Norma rose from the bed and checked, again, to make sure that the door to the motel room was firmly locked. She took a walk around the bed, picked up her sleeping infant and readjusted her slightly, then went back to check the door again.
Her elder brother (by one year and four months, to be exact) sat back on his chair, one leg crossed over the other, rubbing at his ear as he waited.
Eventually, as patience was not known for being a strong point of Caleb’s, he inquired, “Norma. Sit down and just tell me. Why did you want to talk to me?”
Norma nearly collapsed on the bed. She had brought him here, actually locked him in a room with her, and was sure that no one else was home, unless you counted a honeymooning couple and an elderly man who were current guests in Cabin 3 and 4, respectively.
This was Cabin 9. Even though she knew Alex and Norman were out (another attempt at stepfather-stepson bonding that was likely to fall flat), and Dylan and Emma hadn’t been by in a few weeks, the chance of being overheard was causing her to clam up. Or even the chance of simply being heard, of telling anyone at all.
She looked down and moved the sleeping baby on to her lap. If she busied herself there, she could act like she wasn’t really telling anyone at all. And so she did, beginning with playing with each perfect finger and each perfect toe. It hadn’t been so long since Dylan and Norman had been this little, she mused. Now they were old enough to have children of their own.
“I went in for some tests. To make sure everything was okay after I had Iris. And they found… something wrong. They must have missed it before.”
She let herself look up for a moment, to meet her brother’s widening blue eyes.
“Wrong? Like… like what?”
Norma took one of her hands and mashed it into her chin.
“Like, cervical cancer wrong.” She briefly wondered if her brother actually knew what a cervix was, but figured he would get the gist.
“Norma Louise…” Caleb began. He rose from his spot and moved to sit next to her on the bed. “When did you find out?”
“Three days ago. I… You’re the first person I told. I can’t… I don’t know if I can tell Alex. He’s strong, but he’s so strong that I don’t know if he bends or just breaks. I can’t tell Norman – he would fall apart. And Dylan already has a sick wife to worry about.”
“Why me, then?”
Norma let out a sigh.
“I know that you know how to keep a secret,” she said eventually.
Caleb still looked stunned, like he’d found himself standing in a tornado in a split second. He paused, then slowly put an arm over her shoulder.
“Do you know what your… options are?”
Norma nodded, slowly.
“There are… treatments. But it’s all expensive. I don’t even know what the hell is covered under Alex’s insurance. I’m already up to my ears in debt for all the treatments I’ve tried for Norman – I’m supposed to get reimbursed for some of it but his Medicaid is tied up again – and this motel is still costing more than it’s bringing in most months. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do, and I can’t be laid out with chemo and take care of Norman at the same time.”
Caleb paused to consider that, then asked, “What about Alex?”
“Sheriff is a pretty full-time job.” Norma let out a low snort. “Lots of criminals, especially around here. He’s barely ever home, and when he is home, Norman completely ignores him.”
“What I meant was… are you going to tell Alex?”
“Like I told you… I… What am I supposed to tell him?”
Caleb slowly pulled her in, a little closer.
“He’s your husband. People who love each other… They’re there for each other, when bad things happen. He won’t be mad that this is happening, but if you don’t tell him… It’ll blindside him.”
Norma let out a breath.
“I…” She didn’t know what to say after that. His advice made sense, of course, but as much as she knew Caleb could keep a secret, she’d had to survive for years keeping so many of her own. About her parents, first, and then about Caleb, about Dylan, about what Norman had did to Sam… What Norman continued to do. Maybe some part of her was determined to keep this secret, too.
“Norma… You have to tell him. I don’t know Alex well, but I know he loves you. You two are married… He’s going to want to help.”
Norma didn’t know what to say, and she was pretty sure that if she said anything at all, the tears that had been poking behind her eyes would flow out. She didn’t know if it was a kind of nostalgia or just a proximity decision, but she leaned her head on to Caleb’s shoulder and let it sit there. It was like being eleven again, letting herself naively believe for a few seconds that her big brother had some answers and could protect her.
She let herself wonder at what point she had stopped being afraid of Caleb and started being afraid of Norman.
Caleb had been silent for a long while when Norma spoke up, “If you start singing ‘Lean On Me’, I’ll start crying and won’t be able to stop.”
He gave her a gentle squeeze.
“Good to know.”
It was hard for Norma to remember just how long they stayed like that, until Iris awoke and began crying. Norma rose off the bed with the baby in hand.
“I should make sure everything’s okay at the front desk… Might be someone who needs to check in.”
She unlocked the door and pulled it back, allowing Caleb to walk ahead of her.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” he told her, reaching out to give her a hug. He patted Iris on the head. “Goodbye.”
Norman could feel the heat rising on his neck. He bit his lip, and wanted to punch something.
It was bad enough that she had brought the Sheriff into their house.
But to have Caleb back, under his nose, in his motel?
She must not know who she was dealing with.
There is a quote from the song "Taking It All Too Hard" by Genesis.
Caleb Calhoun, age fifteen, was thoroughly convinced that he was the coolest individual to have ever walked the halls of Akron Middle School.
He had, after all, successfully slipped out of math class and was now leaning against the door that separated the far wing – the wing that barely anyone was ever in, save for one language arts class and a music class – from the most deserted stairwell in the school.
He had a cigarette pressed to his lips and was inhaling deeply, focused entirely on how cool he must look, with his tattered leather jacket – five-fifty at the thrift shop – and black jeans – the only thing he’d been caught dead in from the pile of clothes someone had left on his parents’ porch. The answer was, he liked to think, incredibly cool.
He felt decidedly less cool a moment later, when the door opened and he crashed down to the hard floor on his ass, burning his lip slightly.
“Oh! Sorry, Caleb – are you okay?”
Caleb scrambled to his feet and found himself looking at his eleven year old sister. Her blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail behind her back, and her eyes were red, presumably from crying.
“Norma Louise? What’s wrong?”
Caleb stamped out the cigarette; he was suddenly on high alert.
“What, nothing? Who do I need to beat up?”
Caleb did a quick jab in the direction of the wall, hopping back and forth in a frenzied display of testosterone.
“Nobody. Caleb, just let it go.”
“I want to know who made my sister cry!”
“I’m your brother.”
Norma glared at him, but eventually explained, “I… got my stupid period in class and now all the girls are laughing at me. The teacher sent me to the nurse to call home and get a pad, but… you know Mom won’t come and Dad’s going to be… well, you know.”
“That’s all it is?” He paused a moment and began to sing, “’You’re taking it all too hard… You’re taking it all too hard…’”
“You know what,” Norma lowered her voice, “Fuck you, Caleb.”
Caleb rolled his eyes.
“Why don’t I just get you one?”
“Yeah, from where? Your personal pad and tampon collection?”
“I’ll steal some.” A smirk emerged from the corner of his face. “Just wait here for me, Norma Louise.”
There had always been something dark lurking beneath the surface in Caleb Calhoun.
He had been aware of it, he was sure, since he had been old enough to think about anything.
He remembered considering how unfair it was that someone had confined him to being Caleb, only, and how he wished he could jump into someone else’s mind at will, to live their life.
A long time ago, Caleb would have wished to be Alex Romero. But not tonight. Tonight he just wished he was the person who could save his sister’s life.
Instead, he would have to live forever with being the person who had ruined it.
He pressed his hands to his temples and rubbed, almost too hard. There was something beating in his head, something that had always been thumping, always repeating a deadening mantra about how worthless, useless, filthy he was.
He shook his head and sat back down in the back of his van with a sigh.
He pulled out his phone and sent a text to Norma; the capitalization was a bit off and there were a few typos, but the message was clear: Deep breath. Just tell him. It’s going to be okay.
Norma closed her eyes and thought of the text she had just read. Just tell him – easy for Caleb to say; it wasn’t him in this situation, breathing words that might send everything crashing down around her all over again. She had been so happy over the past year – her marriage to Alex had made her feel so much less alone, and Iris had given her new reasons to sing and skip around the kitchen, the house, the motel office. Now she had to face the prospect that this was all simply a lead-up to an oncoming, painful death.
Alex must have walked into the room at some point, but she hadn’t heard him. His voice was there, behind her, low and careful. Deep.
“Oh, hey, Alex.” She turned her head to the side and tried to smile, tried not to feel so exhausted, tried not to let on that it felt like every ounce of energy was draining out of her.
“Norma, what’s wrong?”
His lips were pursed together, his expression unreadable, but she knew he was worried because she knew him. Knew him better than she knew herself, because unlike her, he was reliable. Steady, reliable Alex.
Deep breath, just tell him.
“Alex, I… got some bad news.” After the words were out of her mouth, the rest came spilling out, tumbling out like she was falling and didn’t know when she would hit the ground.
But he caught her.
Alex’s arms gripped her tightly, held her shoulders against his own, didn’t bend or break but instead… He yielded.
Norma wasn’t sure when she had started crying, but her eyes were burning from tears and she couldn’t quite open them. Alex was blurry. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but could focus on the cadence of his voice, the gentle hum.
The way she’d slept as a child to the steady tap-tap-tap of Caleb typing last minute reports on the word processor in the corner of their room.
She looked up and let her eyes meet Alex’s, let blue eyes bleed into brown.
“What am I going to tell Norman?”
Alex rubbed her back.
“That you’re even tougher than he ever knew.”
Norman Bates paced back and forth in his room, lost in a frantic conversation with himself.
“This can’t be happening – I can’t lose her – I’ll tell her… What will I tell her?”
He pulled at his own hair and let his breathing catch back up. He wouldn’t panic, that was the one thing he would not do. His Mother needed him now, not for him to start freaking out and having a nervous breakdown and maybe having to go back to Pine View.
That was the last thing she needed, or him for that matter.
It wasn’t like he could pretend that Pine View had been awful. It hadn’t been like those movies he’d watched where people were strapped down and abused by merciless guards and people just screamed all the time… but it hadn’t been home, either.
And he’d left long enough to come back to discover this ridiculous marriage and, even worse, a new baby on the way.
That squealing, crying little thing that had been ruining his life for the past three months and even before that. First, it had been Mother buzzing around, preparing her nest like a big old bird that was about to lay an egg, and then when the baby had actually shown up… She and “Alex”, her husband, had preened and coddled her as if no one had ever given birth to something so beautiful.
And now she was taking up Dylan’s old room. Not that Dylan cared; he was living with Emma, helping to create his own perfect little family.
Oh, how things changed.
And now Mother was dying.
What would he ever do without her?
Norma’s eyes felt like they were glazing over as she stared at the big screen. Her head was perched on Alex’s shoulder as they sat in silence, watching episode after episode of Danger Man, Alex’s latest purchase.
“I remember watching this when I was a kid,” Norma said, finally. “I remember reading that he was going to be the first James Bond, but he didn’t want to ‘cause he thought it was all shooting and sex. But John Drake doesn’t carry a gun and doesn’t kill anybody unless he really has to.” Norma paused. “It’s nice.”
Alex smiled sadly.
“Do you wish that I was more like John Drake?”
She snuggled into his shoulder further.
“No. John Drake never got the girl, either.”
She felt tears running down her face, and turned to try and look away. She felt Alex gently pull her chin back towards him.
“Norma – it’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this. I’ll be here to help.”
Norma began rubbing at her eyes.
“What am I supposed to do? Iris is so young, I can’t…”
“You won’t have to.”
Alex’s arm clamped firmly on her back, and he gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“I’ve got you, Norma. There’s nothing we can’t do together, okay? But tomorrow is going to be a long day – maybe we should turn this off and see if we can get some rest?”
“Will be fine. We’ll talk to him in the morning and make sure he understands everything that’s going on… and we’ll call Dylan and Emma and let them know too, if you’d like. Maybe Dylan can take Iris for the day? I’m sure he’d like that.”
“Yeah… He probably would. He hasn’t really had a chance to see her much since she was born. He’s been so busy with Emma.”
Dylan and Emma were living in a cabin up on Dylan’s farm. Norma had been up there once or twice, but she had been wary of her infant being in the presence of that much marijuana.
Then again, for a day, it couldn’t really hurt. Norma had probably absorbed a fifth of vodka a day when she was an infant, just by being in her house.
“They seem very happy,” Alex offered, and she offered a wider smile. Even in the midst of everything, she found that when Alex was around, somehow she was always smiling.
He had accepted her, body and soul, in a way that it seemed no one else would.
Well, Norman did, or at least she’d thought he did. These days, it really depended on the day – when he’d come back from Pine View after discovering their marriage, Norma had lain in wait for some disaster, some malicious intent. She’d been able to let out a breath once Iris was born and Norman hadn’t made any move to harm her, or even notice her.
She was relieved, even though there was still some part of her heart that wondered what it would be like if Norman would step up and try and be a real big brother to her. Norman and Dylan had never been particularly close – maybe there would be another chance with Iris?
But Norman had ignored her – Norma could barely remember him even saying her name. He acted as if she was a piece of furniture he hadn’t agreed on picking out.
If things went south, that would all have to change.
Norma had to stop herself from bursting into tears. She knew that if she started, she would never stop.
Norma stood in Iris’ room, which had once been Dylan’s room.
Which had one been a random guest room that she hadn’t planned to ever let any guests sleep in. Then her older son had rolled into town, and all of her plans had had to change.
They were always changing, weren’t they?
Tomorrow, she would be going in to begin chemotherapy. She would be challenging this thing head-on, the way she did… the way she tried to do everything.
She had run more times than she wanted to remember.
She had run from Dylan, too. And then he had left. He had moved on with his life.
But Norman couldn’t. Norman never could.
And Norma hated how a part of that gave her comfort; the idea that no matter what happened, there was a person who would never want to leave her.
But now, would she be the one leaving him?
Norma Calhoun was twelve years old, letting her feet dangle off the tiny cot she shared with her older brother.
She cocked her head to the side and pursed her lips in curiosity, not without a bit of distrust.
“Does anybody really look like that?” she inquired. “I know I don’t.”
“They’re all airbrushed and stuff,” Caleb explained, turning a glossy page of the magazine in front of them. “They don’t even really look like that.”
“What’s the point of looking at them, then?”
“Boys like to look at naked girls. It’s like… a fact of nature.”
“Boys are kind of stupid,” she said, “I don’t go around looking for pictures of naked boys. Anyway, I’ve seen you in the bathtub and stuff. There isn’t really any mystery.”
“That was a long time ago, Norma. I like to think I’ve gotten a little better since then.”
Norma tilted back her head and laughed.
“Well, maybe. If you think so.”
Norma was chewing her lipstick more than she was putting it on. It was another one of those silly rituals that seemed so pointless in the face of what could be death – what did it matter if she died with a perfectly red pair of lips or not?
Maybe it had been drummed into her head at some point, some critical stage.
She turned her head towards Alex’s voice at the door. Oh, how she loved him. He had come in and somehow whisked her away from all of the pain and despair. But it had found her – it had always found her. This was just the latest in a long line of disasters that had begun and long time ago and had no end in sight.
“Can I come in?”
Odd, how he still asked for permission to be let into their bedroom when they had been married for a year now.
“Sure,” Norma said, remembering how she had needed to lock Sam out and even that didn’t do any good, because he would just keep banging on the door. How different would everything be if she had had this health scare back then? Sam would probably be out the door – he wouldn’t want to put up with vomiting and a passed out wife… then again, maybe he would have stayed just to drive her into her grave. Funny, how he’d driven into his own first. Strangely, a blessing.
Alex opened the door and drifted over to Norma, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“How are you holding up?” he asked.
She swallowed hard and told herself that she was not going to cry, was not going to beg or plead for him to still find her beautiful when she looked a mess. She could remember how cruel Sam had been when she had just given birth to Norman, how he had mocked her as fat and lazy. Would this turn some switch in Alex? Was that what she did to people?
Maybe that was why she had been pushing it a little too hard lately, trying to still be the perfect wife even though she’d felt so rundown since Iris’ birth.
Norma shook her head and finally said, “I’m not.”
He moved towards her, and she flinched at first. Here it was, the switch, no one could deal with all of this, no one…
She didn’t realize she had squinched her eyes shut until she opened them, feeling arms around her. Alex’s arms.
Her chin nestled against his shoulder and she could no longer keep from crying. It flowed from her eyes like a broken dam or a waterfall, and maybe she was going over a barrel in it.
But at least Alex was in the barrel with her.
Norma kept scratching at her nose as the doctor continued laying out information about the course of treatment. She didn’t understand, not really, and she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to ask questions and make herself look stupid, either. All she wanted, right now, was for her nose to stop itching. Then she could get home and go on her way, pick up Iris from Dylan’s and make sure that Norman was okay. She was wasting time here, and it didn’t appear that she might have a whole lot of time left to waste.
Maybe she could ask Alex later. He understood this kind of thing – Alex seemed as if he understood everything.
That thought gave her a chill, like she was thirteen again and assuming that Caleb knew everything, that every way he guided her was the right one. That there was one person in her life that she could count on, and only one.
She had vowed never to make that mistake again, to never love or trust anyone that much. Anyone except Norman, that was, but he had been different. They had been two halves of a whole.
There was a tap on her shoulder, and then she was walking out with Alex. She was silent, staring into space. Into the abyss. Into the place she was going to go and would never emerge from, not in this lifetime.
Norma found herself thinking in this moment that she had never known what her own mother had died of. What had eventually plucked Francine Calhoun from the mortal coil? She had never thought to ask.
Maybe because the woman had always seemed half-dead to Norma anyway.
Maybe that would be her, now, doped up and listless.
She wanted to cry but couldn’t figure out how. So she took Alex’s arm and climbed into the car, to return home.
Caleb rapped on the old door as he looked around. This place was really something else – old and probably full of caverns and secret passageways. The kind of place he and Norma had always wanted to live in back when they were kids; what they’d had instead was a series of falling-apart houses without enough rooms.
He let out a sigh. He didn’t want to think about what Norma must be going through right now, because what in the world could he ever do about it? There had been a time when it had seemed as if he could solve any problem for his sister, at least up to a certain degree – if Norma had wanted ice cream, he’d get her ice cream. If she wanted to see over a wall, he’d put her on his shoulders. If she was having a nightmare, he’d wake her up and stay up with her.
Caleb rubbed at his eyes. Things had gone so wrong, and then they had fused together again in ways he couldn’t have ever hoped for.
And now she might be dying. His Norma Louise – no, not his anymore, not that way. But his sister, always his sister.
He shut his eyes and opened them again. She had confided in him, even before her husband. He couldn’t let her down, couldn’t get emotional and let that trip him up.
He had to help, somehow.
The door opened, and he was glad that he’d blinked away the tears before they had been given life – the last thing Norma needed right now was for him to start breaking down like some kind of little kid who couldn’t bear it. He had to be the strong one.
Norma looked more normal than he had expected, though she looked a little shaky on her feet, as if she’d just stepped off a roller coaster or an airplane.
“Hey, Norma Louise,” Caleb said, forcing a big smile and stepping into the house. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like crap,” she replied. “Just go ahead and invite yourself in, why don’t you.” He paused a moment, but when she followed it up with a smile, he followed her and took a seat beside her on the couch.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
A little smile appeared at the edge of her lips.
“You could help me with cooking dinner. Alex isn’t back yet – I made him go to work. They needed him for some kind of urgent sheriff business.” She slowly rose from the couch, with obvious effort, before sitting back down furiously. “This all sucks!” she raged. “It sucks, it sucks, it sucks!”
Caleb reached out and put his hand on her arm before he could think better of it; she flinched at first, before slowly settling back into the chair and fixing her eyes on Caleb.
“Caleb…” she began in a warning tone. He settled back into place, and she sighed again. “I don’t want to push you away. I just… I do like how we are now, but I’m… trying to figure it out. You know that we can’t change everything that happened overnight.”
“I know.” Caleb’s voice was small, submissive. He lowered his head a little.
Now Norma looked like she felt bad.
“But… we’ll keep trying. You just have to give it time, okay? It’s been a long time since we were even alone together. We still don’t even know all that much about who we are these days. It’s been what… twenty years? Twenty-two?”
Norma put a hand on her own leg, tracing over the scar that had been left long ago. It seemed as if they had been two different people then, on that fateful day.
Caleb could still hear the screams ringing in his head, could still feel it shoot through him with a kind of never-forgotten horror.
Norma hurting because of him. In his heart, that was Hell. And he had thrust himself into that Hell of his own accord.
Now, at forty-four, he was still trying to claw his way out of it.
“What’s important is… how are you? I mean, really?” Caleb asked.
Norma brushed a piece of hair out of her face.
“Well… I’m still alive. For now.”
Alex Romero tried to focus on the case in front of him.
Someone had drowned. A woman in a creek, and it looked like someone had pushed her in.
Probably her husband – it was always the husband, after all.
Except in their house. It had been a while now that he would return, turning on all the lights and fearing that he’d find Norma dead at Norman’s hands.
Even though she said he was “fine”, now. Very clinical term, “fine”.
He should be home with Norma – going to work had been the stupidest idea he had had in a long time. His wife was having chemo, about to lose her hair, and here he was piling over folders and staring at forensic reports.
He was wasting what could be all the time he had.
He should go home; but recently, it was hard to tell whether Norma wanted him to stick around or leave her alone. Maybe it would only serve to annoy her – she hated being babied or even the whiff of it.
He couldn’t help but be annoyed every time Caleb came around. He seemed to know what to say, or what to do, in a way that drove Alex mad. This was the man who had betrayed her trust, who had shattered her childhood – and yet, Norma had reminded him, he’d also been there for her when she had needed it more than once. Sometimes it was like those two shared some secret language Alex wasn’t privy to; it had been the same way with Norma and Norman, once. Not recently.
Alex tossed the paperwork aside. He had to deal with himself first before he could help anybody else. What was that expression? Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Not that he had ever learned how to do that.
But sometimes… sometimes he knew how to help Norma.
And tonight, that would have to be enough.
Norma could remember being a little girl and being very impressed by her soft, beautiful blonde hair. Sometimes she was sure that it was all she had. After all, she wore clothes that had been plucked from donation bags and shoes several sizes too small; some of the other girls called her Nasty Norma.
But they couldn’t take her hair. She knew they would always be jealous of that.
…It had taken them forty years, but they had taken it.
She didn’t want to walk out of the bathroom and face her husband.
Alex had been so supportive so far, so furiously supportive. But she couldn’t stop her mind from conjuring up exactly what Sam would say as she walked out.
“Look what I married – she’s ugly and now she’s bald, too!” “I didn’t sign up for this- you’re a burden and a whore!” “You owe me for this, Norma…”
Her mind-Sam wasn’t going to let her off the hook any time soon.
The clumps of hair had fallen out in her hands.
There was a knock at the door.
“Norma? Are you all right? You’ve been in there a long time…”
Norma bit down on her lip to stop from crying out. She was going to be a complete mess if she started crying now.
There was a long pause and then another, “Norma? Norma, what’s going on?”
She walked over and opened the door, shrugging.
“I…” She pushed by him before she could finish her own sentence.
Alex rushed after her, following her into the bedroom.
He could still remember that first night, when he’d slept in Dylan’s room to avoid scaring the nervous, tipsy woman who had somehow become his wife. It felt like years ago, now – now there had become a quiet, easy comfort of being around one another.
Most of the time, that was. Ever since Norma had gotten sick, he had watched her struggling to build the walls back up.
“Norma!” he said again, walking into the room before she could shut the door, could shut him out again.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
“I want to be here with you. I want to see what I can do to help you… To make it better.”
“You can’t.” Norma reached up and yanked at the remaining hair. “This is. Allegedly. It’s making me look like a freak, but, you know, they promise it’s helping, so much.”
“Norma, I don’t care about your hair!” Alex reached out and took her hands firmly in his. “I mean, I do. But it’s not why I’m with you. You’ll have plenty of time to grow it back, when you’re better.”
“If that even happens,” Norma reminded him. “I might just die bald.”
Alex rolled his eyes.
“Norma… Then it really wouldn’t matter. I would be crushed. But I’m not going to think about that, because I refuse to lose you.”
“Sometimes we don’t always get a choice. I haven’t gotten a choice about a damn thing in my life so far.”
Alex gave a sad smile.
“I like to think you chose to marry me.”
Norma smiled despite herself.
“I guess so… Though it wasn’t like there were hundreds of suitors lined up.”
“There could have been. Like Odysseus.”
“When he came back from the war, all of these suitors had lined up, insisting that they get a shot with his wife and that Odysseus was dead. So she said that she would marry the only man who could string Odysseus’ bow. He came back, in disguise, and of course he was the only one who could do it and ended up marrying her.”
Norma smiled sadly.
“Do you want to string my bow?”
“I always have, Norma.”
“Is that true? Since the first day you showed up and found me finishing disposing of a body?”
“Not that I knew that, but yeah.”
Norma set her head on Romero’s shoulder.
“Are you sure you want to stay in this, with me? Now that Norman’s back home… You don’t need to stay. You’ve already done so much…”
“Norma.” Romero squeezed her shoulder. “Stop. This isn’t some favor. We have a child together, Norma. I’m not just going to walk out on you. I’m in this until one or both of us is dead… or if we kill each other.” He smiled bitterly. “You may drive me to my grave first, though.”
“Okay,” Norma whispered. “I… I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Norman burst into the bedroom at that moment, glaring at the two of them together.
“I’m going to be late to my therapy appointment, Mother,” he declared. “Not that you care, locked in your lover’s embrace.”
If Romero had rolled his eyes any harder, they would have fallen out of his head. Norman and Norma, however, both ignored him.
“I’ll be there in just a moment, Norman.”
“I’ll take you,” Romero cut in, “I’m on my way to work, anyway.”
“I don’t want to go with you.”
“Your mother needs to rest. She’s going through chemotherapy. Get your things.”
Norman looked up at Alex, narrowing his eyes.
“You’re going to regret this all one day, Sheriff. I promise you that.”
“Norman,” Norma spoke up in a quiet, tired voice. “Please, just get your things. Try not to give Alex a hard time today.”
Norman walked out, slamming the door so hard that the room shook.
“We need to do something about him,” Romero murmured, but at Norma’s distressed look, he shook his head. “We’ll figure it out. We have time, Norma… I… Just worry about yourself today, okay? You and Iris take it easy. You deserve it.”
He walked out of the room and started to the car, following after Norman. The whole house was falling apart, piece by piece, and he needed to be the one to save his family. But where could he even start? Norman seemed more hopeless every day, and it wasn’t as if Alex could cure cancer.
He let out a long sigh.
He would start by doing what he could. Every last bit he could.
Caleb wasn’t sure how long he had lazily run his fingers over the smooth glass of the bottle, but he hadn’t lost the stunned, shell-shocked feeling that came along with it.
Norma Louise couldn’t die, not really. Couldn’t be staring death in the face. Not when they had only reconnected recently, not when she had finally forgiven him. Not when she trusted him again. He couldn’t lose her now.
He tipped the bottle back and let the warm liquid burn his throat. He considered that this might be the time to stop drinking – but it had been his go-to for as long as he could remember. What was the use, now?
He jerked his head up as a knock on the door jerked him away from his thoughts.
He rose, slowly. This apartment wasn’t exactly classy, but it was something to keep him in town and near Norma. It was furnished with a bed with a hard, dinky mattress and a bedspread he’d picked up at a thrift store and washed three or four times to make sure it didn’t have fleas or lice. Off to the side was a tiny end-table, and Caleb’s cell phone was plugged into a wall outlet and set upon it.
Other than that, he didn’t have much. It didn’t really pay to acquire things if you weren’t going to stay somewhere long.
He had stayed in Costa Rica for a while, and he still wasn’t entirely sure why. Of course, it was difficult to dislike the climate – or the trees, or the beaches. But what had it been about there in particular? Why had he dreamed of scooping up the tiny tourist hotel and making it his own, to the point that he had presented it to Dylan as a real possibility when he’d met his nephew who had turned out to be his son?
How much of anywhere he had traveled was real, and how much was just a pipe dream that he had kept afloat to keep avoiding the truth?
At some point, he had arrived at the door and began to open it, remembering the day (it must be a year ago by now, he mused) when Norman had come to his door and tried to stab him.
He was doing better, now – at least that was what Norma had told him.
This time it was not Norman, but Norma herself who walked into the room when he opened the door.
Caleb raised his hand into a tiny wave, surveying his sister with a concerned look. She had lost at least twenty pounds already.
“Norma Louise… how are you feeling?” he forced a smile, extending his hand to take hers. In the absence of a chair or couch, he led her to sit on the bed as he stood, one hand cupping the edge of the end-table.
She sat – though she gave him a look that clearly inquired as to the state of the place – and let out a long sigh.
“I see you are. You look…”
“Like shit. Don’t mince words, Caleb. You know me better than that.”
Caleb chewed on his lip.
“You’ve looked better, Norma. But you’re alive – that’s what matters.”
Norma reached up and gave a short tug on her hair, opening her palm to show Caleb the wig.
“Alive – yeah, I guess I’m alive.”
Caleb didn’t avert his gaze; it was a shock to see Norma without her usual blonde locks, but it was the fear in her eyes that struck him most. What did she think he would say? Could she think that even he – the one who had loved her too much – would turn away from her in this movement?
He plopped down next to her on the mattress, wondering if he could put his arm around her. Where was the line, now?
“Norma Louise.” He smiled up at her. “You just made it easier to focus on those big, blue eyes.”
“Caleb. You’re too much, you really are.”
To his surprise, she turned to lay her head on his shoulder.
“Don’t take this for more than it is,” she whispered, before he could ask what this was about. “I love Alex. I… I’m going to be with him, Caleb. And I know how you feel. But right now… I need my brother. I need my best friend, okay? And I need you to be that for me right now.”
Caleb draped an arm over her back and pulled her in, close enough to smell her perfume.
“Norma Louise… I’ve got you. Whatever you need.”
“Maybe I just…” she whispered. “What if I… what’s going to happen to Norman? To Iris?”
“Norma.” Caleb reached over and gently put his finger under her chin, shifting her over to look at him. “You’re not going anywhere, okay? You’re the toughest person I have ever met. You have lived through… Norma… I was there, okay? I know what you’ve been through. And more than that.”
“You’re babbling,” Norma said with a smile. She reached up and tapped Caleb on the nose. “You have two modes. You have not-saying-anything mode, and can’t-shut-up mode.”
“Well, let’s switch to the other one, cause I sound pretty dumb. If I had a TV, I mean, I’d turn it on.”
“You wanna come up with a radio show?”
“Like what kind?” Caleb leaned forward and kicked off his shoes. “Like… a horror one? Or… a mystery? An intrepid detective trying to figure out who dun it?”
“Intrepid. I like it. Maybe a little bit of both? Would it be like the fifties?”
“Talkin’ about how everybody has ‘lovely gams’?”
Norma scrunched up her nose and intoned, “Yeah, see. She came in and told me she wanted me to find her husband, see. And she had lovely gams. So my Girl Friday…”
“And her name is literally Friday, ‘cause… well, we didn’t have time to come up with a real name for her.”
“She just got hired for her gams, anyway,” Norma said, beginning to giggle. She turned her head. “You know… Caleb. You’re a pretty decent brother when you want to be.”
Norma felt like the laziest woman alive, or maybe just the most tired.
She hadn’t gotten out of bed in at least three days, and she hated it. She knew the laundry had to be piling up, and Norman must need things, and Iris needed her too, to hold her close and to protect her. But she was stuck here in this bed and she wanted to scream. Every time she tried to stand up, she didn’t make it more than a few steps before she had to collapse back into bed and fall back asleep.
She hated it most of all because she felt useless and defenseless. She hadn’t felt that way since she had lived with Sam, hadn’t let herself feel that way until that horrible man had dropped dead (well, he had had some help, but Norma didn’t want to think about that, not now).
Now, she knew that she was safe with Alex. He still climbed into her bed every night and curled up against her, keeping her warm and safe with little kisses on the cheek and gentle strokes through her hair as he whispered that she was beautiful, she would always be beautiful.
But she couldn’t lull herself into that false sense of security, not with so much going on. People talked about “battling” diseases, as if they were something you could pick up a gun and go to war against. As if it was something she could point a gun at. She’d tried to do that before – she could remember going up against Abernathy, hiding a gun in her purse and being ready to take a life to protect her sons.
This wasn’t something she could see, something she could win against. All she could do was prepare. But for what?
And why had she run to Caleb? What had she been hoping to accomplish by talking to him?
Maybe it had just been nostalgia for when they had been children. She could remember flashes of being trapped in a locked, white room where there was just a bed and her and him and hours after hours of nothing.
But when she would stare at the walls, she could picture things, could think up scenes. Because she had Caleb there beside her, imagining with her.
The door opened, and Norma shifted into a sitting position as Alex walked into the room.
“Hi, Norma.” His voice was soft, careful, like he didn’t want to harm or spook her in any way.
Sometimes simply hearing his voice in that tone made her want to burst into tears. She oddly missed the days before their marriage (or even the early days of it), when they had argued, when she had slapped him across the face and he had pushed her against a wall.
She wished he would push again, that he would yell again, so she would know she was not something fragile, something that could be so easily shattered, but not even pretty, just breakable.
“Hi, Alex,” she said quietly, letting her arms droop into her lap. She could tell that he was trying to hide the worry in his eyes, trying to blink back tears.
She didn’t want to know the side of Alex Romero that cried, and yet she did.
Caleb had always been one to cry when things got tough, and she was too.
Not John or Sam, though. They had always been hard as rocks, imperceptible when it came to emotions. Except anger, of course. Men were always the best at showing anger in every possible way.
He reached a hand to cup her cheek, leaning in to kiss her. She was surprised to find herself kissing back, slowly falling against him.
“Alex,” she whispered, “We haven’t…”
And they hadn’t. Not since all of this had hit. He hadn’t asked; she hadn’t offered.
She figured he didn’t want to. Not with her like this.
But suddenly, now, with Alex’s fingers accidentally – maybe on purpose – brushing against her thigh…
“Did you want…” He asked, and then his fingers brushed again – just a little further to the left this time. She shook, slightly, fell against him just a little bit more.
“Yes,” she said, scared and excited all at once. What if, now with everything, she couldn’t? What if she was defective somehow, now? What if Alex figured it out and he was waiting until now to walk out on her? She didn’t know if she would survive it this time, again. Always again and again, either her leaving or someone leaving her.
Even Norman left, left and came back, left and came back and looked at her sometimes now like he didn’t know her at all, and it killed her. Maybe every single choice she had ever made had been the wrong one.
Alex reached around her back and unzipped her dress, never taking his eyes off of her. She wanted to cry, wanted to run – but where was there to go? She was here in her bed, she was…
He dress was lying on the ground and Alex’s fingers were traveling everywhere.
“I love you, Norma,” he told her, so softly that she wasn’t sure if she had heard it or imagined it.
But she whispered back, “I love you, too.”
He was safe; she was safe. He wasn’t going anywhere.
And she was not broken; she was not broken.
Norman knew what they were doing. He knew that they tried to hide it, but there wasn’t anything that Mother could hide from him. He knew her too well. He knew all of her dirty little secrets, the ones she couldn’t tell anyone else. This had been one of those secrets too, until she’d had to tell Dylan and then had been stupid enough to trust Romero with this. It had been while he was locked up, not while he was around to look after her. He had to keep that in mind; Mother did silly things when he wasn’t there to help.
Silly, stupid things.
And a year ago, she had gone and done the stupidest thing possible – she had married the Sheriff and had a child with him. Now, Norman would never be able to get rid of the man.
Worse yet, now Mother was sick. And in her weakness, she was relying on the Sheriff, when she should have been relying on Norman. She should have known who she could trust in a crisis.
He walked down to the breakfast table and thrust himself into the chair with a low grunt; was this what life was, now? He could remember how close they had been, once, but now they never slept in the same bed, never cuddled – and the way that she looked at him was as if she was staring at a stranger. He hated it, so much – why couldn’t she go back to being the Mother that he knew she could be?
Something crept into his mind that he hated, then – Romero was the problem, of course, but so was Iris. That stupid, crying baby that never let Mother alone for an instant. No wonder she wasn’t thinking straight! Maybe she should just…
Mother had her cradled in her arms, as if she had never set her sights on something so beautiful in all her days. Hadn’t she looked at him like that once? He couldn’t remember. She had probably never looked at Dylan like that. Maybe this was how Dylan had felt – discarded for the new and the flashy.
It sucked to be on the other end of that.
“Good morning, Mother.” He knocked on the table, and Mother looked up with a grimace.
“Norman! Can you please me a little quieter? You know you don’t want to start your sister off crying.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t want that, now would we,” Norman shot back. “We wouldn’t want poor darling Iris to be sad, now would we?”
“Norman, she’s only a baby. You really need to calm down and start acting your age. You’re supposed to be an adult – act like it!”
Norman stomped his foot, and the infant reeled her head back and started off into a wail. Mother glared at him.
“I told you, Norman! You’re acting like a spoiled brat.”
“Oh, I am! Well, you’re the one hanging all over – him – again! You’re disgusting!” He pivoted and marched back up to his room.
Caleb knocked on the door of the Bates house. Was it even the “Bates house”, anymore? It was the Bates Motel, still, yet even though Norma had kept her last name she was a Mrs. Romero now, in some way. He hadn’t known Sam Bates, but from what Dylan had said about him, he didn’t seem to be anyone who was worth knowing.
It had been a long time since she had been a Calhoun. Since her signatures had been wide and curly and she’d connected the “A” of “Norma” into a flourished “C”. Since she had written Caleb’s name, too, and their parents’ names more times than he could count when they had needed things signed.
Since Caleb had had the stupid, stupid thought that if they ran together, they could come up with other reasons why they had the same name. He had thought that it could be so easy, that maybe people did it all the time.
Running away from brokenness could never be as easy as Caleb would make it out to be – even when he had run alone after Norma left, the only person he could continue to find in the dark was himself.
It was a stark reality to find himself in, but now it was time to make it better, even if only by a hair.
The door opened, slowly and reluctantly, the same way Norma had let him back into her life. He knew that he didn’t deserve even that – that he had wrecked it all, totaled it, with his actions when he was younger. Younger? He’d been 19, old enough to know better, but he hadn’t known anything at all, had he?
He still didn’t know anything at all; that much was for sure.
Norma had one hand dangling on her hip as she stepped to the side and let Caleb enter. She didn’t speak; perhaps Caleb’s presence was beginning to be expected by this point.
“How are you holding up, Norma?” he inquired, finally, and she let out a long sigh and threw up her hands.
“All in a day’s work,” she told him. “I have no energy, but yet everybody wants something from me. The baby wants, Norman wants, Dylan wants, Alex wants.” She gestured at him. “You want. Everybody needs me to… smile and act like everything is okay, but I can’t, because it’s not.”
“And who would think that it was okay, though?” Caleb asked. “You’ve got… you have a lot going on right now. But you’re alive.” He placed his palm on her shoulder and gently pressed. “Growing up, did we even think we were gonna see forty?”
“Well… No, not really.”
“We’ve beat the odds before. Just by surviving out there in the world.”
“But maybe I’m tired of beating the odds, Caleb. Maybe it’s time that the odds beat me for a change.” She let out a long sigh; her whole body seemed heavier, somehow.
“You can’t give up.”
Norma looked around and whispered, “Watch me.”
“What if they just don’t let us out this time?”
Norma’s voice was quiet, soft, and Caleb raised his head from where he had set it against the wall to listen to her.
“Don’t think like that. We’re going to be fine, okay?” Caleb put his hands on Norma’s shoulders and sheepishly smiled. “We need to figure out a way to kill the time. We could do… truth or dare, or something?”
“It wouldn’t be a lot of fun with only two people, Caleb. Truth or dare is dumb, anyway.”
“Maybe it is,” Caleb agreed, “But I don’t know what else we could do. What about… In ten years, where do you think we’ll be?”
“In ten years,” Norma mused. “I’ll be twenty-three. So… I’ll have a little store selling… flowers maybe. All the best flowers.” She pressed her hands against her chest and let out a breath, trying to calm herself. The air got to her in here, made her bunch up and made her want to start crying and never, ever stop. “What about you? Can I hire you to work in my shop?”
“Sure. I’ll drive the flower truck.”
“The flower truck?”
“That’s right. You can put roses in there, just roses everywhere…”
Caleb wrapped his arms around her.
“All the lupins in the whole world, Norma Louise.”
Now, Norma leaned against Caleb’s shoulder and sobbed. She tried to remember how hard she had worked to tear herself away from her older brother for so many years. How had she lived without him in her life? How had she managed to push his face to the back of her mind, to close it up because of the things he had done to her?
How could she forgive him? Maybe she was weak for doing that, for allowing him back into her life. Maybe she just let people get hurt all over again.
But her life seemed shorter, now, and it all seemed to mean so much less.
And what she could remember was the way she and Caleb had skipped into puddles, the way they had hid under the porch in their old house. The way he had seemed like the only island in the sea of tumult that was her childhood, for so long.
“Norma Louise.” His voice was quiet, now. “What are you going to do?”
“What is there to do?”
Norma crossed her arms around herself, trying to pull herself together tight. A moment later those hands were pushed aside and replaced by Caleb’s own. A little voice in her head said to fight him, that he didn’t deserve to be this close, that it was dangerous to be this close. She chased away the voice a second later – she was dying anyway, so what did it matter? Norman was losing his mind and it was all her fault, so what did it matter? And then there was Iris…
It still seemed surreal to her to have a new baby, this strange little life. Norma had never wanted a daughter, not really – she hadn’t wanted the possibility of seeing a child go through what she had, be locked in the same vice as she had lived and sometimes thought she was still living. She had told Emma that she wished she had a daughter like her, but who would Iris really be one day? It wasn’t as if Norma would likely be alive to find out.
“There’s hope. You’re going to fight…” He paused. “You said.” There was a slight whine to it. Caleb always had that quality, ever since they had been kids together. She had never, truly, lived in a world without Caleb. The first memory she had had been him sitting with her on their rotting deck, arm in arm and smiling as if they had not a care in the world.
“Caleb… Do you remember… that time we went walking in the woods as kids? And we played on the rocks… down by the creek?”
“I do remember… we pretended that there were ghosts by the creek that were chasing us…”
“And you had to follow the rules to get away.”
“And we’d sit in the clearing and make out. It seemed normal back then.” Norma ran her hands down her face as she paused, remembering. “Why are we so screwed up, Caleb?”
“Because of Mom and Dad?”
Norma let out a long sigh.
Norman gnashed his teeth and hissed. He could almost smell Caleb sneaking around, could tell when he had been talking to Mother. Clearly, all he wanted was another chance to dig his nails in deep and burrow, like a flea or a tick.
And Norman was powerless to stop him.
He could try and kill him, but he had tried that before (no, not him, Mother had tried to kill him, and the evil man had kicked her in the stomach, had tried to really hurt her, he was vicious). It hadn’t worked, couldn’t work – Caleb was too big for him, too strong.
It was dangerous to let him be so close to Mother, especially when she was hanging on his every word like he wasn’t what he was.
She had said that she would never forget what he was, but she had done it again. Alex Romero clouding her mind and messing with her judgment.
Once she let in, Norman should have known it was like opening the gate and letting any old person in.
Even the man who had hurt her more deeply than anyone else. (The one who she had loved first, before Norman had even been born. He wasn’t sure which one hurt more.)
There were too many obstacles being piled in between him and Mother – it had been perfect when it had just been the two of them. Now everything was ruined. Romero… and Caleb…
And the baby.
Norman knew the baby had to go too.
Caleb had called them the “shivers” when he had been a little boy. It was a feeling that would grip him around the middle and squeeze him tight, into a vice. They would grab hold of him at any given time, even when he was happy.
Especially when he was happy.
Now, he felt it in his bones as he thought of Norma living with Norman, as much as he tried to remind himself that she was married to the Sheriff of all people. That she was as safe as safe could be, even though she was sick.
Norman was sick too.
Caleb had tried not to be afraid of anything after he had become an adult; he’d been determined to leave the things that went bump in his childhood away inside a box, but it had scared him the way that Norman had looked into his eyes, tried to hold him down, and had become someone else right before his eyes.
He’d even touched his leg right where Norma had her scar – how did he even know about that? And how had he known about the other things? Why had Norma told him about it?
Sometimes he could barely remember what it had been like back then, blurry and smoke, far away like he couldn’t quite remember it, but it was trapped beneath his skin. He had stepped away, stepped out of himself, for more than twenty years before he had seen Norma again and it had all come crashing back.
It was hard to escape from who he was, from who he had always been in the dark.
Norman was someone else in the dark, too, someone obsessed with Norma, someone who watched her in a way that made Caleb uneasy. But was he really one to talk? His world had revolved around his sister as long as he could remember. It had been as if they were the only two people in the world and everyone else was just simple static, snowflakes melting.
What could he do now, though?
He was sitting in the house, at the top of the steps, feet hanging over. Iris was in her room at the end of the hall, and Norma was at a doctor’s appointment. And what of Norma’s husband?
At work, Caleb assumed, or he would not have been invited over.
Alex did not approve of Caleb, and to be honest Caleb couldn’t blame him. But he also couldn’t stay away, not now when Norma could potentially…
He wouldn’t think about that.
Instead, he would focus on the task that Norma had given him – to look after the baby. Iris was tiny and precious and needed to be protected at all costs.
Especially when Norman was at home.
“We don’t want you here,” Norman spoke up behind him. There was anger, no, maybe hate, in his eyes when he looked at Caleb. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“I’m here for the baby,” Caleb told him. “You do what you want.”
Caleb didn’t even want Norman in the same room with her. She was so small, tiny, and vulnerable…
Caleb scooped her up into his arms and held her close to his chest. It had been a long time since anyone had let him hold their baby, and it took a moment for him to remember what went where. Then, however, he could feel her tiny heart beating against his, the warmth trailing up his shoulders.
“I love you,” he whispered quietly, “I’m your Uncle Caleb… And your name is Iris. And you’re the prettiest little girl in the world.” He wondered what she would think of him as she got older, if she heard scraps of conversation about him and somehow discovered the things he had done; all the things he had done.
He wondered if there was any hope of saving the relationship after then.
If Dylan could…
But he had to remember that there was a long time to go before Iris was Dylan’s age, before she could decide whether to accept or reject him. By that point,
Caleb may not even still be alive.
So, no need to worry.
Not about that, at least.
“Don’t try and tell her any of your lies, Caleb,” Norman barked. “I’ll make sure to tell her exactly what you are.”
“What about what you are?” Caleb shot back. He had tried to bite it back, but self-control had never been one of his strong points. “Why won’t you leave Norma alone? You’re an adult.”
“So are you. Why don’t you ever act like one?” Norman’s voice was venom, and he wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. “You came back from wherever to trot after her like a lovesick puppy dog, after all. Why don’t you have your own life?”
“I’m here for my son,” Caleb fired back. “And to make up for what I did to Norma. I’m never going to make up for that. But you aren’t much better, are you? I know who you are, Norman.”
“And I know who you are, Caleb. Glad that we’re on the same page. I think you’d better sleep with one eye open.”
And Caleb could have sworn he felt the shivers creeping up his leg, burrowing in his chest, curling up and going to sleep.
This was the house Iris was going to grow up in. With Norman looking over her shoulder, with Norma hanging by a thread (and Caleb could thank himself for that, his seventeen year old self up until his twenty-one year old self, and hell why stop there, it wasn’t as if he had made a right turn yet). A scared little girl who would grow up to be as broken as Norma and Caleb were.
There wasn’t any real way to stop it. Alex would leave once he saw the way things were going, Caleb was sure of it, and what then?
Then it would just be him.
Nothing could go wrong with that.