What we learned her is love taste bitter when it's gone
Past yourself forget the light, things look dirty when it's on
Funny how it comes to pass, that all the good slips away
And there's no one around you can remember being good to you
by Matchbox 20
There was no footfall. No tattletale creak of floorboards. No whisper of breath. It was only the shadow dropping across his shoulder that warned him--and that came too late.
"How dare you appear in such a state?"
Willie jerked up from the hearth, spilling kindling across the carpet. He had no time to scramble off his knees before Barnabas was reaching for him, the vampire's fist tangling in his shirtfront to yank him to his feet.
Willie yelped. "What? What is it?"
"You are filthy."
"I…I was working outside," he stuttered, confused. "I was gonna change once I got the fires lit…."
"You should know better," Barnabas snarled. "What if Miss Winters chanced to visit? Would you answer the door reeking of perspiration, your shirt torn?"
"I will not have such disrespect in this house, Willie. When you are working inside, you will see to it that you are clean and properly attired." A shake, hard enough to rattle Willie's teeth in his head. "Do I make myself clear?"
The fist let him go, but only so it might clout him across the ear. Willie fell side3ways, catching himself on his hands and knees. He knelt there on the hearthstones, head down, ears ringing, his body shaking even as he tried to keep himself still. If he tried to rise, tried to protest further, Barnabas would only hit him again.
"You will not argue with me," the vampire's voice hissed above him. "You will find your place in the order of things, and you will keep it, or I will remove you from that order once and for all." The voice sharpened, its edges slicing the air above Willie's vulnerable neck, leaving a bloodless trail of goose bumps in its wake. "Do I make myself clear?"
Willie nodded, then realized that wasn't enough and whispered, "Y-yes."
"I did not hear you."
"Yes," he said, louder. "All right, Barnabas, I hear ya. I…I'll clean up before I come in the house from now on." Then soft again, contrite. "I'm…I'm sorry. I won't forget again."
Such small matters, really. Dirty hands and a dirty face. A scruffed, tired body smudged with sweat, as the bodies of working men were apt to be after a hard day's labor in the August sun. An untucked, sweat-stained shirt, torn from cutting the brush around the front steps, so Miss Winters might find a clear path to the Old House door, rather than a hedgerow of briars and thorns.
But there were no small matters in the Old House anymore. Not so far as Barnabas Collins was concerned. Willie was back from San Diego, back where he belonged, and Barnabas intended to keep him there. More. He intended that Willie should pay for the trip, for every idle moment that he had been away.
He waited for the night when Barnabas' loss of face in permitting the trip would be forgotten. Or if not forgotten, at least sufficiently paid for that Willie might take a breath without fear. Surely Barnabas could not stay angry forever. Surely, there would come a time when his anger would be sufficiently appeased.
But that moment did not come.
Willie waited. And waited. And still…it did not come.
He woke to the murmur of the ocean in his ear, and opened his eyes upon darkness.
It took him a moment to realize that the voice of the water he was listening to was the cold dirge of the Atlantic, rather than the softer, warmer song of the Pacific. That the soft summer breeze breathing dawn over his bed was full of the damp bracken smell of Main, rather than the spicy eucalyptus of southern California.
But there was no eucalyptus here, was there?
No eucalyptus, and no children snuggling their warm little bodies against his, and no aromas of bacon and pancakes and eggs wafting up the sun-bright stairs to welcome him to breakfast.
He was home.
Back in the Old House.
Three months and counting now, and he still wasn't used to it.
The sweat-soiled top sheet slid to his waist as Willie sat up in bed and swung his legs over the side of the mattress, listening for whatever it was that had awakened him before the alarm had had a chance to shrill. The silence deepened, then broke, a dark, throaty growl of thunder that rattled the glass in the open window and rang the bed's brass frame like a bell.
Another soggy day in Main's monsoon season, with Willie's clothes mildewing to his body as he seated. It was going to be another pisser of a week.
But, fuck it. What difference did it make. It was all the same to him, wasn't it? He rubbed his hands over his face, grimacing at the bristle of his morning beard, and swept his hair out of his eyes. He didn't want to get up, but there was no point in going back to bed. He couldn't sleep. He was lucky to get two or three hours a night now, and he'd had that already. Even his nightlight knew it; the candle had sputtered out and died before the first glow of dawn could slip across the sill and wake him.
Well. At least downstairs there was work waiting for him to do--an endless raft of chores that might bear him up a while longer, if he let them. All he had to do was keep doing them--and doing them--and doing them--and before he knew it, another useless day would pass him by.
Work was healing, though it had yet to heal him. Work was numbing, though it had yet to numb him.
It wasn't much, but at least it was something to hope for.
Willie's clothes were still damp from the previous day's labor, clinging like gutter mold to his sleep-stiffened limbs. He pulled them on, then scuffed his way downstairs, hoping for breakfast, only to find the milk that he'd forgotten to put away the night before had curdled in the heat. He poured the resulting sludge down the sink, following its bluish-white trail into another, sunnier kitchen that shimmered in the nothingness before his eyes: Gina at a table, pouring orange juice into recycled jelly glasses, and Irene at the stove, flipping pancakes and frying eggs. There were yellow curtains at the sun-limned windows, and a pot of red geraniums on the tabletop.
He almost smiled, remember the happiness of that soft spring morning, then shook his head to dispel the memory, watching Danny's welcoming grin slip down the drain with the last of the spoiled milk. Not even done with the first chore of the day, and here he was, already lost in dreaming. He would have to do better than that if he wanted to get through the day.
But still. Some days it was hard for him to stop thinking about them. Especially on days like this, when the weather in his soul was as dark and dreary as it was outside.
He missed his friends. Missed the love that they had lent him in the short time that he'd had them near. He wanted them back. But that was the one thing that he knew he would never have. He was here, and they were there, three thousand miles west in San Diego. And that, as Barnabas swore he would ensure, was the end of that.
You will continue to write to them, Willie, so as not to arouse suspicion. But in all other respects, you would do best to forget them. You have much to attend to here. Much that requires your…undivided…attention.
Yes, Barnabas, Willie had answered, knowing the pause was no accident, and shivering from the threat it implied. Yes, Barnabas, I will.
But how do I cut them out of my soul? Huh? How do I do that, and still stay alive?
He hadn't asked that last out loud. He hadn't dared. But he'd thought it, and he'd worried at it ever since. He might forget the Logans, as impossible as that seemed to him this morning. But how would he ever remove the imprint of their love from his heart? He didn't know how to do that. No one had ever loved him enough before. Not as the Logans did, with such faith and openness and trust.
Once felt, such emotions could not be easily dispelled, he knew. Not without Willie forever knowing what he was missing.
He missed them now.
Rain slid down the windowpane, finding the cracks in the glass to puddle inside the frame. Willie threw the milk carton in the trash and brushed his hand across his pants. Never mind his breakfast. What work could he do? Finding something to occupy his mind was suddenly necessary. Imperative. He had to get busy, or he'd wind up sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, wasting another day in gloom.
Barnabas wouldn't like that. He was impatient for Willie to finish painting the study. He'd said so, only last night, with a glower to emphasize the order.
But it was much too damp in the house to paint. Willie would have to find another project to keep him occupied, and explain his reasoning to Barnabas later.
He walked out onto the kitchen porch, looking out over dawn-silvered grass bent to the mud and rain. The gravel he had raked in last year was holding, keeping the dirt driveway from sliding down the hill to Collinwood's front gates. Barnabas had argued against graveling the drive at first, calling it a waste of time. But now Willie suspected his master was secretly pleased with the results.
What could he do today that might be of similar use?
The workshed, he decided. It was tumbling, and it needed to come down before another could be built it its place. He would be working in the rain, but that wouldn't bother him any. It was warm on the outside and he was going to be damp no matter what he did, considering how moisture clung to the air inside the Old House. At least outside he could take his shirt off and let the rain bathe him as he sweated.
He went down to the basement to find a sledgehammer in the pile of tolls stored beneath the stairs. He picked up a crowbar. A couple of heavy screwdrivers. A hammer with a dovetail heavy enough to handle spikes. He found the gloves meant to protect his hands, then left them in the toolbox. They'd only get wet, and he'd sweat in them besides. He hated the clammy feel of canvas clinging to his fingers, itching like a second skin he couldn't shed.
Just as he couldn't shed his bittersweet memories of Gina Lee, no matter how much he might wish to, to save himself the pain.
Now, you just stop that, he growled at himself, slamming through the kitchen door and stalking back out onto the porch. You stop that right now. Just get to work and never mind the bullshit, Willie, all right? We ain't got time for it now.
Water sloshed around his boots as he stomped out to the workshed. He slung his tools into the back of the truck, where they would at least be out of the mud, then lowered the tailgate so he could reach them again as needed them. The haft of the ten-pound sledge made a satisfying weight in his hands.
The workshed was a tottering old building, half lumber, half tin, that had been added to the property some time within the last forty or fifty years. Termites had infested it, and what they had missed, carpenter ants had digested. It wouldn't be too difficult to knock it down, except for the stone corners, erected with scrap granite from some other, older building long since demolished. Willie leaned the hammer against the Chevy's wheel well, then stripped off his shirt and threw it onto the tailgate of the truck. The thin cotton tee was already soaked through with rain, so he might as well use it to wipe his face once he got dirty.
Shaking his hair from his eyes, Willie retrieved his hammer and lined up his sights on a support beam. Rain slicked his skin, spilling rivulets across the muscles of his chest and arms as he reared back and let the hammer swing forward, full force. The beam shattered into a double arc of splinters, shearing in half under the first blow. If he was lucky, most of the wood would be just rotten. He'd have the workshed down and cleared in no time at all.
Almost without him realizing it, the heavy blows of the hammer took up the rhythm of his heart. Willie smashed through another support beam, feeling the glide of muscles that had once been slack, but which were now accustomed to prolonged heavy labor. Carpenter ants, tossed like splinters from their next, landed in the mud and scurried for cover. Willie didn't mind them, even the ones that bee-lined for the house. He had already treated the baseboards and columns of the mansion with boric acid. Any ants that sought shelter there would be doomed the moment they crossed the threshold.
His hammer cracked against thicker, heavier wood without smashing through. The rebound caught him by surprise and made him stagger back a step. Willie shifted the haft of the sledgehammer in his hands, finding a firmer purchase, and squared his footing for a second assault. Blow after blow landed on the timbers, until they, too, cracked and gave way. He stopped for a breather once the last of them was down, panting into the mist of the rain, and reached for his discarded shirt to wipe his face.
None of the repairs he'd done to Irene's rambling old house in San Diego had been this demanding. The work he'd done there had been simpler, more soothing, with Danny handing him tools when he'd asked for them and Gina bringing him lemonade between jobs. And always, afterwards, there had been a chance for him to take a hot shower before he went to see Polly at the hospital. And always, after that--after Polly had been properly spoiled with candies an dolls and new drawing pencils, and after baby Carla had been fed and snugged down in her crib--there was the promise of a shared meal at Irene's kitchen table. Kale and sausage soup, rich with tomatoes and scented with bay, or sandwiches pressed between sweet slices of Portuguese bread, or even just plain ol' franks and beans, served up with thick slabs of Boston bread with a beer to wash it down.
It was all the stuff of home, though he'd been there only a week. And now here he was, back in his familiar prison, with even the memory of Gina Lee's home cooking unable to spark his interest or his appetite, or to do anything for him, really, except to make him sad.
You gotta write back to her pretty soon, he thought, his chest heavy with renewed gloom. She's already sent you six letters since you got back, and you haven't answered a one.
Barnabas said you had to answer every letter. Every one, whether you wanted to write back or not.
The sledgehammer came up, suddenly and of its own accord, and Willie slammed it into the workshed's granite corner. Chips of stone went flying, accompanied by a loud WHOANG! of steel meeting stone.
He didn't want to answer Gina's letters. Or rather, he did. Desperately. But since he'd left San Diego, he'd begun to face some hard truths, the fist being that he'd betrayed his friends yet again, though that had been the last thing he'd intended. He had thought he'd gone to San Diego to help Gina Lee and Polly, and that he'd tricked Barnabas into letting him go. But that wasn't the way it was. It was Barnabas who had tricked him, the ruthless old bastard. Barnabas who now, thanks to Willie, had hard and fast links with the Logan clan, and who could find them again any time he wanted.
That's what that money was all about. Goddamn him!
The hammer hit the stone again, but off-center, scraping sparks into the air.
That money wasn't for Polly. It was just Barnabas's way of telling me that he knows where they are now. Exactly where they are. And that he can get to them any time he wants them. Any time I give him an excuse.
Goddamn him. Goddamn him! Goddamn us both to hell!
The next swing of the hammer missed the corner post entirely. Willie's body followed the hammer's arc, and the momentum yanked his legs out from under him, sending him sprawling into the mud. He sat there in the downpour, feeling the hot burn of a pulled muscle starting to smolder in his chest. Then he sobbed, dropping the hammer as he jumped to his feet. His right fist flashed out and connected with the granite. Hard. Full force. The dull thud sent a rod of fire up his arm, but he didn't stop. He hit the stone again with his other hand, just as hard, and kept pounding till his hands were numb. He stopped only when dark drops of blood began to spatter into the mud. Then he leaned against the stone, weeping, his stinging knuckles held in a protective half-curl against his stomach. Blood smeared the bare skin of his belly, only to wash away with the rain.
I gotta find a way to keep her safe. Safe at a distance, where I can't hurt her no more. I'm no good for her, oh shit, I was never any good for her, why did I let her get so goddamn close?
Because he was lonely, that was why. But that wasn't reason enough. His loneliness couldn't justify risking the lives of a widow and her three children. And now--now that Gina had moved closer to her extended family out west--the life of a second woman as well. Funny, feisty little Irene, who had served with the WAACs, and who knew a broken arm when she saw one.
As if reminded of its fragile nature, the newly healed bone in Willie's arm twinged, then began to thud in sharp complaint. He had over-used it, and no doubt the pounding he had given his hands hadn't done it any good. He picked up the sledgehammer with bloody, scraped fingers and let the tool clang into the back of the truck with the other implements, leaving them all to rust in the rain.
The recurrent headache that had plagued him since Barnabas had clouted him across the ear was beginning to fog across his temples, and a strange hollow feeling was beginning to gather behind his knees. He had better go inside. Dry off and get a drink of water.
Even he, used to going hungry as he was, couldn't work all day without some kind of nourishment.
The water helped a lot.
Willie sipped it, grateful for the icy gift from the kitchen pump that had more than once soothed his empty stomach, and which now provided him with his only meal of the day. He couldn't very well go into town for supplies now, even though he needed to. It was high summer, If a man wore work gloves in public, someone was gonna ask him why.
And what was Willie supposed to do then? Peel off the gloves, and show them?
He got up from the table to work the lever of the pump again, letting the freshet of water spill in blood-pink streamers through his hands. Hamburger. That's what he'd made of them. His knuckles were raw. One scrape above his right middle finger was fairly serious, deep enough to leave a triangular gouge in the skin. The surrounding flesh that wasn't bloody was turning a gruesome purple and red, swelling in the places that a man's fists were likely to swell, after he'd taken a punch at somebody.
Bar fight. Rumble. That's what the villagers'll think, if anybody has a chance ta get a look at 'em.
And why wouldn't they think it? It would never occur to them that Willie might attack a stone column in a fit of frustration. A few hours earlier, it wouldn't have occurred to him, either.
Well, fuck it. Why should I hide it from them, or even care what they say? I gotta have food sooner or later. Let 'em think what they want to think.
But that was a dangerous attitude to harbor, and Willie knew it. He was still angry at Barnabas, and angrier still at himself. But that didn't mean he didn't have the sense to worry about what he'd done. If the villagers started gossiping, sooner or later Willie could expect his master to storm into the kitchen or into Willie's bedroom, demanding to know what his manservant had been up to this time. Barnabas might even demand that Willie hold out his hands for inspection. And if Willie did that…well….
Barnabas's reaction would not be sympathetic. Willie knew that without having to think.
Well. He would have to keep his hands out of sight, that was all. He would have to stop daydreaming and attend to business, now, before he made any more crazy mistakes and did something even worse to endanger himself.
Jeez, Willie. That was stupid. Just plain stupid. What did you think it was gonna solve, hey? All you did was make another problem for yourself.
Which is all he ever seemed to do, no matter what he did. So what did one more matter?
He sat down at the table again and sipped his lunch, tasting winter snow and sleet and long eroded minerals. His crusting hands ached and throbbed, ached and throbbed.
What was he going to do for food? He was slap out, even if he wasn't hungry.
Maybe he could bum a little something off Mrs. Johnson at the Great House. Enough to tide him over, anyway. She liked to feed him. She might not mind making him a sandwich or two. He would have to take them with him, rather than eating them in the Great House kitchen, but he'd done that before. Or maybe he'd just wrap one of his hands in a cloth and make out that it was the only one he had hurt, by slamming it in a door or something. He was pretty sure he could fool the old woman. Lord knows he had done it a thousand times over, with far less reason to lie.
He wished Gina Lee was as easy to fool. Maybe then the two of them wouldn't have flung so many hard words at each other, that day in Irene's kitchen. Words that skill cut and stung and burned, even though Willie knew that they had to be said, sooner or later.
Too bad it had to be sooner, huh?
But it can't be helped, Willie. Ah, man, it can't be helped. And at least it didn't happen here, in Collinsport, where she mighta come after Barnabas while she was at it. Wouldn't that have been a mess?
Jesus, yes. But that was Willie's only mercy. Gina had finally blown her top, but when she had, the only target she'd had to slash was Willie.
He had stood there, mute and miserable, and taken it, too, as long as he could, until he couldn't stand it anymore, and he'd had to say something back. And that was when things had really turned ugly. Ugly enough so that Willie still couldn't think about it without his shoulders tensing up and his stomach getting heavy, as though he'd swallowed a stone. It was funny, he had thought then, how words could hurt. More than his broken arm. More than the lash marks striping his legs and back. More than anything Barnabas had ever done to him, then or now.
Nobody had ever hurt him like Gina Lee had, simply by slashing him with words.
It hadn't been just his pain, either. If he lived to be a hundred, he would never forget how Gina had looked at him with he'd told her to butt out. She'd been wounded. Wounded to the quick by someone she trusted and loved. Willie had done that, and no matter how much he told himself that his cruelty had been necessary, he still hated himself for it, with a purity that frightened him sometimes, because it burned so hot and fast and fierce at his core.
The trouble was, no matter what he said, he could never answer Gina to her satisfaction. Hell He could barely explain his situation to himself, except to acknowledge that he, Willie Loomis, had released a monster that was now his curse. He was doomed to live with that monster for the rest of his life, and not Gina nor her cousin Irene nor even God Himself could change that.
But that wasn't exactly something he could explain to Gina Lee, now, was it. Not without endangering her more than he already had. And he couldn't bring himself to do that. He had hurt her enough as it was.
He shifted in his chair, flexing the knuckles of his right hand to test the scab that was thickening over the deepest cut. He had a feeling that if he could explain it, Gina Lee would believe him. She would believe him, and she would try to help him.
But that would get her killed faster than anything, wouldn't it? Her, and her family with her.
No. He would have to keep his mouth shut. Just as he had for the past two years, when Gina was living in Collinsport, taking silent tally of Willie's bruises when she saw them, and making note of his denials when she didn't. It would be bad, keeping silent. But it had to be easier than it had been, didn't it? Now that she wasn't there to see? She wouldn't have any proof, not if Willie didn't give her any. If he kept quiet, she might respect his wishes, and not ask him about it again. She might get out of this mess all right, even if Willie didn't.
Ah, hell. This is no good. It's just no good.
C'mon. Face it, man. Barnabas is right. It's time to let them go.
He was shaking his head no, even as he thought it, but that insistent voice inside him continued to nag at him, chipping away at his confidence and shoring up his guilt, until he began to wonder if he hadn't been a fool. Gina and the kids didn't really need him anymore, did they? They were safe in their new lives in San Diego. They had left him behind in Collinsport, to face his private monster on his own, and maybe that was best. He did love them, after all, but he was dangerous to them. An eternal hazard, as long as his bargain with a vampire held true.
It was only right to let them go. Even Barnabas had said so. He was willing, if Willie was.
Yeah, Willie, hey. It won't take long. Just forget to answer a letter here and there. Then forget to answer them at all. You're already pretty far along in that bit, right? You're six behind already.
They might notice at first. But they wouldn't for long. The kids would be busy with school, making new friends and learning new things. Gina and Irene would be running the day care, and keeping up with the kids, and taking care of all the thousand details that made up their lives. They were three thousand miles away, for Christ's sake. Three thousand miles! If they didn't have Willie writing to them all the time, reminding them that he was here, they'd forget about him quick enough.
And if he was careful not to let Barnabas see that they were still writing volumes to Willie without Willie writing back, the vampire would never know the difference, either. Willie would continue to stand on his best behavior, and the Logans would live their lives in safety, and the whole thing would simply fade away.
Or at least, Willie hoped that it would.
They'll be safer that way. Safer and happier. And it's high time you let them be safe, dontcha think? It's high time you acted like a man, and stopped pretending hat you were lookin' out for them, when all along you needed them just so you wouldn't be so goddamned lonely all the time.
Get used to it, Willie. This loneliness is all the company you're ever gonna have.
It's all that you deserve, friggin' lowlife that you are.
The dregs of water in his cup tasted tainted. Bitter.
Willie poured it out.
Maybe Mrs. Johnson would share some supper with him later. But right now, he still had the rest of the workshed to pull down.
He left the cup with its spill of bitter thoughts upended on the counter, and went outside to finish the job at hand.
He forgot about supper with Mrs. Johnson.
Willie got the workshed torn down without sacrificing any more skin. He loaded as much of the debris as he could into the back of the truck, then tarped it down so the crumbling wood wouldn't fly out the back when he drove it to the dump. By then it was getting close to dusk, so he went inside to wash up and change clothes before he tended to the evening's candles. The only fire he needed to build was in the parlor, and then only a very small one, more for light than heat, since the humid cloak of August was thick and close about the house.
He was just finishing up when he heard the basement door creaking open. Willie tucked his hands beneath his apron and waited, feeling the back of his neck creeping up into goosefle3sh as Barnabas entered the room.
"Finished early tonight, I see," the vampire said. "And what else did you accomplish today?"
"Tore down the workshed in the back," Willie answered, turning around to face his master, but keeping his eyes on the floor. "Got most of the wood loaded in the back o' the truck, too. I'll haul it off tomorrow."
"The workshed?" Barnabas glanced past Willie to the windows that looked out over the lawn. Even in the growing dark, the shimmer of rain was visible beyond the glass.
"It was raining," Willie acknowledged. "But it didn't matter. It was warm out, and anyway, it was too damp in here to paint."
There was a pause, as though Barnabas was weighting the logic of Willie's answer, and deciding whether to believe it. Then he said, "Very well. Have you completed your other chores? If you have, you may retire. I've no errands for you tonight."
Willie sighed, relieved. He'd been hoping that Barnabas would be reasonable and let him go, that he wouldn't have any pressing errands that would send Willie out into the rain, or force him into human company. "Yeah," he answered on the breath of that sigh. "I'm pretty much done. I've just got the candles in the study to light, that's all."
"Leave them," Barnabas said. "I shan't have need of them tonight."
The vampire didn't say whether he wouldn't have need of candles in the study because he was going out, or because he was staying in the parlor to read, or because--as Willie knew--he could see perfectly well in the dark without them. But for once, Willie didn't bother to ask. He didn't care what Barnabas was doing tonight. He only wanted to get to his own room and close the door, so he wouldn't have to pretend that he was all right, and so he wouldn't have to hid his hands from his master any longer than necessary.
But he should have known that Barnabas did not need to see a fault to sense it was there. Willie heard the slither of a sole on carpet, the shift of a step in his direction, and looked up to find Barnabas watching him, the vampire's dark eyes rubied with candlelight.
"Have you hurt yourself?" Barnabas asked. "You smell of blood."
"It's just a little cut," Willie lied through frozen lips. A shiver of fear slid its blade into his gut, slicing deep into his bowels. "There was a lot 'o wood flyin' around when I tore down the shed. A piece of it nicked me, that's all. But it's nothin'. Not even worth a plaster.
"It would seem to be a considerably deeper wound than that," Barnabas replied. "You are saturated with scent…."
"It bled a lot," Willie interrupted. "But it's nothin'. I washed it out under the pump, and it stopped."
That much was the truth. Barnabas tilted his head, as though sampling the honesty of Willie's words through scent as much as hearing, then shrugged and stepped out of his manservant's way.
The proffered exit, made with such mildness, was tempting. But Willie was wise enough to recognize a trap when he saw one. If he tried to scurry toward the kitchen or dash toard the stairs, Barnabas might grab him as he passed. He might force Willie's hands out from beneath his apron, into the light, and if he did that, he would know that Willie had lied to him. So Willie stayed where he was and said, "I didn't make it into town today. But I'll go tomorrow, if that's all right. After I go to the dump. I need to get some supplies."
Barnabas nodded again. "Do you have sufficient funds?"
"I think so. I don't need very much."
"Very well. Perhaps you should stop at Ventry's, as well, and purchase a few more bottles of brandy."
"I'll need money for that," Willie said, the quiver of guilt in his voice easing under the safety of more mundane matters. "I don't have that much left. Maybe another fifteen bucks? That'll buy two more bottles easy."
"I shall leave you twenty," Barnabas said. "That should more than cover the cost of your supplies, as well as the brandy. Make sure it is a quality brand, Willie. If they do not have something suitable in stock, ask them to order it."
Only now, when Barnabas was distracted by household business, did Willie start to move toward the stairs. Still, he did it surreptitiously, stopping to light the candles on the table nearest the parlor columns along the way, and taking care to keep his body between Barnabas' eyes and the flare of the match. The matches were sulky, their sulfur tips half-melted by the damp, but Willie didn't falter. These candles, at least, had to kindle, and fast, or Barnabas might yet find him out. All Barnabas had to do was take two steps to the left, and he'd see the evidence of Willie's lie, limned in candlelight.
"The brand you purchased before was adequate, but if they have something superior, ask for that," Barnabas continued, as the candlewicks Willie was struggling to kindle finally sputtered alight. The vampires' attention was only half on his servant now; he was starting to lose interest, and was flipping through the mail that Willie had left on the credenza earlier in the day. Willie watched him from the corner of his eye, glad that he had already sifted through the pile of letters and cards to make sure there was nothing from Gina Lee. He shook out the match and put the spent stick into his pocket, using the motion as an excuse to tuck his hands back out of sight, beneath his apron.
"Willie," Barnabas said, an edge of irritation in his tone. "Are you listening to me?"
"Huh?" Willie startled, turning around. "I mean, yeah, Barnabas?"
"I said that you are to be sure to refill the brandy decanter when you have the fresh bottles. Pour the old liquor away. Its flavor loses its brightness when it's been in a decanter too long."
Then why don't you leave it in the bottle until you know you are gonna have someone around to drink it? Willie almost said. But he caught himself in time.
"Sure, Barnabas, I'll take care of it."
Barnabas nodded and turned away, satisfied once Willie had acquiesced. Then, losing track of his servant now that his presence was no longer required, he took his mail over to his favorite chair and sat down to read.
Willie didn't wait for a better chance, but gained the stairway in three strides and vaulted the risers two at a time, keeping his hands in front of him all the way rather than grabbing at the banister for support, as he usually did. Barnabas could see a mud-slicked penny lying on asphalt two avenues away. He could certainly see open cuts on his manservant's hands from across a candle-lit room.
Halfway to the top, Willie felt the vampire's eyes fasten upon him again, no doubt wondering at his manservant's haste. But Barnabas didn't stop him, and Willie didn't wait.
The summer heat trapped within his bedroom was stifling.
Willie lingered in the sweatbox just long enough to pour water into his washbasin so he could re-wash his crusting hands. He didn't have much soap left, just a graying sliver of castile, but he rubbed what he had between his palms to produce a thin film of bubbled that laved away the remaining grime. He took special pains with his damaged knuckles, doing his best to take the dirt while leaving the scabs intact. The bruises were less problematic. There wasn't a thing he could do about them, except ignore them until they faded--so that was what he did.
He dried his palms on a scrap of towel, then kicked off his shoes, slid out of the clean pants he had worn for only an hour while waiting for Barnabas to rise, and shed his button-down shirt in favor of a lighter, less constricting tee. He pulled on his pajama bottoms, then grabbed his pillow and a blanket from his bed and carried them up the narrow passage to the attic, and from there, to the mouth of the dormer that led out onto the roof.
He didn't go out. The rain was still falling in a soft, warm drizzle, and he'd had enough of being wet. But he knew that if he did leave the dormer for that flat expanse of slate, he could see across the lawn all the way to the woodline. If he craned his neck, he could make out the glimmer of water on the far horizon, shining hard and flat beneath the summer moon. And if he stepped up on the railing, careful not to break through the aging wood with the arch of his foot, he could see the beach where he and Gina and the kids had spent the Fourth of July the year before--the beach beneath Widow's Hill, where his favorite boulder waited, unvisited.
Barnabas had gone to a more formal Independence Day celebration in the village that year, so Willie hadn't worried about having the Logans so close to the vampire's territory, so long as he could see them safely home by midnight. Gina had brought hot dogs and buns in a hamper, and they'd roasted the wieners right there on the beach, skewing them on sticks and holding them over the fire that Willie had built out of driftwood, until the brown sausage skins crackled black and went hot-fingered into the buns, heaped high with Gina's cold slaw and relish. Willie had bought penny sparklers as a special treat for the kids, and Polly had been entranced with them. He could still see the excitement shining in her dark eyes as she used her sparkler as a magic wand, drawing sizzling lines of color through the dark.
Warm sea air pressed against him like the palm of a hand, and he leaned into it, feeling clean sweat break out on his body beneath the cotton of his clothes. He wished he dared go naked, but he didn't do that even in the sanctuary of his bedroom, much less up here on the rooftop. No one could see him from the ground unless he walked up to the raining along the front of the house, but Barnabas might catch a glimpse of him--and Willie didn't want to imagine how someone as uptight as Barnabas would punish such immodesty. It was bad enough as it was. Barnabas considered an untucked shirt as a state of undress. He wouldn't be happy if he knew Willie was sitting on a blanket in the near-open air, wearing nothing but a tee and a pair of pajama bottoms.
But, hell. Staying in the bedroom with the summer's stagnant heat trapped beneath the low-slung eaves was impossible this late in the season. The roof, while not cool, was at least open to the freshening breath of the sea. If it wasn't raining, Willie could like out there on his back, his arms folded beneath his head and watch the constellations glide across the sky, until his bedroom cooled off enough for him to attempt to go to bed. As it was, he simply folded his blanket beneath him at the dormer mouth and put his pillow at the wall behind his back. It was better than sweating to death in the bedroom. Surely Barnabas could understand that.
The vampire must have known Maine summers as a mortal man, even if extremes in temperatures didn't bother him now.
Did he come up here, when he was human? Maybe sit with his back against the chimney bricks, like I do when the weather's fine and listen to the tide come in?
It was hard to imagine. Not that Barnabas might lurk on a rooftop. Willie could easily picture that. But that Barnabas might have come up here as a mortal man as young as Willie was now, seeking refuge from the summer heat, or maybe just in idle restlessness, wanting to be off by himself, and away from the demands of other people.
Picturing Barnabas as mortal--as human. That was the hard part.
He was calmer tonight. Not as mean. He let it slide that you weren't listenin' to him, an' he sure hasn't done that in a while.
He could have smacked you for that, before you had a chance to blink.
He would have smacked you, a week ago.
He might have done worse.
Willie shivered in the shelter of the dormer, the seat on his chest going cold with the thought. Barnabas hadn't beaten him since the night he had agreed that Willie should leave for San Diego, but Willie had lived on pins and needles all these long weeks, certain that his next misstep would mean stripes across his back and a limp in his strides. He'd had cuffs to the ear. Slaps to the face. Steel fingers digging in to the thin flesh above his collarbone. And once, a shove against a wall and the threat of the belt, if Willie didn't fall into line. But that had been the extent of it, except for the great number of shadowed promises, uttered in a fang-lisped hiss.
Willie knew that Barnabas had wanted to beat him. He could count at least a dozen different evenings when some small failing on his part had sent the vampire into a rage--his failure to clean up before coming in being the very least of them. But so far, Barnabas had held back.
He's afraid he'll break you. He's still so mad, he's afraid he won't stop if he starts. And god knows, maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he'd go ahead and beat you to death.
If that was the case, then Willie was grateful for Barnabas' restraint. In spite of the sorrows that dragged him down, Willie didn't want to die. There was still some small flicker of spirit left in him, a hot spark of stubbornness that was intent on keeping him alive. And that had always been the point, hadn't it? To stay alive. Though why that was so important to him now, Willie couldn't say.
His stomach growled. The numbness fed by grief, then by work, then by anxiety, had fled. He wished, belatedly, for some supper. Maybe a fire-scorched hot do, black on the outside, half raw within, with some of Gina's slaw piled on toip and some mustard piped along the side.
The kids sure had fun that night, didn't they? And so did you. Waitin' for the fireworks to start up from the village common, white and blue stars burstin' out over the water, and the kids screamin' out loud, 'cause they were so excited they couldn't hold it in.
Along with that joy, a hateful memory. Willie leaping up like a bee-stung horse the first time Polly shrieked, because to him, screams meant terror and pain. And then, Gina, looking up at him with wide, startled eyes, her sunburned cheeks turning pale with understanding.
She knew. She knew by then. But she didn't ask.
She knew a hundred times after that. But she didn't ask.
Why why why did she have to push it in San Diego?
Why couldn't she just let it lie? Let me lie?
Because Gina hated dishonesty, even a dishonesty born of necessity. Willie had understood that even as he depended upon their silent understanding that she wouldn't ask whether Barnabas was still hitting him, and he wouldn't tell, so long as she didn't see evidence that was too obvious to ignore. She'd come close, that time he'd wound up in the hospital with a concussion, but Willie had soothed her over with half-truths and promises. And that other time, when Polly had come visiting, and Gina had seen the switch on the Old House's kitchen table, and had understood what it meant. He wasn't sure why she hadn't spoken up that time, but she hadn't. Not in a way he hadn't been able to live with, anyway. She had tried to help him, without saying anything incriminating out loud.
It was only the stress that she'd been under when Polly was hurt--and Willie's pained, disheveled state when he'd arrived in San Diego--that had prompted her to break when he'd seen her last. Or so he told himself. She'd been under so much pressure, so much anguish, so much pain. And so had he. It was no wonder that they'd both shattered at the same time.
The wreckage that remained between them was something that he couldn't pick up on his own. There were too many sharp words left sticking in his throat. Too many pointed silences that followed. She feared for him, and he feared for her, and between their defenses there was now a wasteland of unhealed hurts. Not that she saw it. Or maybe she did, and pretended not to. She still wrote to him, and he knew she had called the Great House at least once, looking for him. Thank goodness he'd been in Bangor on an errand at the time, and Vicki had known it, and so she'd been able to tell Gina in an honest voice that Willie was fine.
Willie was fine.
Hah! That was a word, wasn't it. Fine. What did it mean? Everything and nothing. It was a good word for soothing people, Willie had found, when in reality you meant the opposite.
Willie shifted on his blanket, the floor beneath him gritty with ancient dust and crumbled slate. The shards bit at him with tiny stone teeth, like so many fossilized army ants nipping at his skin. As he watched, the mist of rain beyond the dormer grew into the same watery roar it had been that morning, when he'd awoken to his grief.
Shit. Not again.
Think it'll still be pouring like this tomorrow?
Yeah, Willie. But what difference does it make, huh? Wet or dry, you'll still be trapped here, either way.
Willie staggered upright and dragged his blanket and pillow behind him. Hot and humid as it still was, it was time to go to bed.
Fuck it. They'll heal better in the open air anyway.
Willie unwound the strip of gauze from his knuckles, peeling the last layer up from the gummy scabs that had formed over the worst of the cuts. He knew he was in for a hard day if he let too many people see his wounds while he was out, so he worked out his schedule ahead of time: the dump first; a quick stop at the grocery for bread, cheese, and apples; then a stop at Ventry's for Barnabas' expensive brandy. No stop at the pharmacy for cotton swabs or alcohol. No stop at the diner for a meal more substantial than soup.
You could stop at the library, at least. Maybe get another book on woodworking. You're almost done with the ones you got.
The less time he spent in town today, the better.
He pulled the truck keys from his pocket, hooking the keychain with the tip of one finger and worrying the small clump of keys free, rather than plunging in his hand to get them. His knuckles were stiff and sore, but not as bad as he had expected them to be. They'd heal all right if he left them alone--and if he didn't keep scraping the scabs off them in the course of his work.
The coastal road was pocked with last night's rain. Willie took it at a listless thirty miles per hour, watching the storm clouds ahead of him scudding like gulls before the wind. Under other circumstances he might have enjoyed his brief glimpses of the water beyond the first, the violent breakers pounding the rocks with white-laced fists, but this time he kept his eyes straight ahead, watching for non-existent traffic. He was tired and keyed-up and sad all at the same time, a state he'd occupied all too often of late. He'd felt rotten for so long that he'd forgotten what it felt like to feel good. Now all he wanted to do was et his errands done and get back to the house, so he might find some useful chore to keep him occupied.
The stop at the town dump was quick, and the Collinsport grocery was, thank god, almost deserted at mid-morning. Willie pulled into a slot on the far side of the building, parked the truck, and slid out of his seat, scoping out the parking lot before he allowed his feet to his the asphalt. He didn't bother to lock the truck, but stalked up the sidewalk and into the grocery with his head hunkered down, trying not to think of another, sweeter afternoon when he'd brought Polly in here, looking for her Ma, and had found Gina coming full speed in the opposite direction, searching for her wayward daughter.
That was the first day they had invited him to lunch. The first day that they had thought to call him friend.
Willie winced. His heart stabbed at him, and his hand went to his chest, as if he could rub the pain away.
There's no place in this goddamn town where you won't find them, is there? Not a single place where they haven't left their mark.
But try not to think about them too much, Willie. And get the hell out of here as quick as you can.
He picked up a sack of apples, only slightly bruised. A loaf of bread. A small hunk of cheese. Three cans of soup and another of beans. No milk. It spoiled too fast in the heat. But coffee might be good. He stuck a jar of instant into the crook of his arm and headed for the register, glad that there was no one in front of him or behind him to pen him in.
He ignored the clerk's questioning glance at his scabby fingers as he dropped his two bucks and change on her counter, but had to glance back at her murmured tsk tsk tsk as he grabbed his bag of food and hurried for the street. He could only imagine the woman's prattle in the grocery's break room later. You shoulda seen his hand. That Loomis boy has been fightin' again for sure.
It doesn't matter, he told himself fiercely, tossing the bag into the truck. It doesn't matter.
It would only matter if word got back to Barnabas--and Barnabas wasn't the sort of man whose social circle would include a clerk from the Collinsport Grocery.
But he wasn't so lucky at Ventry's. The clerk was younger. Male. And far more curious than the grocery clerk had been. He caught a glimpse of Willie's hand as Willie reached for a bottle of brandy, and kept staring at it until Willie finally snapped, "See somethin' green?"
"Then get your eyeballs back in your head and mind your own goddamn business."
The clerk flushed. "Now see here…."
"You see here, sonny," Willie snarled. His heard had been pounding like a generator ever since he'd left the grocery, and he could feel his face turning red beneath the growing pressure of his anger--anger that was far out of proportion to the situation that fueled it. "I've been buyin' liquor in here for the past year, gallons of it, but I don't hafta. I can buy it anywhere between here and Bangor. So ring the stuff up and stop starin' at me, or I'll take Mister Collins' business somewhere's else."
The clerk did as he was bid, punching at the register keys with stiff fingers and an aggrieved expression that Willie recognized all too wlel. It was the same thin-lipped mask he wore himself when he had been unfairly reprimanded but didn't dare retaliate. His anger evaporated, and for a moment he thought he might apologize. He even opened his mouth to say I'm sorry. But the clerk bagged up the brandy and shoved it across the counter without looking up.
"Thanks," Willie said, a bit lamely.
The clerk nodded, one mute jerk of his head that Willie interpreted as fuck you. He let it go, figuring he deserved it. He only gave the clerk an apologetic glance as he scooped up his bag and headed back to his truck, finally free to go back to the Old House and his chores.
Jeez, man, Where is all this anger comin' from? Why do I keep flippin' out like this? Yesterday a stone column and today a pimple-faced clerk. Where's it gonna end?
He didn't know, but he thought he'd better figure it out, and quick. All he needed was to lose his cool in front of Barnabas one night, and his situation would go from bad to untenable in one hot flick of a switch.
So work off the anger. Work off the grief. Put it somewhere where it can't do any harm.
He'd tried that yesterday, when he'd spent the afternoon tearing down the workshed in one industrious burst, but maybe he should try harder.
He obviously had energy to spare, if he could waste it yelling at a kid who meant no offense, and who had no more power in the world than Willie did, himself.
He scrubbed the parlor floor, then waxed it.
Gina was there.
He polished the stairway banister until it gleamed.
But Gina was there.
He replaced all the candles in all the rooms, rather than waiting until nightfall to clear the wax.
But Gina followed.
Finally, he made his way out into the rose garden.
And there--for the rest of the day, at least--found peace.
He was tired. But not tired enough.
Willie sank down into the chair closest to the fire, letting his forearms rest on the table in front of him. Exhaustion thrummed along his nerves like a brisk wind moving through overhead power lines, setting his limbs to singing with a faint, electrical hum.
The mud-encrusted hands curled on the tabletop burned with their own hot electrical sting, but that was hardly surprising. The blisters that had formed shortly after noon had burst and bled, only to drown in fresh risings an hour later. Now Willie was finally resting, and though he couldn't see the full extent of the damage in the half-light emanating from the stove, he knew that it must be bad,. It had been bad at suppertime--a meal he hadn't eaten--so it could only be worse by now.
But that didn't matter.
Nothing mattered. Not his hands nor his hunger nor his heart.
He had finally driven the pain out of himself. He had finally worked himself numb.
In a moment he would get up and wash away the day's filth at the pump, then get one with some other chore that might complete the job of draining him. He would have to bandage his hands first, of course; they were too raw for him to work with them otherwise. But once they were padded with cotton and gauze, he could see about that dresser waiting for him in the guest room on the second floor. If he was diligent he could have it sanded and ready for priming before he went to bed tonight.
If he went to bed tonight. He still wasn't sure that he would. He'd decide upon that later, once he'd worn himself out enough to make sacking out seem like a good idea.
But right now, he just wasn't tired enough. He was so weak he could hardly stand. But he wasn't tired enough.
What are they doing now, do you think? What time is it in California?
Hell. What time is it here?
Willie shook his head at his own wordless question. He didn't know. He had lost track while shoveling out the cinders in the burned-out rose garden. When the sun had gone down he had pulled the Chevy close to the patched stone wall and had turned on the headlights to he could continue to work. He had stopped only when the beams crisscrossing his path began to flicker and wane, warning him that the truck's battery was on the verge of expiring.
He couldn't afford to kill the truck. He had to go into the village for paint thinner in the morning. Restless as he was beneath his weariness, he would still rather drive than walk, especially if he had to tote a couple of five gallon cans along home with him. So he had forced himself to stop, leaning the shovel with its blood-seasoned handle against the back porch wall before coming inside to clean up. Even though he hadn't wanted to. The fading battery hadn't given him much of a choice.
You need to eat. Get some soup going and then you can see about your hands. You won't be able to work much longer if you don't.
But the faint pangs of hunger that pierced his general numbness were not fierce enough to get him moving. Nor was the throbbing in his filthy hands, which needed to be washed before infection set in. Willie sat there before the fire, staring down at the tabletop as unblinking as an owl, letting sweat and dirt dry in a cracked glaze across his skin, too tired to get up but too restive to sleep where he sat. He was just waiting, in a sick half-twilight of pain, to see what would happen next.
He didn't know what feral instinct finally roused him enough to note that Barnabas had entered the room and was standing at the edge of the table, looking down at him with a mixture of puzzlement and annoyance. Willie hadn't heard his master come in, nor had he heard him call. But there the vampire was, as silent and staring as a cat, his black suit a darker smudge in the dimness of the room, his clean white hands pale against the shadow of his coat.
"Willie," Barnabas said. "What are you doing sitting here in the dark? I thought you had retired long ago."
Willie shrugged, his grit-scratched eyes flicking up to his master's face, then down again to the table top. Ordinarily the vampire's unexpected presence would spark some answering response in him. Fear. Discomfort. Something. But tonight Barnabas was just one more chore that waited to be addressed, no more threatening in Willie's worn out mind than the dresser waiting in the guest room for its sandpaper and oil.
"I was working in the rose garden," he said, his voice a flat husk in his own ears. He must have swallowed as many cinders as he'd shoveled. Maybe that was why he wasn't hungry; he'd already eaten enough dirt to hold him. "It's ready for plangent when the canes come in. Maybe in a week or two, I dunno. The rose lady didn't say."
"The rose garden?" Barnabas reached for a candlestick on the mantle and lit the waiting spire with a match drawn from the tin on the hearth. "You finished clearing the rose garden today? But I thought you said that was two days' work at least. How did you complete it so quickly?"
Willie shrugged again. "I just kept at it until I finished it. The wall around it is patched, too. I took care o' that this afternoon."
"This afternoon," Barnabas said. "I see." He placed the candle on the table, were its circle of light displaced the shadows that had hidden Willie's hands. "And might I inquire what inspired you to accomplish so much in one da…."
A sharp, indrawn breath sliced Barnabas' sardonic question in half. Willie heard the pause, but didn't bother to look up. He only wondered what he had done wrong this time. Hadn't Barnabas wanted the rose garden cleared? He had been pushing the project hard enough earlier this week. If he had wanted Willie to do something else instead he should have said something.
"Willie," Barnabas said, taking a step closer to the table. "What have you done to your hands?"
Willie spread his fingers, watching the glaze of fluid and mud crack as he flexed his knuckles. Fresh pain ignited beneath the flaking crust of dirt, but he ignored it, lifting his hands to look at them as though he had never seen them before. "Got some blisters, I guess," he said. Disinterested. As thought he was commenting on nothing more curious than the cloud cover that was moving in over the estate in answer to yet another forecast for rain.
Barnabas caught Willie by the fingertips and drew his hands closer to the light. Steep risings thickened the flesh immediately beneath the first joints of his fingers, where the repetitive slick of the shovel's splintery handle had worn through protective callous into the tender skin beneath. Smaller blisters rose from the heels of his palms like tiny, yeasty bubbles rising through freshening dough. The scabbing cuts across his knuckles were no longer a worry. They were nothing compared to the damage he had done to his palms.
Willie endured the sudden pressure of Barnabas' fingertips against his own and did not flinch. It was as though Barnabas had caught hold of someone else, some other Willie who could not waste energy on fear, because there was a dresser upstairs till waiting to be refinished, and a dozen other chores waiting for him after that. Enough to keep him occupied for the rest of the night, if he could only keep his feet under him long enough to complete them. Enough so he could finally exhaust himself into sleep.
There's the fireplace in the front room, he thought, ignoring the frost on his fingertips that was Barnabas' hands gripping his. The tile is in. All I gotta do is place it. After that there's the next coat of paint to go up in the study. I better do that before it starts to rain again. But fist the dresser, I don't have to think to do that. I can just….
Barnabas released Willie's fingers as suddenly as he had grazed them, interrupting his servant's muddle train of thought. "What do you mean, working until you've ruined your hands in such a fashion?" the vampire demanded. There was no anger in his voice, thickly layered with exasperation. "Have you no sense, no intellect, to tell you when to stop?"
Willie didn't answer as his master turned to prime the pump and fill the battered teakettle waiting on the shelf above the stove. He only sat, must with weariness, as Barnabas stoked up the fire before slamming the sloshing kettle on the stove's hottest surface to hurry it along to a boil.
"You are a fool," Barnabas said, unnecessarily in Willie's mind, since Willie was already well acquainted with this frequently stated opinion. "I expect you to work, yes, and to work hard, but not to the point of skinning the flesh from your hands. I should expect you would know such a thing without me having to tell you." Barnabas reached into a cabinet for a box of table salt, poured a good half of it into an enamel basin, then emptied the steaming contents of the kettle over the whole. The acrid scent of dissolving sodium wafted up in a cloud as he placed the basin in front of Willie on the tabletop.
"Put your hands in, Willie. Put your hands in the basin."
Willie did, with the same dull, unquestioning apathy he had exhibited since Barnabas had entered the room. The warm salt water chewed into his hands, loosening the flesh over the blisters and opening them to a hot, fresh stinging, but again, Willie did not flinch. He let his hands settle into the water and stared at its reflective surface as though prepared to sit there until kingdom come, or until his hands dissolved--whichever came first.
What do I need to work on the dresser? Some of that fine-grade sandpaper. A chamois cloth. Linseed oil. Turpentine. Newspapers for the floor. Have I got all that? I think I've got all that.
While he assembled his mental list, Willie tried not to think what turpentine would feel like with the inevitable dribbles found the blisters on his hands. Or how wood dust and the constant, repetitive motion of the sandpaper against maple would aggravate the wounds. It would be like salt water that was gnawing at him now. But it was one more welcome distraction, nothing at all to dread. It would keep him from thinking about Gina and the kids, and how they haunted him.
"Tomorrow," Barnabas was saying, "you will go into the village and acquire some liniment for your hands." He restored the box of salt to its cabinet and the kettle to its shelf, apparently unaware that his manservant was barely listening to him. "And while you are there, you might as well seek the services of a barber. Your appearance of late is entirely inappropriate for a man of your class." He stopped. "Willie. Are you listening to me?"
"Liniment," Willie said mechanically. "Then a haircut. I hear ya, Barnabas."
Liniment. God, that would burn. But Willie supposed it would heal the blisters faster than anything else would. Barnabas seemed to know about things like that.
"If you have courted this Logan woman, knowing you could not have her, then you have done the both of you a grave disservice."
Willie blinked and looked up, stung out the numbness he had worked so hard to attain. Barnabas' blunt assessment shocked the apathy out of him. He hadn't seen it coming. But far more startling than the vampire's words was the tone in which they were delivered. Quiet and steady and perhaps a bit pitying, with no anger or exasperation left, as though Barnabas, cold and still vengeful as he was, had marked Willie's grief over leaving Gina Lee, and understood the depth of it.
"It wasn't like that." Willie swallowed. "It was never like that."
"How was it, then?"
"I told ya." Willie had to swallow again against the tears rising up in his throat. He hated that he still couldn't speak of his friend without weeping, especially in front of Barnabas. "I told ya. We were just friends. That's all. Just friends."
But she was the only one I had. Her and those kids. They were my family. And now they're gone. I had to leave them to come back here, back to you, and now they're gone.
He left the last unspoken, but he knew Barnabas heard it anyway. Because why else would Willie be working himself to shreds and pieces? It certainly wasn't because of his devotion to the Old House, or to the master who ruled it.
"I know you have grieved for her," Barnabas said slowly. "I do not pretend to understand why, since you cannot explain it. But it seems to me that friends to not expend so great an emotion on each other that they cease to function when they are apart. That depth of passion is generally reserved for lovers. Or for husbands and wives."
Willie ducked his head lower over the basin where his bloody hands floated like the salt cod some fishwife was soaking for her dinner. I didn't expect you to understand it, you bastard, he thought miserably. You've probably never had a real friend in your life. Not a friend like Gina, anyway.
"It is admirable," Barnabas continued, "that you should find relief for what ails you through hard work, rather than through fruitless raging or a drunkard's bottle. But it is foolish to work yourself into the bloodied state I find you in tonight. I will not have it, Willie."
"I got a lot of work done," Willie protested softly, his breath ruffling the water in the basin, now turned cool as milk. "I finished everythin' you told me to and then some."
"I know you did. And look what you have to show for your pains."
"A cleaned out rose garden and a patched wall…."
"And hands that will be unable to hold so much as a paintbrush in the morning," Barnabas snapped. "Do not argue with me, Willie."
The vampire took a step toward him. Willie's gaze was still fixed on the shimmering circle of water beneath his chin, but he felt his master's renewed anger like a breath of frost settling across his shoulders, sharp and chilling. He could almost feel the ice crystals forming in the water caressing his hands.
"If you force me to do it, I can remove her from your heart, Willie," Barnabas said. "You will remember her only as a woman you once knew. Nothing more." The vampire's hand came down, palm first on the table, the onyx ring on his forefinger glittering up at Willie like a black, malignant eye. "Perhaps I should have insisted on that from the start."
"No!" Willie jumped up and backward, knocking his chair over in an adrenalized rush. His body, so numbed by work only a moment earlier, was suddenly ice-clear with terror. His hands cam flying out of the basin, flinging water across the tabletop. "No" he cried. "Don't you take her away from me! I had to leave her. I had to leave her and now she's gone! Can't you see that? Now she's gone!"
"No," Barnabas said steadily. "She isn't." He flicked away a droplet of water where it had landed on his suitcoat, pearling on the heavy wool without soaking in. "Now, as ever, she is interfering in your ability to serve me. I should have removed her and her brats from the start."
The vampire came one step closer, until Willie was pressed against the kitchen wall, unable to retreat. Barnabas reached for him, and Willie's wounded hands flashed up across his chest, shielding his vulnerable throat. "NO!" he cried again, though there was nothing further he could do, not if Barnabas chose to drain him where he stood. "Don't! Don't touch me!"
"I warn you Willie, control your grief. Control yourself. Or I will do what I should have done at the outset. I may not remove her physically, but it will be all the same to you. You will think no more of her than you do any other woman passing on the street. She will mean nothing to you. Do you understand?"
Willie nodded frantically, his chin brushing his trembling fingers. He didn't understand, not completely; it was too much information for him to process all at once. But he understood the threat, all right. Barnabas had found another way to kill Gina Lee. Not her body, but her love--the essence of which Willie still cherished, in spite of the pain it caused him.
"Do you believe me when I say I have power in this regard?" the vampire demanded. "I want no misunderstandings. I can prove it this instant if you wish."
"N-no!" Willie shuddered. "I believe you. I believe you! Just please…I…leave me alone! I won't cry for her again. I won't mention her again, not ever, I swear, just…leave her where she is. In my head." He sobbed, then swallowed the one that followed it, afraid that Barnabas would carry through on his threat if Willie started weeping the moment he had promised he wouldn't anymore. "Just leave her in my head. Don't take her away from me, Barnabas. Please."
Barnabas considered him with gimlet eyes, not coming any closer, but not relenting, either. Then he nodded once, as though coming to a decision.
"Very well," he said. "Tonight you will retire, and sleep as long as you might. Tomorrow morning you will venture into town to acquire medicines for your hands, and to visit a barber. And tomorrow night you will appear at dusk, clean and fed and well rested, ready to return to your duties. We will speak no more of this matter--not tonight, nor on any other. You will attend to your relationship with this Logan woman in whatever manner you see fit. Bit you will in no wise discommode me, Willie, or I promise you, I will sever her connection to you once and for all. I have had enough of your nonsense--and hers."
Willie kept nodding, hard enough to bump his chin to his chest, eager to agree to any terms his master might set. It was in his best interest to do so, not only because it might save him further punishment at that moment, but because as angry as Barnabas was, he was still being more than generous in the matter--and Willie knew it. The vampire didn't have to offer his manservant the option of continuing his relationship with the Logans. He had made that plain enough. But he was willing to do so, so long as Willie shaped up and controlled his grief.
"O-okay, Barnabas," he gulped. "I…I'll do it. I'll do exactly as you say."
Though how--how?--he would do it, he hadn't a clue. Control his grief? Hell, that's what he'd been trying to do!
He waited until Barnabas had turned away and stalked out of the room before he allowed himself to slide to the floor, curling his legs up under him and hiding his head in his arms. He rocked there, tears hot on his dirty face, his torn fingers caught in his hair, and swallowed down the sobs that must never leave his mouth. Not where Barnabas could hear him at any rate, or Gina would be gone for good.
But holding back his grief was harder than it sounded, and it didn't matter anyway. In spite of his poise, Willie couldn't have stopped crying in that moment if Barnabas had been standing over him, switch in hand.
What am I goin' to do?
What am I goin' to do?
Oh, Gina. Honey. Tell me. What am I goin' to do?
He stayed on the floor a long time before making his way up to his bedroom.
He thought of what had just happened, and of the grief that had grown like ragweed through the wilderness of his life for the past four months.
And slowly, reluctantly, he came to a decision. The only decision that was left for him to make.
Willie knelt at the edge of his bed, looking over the stack of possessions piled on the mattress.
It was a bigger stack than he had expected. He hadn't realized how many small comforts Gina and her children had given him, both when they'd lived in town and in the months since they'd moved west.
Photographs. Letters. Drawings the kids had made. A tiny book of prayers that Polly had sent him after her first communion, and which Willie had put away unread, knowing that he was too far gone for any amount of prayer to help him now.
He reached out and pulled his favorite gift toward him, burying his nose into folds of soft, red wool. Gina had made this scarf for him and had given it to him the Christmas before she left, along with a matching pair of gloves. Willie had worn them all winter, and had not been surprised to find that Gina's thoughtfulness had warmed his heart as much as it warmed his body.
But the scarf couldn't warm him now, any more than Polly's book of prayers could give him comfort. Barnabas had threatened to take Gina Lee away, so Willie was doing what he should have done months before; he was putting her away himself.
It was by far the hardest thing he had ever done. Harder than burying Jason in the secret room of the mausoleum, after Barnabas had taunted, then murdered him, down in the dark of the basement. Harder than giving himself over to Barnabas' constant criticism and abuse, in a sacrifice that renewed itself with every passing night. Harder even than giving up the Logans the first time, the previous winter, when Gina's growing curiosity and Barnabas' simmering temper had left him no choice but to abandon them.
In a way, he'd been giving them up ever since. He'd never really had them again after that. He'd grieved for them for twenty-four months, not four.
He had hoped, through it all, that he could give Gina up in the physical sense, while still holding on to her in his heart. But his own bloodied, exhausted state proved that his plan wasn't working. He was still weeping for her. He was still messing up. And if he didn't hide her away, Barnabas was going to take her permanently, leaving Willie to freeze through the coming winter with no good thought left to warm him.
He'd been warm in San Diego, though. Oh, so wonderfully warm, surrounded by sunlight and the boundless love of his friends. He hadn't realized until he held Danny in his arms again, and seen Gina's bright dark eyes, just how much he had missed them. Seeing them, even in the stark white shill of the hospitals' intensive care unit, had healed the wound he'd carried ever since the day they'd left him behind in Collinsport.
He had reveled in that warmth. Rubbed it into his soul like balm. He had worried over Polly, yes, and he had done his feeble best to help Gina pull herself together through the week. He had worried over what Barnabas might be up to, especially when the money covering Polly's hospital bills had arrived. But most of all, he had held tight to the friendship his adopted family had offered him while he was still close enough to hug them, touch them, look into their eyes. Even his argument with Gina hadn't been enough to totally dispel the power of that gift.
And then he'd had to leave them, of course. What else had he expected? There was nothing else for him to do.
He had walked away from them, fast fast fast from the airport gate, blinking back tears and not daring to glance behind him for fear that he would turn around and rush back into their arms. Fuck Barnabas and his threats, fuck Collinsport, fuck everything. He just wanted to stay with the people who loved him. The people that he loved.
All the way back to Maine, he'd choked on tears, too stricken with grief to be embarrassed at the stewardesses who brought him extra drinks and the kind-hearted old woman beside him who offered him tissues and patted his hand and told him it was awful, just awful to have to come home after someone you loved had died. She knew how it was, she said. She'd lost a sister once, and had had to fly all the way back to Missouri after the funeral in south Florida, and she, too, had cried all the way.
Willie hadn't answered her. He couldn't have gotten the words past the lump in his throat, even if he'd wanted to talk. He remembered all that long day on the plane how he had grief when Gina and the kids had first moved to California. He remembered the isolation, the crushing loneliness he had felt in their absence. And now here he was, going back to it after his brief respite, as though was the life he had chosen, rather than the life that had chosen him.
It was more than he could bear. It really was. And then there was Barnabas to confront, waiting for him like a spider in the damp of the Old House basement. Barnabas with his sneers and his snide comments and his refusal to acknowledge anything but his own black needs and desires. He didn't care that Willie was hurting. He thought Willie's pain was deserved. He'd said as much, the night Willie had come home, just as he had done tonight.
Maybe I do deserve it, though, Willie thought. I put Gina in danger again, didn't I? Barnabas, sending all that money, a charitable gesture, with only Willie understanding the threat behind it. A threat wrapped with malice and barbed wire strings.
They would never be safe now, as long as Willie continued to love them. They would never quite be out of danger, no matter how well he tried to behave.
So Willie would not associate with them. Not anymore. Not in letters or in phone calls or in the private communion of his heart.
He would find a way to let them go. As he should have done when they'd left Collinsport. As he should have done, even long before then, when the first buds of friendship had begun to blossom and green.
Fresh tears, hot as acid, scorched his cheeks. Burned his lips. Traced scalding lines along the curve of his throat.
Don't cry, dammit.
It's what he wants.
If he hears you, it's all the excuse he'll need to take her from ya. He's just waitin' for it, especially tonight. You know he is.
A sob tore at his chest. The wool of th3e scarf pressed tight against his mouth as he drew in breath, leaving tiny, scratchy fibers on his tongue. Willie wadded up the wool and pressed it against his eyes, weeping rocking on the floor with his elbows braced on the bed. He wept until the scarf was wet, until h is throat was raw, until his eyes felt drowned in their sockets.
Then he took a deep, snuffling breath. Wiped his face. And folded the scarf into a damp, red rectangle.
Working slowly, holding one precious keepsake at a time, he placed his treasures into the wooden chest he kept at the foot of his bed; Polly's drawings. A seashell Danny had found on the San Diego beach. A picture of Gina holding Carla, her lips pressed against the baby's sunny cheek.
He put the scarf on top, hoping his tears hadn't ruined it.
Then he closed the lid.
Got up from the floor.
And stumbled to the bed, seeking, at last, the temporary oblivion of sleep.
Willie ran his hand along the back of his neck and grimaced. The brushed suede tickle of hair shaved too close to the skin repulsed him.
But Elmer always did that, finishing off a haircut with a buzz along the neckline and a barber's brush full of talcum. Too short a cut by half, by Willie's standards. He preferred to wear his hair at least down to his collar. But it was probably about the right length to satisfy Barnabas--and that was what counted today.
He was about to climb back into his truck for the short drive to the pharmacy when a voice at his elbow stopped him cold.
"So you're alive after all. Gina Lee will be glad to hear that, I suppose."
Willie swung around. Tom Pederson was looking down at him from the sidewalk: a mountain of a man with his work-calloused fists stuffed into the pockets of his work pants, a red cap tipped to the back of his balding head. He'd been working out in the sun, had Tom. His forehead was as purple as a turnip.
"She asked me to look you up," Tom said, when Willie didn't answer. "My wife offered to, but Gina said no, she'd rather it was me."
Willie kept staring, unsure of what to say. He knew Tom Pederson had never liked him. Didn't like him now. He wondered what Gina could have said to the man to prod him into seeking Willie out, when it was plain that Tom would just as soon have let Anne have the errand, if she wanted it.
"Well," Tom said, his narrowed eyes and furrowed forehead betraying his annoyance at the younger man's lack of response. "C'mon and lock 'er up. It'll be cooler in the diner."
"The diner?" Willie repeated blankly.
"Yeah. Gina said to take you there. Drag you, if I had to. She wants to know why you haven't been answering her letters." Tom shrugged, evidence enough that he didn't like this chore that had been forced upon him any more than Willie did. "She seemed mighty convinced that something bad had happened to you. Said you'd never stop writing unless something had."
"Nothing's happened," Willie said. "You can see tha…."
"It's all the same to me, boy," Tom interrupted. "But Gina said to buy you a cup of coffee and see for myself that nothing's wrong. That's what I aim to do, so you might as well come on, instead of standin' out here in the heat making a fuss about it."
Willie opened his mouth to say that he wasn't going anywhere except back to the Old House. He had work to do--and an appointment to keep at dusk. He needed to get back and get some sleep before then.
But he could tell by the stubbornness in Tom Pederson's face that the best thing he could do was to give in and have a cup of coffee with the man. If he didn't, Tom might report to Gina that Willie wouldn't talk to him, and Gina might take it into her head to hop the next train east. She hadn't the money, at least as far as Willie knew, but she might decide to borrow it from somewhere. Maybe even from Tom and Anne Pederson. Leave the kids behind with their cousin Irene, and come on back to Collinsport for one last row with Barnabas.
Willie shuddered. What a horrible thought.
He owed it to Gina to prevent that, if he could.
"All right," he said tiredly. "But make it quick. I got work to do."
He slammed the truck door without bothering to lock it, and followed Tom across the street to the faded façade of the diner. Inside, the too-small air conditioner struggled to cope with the trapped summer heat and the flames dancing in the grating below the scrubbed metal grill.
Tom turned as though he thought to sit at the counter, but Willie stumped past him and slid into the farthest booth at the back, where half the town wouldn't see him talking to a man who openly despised him. He didn't care about Tom's reputation, and he sure didn't care about his own. But he didn't want to be stared at and dissected by the village gossips once he left. Not that there was anything he could do about it if they did.
A waitress wandered over at Tom's wave. She popped gum while Tom ordered coffee, and Willie, under Tom's prodding, nodded mute acceptance of a Coke.
"Want a burger, too?" Tom offered. "I'm buyin'."
Willie shook his head.
"You mean to tell me you aren't hungry?" Tom snorted. "That's a first." He ignored Willie's glare and ordered a burger and fries. "Make that burger rare, okay, Debbie? Just show it to the fire and put it on the plate."
Willie gulped, nauseated at the thought. He liked a burger and fries as much as the next guy, when he was hungry, but after meeting Barnabas, he preferred his meat as well done as the short order cook would burn it. If he stuck around for a few more minutes, he was going to have to watch Tom eat the equivalent of a cannibal sandwich, with warmed blood and grease dripping over Tom's stubby fingers and onto the plate.
Willie's stomach churned, and he grabbed at the soda the waitress brought him, taking a deep swallow to keep himself from getting sick.
"Jumpin' Jesus Chris, boy," Tom exclaimed. "What have you done to your hands?"
Willie put the glass on the table under the waitress' curious stare and dropped his hands into his lap, out of sight. "Been workin'," he mumbled, staring hard at the tabletop. "Masonry n' stuff." He gave Debbie a hot blue glance. You can go now, if you're done scopin' me out, you trashy bitch.
"Looks more as if you've been in a fight," Tom said. "Scraped knuckles like that."
"If I'd been in a fight, you've heard about it," Willie snapped. "Everybody in town would've."
"I reckon that's so," Tom allowed. "But you've sure done a hell of a job on them. Better take it easy until they have a chance to heal up."
Debbie wandered off behind the counter, her grease-stained apron humping around her hips as she went. Willie saw her lean in close to the cook and whisper something in his ear, just before the man glanced over his shoulder at the back booth and gave Willie a gap-toothed smirk.
Thanks a lot, Tom, Willie thought. Aloud, he said, "I'm takin' care of 'em, don't worry."
Tome had noticed the chuckling between the waitress and the cook, and had the grace to look pained on Willie's behalf. "That Debbie," he muttered, taking off his cap to place it on the seat beside him. "Always snoopin' in someone else's business." Then he said, with no irony at all, "So how come you've stopped talkin' to Gina?"
"I guess that would be between Gina and me, Mr. Pederson," Willie replied, steadily.
"It would be," Tom agreed, "if I hadn't gotten a call at some god-awful hour of the morning from a woman convinced that something terrible had happened to you." He folded his work-roughened hands on the table in front of him and leaned across the green Formica so he could look Willie in the eye. "I dunno why she cares about you, boy, but she does. An' it seems to me you owe her a hell of a lot better than to brush her off like she's some kinda whore from off the docks."
Willie was on his feet before he knew it. His thighs hit the edge of the table on the way up, setting the cups and cutlery to rattling, and he found his hands out of his lap and halfway up to his sides, his fingers clenched in taut, scabby fists. "I guess I know who I'm indebted to," he said tightly. He wanted to knock that self-righteous expression off Tom Pederson's turnip face, but he didn't dare do anything more than snarl at the man. Tom cut concrete for a living: that big frame was weighted with muscle, not fat. If Willie picked a fight with him, it was a sure bet who was going to lose, and it sure wasn't gonna be Tom.
Tom looked up at his aggressor with patient, red-rimmed eyes, as thought Willie was no more of an irritant than one of the Pederson kids throwing a tantrum. "Siddown, boy," he said mildly. "You're givin' that woman behind the counter better trash to pick through than she's had all summer, an' she'll thank you for it by spreadin' it all over town."
Willie sat. He was shaking with rage, but he knew Tom was right. He was making a spectacle of himself in a public place full of busybodies, and if he wasn't careful, Barnabas would hear about it at dusk. He reached for his soda again and gulped half of it in one go, trying to calm the trembling in his gut. He still wanted to lean across the table and knock Tom's block off, never mind that the man had been decent to him once or twice before for Gina's sake, and he was trying to be again. But he didn't. He didn't dare.
"I know this is your private business," Tom continued, ignoring Willie's anger as he stirred sugar into his cooling coffee. "I wouldn't be here 'xcept Gina drew me into it. But the fact is, that woman's been good to my family. She's been good to most everybody she's ever known, in this town or out of it--and that includes you." Tom pointed at him with the dripping spoon, then realized it was rude and sat down. "It ain't right for you to treat her this way, Loomis. It's a shabby business, and you know it."
"I know it," Willie muttered, looking down at the chipped ice in his glass. "But it can't be helped, Mr. Pederson. I…I've been busy. Way too busy to be doin' anything but my job."
"You ain't too busy to take five minutes to put pen to paper," Tom retorted. "If you don't want to write her anymore, at least have the decency to tell her so, rather than makin' her wonder if you've gone off and got yourself kill't."
Willie didn't answer. He was ashamed of himself, and angry, but he was also relieved that Tom's meddling hadn't renewed the grief that had shaken him so badly the night before. That, at least, was still dormant, buried beneath the heavier weight of resentment and rage.
"Here comes my burger," Tom said. He leaned back so Debbie could set the platter in front of him. A salt-speckled fry, crisp as a twig, escaped the plate and landed by his coffee cup. "Are you sure you don't want anything?" he asked Willie again.
Willie shook his head.
"All right, then, Debbie, that'll do," Tom said. He reached for the ketchup as the waitress waddled away, and smacked the bottom of the bottle with his palm in a futile effort to loosen the contents. "Woman's got a nose problem," he muttered at Willie as he shook ketchup over his fries. "Always got it stickin' in somebody else's troubles."
Willie was watching the burger drool its first few threads of grease onto the fries piled around it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten anything more than a few sips of soup, but his stomach didn't growl. The rage that was trembling through it tightened into a knot instead, and he was afraid he was going to retch.
"I…I gotta go, Mr. Pederson," he gulped. "I…I got work waitin' an' all?"
Tom looked up at him, surprised. "What? We ain't finished here, boy."
"Yeah, we are." Willie slid out of the booth and stood up. "If you talk to Gina, just…just tell her I'm okay. Okay? I'm okay, an' I'm sorry I've been so busy an' all, an' I'll write back to her when I can."
He was slipping away, a half step back with every word, with Tom looking up at him as though he were a fool, and a coward besides. And hell, Willie thought. Maybe Tom is right.
"I'll tell her," Tom said.
But Willie was no longer listening. He was turning on his heel and bolting for the door.
His hands were shaking so badly, he had a hard time opening the door of the truck. His blistered palms protested, flinching away from the sun-heated metal of the handle, until Willie finally wrapped his right hand in his left and pressed down hard to release the latch. The door popped open and he fell inside, yanking his legs under the wheel and slamming the door behind him.
He was quivering with nausea, sticky with sweat. He sat there in the steaming heat of the cab, taking short, shallow breaths through his nose, with his eyes squeezed tight against the windshield's glassy glare.
Don't puke. Don't puke. Don't puke.
He let his right hand shake its way down to his pocket, searching for the truck key. He found it without having to open his eyes and plunged the key into the ignition, revving the Chevy's engine to life. As he opened his eyes and placed his hands on the wheel, he saw Tom Pederson step out of the diner and look across at him with frank disdain.
I did what I could to smarten you up, boy, that look said, but I don't expect it took, did it?
Willie stomped on the gas without checking for traffic and brought the Chevy into the street with a drunken lurch. His stomach lurched with it, and he clenched his teeth against the sour bile welling up in his mouth, determined to at least reach a side street before he lost the battle with his belly.
But as he drove, the desperate nausea began to ease, and he was able to unclench his left hand from the wheel long enough to roll down the driver's side window. Willie took a deep breath, then another, letting the hot summer air strike his sweating face. He turned left on Lightroller Street, then left on Perch, watching for the big black letters that spelled out pharmacy against the pale red bricks of the storefront.
Liniment. Liniment and anti-acids. God, I need an anti-acid right about now. A whole pack of 'em.
He parked in the pharmacy's tiny lot and left the truck, grateful for the air conditioning inside the store that dried the beads of sweat still speckling his brow. He passed the card rack--happy birthday, congratulations, thinking of you--and ruthlessly quashed the regret that he couldn't send one of the latter to Gina.
Get the stuff and get out of here, Willie. Get back to the Old House. Get yourself some rest.
He strode through the aisles of hair pomade and Black Draught, eyes ransacking the shelves, until he finally found what he needed on a low tier stocked with vapor rubs, iodine, and Mercurochrome. Willie picked up one of the fat plastic tubs with scab-stiffened fingers, fancying that he could already feel the sting of the salve in the wounds. Leave it to Barnabas to order the medication that would hurt the most, though no doubt iodine and the rest of it would burn just as bad.
The anti-acids were racked the next aisle over. Willie grabbed a pack and bee-lined for the register, eager to be in his truck and on his way back to Collinwood. Maybe he would visit the beach this afternoon, just for a few minutes before he napped. Sit on his boulder and watch the surf. Listen to the gulls keening on the wind. He hadn't been down to his sanctuary in a long time, not for months, and hadn't Barnabas' instructions included Willie getting plenty of rest today? What difference did it make where he got it?
He felt a pair of rheumy blue eyes light upon him as he neared the counter, and looked up in time to see the elderly woman behind the register smiling at him, as though he were her own son coming home. Willie grimaced mentally, if not physically, and didn't smile back. Old Myrtle Bing was pleased to see just about anyone, but she saved her most welcoming smiles for Willie. He'd made the mistake of cutting her Plymouth out of the ice one blustery afternoon, and she'd adored him for it ever since. Sometimes he wished he hadn't bothered to help her, the dotty old bird. She seemed to think he was her guardian angel or something--and she was always trying to return the favor.
"Afternoon, Mister Loomish," Myrtle offered through her dentures.
Willie grunted and thumped his purchases on the counter.
C'mon, old lady, I ain't got all freakin' day.
The register clacked and clanged as Myrtle rang up the liniment.
"Ish there anything elsh?" she chirruped, smiling.
And then she spotted Willie's hands.
The smile disappeared as though she swallowed it. A bobby pin popped loose from the tightly coiled bun at the back of her head and landed like a plastic-legged grasshopper on the front of her blouse.
"Um…Excushe me…um…Mister Loomish," she said, "but you don't want to put this shtuff on blishters. It'll shting, and it won't do any good besides." She glanced at Willie's hands again, distressed sympathy giggling in her old lady's wattles. "You want to ice those palms to take the shwelling down, then bandage them up to keep them clean. That's…"
"I'll take the liniment, thanks," Willie interrupted, not looking at her after he saw the hurt welling in her red-rimmed eyes. "An' these, too." He tossed the anti-acids on the counter.
"Oh. All right," the old woman stammered. "You…you jusht take 'em, then." Willie had stung her with his abruptness--he could see that--but she was trying hard to love him just the same." They're not but a nickel, anyway, an' I can…."
Willie snapped a look at her, frowning, then thrust his hands into his pocket, snatched out his change, and bounced a nickel on the counter with a savagery that rang of contempt. The liniment was more expensive, almost fifty cents. He let two quarters bounce next to the nickel, grabbed both tub and packet without waiting for a bag to put them in, and stalked out of the pharmacy. The old woman's scalded feelings burned the back of his neck as he left, stinging him worse than the blisters would, once he'd slathered the liniment in. But Willie smashed his pity down.
It was listening to his feelings like that that had gotten him into trouble in the first place, two long years ago.
H wasn't ever going to listen to them again.
By the time he got back to the Old House, Willie felt as though his guts had been torn out of his body and tied into a knot. He dropped his parcels on the kitchen counter and leaned against the splintery wood with his eyes squeezed shut, struggling just to breathe.
He hated himself for the way he had treated Old Lady Bing. He had done it out of spite for the way Debbie at the diner had treated him, and out of the still-simmering resentment that Tom Pederson had sparked in his guilty conscience. But as much as he tried to drive the thought away, or crush it with his newfound hardness, he knew that Gina would be horrified if she had witnessed her good friend Willie snubbing a harmless old woman, no matter what the cause.
Gina would not understand such wickedness. The hardship in her own life had never made her cruel.
The thought that Gina would be saddened by his cruelty saddened him.
He opened his watering eyes and saw a bag sitting, unopened, at the back of the counter, shoved behind the bread tin. Barnabas' expensive brandy. Willie had forgotten all about filling the decanter in the parlor with fresh liquor. He was damned lucky that Barnabas hadn't noticed it yet.
Guess I better do that first.
And then, maybe a little lunch. An apple, maybe. Or a cheese sandwich.
He went into the parlor to retrieve the brandy decanter, listening to the faint jingle of the crystal stopped in the decanter's throat as he walked back to the kitchen. He wasn't really hungry for lunch, but he ought to eat something. Clean, fed, and well rested. That's how Barnabas expected to find his servant Willie tonight. And so far, all Willie could claim was clean. He'd taken a sponge bath upon waking that morning, but hadn't bothered with anything else.
He put the decanter on the counter, next to the sink, and fetched down the glass funnel from its cabinet. Barnabas insisted on a glass funnel; he said a metal one tainted the flavor of the brandy, though how he would know such a thing when he never drank the stuff was a mystery to Willie. The brandy bottles inside their paper sack clanked against each other as Willie dragged them toward him and pulled the first one out to unscrew the cap.
He had the decanter over the sink, ready to pour the old liquor down the drain, when he stopped.
There was saliva in his mouth. The scent of alcohol, wafting from the open throat of the decanter, tempted his appetite, when nothing--not even the offer of a hot mean from the diner--had interested him in weeks.
Don't do it, Willie. If he smells it on ya, you're toast.
But one sip? One swallow. Just enough t to take the edge off. He'd had a horrible couple of days, and things weren't likely to get any better. What could one swallow hurt? He'd pour the rest away. He just wanted enough to coax his numbness back into him. Sort of like a dentist swabbing a little Novocain on a sore tooth, before the real drilling began.
Don't do it!
Oh, man. Don't do it.
But he did it anyway.
The sip turned into a gulp. Willie swallowed hard against a gag reflex that tried to save him in spite of himself, and once that first swallow was down, swallowed again. The brandy scalded his tongue, convulsed his throat, but he still managed a third gulp before the voice screaming in his head forced him to stop.
Are you crazy?? He'll skin you alive if he catches you drinking! Have you completely lost your mi….
Willie slammed a mental door on the panic that was haranguing him, just as he might slam the front door of the Old House on some salesman trying to sell him snake oil or suit brushes. The brandy became a pleasant buzz in his bloodstream, warming his stomach and loosening his limbs. The worries that had pricked at him like a next of nettles for the past four months blunted their spines against a wavering wall of alcohol.
There was still a small stab of uneasiness here and there, mostly where his memories of Gina were stored. But for the most part, he felt better.
His eyes roved absentmindedly around the kitchen, settling on an apple juice jar that he sometimes filled with water when he knew he was going to be working outside in the heat, and would need a drink on the job before he came back into the house again.
A drink. On the job.
That's exactly what I needed.
Exactly what I'll need.
He rinsed out the juice jar beneath the pump, shook it free of water, and poured the remaining brandy from the decanter into it. He screwed the dented metal lid across the mouth and left it there, out on the counter, in plain sight. It looked like apple juice to him. Maybe it would to Barnabas, too, if the vampire ever deigned to notice it.
He finished filling the crystal decanter with a bottle of fresh liquor and placed the spare on a shelf in the pantry. Willie's eyes kept wandering back to his stolen brandy, its presence tempting him with its shining, golden glow. Sunlight filtered through the half-filled jar, promising him future sedation, should he ever need it. But the knowledge that it was there was enough to soothe him, and eased the temptation to drink more. His three gulps had been enough for today. He didn't want to over-do it.
Now that his nerves weren't jangling so loudly, he found he could make a cheese sandwich without fighting a tremor in his hands. He leaned against the edge of the sink and ate his lunch, but he didn't want any water with it. He wanted the sweet brandy daze to stay with him as long as possible It would help him nap for an hour or two before sundown--and dissipate long before Barnabas rose.
It was funny, he thought, as he stumped his way up the stairs to bed. The brandy Barnabas reserved for guests was supposed to be premium stuff. But it hadn't tasted like anything special to Willie, once he started gulping it down.
That was how he started drinking on the sly.
And once he'd decided to do it, it seemed the devil was willing to meet him halfway.
The brandy in the juice jar didn't last long. He'd poured in less than a fifth. Three good swallows every morning meant it was gone in less than eight days. And by then, it wasn't just a stolen pleasure. He needed it. It was the reward he gave himself for getting his work done. The touchstone that got him through his day. It took the edge off his anger, the raggedness off his nerves. It was the magic potion that let him sleep, small as the dosage was.
But now he needed more. A lot more.
He started saving his pocket change. Any money that Barnabas let him keep went into an envelope, and when he had a dollar fifty, he went to the bootlegger in the alley behind the Blue Whale and spent it on a bottle of rotgut. It didn't matter to him that the stuff was essentially fermented potatoes, and would probably eat through any container that wasn't glass. All he cared about was its potency, and the fact that it was cheap. It was colorless. Almost odorless, too. And tasted like a lightning bolt going down.
After a couple of weeks of steady drinking, a measly three gulps wasn't enough to calm him anymore, not even when it was Zack's white lightning. Willie started to panic, wondering where he could scavenge more money without Barnabas finding out, when whatever devil was plotting his ruin sent him the gift of a five-dollar bill skittering along on the breeze in the grocery store parking lot. Willie stomped on it and snatched it up, agog at his good fortune. Here was two--no, three!--bottles of Zack's rotgut, as good as in his hand, and he hadn't had to steal to get it.
He used the change from the fiver as seed money for his next dollar fifty, and tried to make his three bottles last as long as possible.
They didn't last the month.
He found himself sleeping a little later in the mornings. First one hour. Then two.
His meals--welcome once he could eat again--frittered away to nothing. He'd rather have a shot of booze than a sandwich.
And his anger. Oh, his anger. The brandy had burned it away, but the white lightning fed it. He had to be careful not to drink before he went into town, because a single shot was enough to make him-short tempered with shopkeepers and waitresses alike.
He was exquisitely careful not to drink three hours before sundown, to give whatever he had drunk a chance to wear off. He was afraid that if he didn't, he might flare up at Barnabas. He wasn't yet drunkard enough to risk that.
Until, of course, on the night that he was.
The day started out bad to begin with.
Willie startled up from a half-drunken sleep to find full sun streaming through his bedroom window. He'd risked a nip or two--all right, he'd risked half a bottle--once four in the morning had struck, and he could be relatively certain that Barnabas wouldn't be making a third-floor appearance. The drink had helped Willie elude the restlessness that had plagued him earlier in the night, but now he'd overslept, and he was supposed to be in town by eight, signing for a shipment of lumber that the lumber yard had special ordered so Willie could rebuild the outbuilding he'd demolished last month.
He grabbed for his alarm clock, fumbled it, and heard it clang off the floor before it rolled beneath the bed. Shit! He dove over the side headfirst, hand outstretched for the clock's slick curve--and jammed his palm hard into a half-exposed nail head.
Willie fell off the bed, landing shoulder first before falling into an inglorious heap on the floorboards. His curses sent dust bunnies scurrying for cover as he swiped up the dented clock with a blood-slicked hand and struggled to make out the time. Eleven thirty! Good lord, he was more than three hours late. The wood would be delivered by now, and sitting out in the weather, if Morton Gunn hadn't had enough sense to tarp it--and he might not have, simply out of spite.
Well, fuck it. What difference did it make? It wasn't as though it was fruitwood for a cabinet that would warp at the slightest skin of sunlight or rain. It was just wood for an outbuilding. An outbuilding, as in "sitting outdoors for the next fifty years." What difference did it make when Willie collected it?
Except it did matter, and Willie knew it. Gunn had expedited the order at Willie's request, who, in turn, had hurried the paperwork because Barnabas wanted it. Morton Gunn was liable to be pretty pissed that Willie had left him standing around all morning when he'd already confirmed a pick up at eight. He was a Maine tradesman. He was prickly about things like that.
The remains of the previous night's bottle was sitting behind the bedframe's brass foot, a dreg of two of Zack's white lightning sill lurking in the bottom. Willie snatched it up and wiped off the open mouth, never minding that he left a slime of his own blood on the glass rather than knocking off the dust. His breakfast went down in three hot gulps, a relief to his brain and his belly. He sat there on the floor, breathing in the fumes that must have filled the room over the course of the night, and had the dim sense to be grateful that Barnabas hadn't paid him a visit around dawn, with an open bottle, hidden, but not well enough, casting its fermented potato stink through the room, and Willie, all but passed out on his bed. Not in the honest sleep of a working man who had earned his rest. Oh no. But the oblivion of a drunken fool who hadn't had the sense to kick off so much as his shoes before collapsing, fully dressed, at four o'clock in the morning.
You are a fool. Barnabas is right about that much. What are you doin', Willie me lad, but committing suicide the slow way, rather than deciding to do it and getting' on with it all? You're just askin' him to find out about it--and to hurt you when he does.
For a moment, Jason's mocking Irish lilt murmured in Willie's ear, a bittersweet ghost of a friendship long past, coming back to warn him; but Willie snarled it away, evil tempered, knowing he was messing up and not caring that he was. That was one of the more serious side effects of drinking moonshine every night, or so Zack had warned him. The brain cells withered. The temper flared.
But that was the point, wasn't it? The brain cells withered, and with them, hurtful memories and Willie's own sense of self-preservation. Why keep it? Now that he was finally fully alone, he didn't need it anyway. What difference did it make if he died?
He snuffled with self-pity, dragging himself up from the floor with his palm stinging on the bedclothes, leaving a bloody handprint to scarlet the sheets. He'd barely healed from the damage he'd inflicted the last time, and how here he was, gouging himself on nails. Under the bed, where Willie rarely cleaned, the nail was probably rusty. Crusted with filth. It would probably give him…give him…what was the word? Tetanus? The fancy word for lockjaw. Well, whatever. Willie didn't care. He tucked in his sweat-stained shirt without bothering to change into fresh clothes and hobbled for the door. He might make it into town by noon, if he floored it. If not, Morton Gunn and his sorry stack of lumber were just gonna have to wait.
Willie drove into Collinsport hating everything that he saw: brilliant late summer sunlight that hurt his eyes; the red and greed and gold sparking in the maple leaves along the road; the grey-green sea that tempted him with an escape he couldn't have. The alcohol he'd drunk for breakfast burned in his gut, and he burped, tasting lightning in the back of his throat and enjoying the burn, if he enjoyed nothing else. He'd have to get another bottle while he was in town. He'd just drunk the last he had.
The question was, did he have a dollar fifty in his pocket?
If I don't, I'll just skim it offa the money Barnabas gave me to pay for the wood. Tell 'im I bought lunch with it or something.
There would be no receipt, but maybe Barnabas wouldn't notice. And if he did…well, fuck 'im. Willie would take the whipping. It would be worth it to have his bottle safe under his bed.
By the time he reached the lumber yard, noon had come and gone. A "Gone To Lunch" sign was perched on the doorknob of the office door, but Willie could see the shadow of a man wavering behind the glass. Morton Gunn must have brought his lunch to work with him, and was eating it at his desk, even now.
The smart thing to do was for Willie to stay in the truck. The smart thing to do was to drive the four blocks down to the diner and get some lunch that didn't come out of a liquor bottle, and come back when Morton might be in a mood to deal with him.
No one ever said I was smart, now, did they?
Willie got out of the truck and made a point of stomping up the stairs to the porch, shaking the heavy treads with his weight. He smacked his hand against the door and rattled the knob, dislodging the "Gone To Lunch" sign. It fluttered into the shrubbery beside the stairs.
"Gunn! Hey, Morton Gunn! C'mon, I got wood to pick up."
The shadow behind the frosted glass paused, then raised what appeared to be a sandwich and resumed eating.
"Gunn! C'mon, I know you're in there, I ain't got all day."
The shadow never waivered, but continued with its lunch. Apparently it had chips as well as a sandwich.
"Goddamn son of a bitch," Willie muttered under his breath, and gave the door a whack hard enough to rattle the glass.
There was a scrape of chair legs on floorboards, and suddenly the shadow was rushing toward the glass, darkening as it came. The door slammed upon to reveal the thunderous, fry-pan face of Morton Gunn.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing, Loomis? Can't you see I'm on my break?
Gunn was fairly quivering with indignation. He was a stoop-shouldered, flat-faced man with skin crusted yellow with impetigo. His white hair stood up in rooster tails on either side of his head where the Brylcream had lost its grip. Willie could smell onions and mustard on the old man's breath.
"You can take your break after I get this wood loaded," Willie retorted. "It ain't like you're exactly boomin' with business here, is it?"
"Got more than I can handle. Enough so I don't have to wait all mornin' for your sorry ass to get here."
"Enough so you can make it without the Collins' business? 'Cause I can leave that wood right here, and start ordering outta Ellsworth, if I hafta. Plenty of lumber yards out there."
Gunn swallowed whatever retort he wanted to make, but it was choking him, Willie knew. The old man's flat face turned red.
"I didn't think so," Willie smirked. "Now let's get this show on the road. I got other places to be today."
Like the bootlegger's. Please god, let Zack be there.
Gunn stomped down the steps, louder than Willie had come up them. He stabbed a hand at a stack of lumber, indicating with silent fury that Willie should back his truck up beside it. Once the truck was in place, the old man started slinging two-by-fours into the bed, not waiting for Willie to come around and help him.
One of the two-by-fours banged off the Chevy's rear window, and Willie came out of the cab, fast.
"Watch what you're doin' there, old man! Bust out that window and I'll knock your block off for ya!"
Gunn kept slinging lumber. When he finished, there was an unsteady stack of wood teetering in the truck bed. He didn't offer to tarp it down.
"Now get off my property," he growled at Willie. "I'll send you the bill."
"I've got cash in my…."
"I said get the hell off my property, boy. And don't come back 'ill you've sobered up and learned some manners."
Willie got back in the cab, muttering curses. He jerked the truck into reverse just to watch Morton Gunn jump out of the way, then drove off with the old man shaking his fist at him.
Guess I'll have to start orderin' wood outta Ellsworth after all.
But maybe that would be a good thing. The drive would give him the chance to stay out of the villagers' way. He had pissed off far too many of them these past few weeks, and sooner or later, one of them was going to complain to Barnabas.
Get your booze and get home. You sill got this wood to unload at the other end. And if you're gonna take a drink, you gotta do it soon.
Timing was everything when it came to drinking on the sly. It took planning to have enough alcohol in his system to keep him anesthetized, but not so anesthetized that Barnabas would notice. Willie could have his nip in the morning, and he could have another around noon. But drinking after one o'clock was dangerous, especially at the level he was drinking now. With the later summer days shortening into autumn, dusk might arrive before the alcohol wore off.
He still risked it, sometimes when he was feeling particularly reckless. But it wasn't safe.
Please, Zack, be there. I need a drink bad.
Zack was there. Willie breathed a sign of relief when he caught sight of the none-too-subtle signal: a red bandana fluttering from the doorknob to the bootlegger's cubby in the warehouse adjoining the Blue Whale. Willie pulled the truck deeper into the alley and parked. The bandana let customers know if Zack was selling or not. If he wasn't, or if the sheriff was hassling him, the doorknob would be bare.
Oh, thank god. Let's get it and get gone.
Willie left the truck unlocked and gave a brisk knock on Zack's door to let him know that a customer was about to come in. Customers who forgot that nicety and just barged into Zack's living quarters-cum-distillery were likely to find themselves staring down the barrel of a shotgun.
"Hey, Zack." Willie peered around the door and saw the bootlegger leaning back in his chair at a chipped Formica table, the shotgun at his feet. "Okay to come in?"
"Yeah. Back awful fast, though, ain't you?" Zack rumbled upwards like a slow volcano erupting, a square block of a man who still maintained his graying military crew cut. "You was just in here last week, kid."
"I know, but I need another bottle."
Zack shook his head. "Kid, you're an idiot. Far be it from me to turn away a payin' customer, but you're drinkin' too damned much of this stuff. You've got a solid job there up at the Collins'. Why you wanna go and risk it?
Willie just looked at him.
"I know, I know. Ain't none of my business. But I still say you're a fool. You're gonna wind up on the street, a drifter, just like you was when you came here."
"I wish," Willie muttered. Aloud, he said, "I'm careful, Zack. I don't drink much on the job."
"No?" Zack pointed at the cracked mirror hanging above the crates of dusty bottles and spare copper coils. "You take a look at yourself lately? My god, Loomis, you're a mess. Stinkin' of booze. Unwashed. Dirty clothes. How your boss puts up with it, I dunno."
Willie didn't look in the mirror.
"He hasn't said anythin' yet," he said. "And I'm keeping up with things."
"Yeah, so I've heard. Snappin' the head off anybody that looks at you cross-eyed. You used to be a half-way tolerable kid, Loomis, but you're turning into a lout."
"Look, Zack," Willie snarled, provoked, "if I wanted a lecture, I'd go to freakin' church. Are you gonna sell me a bottle or not?"
The bootlegger crossed his arms. He still maintained his military muscle, too. It came in handy with his rougher customers.
"I sure as hell shouldn't sell ya one," he said. "But you'll just get it somewhere else, won't you?"
Willie, sullen, didn't answer.
Zack pulled out a bottle of one of the crates lining the walls. "Here you go, then. But one is all you're getting'. I'm not having the sheriff bangin' on my door, telling me you're dead of alcohol poisoning."
Willie took the bottle and tucked it beneath his arm. He pulled out the wad of cash Barnabas had given him the night before and peeled off two one-dollar bills. He didn't bother to say thanks, or to wait for his fifty cents change. He only turned around and left, vowing that he would find another bootlegger to supply his lightning before his new bottle ran out.
The booze, he needed. The sermonizing, he didn't.
"Dumb ass kid," he heard Zack mutter as he closed the door.
Willie was getting ready for bed when he heard the echo of a knock at the front door. He went to the head of the stairway and cocked his head, listening to see if Barnabas was going to answer it. When he heard the door open, and Barnabas' smooth baritone greeting someone, he turned around and went back to his room to finish changing into his pajamas.
Barnabas was occupied. Seeing as that was the case, it might be okay for Willie to risk a shot or two of Zack's white lightning before he turned in, so he might get some decent sleep for a change.
In fact, Willie thought he'd take the shots first. Give the booze a chance to kick in.
He unscrewed the bottle cap and took a slug. Licked his lips. Took another.
He had slipped out of his shirt and was unbuttoning his jeans when his bedroom door swung open.
His bottle was in plain sight, standing open on his dresser.
"It is true, then," Barnabas said. "I should have known as much."
"What's true, Barnabas?" Willie asked. He was caught, and he knew it, but he didn't see the harm in bluffing. Maybe Barnabas hadn't seen the bottle yet, and was concentrating solely on Willie.
"That you arrived at Gunn's Lumber Yard late, unkempt, and inebriated, besides. That you cursed the owner without cause. That you refused to pay him…."
"Refused to pay him? I had the money right there, I told him so!"
"…and that you attempted to run him down as you left," Barnabas said, as though Willie hadn't interrupted.
"That's garbage, Barnabas. The guy was slinging wood into the back of the truck, he was goin'ta smash out the back window!"
"I notice," Barnabas said, "that you have protested but one of the charges. And I can see for myself that at least one of them is true."
Willie's eyes jumped guiltily to his bottle. "I was…I was just having a little sip, Barnabas. Ta help me sleep. I wasn't gonna get drunk or nothin'."
"Not with me in the house. Isn't that what you mean, Willie?" The vampire stepped forward, coming fully into the room, candlelight sharpening his face.
"If Morton Gunn can be believed, you've been inebriated every day this week, haven 't you? In fact, you've been inebriated every day this month."
"While you were representing me in the village. While you were caring for this house."
"You know that ain't true, Barnabas, look around ya, did I leave anything undone? Huh? No, I didn't. Every job you left for me…."
"Do not lie to me!" Barnabas thundered.
Fear flashed into Willie's belly, and he flinched back--until the white lightning in his gut caught his terror, transformed it, and sent it flying out through his body as rage. Willie snatched up his belt from where he'd left it on his bed and threw it down at Barnabas' feet. The buckle made a sharp rattle on the floorboards.
"Go ahead, then!" he shouted. "You've been wanting to ever since I got back from fuckin' San Diego, so go ahead!"
There was complete silence.
Willie stood there, shaking with anger, knowing he had probably just committed his last act of defiance, and not caring if he had. He stared into Barnabas' white mask of a face, straight into the vampire's rubied eyes, and dared his master to do his worst.
Finally, Barnabas said, "Come downstairs," and turned and left the room.
Willie didn't move. He couldn't. He was shaking so hard he was afraid he was going to be sick.
He's gonna kill me. Finally, he really is.
His shoulders straightened, and he clenched his hands together to still the trembling. Fury made him brave.
All right, then. That's good. Let's get this over with.
He picked up the belt and took it with him, down the stairs to the second floor, and from there down the servants' stairs to the corridor that led to the kitchen. He knew that's where Barnabas would be waiting for him, and he wasn't wrong.
But he wasn't prepared for what he saw.
He had expected Barnabas to be standing at the end of the kitchen table, waiting for Willie to hand over his belt. If not that, then Barnabas would be out in the garden, cutting a switch. That's why Willie hadn't bothered to put his shirt back on. He expected Barnabas to order him to take it off again as soon as he reached the kitchen.
But instead, Willie found the vampire sitting at the table. There was a row of five sherry glasses in front of him, each filled to the brim with tawny liquor. The brandy decanter from the parlor, the spare bottle from the pantry, and several bottles of sherry stood beside the glasses.
Barnabas indicated a seat across from his own.
"If you have such a great desire to end your life, Willie, at least do it with premium liquor, rather than that rotgut you've been swilling," he said. "Come. Sit down."
Willie looked at him, taken aback by the vampire's studied coolness. Then he placed his belt on the table and took the chair, not nervously, but with a certain air of bravado. He could play Barnabas' parlor game, if that's what the vampire wanted. It wasn't as though Willie had anything left to lose.
"Armagnac," Barnabas said, indicating with a tip of his hand that Willie should take the first glass. "A French brandy, drier than Cognac, and very potent. I trust you will find it to your taste."
"Shouldn't this be in a brandy glass?" Willie asked sarcastically. But Barnabas didn't take the bait.
"From what I gather, you do not sip your liquor, but bolt it down. A smaller glass will make that easier for you than a snifter will."
Willie made a mocking salute with the glass in Barnabas' direction, spilling a rill of brandy over his fingers as he did so. Then he shot the stuff back and returned the glass to its spot on the table. He was so inured to drinking that he didn't shiver or wince at the impact of alcohol on his gut, but simply reached for the next glass, and then the one after that.
"Impressive," Barnabas said dryly.
"Glad you think so," Willie retorted, shooting back the fourth. He was drinking them too fast, and he knew it, but he didn't care. He was only waiting for Barnabas to decide this game was over, and for the beating to begin. Willie figured the more anesthesia he put in his body between the time he sat down and the time Barnabas began beating him to death, the better. At least the liquor would dull the pain.
By the time he got to the fifth drink, the alcohol was hitting his bloodstream--hard. Willie watched the room take a dip, waver, then settle. The air took on a shimmering quality, like heat rising from a summer-scorched road, and he gripped the edge of the table, determined to keep his seat.
At his rate, when he starts hitting me, I'll already be on the floor.
"Don't stop now," he heard Barnabas say. "You've bottles yet to go through. Here. Let me help you." The vampire tipped more brandy into the row of glasses, which were no longer in the straight and tidy row in which they had started.
"Can't," Willie slurred, hiccupping. "Any more an'…an' I'll throw up."
"Oh, surely you can," Barnabas said, mocking him with civility. "A dedicated drinker like you, determined to drink himself to death, or to provoke me into murdering him, can surely handle another round. What is the phrase? 'I'm buying.'"
You goddamn son of a bitch. You'll never know how much I hate you.
"I suspect I do," Barnabas replied, and Willie thought, Shit. Did I say that out loud, or is he reading my mind?
He was too drunk to know for sure.
"Have another drink," Barnabas insisted. And Willie, still filled with anger more than fear, picked up a glass. Half of the brandy landed on his bare chest, but he choked the rest of it down.
"Perhaps you are jaded with brandy," Barnabas said. "Would you prefer sherry instead?"
"God, no. Th…that stuff is awful."
"So you've been stealing liquor from within the house, as well as purchasing it illicitly?"
"No," Willie said, although he had. "But I've taesh-ted it before an' it made me wanna puke."
"Ah. Best stay with brandy then." The vampire refilled Willie's glass, although there were still four full glasses on the table. "Have another."
Willie tried to shake his head and almost fell out of his seat.
"I said," Barnabas intoned, emphasizing every word with frost, "have another."
Willie tried to pick up the glass, but it slipped from his fingers. His vision was doubling, and he struggled to pick a solid shot from a hallucinatory one, dabbling his fingers in the drink. Barnabas reached out and put a glass in his hand, and Willie lifted it to his lips, his hand shaking. His skin was turning cold and clammy, and he felt a sick sweat breaking out on his chest and across his forehead.
"I…I can't do it," he slurred, dropping the glass on the table. Brandy splashed everywhere, hot on his lap where it soaked through his jeans. "I can't."
"You can," Barnabas said, "and you will."
"I can't." Willie's rage was evaporating, and he found himself snuffling with the easy tears of a drunk. "I can't, I can't do it."
"But I don't understand," Barnabas protested. "I thought this was what you wanted. You wanted to drink yourself into your grave, Willie. Did you not? At least a month of steady drinking, knowing I had forbidden you to imbibe, knowing there would be consequences once I inevitably discovered you, and still, you indulged yourself. Surely that is the act of a man who wants to die?"
"I do," Willie whispered.
"You do what?"
"Want to die. I want to die. I…I just can't take thish anymore."
"That is not your decision to make," Barnabas said flatly. "Now. Have another brandy."
Willie sobbed. Hot tears landed on his chest. He tried to shake his head no, and the whole room spun with the movement of his head, spinning him off his chair. He didn't feel the pain of landing; only a dull thump and a sudden shift in perspective that let him know he was on the floor.
He felt the reverberation of Barnabas' chair scraping along the floorboards, and heard, from somewhere high above him, "You have not yet finished paying for this."
And then he knew no more.
Willie woke with no sense of up or down. Blind. And choking on his own vomit.
He struggled in the dark, finally finding the floor beneath his belly, and lifted himself on his forearms so he could puke without strangling himself. All he was vomiting was fluid, but it hurt, his stomach muscles contracting in violent spasms to expel the poison he'd consumed. His head felt stuffed with lightning that cracked and boomed behind his eyes.
How long? How long have I been out?
The fractured thought was interrupted by another round of retching. There was nothing left to come up, but his insulted stomach was not convinced. Willie groaned, feeling strings of saliva trailing from his lips that he hadn't the strength to wipe away. He didn't want to fall forward into the mess he'd just made, but he didn't think he could roll over either. Just as well. If he was wrong, and there was something left in his stomach, he might choke to death on it if he passed out on his back.
You have not yet finished paying for this.
God. Barnabas had been right about that one. After all the brandy Willie had gulped down, he would have a hangover for days.
Unless the vampire had meant something worse than locking Willie away in the dark, sick unto death with alcohol poisoning.
This qualified--this most definitely qualified--as Willie was breaking his bargain with the vampire. Willie had been so angry, so full of his own grief, that he had forgotten that the risks he took were no longer his own. There were consequences to consider beyond what Barnabas might do to him--and he'd let his own rage and sense of helplessness at his situation blind him to that fact.
He had endangered Gina and the children. Again. Maybe irreparably.
He can reach them. He knows where they are!
The thought was enough to propel him upward. Willie lunged forward and banged into a wall. His hands scrabbled over it, exploring. Plaster. A plaster wall. A wooden floor beneath him. He stretched out his arms, groping for clues that might tell him where he was, and caught his hand against a piece of furniture. Not too big. Legs. Drawer pulls, cold brass against his palm. A dresser.
He was in his own room. Barnabas had gotten him passing out drunk, and then had dumped him on the floor and closed the doors behind him.
But why was it so dark? There was no fire in the grate, no candles lit, but there should be some sort of light streaming in the window. Moonlight or starlight, if nothing else.
He's closed the storm shutters. Locked me in.
So I can't interfere.
"Barnabas!" Willie tried to cry, but his voice was choked and weak. "B…barnabas, don't, don't hurt them, please don't hurt them!"
He couldn't get up, couldn't make it to his feet. He pulled himself by inches along the wall, searching for the door, and found it when he banged his head on the doorknob. He reached up with shaking hands and clutched at it, and was not at all surprised to find it locked.
"Barnabas, please. Please don't hurt them. H…hurt me, if you gotta. But don't hurt them. Please!"
He had no sense of Barnabas standing on the other side of the door. The vampire wasn't there, which meant either it was daylight, or Barnabas was on his way to San Diego.
Could he get there in less than one night?
Willie didn't know. He had a sudden vision of Barnabas holed up in some graveyard between Maine and Ohio, and shuddered, deep within. Barnabas would do that, if he was feeling vengeful enough. He would do whatever it took to reach his prey. Prey that Willie had set in front of him, and all but invited him to take.
"Please," Willie whispered, his eyes shut tight against the dark. His sweat-slicked fingers clutched at the doorknob, anchoring him to the wood of the door. "Oh, please don't let it be true. Don't let it be true. Let them be all right, let them be safe. Please, Barnabas, don't let it be true!"
His sobbing tugged him down. Willie's fingers slipped from the brass of the doorknob, and he slid downward to the floor, landing on his side. He drew his knees up to his chin and hugged himself, rocking in the awful dark that swarmed with visions of his family, as he cried himself back into the cavern of unconsciousness.
The second time he woke, he felt a little stronger. The roiling in his stomach had smoothed from a hurricane into a tropical storm, and the pounding in his head was a spike rather than a jackhammer.
Willie sat up, carefully, reaching up to use the doorknob to help him keep his bearings. The room was still dark as a grave. He couldn't make out his own hand in front of his face, much less the outlines of furniture.
No daylight seeping through the cracks in the shutters.
How long has it been? Hours? Days?
There was no way to know.
But it didn't matter. He had to get out. He had to find out if Gina was safe.
Break down the door.
That would be a trick, if he couldn't see the damned thing. But he didn't know where his nightstand was. That was where his candles and matches were stored.
Think it out. Put your back to the door. Okay. Now. The bed should be ahead and slightly to the right, and the nightstand will be right next to it. Just don't knock it over and break the courtin' candle, or you'll have glass all over the floor.
Willie got up on his hands and knees, awkward in the dark, and recoiled when his left hand scudded through the puddle of soured vomit he'd left there. He sidestepped it as best he could, and began inching along in a crawl, hoping he wasn't disoriented enough to get lost in a room that wasn't much bigger than most people's walk-in closets.
In a moment, the smell of laundry detergent let him know he was almost to the bed. He'd washed his sheets earlier in the week. He stopped, reaching out with his clean hand, and felt around for the wood of the nightstand. When he couldn't find it, he inched forward a little more, until his fingers bumped something cold.
Brass. It was the bed frame.
He got up on his knees and used the rail at the bottom of the bed as a guide, until his searching hand finally found what he was after. A splinter dug at him as his palm brushed the table, but he barely felt it. He put his hand into the drawer, expecting to encounter the clammy coolness of candle wax, and felt…nothing.
The candles weren't there.
Neither were the matches.
Even his courting candle was gone. Barnabas had taken it all away.
He wants you in the dark. Disoriented and afraid.
Go back and break the damned door down anyway!
He turned around, fighting his rising panic, and made himself inch back the way he had come. Rushing would only get him lost, and he'd have to waste time finding the door again. When he reached the wall, he knew he was off course, but not by much. He felt his away along the plaster until he found the anchor of the doorknob, and pulled against it to get to his feet. His knees shook beneath him, and he was slicked with sweat, but he didn't have time to rest. He had to get out of the room and to a telephone, and he had to do it fast.
He backed up three good steps, turned to one side, and slammed his bare shoulder into the door.
The wood quivered, but it didn't give.
Willie hit it again. And again. He pounded it with his fists. He screamed at it. He battered his body against it until it finally knocked him down.
Can't give up. Can't.
Get to the window. Break out the shutters!
But his body wasn't going to give him a choice. Already starved, dehydrated, and poisoned with brandy, the panic that had stolen the last of his strength kept him down.
Willie curled up on his side once more, his back against the wall. The blackness of the room enveloped him, the silence of the night enfolded him, until gradually, time slowed to a stop within him, and he fell into a numbness that melded with the dark.
Willie didn't know how long he lay there, lost in the void of his room.
Sometimes he thought he heard noises in the rooms downstairs. Sometimes he was sure he was alone in the house.
Sometimes he thought he heard the two older Logan children, Polly and Daniel, laughing and talking as though they were in the room with him, and he covered his ears, afraid he was going crazy with grief.
They aren't here, he told himself. They're safe in San Diego. Safe in San Diego. Safe in San Diego.
But he didn't believe it. In his heart of hearts, he believed they were dead.
Barnabas said he would kill the Logans if Willie didn't obey him, absolutely and without question. Willie hadn't kept to his part of the bargain. And Barnabas never broke his word.
Please, god. Let him do it quick. Don't let them be afraid before they die. Don't let them know what's happening, or who did it to them. Please.
He wept, knowing it was useless to cry for them now, and helpless to do anything else. He couldn't move. Exhaustion and the weakness of despair kept him pinned to the floor unable to so much as lift his head onto his arms.
I'm sorry. Oh, Gina, honey, I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. Forgive me for what I did.
The key snicked in the lock of his bedroom door.
Willie's breath froze in his throat.
The door opened, bumping into Willie's crossed forearms. Candleglow, blinding after so many hours of darkness, swept into the room, along with the vampire, black-suited and black-browed.
Willie struggled to sit up, but he had been motionless too long. A cold, white hand gripped him by the upper arm to help him, and Willie cried out, startled by the contact as much as by the pain.
"What happened to you?" Barnabas demanded. "How did you get so bruised?"
I was trying to save my family, Willie thought.
And burst into tears.
"Here, now," Barnabas sounded perplexed. "Are you yet ill? I should have thought the brandy would have worn off by now." He helped Willie kneel, and would have helped him stand, but Willie only crouched at Barnabas' feet and wept harder, his hands over his face.
"I must say, you are making quite a spectacle of yourself," Barnabas said. "Stop this sniveling and go to bed. I haven't any intention of punishing you further."
"H-how c-could you?" Willie gasped out between his sobs. "T-there isn't anything left to t-take."
"I imagine a few inches of skin off your back would do," Barnabas said dryly, "but I believe the lesson is well learned. You are now a teetotaler, Willie. You do not drink anything stronger than water, or the consequences will be severe indeed. Do I make myself clear?"
"I'll drink any goddamned thing I want, and spit it in your face after," Willie wept, reckless in his grief. "There ain't a damned thing you can do to me now, Barnabas. Y-you've already don't it all."
Enormous, furious hands snatched him up. Willie's back slammed against the wall and he heard the plaster crack, followed by the sift of startled dust falling down between the lathes. Barnabas' hand wrapped around his manservant's throat and squeezed, long fingers digging into the muscles of Willie's neck.
"You forget yourself, Willie," Barnabas hissed. "I've done nothing as yet. You forget your forgery of a family in San Diego."
Willie's eyes startled wide as the blood left his face. His whole body went cold, and a high, golden ringing sang in his ears.
Barnabas let him slide down the wall, just enough so that Willie's feet could touch the floor again. His grip on Willie's throat lessened, but did not altogether relent.
"You thought they were already dead, did you not? The price for your insolence and debauchery."
Willie couldn't answer. He began to shake, and fresh tears rolled down his cheeks.
They're alive. Alive!
"It is for them that you staged this sordid little drama, isn't it?" Barnabas demanded. "Your drinking and your recklessness in answering to me?"
"I-I was tryin' to forget them," Willie whimpered through his tears. "I was trying' to do what you wanted."
"I should say you did the exact opposite of what I wanted," Barnabas retorted. "And I believe you know that perfectly well."
"N-no. It wasn't on purpose, Barnabas, I wasn't tryin' to do anything wrong on purpose. I swear. It's…it's just that I took a drink one day, and it helped. It helped. And then I took another."
"And another after that. And soon you found you could not stop." He took his hand away from Willie's throat. "Is that the way it happened, Willie?
Willie leaned against the wall, resting in the shallow depression his body had cracked into the plaster, and hung his head. Tears dripped form his cheeks to burn his chest.
"Come," he said. He took Willie by his unmarked shoulder and guided him towards the bed. "Sit down. I shall return in a moment."
Willie fell onto the edge of the mattress. He hunched over his knees, his hands on his forehead, and sobbed. He felt like a wet rag that someone had wrung out and tossed in a sink, all limp and tangled up at the same time. His head ached, and his heart was still thumping double-time in the fright he'd felt for Gina.
He coulda killed her. Her and the kids. God knows why he didn't.
It's always gonna be like this, Willie, as long as you hold onto her. Never knowing for sure if she's safe or not. Never knowing if you just got her murdered.
He snuffled and took a deep breath as he hugged himself, trying to get a grip on his runaway emotions. Gradually his breathing calmed and his heart rate slowed, but the golden ringing did not leave his ears. He wondered if he was going into some sort of shock, and if the terror and the tears would come back again, stronger than ever, once the numbness wore off.
I don't want to be scared like that. When I thought she was dead. I don't ever want to be scared like that again.
And I don't want her scared like that, either. Gina. Not the way I was.
Barnabas re-entered the room, carrying a tray. He placed it on the dresser next to Willie's illicit bottle of white lightning, and took something up in his hands.
"Here." Barnabas unfolded a damp towel and offered it to Willie. "Clean your face."
Willie took the towel with hands that had slowed in their trembling, and pressed the cool, wet cloth against his eyes. The moisture felt good against the heat of his cheeks. Another cloth, colder and wetter, came down on his bruised shoulder, and he jumped, startled, but Barnabas said, "Steady, now. It will help with the swelling. You've hurt yourself."
"I'm sorry, Barnabas," Willie whispered. "I'm sorry…for all of it. I didn't mean for any of it to happen." He bunched the towel in his hands, just holding it, resisting the impulse to twist it into a knot, as his hands wanted to do. "I'm sorry."
"I know it," Barnabas said. "But this has to end. Now. Tonight. You cannot go on this way. I can no longer permit it."
"I know," Willie said, so softly that he could barely hear the admission his own lips had made. "I know. But…but please don't hurt them, Barnabas. I-I couldn't stand it if you hurt them. They haven't done anything wrong. It's me that's messed up."
"We had a bargain."
"I know we did. But…." He stopped, as though holding back what had to be said could somehow make time freeze in that instant, and he could keep Gina and the kids with him, locked safe inside his heart forever.
But Willie. That can't be.
They aren't safe. They never will be.
Unless you do this. This thing that Barnabas wants. This thing that has to be done.
He realized that now. All those terrible hours in the dark, when he had thought Gina dead and himself bereft, had taught him.
"You…you said you could take her," he finally stuttered, "take her out of my head. So I wouldn't think about her all the time."
"Yes," Barnabas said. "That is so."
"But…I'd still remember her. Right? I'd know her if I met her on the street. I'd know her name. I'd still know the kids."
"It's the…the pain that would go away. I mean…the hurt…from rememberin'…and from wanting to be with them so bad. It would be like they were any other family from town. Like the Pedersons. People I've met once or twice, and like well enough, but don't love."
"Yes," Barnabas said. There was an echo in his voice, a sadness that Willie didn't understand.
"Then do it."
"Are you certain?" Barnabas was looking down at him, somber in the candlelight. "Once done, this cannot be undone, Willie."
Willie nodded, vehement, afraid he would change his mind if Barnabas gave him time to think. "Do it. I want ya to do it. It's the only way I know they'll be safe."
"Very well, then."
"You gotta promise me something, though. If you do this…you won't…you won't hurt them later, just to get them out of the way. You'll leave them alone. Let them have their lives. Let the kids grow up."
Barnabas frowned. "Another bargain, Willie?"
"I can't do it 'less you promise, Barnabas. You understand that, dontcha? I mean…they love me. They're the only people that do. I don't want anythin' happenin' to them once I can't protect them anymore."
"You cannot protect them now."
"No. But you can. Just by tellin' me you won't hurt them. I'll believe you if you tell me, Barnabas, 'cause you always keep your word. Right? That's what you told me. A gentleman always keeps his word."
"Careful, Willie," Barnabas growled. "You are on dangerous ground."
Willie met his master's eyes and did not look down. He couldn't. Not on a point as important as this.
"Barnabas," he said. "Please."
Barnabas broke the stare first with an angry twitch of his head.
"Very well," he said irritably. "I give you my word, I will not harm the Logans--unless they become a direct threat to me. If that happens, Willie, I can make you no promises."
"Then that's gonna have to be good enough, I guess."
"Okay, then." He folded the towel Barnabas had given him to wash his face and laid it, damp as it was, at the foot of the bed. His whole body felt ringing and numb, as though he was outside of himself, watching what was happening without being a part of it. "What…what do I gotta do?"
"Just be still." Barnabas removed the second towel draped on Willie's shoulder and placed it atop the first. He sat down on the edge of the bed, next to Willie, and did not remark when Willie could not help but flinch and look away.
Willie was trembling when Barnabas' arm came around him, turning him slightly into an embrace that was gentle, not brutal or cruel.
An appeasement, now that Willie had submitted to his master's will.
He couldn't help himself. He sobbed, and once he did, the torrent that had temporarily abated flooded out of him--all of his grief, and despair, and loss, pouring out of him in wracking, shuddering cries. He gripped Barnabas' suit coat in bunched fists and wept, and Barnabas did not chastise him, nor pull away, but only held him there, Willie's forehead tipped against his chest, Willie's tears staining the silk of his vest.
"Do not be afraid," the vampire said at last, his cold breath soft against Willie's ear. "I will not hurt you. There will be no pain."
"N-no," Willie wept. "N-no! Make it hurt. I'm losing the only family I ever h-had. Make it hurt!"
Barnabas' hand tangled in the back of Willie's hair, jerking his head abruptly backward. There was a rush of displaced air in the slight space between Willie and his master--and the vampire struck, his fangs slicing deep into Willie's throat. Barnabas' other arm locked tight against Willie's lower back as Willie screamed and arched like a bow pulled taut, struggling not to free himself, but to withstand the pain. Barnabas dragged him closer still, crushing Willie against him, and battened to the wound, drawing against the punctures in Willie's throat with such force that Willie couldn't help but scream again. His throat was on fire, the blood that was racing to the wound was aflame, and all around him the room was spinning, spinning, red behind his eyes.
Gina, the first day he had seen her, her hair wrapped in a sleet-speckled kerchief and her matronly face reddened with cold.
Polly, in the street outside the Collinsport Grocery, her hands in the pockets of her denim overalls as she grinned up at man who was not yet her friend.
Daniel, warm and snug against him in Gina's rocker, the both of them dozing beneath the sweet spell of spring.
Carla, her milk breath puffing against his cheek as he snuggled her before handing her back to her Ma.
They came to him, there in Barnabas' black embrace, smiling in their love. But as the spinning in Willie's head increased, the images of them brightened like embers touched by a vagrant wind, and then began to fade. Willie wanted to cry after them, to scream after them, to beg them no to go, but he couldn't find the voice for it.
And after a moment more, he couldn't find the will.
The light in the window wasn't quite right.
Willie turned over and sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The spill of amber sunshine that illuminated his room didn't have the ethereal quality of early morning. It was more like the red-tinged glow of late afternoon.
He reached for his clock, and almost dropped it at what he saw.
It wasn't just late afternoon. It was practically dusk.
He'd slept the whole goddamned day away, without waking up once to notice.
Oh, god. He's gonna kill me!
He kicked his way free of the bedcovers and scrambled for his clothes, not stopping to wash his face, or to examine the itchy mosquito bites that stung at his throat, or to look and see why his right shoulder was so sore. He didn't have time for things like that. He had less than an hour before Barnabas rose, and a whole day's work to account for before then.
There's no way I can make it. I can't even get the candles lit in an hour!
He stumbled down the stairs, grabbing at the banister to keep himself from falling headlong. His knees were shaking, and it took him a moment to realize he was quivering with hunger, not fear.
What the heck is the matter with me?
Maybe I'm getting' sick?
He wobbled his way to the kitchen to get himself a glass of water, then bolted town pieces of bread while he was there. His thirst seemed unquenchable, and he drank two more glasses from the pump before he made himself stop, afraid he would sick it up if he drank any more.
Candles. At least get the candles lit. The fires started.
If he sees you tried to make it right, maybe he'll forgive you.
But Barnabas wasn't the forgiving type. Willie knew that better than anyone.
He was just getting the kindling laid in on the parlor grate when he heard the basement door shush open. Willie jumped to his feet, a piece of kindling still in his hand, and turned to face his master. His stomach felt cold and trembly beneath his sweater, and as Barnabas approached him, Willie took a step backward, as if Barnabas was already reaching for him, ready to punish him for his day-long lapse in duty.
"Is something wrong?" Barnabas asked. He lifted an eyebrow. "It is early in the evening to start so guiltily, even for you."
The vampire didn't look angry. Far from it. He looked…smug. Satisfied, somehow. The way he looked when one of his secretive schemes was working out better than he had hoped, and he was well pleased.
"What is the matter?" Barnabas asked again, less patiently, but still with no visible animosity.
"I…I'm sorry, Barnabas," Willie finally managed. He looked down at his shoes, knowing he was in for it, but knot knowing what else he could do. It wasn't as though he could hide a day's loss of work from Barnabas. The vampire would notice it soon enough on his own. "I…I didn't get anything done today," Willie admitted. "Just the candles." He motioned toward the fireplace with his stick of kindling. "An' two of the fires. Well. One and a half, anyway."
"No? And why not?"
"I just now woke up."
"I'm sorry I slept so long, Barnabas," Willie rushed. "I dunno what's the matter with me. I feel…." He paused. "Kinda strange."
"It is all right, Willie," Barnabas said, still maintaining that placid, yet somehow smug, tone of voice. "You have been ill. I told you last night that you were to rest as long as you required. Do you not remember?"
"No." Willie shook his head, puzzled. He couldn't remember being sick. Not at all. But he was even more confused by Barnabas' self-satisfied demeanor. Like a cat that ate the canary. There's all but feathers on his lips. "Was I sick, Barnabas? I guess I must have been. But I'll make up the work I missed today, I promise I will."
"Tomorrow is soon enough. Tonight you are to have a decent meal and retire early."
"And perhaps catch up with your letters."
"To Mrs. Logan."
"Oh." Willie's stomach dropped to his shoes, and his spine went cold. Now he understood what that triumphant expression on Barnabas' face was all about.
He set me up. He set me up but good, and now he's gonna punish me.
He must've found the stack of letters in my room. The ones I haven't answered yet. How many are there now? Nine? Ten?
But Barnabas did not move toward his manservant, nor admonish him at all. He only waited. Expectant. As though he knew Willie must have a reasonable explanation for his waywardness, if only he would go on and spell it out.
Before he goes over it, point by point, telling me why I'm wrong, and then tears into me.
"I-I know you told me I gotta write back," Willie fumbled. His clasped hands locked in front of his breastbone, and his shoulders drew in towards his ears, as if that would protect him if Barnabas decided to smack him. "I know. Answer every one, that's what you said. But…but Barnabas," he said miserably, "I don't have anything to say."
Willie shrugged and shook his head.
"Writin' is hard for me anyway. I was never any good at it. But findin' words when there ain't any…I just can't do it, Barnabas. Not without fighting it for half the day."
"Perhaps you needn't answer every letter, then," Barnabas conceded. "It would be rude to ignore them altogether, however."
He looked at Willie, searchingly, and there was a curious expression in his opaque black eyes. A curiosity that Willie could not fathom, but which he found disconcerting, as though Barnabas, mild as he was, was still trying to catch his manservant in a lie.
"Mrs. Logan, in her way, was kind to you," Barnabas persisted. "Was she not?"
Willie thought about that for a moment. A series of memories, faint and disconnected, sparkled to the surface of his mind, bright, but transient, like snowflakes. Gina, and an apple pie, and a mason jar full of hard sauce. A red wool scarf wrapped around Willie's nose that protected him from February frostbite. A tiny vial of vanilla meant for sweetening warm milk before bedtime, that somehow he could still taste, a phantom flavor on his tongue.
"Yeah," he admitted slowly, "I guess eh was good to me, at that."
"And the children. You looked after them."
"Yeah." Willie nodded. "I see what you mean, Barnabas. It's just…it's just been such a long time since I seen them. I don't know them anymore."
"Then learn to write an idle letter, Willie." At Willie's blank look, he elaborated, "A polite letter that inquires after Mrs. Logan and the children, and which assures them you are well. You needn't' stay much more than that. Unless you wish to, of course."
"That's a good idea, Barnabas. Yeah. That's what I'll do."
Willie was nodding his agreement a little more enthusiastically than was necessary, but he didn't feel foolish. On the contrary, he was beginning to feel more than a little frightened. He didn't understand what game Barnabas was playing with him, but some inner instinct was warning him that it was a dangerous one, and that Willie didn't know the rules. He was anxious to get out of that room, out from beneath the probe of those seemingly mild, but merciless, black eyes, before the skin on the back of his neck crawled all the way up to his scalp.
"I'll answer her tonight," he promised. "Whatever she's sent me, I'll answer it. Okay?"
''One letter written before you retire will be sufficient," Barnabas allowed. "Post it tomorrow, and I will consider the matter closed."
"But finish laying in this fire first. Prepare a meal. You may write in your room after you've eaten. You know where to find pen and paper."
Willie quickly knelt and began re-assembling the kindling in the grate. He lit the twigs with the help of a twisted newspaper, and laid in the logs once the smaller cuttings caught. All the while, Barnabas' eyes were on him. Tracking him. Assessing him. As though Willie hadn't lit a fire exactly like this one every night for the past two years.
Stop staring at me. You're creeping me out here!
Willie started to rise, then stopped, his hands on his knees, a lump of ice lodged in his throat. Now that the ire was brightening the room, he could see Barnabas more clearly. The whiteness of the vampire's face was even more disconcerting, the blackness of his eyes even more apparent. The self-satisfied look was gone, replaced by a growing aura of menace. Not hunger. Not fury. Just the calculating aspect of a shark watching a fish in the coral.
There was nothing human about him.
In that predatory stance, Barnabas looked like what he was.
"Is…." Willie swallowed. "Barnabas. Is something w-wrong?"
The strangeness in the room broke. The menace in Barnabas' posture vanished in a heartbeat, as though it had never been, and Willie wondered if he had imagined it, there in the flickering light of the fire. Shadows could play tricks on him, he knew.
"No," the vampire answered. The smugness was back in the sly twitch of his lips. "Nothing is wrong. Finish what you need to do, Willie, and go to bed. I expect you up and working at dawn tomorrow."
Willie crept to his feet, slowly, not taking his eyes off his master. Something was wrong here. He didn't know what it was. But something was definitely wrong. He backed up until he reached the secretary in the corner of the room. Looked down long enough to sort blank paper from a drawer, and a quill and ink from the desktop--but he didn't look down for long. He didn't dare. He saw Barnabas nod approval that Willie could take the items, and heard one final word of warning.
"Be careful with the ink," the vampire said. "If you spill it, the stains will be permanent."
Willie nodded once in wide eyed agreement.
He bypassed the kitchen in favor of his room. The paper, ink, and quill went onto his desktop, and Willie fell into the chair. The back of his neck was wet with sweat, and his hands were trembling with alarm.
What the hell was that?
He didn't threaten me. Didn't even yell.
So why am I scared of him? Why am I so scared?
Something's happened. I dunno what. But something's happened.
His eyes roved the room, as though he might find some clue. There was a dark spot on the floor, as though something had been recently mopped up, but not thoroughly enough to keep it from staining. The shirt he usually hung on a hook in the wardrobe was draped across the foot of is bed. There was a sour smell in the room. Like vomit.
And there was an open bottle of white lightning sitting on top of his dresser.
A memory flashed into Willie's head, sharper than the ones of Gina had been. Barnabas, catching him drinking on the sly, and ordering him to come down to the kitchen.
Willie flexed his shoulder. The ache he had noticed on waking was still there.
He peeled off his sweater, looking for the bruising, and finding it, black and blue and yellow, from his collarbone on down. Most of it was centered on his right shoulder. His left was completely unmarked.
That's it. That's gotta be it.
He caught me drinking…and….
"Surely you can handle another round," Barnabas' voice echoed in his head. "What's the phrase? 'I'm buying.'"
…and he made me drink until I was sick…and….
There was something else. Willie knew there was something else.
But he couldn't place it. Whatever it was eluded him, like a minnow darting across the shoals.
The bruises. He must have hit you with the cane. You were already on the floor, on your side, an' that's why only one shoulder is hurt.
That's why he was staring at you tonight. To see if the lesson took. To see if you would submit to him.
You did. That's why you're still standing.
Get that goddamned bottle out of here. And don't ever bring in another one, Willie.
Not if you want to live.
He left the chair and crossed the room in three strides, holding his breath as a whiff of fermented potatoes made his stomach clench. God, how could he have been stupid enough to drink this garbage? He snatched up the bottle and carried it to the window, intending to pour the liquor onto the ground below.
He stopped, mid-room.
Wait a minute.
Weren't the shutters closed?
No. They couldn't have been. It wasn't cold enough for storm shutters yet.
Willie crossed to the window, finding it already open. He glanced below to make sure that no one, by fluke, was standing beneath it before he upended the bottle and let its contents glug out, one liquid gurgle at a time.
He'd been lucky that Barnabas hadn't hurt him worse than he had when he'd caught Willie drinking. He might have done something a lot meaner than handing out a hangover and a brief beating with the cane, painful as that must have been.
The echo came back, dark, but fleeting.
"You have not yet finished paying for this."
But he didn't do anything tonight. Nothing terribly bad. Just scared me a little.
Okay. Scared me a lot.
Don't push him any further, Willie. Write that letter and get to bed. You can always have breakfast in the morning.
Willie dropped the empty lightning bottle into the trashcan beside the desk and sat down, shuffling a sheet of paper in front of him. He'd gotten better at writing with the quill, but sometimes there were still ink blots on the paper. Usually he had to write a first draft, then copy it out on a second sheet, once he'd gotten used to the flow.
The words found their way onto the paper, one crooked syllable at a time. He really wasn't any good at writing. He'd told Barnabas so.
But if Willie knew what was good for him, he would learn.
He would learn.
Baby, baby stay,
stay right where you are.
I like it this way.
It's good for my heart.
I haven't felt like this
in God knows how long.
I know everything's gonna be okay
if you just stay gone.
By Jimmy Wayne