A/N: In which Joe is given a second chance to make things right. (I have to admit, the first section of this chapter is another of my favourites.)
February, 1950 – two months earlier…
"Make sure you look your best later, Joe – I have a little surprise for you."
These instructions from Norma came back to him as he stared into the wardrobe, deciding on what to wear. He had no idea what her surprise might entail, as she had been mysteriously elusive for most of the morning and he had been banished upstairs since lunchtime. His attempts to wheedle information out of Max were equally as fruitless. He knew that whatever he considered to be his "best" would not match up to Norma's exacting standards, but eventually he decided on a cream-coloured suit – perhaps a little light for February, but it was an overcast, dreary sort of day, and he didn't feel like adding any more grey to the proceedings – and a dark blue tie to add some colour.
He surprised himself by reaching automatically for a pair of cufflinks and fixing them effortlessly, rather than his stumbling efforts when they were first bought for him. His new lifestyle was becoming second nature; he had to pause for a moment to re-evaluate where he'd ended up, and why. The clothes he came with back in October– or rather, the clothes which were brought to him – were taking up a tiny corner of one wardrobe, looking old and shabby, and despite Norma's gentle persuasion for him to throw them out, he couldn't quite bring himself to do so. In his own mind, he knew this arrangement would not be permanent, and when he inevitably returned to his old lifestyle, he was not willing to abuse Norma's generous nature by taking everything with him.
The hallway clock chimed seven, indicating that he needed to make his way downstairs. He examined himself in the mirror with a final, still-indecisive shrug, and headed towards the landing.
As he descended to the lower floor of the house, he could see already that the lights had been dimmed and the room was lit only by lamps and the glow of the fireplace, deepening the permeating shadows. An old-fashioned gramophone was tucked away in a darkened corner somewhere, whilst a warbling 1920's record (it sounded like the Great Caruso) filled the silence: infinitely better than listening to the wind wheezing through the organ, although he could still just about hear it in the background.
At the bottom of the stairs, he was taken aback and somewhat amused to find Max, dressed like a waiter with a serviette draped over one arm. His face was its usual impassive mask, revealing nothing.
"What's going on, Max?"
He didn't answer, merely waved his arm in a sweeping gesture towards the room. "If you would please follow me, Sir."
Joe acquiesced, his curiosity rising as he trailed behind Max and they crossed the terrazzo – freshly waxed – towards the French doors leading to the patio. As they approached, a small table came into view, with two chairs and a white tablecloth, a vase of flowers and a candle in an elegant holder at its centre. An ice bucket stood beside it containing a bottle of champagne. There were other candles, too, dotted around the various surfaces, their reflections flickering in the glass of photograph frames. The French doors had been left slightly ajar to let in the evening air – fresh-smelling from an earlier bout of rain, but not too chilly: a slight breeze blew in and the candle-flames danced and sputtered, but continued burning.
"What's the occasion?" asked Joe, as Max pulled out a chair and indicated for him to sit in it.
"You have not forgotten the date, Mr Gillis?"
Joe wracked his brain; he knew it was February from the turning of the weather, the dwindling of the rain and the slowly increasing temperatures, but beyond that he had lost track of time. Everything had merged together; he had no idea what day of the week it was, let alone the specific date; he hadn't seen a newspaper in weeks. It couldn't be Norma's birthday, because although she wouldn't reveal the precise day, he knew it was in November from her star-sign. (A month ago, he would not even have known that.)
"Care to enlighten me?"
"It is February 14th," Max informed him.
"Valentine's Day? But… but I had no idea. Norma's not expecting anything, is she?"
Max smiled, a little sadly. "No, Sir. She did not expect you to remember. Would you care for some champagne?"
Max's ability to effortlessly deflect difficult subjects never ceased to amaze him. Joe nodded absently, and a flute of champagne appeared in front of him. He hoped that Norma's surprise was just this – an intimate meal in the comfort of her own home – and not another expensive gift, especially as there was no way he could reciprocate. The setting was overly and obviously romantic, but that did not panic him as much as it would have done a few weeks ago.
It had been somewhat difficult to define their relationship over the past six weeks. His decision to return on New Year's Eve – and indeed to stay, thereafter – was undoubtedly a turning point, with Norma's feelings out in the open and him finally coming to terms with them. For the first few days of the new year, she had been drained and weary, exhausted from the events of her catastrophic party, barely leaving her room but always overwhelmingly relieved to discover that Joe was still around whenever she emerged. Within a week or so, she was more like herself again: an occasional whirlwind of overbearing activity during the day, but quieter and more contemplative during the evenings.
She seemed cautious, at first, as though she did not want to frighten him off again. That was understandable, and Joe had exercised the utmost patience, knowing that he needed to gain her trust. Yes, it would have been easier just to play the role she had assigned from the outset, but if Joe had learned anything from his time at the mansion it was that Norma benefitted from gentle persuasion and quiet compliance.
The situation he now found himself in was exceedingly uncertain; he had not anticipated the effect of her desperate actions on his own conscience. He would stay, if only to prevent that from happening again. Despite everything, he had grown increasingly fond of her: he cared what happened to her, more than he cared for his own circumstances. The Joe Gillis who had stumbled into her driveway was not the same Joe Gillis who now found himself the object of her slowly growing affections.
It was also becoming harder and harder to deny that there was a spark of mutual attraction at play, and that perhaps there always had been. He was surrounded on a daily basis by photographs of Norma as a young twenty-something: framed publicity shots and commissioned pictures and, of course, that ridiculous portrait dominating the living room. That same photograph from his own childhood was also amongst them; he hadn't deliberately gone looking for it, but occasionally it took him by surprise, wrenching the memory back to the forefront of his mind. Except he wasn't eleven years old any more, and the photograph's subject was no longer a mystery, and he could no longer avoid the fact that he found her beautiful even now: in a different way, undoubtedly, but it was pointless trying to convince himself otherwise.
He understood now that the collection of memorabilia was not just a reflection of an over-inflated ego, but Norma's attempt to remind herself of what she perceived to have been her happiest days. (Max had quietly informed him one day that she hadn't always lived like this: that the collection had slowly started growing fifteen years ago and he had only noticed when it was too late to do anything about it.) Joe was never quite sure how Norma saw herself these days; whilst she had to be aware of the passing of time, her house was locked in its own era. Her self-perception seemed to fluctuate alongside her moods; she seemed so much more youthful when she was happy, radiating confidence and exuberance, and it was in those moments that his breath caught in his throat unexpectedly.
As Norma's confidence in his presence grew, she became more open and obvious in her affections. She would surreptitiously snuggle up to him on the sofa, relaxing against him with a relieved sigh when his arm came to rest around her shoulders. If he was standing at the window or the patio doors, staring out at the torrential rain (as he was wont to do, as a writer in name if not in practice), Norma would come up behind him and wrap her arms around his waist, her head resting against his back; he would reach to gently touch her forearm or her hand in reassurance, and then she would withdraw, her warmth disappearing and leaving him shivering in the sudden chill.
On rarer occasions, if he was passing through the lounge, she would suddenly emerge from the shadows and reach for him, examining him in the half-light as her hands framed his face. She had not verbally conveyed her feelings for him since New Year's Eve, but her eyes betrayed her nonetheless, mere seconds before she would pull him down into a kiss: infinitely tender but clearly holding back from what she truly wanted to express. She would be content to remain there, wrapped in his arms, and as time went on he found his thoughts turning to how well they fit together: Norma's smaller frame held tight against his, her head tucked under his chin. He was often surprised by just how tiny she was; despite her small stature, she carried herself with a statuesque grace which made her appear much taller.
Joe was distracted from his rambling thoughts by the unmistakable sound of Norma's heels as she crossed the tiled floor. He turned to look at her, and found himself rising to his feet as well, the chair scraping across the floor as he did so.
It seemed disrespectful to remain seated in the presence of an almost regal-looking Norma. She was a vision in midnight blue silk, set off with onyx jewellery that glittered unassumingly in the candlelight; and yet, despite the obvious effort she had gone to, her demeanour was self-conscious, her gaze meeting his but quickly averting again when she noticed that he was utterly unable to tear his eyes away from her. Whilst he was quite sure that was the effect she had been aiming for, she seemed surprised it had actually worked.
She finally came to a halt near the table and for a moment they merely regarded each other in silence. Then Joe finally remembered his manners.
"Well, good evening, Miss Desmond."
She relaxed somewhat, and played along. "Good evening, Mr Gillis."
"I feel a little underdressed," he noted. "Maybe I should've worn the tails."
A look of disappointed panic crossed her features. "Do you think this is too much? I had such trouble deciding. I suppose it was silly of me… after all, it's not as though we're going anywhere…"
Her indecision was coming to the forefront again, so he intervened.
"Norma… I was just kidding. You look…" He struggled to find the right word, faltering under her gaze as one eyebrow rose in query. He wasn't brave enough to say what he was thinking, so he attempted Max's favourite technique of deflection instead. "Hey, did you spy on me? It looks like we match."
He looked down towards his tie, which in the low light was a similar shade of blue to her dress. Thankfully, Norma emitted a gentle laugh at his observation, shaking her head to indicate it was indeed a coincidence.
The tension dispelled, Joe crossed to the opposite side of the table and pulled out the other chair for her. He could at least make up for his lack of ability to verbalise himself by utilising all the chivalry he could muster, especially after the effort she'd gone to. Max re-emerged at that point to fill Norma's champagne glass; his gaze lingered perhaps a little too long, as well, before he straightened again and assumed his role for the evening.
"The chef has advised me that first course is ready, Sir, Madame."
"Chef?" asked Joe.
"But of course," responded Norma. "There are certain areas where Max's considerable skills are lacking, and I'm afraid fine cuisine is one of them."
Max nodded self-deprecatingly, though he was perhaps glad not to be stuck in the kitchen all night; waiting on their table was doubtless a lot less taxing. Joe had never had any cause to complain about Max's cooking before, but he certainly wouldn't protest about a little outside catering, either.
Norma instructed Max to bring the first course and he disappeared in the direction of the kitchen again. In the brief silence which followed, Joe suddenly remembered why they were having this dinner in the first place, and he felt renewedly guilty for having forgotten the date.
"Norma, look, I… I didn't realise what day it was, and I haven't gotten you anything. I'm sorry."
"That doesn't matter, Joe. I don't need anything. I only did this because I… I wanted to let you know what you mean to me."
He floundered for what to say in response to that, but thankfully he was saved by the arrival of Max with their first course.
The meal passed in silence, for the most part, other than comments as to the quality of the food. Whoever the chef was that Norma had hired, it had been money well spent. Joe could not remember the last time he'd had such an impressively fine meal, if he'd had one at all. In the meantime, Max kept the champagne and the music flowing, emerging at precisely the right moment to refill their glasses or replace one finished record with another.
At some point the rain started up again – a light drizzle that slowly turned into a downpour. Max went to close the French doors, but Norma instructed him not to bother. As long as the wind did not pick up, there was no danger of the rain blowing in. The warbling gramophone and the patter of raindrops against the patio made for a pleasant combination, both of them lapsing into silence as they worked their way slowly through the dessert course of crème brûlée. Whilst it was clearly a flawless example of the dish, rich and sweet with a glass-like layer of burned caramel on top, Joe struggled to finish it after the rest of the meal. He made sure to ask Max to pass his compliments on to the chef, and to explain that he did not have much of a sweet tooth.
After dinner, Norma excused herself and disappeared upstairs for a few minutes. Once Max had finished clearing their plates and made himself scarce again, Joe left the table and moved nearer to the French doors, watching the rain as it beat against the patio. Now that he was closer, it drowned out the sound of the gramophone almost entirely.
He heard Norma approaching, but did not turn around. She came up behind him, as always, wrapping her arms around his waist; his hands came to rest over hers and their fingers laced together, an instinctive gesture that surprised him at how easily it occurred. In her heels, Norma was almost able to see over his shoulder, and he could feel her stretching up to try and follow the line of his gaze.
"What is it about the rain that you find so fascinating, Joe?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. It calms me, I guess: helps me think more clearly."
She accepted his explanation without further comment, and for a moment they remained like that: Joe watching the rain, Norma watching him. Several of the candles had now burned to nothing; as another one finally sputtered and extinguished itself, he gently extricated himself from her arms and turned to face her.
"Thank you for dinner, Norma."
"No, thank you, Joe."
She did not elaborate any further on that, but he understood her meaning nonetheless. She was grateful for everything: for his work on the script, for his return to her, for his decision to stay, and for countless other, smaller things which were probably insignificant to anyone but Norma. Sometimes, the extent of her gratitude was overwhelming and he felt more than a little undeserving.
The background music filtered back into his consciousness and he realised its tone had changed from the genteel operatics of Caruso, which had accompanied their meal, to the somewhat more contemporary sound of Ivor Novello. Whether that was intentional or not, he didn't know, but it planted an idea in his head nonetheless.
He held out a hand towards her. She stared at it, and him, in surprise.
"Come on," he encouraged, indicating with his head towards the terrazzo, and with a radiant smile she dropped her hand into his and allowed him to lead her to the middle of the tiled floor.
They had not danced together since New Year's Eve, he suddenly realised. The music wasn't right for a tango, so he hoped Norma would settle for something a little less elaborate. He started to lead her in an easy dance across the tiles and she fell into step with him automatically. He could not help but remember that fateful evening: Norma's impromptu tango lesson and her joyful laughter as he finally got into the swing of it, that feeling of being somewhat detached from reality until the seriousness of the situation had struck him, and of course his catastrophic decision to flee rather than face up to what was happening. It had been a very confusing night, all told. Strangely enough, tonight he had partaken of far more champagne, yet he felt considerably less fuzzy-headed and much more aware of his actions.
Perhaps it had been the fear of the unknown which had affected him more that night: the sense that something was coming beyond his control. He had tried to bury his head in the sand rather than face it, and things had spiralled before he could stop them. But now he was fully aware of the situation, and whilst the depth of Norma's as-yet-unrepeated feelings still occasionally terrified him, he had at least come to accept them. He could not reciprocate, but he felt enough for her that he did not regret his decision to stay, at least for a while.
The song finished and another started up, slower this time, and Norma drew in closer. For some time, she merely rested her head contentedly against his shoulder as they drifted slowly across the terrazzo. After a while, however, she moved back a little and looked at him with a curious, questioning expression. When she finally managed to verbalise them, it was apparent that her thoughts had been following a similar pattern to his own.
"Why did you come back, Joe?"
The question took him by surprise, and he thought carefully over how to answer. In truth, his return that night had been borne of too many conflicting emotions to tie down, the most predominant of which had been overwhelming guilt over her actions – actions which had been brought on by his behaviour. He could not tell her that, though; she needed more.
"Because I… I realised I needed to face up to what had happened. I didn't mean to hurt you; I was just… surprised, when you told me how you felt. I ran because I couldn't handle what it might mean."
He examined her face for any kind of indication that he might be saying the wrong thing, but she was gazing at him patiently – waiting for him to finish. He had never been able to explain any of this to her before, nor even to himself. He sighed, and continued, hoping that the truth would not prove fatal.
"I was going to leave for good. I was so angry with how things had turned out – with myself, for not anticipating it. I just needed to get out. But when I called and Max told me what you'd tried to do…"
Something unidentifiable flickered in Norma's eyes, and she looked away from him, averting her gaze as she stepped backwards, out of his arms. She had come to the one conclusion he was hoping to avoid: that his return to her was purely out of sympathy or culpability. Joe acted quickly to try and rectify things, reaching to gently grasp her upper arms. She did not raise her head, but she did not try to move away, either; he took that as a positive sign to continue.
"I was scared, Norma. The thought that you might have hurt yourself because of me…" She still could not quite bring herself to look at him. "Despite everything, I'd come to think of you as a friend, and I cared about you. Everything just happened so fast…"
She finally raised her eyes to his and he was surprised to note that she was not as upset as he'd thought; instead she fixed him with a contemplative expression. He could not shake the feeling that he was being tested, however, so he approached the situation warily.
"A friend?" she asked.
"Nothing more than that?"
Despite Norma's nonchalant tone, he was well aware that the conversation they had unwittingly wandered into could be potentially dangerous. He picked his words carefully.
"Well, I… I didn't know things were going to change…"
"It's not as though I planned it, Joe," she said, suddenly frustrated. "The last thing I wanted was to make things any more complicated than they already were. I tried to fight it, but… but I thought, if there was even a chance you felt the same way… then maybe it would be worth the risk. But I was wrong… wasn't I?"
She suddenly pulled out of his grasp, her eyes flashing angrily, though he could not tell whether it was directed towards herself or him. Then she abruptly turned away from him and headed back towards the French doors.
Most of the candles had burned out, the makeshift dining area almost completely dark except for the background lamplight and the eerie glow of from the moon as it struggled through the clouds overhead. The rain had continued unabated; Norma stood and watched it in silence, rubbing her bare arms against the night-time chill.
Joe debated with himself for a moment over whether to approach, or let her come to him. In the end, his conscience won out and he took a few tentative steps nearer. She had obviously heard him, her stance tensing slightly as though she were preparing to flee, but he did not let that deter him as he made his way towards her. He made no move to touch her, and he did not speak, hoping that his presence would be enough to draw Norma back from the self-protective bubble she had withdrawn into.
Eventually she spoke again, sounding more resigned and less furious than her demeanour had indicated.
"I was so stupid to allow myself to fall for you. I realise that now. I didn't mean for any of this to happen. When you came back to me, I almost didn't believe it… and even now, I can't say I understand why you've stayed as long as you have."
"Because I want to be here." Even as he said it, he realised with some surprise that it was the truth. He took a tentative step forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Because I still care for you."
That only seemed to make her more upset. "Yes, and it would be so much easier if you felt nothing for me. If I could just send you away…"
"And then do what? Hurt yourself again?"
He was shocked at how fervently those words had come out, as indeed was Norma; she turned to him with a slightly startled expression, his hand falling away as she did so. He had not wanted to raise his voice, but at least it had provoked a reaction. Norma did not respond, at least not verbally: unable to deny his assumption, but equally unable to voice it as truth. Sensing that some of the wall had crumbled, Joe reached for her hand, turning it palm up.
She had fully healed some weeks ago. He remembered that particular morning with a striking clarity even now: she had emerged from upstairs as usual, and he noticed within moments that the bandages had gone. No words had been required; Norma caught the line of his gaze and gave a nod of confirmation, responding to his sad smile of acknowledgement by pressing a kiss to his cheek. It was a bittersweet moment, and one he was not likely to forget.
Nonetheless, the scars had remained, and quite probably always would, to serve as a permanent reminder of a mistake he was continually attempting to fix. He caressed the white mark with his thumb almost unconsciously.
"Norma, whatever you feel for me… whatever you felt for me that night… it shouldn't have led to this. I'm not worth hurting yourself over."
Tears glistened in her eyes and she surged towards him, pressing herself into his arms, suddenly overwhelmed. He held her for a moment, stroking her back comfortingly until she calmed; she shivered, chilled from the outside air, and instinctively moved closer, insinuating her arms around him inside the warm cocoon of his jacket. Her hands were cold against his back, penetrating the fabric of his shirt, but he did not flinch away.
This was different to her usual moments of weakness; there was no indication of increasing panic, just a deep, emotional abyss of a pain he was unable to fully relieve. He felt a pang of guilt that he had inadvertently ruined her romantic evening, though it was certainly not yet over, and there was more than enough time to save the situation. He had no intention of running away this time.
When Norma spoke again, her words came out in a whispered rush, as though she had been wanting to say them for some time.
"These past few weeks have been wonderful, but so… so unbearable. What I feel for you… you don't know. You couldn't possibly imagine…"
He pulled away just enough to tilt her head up, distracting her so she could focus. Patience and kindness: these were the laws by which he existed in Norma's world. His life was no longer his own to control; he needed to be selfless.
"So why don't you tell me?"
She searched his face for any trace of insincerity, and found none. She gazed at him for several seconds, trying to find the right words. Norma was an expert in silent communication; if this had been one of her old silent epics, there would have been an appropriately drawn-out crescendo to complement the mood. It was more than obvious what she wanted to say, but for his sake she was struggling to verbalise it. An unprecedented rush of affection warmed his heart, and a familiar flutter of nervousness: he was almost excited to find out how deep Norma's feelings really were.
After a moment or two of agonising, Norma sighed, a little disappointed, before finally speaking.
"You know better than anyone that I'm not very good with words. I've never had any real need for them… but I know how important they are to you, and I'm sorry I can't say this in any better way." She hesitated, giving him a chance to back out. He merely met her gaze patiently. "You must believe me, I tried so hard not to, but I… I'm still in love with you, Joe. So much I can barely stand it. Does… does that scare you?"
"Of course it does," he admitted self-deprecatingly. "You're Norma Desmond!"
The brief panic that flashed in her eyes dissolved into relief, and she smiled; her hands, now warm, reached up to frame his face. "Not with you. Never with you."
That was the whole point, of course: within weeks of his arrival at the mansion he had ceased to think of her as a movie star, and had subsequently begun to treat her as he would anyone else. He had maintained a level of respect, but as their friendship grew so did his level of comfort within his environment, and so too did the easy way in which he was able to communicate with her. It was only as his awareness of her fragility increased that their interaction began to change. In retrospect, he probably should have seen it coming a mile away.
It was too late to change things now. He did care for her, that much was true, and breaking her heart was out of the question. The self-serving part of him which had attempted to manipulate the situation for his own benefit was slowly being dwarfed by his genuine feelings for Norma and her well-being. She had laid her heart bare for him tonight; the frivolous expense of the meal was insignificant compared to that. He also could not ignore the effort she'd made to stun him speechless, even though she would never admit to that, and was unable to see that she'd succeeded.
Whatever it was that he felt for Norma, he was struggling to define it. He was stubbornly persistent that it was not love; surely, if it was, he would simply know without question – and the thought was vaguely terrifying, regardless. Yet it was more than mere friendship, just it had been something stronger than guilt which had sent him back to her on New Year's Eve and persuaded him to stay. It was a feeling more complicated than curiosity which prevented him from running now.
"I won't lie," he admitted. "It is a little scary. But I'm not going anywhere."
Something occurred to her then and she frowned slightly. "The screenplay... You said you'd stay until we had news from Paramount."
"I did," he agreed nonchalantly.
Norma could not quite interpret his tone. Her hands fell away again to clasp lightly in front of her, as she took a step back and studied him curiously.
"We… we may never hear from De Mille," she proffered carefully. He was not convinced that it was any indication of acceptance on her part, but rather a test of his loyalty.
"It's a possibility."
"Don't play games with me, Joe." She gave up on trying to understand his enigmatic responses, turning away in frustration.
"I wasn't," he told her apologetically, deciding that a straightforward approach was needed. "I'll stay, Norma. For as long as you'll have me, anyway."
She faced him slowly, a little cautiously, assessing his words for their truth. Her eyes drew him in, as they so often did, her innermost feelings as clear as day. She had spared no effort in accentuating them with a smoky and alluring effect, which he could appreciate all the more in the shadowy half-light. She gazed at him imploringly and he was utterly lost.
"You promise you'll stay?"
He leaned down to press a kiss to her mouth, hoping it would be enough to convince her. She was clearly surprised, but not quite as surprised as he was to realise that he'd been wanting to indulge in the temptation for quite some time that evening.
Norma's response was to snake her arms around his neck and stretch up on her tiptoes, meeting him halfway in another, deeper kiss. She did not hold back this time, leaving him in absolutely no doubt as to the overwhelming depth of her feelings for him. He gave up any form of resistance and allowed himself to fall under her spell, pulling her closer, suddenly very aware of the cool silk of her dress beneath his hands, of her fingers raking through his hair, of the unexpected need to get even closer…
It was Norma who broke the kiss, equally as conscious of the tangible change between them, removing herself from his arms to search his face for any hint that it might not be real. He did not trust himself to speak, merely reached for her hand and began to make his way across the terrazzo towards the stairs. Norma followed for a moment, but then resisted slightly, causing him to hesitate and turn around.
Before he could ask what was wrong, she fell against him, her head against his chest so she could hear his heartbeat; he was very aware of its changed rhythm and knew she would notice it, too. He held her in place, enjoying the familiarity of her smaller frame fitting so closely against him, wondering absently when that had become something he missed when it wasn't there. She stepped back again, lifting her head to meet his gaze with shining eyes.
"I love you, Joe."
There was a telltale flutter in his heart, a sensation he could no longer ignore. He tried to quieten it by pressing a kiss to her forehead, but the feeling only intensified. His next words came out before he could stop them.
"I love you, too."
Norma kissed him again, as sweetly as the very first time, and then took the lead in the rest of the journey towards the staircase.
"Wait a minute. That's not how it happened."
The sound of his voice is harsh and stark, reverberating through a penetrating silence, almost as though he is trapped inside an empty and abandoned soundstage. Everywhere is dark except for a tiny pinprick of light in the distance. He cannot see his hands in front of him, much less feel them.
He becomes slowly aware of his own consciousness, if not his physical body, as though waking from a dream. The events of that evening in February were real enough, but like everything else he has tried to recreate in his memory, the ending has become distorted and skewed. His protest hangs lifelessly in the void.
Another voice echoes in the curious space – it is familiar, but he cannot place from where. Despite his confusion, he responds to it.
"That isn't how the night ended. I mean, it is, but… I didn't say that."
"No, you didn't," clarifies the mysterious voice, "but you thought it just the same. It's how you wish things had gone."
He cannot deny the allegation and his impatience grows. "Who are you, anyway? Clarence?"
The voice chuckles. "Don't tell me you've forgotten your old grandfather?"
Now he remembers – images appear in his mind's eye of family Christmases, fishing during the summer, stories at his grandfather's knee as a young boy. Happier, carefree times. The old man has been gone some fifteen years or more.
Suddenly he recalls a gunshot, a burst of pain, a heavy splash, darkness.
"Am I… am I dead?"
The voice laughs. "Not quite yet."
"I can't say. Maybe it's not your time."
"What am I supposed to do now?"
"I think you already know…"
He does. He's made a terrible mess of everything. His own self-serving needs have backfired and now the lives of everyone around him are in tatters.
Betty Schaefer, that sweet and trusting girl: he had to break her heart to save her, and now she's tainted by that same cynicism he himself has been afflicted with for far too long. Her optimism may not shine so brightly now, and Artie will never forgive him.
And Norma… driven to a desperate act of insanity in response to his actions. He can only blame himself for what's happened; he should have run when he had the change. He should have been honest with her; he should never have allowed her to become so deeply attached. But even now, he cannot see any way that he could have prevented it, and his own feelings are more confused than ever. He has already seen how easily he fell for her attempts to manipulate him, conscious or otherwise, and despite his intense self-loathing he nonetheless remembers how his genuine concern for her usurped everything else. He never believed he would be capable of selflessness, but for Norma he gave up everything.
Even as he made that decision to break free of her, he could not hate her. No, his hatred has only ever been for himself – for allowing such an untenable situation to continue, for destroying her fragile trust by secretly dallying with Betty. He had tried to tell Norma from the very beginning that she deserved so much better – and he wanted to be better, but he could not be anything more than himself.
Things become clearer, in retrospect. New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, the morning of Norma's trip to Paramount… and countless other moments too small and numerous to identify. There have been so many times when he should have listened to his heart instead of his head.
"Now you're getting it," says the voice, as though it can see inside his mind.
"You were always a fast learner, Joseph. I'm surprised this is taking so long."
"What do you mean?"
"Take a look at the facts. You've been lying to yourself as well as her."
"I've never lied to her." He checks himself. "Not about that. I was very careful not to say anything."
"Not saying something is practically the same as lying. Didn't your mother ever teach you that?"
He huffs sullenly, not wanting to acknowledge that his grandfather speaks the truth; he was always a wise man with excellent advice. As a boy he would accept it without question; if the old man were still around he is fairly certain he would not be too grown-up for a clip around the ear.
Suddenly, a blindingly white rectangle appears before him, hovering in the darkness; he has no means of shielding his eyes and every time he turns away, it follows him.
"Let's try something you're a little more familiar with, shall we?"
"Stop arguing and pay attention." His grandfather's voice is stern. "You've got one chance to put this whole mess right, but you need to do it on your own. All I can do is help you get there."
"Fine. Show me."
The white shape flickers to life like a movie screen, disjointed images cutting in and out – a few seconds here and there, nonsensical and random but nonetheless familiar – before they begin to organise themselves into longer sequences. He watches himself as the hero in his own personal movie, and even though the scenes are recognisable, to view it from the outside looking in is fascinating. He sees clearly, for perhaps the first time, how everything came to pass.
More importantly, he can no longer deny the evidence before him – the look in his own eyes as he gazes at Norma, the quiet moments where he would catch himself staring, his uncontrollable urge to protect her from harm played out in his own demeanour, those telltale moments where he felt that undeniable flutter and chose to ignore it. As if to prove it, the picture freezes on an image of Norma, in all her finery for that trip to Paramount, and his heart climbs up into his throat.
"I remember her from her heyday," his grandfather muses thoughtfully. "She really was a great beauty, huh?"
"She still is," he finally admits. "I wish I'd told her that more often."
"Good. We're finally getting somewhere. There's something else you could have said, too."
If he could see his hands, they would be dragging across his face in frustration.
"How was I supposed to tell Norma when I couldn't even admit it to myself?" An unhelpful silence is his only response, and another notion occurs to him. "I always thought that if you fell for someone you'd just know… like a sudden drop or a smack to the head."
"Or a bullet to the shoulder?"
"Look, I don't have all the answers, kid. Sometimes it just happens when you least expect it – when you're not even looking for it."
The movie flickers to life again; the scene changes to their very first meeting. Norma's dark glasses come off and their eyes meet across the expanse of her living room. His breath catches with more than recognition. He recalls how curiosity turned to sympathy, and then to his own self-serving plot – but he sees now that he was already caught.
Another scene: weeks later, their hands meet over a page of her manuscript and he cannot quite forget about it. Every touch of his hand to hers cements their connection further. He accepts her affection without complaint, and soon begins to return it – effortlessly, thoughtlessly, without question. These are not the actions of a man whose primary concern is himself.
He wants – needs – to make things right.
"What happens now?"
"Well, there's two choices. You could head towards that light over there, and this whole mess will be over with. Or you can turn back and try to clean it up. Your injuries aren't fatal, but you knocked yourself unconscious and it's very likely that you could drown."
"I don't know how to fix this."
"Neither do I. I'm sorry. But you're a smart boy, Joseph. I'm sure you'll work it out when you get there."
The light ahead has grown closer and it looks so very appealing in the darkness: warm and inviting. But the movie screen has paused again on a cosy image of Norma wrapped in his arms after one of her nightmares – bathed in moonlight and sleeping peacefully against his chest. He remembers this night and the morning that followed, when he almost allowed himself to be guided by his heart. He would give anything to hear Norma laugh again, to enjoy her carefree happiness and know that he was the one to cause it.
"I'm going back."
"Good boy. I'm proud of you, son."
He turns his back on the welcoming light, and the movie screen fades away. In its place is a plain wooden door marked "Exit". He turns the handle and steps through.
He came to with a spluttering cough, expelling a lungful of pool water, his chest burning as he tried to catch a breath. He was freezing cold and soaked through, the chemical taste in his mouth and its associated odour filling his nostrils. He coughed again, rolling onto his side to relieve the pressure in his chest, but his left-hand side screamed in agony at the movement and he lay back with a groan, triggering another bout of hacking which only made things worse.
Finally, he managed to inhale without further difficulty and after a few seconds of deep, calming breaths, he slowly opened his eyes, taking stock of the unfamiliar surroundings. He was lying on an uncomfortable gurney in a small, dimly-lit room… no, not a room, the back of an ambulance, with its rear doors closed and the windows shaded. Thankfully, the vehicle appeared to be stationary, at least for now. From behind the blinds there was the unmistakable undulating glow of emergency lights and the distant whine of a siren.
He sat bolt upright at the realisation of what those elements could mean, his side and his right shoulder protesting as he did so. He fingered the shoulder injury gingerly – a clean exit wound that was now bleeding anew, and what felt like a broken collarbone. The pain in his side was from an angry-looking graze, but thankfully nothing more sinister. Nothing that wouldn't heal eventually, though both injuries would doubtless leave scars.
His head was pounding, and a brief exploration elicited a sharp intake of breath as his fingertips found a nasty cut in his hairline. He vaguely remembered banging his forehead and falling into the pool before the world went black. Hopefully he'd managed to sleep off the concussion by now.
He swung his legs off the gurney, grimacing but determined to make his body cooperate in spite of the pain. As soon as his feet hit the floor he realised he'd likely sprained his ankle as well, presumably when he tripped. It didn't feel broken, so he grit his teeth and forced the injured joint to bear his weight, half-stumbling towards the ambulance's rear doors.
He pushed them open and early morning sunlight poured into the confined space, temporarily blinding him and making his head feel worse. As he staggered down the back step, blinking as his vision readjusted, he heard a clatter at his feet and a nearby voice raised in shock.
"Oh, holy Jesus!"
He managed to identify the culprit in the form of a terrified-looking paramedic, staring at him as though he was a ghost, with a paper cup of coffee spilled on the floor where he'd dropped it in his surprise. Thankfully, the paramedic managed to get a grip on himself once he realised what had happened, as Joe stared blearily at the scene unfolding before him. The driveway was packed with police cars and news vans, lights and cameras flashing wildly. He could not quite summon the energy needed to move forwards, but in any case he was prevented from going anywhere by the medic attempting to make him sit down.
"What's going on?" he demanded.
"Just calm down, sir," said the other man placatingly. "Christ, you scared me half to death. Sit down, please – I need to take a proper look at your injuries."
"A proper look?"
The paramedic nodded and pushed him gently into a seated position on the back step of the ambulance, then clambered inside to retrieve a medical bag.
"What do you mean, 'a proper look'? What's with the ambulance?"
The medic dabbed at his head wound with a sterile dressing. "We found you face-down in a swimming pool with a serious head injury and a lot of blood loss," he explained patiently. "You weren't breathing when they dragged you out. There didn't seem to be much point in treating the damage."
Joe flinched away with a hiss of pain.
"You thought I was dead?"
"Mr Gillis, for all intents and purposes, you were dead. I dare say you've had a very lucky escape. It's just as well Miss Desmond was a bad shot, or—"
"Oh, God. Norma…"
Everything came flooding back to him, the muddled images in his brain piecing together with the scene on the driveway as he realised what had happened. He got to his feet, pushing past the medic.
"Mr Gillis, please, we need to get you to a hospital."
He ignored the other man, straining to see into the house past the sea of reporters and photographers, but it was futile. Turning back, he grabbed the lapels of the paramedic's uniform.
"Where is she?"
"Still inside, I think." Joe let go of him and made to approach the house. "But you can't go in there, sir!"
"Why the Hell not?"
"The police are here. They've come to take her away."
"She shot you. Potentially killed you… I'm not a lawman but I think that counts as murder in the first degree…"
Joe allowed himself a small, ironic smile. "Well, it looks like everyone's in for a little surprise."
The paramedic gave up trying to convince him to get back in the ambulance, and Joe began to make his way towards the house, limping and clutching his injured shoulder. As he passed the swimming pool, he fought off a wave of nausea at the sight of the red-tinged water. So much blood, all of it his. It was a minor miracle he was still standing.
He struggled to push his way through the throng crowding outside the house, most of whom barely even noticed him as he wove carefully towards the door. A few voices raised in protest, but he ignored them and persevered until he reached a stationery, silent audience near the front, crammed into Norma's hallway.
At first, he could not see what everyone was staring at. Then he caught a glimpse of Max. The dapper, ordinarily stoic older man had tears in his eyes, as he battled valiantly to regain control of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. His respect and adoration were tangible. He was utterly powerless to do anything to stop the inevitable actions of the waiting policemen at the bottom of the stairs, but he was doing his utmost to maintain the illusion for as long as possible, all of his old directing skills coming to the forefront as he used them to his advantage.
Following the line of Max's gaze, Joe finally spotted Norma herself near the bottom of the staircase. Every pair of eyes was glued to her, as indeed were several cameras. She was wrapped in shawls and scarves, shimmering from an abundance of sequins, playing the role of Salome at last. She was completely lost in her own world, her grip on reality tenuous at best, as she descended the final few steps with a graceful, majestic air.
The spell broke as she reached the bottom, the two policemen reaching carefully for her arms to try and lead her away. She frowned in irritation and looked to Max for support.
"What's going on, Mr De Mille? Tell these two oafs to get off me."
A flicker of deep sadness crossed Max's features as she addressed him, but he managed to suppress it. He looked older than he ever had before in that moment, but he held his composure long enough to reassure her.
"It's all right, Norma. They're just here to take you to the other set."
"Yeah, Miss Desmond," said the more sympathetic-looking of the two policemen. "Come on. We'll have to go in the car. It's a long way."
She acquiesced with a nod, and although she pulled her arm defiantly from the grip of the other policeman, she allowed the one who'd spoken to lead to her towards the door.
Reality hit Joe at that point like a tonne of bricks, and he emerged from his frozen stupor, lurching forward and coming up against a solid wall of stubborn onlookers who were oblivious to his plight. In desperation, he called out.
Norma's eyes flashed recognition at his voice, as too did Max's; the older man looked as though he was about to faint, almost happy to see Joe for the first time in all his days at the mansion. Norma sought him out and he shoved his way forwards again, the crowd finally parting to let him through. He limped further into the hallway, focusing on Norma.
The policeman gripping her arm frowned and held up a hand, halting him where he stood. "This is a crime scene, mister. Now, I have no idea how you got in here, but you're going to have to leave."
"Oh, come on. Don't you recognise me? I'm the guy they just fished out of the pool."
The two policemen took in his bedraggled appearance, the blood staining his suit, his prominent limp and the sizeable bump that was now forming on his forehead, and came to the only logical conclusion. They exchanged glances, stammering uselessly. Then Max regained his senses and took action, walking up to the detective who was overseeing the proceedings and looming over him menacingly.
"I believe that there is no charge against Miss Desmond now," he said threateningly.
The detective gulped but retained his composure. "Well, the murder charge, sure. But she still shot a man."
"Mr Gillis will not be pursuing a complaint," said Max, meeting Joe's gaze with a knowing expression. Joe nodded in confirmation, too weary to do anything but agree, though in truth the thought had not even crossed his mind. He just wanted the cops and reporters to go away so he could speak to Norma; it had not even occurred to him that a crime had been committed.
The detective eyed him suspiciously, but conceded defeat.
"Fine. I guess there's nothing more we can do here. Everybody clear out!"
He gave a nod to the two deputies and they stepped away from Norma and began herding out the crowd. The reporters chatted amongst themselves animatedly, discussing how best to write up this unusual turn of events: a movie star killing someone would have made a better story than the victim disappointingly turning out not to be dead. Joe did not even have the energy to be insulted.
The detective handed him a card as he left. "If you change your mind…"
"I won't," he said, not making any move to take the card.
The man looked at him uncomprehendingly, but eventually came to the realisation that he could not convince him otherwise. He tucked the card back into his inside pocket, tipped his hat and bade Joe farewell, shaking his head as he left the scene.
Max showed out the last of the photographers and cameramen, helping to carry their bulky equipment out of the house, then closed the door on the outside world. In the blissful silence of the mansion, Norma seemed to slowly descend back to reality again. She became gradually more aware of her surroundings, looking slightly dazed and confused about what had just happened.
Without the mass of other people in the room, she finally focused on Joe, straining to see him in the shadows. Max remained by the door, watching the scene like a hawk.
"Joe… is that you?"
He stepped into the light so that she could see him better.
"Yes. I've come back."
There was the smallest flicker of remembrance. "Yes, you… you left. I remember now. Where did you go?"
"It doesn't matter."
"But you're back now?"
She knew there was something strange about that, something that wasn't quite right, but it was very slightly beyond her grasp. Joe made his way over to her carefully, ignoring the ache in his ankle and trying not to limp or draw attention to his injured shoulder, as despite his appearance she did not yet appear to have noticed anything amiss. He focused all of his energy into rising above the pain and remaining upright. Max's steely gaze softened in sympathy for his plight, but he could not do anything to assist.
Joe rose to his full height, or tried to at the very least, his side stinging. The pain was making him nauseous, but he fought down the sensation, focusing on Norma. She was still struggling to grasp onto a rapidly diminishing memory, and he had no desire whatsoever to bring it flooding back to her. He lifted his good arm, reaching for her hand.
"Yes, Norma. I'm back now."
His touch had been intentional, hoping that the familiarity of it would be enough to break through her haze, and thankfully it had worked in bringing her back to him. The cloudiness left her expression, the memory finally dissipating and escaping her completely, and he knew that she did not remember anything of the past few hours. He wondered idly where the gun was; perhaps the police had taken it with them.
He let his hand fall away again. Norma moved closer, raising her hands to frame his face, her thumbs caressing his cheeks as she searched his gaze. He wanted so desperately to apologise and beg forgiveness, but she no longer remembered that he had anything to be sorry for. Nonetheless, his face betrayed him; on some level she must have understood, because her own expression changed in response, and when she spoke again it was in a soft and undemanding tone.
"Welcome home, Joe…"
The relief was indescribable in that moment, and he was almost euphoric for a few seconds. Then the adrenaline finally wore off. His legs buckled and he staggered forwards, reaching instinctively for Norma to stop himself from falling to the floor. She was clearly startled, but managed to support him long enough for Max to rush over and take the brunt of his weight. Max lifted Joe's right arm to hold him upright, and he cursed as white-hot pain burst through his shoulder. Between the two of them, they managed to get him to the sofa and sit him down.
Norma sat beside him and assessed his appearance for the first time, her face growing paler as she took in the extent of his various injuries.
"Darling, what happened? You're soaked through. You're bleeding."
He began to shiver, going into shock. Norma was already checking for fever, the back of her hand pressed to his forehead. In his rapidly deteriorating state, he knew that the truth was not an option, and his mind raced to come up with an answer.
"Well, it's pretty silly. I fell in the pool. Tripped over a loose slab and cracked my head open."
Norma removed one of the many shawls that had made up her Salome costume and wrapped it around his shoulders.
"Don't lie to me, Joe. I can see you've been shot." She cast her gaze towards Max. "Call the doctor – tell him it's an emergency."
Max nodded and headed towards the telephone. Norma returned her attention to Joe, who was struggling to remain conscious in a bid to reassure her.
"You didn't let me finish. I did fall in the pool, right after… right after those guys who wanted my car started waving a gun at me. Lucky for me, they were both a bad shot. I guess they thought they'd finished me off…"
He did not hear Norma's response, as his eyes closed of their own volition and he succumbed to exhausted unconsciousness.
Joe finally resurfaced a few hours later, feeling numb and woozy from painkillers, warm and dry in clean pyjamas, and tucked safely in his own bed, propped up against the pillows. He could hear distant voices downstairs: Norma and an unfamiliar male who he assumed must have been the doctor. His torso had been bandaged and his arm was in a sling; there was a slight tugging sensation on his forehead and he realised the cut had been sutured. His leg was elevated on another pillow but otherwise untreated, confirming his assumption that it was nothing more serious than a sprain.
He became suddenly aware of being watched. He shook some of the woolliness from his head and cast his gaze about the room, eventually noticing Max standing in the open doorway, practically filling the space. Joe rubbed the drowsiness from his eyes and when he opened them again, Max had come into the room; he left the door ajar but that was not particularly reassuring.
For several seconds he said nothing, and it almost looked as though he was about to leave; then he changed his mind.
"Do you love her, Mr Gillis?"
Joe was taken aback, to say the least, by Max's direct question. He was very slow to process it, still muzzy from whatever the doctor had given him, and in his hesitation Max did not wait for a response.
"I only ask because… because I still love her. I always have, and I always will. Her happiness is the only thing of any importance to me. I confess, it is beyond me as to how… but you were able to bring her happiness, and if you are to stay here again…" He hesitated, reining in his obvious discomfort at a situation he had not been agreeable to in the first place. "That is why I need to know. Do you love her?"
Joe had neither the energy nor the inclination to lie, but he picked his words carefully nonetheless, not wanting to give Max any opportunity to catch him out.
"I know this isn't what you want to hear, but the truth is… I don't know. I might not have shown it recently, but I do still care about her… Maybe I… maybe I do love her – maybe I have done all along and just didn't want to acknowledge it." Max raised an eyebrow sceptically, but allowed him to continue. "She's done so much for me, and I can never repay her – not in cash, and not in any meaningful way. Norma deserves better than this, but… but I can only be who I am, Max, and I know that hasn't been good enough."
He expected a response to that, but Max said nothing, neither confirming nor denying his assumption.
"Give me time," he implored. "Please… that's all I ask. Time to heal, and to learn how to love her the way she deserves."
Max stared levelly at him, assessing his answer for any falsities. Eventually he gave a nod, seeming satisfied, but his tone held a menacing undercurrent nonetheless.
"Very well… but know this, Mr Gillis. If you hurt her again, I will personally see to it that it's the last thing you ever do."
With that, he disappeared out of the door. Joe's head reeled, wondering what had just happened. Did Max just threaten him? That seemed wholly unfair given the circumstances. He'd forgotten that it was never just about convincing Norma of his intentions, but Max as well – and he was a lot harder to win over.
Soon enough, the reason for his sudden departure became apparent, the front door closing downstairs as the doctor was seen out. A few moments later, Norma appeared in the doorway. She had freshened up from earlier, her Salome trappings no longer evident as she had changed into one of her comfortable lounge suits. She hesitated at the threshold.
"May I come in, Joe?"
"You don't need to ask," he told her, and she gave a relieved smile and entered, closing the door behind her.
"How are you feeling?"
"A little fuzzy, but otherwise okay," he said. "The doctor did a great job."
"He's an old friend of mine," she explained. "I'd trust him with my life."
Joe moved his slung arm experimentally. "Any idea when I can take this thing off?"
"He'll be back in a week or so to check on you. Until then, lots of rest, take two of these" – she handed him a bottle of painkillers – "whenever you need them, and thirty minutes of exercise a day for your sprained ankle, once you're feeling well enough."
He gave a nod of acknowledgement, but an awkward silence quickly descended, Norma hovering by the bed and looking as though she did not know what do with herself. Joe indicated with a gesture of his head for her to join him, and her gratitude was tangible as she clambered onto the bed beside him. She was careful not to exacerbate any of his injuries, but sank against him with obvious relief as he wrapped his free arm around her shoulders.
For a moment they sat together in amiable stillness, Norma tangling her fingers with his. There was clearly something on her mind, but he did not push her. Eventually, she spoke.
"Joe, who… who were all those people earlier? I know something must have happened, but I… I can't remember."
Joe thought carefully over how best to explain away the presence of the media bloodhounds. He suspected that she did not recall much from her half-lucid state on his arrival: their cryptic exchange about him leaving, in particular. A crowd of people in her house was more unusual, so he was not surprised she could recall that detail, but her temporary detachment from reality was completely forgotten, along with most of the events of the previous evening. He and Max would need to be very careful over the next few days to keep any incriminating news headlines out of Norma's reach.
Perhaps she would remember the actual events, at some point; he would deal with that when the time came, but for now he would go along with whatever conclusions she drew and treat them as truth. In the meantime, he came up with something he hoped sounded convincing.
"It was a news crew… reporters… Someone at Paramount must have let slip about Salome. They were desperate for a story from you. I mean, it's not every day that a great star makes a return. But Max and I, we… we got rid of them."
"Well, we tried to, but they got a little rowdy, so we had to call the police. But before they got here, those guys from the finance company managed to track me down – would you believe it? By the time the police arrived the reporters had something else to get excited about."
"Please don't speak so lightly of it, Joe," she chastised him. "You were shot. You could have been killed."
"But the important thing is that I wasn't," he reassured her. "I'm still here. And I won't be going anywhere." He assessed his current position self-deprecatingly. "Not for a while, anyway."
A yawn escaped before he could stop it. He had no idea of the time, but the sky was still light outside his room so it could not have been any later than the afternoon. Nevertheless, he was exhausted; a few hours of half-concussed unconsciousness did not equate to decent sleep.
"Are you tired, darling?"
"A little. It's been a long day."
"I'll let you get some sleep."
He could sense her reluctance as she left the bed, and he reached unthinkingly for her hand to stop her. She stared at their joined hands, and then at him, with a curious expression.
"You don't have to go," he said. "In fact, I… I'd like it if you stayed."
Norma hesitated for a second, still uncertain, then gave a nod. She released his hand only so she could draw the curtains against the daylight, then returned to the bed and cautiously slid under the covers beside him. She helped to rearrange the pillows so he could lie more comfortably, and when he was settled she turned to face him, her hand trailing gently across his midriff. He jumped and suppressed a laugh, catching her hand in his.
"Hey, don't start that again. I'm far too tired."
For a moment she looked puzzled, then recalled the last time he'd jerked away from her touch in such a manner, and the reason why. It was obvious she remembered that morning as clearly as he did. She smiled apologetically and changed tactic, brushing his hair away from his forehead and examining the cut with grim fascination. There was doubtless a colourful bruise to go with it by now.
He rolled onto his left side, as best he could, wincing slightly as his shoulder twinged. Norma's hand moved to his cheek, her gaze locking with his. He was staggered, once again, by the intensity of the look in her eyes: love so deep he could easily drown. He still felt wholly unworthy of it, still wracked with guilt that he could not return it or express himself as effectively. Nonetheless, his heart gave a familiar, telltale flutter; for the first time, he allowed it to take hold, the sensation spreading like liquid warmth in his chest and settling agreeably as Norma finally spoke.
"I love you so much, Joe. I don't know what I would do if I lost you."
He did not have the energy to try and form words, so he leaned forward to kiss her instead: a silent reassurance if not quite a reciprocation. It was enough, for now; when she pulled back some of the tempest had calmed in her expression.
His eyes felt heavy and he gave in to the desperate urge to close them, feeling himself start to lapse into sleep. He felt Norma watching him, sensing that she was about to speak before he was fully dragged under.
"Joe…?" He murmured a reply and she took that as a cue to continue. "Do you…"
She did not finish the question. With a monumental effort, he roused himself enough to prompt: "Do I what?"
"You… you do love me, don't you, Joe?"
People seemed to enjoy asking him that question today; first Max, now Norma. It was a question he'd asked himself on far too many occasions, only to dismiss it. At least this time there was no threatening undertone. Norma sounded genuinely curious, but he knew it was a front: that there was much more to it than that. Nodding absently, too exhausted to argue, he managed to formulate a reply before unconsciousness finally claimed him:
"Of course I love you, Norma."
Whatever response she might have given went unheard as Joe descended into a somewhat restless, medication-induced sleep.
He dozed fitfully for most of the day, lapsing in and out of consciousness and only partially aware of his surroundings and the occasional low-level activity within the house. Norma stayed with him the entire time, refusing to leave his side despite Max's best efforts at coercing her back downstairs. Joe half-surfaced briefly to hear her whispering in an argumentative tone with the older man, and his resigned acquiescence as he vacated the room again.
Hours later, Joe awoke somewhat more fully and realised night had fallen. Norma was still beside him, sleeping peacefully. A brief glance at his alarm clock informed him it was just gone two o'clock. It had become something of a habit to wake automatically at that time, a minute or so before Norma would call out for him in the middle of a nightmare. Tonight, however, her dreams did not appear to be troubling her.
As he shifted slightly, he realised what had actually woken him up: the painkillers had worn off. Moving quietly, he sought out the pill bottle and a glass of water and quickly took another dose, trying not to disturb Norma. Thankfully, whatever the doctor had prescribed seemed to work efficiently, the pain dwindling into a comforting numbness, a sensation of drowsiness overcoming him.
A flash of memory came back to him mere moments before he nodded off, suddenly jolting him into alertness again: Norma coercing an admission out of him only hours before. He felt a sudden rush of embarrassed surprise at how easily it had happened; he could blame the drugs, or the concussion, but deep down he knew it was the truth. He could not even bring himself to feel affronted that Norma had taken advantage of his somewhat vulnerable state, and in any case he was certain she had not done it on purpose.
It would have happened at some point, anyhow: it was an obvious inevitability, and he knew that lucidity would only have made things awkward. Nonetheless, he knew it would not change anything. Norma had been seeking reassurance, nothing more; she would not treat it as any kind of heartfelt confession on his part. By the morning she might even have forgotten about it.
Maybe that was for the best. Maybe one day he could surprise her by making a great big scene about it: a grand romantic epic like one of her old movies, so she was in absolutely no doubt. Before that, he needed time to rebuild their foundations, to ensure that Norma's trust in him was intact, and slowly unravel the catastrophe he had unintentionally orchestrated. And if he fell in love with her a little more along the way, that would only make things easier.
His fate had been sealed from the moment he drove his limping car into her driveway, and despite all of his best efforts to change the course of things, he had ended up back here regardless: at Norma's mansion, by her side, and in her heart.
For the first time, he could honestly say that was exactly where he wanted to be.
- fin -
Final Notes: Well, there it is. I hope those who stumbled upon this story have enjoyed it, whether they remember the original version or not. With any luck I have remained true to the spirit of that original story whilst giving it a new lease of life (no irony intended).
For all intents and purposes, this is – or was – my attempt at giving Norma and Joe a happy ending. The original ending (Joe's demise and Norma's descent into unreality) is of course perfect as it stands, but I am nothing if not a fickle fangirl with an unhealthy obsession with doomed romances. I am forever grateful for everything that came from writing the original version of this story, particularly the intervening 15 years of unpeeling more and more layers of subtext within the original movie/musical. It became, for me, so much greater than I ever expected it to.
Anyway, I will sign this off by saying: thank you for reading, and thank you for enduring my rambling headcanon. At some point soon I will hopefully be posting a few "missing scenes" that didn't quite make the final cut of this story, and also start rewriting the sequel which I abandoned several years ago. Suffice it to say, the 'happy ending' is still a long way off…