lila twists the phone cord around her fingers, twirling it until the spiral collapses and snags. In Sam's vaunted apartment, birds are probably singing from the windowsill while mice dance and scamper in anticipation of a new arrival. At the Crane residence, she is the only one left, and the ghosts are the only ones who will sing her to sleep or tuck her in at night.
“Lila? You still there?”
Lila jolts back to the conversation and blurts out, “Yes, Sam. I'm still here.”
Her photo is in all of the papers in Phoenix. Norman Bates has taken over the headlines in the Southwest just as surely as his mother has taken over his fragile mind, and Marion's name is a buzzword which flits through the air like eager bees in summer. The news snatches up any crumb it can related to the story, from the lousy photo Arbogast used to ask around about Marion to interviews with a naturalist about what the black muck Bates drove Marion's car into would have done to the evidence, the body, Lila's poor impetuous sister.
But it's her own photo which causes Lila the most trouble. That damnable photo of her outside the courtroom, one of the few days she was allowed off of work to represent Marion's past, and also one of the few days Sam was there to represent her future.
The defense argued for Norman Bates to be sent to a mental institution, but the state still struggled valiantly to ship him off to prison. If Mrs. Bates was all that left of his mind, they argued, and Mrs. Bates knew enough to cover up her crimes, then Mrs. Bates wasn't any more insane than you or I.
The debates were fast and furious, a crescendo of enthusiastic attorneys going at one another like champions in a dog-fighting match. At one point, Lila stepped away, going outside for fresh air, and when she was alone she closed her eyes and wished desperately she had her hands around Norman Bates's neck and clenched her fists until her fingers screamed in pain.
That must have been when someone snapped the photo – when she was unsettled and heartbroken and unapologetically vicious. Even now, even after everyone's seen her moment of weakness, she can't bring herself to feel shame.
Still, no one ever feels too ashamed to bring it up.
“Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?” Mr. Clemens asks.
Lila forces a tight smile and closes the clarinet case. Mr. Clemens is in the shop to buy the clarinet for his daughter, a bright-eyed little girl with fat persistent ringlets who tries out every instrument she can get her hands on. Thankfully, she has more success at them than most customers in the music shop. As Mr. Clemens crosses his arms over his broad chest and stares her down, Theresa stands on tiptoes in front of the piano lightly plunking out a tune Lila doesn't recognize. It's so very tempting to step away from Mr. Clemens and cross the store to Theresa's side, ask her about her favorite musicians or what she plans to be when she grows up. Anything at all except for plunging into the same tiresome conversation.
“I don't think so, Mr. Clemens,” Lila says.
“No, I'm sure I do,” he barks, then leans forward to analyze her like a curious kitten inspecting its first solid meal. “Ain't you that girl whose sister was murdered by that crazy guy who thinks he's his mother?”
Something creaks in the office, and Lila can picture Mr. Smythe in his office behind her, leaning back in his wheeled chair to peer out and watch for Mr. Clemens to overstep his bounds. One thing Lila gives thanks for is Mr. Smythe's protective streak during this difficult time. Not that she needs him to scare off anyone with more spine than sympathy, but the thought counts.
“I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about,” Lila says, her words thick and sweet like hot maple syrup, “but perhaps you shouldn't watch so many scary movies.”
It's a gamble, of course, one Lila doesn't attempt very often. Playing dumb can sometimes end with the other person arguing back or – worse yet – whipping out a copy of the newspaper. This time, luckily, after a long moment of studying her features for any sort of subterfuge, Mr. Clemens's narrowed eyes widen as he chuckles. “Yeah, maybe I shouldn't,” he says, and pulls out his billfold.
A freshly cut newspaper clipping sticks out of one of the wallet's weathered pockets, and Lila fights not to flinch when she sees it.
When Thanksgiving rolls around, Lila debates how to celebrate. Family friends invite her over – even Mr. Smythe offers to set a plate – but Lila simply isn't feeling social. She could have Sam over, she supposes, split a turkey and send him back to Fairvale with enough leftovers to choke a horse.
Instead, she gets in her car on Wednesday afternoon, turns over the engine, and drives.
It's far too warm, eighty degrees and not a cloud in the sky, nothing on the horizon promising to burn away the heat or dampen the dry air. Lila's gloved hands tighten on the steering wheel. She didn't have a destination in mine when she slid in the driver's seat, but she heads west without thinking, and after hours of pushing herself toward California in a troubled sort of trance her destination dawns on her in a flash.
Lila should stop. She should double-back. She should drive home straight away, go back to that tomb of a home, and eat a tidy turkey sandwich in front of the warm smiles of her dead mother and murdered sister, watching her always from the mantelpiece.
But she keeps going, keeps driving onward. There's a metaphor for my life if there ever was one, she thinks, wringing a wry smile from her lips unbidden and unwanted.
Outside of Fairvale, a scorched wreck stands as Marion's first tombstone.
Lila exits her car slowly, as though a part of her is afraid what's left of the Bates home and its pathetic excuse for a motel will disintegrate before her eyes. She steps in light deliberate movements – right, left, right, light – and thinks, No sudden movements now.
There have been so many rumors recently – that Bates killed someone in prison with a sharpened spoon, that he only answered to Norma Bates now, that he was requesting one of those new sexual operations in Europe to accommodate his new mental inhabitant. Lila hasn't been able to summon up the desire to call the detectives in charge of the investigation to verify those rumors one way or another. Bates is caught, Marion is buried … everything about this awful affair which directly impacts her has been taken care of.
She's heard the one about the locals who burned the place down, of course. Filtered through a dozen gossiping mouths, it grew into a thrumming mob of thousands who descended on the place and picked it clean before torching every last scrap of wood. When she first heard the rumor, Lila scaled it back and then scaled it back somewhere, and assumed with one foot squarely in reality that it was more likely a troop of mischievous teenagers causing some minor property damage – breaking windows with rocks, painting rude words across the walls of each lowly motel room.
But this … this was no minor property damage.
On the hill where the large Bates home once stood, eerie and otherworldly on its darkened perch, only a few burned wooden beam jab skyward from the exposed foundation. The stairs spilling down the hill lie under a thickening layer of sand and grit. But the motel is the worse off by far, everything torn asunder or burnt away, only a few blackened pieces left behind on the ground.
“Well, I'll be damned,” she murmurs. Her fingers tingle, and she's not sure whether it's because she wants to shake the hands of the people who did this or because she wants to smack them for disturbing Marion's first resting place.
Her jaw clenching, Lila walks toward the pond behind where the motel used to stand.
Lila has never been one for superstition or ludicrous beliefs. Marion was the impetuous one, the hopeless romantic, the one who would drop everything to take a cruise she couldn't afford just to see a tiny bit more of the world. Lila was the realist, the steady one. She didn't believe in spirits or psychic powers or any of that hogwash.
Yet here she stood now, at the water-logged bank of a muddy pond so dark and soupy she can't even see an inch below the water line, and she thinks she feels Marion here.
Lila huffs out a breath, says, “This is ridiculous,” then takes a step back out of the swampy mulch surrounding the pond. Her footprints stay behind and fill with grimy water, black silt visibly spilling over the ridges in the muck.
She wonders suddenly if Marion was alive long enough for that disgusting sludge to be the last thing she saw.
No, she immediately thinks, then shakes her head for good measure. The autopsy found no fluid in Marion's lungs, just a flurry of stab wounds all over her body, like an enthusiastic chef venting a roast for broiling. Marion was dead long before Norman Bates pushed almost all of the evidence she'd ever gone to the Bates Motel into this sad excuse for marshland.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Marion,” Lila says quietly. It's strange how it feels like there's more of Marion here than there is at the cemetery in Phoenix, that she left more of herself behind at her roadside place of death than in the expensive casket Lila purchased to bury her remains in. Lila wonders if murders do that, if they force the victim to stay where they are and wait for someone to come along and ease their passage from this world into the next. Lila's never been particularly religious, and the disdainful expression she knows she must be making convinces her she's just being …
What is she being, exactly? Silly? Is it so silly to have morbid thoughts about your dead sister's traumatized spirit being tied to the home of her unrepentant murderer? Silly sounds like such a childish word for such a dark idea.
Something wet traces a trail down her face, and she swipes a trembling hand across her face, glancing over her shoulder. For some reason, she is positive she is bleeding, and that Norman Bates has escaped to finish the job he started, coming to kill her just like he killed her sister, eliminating the last two Cranes one after another.
But it's not blood, she realizes as her gaze drops to her wet glove. It's a tear.
“Would you look at that,” she whispers, then lets out a raspy laugh. “You see that, Marion?” Lila holds out her glove as though Marion might rise from the water in her nicest swimsuit and peer into her palm out of curiosity. “I'm crying. I haven't cried since …”
Lila pauses. “I haven't cried.”
Not once. Not since the day Norman Bates came at her in that basement, and not even then besides. She wonders if this is when she cracks, if she'll burst like a dam and spill out into the pond, if the stiff shell of her body will crumble and break like what's left of this vile hideous place.
“Is this okay?” she says softly. “Is it all right for me to cry here, or would you prefer I go home and cry at your grave like a normal person?”
Marion, unsurprisingly, doesn't answer.
Lila wipes a few more tears away, but now that a few have escaped, the rest know the way out. This would be a terrible place to sob, but she does it just the same, and suddenly she is shaking apart, threatening to pretend. Everything collapsed below her so many months ago – Marion's thievery, the murders, the trial – and the whole time, Lila has simply felt like a sturdy deck chair which has floated free from a sinking ship, softly bobbing away and staying on the surface even as the ships breaks apart just out of reach.
She cries and cries and cries, and it's the first time she's felt truly good in months.