Shortly after daybreak, Willie staggered into Collinwood. He used the service entrance in the rear to avoid attention. Mrs. Johnson was not up yet, so no one saw as he emerged from the kitchen—except for Jason, that is. He had the sharpest eyes and ears in the business. And his business right then was the wayward Willie.
"Just where do you think you're goin'?" the Irishman demanded. "You little shite. I stuck my neck out for you, bringin' ya back here. Risked the whole deal, and what do you do?"
"I'm sorry." Willie leaned on the banister.
"I'm sorry." Jason was furious. "Is that all you can say? Because I know where you were. I had a chat with wee David who told me all about your long conversations about buried family jewels. That's why you were in the cemetery, wasn't it, Willie? That's why you're all covered in dirt."
"No—well, maybe. I dunno."
"I didn't think even you could sink so low. Ah, but that's you, isn't it? Always havin' to make your own score; never learned to share, did ya? And me with $500 here waitin' for ya. Tell me why I bothered." The other man mumbled something incoherent. "So, you won't confide in me? Well, I've no use for a partner who betrays me trust. I've had it up to here with you."
Willie's brain was telling the old man to shut up, just for a minute. He had such a horrible hangover; at least, that's what it felt like.
"You can get right back in your truck and turn around," the Irishman continued. "I got your kit all packed."
Willie started to slide down the newel post. "Can I sit down for a minute? I don't feel so good."
Jason grabbed the punk by his jacket and pulled him upright. "Don't be givin' me that again. You weren't ill last night. Hardy enough to knock me over, you were, and that'll be the day, when a runt like you gets the best of this Irishman."
Willie's vision became overcast with those gray spots again. He thought Jason was across the room, standing at the hall table but, no, he was in the boy's face, eyes glaring and fist raised.
"Don't—I'm—so cold." He meant to say something else. Hot. Numb. Tired. Sick.
Jason was not buying yet another line of the boy's bullshit. "What you need, m'lad, is a breath of brisk morning air to perk you up."
He pried Willie off the banister and pushed him toward the door, but the young man's legs buckled, and he went down on his hands and knees with a thud. Reaching up to his former partner, he pleaded, "Jason, you're my friend—please—help me."
"Oh, stop it. How many times are you goin' to pull that bit? Do you think I'm stupid? Get up." He yanked Willie to his feet, whereupon the young man collapsed into his arms, unconscious. "Willie, knock it off." There was no answer. "Willie!" Jason threw him over his shoulder and started upstairs. "If you're fakin' again, I swear to God Almighty…"
McGuire spent the better part of the morning in the chair across from Willie's bed, watching with consternation as his friend curled into a fetal position, flinched, thrashed about, shivered, covered his head with his arms, covered his head with the pillow, and sprang up screaming with a wide-eyed hypnopompic jerk. Then he would fall back on the bed and the restless ritual would begin again. At one point, the boy tumbled onto the floor, and when the Irishman dropped him back in bed, Willie clutched his arm and gasped, "Look, Jason, a whale."
Doctor Woodard arrived shortly before lunchtime. Willie was awakened for the examination and afterwards overheard the physician's conversation with Jason from across the room as he wrote out two prescriptions.
Stage 2 starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, a bronchitis/strep throat combination, and a nice little concussion—these were all things that could have happened by getting lost in the woods for several days, but the rapid heart rate and low blood pressure were due to some kind of severe hemorrhage, and the doctor could find no explanation as to how that might have occurred. The punctures on his wrist were too small and had healed without incident.
The hair loss could be from malnutrition but more likely some sort of emotional shock. Sometimes patients pull it out themselves without realizing it. Did anything stressful happen?
"I'm thinkin' maybe it did, but he won't say what, and won't tell me where he's been," recalled Jason. "He's been shakin' all over and tossin' in his sleep—and he has all those bruises."
"Possibly from a fall," the doctor said, repacking his bag. "You said he's a heavy drinker. He may not even remember it happening."
I remember it happening. The patient rolled over and fell back to sleep.
"Willie. Willie. Willie. Willie."
The mattress was moving up and down, like sailing in choppy waters. He was being poked in the arm. The young man opened his eyes to find David bouncing cheerfully on the bed next to him.
"Hi, Willie, did I wake you? Mr. McGuire said you were really sick and couldn't get up, so I came to keep you company." He held up a book. "I'm supposed to be studying literature right now, so I brought it with me. It's called One Thousand and One Nights. Do you want me to read to you?"
"Not all of 'em."
"Well, this is the most famous one; it's called Aladdin." David proceeding to share the tale of an impoverished young ne'er-do-well who is conned by an evil sorcerer into the booby-trapped cave of wonders with promises of riches and jewels, and the boy is trapped there. He has a magic ring, though, and escapes when he releases the genie inside. Now, he also has a magic lamp with an even more powerful genie and that's what the evil sorcerer wants. But, meanwhile, Aladdin falls in love—
"They stole that from a TV show." Willie interrupted, and the child looked up from his book. "The part about the genie in the bottle that grants wishes. They stole that."
Victoria Winters knocked politely and entered the room with a tray which Mrs. Johnson had prepared. The governess dismissed her young charge, scolding him for bothering Mr. Loomis when he was so ill. She set the tray on his bedside table and looked away shyly. Willie realized at that point he was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and quickly pulled the blanket up. He was not a modest man by nature, but this bony, bruised body was nothing to show off at present.
"Mrs. Johnson washed your clothes. I'm sure they'll be ready soon. Mr. McGuire—you know…" Vicki made a vague gesture in his direction.
"That was real nice a' her."
"She also made you this tray. Just some clear broth and apple juice with glucose added—that's what the doctor recommended to start with. He said you have to take it slowly."
Willie made a face. "Not hungry."
"If you don't eat, you will eventually die. I don't think you want that to happen."
Vicki held the juice out to him. His stomach churned at the smell and his hand trembled so much, it splashed onto the covers until she grabbed it back. Ever practical and considerate, Miss Winters inserted a bendy-straw into the glass and covered the rest of the opening with her hand to mask the aroma. She then held it for him as he took small sips of the sickeningly sweet solution.
When the glass was half empty, Victoria took it away and did the same with the cup of broth which, in contrast, was over-seasoned with salt. Willie turned away for a moment, not sure if it was coming back up.
"Slower," said Miss Winters. "Just a little bit for now."
The young man held his hand up when he could take no more. His stomach was doing somersaults. Victoria removed the tray.
"Let that digest. I'll ask Mrs. Johnson to bring you more later."
"Thanks, Vicki, I mean Miss Winters. Thanks a lot."
"You're welcome." Her voice was noncommittal. "I hope you feel better."
"And I'm sorry," he mumbled, almost to himself. "Really sorry."
"For what exactly?"
"I dunno." Willie struggled to remember. "Just for bein' a fuck-up."
Miss Winter stiffened. "You'll excuse me," she replied flatly.
"I'm sorry—I didn't mean to say fuck-up. I'm sorry I was such a dick—uh, jerk—and upset you."
"I see. Are you just saying that now because you're ill?"
He considered the question. "Yeah. Prob'ly."
Victoria paused in the doorway. "Well, at least you're honest." And she left.
Willie lay back down. No one had ever called him that before.
"Loomis. Wake up, Loomis."
Willie was dreaming about donuts. It was Free Donut Day at Krispy Kreme and he was putting them away like there was no tomorrow. Stuffing sweet treats in his mouth, one after another, and washing them down with hot, strong coffee. They were warm and soft and creamy and – whoa. His stomach lurched and did an Olympic backflip. He woke just in time to clutch the bed and barf over the side onto the floor.
Light colored loafers came into view. Willie's focus continued up and settled upon the Collinwood resident he least wanted to see: Jolly Roger.
"Thank you so much," Mr. Collins said with his usual sardonic scowl as he stepped gingerly out of his splattered shoes. "First I learn that the Imaginary Invalid has returned as a guest to us, and now—well, who could ask for a fonder greeting?"
"Sorry." Willie pulled the blanket up to his chin and used it to wipe his mouth.
"Not nearly as sorry as I am." Roger abandoned the shoes and removed himself from the range of fire in the event of future assaults by sitting in the armchair across the room. "Well. My sister has asked me to inform you that she has housed you, fed you and paid your doctor bill. But, sadly, all good things must come to an end, and it is check-out time."
"Okay." Willie struggled to sit upright. "But I dunno where my clothes are."
"Voilà, your wardrobe awaits." Roger pointed to the young man's laundry stacked neatly on the dresser. Mrs. Johnson had washed, dried, ironed, folded and delivered jeans, tee shirts, button-down, turtleneck, sweatshirt, hoodie and a vest. Next to it was his terrycloth robe, underwear and balled up socks—everything but the bloody, ripped shirt, which was in the waste basket. "Now, if there's anything else we can do to hasten your departure, please don't hesitate to ask."
Roger settled into the occasional chair, crossing his legs. Wasn't he going to leave if he wanted Willie to get dressed? Guess not. After a failed attempt to stand, Willie made his way south, reaching out to steady himself on the footboard. Roger regarded him smugly and offered no assistance. Willie grabbed at the post for support but the momentum caused him to swing off the bed and he landed painfully on his butt in the watery vomit, wincing when his back collided with the bed rail.
The older man roared with delight and applauded. "Bravo, Loomis! Well done. You win the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role!" Willie groped for the blanket and pulled it down to cover himself. "Yes, please do," said Roger, getting an eyeful. "Because you look ghastly."
Loomis leaned his head against the bedpost, nauseated and miserable, unable to stand. For Crissake, go away and lemme me alone. But Roger was not about to miss this opportunity to avenge himself of the drawing room incident when the hooligan had humiliated him. He rose and crossed the room, stepping on the blanket to protect his stocking feet, and sat on the bed next to Willie who remained on the floor, clutching his coverlet.
"You probably are not going to understand what I have to say because I assume your education has been minimal. Where did you go to school?"
"St. Jerome's Home for Boys."
"How Dickensian. May we assume that was some sort of a reformatory or workhouse for paupers and orphans?" The young man did not respond. "Until what time did you attend this fine institution?"
Willie deciphered the question. "I dunno. Finished ninth grade." Almost.
"You must be so proud," Roger smirked with rounded tones. "Well, my dear young man, I have a bachelor's of Philosophy from Cornell and an MBA from Harvard." Willie had no idea what that meant as Collins continued. "And in the course of my undergraduate studies, I researched a concept in Hinduism called Karma, which maintains that every act done, no matter how insignificant, will eventually return to the doer with equal impact. Do you know what that means?"
"…I think so."
"That is why no one in this house, myself included, has the slightest sympathy for your predicament." Roger chirped as he rose from the bed. "Now, I mustn't keep you. Your visit has been memorable, but no doubt you have many other calls of a similar nature to make."(8) He gave Willie a parting shot: "Oh, yes, Karma's a bitch."
So are you.
Willie made his way to the window to see the sun sitting low on the horizon. There was no time for self pity; he had to get ready and get out. Away from that miserable house once and for all. Back to his—boss, master, monster, owner—who got pissed off if he was late.
The man's strength returned with each dying ray of the sun as he mopped up the floor with the bedcovers, balled them up and tossed them in the corner. That was a crappy thing to leave for Mrs. Johnson, especially after she washed his clothes so nicely. In prison you had to be pretty damn rich and powerful to get laundry delivered like that.
Willie ran down the hall to the bathroom where he took a fast shower, brushed his teeth and shaved with the straight edge razor which Jason had given him long before he had been old enough to need it. "A hundred and one uses," the Irishman had said at the time.
The young man struggled to keep his hand steady; the last thing he wanted to do was show up to the vampire covered in shaving nicks. He noticed that the toothpaste smell didn't bother him and took that as a sign that he was getting better and could eat again. Why is it that when you're finally hungry there are no pretty girls sitting on your bed trying to feed you?
Keeping careful watch on the sunset's progress, Willie dressed and packed his gear, stuffing in the clothing as neatly as possible, and trudged down the steps. He stopped short at the foot of the stairs to discover Collinwood's entire cast of characters had come out to see him off—that is to say, make sure he was really leaving. Jason stood next to Mrs. Stoddard. Roger leaned on the foyer table near Carolyn. Victoria hovered in the rear, her hands on David's shoulders. Mrs. Johnson peeked through the kitchen door.
Willie stood there embarrassed and tongue-tied as they all stared at him. He felt he should say thank you or sorry or goodbye, something, but each statement was censored for stupidity en route from brain to mouth. Roger broke the silence.
"In an encore performance of the previous evening, we see another miraculous recovery. Dr. Woodard must have magic pills in that bag of his."
Willie had no response and turned to leave. His eye caught the portrait of Barnabas on the wall. The monster would be coming back here again, and even though Roger was a first-class dick, some of these people were real nice to him, and they were all in danger. He didn't want to be responsible for more tragedy.
The departing delinquent turned back to the group who released a collective sigh of dismay. He addressed their leader.
"Mrs. Stoddard, I gotta tell ya somethin'—"
"My sister has no interest in anything you have to say," Roger interrupted.
"Yeah, but it's important."
"Careful, Mother," contributed Carolyn in a sing-song voice, "He wants to sta-ay. He's going to suddenly become sick again."
"No, will ya just shuddup and listen—"
Elizabeth, clearly irritated, took charge of the situation. "That's enough. Your apologies and thanks are accepted and acknowledged. Consider them said." She folded her arms. "Now, it's time for you to leave."
Your kind not welcome here.
In an instant Jason was at his side, tugging his arm. "Come along, lad, I'll see you to the door." He took the young man through the portal, out of earshot.
"What was all that about?" Jason hissed. "Were you goin' to say somethin' about me?"
"No, what would I say? You never told me anythin'. It was…somethin' else. Not important."
Jason shook his head. "Maybe it's a good thing you're leavin'. We don't make a good team anymore." He looked the gaunt man over. "You've changed." Willie turned away, grimacing. Jason started to put his arm around the lad's shoulder but thought better of it and shook his hand instead.
"I think I'll hold onto me wallet," he said with a grin.
Willie looked at the horizon to note the last vestiges of daylight. He took a halting breath. "What's goin' to happen to me?"
"That's all up to you now, and isn't that what you always wanted? It's not the end, it's a new beginnin'." He slapped Willie on the back. "Ah, stop lookin' like a kicked mongrel—you're a cat; ya always land on your feet."
"Okay." Willie conceded quietly. You land on your feet, Jason. I always land on my face.
"Oh, and don't forget this," Jason reached into his inside breast pocket and produced an envelope. "Five hundred dollars, as a parting gift from my future wife, or what I like to call the tip of the iceberg." The Irishman nudged him, knowingly. "And when I say iceberg, I'm talkin' about a lot of lettuce." He laughed at his own joke.
Willie didn't know why he would need money in hell, but he took it anyway. Too bulky to store in his shoe, he stuffed one bill in his pocket and pushed the envelope to the bottom of his bag. Just in case.
"Head over to the Collinsport Inn and have a rest there till you're feelin' better. I'll come and see ya before ya go. We'll have a drink." He punched Willie's arm and went back in the house.
"Bye, Jason," he said to the closed door.
Willie stopped at a convenience store to stock up on food, just in case he was going to get stuck in that room again for any extended period of time. He bought two candy bars and a bag a Planters' peanuts, all of which he devoured before reaching the cemetery. He stuffed the empty wrappers in his jacket pocket and pulled out two pieces of paper: prescriptions from that doctor. The young man tossed them on the floor of his truck, along with the other trash.
It was past sunset as Willie raced to the mausoleum. I'm comin', I'm comin'. Don't kill anybody.
Inside the secret room, the vampire's coffin had been moved to the floor and Barnabas sat on its bier, reading the Collinsport Star, as was his custom in the early evening. Blasted across the front page in tall letters was COED REPORTED MISSING, accompanied by the photo of a girl identified as Jane Ackerman. It was her prom picture.
"Come here, boy." Barnabas chuckled and pointed to his favorite feature, On This Day In 1900 – or some arbitrary year, which provided interesting historical trivia. Willie shuffled over, staring instead at the headline. The vampire rose and backhanded him into the wall.
"There are times when I seriously question your judgment," he said. "What would possess you to try to warn a room full of people while I am directly behind you?" Barnabas referred, of course, to the portrait in the foyer.
"I d-dunno. Ya said you were goin' there. I d-didn't want ya to hurt 'em," the servant replied from the floor.
"Don't be an idiot. I would never harm my own family. Fortunately for you, nothing was actually said. The only thing that saves you from a worse punishment is your inability to complete a sentence." He lifted Willie up by the shirtfront. "If you ever—" he sniffed the shirt. "Dear god, that's much better." Barnabas released him and walked away.
The vampire seemed distracted. He had more important things to ponder—considerations which did not include slow-witted servants, or even cousins at Collinwood. He opened the casket and, scanning the cell, tossed in his cape, cane, newspaper and Willie's knapsack. When he seemed satisfied, Barnabas sat again on the coffin support, contemplating the room.
Willie stood silently in the shadows, wiping away the blood on his cheek. That was from the big, black ring.
I promised it to you, and you received it.
Willie rubbed his face. Sure did.
"But we digress," The vampire stood. "Come along." He lifted one end of the casket and indicated that the boy should pick up the other. "We are relocating to more spacious accommodations."
"Freeze! Police!" Willie dropped the coffin the thrust his hands in the air. Barnabas shot his accomplice a disdainful glance at the thought of his sanctuary being damaged. He turned to see, not a law officer but the cemetery's ancient caretaker, standing among the tombstones, aiming a shotgun in their direction.
"Hold it right there. Don't know what you fellas think you're doing, but my tenants come here on a one-way ticket." Willie turned at the sound of his voice. "Oh, it's the cow-boy. Can't wait to hear your story. I bet it's a doozey."
Barnabas smiled graciously at the old timer. "My good man, your enthusiasm, though certainly commendable, is misplaced."
The caretaker lowered the gun, appraising the distinguished looking gentleman before him. Willie couldn't help but think his boss would have made a great con man. He was smooth.
The vampire continued with the apologetic voice of reason as he approached the man. "This is not what it seems, there is a perfectly—" Barnabas flung the rifle from the geezer's hands and proceeded to strangle him to the point of death. At which point, he opened a vein and finished the job.
Willie stood there watching the vampire feed; there was nothing he could say or do. Barnabas felt his eyes and looked up.
Waste not, want not.
"No problem. Take your time." As if he had a choice in the matter. His assistant sat on a tombstone and waited. The upside of this turn of events was that the rest of the evening would be a reprieve for Willie, cows and coeds everywhere. Sorry, old man.
When he felt sated, the vampire rose and indicated they should resume their task.
"Hey, can I have the shotgun?"
Barnabas looked at him skeptically. "Correct me if I'm wrong; you wish to remove evidence from this site that would unequivocally link you to this mishap."
"Oh. Guess not."
"Pick up the coffin."
The casket was loaded onto the back of Willie's truck and he conducted the vampire's first ride in a modern vehicle as they traveled to the Collins estate.
Barnabas gripped the seat and the dashboard, barking orders for the young man to slow down and take the turns with more care or he was likely to have his license revoked, not to mention having to explain what was under the tarp.
"I never had a driver's license, not a real one anyway, and I never once been pulled over; not even when I was stinkin' drunk."
"From what I've heard, my cousin Roger cannot make the same claim. Years ago, there was quite an incident."
Willie was curious. "Could you see everything that was goin' on, I mean, when you were in yer coffin all that time?"
"Sufficient to mark the passage of time. I saw generations come and go for nigh 200 years. It was not completely enlightening, akin to watching isolated scenes of a play. There was tremendous improvement when they moved my portrait from the guest room to the foyer. I replaced a mirror."
Willie pushed from his mind the disturbing thought of Barnabas watching people in a bedroom.
Barnabas directed him into the entrance to the Collinwood estate and indicated he should turn left at the fork. Willie proceeded without comment but he recognized the road and a growing sense of dread filled his throat. The vampire alighted from the vehicle and swept into the house as if he owned the place.
Oh, crap, you gotta be kiddin'.
"Willie!" Barnabas appeared at the doorway. "Come in. What are you waiting for?"
Willie climbed down from the cab and dragged his feet into the decrepit old mansion.
"This is where I was raised, and now it's going to be our home." Barnabas beamed. The monster seemed delighted at the prospect of spending the rest of its days—and nights—in a filthy, cold shithole. "We shall restore this old house to its former beauty and splendor. Oh, there will be much to keep you occupied."
"I bet." Willie looked dubious, deflating the vampire's enthusiasm somewhat.
"Your opinion is inconsequential," he scowled. "Wherever I choose to dwell, so shall you—for the rest of your life." The words chilled Willie to the bone.
"However long that may be," Barnabas added flippantly. He swung off its coat and, realizing there was no clean place to put it, folded it over his arm. "Now, Willie, you know what you have to do."
"What, no!" Willie looked up in fear. "Don't make me go do that again." He backed into the entrance hall until he hit the staircase. "You already fed off that guy in the graveyard. Please, no."
The vampire towered over him. "What are you talking about? I want to unload the coffin from your truck and take it to the cellar. Now, go!" He pushed the idiot servant toward the front entrance.
Grumbling to himself, Willie trudged back to the pickup, climbed into the bed and proceeded to untie the tarp. He looked up at the melancholy old mansion silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
"Great. Another fuckin' house with no television."
(8) Roger is quoting Cecily from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde