Even if I say it'll be alright
Still I hear you say you want to end your life
Now and again we try to just stay alive
Maybe we'll turn it all around 'cause it's not too late
It's never too late
Never too late - Three Days Grace
The following two weeks roll by relatively quickly. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I was mistakenly jaundiced. After the funeral, I came to think that every day would be a living hell in this place, filled with headless apparitions, murders and interrogations…
Oh well, the good news is, I was wrong. Not that things are actually good right now, but an eerie laggardness seems to have spanned all over the village, stifling every glimpse of extremity. That, I suppose is exactly what I needed but I sometimes find myself not feeling so appreciative of this dullness. Not that I feel bored or confined but… I don't know… Everything's calm. Too calm. And not in the peaceful, relaxing way. It feels more like a shadow of death, without death actually being there. Even the weather is no great shakes. There is neither snow nor rain, yet I haven't seen sunshine, either. Not too cold, not too hot. Just an unsettling mediocrity.
Unsettling… To be honest I only though it to be unsettling at first. My intuition kept telling me that this unexpected sea of calm was not a good sign. It was too much of a contrast, compared to the events of the previous days. But I gradually let myself sink, along with everyone else in the Hollow, in disregard, to the point that I've managed to turn the headless specter into nothing more than a shadow at the back of my mind. And, although I at first found this neglectful attitude bizarre, come to think of it, it suits me just fine. After all, it's a subject everyone avoids.
The only one who keeps reminding me of the Hessian is the troubled constable. Unlike everyone else, his absence only makes him more determined to disclose the culprit.
That's why I tend to avoid him…
I know, not a very sterling thing to confess, but at least it keeps me going. I try hard not to think about the Horseman, my home, or my situation… I just try to keep busy, follow a specific routine…
Every day I wake up at morning's first light and either help Sarah, the maid with the housework - much to Lady Van Tassel's dislike - or saunter through the village. However, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about that second activity anymore. Sleepy Hollow surely is a captivating sight but frankly, it's not that big a town. As for the idea of venturing into the Western Woods, it is inconceivable if not laughable. Add to that, the fact that I once overheard a bunch of old ladies call me 'a dowerless loafer' and you'll pretty much understand why I have cut down my strolls.
I spent most of my afternoons chitchatting with Katrina, whose company I always find pleasing, or helping young Masbath with his studies, an activity that always leaves me frazzled and antsy. It keeps me occupied, though and it helps my work on our relationship. After our talk at that bench I decided that if I'm to take one responsibility, it will be being there for the kid. Not that I'm really experienced with children. I just try to keep it simple, talk about insignificant things, the weather, books and if I'm sure no one's around, the twenty-first century. It is easier than I thought, anyway. Jonathan is quite amenable and dare I say that he is more mature than a lot of adults I've met in my eighteen years of existence.
And the evenings… The evenings are the hard part. The quiet, the calmative darkness, the inescapable lethargy… I know it's more than I hoped for but… it gets me thinking… Or rather moping over all the people and the things I miss. A part of me keeps thinking that maybe if I embrace this sweet, tempting sorrow, savor it and dip my soul into it, I'll eventually get over it and all will be good. But I never allow myself to cry. I'm too stubborn for that. Or, I don't know, maybe I find some twisted, self indulging pleasure in stomping on my own feelings and then laughing bitterly at the world because no one seems to understand the misery behind my bland expression.
Either way, I don't let my mind linger there for long. I go for distraction instead. And honestly, I don't even feel guilty. I'm probably wrong but the notion that I have to act like I actually belong here in order to maintain this seemingly fragile amity around me, keeps gaining ground on my perception.
I casually walk towards the Van Tassel manor on a cloudy, December morning carrying a dozen bags filled with all sorts of groceries. The overwhelming weight makes my muscles burn and sweat runs down my forehead due to the effort, as I keep my quick pace. It was probably stupid of me to go shopping alone.
Scratch that, it was definitely stupid. I would smack my forehead at the embarrassing memory of my struggle to make a proper transaction with the butcher if my hands were free.
Meh. At least we're eating chicken ribs tonight.
Eventually, when every step feels like an ordeal, I stop to lean against the church's wooden fence and put the bags down in order to catch my breath. I wipe my forehead tiredly and glance at the grey sky. If I didn't know better, I'd say it would rain. Too bad the weather is as changeable as a photograph…
"Hello, Ms. Masbath"
I turn to look at the one who called me, a frown wrinkling my forehead and my mouth hanging open. Not that pretty a face.
"Good morning Mrs. Killian", I exclaim merrily, wondering to myself if it was proper to address her by her married name.
"How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks. And you?", I ask back, my head unconsciously tilting in a sympathetic nod.
"Well, I'm managing"
I lock my hands behind my back and look around, smiling gawkily. Have I really forgotten how to socialize in the past few weeks?
"So, where are you off to at such an early hour?", she asks me heartily.
I glance at the bags I have left on the moist ground and pick them up hastily, my expression one of frustration and alarm.
"I was just - oh God, that's heavy - doing some grocery shopping", I state between ragged pants of breath. "How about you?"
"Oh, I was… at the church for my morning prayers. It's a habit I've been accustomed to since Andrew was… since he passed away. And I'm off to the cemetery to place a few daises around his grave. A lot of them grow around my house this time of the year. And they're beautiful flowers, don't you think Ms. Masbath? So small and frail, you'd think they wouldn't survive the frost and yet… Extraordinary, isn't it?"
I look at her a little overwhelmed, both due to the ample bags in my arms and her unexpected rumble. Not that I don't appreciate the fact that she's talkative - it covers for my suddenly developed speech impediment - but what I got from my first impression of her was that she was quite introverted. Then again, what did I expect? I met her after her husband's funeral for crying out loud!
"To be honest, what I find extraordinary is the fact that anything can grow around here", I throw lightheartedly.
Her nervous giggle makes me slightly uncomfortable and I force a kind smile.
"Ah, don't sell it short Ms. Masbath, Sleepy Hollow was not always the muddle it has come down to. You'd be surprised if you visited it a year or so ago. And pleasantly I can assure you. Well I shouldn't keep you from your tasks. Would you like to visit me for a cup of tea in the afternoon, though?", she suggests with a soft smile.
Her invitation finds me completely taken aback and for a few seconds I stare at her plainly. My initial reaction is negative but as I think about it, I can't find a decent excuse to decline the invite. Sarah can manage the dinner and Jonathan is done with his homework, anyway. I can just view it as a challenge; prove myself that I can lead a normal life here, if I choose to. Which I guess is ridiculous. Still, though, why say no?
"Well… I'd love to", I eventually manage to dribble with a sincere smirk.
"Lovely! I'll expect you at around five"
And with that we part ways.
As the hours trickle along, I keep catching myself glancing at the clock more than I'd normally do. I don't know, for some reason I'm all pins and needles about this. Is it a step for me? Does it mean I'm starting to settle? Do I really want to settle here? For good?
Uh, I wish my brain didn't go on an analyzing spree that often. I should just be glad I've been given the chance to make a new friend.
At around half past four, I start getting ready. Or rather, I start moving nervously around the room like a twister in hopes of finding my ribbon, my left rose pump and that pretty necklace Katrina has given me. Needless to say that once I'm ready, the room is unrecognizable.
Sheesh… I'll clean up in the evening.
I storm downstairs and make a stop at the parlor in order to collect my stole, leaving the room in the same woeful state. Damn it, it's like I've got some kind of talent in making a rat's nest out of everything. And I always make sure to do that in the most graceless way poss-
Turning around, I spot Ichabod at the doorway, staring at me in silent daunt.
I huff out a bark of surprise and stare at him, rattled by his unexpected presence.
"Pardon my intrusion, I simply got alarmed by the… uh… noise" he eventually states, noticing the awkwardness of the situation.
Slightly cringing, I nod and blink in wonder.
He tightens his grip around the books he's holding and scowls in uneasiness.
"Is everything alright?" he asks looking at the mess behind me.
I shrug uncomfortably. Why wouldn't it be?
"Never mind. Are you going out? The weather's pretty bad", he queries interestedly.
"Yes, actually. I'm off to visit the Widow Killian"
The fleeting glimpse of suspicion is his eyes, barely there but nonetheless noticeable, is covered hastily by the ghost of a smile. For a second it seems like he's about to leave but then he turns to me again, clear distress displayed across his face.
"Yes…?", I goad guardedly.
"I did not... Ah... simply... be careful", he replies, forcing another smile.
The real meaning of this piece of advice comes clear as a bell to me. It's not a "be careful of the Horseman", it's not a "be careful of the wild air", it's not a "be careful not to tumble over your skirts and fall flat on your face". It's more like "be careful not to spill anything about time traveling and get us all into trouble".
He's right. He's one hundred percent right. And I hate that. Not that I didn't know that I'd have to be extremely cautious but somewhere inside me flickered the little hope that maybe I wouldn't always have to mind my distance; maybe it isn't such a big deal after all. But it is. And although I acknowledge it, I'm too selfish to let him know.
"Not to worry", I reassure him with a taunting smile "I'll be back before dinner. Au revoir!"
Before he has a chance to speak, I pass him by and exit the house.
Reaching the Killians' house, I nervously knock on the door and glance around me a little ill at ease as I remember the headless corpse that was lying where I'm standing.
Exactly where I'm standing.
…I wonder what's taking her so long…
Eventually, the door opens with a shrill squeak and the young widow greets me with a warm smile on her face. As she leads me inside, I take a look around me, examining my surroundings. Now, I know I've been here before but the house was practically crowded and I was too jittery to take in details.
Anyway, she leaves me in the parlor in order to go make some tea and I slump into a white armchair in the far corner of the room. The house is definitely smaller and more frugal than the Van Tassel estate but it is nonetheless warm and cushy. The low ceiling is wood-beamed and an igneous carpet with abstract patterns covers the also wooden floor. Actually, wood seems to be the dominant element of the house and I think that plays an important role in the cozy atmosphere. The fireplace on the right side of the room is lit, providing warmth and creating peculiar, grotesque shadows in the dark corners as the flickering flames cast their blazing light on the furniture. I lean back composedly and fix my gaze on the thrifty bookshelf next to the fireplace which currently accommodates more baubles and trifles than actual books. It's nice here.
"Sorry to be taking so long", I hear a voice from the kitchen "but would you believe I spilled water all over the floor"
I smirk amusedly as she enters the parlor again, holding a tray on which there are two cups, a teapot and a small plate of biscuits.
"Here", she offers me my cup and proceeds to place the tray gently on the small, coffee table in front of me.
She slightly drags the emerald armchair behind her so that she sits closer to me and finally gets seated in it contently.
"So… how was your day, Mrs. Killian?", I ask cordially, not knowing what else to say.
"It was… all right, I suppose. Just the usual chores. Ah, work is a blessing, darling. It can make life much more tolerable But please call me Johanna. Aren't we too young to be addressing each other by these titles? I've always disliked being called Mrs. or madam… Especially now… My heart sinks whenever I hear someone call me by my married name"
"Well, then I cannot but request that you call me Linda. Anyways, how do you do? I've heard that you work as a nanny for the Browns"
"Yes, that's true. And I'm really glad about it. To be honest, I avoid sitting around as much as I can. Well… not that I have the chance to, anyway. Andrew and I did not have much of a fortune. He worked in our paltry cornfields this is how we got by. Just, but we did. Anyway, it was an occupation I could not sustain. A woman, alone, in a cropland? It cannot be. My only reasonable option was to sell everything, which seemed highly unlikely to happen as the hail had practically destroyed the crops. But thankfully, Lord Van Tassel showed mercy and bought the fields for a symbolic price. However, the small amount of money I gained was not enough. So I asked Mrs. Brown to hire me as a nursemaid and I've been working there ever since"
"So, you decided to settle here?"
"What do you mean? Sleepy Hollow has been my home for almost four years now"
"I just thought that you'd return to your family in New York. I know I would…"
"Sweetheart, my family's condition is even worse. If I returned, I would be no more than a liability and I know that as long as my father is in his right mind he will not let me work. So, I will not condemn myself in a lifetime of living as an expense for others and wallowing in self-pity. It's a decision I had to make and believe me it was a hard one. I never had to work before, let alone live by myself and manage financial issues. Sometimes I want to give up" she huffs out a nervous laugh and looks up with a bitter smile "You should have seen me discussing about the cornfields with Lord Van Tassel. To say that I was negotiating would be an overstatement. I was just listening to him in bafflement, talk about prices and taxes and half of it I did not even understand"
"Don't be too hard on yourself. I wouldn't manage to stand on my feet if I were you", I try to comfort her as I can see tears threatening to slide down her cheeks.
She sniffles and shakes her hand as if to shush me.
"Enough about me. I haven't heard much about you. How come you moved here?
Uh-oh, the two hundred dollar question. Okay, don't freak out; you've already memorized the story.
"Well, I… It's not much of a story really… My parents passed away when I was little and I was raised by some family friends. Once I turned eighteen, I felt the need to leave, stop being an expense for others, as you said, but I didn't really have any options. So as soon as I heard about my dear cousin's murder, I decided to take my nephew under my wing"
Wow. No, seriously. The way the words just flew out of my mouth so easily is disturbingly stunning. Really. That deserved a Golden Globe.
…At least I'm not proud of it. Because the more I talk, the guiltier I feel, which doesn't feel good, but at least I know I hold some remorse and thus, I'm not that horrible a person, right?
"Oh, that's a very noble thing to do. And how do you like Sleepy Hollow? From what I understood in the morning you're not that fond of it"
I take a sip of my tea and giggle guiltily.
"Oh no, I did not mean to sound sneering. It would be a very… nice place to live if it weren't for the… uh… you understand", I lisp and proceed to take another sip of my already cold beverage.
"Don't worry", she says with a smile "No one expects you to be glad you live in the Hollow. No one is, anyway. "
"But in the morning you mentioned that it used to be a merrier place. I take it that you hold the town dearly so as to say that even after the recent events"
She smiles bitterly.
"I do", she states unperturbedly. "I understand your difficulty to believe that it used to be a land of peace and quiet. Sometimes even I find it hard to believe"
The iridescent light makes her dark eyes flicker as she speaks avidly and her melodic voice falters as memories of better days inundate her.
"But I… I lived the best days of my life here. And I can never put that behind me"
"I beg to differ", I say timidly. "You are still young. You have the whole life in front of you. Perhaps those days weren't the best. Who knows? Life has been cruel to you, but you cannot turn your back on it. Sometimes, you just have to go with it… You have to move along"
She shakes her head, the bitter smile always curling her mouth.
"Have you ever loved a man, Linda? Have you ever felt that you cannot be whole if you do not give your heart to someone and share your life with his? That there is no one but him for you? That everything and I mean everything you had done in your life, every single event that took place, was only of some importance because it led you to him?"
"That was Andrew for me. Marrying him was the best thing that ever happened to me. I felt blessed. I was blessed. We didn't have much, but we had everything we wanted. And I believed… I believed nothing could ruin our happiness. And then he was taken from me. And I would lie, oh I would lie, if I said that I ever expected that to happen. Funny, isn't it? How blind one can be… Of course, the Horseman could go after anyone, but not us. He could have anyone's head, but he could not touch us… But when everything is taken from you and you have nothing to fall back on, how are you supposed to move along with life? I gathered all my might but it was not enough to make me feel complete. Andrew died, and so did a part of me"
She stops and looks outside. This time, she does not make an effort to control her trembling lips.
"A widow at twenty-two. What did I do to deserve this?"
I do not answer. And what am I to say, really? That I understand? I've never felt this way. That everything is going to be alright? That would be another lie and I think I've told enough for the day. But it's okay. She doesn't need empty words of sympathy; she's probably heard enough of those. Sometimes, all we need is someone to listen.
We spend the rest of the afternoon talking about more frivolous things, thanks to my awkward maneuvers, and before I know it, it is time to leave. However, we promise to meet again, soon. Βy the time I take off, I feel that this could be the beginning of a new friendship.
A/N:Thanks to Monstarzgirl and noodle86 for reviewing!