I sat on the back steps of the Old House, watching the sun go down. Once I could have told you whether I preferred one to the other, sunrise over sunset, but I didn't know anymore. Either of them could bring down a day's enforced labor or the unwanted attention of the Master of the Old House.
I didn't like to think about him like that, but it was hard to avoid it. Anyone else march around like he did, snapping out orders and expecting perfection, and I, in a previous life, would have laughed in his face and popped him in the jaw. Down he would have gone, and, bingo, no more orders. But Barnabas always had a way of backing up his orders.
Through the trees, the sun was giving its last efforts to the day. Streaming among the branches and trunks, it made lace of the light that dappled the brick wall of the kitchen, and warmed the wood beneath me. Didn't make it any less pleasant, knowing that in five minutes or less, the world would be covered in a nighttime curtain. This part of Maine, I had discovered, found darkness faster than anywhere else I'd ever been. And I'd been to plenty of places. Me and Jason had stomped a lot of ground in our travels. You could have asked him. That is, if he weren't dead.
Well, I couldn't think about that too much. Didn't do me any good. Not with night coming on.
The scent of the sea rippled through the falling light, rich with the low mud of the flats and the leftover remains of seaweed. Leading me to think that the tide was going out. Not that it made any difference. I wouldn't be shipping out, tide or no tide. But when you'd been to sea as often as I had, thinking about that sort of thing was a hard habit to break. And soon the stars would come out, littering the black sky like a sail of scarves studded with pinpoints of diamonds. Jason, when I would mention this to him, always told me I had a romantic heart, and then he would laugh and skim my hair with his hand to show me he didn't mean me ill by it.
I shifted on the stair, not wanting to think about it. It was hard not to, 'cause sometimes memories of Jason were the only nice thing to think about.
I tried instead to recall the list that Barnabas had left for me that morning. Had I done everything? The list itself was sitting on the kitchen table, but I didn't want to move. Nor go inside. Not just yet. Not until I had to.
Candles, fire, curtain?
The first time I'd swept the cobwebs from the ceiling had been in the front room. I'd made the grand mistake of sweeping and dusting first, and then I'd attacked the webs. The whole room became littered with spider silk and leavings and old twisted corpses of flies. Naturally I'd had to hustle to get the floor swept yet again before Barnabas discovered my mistake. He never pulled any punches with mistakes. Not even small ones. He hadn't caught me that time, and I'd figured it out pretty quick: Start at the top, and work my way down, whether it was cleaning or painting or repairs.
Wallpaper peeled in the second guest bedroom?
Wallpaper was a never-ending job in the Old House. It was layered and peeling in every room of the house except the kitchen and servants' quarters. But wherever it had originally been put, it was in nasty shape, and typically there was more than one layer coming off. The master bedroom, when I'd first started on it, looked like a badly scaled fish. It took me days to get all that stuff off, with Barnabas at my shoulder every minute he was able. Making sure of the progress, making threats that were far from idle if I failed to finish the task in good time. He'd done that with Josette's room, too. Well, some rooms were more important than others, but it made no never mind to me.
Well, it did, to be honest. I didn't care and then I did. If you asked me some days, I'd tell you I wouldn't shed a tear if some crazy man took a torch to the place and burned it to the ground.
Other days? That's where it would get weird.
Like the first time I'd finished patching and taping and pasting and all those other things that go into painting a room. Just to prep a room took days. The painting itself took less time than that, and when I was finished, I stepped back and had to admit to myself that it looked pretty good. I'd picked out a sage color for a little room on the second floor, and envisioned white trim to go with it. And I don't know what amazed me more, my own feeling of satisfaction, or Barnabas' off-the-hand comment: Well done.
But then I'd thought about it. Well done? Was that it? For a ball-busting week like the one I had had, I would have expected something more. Like money. Cold hard cash, pressed into my hand, and maybe the phone number of a good-looking and willing gal. It took me only a little time to learn that a well done or a very well, you may go, was the extent of his praise. Sometimes, when I'd refinished a piece of furniture and he liked it, he would say, that's good work. It was almost like pulling my own teeth to get praise out of the guy, and I'd bust a gut trying to please him, only to remember in a dash of shock that I was out of my mind to try it. Why on earth should I care? He'd just as soon backhand me as look at me, and it didn't matter the reason why. Just the fact that I was standing before him was reason enough, some days.
And why? Why did he act like he despised me?
Because I'd tried to rob his mother's grave, you see. I'd figured out that maybe the legend about Naomi Collins and the pirate's jewels might be true. All the signs led to it, and long about the time I figured out where she was buried, I was being asked to leave Collinwood. Good riddance, right? So I got the tools, found the tomb, and tried opening it up. Therein lies the tale, as Jason liked to say in his booming voice. I dug up something, but not jewels. I'd dug up Barnabas, hadn't I.
Yep. You bet I had.
There was no point thinking about it; the sun was well and truly down, and I made myself stand up and brush the dust off the seat of my jeans. Opening the door, I went inside to the damp and the dark that was the kitchen of the Old House. The stove glowed in one corner, though the fireplace echoed only blackness. Didn't make sense to build them both up, not on a nice summer's evening. I could heat up some supper and listen for the door to the basement to open at the same time. Barnabas would be up soon, but he might not call for me right away. Depended on what he had on his mind, though I could never tell.
Oh, yeah, sure, sometimes I could tell, when I'd fucked up something pretty bad during the day, I would just be waiting for him. It was always only a matter of moments before Barnabas was all over my case about it, and I was laid out on the kitchen table, my belt in his hand, quicker than I could blink.
So, which soup tonight? I was all out of chicken and stars, and navy bean, and there was nothing left but to scramble up some eggs and bacon. The eggs would go bad anyway if I didn't, and it would give me a good excuse, when I was all out of them, to tell Barnabas I needed to go to the grocery store. Well, maybe tell wasn't the exact right word. Ask was a better one.
I learned better than to tell Barnabas anything, especially not in a way that would make him think I was acting above my station. He hated that. Hated when I knew something he didn't, or when I insisted that I knew what I was talking about, thereby implying, somehow, that he didn't know what he was talking about. But sometimes, he didn't, you know? He wasn't from my time, he didn't know it like I did, where I knew things without knowing I knew them. He would say something stupid like once when he was trying to make some point about how ladies should behave. They didn't, he said, travel without an escort. Having heard so very many of his misinformed comments that evening, I'd blurted out that he was wrong. My exact words were: Of course they do. They do it all the time. Hell, even Vicki Winters does it.
Pretty innocent comment, in most circles. You'd think.
Not if you're Barnabas. He was mad. Took it out on me with that glare and a smack. And a whipping.
Two weeks ago, that had been, and I was still working out the stiffness.
Well, if he was making any comments tonight, I'd keep my mouth shut. Too tired to do anything else, anyway.
I started the bacon and when it was well along, I scrambled the eggs in the pan. Jason had liked his sunny side up with plenty of toast to dip in the yolk. I didn't have any toast 'cause bread went bad very fast in the Old House. Besides, I liked them scrambled just fine.
I stood over the sink to eat, and as I finished, I heard the deep thump sound from deep in the cellar, and my back stiffened in spite of my efforts to remind myself that it didn't matter. I'd done everything I should have done that day, hadn't idled my time away, hadn't left the ground, had, in fact, done all my chores, and felt just about ready for more. But I never knew which way it would go. Some days he would forgive just about anything, like the time I'd fallen asleep over polishing silver and he'd found me there come sundown. All I'd gotten was a light tap and a mild reprimand to have a care and get some rest. Other times, well, if I even looked at him wrong, it was as if I'd flipped him the bird, and he would light into me so hard I would be out cold and walking off a limp for days.
Some nights I'd had to go down and stand by his coffin to deliver unusual news. Didn't have to be bad, just out of the ordinary, a late delivery, or an unexpected visitor. Anything like that, he wanted to know right away, and then his temper would flare, and it would go downhill from there. One thing that man did not like and it was something to mess up his night. Twitchy as a mule in hot harness, Jason would say, waiting for the flies to alight. Like I was, waiting, waiting for Barnabas to come up the stairs.
He did, taking his time, I could hear the even and slow tread, and went over the list in my mind, rinsing my frying pan in the sink. He would see me industrious when he came in the kitchen, where he always headed like a beeline, if he knew I was in there. The pan clunked in the bottom of the metal sink and the darkness had completely taken over the sky outside the window. Darkness and him, they always came together; I squared my shoulders and turned around as the door opened.
Barnabas walked in, pale as paper, his eyes glittering as if he'd been in a cave a long, long time. Suit taut across his broad shoulders, standing nearly a head taller than me, he would have been imposing enough in life. In death? He was overwhelming. It was freaky as hell the way his eyes would track me without a single muscle on the rest of him moving. As he was doing now, his hands making a brief movement at his sides.
He had something on his mind all right, but I could see he was still gathering himself together, still waking up, in a way. I kept my silence and waited, not even wiping my hands on my thighs to remove the last of the scent of food from them. The smell of cooked food bothered him, but my fidgeting always seemed to bother him more
"Willie," he said, his voice like the scrape of old stones across metal.
"Yes, Barnabas?" I asked, hating the way I sounded like I was scared. Even if I had been, you know, you gotta show a front, you gotta make like you're not. Course, half the time that's what pissed him off the most. That I would act like I could stand him down, or die trying.
"Have you finished your chores?"
He turned his head as if staring at the candle on the mantelpiece, as if he were ignoring me. He wasn't, but I knew he was taking a moment to gather his thoughts. It wasn't his way to actually get up out of his coffin with the intent to figure out a way to hassle me, I'm sure he felt it was his duty to have loftier concerns than the activities of his one servant. But seeing as I was the only other living thing for miles, I kinda got the feeling that it was hard for him not to focus on me. Which is why I tried to keep a low profile.
Jason had always said that if you act as if everything was alright, people around you will assume that it is. I'd gotten very good at doing that when Barnabas was in the room, but sometimes, it was like there was some weird vampire thing he would do that would tell him that everything was not alright, in spite of my best efforts to lead him astray. That something had gone wrong that day, or that I was thinking, as he liked to call them, ill-advised thoughts. Problem was, him just being in the room tended to make my heart race, and I was always sure he could hear it. And my guilt over nothing would arouse him quicker than you could spit.
"Is there something amiss, Willie?"
"Uh, no Barnabas," I said. I tried to make my jaw unclench, to act like there was nothing wrong, but it was like trying to breathe underwater. Within seconds my throat narrowed up and I had to swallow, and his eyes were upon me like two slices of dark glass.
"You seem rather unsettled for there to be nothing wrong." His voice was smooth as he appraised me, and it felt like I was being hollowed in by walls of air.
"N-no," I said, "there's nothin', honest."
His narrow eyed glare continued, and I pulled out of the air the first thing I could think of to distract him. "I was j-jus-just wondering if you wanted me to, you know, um--"
Once there'd been a time when I could lie as easily as I could walk. Yet, in the time that I'd been with him, maybe around nine months, he'd managed to discover every lie and had pounced on them all with the fierceness of a tiger. Now even the thought of one had me tongue-tied as a new suitor, cringing as he marched over to stand directly in front of me. My head ducked down and I could feel my shoulders cringing inward. Inches away, he towered over me, and my lowered eyes could easily see his fists gleaming in the candlelight.
"If I wanted you to what?" he asked his voice almost mocking. "If there is something that has gone awry this day and you feel that this initiative will make some amends then you are sadly mistaken."
My brain rattled behind my eyes, trying to figure out what he was trying to say: Fess up, it will make no difference what else you do.
Desperation poured through me like water through a sluice and I actually turned away from him, giving myself some breathing room and the space to think. "No, there's nothin', I'm tellin' ya, nothin' went wrong today, I was jus' wonderin' if you wanted me to order and lay them flagstones along the walkways or if you wanted me to keep workin' on the upper hallway."
Either task would keep me busy for days and days, but to Barnabas neither one of them was worthy of much effort. Oh, sure, he wanted the rooms looking nice or the driveway or the porch, but he seemed to forget that someone wanting to get from one place to another would be walking down the dark, cobweb infested hallway that never saw much light and had uneven floorboards. Or the flagstones that would curve in a path and end suddenly due to the master's lack of interest in the final destination.
My hands rubbed each other as if they were cold and when I caught myself doing it, I clutched them against my stomach. And Barnabas was right behind me, his breath glowing like icy coals that I could almost see.
"I'll give you one more chance, and you had better be sure, Willie, or else I'll make you regret your stance on the matter. Now you will tell me, is there anything amiss?"
"No," I said, my tone rising, hard as I tried to keep it low and level. "I only thought that if you--"
His broad hand came up to stop me, and he waved me away, and I jumped back, my head twitching to one side almost like an afterthought. But he was preoccupied after all, like I had figured, and the solitary question was all the nagging I was going to get. For now at least.
"I will leave you a list of chores in the morning," he said, going through the doorway into the darkness of the hallway.
My breath whooshed out of me like I'd been kicked. That was his backward way of saying I was done for the night, and I was safe. Unless, of course, during his pacing through the Old House he chanced upon some small matter or other that I'd forgotten, or that he'd neglected to tell me about. Funny how sometimes his lack of foresight about what needed to be done turned into my mistake. But I didn't think tonight would be one of those where I would be woken out of broken sleep to the furious white face of Barnabas' rage.
When he left, I finished up my housekeeping, sending a few pumps of water over the dirty dishes and wiping them down with the cleanest towel I could find. Leaving them on the draining board to dry, I cast a glance out the window. Pitch black now and still, as if not a wind stirred, not even from the push and swell of the waves beyond the cliff. I had the evening off, but there was not a damn thing to do about it.
I made myself go up the stairs, figuring I might as well get an early night of it, for once. Couldn't very well ask for a night off in town, now, could I. Didn't want to call any attention to the fact that he'd not assigned anything for me to do, no chores, no projects. But other than work, there was nothing else to do. As for all of the books in Barnabas' library, there wasn't a damn thing I was interested in reading. Books on some guy named Demosthenes or by some guy named Dampier who wrote about his voyage that I wouldn't have wanted to read even if they weren't boring.
Barnabas' books tended to start in the thousand-dollar range of late, and while I used to like to live on the edge, I'd rather stick my whole arm in the cast iron stove on full bake than risk getting him pissed at me about some old book. I passed by the master bedroom, the door closed against the sight or sound of him getting ready to go out. He probably had a meeting with Vicki Winters, or maybe just a casual arrangement with Roger at the Blue Whale in the village. I didn't care which one it was, it only meant that he'd be out of earshot for the night and I could let myself relax at least a little bit.
Not bothering with a fire, I kicked off my shoes and settled back on the bed. Starlight shimmered through the window, and I let the courting candle stay dark while I stared at the grey and pale grey patches of my ceiling. Hands behind my head, waiting for the breeze to catch me as it sifted through the open window, it reminded me of the time I'd done a six-month stretch in some small, local prison of a town Jason and I had stopped at once.
We had only meant to be there a few days, but for some reason, the con Jason had been setting up had gone sour and I had been the one holding the bag. Literally, that is, the bag of silver as I climbed out the window of the modest, comfortable home of Mrs. Emerson, late widowed and desiring to have her worldly goods valued for the insurance company, represented by Mr. McGurie of Tarrytown, New York. Jason had laughed when he'd told me that the windows were never locked and the silver was kept in a china cabinet in full view, and I had laughed back. Course, when I got caught, word was that the nice insurance man had left town, and Jason had come to visit me once and only once while I was in the stir that time.
He'd been worried, I'd thought at the time, worried that I'd spill the beans or be hacked that I was in there and not him. I reassured him with a shake of my head, and that had been the last time Jason had worried about that. Nice to know that he trusted me back then, full throttle. And every week while I was in there, a care package came from him with cigarettes and girly magazines and once some really good sausage. Kept me from going crazy and kept me in good with the local citizenry.
And, looking back, that stretch had been the last real vacation I'd had. Nothing to do and nowhere to go; I got used to the easy life, living off the taxpayer's dollar and swore I'd never work again. Jason had been waiting for me when I'd gotten out and we'd hoofed it up to Jersey and then to Philly and finally, about a year gone by, and he told me of some deal he had up in Maine. Maine? I'd asked. And he said, Maine, me boy. They got money so old up there, it's got cobwebs. And so we went.
And here I was. Staring at the molded ceiling on a bed older than anything, laying as still as I could and listening for the even measured tread of the master of the house heading for the stairs and the front door. For the front door to open and close. And for the silence that echoed his absence to fill the entire house. When I heard the click of the front door snicking shut, I didn't even think how odd it was to hear such a small sound from floors away. The Old House had such weird acoustics that sometimes I could hear a mouse chittering at the other end of the hall, or hear the flip of paper as Barnabas turned a page of a book he was reading in the Front Room below.
Other times, even with no wind and a still, eerie quiet that came before a real blowing storm, I would be deep in my work and suddenly Barnabas would appear at my shoulder, without a sound, giving me a start hard enough to jackhammer my heart or send a spray of paint through the air. And believe me, you did not want to get paint on a man's suit when he's about to attend a gathering up at the Great House, no you did not. I'd gotten backhanded for my carelessness, and threatened about what would happen to me if the paint didn't come out.
Well, it had been oil paint, see? And soaking the suit with turpentine and taking it to the cleaners the very next day had not saved me. The suit turned out to be a wash, but Barnabas had probably already known that. He'd come back from the party, Roger's birthday, maybe, and laid into me, clocking his arm all the way back. At least it'd been the belt and not the switch, though at the time I was hardly grateful for any favors.
This was a favor, now, tonight, but for all its rarity, I wasn't grateful. Well, you wouldn't be either, if you knew that tomorrow you'd be back to hard labor with a never-ending list of chores and the uncertain temper of your boss. I guess I preferred to think of him as my boss, rather than my master, but that's what he was. Master of all that I looked at or touched or even said. Master of me, at least I assumed that's what he thought, though I did my best to keep my thoughts to myself. And I managed, most of the time, though every now and then my mouth would get the best of me and I would be in hot water. And when you're in hot water with Barnabas Collins, you're in really hot water. The kind that can melt the skin from your bones and make you wish you were never born.
A breeze teased its way through the open window and I felt myself sinking into the darkness of sleep. In another moment I would stir myself up enough to light the courting candle, but for the moment, I let the feeling take me, rather like the rocking waves of a small boat on a rising tide. It had been ages since I'd actually been on the water, Barnabas' expectations of the amount of work I was expected to do kept me from all but the briefest treks to the ocean shore. So that, except for the stretch of the road to Bangor that ran along side the ocean, I never saw it. But I could smell it and hear it, as I did now, the saltiness of it seeping into my lungs before I was even aware of the tart odor of seaweed caught on the rocks. Or the pounding of the waves, dull thuds held back by the trees. And the great, vast, empty echo of the water reaching to the dark horizon.
It was time for the courting candle, and I eased myself up on my elbow, intending to light it and then to get undressed in the dark. Then I heard the front door open and close slowly and the murmur of voices rising up the stairs. It would be Vicki Winters, of course, because although Carolyn was as likely a visitor as Vicki was, Barnabas never brought Carolyn to the Old House. And I knew Barnabas was pushing hard in his courtship of Vicki, like he'd never heard of free will or Burke Devlin. But maybe he didn't know, maybe Vicki had never told him? Ah, well, it was none of my business, and several toe-to-toe confrontations with Barnabas had pretty much taught me to mind the business he told me to mind, and leave it at that.
I heard footsteps and then the creak of the house as it shifted weight as the two of them walked into the Front Room. I could usually pretty much track where anyone was. Listening to the frame and timber move and groan with the slightest gathering of people inside of it had taught me to listen. And so I listened, figuring that he was offering her a brandy or showing her his newest book and that--
The shout from below snapped me out of my own thoughts and into the present darkness, my hand on a match, my other hand on the beveled glass top of the courting candle. It was a good thing I'd not undressed, though the call to action meant that my evening at leisure was now interrupted. Though it wouldn't have mattered to Barnabas had I been in the middle of a meal or a bath or anything.
Now he sounded pissed, and I shoved on my shoes and raced down the hall, telling myself that my heart wasn't thudding and that I wasn't in the least bit anxious. I'd done nothing wrong, after all, surely Barnabas hadn't found something to be angry about between sundown and this moment? But odder things had happened, and as I clattered down the stairs, my stomach still felt like a batch of newly made bricks had been dropped in it, scraping my gut raw and making me almost oblivious to Victoria's smile. I say almost, for even as I wiped the sweat from my hands on my pants, even as I landed in the foyer, that smile, man, she was a looker alright. And a classy one.
"What's the matter, Barnabas?" I asked. Not what do you want, but what's the matter, for there was always something gone wrong for him, it seemed, something that was usually my fault.
"The brandy decanter has gone quite empty, Willie," he said.
I looked at it, sparkling in the candlelight, and nodded. "Yeah," I said. "Looks that way."
"And it looks," he said, mocking my use of the word, "distinctly as if you did not fill it up as I instructed."
Opening my mouth to protest that no such instruction had been given, 'cause I knew he would say that I'd been contradicting him and that I'd pay for it later, especially with witnesses present, I snapped it shut.
"Guess I forgot, Barnabas."
"Then I guess you will fill it now. My guest and I are waiting."
Vicki opened her mouth to protest, and I imagined that she was about to say that water would serve her well enough when Barnabas raised his hand to stop her. "Willie must learn, my dear, to tend to his duties before taking his ease. Tending to this chore now will help him keep it foremost in his mind."
I grabbed up the crystal decanter in both hands and hustled it off to the butler's pantry where the bottle of brandy was kept. Needless to say it was very expensive brandy, though I'd never tasted a drop of it. Vicki had, though, and Carolyn, and just about everyone up at Collinwood. Even David had gotten a sip on his last birthday, comparing it favorably with his father's brand and making everyone laugh.
I'd been helping the caterers at that point, with the hard work of lifting crates off the catering truck, and wondered why no one stopped to think about the fact that David's comment meant he was into his pop's liquor cabinet on a regular basis. Or maybe they just thought he was joking. Or maybe they didn't care. Didn't matter to me one way or another, I'd started drinking my dad's beer when I was twelve, but they set such a store by that kid, you would have thought they'd be more attentive.
But not as attentive as Barnabas was, appearing at my elbow just at the moment when I was pouring the brandy into the decanter. My hands jiggled and the liquor sloshed down the side, soaking into the old wood of the pantry. The air was filled with the dark warmth of fine brandy.
"Idiot," he snapped, his breath a puff of winter's air across my cheek. "Hurry, she's waiting, a lady shouldn't have to wait."
"Well, she's gonna wait," I said, my voice low, "the neck of the bottle is too narrow to go faster. Besides, what does it matter, you know she's seeing Burke--"
"Never mind that now," he said, grabbing the bottle and the crystal cork from my hand. "Wash that stench from your hands, and then you can go up the back way. I will not have you ruining the rest of our evening."
As if a glimpse of me would turn a lady's stomach sour. Nice one, that Barnabas. Well, I didn't care. I walked to the sink, as instructed, intending to wash the brandy from my hands. Instead, in the darkness of the unlighted kitchen, I brought my fingers to my mouth. The scent of alcohol had burned off with the heat of my skin and all that was left was the smoky, rich taste of the brandy. It was fine alright, and maybe someday I'd get up the gumption to take a glass on the quiet. After there'd been a gathering or a party and Barnabas less likely to know exactly how much had been drunk and by whom.
I looked at the stars through the window, sparkling over the still, dark arms of the trees and heard the muted thump and wail of the surf pounding the sand. For once the air was utterly still, and I stayed that way for a moment, feeling the darkness soak into me as the taste of brandy faded on my tongue. Then I heard the shift of the house behind me, the voices of Barnabas and Vicki coming into full earshot even though they were half a house away, and knew that I had best be getting upstairs. When Barnabas wanted me gone, I knew I had better be gone. So I rinsed my hands and dried them on my pants and hustled up the back stairs. Lit my courting candle and shucked off most of my clothes, leaving my T-shirt and briefs in place, for even if the night was still and warm, the cold reaches of the northern hills were always lurking beneath the summer night.
I fell back in the bed, body still going from my race up and down the stairs, my brain turning to sleep almost half-heartedly. I was wound up still when the storm hit, blowing through my window with a sudden damp interruption, a gust hard enough to slam a loose board somewhere along the outside of the house. Sitting bolt upright, I surveyed the silver battalion of rain coming in through the open casement, and the cold air from the sea as unwelcome as it had been desired earlier.
Shit and shit.
At least it hadn't blown the courting candle out, at least I could still see what I was doing in spite of the darkness and the wind, as I got up and trod on freshly dampened boards to pull down the sash. It, of course, was stuck in the open position, warped by heat and now by cold. During the winter it had been closed both by choice and by ice, but once winter had given up its freezing handhold, I'd left it open, preferring the waft of fresh air, however cold, to the damp murky fug of the Old House. Most of the place smelled like a rat's hiding hole even on nice days, and my bedroom had become the one place where I could breathe relatively clean air.
I tugged at the sash and used the hard edge of my palm to smack it loose, the rain pounding against my bare legs. By the time I got it closed I'd be wet through and what more damage could the weather possibly do to the floor and the wall than it already had? The temptation was to leave it open was cut short by the sudden opening of my door into the hallway and there stood Barnabas.
He strode in without a word, grabbing up handfuls of my T-shirt, and pulling me up close to him.
"And what do you mean by keeping it from me, about Burke Devlin?"
With a shove, he pushed me against the wall, but he was by no means done. The force of my body hitting the wall sent the sash crashing down on the windowsill, panes of glass breaking out and smashing against my feet. Rain came in and the force of his hand gripped me tighter, and I was trapped there, unable to move, shards of glass crackling between my toes, rain pelting my legs like quicksilver, and his glare in the half-darkness like shrapnels of ice.
"W-what?" I asked, my shoulders hunching up for the blow that was surely to follow. "I dunno Barnabas, what--?"
What he was talking about was Vicki's choice of suitors, of course he was, it was one of the things that got him riled, her wanting someone else, that and me being in the same room with him. He gave me another slam, like it was my fault she preferred a living breathing guy who could have lunch with her sometimes, instead of what Barnabas had to offer, jewels and rich presents being entirely beside the fact. At least that's the way I saw it. Not that I was supposed to have been watching, but while Vicki liked the books and the old, old things that cost a lot of money, what she liked especially well was for things to be nice. And somehow, maybe, somewhere in her mind, she knew that that's what Barnabas wasn't. Not really. And especially not now. I reckoned that if she could have seen him backhand me into the wall, she could have made up her mind pretty quick.
But Vicki Winters wasn't there, nor was she very likely to be, not in the near future, not ever.
I didn't exactly taste the blood on my tongue, only the hot, hard saliva that sometimes came before it, the precursor, to use one of Barnabas' words. If I made him mad enough to hit me again, I'd be tasting it alright, and that was a fact. 'Cause he was mad, and it was nighttime, and his date had gone, it would seem, very badly. And now I, to use Jason's words, was doing a very dicey two-step. Caught between a rock and a hard place, one if I could explain about Burke, and one if I couldn't. The first would bring questions about how I knew, the second would bring the demand as to why I did not. In my own words? I was fucked.
"B-burke?" I asked now, the stutter in my voice breaking through my attempt at calm, a false front that some part of me thought would be not only necessary but easy. Too late, though, to save me. Barnabas slapped me again and I tasted blood, an unwanted slide of copper and spit down the sides of my tongue. My head ringing, I knew it was a lost cause and the backbone in me slipped away, an event foretold the moment Barnabas had opened that door. It came, like it always did, as hard as I would fight it, the shaking quiver deep inside that would blossom unwanted, hands trembling, wringing together, like they belonged to somebody else, and my heart pounding so hard the insides of my ribs began to hurt. And then the breath would leave my lungs, a sudden exodus, like a pre-planned thing, and I hadn't even the voice to beg for mercy.
Growling, he pushed me backwards, hard enough so that I landed on the bed, slipping on glass, feeling something slice through one foot, something warm slipping involuntarily over my chin. I clutched the headboard to keep myself upright, the other hand going to my mouth to wipe away the blood fast, before he could smell it, and I grabbed at the first breath that came to me.
"I thought they were friends, hones', Barnabas, I didn' know, he only wanted--"
And with a lunge he was right there, standing over me as his temper reached a point high enough to where flames boiled in his eyes and the last of me, the final bit of anything left standing in his wake, crumpled down until I was a huddled mass on the sheets. You would have thought that that would be the worst part, where I was defeated before he'd barely raised a hand to me, wouldn't you. Where my state of mind was anything but brave and defiant, where the tears were so close to the surface that within seconds I would be sobbing like a little kid, where I was so scared, I had a white-hard terror lancing through my gut sharp enough to make me clutch at my stomach.
Yeah, I hated being there, despised myself afterwards, but that wasn't even it. What always freaked me out was right before that, when I would reach the point of my last defiance, when I was still stupid enough and brave enough to imagine that I could stand and take it. Take it like a man. It scared me that I actually still had thoughts of standing him down. Like a madness that comes with too much beer, yeah, sure I can jump off this two-story building, I'm a cat in my other life, doncha know. And then later, sober, you think, Christ, I could have died, why did I drink so much? It was like that.
My mistake this time had been asking Burke's name, as if asking for clarification, instead of a simple what, Barnabas? that would indicate my complete confusion as to what the old boy was talking about. But that mistake and my earlier remark in the butler's pantry, along with whatever indication he'd gotten from Miss Winters, had led Barnabas to believe that I knew something about what was going on and that I had declined to share this with him. For a second there I had actually thought I could get away with it. Wrong. Very wrong. Barnabas could snap my neck off my shoulders with barely even a thought and hide the body afterwards. For a man who couldn't refill his own brandy decanter, he was very handy when he was pissed. And he hated it when he thought I kept stuff from him, so he was pissed now.
I knew that without looking up, but I did anyway, I had to find a way out of this, or he'd have me laid out for a beating so fast that I would later wonder why I hadn't just assumed the position the second the sun had gone down.
"P-please, Barnabas--" I began, feeling the sear of his ice-cold eyes.
"Please, what, Willie?" His hands were fists at his sides, I could see them twitching in the steady light of the courting candle, while the sleeting rain angled to the floor behind him, disappearing in the darkness of his shadow. "Please excuse your reticence whilst I assay the damage of your silence?"
What whilst what? I had no idea what he was asking except that it had to do with my silence. About Burke, of course, and palm-heeling myself up to a sitting position so my lungs could get breath, I swallowed the blood in my mouth. "I didn' know anythin'," I said, "I swear."
"You swear?" he asked, jerking his head back so he was looking down at me, as if from an imagined height of righteousness. "An interesting choice of words, I should think, when earlier this evening your assertion was that she was seeing Burke."
Shit. I had said that, and there was no way I could cover it up. My mind went blank and my body took over, one long shudder piling through me, and then another.
Any warmth or heat left me in abandon till I felt the ice of the air peeling back my skin and diving down to the center of my bones.
A grab and I was pulled close, right close to where his breath was on me and the seams of my T-shirt began to give way. Damp and now cold and I couldn't stop shivering.
"Did you not assert that?" he demanded.
I could not manage the words, let alone know whether I wanted to say yes or to say no.
"Did you or did you not assert that?"
A shake and my brain so rattled I couldn't remember what the question was about, and, out of some wild, desperate corner of my mind, I actually clutched at his hand where it was entwined in my shirt and held on. This stopped him, froze him there, almost stopped him breathing, I never touched him if I could help it, and he knew it. There was one second of opportunity before he opened my skull with his fist, and I took the deepest breath I could, reaching down far, far to a place where the fear, surprisingly, had not gone.
"S-she," I began, and he knew who I was talking about for his eyes never left mine, "she never talked about him, n-never, an' so I thought it was my imagination, how he was lookin' at her."
"And where did you see him, as you say, looking at her?"
"In t-town," I said, feeling the lurch of my gut as his glance seemed to tighten. "I was walking p-past 'em, and she said hello and I said hello and then I kep' walkin' and, Burke, he never even looked away from her."
As soon as Barnabas shook my hand away and let go, I knew I'd painted Burke in a dark, deep corner, only I didn't care. That louse had messed me up at the Blue Whale and I owed him for that. There was still some part of me from my old life that would willingly exchange another man's life for my own, and it was only a guy like Burke Devlin who would have put himself in the position as a rival to Barnabas. He didn't care about status or family lineage; he'd dug his own grave the second he'd scoffed at Barnabas' attitude of privilege. All I was doing was help him dig it a little deeper. Any twinge of guilt faded the second Barnabas stepped back, his attention dropping from me, shoulders settling into a straight line and his gaze more distant, as if on some other, more appropriate thoughts that were kept stored in another room somewhere.
"You will clean up this mess," he said, his voice as calm as if he'd only just walked in to discover that somehow I had broken the bottom row of glass from the leading. "And you will repair the window on the morrow. Is that clear?"
My heart still slowing down, I nodded, swallowing in some air, trying not to look him in the eye. If I had, he would have seen my relief and the simmering, low burn of my anger. It was racing around in side of me, now that the danger was past, and jumping up the back of my neck. If I wanted to die, I could leap at him now, never mind the glass, and give him a piece of my mind. Who the hell did he think he was, waking me up and shoving me around like that? Of course I didn't want to die, or cut my feet up any worse than they already were, so I opened my mouth to say yes, Barnabas, and watched him turn and go out into the hall, shutting the door behind him.
"Yes, Barnabas," I said to the darkness.
Settling back on my heels, I felt the glass crunch beneath my bare feet and knew there'd be a mess in the morning. But the thought of tending to all of that, in the dark, or even in candlelight, warred against falling back in the bed and pulling the covers up over my head. It was still raining pretty hard, but the disaster of the window could wait and so I gingerly moved back on my heels and catfooted my way back wards, trying not to slip. The bed loomed behind my thighs and I sank back on it. Breath rushing out, the night pressing down, I lay down, the relief of a common pillow and blanket almost obscenely welcome. Tomorrow would come too soon, and I intended to sleep late.
And sleep late I did. It was way past sunrise and the first shaft of daylight that greeted my open eyes shot a bolt of pain right into my head. And my shoulder hurt, in a familiar kind of way. I closed my eyes. Aches and pains springing to life first thing was not the way I liked to start the day, but it wasn't too uncommon. Problem was, I was out of any kind of aspirin, and hoped that the list from Barnabas would include a trip for supplies. I'd need cash for that, and if he hadn't left any, I would have to do without. The day was fucked before I'd even stirred from bed.
At least it had stopped raining, which meant that I could fix the window, again, if I was given the cash to buy repair supplies. I imagined that I would be, given the events of last night. Barnabas knew the window was broken, whatever the cause, and he liked for things to be ship shape. So. It was probably a sure thing that I'd be on the road today.
The good part was that I would probably have to go to Bangor and could stop at the lobster roll stand along the way. The bad part was that I would probably have to go to Bangor because the glass that Barnabas liked to use wasn't available in Collinsport. Since it was so late in the morning, if I wanted to get all my chores done and go to Bangor and get back before sunset, I would have to hustle to make it.
These thoughts stirred me to sit up and shove the blankets back, catching my feet the last second before they hit the floor. Opening my eyes, I could see the spread of glass, like snowflakes fallen in the night and never having melted. The wood below the broken window was warped and the soak of rain had made an uneven blotch in the plaster below the sill. Barnabas wouldn't give a rip about that, not in my room, me being just a servant.
So much work. Not even time for breakfast, and my shoes were on the other side of the room.
I crawled out of bed, tiptoeing over the glass and feeling it crunch into my flesh a bit anyway. I grabbed my clothes and heeled it down the stairs to the kitchen. Sat myself in a chair and hauled up first one foot and then the other to pick out the glass. I had no fingernails, not really, and no tweezers, no nothing, and so it took me a good half hour to get most of it out. Some was imbedded into the calloused part of my foot and so would have to stay. I couldn't feel it anyway, and daylight was burning.
There was indeed a list on the table. Written on nice paper, for some reason Barnabas had this thing about paper, one kind for this task, this kind for another. He tended to use this fancy white paper for his lists for me that gave each an importance it really didn't deserve. And with his handwriting, all curly and complicated, he made a trip to the hardware store look like a history lesson.
This list had a series of special chores in addition to my regular, housekeeping ones: Fix the window being the first, followed by an impossible succession of particular repairs and projects. Count and list all the silver in the butler's pantry, bring down the shutters from the attic for repair, measure the second guest bedroom for new drapes. The list also included things I was to buy or pick up: supplies to fix the broken window (Bangor), a shipment of French pottery (also at the Bangor shipping yards), a book on modern telescopes (which book?), and whatever I figured I needed for myself or the house. The last thing, probably written as an afterthought, included the directive to bring back all the receipts.
There was nothing impossible on the list, nothing impossible about the list except for its length. My heart began its all-over racing, and my stomach did an unpleasant turn. It would do that again during the day and then again and again, right up till sunset. Nothing to be done, I had to at least try to get everything done. Sometimes Barnabas would give an E for effort and not haul me over the coals. Sometimes.
Slipping on my pants and shirt, I leaned over to lace up my shoes and grabbed my jacket, maybe I'd need it, and went out the back door, trying to tuck in my shirt the entire time. It was a lost cause with only one hand and so I stopped in front of the truck. Tucked in my shirt, and did up my belt, all with the hot sun pouring down through the trees. It would be a nice day and I would be out in it. Never one to count my blessings in my old life, I had gained the habit of it, though Jason would have laughed his ass off if he'd known. But hell, when your day was made up of one misery after the other, one hard chore followed by another, you started to look. And look. And look. Anything good? Anything nice? Today's good thing was a lobster roll on the road. Maybe even two.
Halfway to Bangor I stopped at the lobster roll stand, and pulling into their dirt yard, eyed the wooden shack, my mouth watering. They didn't know me, and so when it was my turn in the short line, they were happy to sell me two rolls, heavy on the butter, and a large coke besides. I asked for a receipt and that caused a bit of a flurry, they normally didn't get requests like that, they said, and I told them the truth. Told them my boss was a stickler and could they please make me one? They rang it up, and I took my roadside meal back to a wooden picnic table and ate.
The sun was on my head and the breeze cut across the road and through the trees and it was nice. I liked not being known and ignored, which was a damn site different than being known and being ignored. Still, that was far better than being known and not being ignored, which sometimes happened when I went into Collinsport and ran into Burke or some guy who felt it was his duty to rid the town of scum.
Though Burke tended to ignore me these days, I guess I was such a fixture on the Collins estate that he'd gotten used to me and seldom felt like making me spit out my own teeth. Barnabas didn't like for me to get into fights, he called them altercations, whether or not they were my fault. But sometimes a guy can't help it, you know? And I had to defend myself, or otherwise they would mow me down. That wasn't a consideration for Barnabas, he expected me to stay out of trouble and when I didn't, he gave it to me, but good.
There was no point thinking about that. I shook my head and took a deep gulp of my icy coke. It was the middle of the day and the safety net of hours of daylight stretched out before me. Sunset wasn't till nine o'clock or so, I had hours. Maybe I'd make it back in time, even, and though all the chores wouldn't be done, I'd be present and accounted for. In the meantime, I had to hustle. Polishing off the lobster rolls and the last gulp of my drink, I threw my trash away and took to the road. Bangor wasn't that far, only an hour's drive, but I always made a point of stopping. And in the summer, the lobster roll stands were everywhere.
Bangor was a crowd of tourists, but I knew the back roads and debated on whether I should pick up expensive breakable glass, or expensive breakable pottery first. Pottery, I decided, knowing the shipping yards had weird hours. They didn't know me, and made me sign three ways to Sunday, looking at me, probably wondering why someone like me would be interested in antique pottery. That's what the bill of lading said, and I saw the price and didn't let my jaw drop open. Barnabas had spent seven thousand dollars on a vase that he would never use, not even to put flowers in. And the amount he'd insured it for was obscene. I signed and signed and then let them load it into the back of my truck. It was in a big crate, well padded, one would hope, and I would load up the other supplies to keep it from shifting on the way home. I could see them shaking their heads as I drove away and couldn't imagine what Barnabas would want with a piece of crap old pottery. Seven thousand dollars? Crazy.
The people at the glass store knew me, but they knew me as a good customer, as I seemed to be stopping there all the time. Maybe they thought I spent my time throwing rocks through my windows and then fixing them up again, I dunno. But they were always happy to see me. Maybe it was the amount of money I spent in their store; it was the only place I could get real leading and hand-glazed glass. Barnabas always insisted on the best and paid his bills promptly. Sure, they wanted me to pick out anything I pleased, even tipped their heads in a small bow when I made my final selection, knowing the window measurements by heart.
"Very good, sir."
Yeah, I liked the glass store, alright.
I stopped by the first bookstore I came to and had them give me a list on all their books on telescopes. When I said it was for Mr. Collins, they hopped-to and I got a nice long list. I would tell Barnabas I thought it wiser that he make his selection and then I would bring that home. The truth was, of course, I was running out of time. I was thirsty, and the lobster rolls had long since vanished, but there wasn't time to stop for anything. I still had the hardware store and the grocery store and it was getting onto two o'clock and I had the drive back.
I rushed through getting supplies, filling the truck with everything I could think of, and stuffed the receipts in my pocket. They liked it when I paid cash and they even offered to lend me one of their staff for loading. I would have liked to have taken them up on their offer, but I could never trust that the guy would do it the way Barnabas liked. Besides, I had that pottery and the glass to think about and no staff member, however well trained, would give a rip about what would happen to me when I got home with damaged goods. Yeah, one hour would see me home and then I could unload and get to the rest of the chores. The projects would have to wait, but there would be good reason for that. I might just make it.
My stomach was growling at me on the way home, but the lobster roll stand was closed and there was nothing between here and there. The sun slanted low through the trees and I could feel the coolness of the air as if it were going to rain again. I hoped it wouldn't, or the window would warp so bad that it would be impossible to repair and I'd have to replace it from scratch.
It wasn't raining yet, but by the time I got back to the estate and the Old House heaved into view, the lightning was flickering like someone snapping an electric light on and off somewhere inside the rolling balls of dark clouds. Thunder was muffled in the distance, warped by the cliffs and the pounding of the sea. Tide coming in and me with a truckload of stuff to haul into the house before dark. On an empty stomach, but the flutter of anxiety there was enough to keep me going as I made the pass between the truck and the back door again and again.
I took the crate with the pottery into the library, and set it gingerly on the table. Anything that happened to it there would not be my fault, damnit. And the glass, I took that up to the second floor and set it in the hallway outside my room. Where he would see it and then give me the nod to go ahead with the work. Far be it from me to take on tasks without his say so. Don't try to walk mentally ahead of him and predict where he's going. I wouldn't recommend it.
The supplies for me and the house, I hauled into the kitchen and the butler's pantry, trying to put away as much as I could before it start raining. Which it did, on my last load of a bag of nails and a gallon of milk. I put them on the counter and went back outside to catch the first scent of rain and the air from the sea. Standing beside the truck, I leaned my elbows against the side of the bed, looking out at the mist coming down over the woods, so sweat-soaked that the soft, falling rain just didn't make any difference.
At least it hadn't been snowing like it had been that one time. The time that I had been still new to the winters of Maine and had driven home from Bangor in a blizzard, having not taken my coat even though the skies had looked like snow. Well, what looked like snow and what passed as a storm were very different than from where I had come from. I had shaken off the look of the sky and had driven to Bangor, where on the way it had begun to snow. Had continued to snow while I had gotten supplies, and ignored the looks of the shopkeepers and the one offer to spend the night in the back of someone's shop. Barnabas had always threatened dire consequences if I was not home by sunset, though by my reckoning, that had happened long about three o'clock.
So I'd thrown myself in the truck and taken the highway home, but what was a one-hour trip in good weather, turned into a nightmarish three in bad. The blow-out of the storm had cast the world in a white flurry that ate its way into the cab and crept up through the floorboards with a solemn intensity, cutting through the full blast of the heater with no effort at all. I hadn't realized how cold I was getting until I tried to shift into a lower gear and realized that I couldn't feel my feet. I could still drive, but it was like I was on stumps. My hands soon followed, fixed to the wheel like they were made of wax. And then I started shivering. Didn't help any, and it kept going like I was being gutted through with it, my teeth clicking together, and my head twitching up and down with each click.
When I'd finally pulled into the long drive of the Old House, it was dark and the blanket of snow, under the thickening fall, covered everything with an even-tempered softness. Up to the top of the wheels it was, I could feel it, even if I couldn't see it. Could feel the drag of snow against the tires, and with a last, quick, ice-footed shift, brought the truck to a halt next to the house and turned off the engine. Suddenly the world was perfectly quite, except for a faint hiss as the snow fell and fell. And then I fell, opening the door and falling out, the snow whooshing around me as if I'd dug a hole and fell in. And then I didn't feel cold at all.
The strange part about that night, except for the hilarious case of hypothermia I'd managed to get, was what Barnabas did about it.
Buried in snow, I only heard the kitchen door open, but that was it. Any footsteps were muffled, but when I looked up, there was a large black shape looming over me. I figured he was pissed, but for some reason I couldn't move to jump to my feet and start explaining myself. About how the roads were bad or how the shops didn't have what was wanted, something. Anything to keep him from being mad. It was past actual sunset, obviously, and for some reason I felt bad that I'd messed up and come home late. But a mild guilt, kinda like you get when you're a kid and you ruin your dinner with cookies before supper. I shoulda been scared, but I wasn't, see? I think I was too tired, or, more likely, too cold to care.
He picked me up and carried me inside the house, into the kitchen, where he'd stoked an enormous fire in the fireplace at the end of the room. The whole place was bright with the flames, and warm enough, I could see, to melt the ice glaze that always managed to creep along the inside of the windows during cold weather. They were dripping as if with rain and part of me began to wonder, as he sat me down in a chair, close to the fire, just how long he'd been cranking the heat up. To this day I do not know, or have the guts to ask. I mean, would you? Would you actually ask him, hey, Barnabas, were you worried about me? I don't think you would, because either answer would keep you awake at night: No, he hadn't been worried, or yes, he had been. Uh-uh, I did not want to know.
But at the time it had been kind of nice, when I was cold and too tired to feel uncomfortable about what he was doing. I wouldn't say he actually fussed, Barnabas is not the fussing type. But he took care of things. He took care of me. Peeled off my wet shirt and wrapped me in a clean, woolen blanket and handed me hot coffee with a tot of something strong in it. Maybe even the brandy that I was never supposed to taste, I don't know.
Then he knelt and carefully removed the frozen shoes from my feet. They were coated with ice from my tramping around town that a three-hour drive had not melted. My own stupidity, I suppose, but he never said a word.
Looking down at the top of his head, the dark hair reflecting the light from the fire, I sipped my coffee and kept shaking, melting snow dripping from my hair onto his hands. It was a good hour before I stopped, and by that time, he'd thawed my feet with snow and then wrapped them with towel that I watched him heat with bricks that he'd laid earlier in the fire. He even took a broom and swept the snow that we'd brought into the room with us through the doorway and out into the back yard. The blast of cold from the opened door made me start shivering again and he closed it solidly before turning to face me.
He looked like he wanted to say something. I could tell. His eyes glinted for a moment, and then his gaze drifted to the window, where the snow was high enough to start obscuring the view into the darkness. Yeah, it was deep alright and I knew that I could have easily lost my way or froze to death, and I wasn't entirely sure whether he was mad because he almost had lost a servant, his only servant, or because he had almost lost me.
Sure, I was valuable alright, wasn't that a laugh. I knew what the real reason was, it was because it would look bad if I died. The townspeople thought he was great, they thought, man, what was it I once said to him in a fit of anger? That the townspeople and everyone up at Collinwood thought that he hung the moon. If someone died in his employ, by natural causes or otherwise, it would be a black mark against him. And he couldn't be having that, oh no.
Then he'd shaken his head and dismissed whatever thoughts he'd been having and indicated that I should sleep in the kitchen each night until the storm had abated and I was able to get the shutters up over the windows. Which I did at first opportunity, in my warped shoes and two sweaters under my windbreaker. I'd gotten a pea coat and a hat the soonest I could, and learned better than to drive in a blizzard.
Now though, there was no blizzard. The yard held no hint of drifts of snow that had earlier in the year locked me in to the confines of the Old House for days at a time. I'd learned real quick then to stock up on supplies after getting faint with hunger three days after my last can of soup had been opened and eaten. You would have thought that Barnabas would have warned me of this, but he hadn't. Maybe he expected that I would already know or something but how was I to know that a blizzard was a blizzard? Not in the world where I'd come from.
And now the yard was covered in rain and mist falling still lightly, almost as if it didn't really mean to, and I walked back into the house, bringing the scent of rain with me. All that was left was to put away the rest of the supplies and make myself something to eat and hand over the receipts and the change to Barnabas when he got up.
Mindless chores like making supper and cleaning up afterwards gave me the opportunity to pretend I was somewhere else. In the before time, before all this, I never used my head much, except maybe to imagine the riches I would have when I did the big job with Jason. Now, though, I could stare out the window into the yard and watch it grow dark, my hands moving over the dishes and under the cold water and I'd gotten quite good at pretending it was an ordinary day. Where I just happened to live in this big old house, and just happened to work for a guy who would just as easily have done away with me as look at me.
I put the dishes in the cupboard and rolled down my sleeves and took off the apron, all quite ordinary tasks, and listened with half my heart for the step on the stair. With the other half, I sat on the back step with the door open, just out of the rain, watching the mist fall with the darkness and hearing the sounds of the wind build up somewhere beyond the hills of the estate.
Another storm, of course, it was the season for storms, Barnabas had told me. But then every season in Maine had its own kind of storm. These just happened to involve lightning and rain, and I'd once heard him say that the Old House was built for storms like this, the one that was coming. That the original builder, his father or his grandpa, I suppose, had chosen the very spot upon which it stood because of the spectacular view they could give of the elements. Maybe it was the Great House he'd been talking about, I don't know. But, yeah, with the candles and no light about, it could be very spectacular indeed.
At the moment it was only distant heat lightning, though the wind said something else, that a storm was coming. I wasn't ready, my window was still broken, but maybe the rain would hold off. The least I could do was sweep up the glass, so I gathered the broom and the dustpan and took a bucket up to my room and in the half-darkness of one candle, swept up the glass. I could hear it crunching under my feet, but I figured I had gotten all that I could. The rough panels of the floor would soon absorb the rest of it, come to think of it a lot of the rooms had glass ground into the floor, it got rough on my hands when I would have to get down and take a scrub brush to the wood, but it didn't take me long, or many sliced hands later, to mark where the big splinters were and either pull them out or learn to avoid them.
I heard the shout from below, the house deciding to make the message very unclear, but at this time of day, it could only be one thing. Barnabas was up and he wanted me. Picking up the bucket and the broom and dustpan, I hurried down the stairs, taking them quick, and met up with him in the front hall.
"And what were you about?"
He meant what had I been up to, and I shrugged, bringing the bucket and everything into closer view. "Sweeping up glass," I said.
"Ah," he said, in return. "Well, put those away, and bring me the receipts from today. I need to get the entries in the ledger, for I am meeting with Cousin Roger's accountant about some investments I wish to make."
I nodded. It wasn't like him usually to tell me why he wanted something done, except to say that it was very important or that I must make haste. That kind of bullshit. Maybe tonight he wanted to impress me with the fact that he was going to make a boatload of money over his investments. Big deal. I mean, you ever hear of a Collins losing money? I hadn't.
I turned and took everything to the kitchen, dumping the glass particles in the garbage can I kept by the door, and rinsed out the bucket. Maybe I should get two buckets? One for glass and one for water. That way--
Mid-thought I heard the scrape of a chair against the wood and knew that Barnabas was settling in at his ledger. I found him in the library, the long darkness lit by only one candle, my pockets full of the receipts and my hand full of change. Not a whole lot of change, around five dollars or so from the hundred he'd given me. But I could account for all of it, and pulled my pockets clean of paper and dumped it on the desk, next to the clean page with red and blue lines.
He looked up at me, the candle casting shadows across his face. I could tell he was in a good mood because he only shook his head at the deplorable tumble of receipts. I'd always started by putting them in my wallet but then my wallet would get full and I'd be in a hurry and they'd get all crumpled up. The first time, he'd really laid into me, but I guess, somehow, he figured out that that's the way he was going to get them, and so he stopped saying anything about it. Didn't stop him from giving me a look, which he did now, as he gathered up the change and counted it and wrote the figure in his book. Then he handed the change back to me. Pocket money, it was understood. Sometimes I got it, and sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I hoarded it, and sometimes I spent it. I shoved it in my pocket, thinking maybe I would try not to spend it all on beer.
Using his large white hand, he plucked a receipt out of the pile, and wrote down the amount in his book. The receipt, if it was minor, got tossed into the small fireplace to be burned later. If it was valuable, or represented a bill to be paid, it got placed in the leather folio that he kept with the ledger. As you can imagine, he was very particular about keeping track of the money, though I could never figure out why. He was loaded and at the rate that he made money, was going to be loaded forever, no matter how much he spent or how messy his books.
"There's one dollar and thirty-seven cents not accounted for," he said, laying his hands flat against the book, the pen still balanced between his fingers.
"What?" I asked, drawn back unwillingly into the moment.
"You heard me, Willie," he said, his voice only slightly scolding. "One dollar and thirty-seven cents not accounted for. Where is the receipt for this amount?"
My mind was a blank. "Um, what was it for?"
"That is what I am inquiring of you."
Totally stumped, I looked at the folio and then at the fire, all the receipts I had had been looked at and recorded and then filed.
"Um," I began and then took a deep breath. "What do you have receipts for?"
"Millet's Glassware, the grocers, a gas station presumably along the route to Bangor, the hardware store, the dockyards, where you paid for the holding fees, and the bill for the pottery." He rattled these off without looking at them, and I went over the list in my mind and realized what was missing.
"Oh, yeah, there was lunch. Lobster roll stand. I got a receipt from them special, it should be here." I waved my hand over the now empty desk, and that's when I felt his good mood begin to go.
"It most certainly is not." He didn't even look down as he said this, even as he took the pen from his fingers and laid it beside the folio.
"Yeah, it is," I insisted, even though I could not see it myself. "It has to be here."
He closed the book with a snap, sending the candle flame flickering, and gave a tiny shake of his head. "I will not argue with you about it, Willie, you will account for the missing funds at once."
Standing up like a black arrow in the dark he startled me so bad I had to take a step back. He held the ledger in his hands, and I held out mine.
"I'm tellin' ya, Barnabas, it was for lunch today, I asked 'em for it special and I had it in my pocket."
"And where is it now?" He asked this like he knew what the answer would be, and that he didn't expect anything helpful out of me.
"I--" I began, and then my eyes dropped away from looking at him. "I dunno." Then I looked up again, setting my chin. "But it's only a buck or so, and I'm tellin' ya where it came from. Just write it in your book an' I'll get another receipt from them tomorrow. They'll do it, I know they will." Well, I knew no such thing, but I could beg and then I could threaten and then I could get my damn receipt and that would make it okay, wouldn't it.
"I will do no such thing," he said, his voice dark.
"It was only lunch, Barnabas," I insisted, my heart starting to hammer as if my body knew I were to begin a very long and difficult race.
"The particulars of the matter are not the issue. Your carelessness is the issue here."
"No it isn't, I wasn't bein', I mean, I put it in my pocket--"
"That is precisely my point."
"But it's not," I insisted, though I know I shouldn't have. I had never learned to keep my mouth shut, and sometimes I just couldn't, no matter how much it would cost me. "That's not the point at all. It's only a buck or so and I tol' you I could get it, why does it matter?" The fluttering of my caught breath started in my throat at that moment as I watched his face darken.
"Are you contradicting me?"
I'd had to look that word up, the first time I heard it, and I nodded, feeling my face get hot, but man, he couldn't always be right. Could he? It was a piece of paper, after all and easily replaced. I told him I could get another just like it an' it was jus' for lunch, for Pete's sake.
"It's only a piece of paper," I said, my voice low.
"And it is my money you are spending. Now, do you have the receipt or don't you?"
He knew the answer to that, as well as I did. No receipt.
With a sigh, as if I were the biggest burden in the world, he turned to lay the ledger on top of the folio, and then bent to blow out the candle. He didn't really need it anyway, he just liked the smell of beeswax burning, I guess he thought it brought back old times.
"Into the kitchen, then, Willie. I fear I must teach you yet again the meaning of responsibility."
"What?" I demanded, but it was dark and I didn't see his hand as it reached to grab me by my shirt collar. He gave me a quick shake and then shoved me in the direction of the door, where I could see the thin line of light from the candles in the hallway. "But that's not fair!"
He was right behind me, right on me heels, voice hissing at me in the dark. "Without that piece of paper, you are no more than a thief."
Now I was flabbergasted, he was really taking this too far, and ignoring the voice in my head that told me to shut the fuck up, I said what I thought. "Like I'd be stupid enough to steal from a vampire."
With a smack to the side of my head, he sent me flying to land against the doorjamb, gathering me up with a grip on my arm. Pulled me close so that he could snarl in my ear, and while I tried not to breathe, I could see the flicker of lightning shadowing down the length of the main hallway.
"Your temperament demands much from my patience, Willie. And I fear I have let it go far too long." He took a tighter grip on my arm and I could see him out of the corner of my eye, lit by the single shaft of light, considering the matter. That's what always scared me, that look on his face, eyes half closed, narrow, watching me, his mouth in a thin line. And then it came. "You will go into the yard and cut a switch and then you will bring it back to me."
There was a twitch of warning in his eyes, and it would have been enough for me, that twitch always came before the Thing appeared, and that was one expression I did not want to see. But as if to add weight to that, he shook his head. "Any reluctance or argument from you will increase the punishment I am prepared to deliver, is that understood?"
Understood? What was not to understand? He really underestimated, sometimes, what I understood. Yeah, sometimes it took me a bit to figure out what he was getting at or to contain my anger and rage enough to comply with what he wanted, but a lack of understanding was not something I suffered from. Not when it came to his idea of punishment.
His hand squeezed hard on my arm and he said just one word to me.
Shit. I'd started at six strokes and now he'd added one more. For only one word, not even a whole sentence. Bound and determined, that's what he was. He wanted me under his thumb and he wanted me to know I was there. Oh, I knew I was there alright, but it didn't stop me from trying to get away. I mean, wouldn't you? Wiggle out of it, if you could? Sometimes I had, you know. Turned away his wrath and his idea of discipline, just by talking fast enough and smart enough. But he wasn't going for it this time, and so I shrugged and dipped my head and he let me go.
Walking away from him, crossing the hallway and going into the kitchen to open the back door was harder than you might think. I could feel him behind me, watching. Waiting. He would wait only so long, I knew, before he would take care of getting the switch himself.
That had happened in the beginning, when I was still new to his ways, and he wanted to enforce his hold over me. And the size of his thumb was a lot bigger than mine. Yeah, that's how you had to pick them out. The size of your thumb should match the diameter of the wood. Otherwise he'd just send you out again, and double the punishment. That had happened only once too. I was determined that it wouldn't happen this time.
The yard was full of rain and the denseness of mid-summer growth. There were willows and beeches and maples, and I found a branch from one of them, measured it with my thumb, and broke it off. Then I stood there, in the dark, the rain falling gently on my bent head as I concentrated on peeling the leaves and rough bark away.
Sometimes it took me longer than others, sometimes my hands were shaking so badly I couldn't do it properly, like when I knew he wasn't just mad, he was furious. In a way that told me that he was on the verge of tearing me apart. Not this time, though, he was just going to teach me a lesson and he was pretty calm about it. For the moment. But if I kept protesting or balking, he'd get riled up pretty quick and then I'd get torn to ribbons. Didn't want that so, with a hammering heart and not enough breath to let my brain think straight, I finished the switch up and walked back to the kitchen just as it began to rain very hard.
He was waiting by the fireplace, his head tilted back, and I made myself walk forward, instead of creeping forward, and placed the switch on the table. I was obedient, but I wasn't lining up for it, see. He knew that, though there had been some times when I'd bent myself over that table, when I knew I was at fault and there was no getting out of it. Not often, but once or twice. He could see that wasn't happening now, and I don't know if it was part of a game we played, or if it were a play and the script delivered at the last minute. I never thought about moments like these when I wasn't in them, so I could never figure out, when the moment arrived, whether I should, you know, bend over and take it, or make him make me.
Barnabas didn't have any problems. Hell, he probably got his script ages in advance. He pointed at the table in that way that made it very clear what he expected of me. Advance or pay the price. But I was already paying the price, wasn't I? My heart thudding against my ribs I walked up to the table and stood next to it. Waiting. Looking at him, feeling white and cold and scared all over. Didn't matter if I'd been through this a bunch of times, and would go through it a bunch more. Now I felt it, right in my gut, like fingers of ice squeezing over and over. My legs were already trembling and my mouth open to plead with him and I snapped it shut, biting my lip. He could see this of course, and probably sensed the rest of it.
He picked up the switch and I held my breath, watching him. Maybe he knew I was watching, hell, I don't know, but he certainly was drawing it out. Running the length of the switch along the palm of his left hand, feeling the flex of it, and anything that remotely resembled calm inside of me left with a sudden whoosh as he slashed the switch down in the air to test it, making me jump. Then he flicked the edge of it at my trousers.
"You will lower those," he said.
When I hesitated, he stepped forward, eyes glaring and dark, the switch hovering behind me.
"I will brook no disobedience," he said, absolutely calm.
It was my last warning. I knew that. Any further hesitation on my part could start chalking up the count faster than I could spit, Barnabas's own mind deciding what warranted upping the ante and what didn't. Tilting my head forward I watched as my hands, chilled from the rain, operated like they were coated in wax and just about as clumsy. Undoing my belt and pulling down the zipper. But underwear too? I didn't know and didn't dare ask.
"Yes," he said," eyeing my hands pausing on the elastic of my briefs. "Those as well."
He sounded impatient and bored, more than anything, and you know? It pissed me off, as much as I was scared, and so I shoved down my pants and briefs and bent over the table without hesitating again. My fists clenched, I locked my head against them, elbows braced against the wood and waited. But in spite of my determination to weather it out, my heart was locked in a pound that felt like horses galloping, and a fine sweat had broken out on my bare hips and legs. It was going to hurt, it always did, and though I would survive it, during the moment before, in the seconds of waiting before the first blow fell, I knew that I was melting with it, that scared, rabbity feeling that I would dash away from the table if he didn't hold me down.
His hand landed in the small of my back, using the edge of his palm to lift the tails of my shirt away from my backside. I felt a moment of gratitude, oh, thank you, Barnabas, because I was thankful that he knew I couldn't stay down on my own. What a strange thing. I never liked to think about it afterwards because I could never match it together, my gratitude and my fear, all at the same time.
Broad his hand was, and like ice. Five fingers and a circle of his palm, just like ice. It almost took away the heat from my skin like a sponge sucking up water from a puddle. A distraction, but only barely, as the first blow screamed through the air, and landed right hard, from hip to hip. I lurched while the pain sizzled, like a brand pressing down, deep, deep under the skin.
Hard to keep from yelling, and when the second blow fell, I'd been ready and had clamped down hard with my stomach muscles tight, and refused to let myself make any sound at all. Well, try that and by the third one you'd be whimpering too. You would, if you had the master of his art behind you, laying down each stripe of the switch all within an inch of each other. It felt a lot like the switch landed in the same place, over and over, but the nerves are so alive and each blow like the first, brand new and hot as fire, adding to the ones that have come before. Then you'll feel like screaming, knowing that there are four more blows to come. Doesn't sound like much, does it.
First time Barnabas had announced that I was to receive six, I'd scoffed, actually snorted my disbelief. Yeah, go on, six. Sure, yeah, I'm scared alright. That first time, the first blow had me yelping and by the time he was done, I'd been a puddle. The thin, flesh-cutting piece of wood had me at its mercy and at Barnabas' and I was begging him to stop. Not loudly, but he heard me alright, stopping between blow number four and blow number five, leaning forward to politely tell me that this would be a lesson to me not to be so dismissive of my master's wishes. Hey, I might be stupid about some things, but that was definitely the last time I indicated anything of the sort. He has a way of making a point, that one.
Like he was making it now. With precision, and, surprisingly, no lecture. Not yet, anyway. I figured I was getting it for the receipt and a few other things besides, and he would tell me in his own way, when he was damn good and ready.
But now, blow number four. It's like he measured them, close enough but not too close, and at that point, midway, the dark anger of pain had built up so that it was beyond me to contain it. My head was filled with the boil and sear of each blow all combined together and exploding behind my eyes and then vibrating back down my frame with nowhere to go. By the time he landed the next blow, it would be back again, black as pitch and twice as ugly, and my eyes began to water. Wasn't crying, no, never that. Not me. No, uh-uh. But it had nowhere else to go, see? Eyes watering, my nose began to run and those damn throat-tight sounds started. Blow number five and I was almost making them out loud. Yeah, almost.
But by blow number six, knowing there was still another one coming, waiting in the beyond, held back only by Barnabas' slow, measured pace, the tears were pouring out of my eyes and onto my hands and I knew I was biting the heel of my hand, choking back the desperate cry that wanted to launch out of me. Barnabas wouldn't care one way or another, and probably a sound out of me was, to put it in his words, most gratifying. But it wasn't gratifying to me and I held back.
That is until the seventh blow, where I could feel him clocking his arm all the way back and hear the whistle of wood through the air forever, tensing my whole body up, feeling the wood make its line seconds before I felt the shock of it. The lurch of my body against the table made it move, and Barnabas' hadn't pressed down quite hard, but he was finished. And so was I.
As he laid the switch down next to my head, I sank down into the table, my ribs pressing flat, my head buried in my now unclenched hands. Sweat poured off my head, and my whole face was wet. My legs were too, I could feel the cool air of the kitchen drying them off, and whether it was blood or sweat from my fear, I didn't really know. Didn't make any difference at this point, anyway. My choked back sounds of effort were muffled by the table top, by my arms that I wrapped around my head, and by my own struggling breath. Christ, why did I ever argue with him or talk back? Why?
I didn't know. It was like part of me, some bold, stubborn part refused to let him get the best of me, and the only way I could do that was to stand up to him. Sure, he always won in the end, but I had these moments, see, and that made a difference. To me, anyway. I doubt that he even could recall them, and if he did, they were shadowed by his own triumph over me and my inability to stand pain. Course later I regretted them, but at the time they seemed like a good idea.
I got dressed, pulling up my trousers and briefs, buckling the buckle and pulling up the zipper, all the while he delivered his lecture.
The list wasn't very long, but it was familiar. I had been whipped for the lack of receipt, the issue about Burke Devlin, and then the brandy. I could have argued with him about the brandy cause he really had never told me, but being in the position I was in, shaking all over, my hair stuck to my forehead with sweat, well, I just didn't feel up it to it, okay?
Wiping my face with both palms, I nodded at whatever he was saying, just to get him to go away. Wish it weren't true, but it was, I would do whatever he wanted just to get him to leave me alone. Not to hit me anymore. By the time he was done saying whatever it was he had to say, I was swaying on my feet, head hung low, hands still shaking, jittery whenever he made a motion with his hands that came too close.
"I trust you will keep this in mind in the future," he said.
"Now, go to bed, you're of no use to me now."
I went. Down the hall, holding my legs as straight as I could even while I mounted the stairs. It would be difficult to do the most common of things for a few days, whether it was to sit down to have a cup of coffee in the morning or even to go to the Y for a shower and a shave with hot water. I'd made that mistake not long after Old Man Spruell had pointed it out to me. You want to go to the Y, son, he'd told me, pointing out the advantages of hot water, and I'd taken him up on it.
The Y was a small two-story building with a pool and lockers on the ground floor and a gym and basketball court up top. I never used anything but the shower anyway. Only cost me a dollar at most and it was a damn sight easier than filling that old copper tub I'd found in the attic of the Old House. Not to mention emptying it. The Y was handy and it was fast, and I'd made the mistake of going in there only a few days after Barnabas had whipped me for something. What had it been? Something about not locking the doors properly and letting that brat David in. As if David was all innocent and not in the least inclined to break into the Old House if he wanted to.
At any rate, I'd gone to the Y and undressed and stepped into the communal shower, and was greeted by a cloud of steam and an unnatural silence. I didn't really notice it until I was halfway through washing my hair with a bar of Castile soap.
When I'd turned to see if I was suddenly alone, I found the group of them, four or five guys, eyeing me. Not what I was used to; in my experience guys ignore guys they don't know when in that kind of shower. You talked to your buddies and you left the other guy alone. But they were all looking, and when I followed the gaze of one guy who was really looking and letting it show, I figured out what they were all staring at. I looked down, too, and the back of me, all up and down my legs, was black and blue. Striped and mottled with the bruises fading into green and yellow. I'd worked out the stiffness enough to forget about the markings that were still there, and made the mistake of going out in public like that.
"You fall off a ladder, buddy?" one of them asked.
I nodded that yes I had, I mean, it seemed like as good excuse as any, and it turned out to come in handy from time to time. But my face felt hot and I wanted to crawl off into one of the cracks in the tile and vanish. Grown man letting himself get thrashed like that? Man, I just didn't want to know.
They left me alone though, and though you'd think that a juicy piece of gossip like that would have appeared at some point, it never did. Not at the Blue Whale, not at Spruell's barber shop, even with all his cronies just waiting for something to chew on, not anywhere. Barnabas would have been mad if he'd found out but those guys at the Y weren't the kind to talk, or at least I never heard another word about my mistake. But it shook me up some, to be exposed like that, and so I made myself wait before going back there to shower. And especially I would remind myself to check to see whether I had any bruises on my back or my butt or anywhere.
So now it would be days before I could bend and lift and carry like I normally could, but there would reach a point where I could work beyond the sting of pain, or the feeling that I was tearing the skin apart just by moving. Three days or so, that would do it.
But, as I opened my door to my room, I was reeking with sweat, and shivering in spite of that, and feeling like I wanted to throw up. Then I saw the window, and the rain pouring in, straight in, like it had been aimed at the floor, my bed, everywhere. The entire room was damp, and cold, like it was mid-winter. I went in and stood next to the bed, thinking I could salvage a good night's sleep in spite of it, but when I touched the pillow it was sodden. The mattress was too, beneath the lake of the blanket, and I started shivering and couldn't stop.
I hugged my arms close, feeling the explosion of something unpleasant inside of me and all at once, the tears started streaming down my face. Hot, like acid and as tight as I hugged myself, I couldn't make them stop. It was like somebody had thrown a heavy shroud of iron over me, so heavy that I was ready to fall to my knees and bawl like a little kid. I was cold and tired, and I hurt all over and all I wanted was a good night's sleep. Just one good night's sleep, was that too much to ask?
The door opened behind me and I turned, too late to stop crying or brush away the sweaty hair that had fallen in my eyes, or even to stop shivering. I just stood there, hunkered over, looking at him, in silence, while he, in turned looked back at me without saying a word. He was eyeing me like if I made so much as a move in the wrong direction, he'd be on me at once. Or that he saw the disaster that had become my room, and wanted to know how I'd brought it about. Like it was my fault. Which it wasn't. My head dipped, and I tried to stop crying, but swallowing and swallowing wouldn't help, and so I just shook with it and tried not to make a sound. Didn't want to look at him anyway.
"Willie," he said, and paused. He knew I was listening, and, between the beats of thunder, I could hear him perfectly well. "Willie, you will clean this up and make repairs in the morning."
Yeah, I was gonna do that alright. Didn't need him to tell me that. I brought one hand up to wipe at my upper lip and then rubbed the palm against my thigh. Circled my arm around me again and waited.
"In the meantime, for the meanwhile, you will sleep in the guest bedroom at the end of the hall. Just for the meanwhile."
The guest bedroom was one I had done early on, when it wouldn't make so much difference if I messed it up with the white paint. White curtains and a little brass bed, and a white comforter, all kept in readiness for that imaginary guest that Barnabas hoped someday to have. It was a narrow room, but the window was new, and the walls were clean and welcoming. That he was letting me sleep there startled me. Enough to make me look at him while I swiped at my face with the back of one hand.
"Is that understood?"
I nodded, swallowing again, forcing the tears back, trying to take a whole breath all at once.
"And there's this." He walked forward and handed me a piece of paper that I recognized. It was dotted with rain and some of the ink had run, but it was the handwritten receipt from the lobster roll stand.
"Where--?" I asked, my voice cracking.
"On the back step. You would do well to be less careless in the future."
I'd heard that one before, but what Barnabas had been doing on the back step was beyond me. I'd probably lost the damn thing when I went out there to sit, when they'd all been squashed in my pocket. I wanted to make a retort, but then I'd get a lecture about it all, and I was beyond tired. Too tired to even pretend to give a shit what he was talking about. I only nodded, and crumpled up the receipt and put it in my pocket. I'd burn it later, myself.
There was no apology from him, as he turned to go. Not even a nod or a glance to indicate that yes, I had brought a receipt for it and no, I was not a thief. While the first was true, the second sometimes wasn't, and he apparently didn't want to get into it with me. Well, I didn't want to get into it with him either. I just wanted to lay my head down on a clean, dry pillow and sleep. While my tears were drying on my cheeks and I didn't have any thoughts in my head. Thoughts kept me awake some nights and tonight. I wanted to simply fall asleep. So I watched him go without another word and my hands fell at my sides and I turned my head to look at the rain pouring in the window.
Gratitude on the one hand and the bitter, gut-eating anger on the other. How many times had I stood like this, rocked back on my heels by his offhand kindness gone fist in glove with his silver-sharp cruelty? You couldn't really be grateful to a man who let you sleep in a room that was warm and dry on a rainy night like this, not when he was the reason your window was broken in the first place. Could you? I couldn't. Or at least I thought so, 'cause it didn't make sense that you could feel both at the same time. But I did. My body ached with wanting that nice, warm little bed, however narrow, and to sleep between sheets that had never been used before. To pull that comforter up to my ears and not have any bugs crawl out of it.
Rain gusted through the window hard enough to send a spray of water in my face. Sending a shiver through me like an electric shock. If I kept this up I'd have pneumonia by morning, and that would never do. I gathered up some dry clothes from the dresser and tucked the courting candle under my arm. The guest bedroom might be nice, but I still needed something to sleep by. And Barnabas couldn't begrudge me that. Well, he could, but fuck him if he couldn't deal with it. I marched out the door to my bedroom and into the hall, not caring if he was lurking somewhere nearby and watching. The hallway was dark, and I would never know.
In the little guest bedroom, amazingly dry and quiet, I lit the courting candle and placed it on the nightstand, and shucked my wet clothes. Put on something dry and making sure the door to the hallway was closed, slid between the sheets that parted like a blessing and closed around me with soft, velvet sounds. On my stomach, of course, the comforter piling around my ears and shutting off the sounds of the Old House in the storm till I felt I was away and cocooned in a soft distant cloud. I could feel sleep coming at a mighty brisk pace, and knew I wouldn't have time to feel sorry for myself much longer. That was good.
In the morning, I'd be stiff, but I'd get my work done, and Barnabas would move on. He was not, except for me trying to dig up his mother's grave, one to hold grudges. Not once he'd whipped me or made his point in some other way. And then I'd move on, as well. On to some other project or chore that I would throw myself into. Just another day's work, just another ordinary day.