|The Final Days
Author: Vamptanzen PM
Willie knows that Maggie's days as Barnabas' prisoner are numbered, but as death looms ever nearer, two tortured and abused souls manage to find some human comfort in each other's arms ...Rated: Fiction M - English - Horror/Angst - Words: 8,766 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 1 - Published: 03-27-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3461308
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Final Days
Maggie Evans held out the elaborate jewel-encrusted necklace to Willie Loomis, her cupped hands cradling the velvet-covered box that contained what she clearly hoped was her ticket to freedom.
Willie stood, mesmerized by the sight of the jewels that, even in the subdued candlelight of the Old House's cellar, twinkled and flashed like stars in a twilight sky.
"Jewels more beautiful than you ever imagined," Maggie continued persuasively, trying to weave an irresistible spell that would bend him to her will, convince him to help her. He reached out both hands with dreamlike slowness to grasp the edges of the jewel case, tilting it down slightly as if to get a better view of the treasure within. "It's a fortune ... a fortune more than you ever dreamed. You can tell just by looking at it."
Willie couldn't repress a moan of desire as his gaze hungrily devoured the tempting morsel she offered him. He had always had a weakness for jewels. He remembered Elizabeth's diamond pin with the broken clasp, the one he had tried to steal, the one that Jason had forced him to return. He thought he had never seen anything so exquisitely lovely as that pin, nor felt any sensation as thrilling as the almost sensual pleasure that coursed through his body as he had touched the brooch one last time before reluctantly surrendering it to Jason ... But this necklace made that pin look like a piece of cheap and tawdry costume jewelry. His fingers itched to touch it.
As if reading his thoughts, Maggie prompted, "Go ahead, Willie ... touch it."
His heart pounded wildly. As Willie placed his left hand against his chest, directly over it, he could feel its rapid pulse under his palm. He was tempted ... so very tempted ...
"No," he moaned hoarsely. The temptation was unbearably strong, savaging his soul with razor-sharp claws.
But Maggie persisted, mercilessly. "See how they sparkle?"
Willie, still unable to remove his gaze from the hypnotic splendor of the necklace, had to force the words from his lips. "Please, you gotta go upstairs."
"They're yours, Willie ... after I'm gone." Maggie's promise held an undertone of breathless desperation.
Willie shook his head slightly, both in denial and in a fruitless attempt to clear his spinning mind. He knew what she was asking was impossible, and that knowledge was tearing him to pieces. "You can't go. He'd kill me."
Maggie's voice rose slightly, desperate to convince him. "No, he wouldn't ... because you'd be gone, too."
He wished it were as easy as she made it sound. He would like nothing more at this moment than to take those jewels and run away with Maggie Evans -- the culmination of two of his life's fondest desires and, until recently, his most energetic pursuits: wealth and women. But he knew with grim and tragic certainty it was nothing but a fool's dream. He shook his head. "I can't go," he said numbly. "He won't let me."
"You can go. We can both go." Maggie's fervent voice turned hard. "Once he's killed ... really killed."
Willie recoiled as if her words were fire, threatening to burn him. Shaking his head again, he finally looked up from the necklace to meet her intense gaze. "No!" he moaned. "I can't do it!"
Maggie's pleading brown eyes turned instantly to cold, hard stone, and Willie flinched at the lethal determination and raw hatred he saw reflected there. "I can," she said in a dangerous tone, and Willie believed her. "Then we'll both be free!"
He could not meet the icy, fever-bright brilliance of her eyes, so he lowered his gaze again to the cold, hard brilliance of the gems. "I can't let you," he said in a dead voice.
"Take the necklace, Willie," Maggie said, more forcefully, pushing the case more insistently into his hands. Then her voice lowered to a husky, seductive whisper. "Take it ... hold it ... touch it."
Willie's breath came harder, and he was practically panting as his left hand, which had been lightly grasping the lower edge of the jewel box, closed more firmly around it, his fingers working their way into the box to nestle knuckle-deep among the jewels. Almost reverently, he brought his right hand up and laid it, palm-down, over the necklace, his trembling fingers stroking, caressing the smooth, cold hardness of the gems and settings.
Maggie withdrew her hands, relinquishing possession of the velvet box entirely to Willie, who was clearly in the throes of some overpowering emotion. As he struggled to resist the charm the jewels exerted over him, his brow creased and his jaw trembled, making the flesh of his cheek ripple in sympathetic response. Now that he was actually holding the precious bauble, there was no way he could resist. Maggie knew she had won his cooperation.
In a firm, intractable voice, Maggie said, "Wait for me upstairs, Willie."
Automatically responding to the tone of command in her voice, he turned away and started moving dazedly toward the steps, his gaze still transfixed by the costly prize he held within his grasp. But he froze as a sound suddenly echoed throughout the cellar, seeming to fill the underground chamber with its unrelenting rhythm.
... the steady thump-thump of a heartbeat!
Willie's eyes widened in fear and he slowly turned around to stare in abject terror at the closed coffin that was the daytime refuge of vampire Barnabas Collins.
"Don't stop!" Maggie cried in desperation, seeing her tenuous control over Willie collapsing under the weight of his growing terror. "Don't!"
Willie's fright increased with the volume of the heartbeat, and he ignored her urgent tone. "Listen to it! It's gettin' louder!" He was on the edge of panic now, no longer thinking of the valuable trinket that a moment ago had been the all-consuming focus of his attention, the brilliant center of his universe.
Knowing she was losing him, Maggie cast her gaze around the chamber frantically, until her eyes alit on the workbench standing to one side of the new coffin. Moving purposefully, she reached out her right hand to retrieve a sharp-pointed carpenter's awl from the mess of woodworking tools scattered across the bench ... the same awl Willie had likely used to help fashion the smaller casket that now gleamed with new polish in the flickering candlelight. Holding the awl in a firm, upraised grip, she resolutely stepped closer to the larger, older coffin standing beside the new one. "You won't hear it much longer."
Self-preservation extinguished greed, and the last fragile hold of the jewels' spell shattered irrevocably. Willie tossed the velvet box carelessly onto the workbench as he spun toward Maggie in alarm. His breath came in heavy, painful gasps. "No! I can't let you do it!"
Maggie stood before the coffin, her left hand resting upon the lid, ready to fling it open, her right hand raised, clutching the awl like a dagger. Turning slightly toward Willie, who was tensely coiled like an overwound watch spring ready to snap, she cried out, "Willie, please!" He took a deliberate step toward her, his widened, terrified gaze riveted on the coffin lid. "No!" she cried as he slowly advanced upon her.
Willie echoed her own frantic cry, "No!" and the panicked look on his face frightened Maggie more than the throbbing, unnaturally loud heartbeat. She backed away from Willie's approach, circling the foot of the coffin and retreating behind it. "No!" he repeated.
"Willie, we'll be free!" she argued.
His reply was an agonized gasp, "No! I have to protect him! I can't help it!" He pursued her slowly, inexorably into the gap between the twin coffins.
Her back now to the cellar's stone stairway, Maggie futilely tried to keep Barnabas' casket between her and Willie. "We won't be afraid!" she tried one last time to convince him with words.
But Willie was only becoming more and more agitated, more unreasonable. "I have to protect him!"
"No!" Maggie shouted, seeing her last hope of escape slipping away.
Willie raised his arms to waist level, palms up, in an almost supplicating gesture, willing her to understand. "I have to!"
Maggie shrank back. "No! Get away!"
They had come full circle. Standing once more before the ancient coffin, Maggie raised the awl again, determined to turn and throw open the lid.
Willie lunged, and Maggie screamed. He caught her left wrist in a firm grip, reaching with his free hand for the weapon clenched in her right fist. For a moment they struggled, arms spread wide, his hands gripping her wrists, the two of them locked in a macabre dance to the drumbeat rhythm of the pulsing heart as he grappled with her for possession of the deadly implement.
"No!" she screamed again as she tried to twist free of his embrace, but he leaned inexorably over her, his greater weight bending her over backwards like a determinedly passionate lover seeking an elusive kiss. The pressure on her wrist increased until her nerveless fingers opened and the awl clattered to the floor. "No!" she screamed one last time in frustration, then she sagged in his arms, slipping through them like water and falling to her knees beside the casket, uncaring of the dirty smudges the filthy floor left on Josette Collins' antique white gown. She hung her head in defeat, and wept tears of bitter resignation.
Willie bent over her huddled form, sobbing along with her, repeating again and again over the thrumming sound of the heartbeat, his broken voice rough with unshed tears, "I can't help it ... I can't help it ..."
The thought of Maggie dying filled him with a mixture of sadness, satisfaction, and dread ... sadness for the pathetic young woman whom Barnabas had snatched from the comfort of family and friends, forced to assume an existence and identity that wasn't her own but Barnabas' twisted vision of a lost love ... satisfaction that, in death, Maggie had thwarted Barnabas' demented plans ... dread of what Barnabas would do to him for allowing his selected victim to escape his clutches permanently. Willie had all too often felt the scorpion sting of Barnabas' wrath, and the merciless beatings he had suffered at the vampire's hands had left its artifacts on Willie's body and psyche in the form of scars, bruises, and pathological fear.
But then he pushed open the door, and saw her lying, face-down, on the filthy cot, dressed in the hideous black, shapeless wool robe that was the only garment Barnabas had allowed her since taking back the fine antique clothing he had forced her to wear as "Josette." She may well have been dead, for all her lack of response, were it not for the glassy, staring eyes that followed Willie as he moved to place her lunch tray on the packing crate that served as a crude table. Over the past few days, she had been eating less and less, and her large, haunted eyes were shadowed underneath with dark, bruise-like marks. Even yesterday, when for some inexplicable reason her appetite had revived enough for her to gulp down her dinner like an eager child, her stomach refused to hold the food. She had been violently ill less than an hour after consuming the meal.
The way her glazed, half-mad eyes followed him around the cell made Willie uncomfortable. She had been raving lately about being visited by a little girl ... an imaginary friend with whom she shared secrets and played dolls and sang "London Bridge" ... a friend who, she claimed, could pass through the barred door and come right into the cell to play with her.
Willie didn't need a psychiatric degree to know what that meant, and neither did Barnabas. Maggie was losing her mind, but instead of going the safest route in terms of her survival and becoming, in her madness, Josette, she was retrogressing to the mental status of a young child.
And that was why Barnabas had decided to eliminate her.
Willie thought of the brassy, spirited young woman he had first met when he arrived in Collinsport. There was no trace of that woman now in the pitiful figure inhabiting the basement cell.
"I brought your lunch," Willie said, averting his eyes as a large tear rolled down Maggie's pale cheek. A few short months ago, Willie would have had no compunction about victimizing this girl himself. He had shamelessly accosted her at the Blue Whale, forcing his unwelcome attentions on her regardless of the fact that she clearly had no interest in him and had, in fact, been awaiting the company of her own boyfriend, Joe Haskell. That Willie Loomis had considered all women "fair game" -- beautiful baubles to pursue, capture, use, and discard at his convenience -- no attachments, no commitments, never a twinge of guilt. The world and everything in it was his for the taking, and his actions had reflected that attitude in his persistent harassment of Maggie Evans, Vickie Winters, and even the inapproachable Carolyn Stoddard, who had ultimately been forced to draw a pistol on him to protect herself from his unwanted advances.
Willie recoiled at the memory. The man he had been then was without conscience, incapable of feeling fear or remorse, pity or concern. Now he was consumed with it.
Willie found himself wishing with all his heart he could go back to being that cocky, self-assured young man, back to those relatively carefree days a lifetime ago, when he was reckless and omnipotent and dreamed the dreams of the invincible.
But Barnabas had taught him a valuable, agonizing lesson in humility. The victimizer had become the victim and, in the process, had experienced first-hand a victim's degradation, the utter sense of helplessness, the supreme humiliation of losing one's freedom to the superior will of another. The violent storm of Barnabas' cruelty had awakened Willie's sleeping conscience, and caused the dormant seed of his deeply-buried humanity to sprout. In the mirror of his own fear and pain, Willie had at last been able to recognize and appreciate the fear and pain of others.
Willie wrung his hands fretfully as Maggie turned her face to the brick wall, ignoring the food. "Please try to eat somethin'. You didn't eat your breakfast, and you threw up yesterday's dinner. You'll make yourself sick."
"What's the point?" she asked with a lucidity he hadn't seen from her since the day she had cunningly convinced him to take her ring, with disastrous results. "I'm going to die anyway."
Willie could only look at the scuffed toes of his shoes. A shock of sandy hair fell across his forehead, veiling his eyes. "Now, Maggie ... what makes you say --"
"You don't have to lie to me," she said with sudden sharpness as she turned back to him, rising to a sitting position on the small cot. "My life has been nothing but lies since he brought me here. I'm sick of lies!" She rested her arms across her knees, her posture slumping in defeat. "You're my only friend here, Willie ... my only protector. I don't think I could take lies from you, too."
Her declaration made him squirm inside with guilt. He knew how unworthy he was of her trust and friendship. "What about your little playmate?" Willie asked, wanting desperately to turn the subject away from himself. "The little girl you say comes here to play. Ain't she your friend?"
Maggie frowned as her eyes assumed a faraway look, and she tilted her head slightly as if straining to hear a distant, elusive music. "She can't be real, can she? I think I must have dreamed her," she murmured vaguely, her voice barely a whisper, soft and sad. For a moment, Willie thought that she would retreat back into her earlier madness, back into that childlike persona. Then she seemed to snap to awareness, her eyes swinging back to fix him with a beseeching gaze. "No. You're my only real friend, Willie."
Willie was filled with shame as he snorted, "Yeah, some friend. Helpin' him keep you here, lyin' to your father and friends ..." Not havin' the guts to just let you go, and to hell with what Barnabas does to me ...
"You defended me, at the risk of your own life. You even told him once he'd have to kill you first before harming me. I won't forget that, Willie. I won't ever forget that." She shrugged weakly. "About the other things ... I guess they don't really matter anymore. You had no choice. I know that now. I've felt the irresistible power of his will. I know what he can do, how cruel he can be ..."
Willie's mouth tightened into a hard line as he remembered those first few days after breaking into the mausoleum, the hell he had lived through, and what he had been forced to endure nearly every day of his life since. The savage beatings, the cold and deliberate abuse. "Oh, no you don't! You don't know the half of it ..." He closed his eyes in pain, his body suddenly wracked by uncontrollable shaking. "And I hope to God you never have to find out!"
His reaction made her reach out in concern. "Willie?"
He dropped to one knee at her feet, impulsively taking one of her pale hands in both of his. Her hands were cold, the unheated cell chilling her flesh until it was nearly as cold as ... his. No central heating had been installed in the Old House ... impervious to the cold, Barnabas had no use for it, even had he been agreeable to installing "modern conveniences" like electricity. But he wanted the Old House preserved exactly as it had been nearly two centuries ago. Even the restored rooms upstairs were completely dependent on fireplaces for warmth.
Willie's voice was a low, urgent whisper in the semi-dark cell. "There's still time, Maggie. Play along with him. Do what he says," he pleaded, an argument he had repeated time and again over the past few days. "Become his Josette, and maybe he'll go easy on you. Please, save yourself ... before it's too late. But you have to do it now -- tonight!"
Her shoulders slumped. "Yes, I know. Or he'll kill me. Or turn me into a monster like himself." Her voice sounded choked with the tears she was struggling not to shed.
Willie released her hand and rose, turning away from her so that he couldn't see her reaction as he imparted the death-knell to her fragile hopes. "No. You don't even have that choice anymore," he said in a voice devoid of emotion. "He thinks you're nuts, and he don't want a crazy Josette." He squeezed his eyes shut against his inner pain, at the surprising measure of sorrow he felt at the thought of Maggie's inevitable death. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have even told you there was still hope. It's a lie." His voice roughened as his throat constricted. "Just another damn lie."
Even though his words should have come as no surprise to her, actually hearing them spoken made them real, and Maggie's face went utterly blank with shock. "When?" she asked numbly.
Willie still couldn't look at her. He had difficulty forcing the word out past the lump which had risen in his throat. "Tonight."
"Tonight! So soon? No!" Maggie wrapped her arms around her body and folded herself forward, like a child with an acute stomachache. "Oh God," she cried hoarsely as the tears she had been fighting finally came in wracking sobs that echoed too loudly in the narrow confines of the tiny cell.
The sound of her weeping tore through Willie's heart like a razor-tipped harpoon, and he started edging nervously toward the door. "I gotta go ..."
Her desperate cry stopped him in his tracks. "No! Don't leave me!"
"I have to ... I got work to do." His survival instincts were screaming at him to turn, to flee, to put the solid, comforting thickness of the cell door between him and the almost palpable barrage of her despair which beat upon his back like the ruthless blows of Barnabas' wolf's-head cane. If he didn't get away, and soon ... he would go completely mad.
But he made the mistake of turning back to her for just a moment, and he was trapped.
Her pitifully disheveled form was perched upon the edge of her cot, arms lifted in a beckoning gesture. Her large brown eyes, now red-rimmed with tears, implored him to stay. The anguish in her gaunt face cried out to him more eloquently than her spoken plea, and he knew he couldn't desert her ... not like this. It would be too deliberately cruel ... too much like something he would do.
He came back to her, one arm stretching toward her in a gesture of comfort. She grabbed his hand in both of hers as though it were a lifeline and she a drowning woman. "Oh, God, Willie! Don't leave me!" She drew him down beside her on the cot. "I don't want to be alone!"
Willie laid his free hand on her shoulder, trying pointlessly to ease her distress. "Don't cry, Maggie. I'm here."
Releasing his captive hand, she turned and clutched at him desperately, balling handfuls of his blue workshirt in her tightly-clenched fists. "I don't want to die!"
Willie knew he should leave. He knew he should never have stayed in the first place. But he also knew what she had to look forward to, come sunset. She was doomed.
"I'm not goin' anywhere," he said in a low, soothing voice, as though consoling a troubled child. Slowly, uncertainly, his arms encircled her, offering what meager comfort he could as she sobbed against his shirt, the knotted tangle of her once-sleek auburn hair just brushing his chin. He closed his eyes and hugged her tightly to him, crying with her, knowing how damned they both were.
He held her against his shoulder until her tears gradually trailed off into shuddering breaths. As she grew calmer, Willie loosened his hold on her, expecting her to pull away. But she drew back only enough to turn her teary face up to his, her liquid brown eyes holding his for a moment. A slight frown creased her brow as a look of wonder softened her anguished expression.
"Willie?" He felt the back of her fingers brush the wetness on his own face, which flushed with sudden warmth. He started to turn away, absurdly ashamed that she should be witness to his unmanly display of tears, but to his surprise, she looped one arm behind his neck, pulled his face down to hers, and gently kissed him.
Her tear-salt lips were soft against his, filled with a tenderness that Willie, accustomed to roughness, had never experienced before. His eyes slid closed as he let himself become lost in the sensation of their touch, slowly responding to the sweet pressure of Maggie's mouth against his, at first tentatively, then with more fervor as she deepened the kiss. Old and pleasantly familiar feelings began to stir and waken within him, and his arm reflexively tightened around her waist.
"Oh, Maggie!" he breathed against her mouth between kisses. Blinded by desire, Willie offered no resistance as nature and instinct overwhelmed thought and reason.
But as Willie's seeking lips traveled from her delicate mouth to the graceful curve of her neck, Maggie froze, then flinched and suddenly pushed him away, raising one hand to her throat, and her face, so recently flushed with the rosy glow of unexpected passion, immediately drained of color. "No!" she gasped. "Not there! Never there!"
Her distress cut through his desire like the sharp blade of a coroner's scalpel, bringing Willie immediately back to bleak reality as a horrible realization burst upon him with the lightning shock of an explosion. "Oh God, Maggie, I'm sorry!" he stammered a nervous, sincere apology, suddenly mortified by his actions, both regretful and grateful that she had stopped him before he had taken matters further. "I -- I shoulda known better ... I shoulda remembered, what he did to you ..." He wrung his hands in self-recrimination, and dropped his gaze. "I shoulda remembered what it was like ..." He absently rubbed his right wrist.
Maggie noticed this motion, and some of the fear drained from her pallid face. "It's all right." Her expression turned grim as her gaze dropped to his wrist. "Is that where ... did he ...?" she nodded toward his wrist.
His eyes flicked up to meet hers briefly, then fell again as he nodded, a shock of ash-blond hair falling over his pale blue-grey eyes. "Yeah."
She stretched out her hand and asked softly, "Could I ... please?"
For just a moment, a look of distrust flickered across his features. Then he shrugged, reluctantly offering her the wrist. "Yeah ... sure."
As she reached for his arm, an absurd image from an early 50's sitcom flashed into his head ... a mother asking to see her small son's scraped elbow ... Here, let mommy see it ... I'll make it all better ...
Willie hadn't had much of a childhood. His father had left when he was just an infant, and his alcoholic mother wasn't the type who would have fussed over, let alone cared about, the various scrapes, bruises, and bloody noses he was likely to come home with. In fact, in her perpetually drunken state, she was more apt to add to his wounds than nurse them. That was one of the reasons he had left home when he was barely in his teens.
Maggie took his forearm in a gentle grip, bending her head to study his upturned wrist. The little white, paired scars of healed puncture wounds -- several sets of puncture wounds -- were just visible to the eye. She ran her cold finger lightly over them, and Willie clenched his fist tightly, the muscles in his arm hardening to stone as he started shaking uncontrollably. He jerked the arm out of her grasp.
Touching again her own throat, which bore similar scars, she breathed, "Oh, Willie!" as she slumped against his shoulder. His arm automatically went around her. "We're quite a pair, you know," she said in a sardonic tone, and for a moment she sounded just a little bit like the old Maggie. "How did we get so lucky? How did he happen to choose us?"
Willie's eyes closed in guilt-edged pain. He wanted to tell her ... It's all my fault. I let him out. If it weren't for me, he'd still be there at Eagle Hill Cemetery, locked in that hidden coffin in the secret room of the Collins mausoleum ... helpless and powerless and no threat to anybody. If I hadn't let him out, he never woulda come after you ... put you and me and this whole goddam town through hell ... But he was afraid of what would happen if she found out. Would she understand? Would she hate him? He felt he couldn't bear it, if Maggie were to look at him with the same fear and loathing in her eyes that she reserved for Barnabas ...
But, for some reason, Maggie was special to him. Willie had never been in love before -- in lust, sure ... plenty of times -- and, having never known love, he wasn't sure he would even recognize it if it hit him over the head. All he knew was that his feelings for Maggie were different. Before Maggie, the only person he had ever been interested in protecting ... in looking out for ... was Willie Loomis.
"Why can't you just let me go?" Maggie wailed. "We can make something up ... say that I knocked you unconscious, and escaped. Then it wouldn't be your fault. Surely, Barnabas wouldn't ..."
He shook his head violently. "Listen. You don't know Barnabas like I do. He's got ways of knowin'." He recalled what he had told her before ... about the times he had tried to run ... the feel of Barnabas' presence in his mind even while the vampire lay dormant in his daytime coffin, calling him back, exerting its unbreakable hold, an irresistible force willing him to return, telling him that, while he lives, he will never be free. Like the preternatural heartbeat that had echoed that day through the Old House's cellar, there was no closing his ears to the call. "He'd know I was lyin', and he'd kill me."
Maggie's arms slipped around Willie as her body heaved with a deep sigh. "Then I don't know what else to do, Willie. Maybe it would be better if I killed myself now, before he awakens ..."
Terrified, Willie spun her to face him, his grip biting into her upper arms. "Don't say that! Don't even think it!"
"But if you help me ..." she continued, but he shook her, sharply.
"No! I couldn't let you do it! And helpin' you do it would be the same as killin' you myself." His jaw tightened. "I've had to do a lot of terrible things in my life, but I ain't killed anyone ... yet!"
She sagged, deflating like a punctured balloon, and she looked so desolate that he pulled her back into an awkward embrace. "Then I guess we're out of options, Willie." He could hear the despair in her voice, hear the tears so dangerously close to the surface.
"Yeah. I guess we are."
They sat there for almost a full minute, neither one daring to speak, while time continued to tick away the few remaining hours of Maggie Evans' life.
Willie was the first to break the silence. "Would you like me to go now?"
He felt the motion against his shoulder as she shook her head. "No. I meant what I said before ... I don't want to be alone." She reached up and touched his jaw, turning his face toward her to brush an almost maternal kiss across his slightly parted mouth. He could see the fear in her eyes. "Please stay with me."
His arm tightened around her again. Strangely, despite the circumstances, he was starting to enjoy the feel of her in his arms -- the comforting softness of holding her, the strange sense of contentment it brought him. "If that's what you really want."
Her head dropped to rest against his shoulder as she seemed to melt into his embrace. "It is. Willie?"
"Yeah?" he asked softly, afraid the slightest motion would cause the fragile sensation to vanish like a dream, leaving him once more bereft of human contact, in this tomb of a house that had become every bit as much a prison for him as it was to her. Oh, he could leave the house and walk around like any other free man, but he was still a prisoner.
"How long ... until sunset?" she asked in a fearful voice.
He didn't even have to glance at his watch to know. Since becoming Barnabas' victim, he had acquired an uncanny sense of time, as though some internal clock ticked away the hours until dusk, until he awakened. "Hours yet. It's not even noon ..."
He could feel her tense as she mentally counted down the minutes until day's end, and she clung to him more tightly as she began to shiver. "Is that all? Oh, Willie. It's not enough. Can't I have a little more time?"
He tried in his awkward way to calm her, but her agitation only increased. "There's so much I haven't done yet ... so much I wanted to do with my life ..." The tears that had been brimming so close to the surface finally fell as she continued. "So much I thought I'd have time to do ... Get married ... have children ... maybe open my own restaurant, someday ... move out of this hick town ... make love for the first time ..." As her desperation escalated, her flow of words came more quickly. "And who's going to take care of Pop? I can't leave him." Her voice hitched on a sob. "Oh, Willie ... I have so much left to do with my life. I never dreamt it would end like this. It's just not fair!"
Willie's retort was filled with bitterness, "Barnabas don't care about what's fair and what ain't. All he knows is what he wants and what he needs. He don't care about anybody else." Willie felt a little lurch of guilt and shame as he recognized an echo of the old Willie in those words. Not so long ago, those same words could have been said about him, too.
Maggie pulled away suddenly. "Barnabas!" she spat with disgust. "I don't want to hear that name anymore! I wish I had never heard of Barnabas Collins!" She suddenly clapped her hands to both ears. "No matter how hard I try, I can't forget ... his voice in my head, calling me ... his cold touch on my hand, on my throat ... cold as the grave. I'll never be able to forget, until the day I ... die!" She ended with a horrified gasp, her brown eyes widening in shock as she realized what she had just said, and its significance: This was to be the day she died!
Trembling violently, she wrapped her arms around her body, her teeth chattering as with cold. "I'm f-frightened, Willie ... and I'm so c-cold! It's as though I'll never be warm again!" And she suddenly rose to her knees on the cot and threw her arms around Willie's neck. "Oh, God! Help me, Willie! Hold me ... warm me. Make me forget the feel of his cold touch ... make me forget where I am and what's going to happen at sunset."
For a moment, he held her as fiercely as she held him, feeling her pain, her terror, sharing in her despair. She don't deserve this. Nobody deserves this ... not even Jason ... not even me ...
Once again, she raised her lips to his, pulling his head down to hers, her fingers tangled in his soft sandy hair, kissing him with a frantic intensity that might, in other circumstances, have been mistaken for passion. She clasped Willie to her, pressing her slender form, wrapped it its itchy black wool dress, close to his as though trying to draw his heat through her body's surface to the very core of her being.
But as her desperate caresses started turning into something of an even more intimate nature, and her trembling fingers began to fumble with the buttons of his shirt, Willie drew back with a moan, grasping her shoulders and pushing her away from him. "Maggie, no. You don't know what you're doin'. You're upset ... and you're terrified ..." He tried to free himself from her awkward embrace.
She only clung to him more fiercely as she wept, "Willie, please ..."
He pushed her away with more determination. "Maggie ... No!" Finally breaking her hold, he held her at arm's length.
Through quickened breath, he struggled to make her understand. "You don't want this. You don't want me. You're just confused, and hurtin'. Believe me, I know what that's like." The words came hard to him, because he did want her ... had fantasized about being with her ever since first setting eyes upon her at the Blue Whale tavern. That longing had never completely gone away, despite everything that happened since. But he didn't want her this way ... he didn't want to take her in a desperate, loveless coupling of two hopeless, condemned people grasping at a last chance at human contact, because all they had to look forward to tomorrow was the coldness of the grave ... and he knew she didn't want it this way, either ... not really.
He finished with what he felt was his most persuasive argument, and his biggest fear. "Besides, he'd kill us both if he found out."
She clutched at the collar of his shirt, bringing her face close to his, trying to pull him down to her again. "I'm dead already. What does it matter?"
Willie felt like a craven coward as he said, "But I'm not. And I'd like to stay that way."
That seemed to sober her like a dash of cold water in the face, and Maggie fell silent as Willie continued. "Until he's finished with you, you're his property, and he'll kill anyone who messes with it."
A bit of the old spirit returned as Maggie hissed, "I don't care what he wants anymore!" Her haunted brown eyes pleaded with him, "Willie, please ... if you can't let me go, at least do this one last thing for me. I don't want his dead touch to be the last one I remember when I go to my grave. Before I die, I want to feel alive again ...if only for a moment." Willie opened his mouth again to speak, but she stifled his protest with her hand. "Please, don't deny me this! Even a condemned man gets a last request, and this is mine. I need warmth ... I need life. And you're the only one capable of giving it to me."
Reaching up, he removed her hand from his mouth, but he didn't release it. He held it in a firm yet gentle grip, rubbing her palm nervously with his thumb. "Maggie ... Are you sure? Do you even know what you're askin' for?" He was afraid of her answer, afraid that she would say yes, and also afraid that, whatever they did, Barnabas would still know. "If you're askin' me to do what I think you're askin' me to do, then I gotta tell you it shouldn't be me ... it should be Joe Haskell, or someone else you really care for ... someone you love ..." Somewhere inside him, the ghost of the old Willie laughed sardonically. Who would have believed such words coming from his own lips? It went contrary to everything Willie Loomis had ever believed.
She grasped his face between her hands, forcing him to look her in the face. "But, don't you see? It's too late for that. Joe thinks I'm dead already, and soon it will be true. I'll never see him again. I'll never see anyone again except for ... him ... and you." Her sad sable eyes regarded him with confusion. "I thought you liked me, Willie. Don't you care ...?"
"Sure, I care." More than you know, he added silently. He gathered the last shreds of his willpower together enough for one final attempt. "That's why I have to tell you you're makin' a big mistake ..."
But she wrapped both arms around his neck in an unbreakable hold, silencing his words with her mouth, and this time Willie couldn't find the strength to pull away. Slowly, the hands that grasped her upper arms in an almost bruising grip relaxed, traveling up the slope of her shoulders and down the curve of her back to her waist, tightening, pulling her closer as their kiss deepened.
Under the growing heat of her kiss, the frozen terror which for the past few months had numbed Willie's soul to all emotions but fear began to thaw and melt away. The cold, cobwebbed brick walls of the basement cell faded away like the misty remnants of a nightmare as Willie's response escalated from tentative exploration to hungry enthusiasm. For a moment, he forgot Barnabas Collins, forgot Jason McGuire, forgot the entire Collins family, as his body started remembering what it was like to be with a woman.
Willie's trembling fingers fumbled with the closure at the back of her dress until the fabric parted and his hand slipped inside to gently stroke the smooth, cool and slightly clammy flesh of her back. He felt her start to tremble too as, together, they fell back upon the cot's thin mattress.
In deference to her inexperience, Willie was gentle with Maggie in a way he had never been before with a woman, allowing her to direct his actions until nature and instinct took over. In accordance with her wishes, he gave her warmth, their shared caresses and kisses stoking her fires, building her inner heat until Willie could wait no longer and at last blanketed her with his body. She cried out once, sharply, in pain, but by that time Willie was beyond caring, driven by urges that overwhelmed self-control.
And, for a short while at least, locked in each other's arms, they lost themselves in the shared warmth of flesh against flesh, impassioned embraces fueled by desperation, caresses and kisses that kept the shadow of death at bay and provided a temporary escape from the horrors they both faced. In this way, they exacted their own petty revenge against the will of Barnabas Collins ... she by freely giving to Willie something Barnabas could never have: herself ... he by taking the one precious thing which Barnabas himself had wanted most to possess: Maggie Evans, his reborn "Josette."
That he had given her pleasure was undeniable ... he had been with enough women to know the signs ... and, to him, that fact was entirely irrelevant.
It hadn't even mattered to him when, at the height of her passion, she had cried out Joe Haskell's name. Though he might have wished otherwise, he understood that Joe was the man she loved, not him. If it made it easier for her to imagine that he was Joe, so be it.
He looked at Maggie's still form on the shabby cot, where she seemed to be enjoying the first sound sleep she had had in weeks. He was glad at least for the temporary peace she would find in slumber.
Gently, so as not to waken her, Willie took the cloth napkin and tumbler of water from the lunch tray and washed away the traces of their encounter, then restored the disarray of Maggie's clothing to an approximation of order. As he pulled the worn blanket to cover her, tucking it lightly around her, she stirred a little, and Willie froze.
"G'night, Pop," she murmured in her sleep, but didn't waken.
Willie looked at Maggie a moment, at her long lashes fanning the curve of her cheek as she slept, feeling as though his heart was breaking. He reached out tentatively to brush back a lock of her tangled auburn hair. On some absurd impulse, Willie stooped and kissed her gently on the cheek.
"G'night, Maggie," he whispered, and she smiled.
Willie found it nearly impossible not to think about the condemned young woman locked a mere twenty feet below the floors of the Old House. Despite his day's labors, his thoughts kept straying to Maggie Evans and her impending fate. For once, Willie seemed to lose track of the passage of time. An eternity passed by in a matter of a few hours ...
He was working in the parlor's bay window, tacking some loose weatherstripping back in with his hammer, when he heard the church bells ringing the hour. His hammer stopped in mid-swing, and he glanced up. The sky visible above the trees was starting to darken to late afternoon hues. Soon, the blues would give way to roses and purples and brilliant gold.
He counted the chimes. Three ... three o'clock. That means she only has two hours -- three at the most -- to live.
His eyes widened in near-panic. I gotta do somethin'. I can't let her die. I can't! He gripped the hammer until his knuckles turned white, and paced the living room like a caged animal, coming to a stop before the portrait of Barnabas Collins which hung over the mantel.
Anger tempered his fear and panic. "Barnabas, it's you who should die!" he spoke to the portrait, words that he never would have dared to say to the real Barnabas' face. "Then we'd be free, both of us." He brought up the hammer, weighing its potential as a weapon. "I should take this hammer, go downstairs, and kill you! That's what I should do!" He turned resolutely, and for a moment believed that he would actually be able to go through with it ...
A terrible thought stopped him in his tracks. But what if he didn't die? His fear resurfaced with a vengeance. He'd come after me ... and I can't begin to imagine what he'd do. Willie turned fearful eyes back to the portrait ... to the face which stared down at him from the canvas with its perpetually superior expression.
Those eyes! He turned away, feeling the power of those painted eyes as though Barnabas were actually there, staring at him with the same look of omnipotence. He remembered the presence in his mind, all those times he had tried to run ... to escape the vampire's influence. No ... I can't do anything. He has too much power. Willie squeezed his eyes shut as pain and indecision flooded his being, paralyzing him. I wish I could help her, but I can't. He dropped the hammer back to his side, feeling powerless, helpless. I can't ...
Once during his wanderings, while waiting to hitch a ride on a boxcar in some switching yard down South, Willie had witnessed a terrible train wreck. He remembered the feeling of escalating panic and heart-stopping terror as he watched the train barrel down its inevitable path to destruction, the sense of utter helplessness as he realized he had no power to stop what was going to happen.
He knew Maggie's fate was fast approaching, with the frightening unstoppability of that runaway train. Barnabas would be rising in a few brief hours from his coffin, and he wasn't inclined to delay taking action on matters he had already set his mind to. As soon as he rose, Willie knew he would go directly to Maggie's cell.
"Oh, God," he thought out loud. "What can I do? I don't want her to die, but there's nothin' I can do to stop it from happenin'!"
Her words came back to him ... Perhaps I should kill myself now, before he awakens ... If you help me, Willie ...
At the time, the possibility was unthinkable. Then, she still had hours to live. Now ...
He just couldn't let her die his way. He didn't know exactly what Barnabas was planning to do with her, but he knew it wouldn't be an easy death. With Barnabas, it never was ...
But what could he do? What alternative could he offer her that would be better than Barnabas' tender mercies? He had several options within his grasp ... articles of potential suicide readily available within the confines of the Old House, but they were just too horrible to contemplate: a length of rope, a kitchen knife, a shotgun ...
Willie's restless pacing ceased as he thought of the brown bottle hidden up in his rooms. Lethal poison. He had purchased it weeks ago, in a moment of desperation, intending to use it on himself to escape Barnabas' influence once and for all. Time and again, he had uncapped the bottle, and brought it to his lips, and even once actually drew a draught into his mouth, but he could never find the courage to actually swallow it. The caustic potion burned his mouth and, in a panic, Willie had spit it out, then rinsed his mouth about twenty times from the pitcher of water he always kept in his room ...
No. He was too much a coward to use it himself. But to help Maggie ... to help her escape Barnabas' clutches forever ...
He ran up to the attic, retrieving the bottle from his room in the servant's quarters. It was right where he had left it ... tucked into the slit he had made in his mattress, buried deep in the cheap stuffing of matted fluff. Slipping it into his apron pocket, he turned reluctant steps toward the kitchen to prepare Maggie's last meal ...
May God have mercy on my soul, he thought. And hers ...