Willie raced up the stairs, all out and breathless, his hands grabbing the next riser as soon as his feet found purchase. At any moment, a large, scarred hand was going to reach for him, he just knew it, grab him and pull him down to the floor and finish what it had started. He slipped a bit on the top stair, his leather soled shoes missing their grip on the carpet, and then he looked back, over his shoulder. Adam had Barnabas in a death grip, and though Julia shrieked and tried to pull him off, Willie knew that she would fail. Adam would kill Barnabas, and then he would turn on Julia, and then he would come looking for Willie.
The noises and shouts and groans followed him down the hall as he raced towards the servant's stairs that led up to the third floor. The stairs were little used, had slats of wood missing from half of each step, and they were narrow and dark. Adam was not likely to want to use them, even to find Willie, whom he'd always viewed with narrow-eyed hate.
With mouth open in the dusty, still air, vision useless in the dark, Willie felt his way down the tiny passage, either side of it lined with doors or open doorways to rooms. Some were servants' rooms, some were storage rooms, all far down on the list of areas to be fixed up. At the far end of the hall, he pushed his way into a room and shoved the door closed. The room was so far away from the world Adam knew that he was very unlikely to try to find it. And if he did, he would make so much noise that Willie would hear him long before his arrival, and could make a hasty exit out the window. If it would open.
The room was much brighter than the hallway, as the torn curtain let in a sliver of moonlight, showing a swath of the scared floor in white and dark shadows. Holes in the panes of the window let in a slight dampness so the room was at once cold and dusty, the air somehow rank for all its closeness to the sky. And whether the sourness of the air came from the room having been closed up or from the fact that all the secrets and evilness of the Old House rose up through the ceilings and floors until the badness collected there, Willie did not know. He could only throw himself into the darkest corner, where the blackness collected like the bottom of a pocket of a black coat that is only worn at night.
He folded his arms around his legs and hugged his knees to his chest and buried his head against them. He could no longer hear the noises from down on the first floor and whether that was because they had stopped or because Adam was now looking for him did not matter. His legs were shaking, and the arms holding them shook, too. Trying to contain this didn't work, his teeth only gritted together until he feared they would turn to powder. And not for the first time, he regretted Barnabas taking him out of Windcliffe.
There the horrors were all known, well known. Like the food, or the treatment, or the systematic daily grind that shrank each human being into a bored, controllable entity. He had thought that Windcliffe was bad, had wanted out so much that he'd leaped at Barnabas' offer, even though part of him told him it was a very bad idea.
The memories of his time before Windcliffe were faded and greyed like an old newspaper too long tacked to the wall. Even fainter were his memories from before that, from his life at the Old House. He remembered his rage and his fear, only he couldn't remember what they were for. He remembered shouting at someone and then he remembered cowering a second later, and feeling his head slam into a wall, falling to the floor, and standing up, tasting blood in his mouth. And each day the sunset brought an unrecognizable horror that he could not even give a name to, let alone a face.
The counselors at Windcliffe had given up on trying to help him remember quite early on in his stay there, preferring to give him medication and letting it go at that. And with the medication had come a cocoon of forgetfulness, a hazy comfort zone in which he could exist from day to day and not feel he had to worry about the memories that he could not define or identify.
The cocoon lasted and held him close and then Barnabas had come. Come to get him out of Windcliffe and take him home. Only when he got home, arrived at the Old House, he couldn't quite remember how on earth it was that he belonged there. The only thing he remembered with any assuredness was Maggie Evans; her face was emblazoned in his mind, although the reasons as to why her face was so clear to him were like sludge moving in the bottom of an old, smoked glass jar. No matter which way you turned the jar, there was never enough light to see past the sludge. He'd been forbidden to bother her early on, and so the sludge remained still. For now.
But when Adam had attacked him, the other memories had come to him, unbidden, with a force that had knocked him so hard, knocked him so flat that he could only lay there on the carpet of the sitting room, mouth open in a silent scream that shattered no one's ear drums but his own.
The experiment with Adam was a dreadful mistake but no one seemed to think this but him. No one protested the awfulness of it but him. No one seemed to be afraid of Adam but him, and yet he was always the one who was shut in with the beast, the awful monster who would not be tamed. And no matter how hard he tried to work himself around it, he was always afraid. And told not to be.
Until that moment when Adam had gotten loose, he'd managed it somehow. Day to day, moment by moment, controlling the fear, lying in the face of danger. Tasting the bitterness of that fear with every swallow. But then Adam had gotten out, chased him up the stairs to the first floor, and as Willie had slid into the front door, shoes slipping on the untacked carpet runner, he knew he was about to die. The sudden memory that Barnabas had threatened his life on not a few occasions was quickly ignored as Adam grabbed him and wrapped his large hands around Willie's throat. Air was trapped in his lungs and outside of his lungs and no matter how hard he struggled, none of it moved, only his heart thudded in his chest, bursting to get out, his throat shrinking as the hands gripped tighter and tighter.
And then he had faintly heard the front doors opened and then closed. And Barnabas' voice, when he heard that, he'd never felt so grateful, so lucky to have such a kind man looking out for him. Barnabas would stop Adam, and get rid of him, send him away or something. And with him gone, Julia Hoffman's reasons for staying would surely be gone too. And then Willie and Barnabas could return to their previous, peaceful life together, fixing up the Old House to its former glory.
Suddenly Barnabas had stood above them both, his face glowering, silver-headed cane raised, clenched by a tight fist, the wings of his caped coat lifting in the air.
"Let Willie GO!!"
Willie was looking right up into that angry face when he shouted it. And though part of Willie was grateful that Barnabas was, at last, protecting him, something in his mind snapped open. Adam did not let go, and the cane fell, thudding against Adam's broad back, rising to fall again, and Willie had to shut his eyes. Didn't matter though that he couldn't actually see the cane coming at him, didn't matter that it wasn't actually hitting him. He could still feel it hitting Adam as the force of the blows were carried through Adam's body and into his own. Barnabas may as well have been hitting him. As he had before.
As he had all the times before. As he had with anything he could lay his hands on, anything to punish Willie with, anything to make him obey, to be obedient instead of rebellious. Anything to make him toe the line until he became the type of servant that Barnabas was used to having. In the before time, before Windcliffe, Barnabas had been anything but kind to him. The medicine was now well out of his system, and the faint cocoon that remained had been torn asunder by the day-today exposure to the madness that existed in the Old House.
And as he looked up into that face, with its grim scowl, dark eyes flashing with anger, cane held in an experienced hand, his mind was wide open to the truth and his mouth opened to make a sound for which he had no air. But the scream echoed in his head just the same, continuing on in a high shrill, even after they pulled Adam off him, even after Adam actually turned on Barnabas, and Willie raced up the stairs.
As he huddled in the corner of a darkened garret room, the scream would not stop. He wanted to be able to believe that Barnabas Collins had his best interests at heart, that he was at the Old House and not at Windcliffe because Barnabas cared about him. He wanted to believe it so bad, but the scream would not let him. The scream told him the truth, held his face up to it and made him see it for what it was. It showed him everything from the moment he'd opened up Barnabas' coffin to the tender innocence of the world, and he could not bear it. But the memories marched on, they would not stop, and the scream carried them. Not even clamping his hands over his ears stopped it, stopped the memories from surfacing.
Barnabas and his coffin, his cane, his shouts for Willie to come here now.
The threats, the beatings, blood on his chin from being thrown across the room to land against the stove. The victims of Collinsport, all dying one by one. And Maggie, sweet Maggie, the memories of her rose from the sludge, making him hot with shame at his share in her treatment. The never ceasing promise of death, of more pain than anyone could bear, and Maggie, thrusting her chin out, had practically welcomed death, welcomed It rather than Barnabas.
And the madness had taken her, taken her and saved her, and brought her a new life where she did not remember anything about her stay at the Old House at all. Madness had saved her, for a time, like it had saved him at Windcliffe. But now, not even madness would stop the truth from marching through his brain, up and down as though through little corridors of memory, shouting, see here, Willie? This is when he beat you for lying, this is when he beat you for rudeness, this is when he beat you for trying to warn someone about him, for all the times you did what was right. For all the times you stood up to him, he beat you until you could no longer stand.
The protestation did not stop the scream, he could barely hear his own voice above it.
And that belt. He'd thrown it over the cliff's edge, and after a time, Barnabas had bought another one, and beat him with the new, fresh-cut leather so sharp that it actually bit through his trousers and into his skin. He had actually felt the blood running down his legs that time, a beating so much harder than the one Jason had given to him that the blood had actually pooled at his feet. Passing out would have been a blessing, because then he would have been unconscious when Barnabas had dragged him downstairs and thrown him in the little cell in the basement, and he would have been unaware of the darkness and the pain, and the smell of blood drying on his body.
With no candle and no blanket, his fearsweat strong in the damp still air, he huddled on the cot in the total darkness, his body jumping at every sound, at every creak of woodrot that sounded like a whisper, every echo of Maggie's voice begging him to let her out, and he could not believe that he'd left her to this. If he'd known, he would have thrown open the cell door and carried her out himself, Barnabas be damned.
The scream was louder now, blessedly louder to cut out the memory of her voice, and of the house moving above him, and of his own breath ragged in his throat. His hands moved to cover his eyes, his face was wet, and his mouth tasted like copper, and he suddenly realized that he was not in the cell in the basement and that the door to the room he was in was not locked, however much he wished it was. And as he looked up at the shaft of moonlight on the floor, wider now with the depth of night, the scream stopped.
All the memories were there now, vivid and real and the lack of echoes from the sound in his head made the silence of the garret room all that more stark. No surcease from the darkness or the horror, then, the memories from yesterday slid with staggering ease into the memories of this moment. And a voice calling for him.
Willie, come here now.
He did not know if Barnabas could find him, did not care if he did or not, only knew that he was not moving. If he stayed very, very still, the memories would go away, maybe Maggie would stop pleading with him, and maybe the horrible truth about Barnabas would be gone too. He shut his eyes, and clapped his hands over his ears and buried his face once again against his knees. The darkness, like a still blanket, covered him, and the pocket of darkness in the corner swallowed him, and he shrank into it as if pressing himself into the arms of his mother.
Sounds of feet on stairs, of doors opening and closing, of the house shifting as it always did when unexpected weight settled on its floors. Voices, one high, one low, calling him.
He was going to stay in this moonlit room forever, with the faint, dank breeze through broken panes, the rough, scarred floor made smooth by the darkness, and himself a part of it, absorbed by the stillness and safe forever.
Someone was on this floor now, the wood creaking beneath them, the pops and cracks of movement across the wood shattering the stillness.
"He couldn't have come up here, he couldn't have."
That was Julia, her brain seizing on what was impossible.
"There's no where else he can be, he must be here."
That was Barnabas, making the impossible possible just by the force of his conviction. Something in Willie's stomach did a slow roll at the sound of it. Julia's voice was just irritating, but the other voice, the dark sound of the master of the house, settled inside him like a weight, and his heart responded by thumping out loud. Surely they could hear that? He struggled to stop his heart, stop it so they wouldn't hear it, so they would go away and let him die in peace.
A hand on the doorknob and the grunt of effort as the door was pushed wide.
"He couldn't be in here, Barnabas, it's taking two of us to open this door. The frame is all warped, he can't--"
The door was opened all the way, scraping against the slanted floor, making yet another scar on the dark, patient surface. And candlelight, flickering like stars, casting a slender cloud of brightness into the room. Willie closed his eyes and shrank back. Heard the footsteps but did not see the yellow light mixing with the silver on the floor, did not see the expressions on their faces as they stood above him.
I am not here.
"Julia, hold this."
"Do as I say, doctor."
Silence then, broken only by the sound of someone bending down until they were close enough to lay hands on him. Two hands one on each shoulder. Willie flinched, but kept his head down, eyes closed, arms wrapped around his knees, fists clenched.
"What's the matter with him? What's he do--"
"Be quiet!" snapped Barnabas, cutting off her questions, making them disappear briskly into a small sound of surprised shock.
Willie jolted back at the sound of the reprimand, his body shuddering against the wall, his breath thumping in time with his heart. He could hear himself breathing, now, in the silence, now that the scream had stopped, now that Barnabas had shut Julia up, and he wished, suddenly, that someone would start talking. About anything, anything at all, so that he wouldn't have to hear the sound of his own breathing, ragged and scared, useless and giving him away.
Hands gripped his arms now, were pulling him forward, and his breath turned into shudders with sound, somehow making a sound of protestation without any meaning.
"Did Adam hurt him, did he--"
The hands vanished from him, and he heard Barnabas stand and heard the startled air that Julia drew into her lungs.
"One more word, Dr. Hoffman, and it will be your last. Until I give you leave to speak, you will be silent, do you understand me?"
Perfect silence, exactly what he did not want, and the sudden violence in the very small room was making him sweat again. Dampness lifted from his skin into his clothes, from the back of his neck into his hair, from his armpits into his sleeves, from the backs of his knees, it rolled down his calves. He was so hot his fists were slipping from their locked position against each other, and when the hands came at him again, it was easy for them to pull his head up. He felt someone push his hair back from his eyes.
"Willie, can you hear me?"
The same hands that had hurt him in the past now cupped around his face with startling softness. Of course, that was just the beginning, soon they would hurt him again, he knew they would, and with a soundless cry, he tried to pull back.
"Open your eyes, Willie, look at me."
No, no, no.
He would not, he could not bear it, not now, not ever, to look into those eyes, and see the strength and the anger there, to know that the memory of the pain was true. He wanted to avoid it. Maybe it wasn't true. If he kept his eyes closed it never would be.
The hand moved to the back of his neck, cupping the moisture there, and the heat until Willie had to duck his head forward to escape it.
"He's soaking with sweat and he's shaking all over. What's wrong with him, Dr. Hoffman?"
At this question, she had one word of reply, her voice somewhat timid. "Shock."
"From Adam." It was not a question, so there was no reply, and in the darkness Willie felt himself wanting to answer.
No, it was not Adam. It was you. Adam was always honest, I always knew he hated me. But you lied to me. You lied to everyone, but mostly you lied to me. And you hurt me.
The words, thankfully, would not come.
Barnabas would never want to hear them, and if Willie managed to speak them, and Barnabas did hear them, then it would be him being threatened, not Julia. And it would be far worse than a stern reprimand.
The hand moved down behind his shoulders, and another looped itself under his knees, and he was lifted as easily as if he were nothing. Which he was, nothing and no one, as long as he kept his eyes closed, as long as his hands didn't touch anything or anyone except himself. He could ignore the roughness of Barnabas' lapel against his cheek, ignore the sweat that instantly soaked the cloth against his forehead as his head lolled forward. He kept his hands clenched to his chest, kept them fists, kept everything at bay, and held the darkness to him as hard as he could.
Dizziness gathered itself in his head, and he vaguely realized that he was being carried out of his little moonlit room, his sanctuary that had been breached, carried down stairs that moaned and complained, through the darkness that was behind his eyes. He could hear Julia's breathlessness as she hurried ahead, and the thump of Barnabas' heart beneath his ear, and feel the heat beneath his knees where Barnabas' hand held him close. And suddenly he could smell the familiar scent of his own room, the odor of clothes hanging to dry in front of the grate, the sharp dampness of mortar crumbling from between brick, and the wood oil on the floor that had grown old in the darkness of time.
Barnabas began to lay him on the bed, lay him out as if for the morgue, or for a beating, which he'd done more than once, rushed behind Willie up the stairs, cast him to the bed, and hauled out Willie's own belt and beat him with it, leaving him in a stupor of his own pain and sweat, shaking with reaction, and pretending that it wasn't so bad, wasn't so bad, and wondering how long it would be to the next time.
His hands reached up to clutch around Barnabas' neck, slipping to fall against the sturdy lapels, his hands like claws, holding on, pulling the other man close, his voice sifting up through his throat like broken mist.
"No, no, Barnabas, please no, please don't, please--"
There was a clink of metal against marble as Julia put the candelabra down, and he felt Barnabas' hands cover his own, and heard him take a breath.
"Go and get me some clean water and a cloth."
Silence in the room, save for the sounds he was still making, that he could not stop making, and then the sharp movement of Julia's heels against the wood as she left.
He was alone with Barnabas now, alone in the darkness that suddenly did not seem as safe as it had a moment ago, and his eyes flew open to see that white face, looming above him, haloed by the candlelight from his dresser, and those eyes, unreadable, only two glints in the shadows.
Fresh sweat now, breaking out on his forehead, and he actually lifted himself up by will alone, as if there were strings attached to him, pulling him close to Barnabas. The water was for him, he knew it was, after Barnabas had whipped him, the water would be to clean the blood away, but it would have no effect on the pain, or the memory, or the anger that he knew was there.
"I'm sorry, Barnabas, so sorry." Gasping, frantic now. "Please don't punish me, I'm sorry, I won't do it again, I wouldn't ever betray you, you got to know that--"
One large, cool hand cupped itself behind his neck, the other slowly pried his fingers from the cloth of Barnabas' lapel. He tried to fight against it as he was laid back against the pillows, but he knew it was already over. The whipping was coming and he hadn't the resistance to fight it, or the breath to protest it, or the strength even to withstand it. His eyes on
Barnabas, he watched as his shoes and socks were removed, the blanket pulled away until there was nothing but cool sheet beneath him. Or as Barnabas' fingers, unerringly close, undid the buttons of his
shirt, and pulled the soaked cloth away from his body, leaving his arms in the sleeves, but letting the night air cover him like a caress.
He heard rather than saw the door opened, and knew that Julia was in the room with a basin of water and the cloth Barnabas had asked her to bring.
"Put it down and get out."
"But Barnabas, I should give him a sedative, something to calm him down, his nerves must be gone, he should have--"
Barnabas whirled on her, grabbing both her arms and shoving her towards the door. "I said get out," he snarled, his voice low in his throat. "You have only my word that you will regret it if you do not do as I say."
Julia left, and Willie could barely stand the sight of her white face, and was glad that she was gone even though it meant that Barnabas' latest punishment would now begin.
As Barnabas approached the bed, Willie shrank back, his heels failing to find purchase on the sheets, the brass headboard against his head cold and shocking. And then Barnabas sat on the bed, right next to Willie, his hip near Willie's hip, and Willie's mind went reeling. The last time they'd been this close Barnabas had bitten him, held Willie to him, clasped him close, and sank his teeth into Willie's neck, sending the shock through his whole body as Barnabas' mouth had settled there and with the pressure of his tongue, sucked against him, drawing the blood from his veins, and sighing with pleasure as he swallowed.
"No, Barnabas, please not that, not that, not that, anything but that--"
His hands flew up to his neck, fists next to his ears, eyes locked on Barnabas, on that mouth, which would surely part now and reveal the fangs that were Barnabas' greatest weapon. But Barnabas only reached for the cloth, and soaked it in the basin, and reached for his face.
Silent cries had been Maggie's way, large tears spilling down her face with no sound. It wasn't his way; the tears escaping him wrung the cry from his throat, hard as he tried to swallow against it, hard as he tried to pull away and hide his face. But there was Barnabas, one hand at the back of his neck again, the other wiping his face with the cloth.
"Easy, now, Willie, Adam is not going to hurt you again. And I would never hurt you, you know that. I'm not going to punish you."
Another sob, and the knowledge that Barnabas didn't know he remembered made itself at home in his head. Barnabas thought he had forgotten the past and until tonight, he had. Blissfully unaware, not needing the past, not wanting it, but it had shoved its way in just the same, the past and the truth all coming together with one sharp, painful click. He was shaking now, the tears coming harder and he realized that he could never let Barnabas know he knew.
Barnabas must always believe that he'd forgotten about the before time, about the beatings and the cruelty, because if he thought Willie remembered, then he would have to do something about it, the way he did something about anything that threatened him. Nastily. Permanently.
Barnabas' treatment of him since his return from Windcliffe had been a cakewalk compared to what had gone on before. Yes, there were threats, and nasty jobs, but nothing like the way it used to be. And as long as Barnabas wasn't aware of the truth now in Willie's head, the better off he'd be.
Shaking, he let Barnabas wipe his face and neck without pulling back. He stayed as still as he could as Barnabas soaked the cloth with more cool water and cleaned the sweat from his shoulders and chest. And tried not to jerk away as Barnabas took his hand and wrapped it slowly in the cold cloth, moving his fingers gently between the muscles there.
"Did he scare you?" Barnabas said, almost as if speaking to his hands. "I thought he was gentle, I thought he wanted to be like we were, civilized."
Between shuddering breaths, and the shock of having Barnabas tend to him, Willie remembered something he'd forgotten. It had always been there, buried beneath the cocoon of safety, that Barnabas could not see the truth for what it was, and especially when it got in the way of something he wanted. He could never see that Maggie wasn't going to be Josette, and the fact that Adam was not like him was incomprehensible to him. Willie remembered the slap in the face he'd gotten for pointing this fact out, this obvious flaw in Barnabas' character, that he could never see the world for what it was.
He didn't say it now, but it helped to calm him somehow, knowing this weakness about Barnabas. Barnabas would never see that Willie knew the truth because he wouldn't allow himself to see it. It might be right in front of him, but his desire to have Willie look up to him would keep him from even coming close to imagining that his simple servant knew every evil turn of his master's heart.
The tears slowed, and though his body shrank back from the contact, his mind was nodding at him.
See? It will be alright. But better make sure.
The cloth wiped his face again, and he shivered as his eyes met Barnabas'. Surely he could see the truth there?
No. He didn't. He tended to Willie, wiping the damp hair back from his face, buttoning up his shirt, pulling a single cool sheet up to cover him with. He even arranged the pillows, and folded the damp cloth and settled it against Willie's forehead, his expression never once indicating any awareness of the change in his servant. Willie watched from beneath the fringe of cloth as Barnabas got up and blew out all the candles but one, Willie's fear of the darkness something he'd never mocked, not in all this time.
"You rest now," Barnabas said as he walked to the door, "and I'll check back on you later." And the door closed behind him.
Left in the pale darkness, his eyes sinking closed beneath the weight of the cloth, Willie pulled it away with one hand and wiped his face with it and let it fall to the ground. The silence of the Old House settled around him, broken only by the sound of a door slamming and then a raised voice that soon went silent. He had no idea what had gone on in Barnabas' head, but he knew he would not soon forget the sound of a voice raised in his defense. Barnabas set such a store by Adam and yet he'd beaten him to protect Willie. That was worth something, at least. It would be worth a lot more if Barnabas had ever said he was sorry, or if ever acknowledged any of what had gone on between them.
He felt the tears slip into his ears before he realized he was still crying, silent tears like Maggie used to make and now he understood why she made them. Tears of deep grief came from the soul, and where there was no voice, they made no sound. Barnabas didn't care about him like he'd thought, and his bringing Willie home from Windcliffe, where he never should have been in the first place, was more for Barnabas' benefit than for Willie's. Everything since his release had been a lie, and now to survive, he had to continue the lie. The one where he was happy to be here, willing to help out, minding his manners, doing what he was told. He had to live the lie, the lie that Barnabas loved him.
Rolling over on his side, he buried his face in the pillow, already soaked with his tears and the water from the damp cloth. Tomorrow, tomorrow when he had to put face to the lie, would come soon enough. Tonight was the last night, the only night, that he would let himself think about the truth.