Never fear season two is on its way with more food, hi jinx and intrigue!
Stepping past the now inert wooden box, up to the stainless steel sink I watched Joseph turn on the taps. Keeping my eyes firmly away from my mitts, since acknowledging them only made them hurt more enthusiastically, I concentrated all my attention on the inside of Joseph’s left elbow while he sluiced water over my wounds.
If it weren’t for all the stinging the water would have felt nice. Its warmth helped to dispel the frigid echo of her hands on my heart.
Me (attempting to distract my mind): “You were going to make her a Resident, if she hadn’t attacked me, weren’t you.”
Joseph (absently): “Yes.”
Me (wincing): “But she attacked you first.”
Joseph (dryly): “I will admit that didn’t bode well. But I wanted to give her a chance at a different sort of existence.”
Me (cocking my head): “Why didn’t her attack work? On you I mean.”
Joseph (shrugging): “Does it matter?”
Me (wincing again): “Well yes, if you can teach the Residents what you did, it could help keep them safe.”
Joseph (glancing sideways at me): “It isn’t something I can teach them to do.”
Me (sensing the knotting off of that subject, I moved on): “Okay…But how was she able to hurt me? And I her?”
Joseph (sounding distracted again): “Both are excellent questions.”
Me (gritting my teeth while he worked a boulder out of my left palm): “Are you going to answer them?”
Joseph (releasing my hands): “Yes, but not tonight. Keep your hands under the water while I find the first aid kit.”
Resting my temple against the cabinet above the sink, I closed my eyes and obeyed…
Joseph startled me when he pulled my beleaguered appendages out from under the water and started drying them with a large piece of gauze. Seems I’ve acquired the new and useful skill of dozing off while standing up. Yet another talent which isn’t really résumé applicable.
Tipping my head back I struggled to shove away my exhaustion, while Joseph started to apply ointment from the kit he’d found.
Me (casting about for a new topic while he worked on me): “How did you know she was here tonight?”
Joseph (exasperated): “You think I don’t know when a Woman In White crosses into Nevermore? How did you know she was here? The message Mazy relayed stated her arrival wasn’t for a few more days.”
Me: “Radio. Sarah let me down. County probably changed dates without telling her. Crap!!!”
Joseph (pausing in his application of bandages): What?
Me (looking him in the eye and waving my hands): How am I going to explain these to Mr. Nelson?
So wholly occupied with the creation of at least a moderately plausible explanation for my current state I failed to notice when Joseph finished bandaging me up and started herding me towards the door. When I finally realized where we were heading (and the fact Joseph seemed inordinately amused by my highly improbable scenarios), I protested. He shouldn’t have to clean up the mess all by himself. When pointed out Mr. Nelson probably wouldn’t stay put forever, I was forced to concede the point.
Me (treading wearily to the end of the hallway): Sorry for ruining your offer of Residency.
Joseph (stepping a pace ahead and opening the outside door): The only apology owed is for underestimation of my skills.
Me (I started to apologize again until I saw the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth): Not pompous at all.
Joseph (chuckling at my dry tone, he then sobered): Even after striking me I might still have given her a chance if she’d shown any remorse for her actions. But her attack on you proved her transformation into a Woman In White was complete. By coming here tonight, you undoubtedly saved a few of the Residents from being stripped.
Taking the straw he offered me, I tried to use it to subdue the wiggling feeling of guilt inside.
Me (pausing just on the other side of the dumpster where I’d left Mr. Nelson and the Princess, using my quiet voice): Thank you for stopping her from…
Cutting off my gratitude Joseph placed a kiss on my forehead. Which warmed the very cockles of my heart.
Joseph (smiling): Your welcome.
Smiling in return, I murmured my goodbyes and walked around the dumpster.
Gasping for breath I braced myself against the wall, trying to gain enough leverage to shove her greedy hands away, but I couldn’t budge them an inch. I nearly sobbed when Joseph’s hand settled over one of mine. “Phoebe let go.”
Gently his fingers probed the back of my head, a moment later the pain receded enough for me to think clearly, “Phoebe, look at me.” Unable to comply in any fashion, it took several minutes of reassuring words for me to detach my eyes from her grasping hands onto Joseph’s face. When I finally managed the task he smiled and stroked my hair, “You’re safe.”
Turning back I finally saw what my myopic view missed, the Woman In White was still as a bronze Rodin. Turns out I wasn’t the only one her tell had clued in to her final decision. Joseph had stopped her a hairsbreadth away from plunging her hands back into my chest.
It took a few more heart beats for the word ‘safe’ to reach my extremities. My hands proved the most troublesome of the lot, locked fast on her wrists it required actual effort to loosen their death grip. When they finally did release, I quickly scooted out from between her and the wall. Burying my face in Joseph’s chest, I took in the smell of old paper, earth and the faint undercurrent of dog for a long minute.
Finally, I reluctantly let go of Joseph’s stolid presence and turned to confront the woman who would undoubtedly star in a few of my future nightmares. From experience, I knew that if I watched the Fade, I might avoid some of the worst images my subconscious would throw my way (though to be fair none of the times I’d needed to intervene with a Resident were this dramatic). She stood suspended before me staring at the wall, her blond hair billowing around her face and her clothes rippling under unseen waves.
When I finally dared to look at the hands which so mercilessly attempted to strip my spark, I couldn’t stop staring.
“Joseph what did I do?”
He remained silent behind me.
My brain couldn’t reconcile the images my eyes sent. Forgetting my fear (and Joseph) for a moment, I leaned in for a better look. The Woman In White’s wrists now sported deep char marks where I’d hung onto them for dear life. Sooty black streaks extended all the way up both her forearms highlighting where my hands had slipped during our struggle. None of what I saw made any sense.
Unable to think of a new question, I turned and looked him in the eye, “Joseph what did I do?”
“You were trying to stop her from hurting you again.” He replied quietly.
Staring stupidly at my blood smeared palms, “But salt doesn’t do that.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
My attempts to study the seared divots my finger left in her skin were thwarted when she buckled slightly then smudged, forcing me to give up my shocked scrutiny. The Fade was settling into her form and was erasing the finer details from her while I watched.
“Let’s take care of those scrapes.”
Finally recalling I literally had salt in my wounds, my palms stung so severely my eyes started watering. Or maybe it was walking from a dimly lit hallway into Sarah’s bright domain. Either way, my cheeks were wet.
“I got blood all over you!” My face grew hotter with each new dark blotch I spotted on his dove gray jacket.
With a twinkle in his eye, “Don’t worry, I own more than one suit.”
When I glanced over my shoulder (and away from what I’d besmirched), I witnessed what little was left of the Woman In White shudder slightly then evaporate from sight.
A small burst of highly inappropriate humor popped out of me, “Best magic trick ever.”
“That is of course what I was aiming for.” Joseph’s reply was as dry as dust, but when I looked his mouth, it held a wry smile that reached all the way to his eyes.
No longer fully supported, the bag slipped off my leg onto its side then belly flopped onto its face – all the while spewing forth its contents. The rock salt skittered over the linoleum like gravel on glass and was the icing on the cake in revealing my heretofore unknown presence to the Woman In White.
Which rather effectively disrupted the rest of Joseph’s offer, because she lost all interest in him.
“Look, how she dazzles the eye….”
It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what she meant, her words did absolutely nothing to foster a reassuring glow in my heart. Neither did the look on her face when I stopped glaring at the betrayer salt. It wore the same look Wood’s did when a sixteen-ounce porterhouse steak is placed in front of him, fierce hunger.
Maybe she’d like a marshmallow instead?
Being neither ill or hurt I wasn’t weak enough for her to successfully strip. However, it didn’t look like this fact was going to stop her from trying. Leaping forward she covered the space between us with lightning speed, hitting her side of the door in time with me throwing all my weight against the mine. Unfortunately the unhinged tend to have more muscle at their disposal, and the idiot salt on the floor gave my shoes absolutely no purchase.
She won the battle easily.
Smacking my head hard against the wall behind me, the knock disoriented me for a second. Before I could shake it off, she pinned me against the hard surface and shoved her hand into my chest. “So much power here….”
Bitter cold radiated from my heart instantly enveloping me. For a split second (which I swear lasted an eternity) my world consisted of nothing more than her greedy eyes and twisted smile while she stole the breath from my lungs.
Then it was gone and so was she.
The Woman In White’s anguished wail rent the air.
With a herculean effort, I managed to focus my eyes on the origin of the sound. Joseph held her upper arms in a savage grip from behind trying to force her to confront the box containing her bones, “Will you look beyond what happened?”
The only acknowledgment of his question was the cessation of her earsplitting wail. She continued to writhe in his grasp her eyes never wavering from me.
Feeling like an arctic wind blasted thru my insides, I gathered my knees up to my chest and turned into the wall.
Joseph’s colorless tone betrayed nothing but his hand slapped down hard on the wooden lid of her box, “Will you look for a new path.”
Unintentionally grinding salt into my palms in an attempt to regain an upright position I missed her reply (if she made one). When I finally triumphed over gravity, I looked back at the Woman In White and discovered her visage so distorted by yearning she hardly appeared human.
A question from Joseph recalled me from her maleficence, “Can I tell her your secret?”
Trusting him, I whispered, “Yes.”
Stepping backwards giving himself room he swung her around so she faced him, “Would you consume the one who heard you, Tiffany? Found you? Unearthed you?” On the last word, he released her arms.
Stumbling away from him she caught herself with ease and whirled to face me.
In the most extreme trust exercise I’d ever participated in, I remained motionless while she worked her way towards me. Suspecting what Joseph’s offer entailed I gave her the chance to decided precisely which side of the fence she was going to land on.
While she dithered Joseph followed her with his eyes, his hand resting on her wooden box.
She hesitated for a moment when she stepped thru the door, picking her way thru the scattered salt and closed the last few feet between us. Completely invading my bubble of personal space, she finally came to a stop.
“You? You found me?” she whispered. Her eyes scouring my face – so intense was her scrutiny I almost missed it when she tensed her shoulders.
Wishing I could sound heartier, I managed a breathy, “Yes.”
Hesitating just long enough that I thought she’d changed her mind, she managed to catch me by surprise when her hands shot out trying to seize my heart again. Reacting faster than I thought possible, my own salt encrusted hands met her’s, attempting to turn them aside.
But the Woman In White’s refused to alter their trajectory.
It didn’t seem she was anywhere close to finished.
Each time her fist rebounded ineffectively off Joseph’s chest, the next strike followed quickly on its heels. It took mere moments for the siren to morph into a frenzied harpy.
Joseph stood stone still watching her attempts to seize his heart. Then the monolith I’d known for three-quarters of my life shifted his gaze from her to me and shook his head slightly.
My hand fell away from the door. The open sack of salt slid quietly to the floor.
Refocusing on the woman currently colliding with him, he grasped her wrists and said, “Enough.” Struggling against his grip, she continued to thrash until he caught her with his gaze and whatever it held did the job.
“Now that you’ve finished trying to kill me, we can talk.” Releasing her, Joseph walked over and placed his hand on the other identical (but inert) wooden box on the table opposite hers.
When she turned to follow his progress, it allowed me to finally observe her features, which were quickly shifting from shock to suspicion, “Why didn’t that work?”.
I might ask the same question.
“Does it matter?” Leaning back against the counter, his stance open, he watched her pace the floor.
“Of course it matters! I didn’t deserve to die for having an affair. I need to punish him!” Her focus shifting back to her husband drove her towards Joseph again.
His words stopped her dead, “Is that how you justified what happened afterward?”
“Your lover, David Waller, your husband killed him. But you, you drained the rest of him away.”
The Woman In White ran her hands through her hair then gripped it tightly in both fists, “No. That’s not right. He killed me. He killed me!”
Ignoring her distress (and words) Joseph continued on, his tone brutal, “Perhaps it was an accident. In your anger and confusion, you lashed out and discovered what your rage could do.”
Attempting to grasp the lifeline he was offering, she opened her mouth to say something. What I will never know because he wasn’t finished.
“But what about Stan Burgess, Alan Pike, Bryce Franks, Jordan Wallace, Alex Johnson, Fred Johnson and Liam Johnson? You lured them onwards until they were hurt, broken, hungry, lost and scared. All the while you lingered watching them grow weaker and weaker until you struck. Stripping their energy away until nothing was left. Did they deserve to die?”
With each name she stepped away from Joseph, clutching her head – slowly shaking it back and forth, “No! No! That wasn’t what happened. I didn’t lure them. They got lost…”.
Joseph was unyielding, “No.”
In a small voice, unable to look away from the floor, “I was just trying to show them where he hid me….”.
Tearing at her hair, she flung her hands up, “Fine. Fine! I parroted the words everyone whispered about me. The lies he spread about me. Not everyone who heard my voice followed. Only the ones attracted to his lies, persuaded by their rumors, their insinuations, their innuendos. Those men followed me like lambs. Fueled me. But they were found. They were found.”
“They were indeed. Which is the only reason why you are still standing here.”
This quiet statement startled us both.
Joseph’s cool calm was a balm to her scorching heat, “You are the reason why your killer will never walk free again. Why his secrets are no longer his own to hold. The job is done.”.
“Done? He killed me, but so many others threw handfuls of dirt on my name. They buried me long before he put me in the ground.” Derision embroidered her chilling statement of intent.
She wasn’t going to stop, oh gods, how much havoc could she wreak in Nevermore until her rage finally burned her out? How many Residents would she consume before burning day? Who would she torment? Her father? He’d believed the rumors and her husband’s stories. Her friends? They never mounted a substantial search for her. Aunt Pearl?
“No. Lex talionis will not be observed here. Your culpability in the harm of bystanders exceeds the crimes committed against you.” The calm delivery was belied by the intensity of his eyes, which hadn’t strayed from hers since he’d looked at me. “You cannot continue on in this fashion.”
Her eyes narrowed, her unwavering focus on retaliation rearing its ugly head once again, “Who are you to judge me?”.
Joseph said he could handle her…
His smile never reached his eyes, “Absolution is not mine to give. What I am offering is a chance…”
…The tension radiating from the room coated my every nerve until the rigidity of my stress seared skin finally recalled me from the scene playing out on the other side of the door. The need to break the pressure amplified along my frame was overwhelming. I absently rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants and bent my knees slightly while shifting my weight onto my right leg.
How I forgot about the open twenty-five-pound bag leaning on my left, I will never know.
(Before and after pictures of my state of mind after KARB’s news report.)
Mr. Nelson sat quietly next to me, clutching his seat, while I channeled my inner Lewis Hamilton (world champion F1 driver). The Princess was more vocal in her protests against my rather cavalier attitude towards her right now. She is many things but a Formula One car? Not even in her wildest dreams.
I willed the lights ahead of me to turn green since stopping for reds wasn’t going to happen.
When I finally passed thru Nevermore’s side gates, I rued the day I’d persuaded Little Ben to install these forking speed bumps. Their existence was currently hindering me from taking the lanes at speed. However Lady Luck was with me when we finally came within sight of the main building, everything looked buttoned up and empty.
Even better? The assortment of marshmallows presently in the Princess, coupled with an effervescent historical mystery, read by book light in such a unique setting provided more than enough entertainment for Mr. Nelson’s Monday night. Or so he assured me.
The Princess was parked between a retaining wall and the recycler.
Seems he really didn’t want to owe my Uncle a favor anymore.
What did? The fact I told Joseph we had five days before the Woman In White was supposed to arrive.
Slipping from my parking spot around to the back entrance I used my keys to let myself in (it took four tries to get the key in the lock). After carefully punching in Big Ben’s security code into the alarm panel with a shaky hand (the last thing I needed to do was get that wrong) I headed straight to the maintenance closet.
Opening the door, I breathed a sigh of relief. It seems Sam (our admin) had placed the winter supply order I’d put together before Little Ben laid me off. Which meant I could head straight over and heft a twenty-five-pound bag of rock salt off the shelf. Not the highest quality of salt but the sheer quantity should suffice. Exiting the supply closet, I headed further into the building towards Sarah’s Domain & Depository. Where I knew I would find the Woman In White’s bones.
My one fervent hope? That she’d elected to maintain her vigil over her husband rather than her remains.
When the electric current arched over my toes my heart sunk to their level – she was in Nevermore. The only upside was the fact she wasn’t running around the grounds yet. Bouncing quietly on the balls of my feet down the rest of the hallway, my heart nearly stopped when I spied the seam of light leaking from under Sarah’s door. My ears detected muffled voices emanating from the other side. I set the bag of rock salt down softly against the wall. Then very slowly pulled down on the lever handle opening it just a sliver.
“He needs punishing!” she screeched at Joseph.
Well, that explains why she wasn’t pursuing the Residents yet.
“He will be. You followed him to the police station, watched his interrogation, and witnessed his confession.” Joseph answered in a flat voice, stepping forward he inadvertently gave me a better angle to watch him from. It also revealed the plain cedar box to his right. I didn’t need to read the small brass plate to know what resided inside, the susurration gave its contents away.
A wind whipped thru the room scattering forms, print-outs and general papers left out in its wake.
Won’t that be fun to straighten up later.
With her frustration vented and Joseph unmoved by it, she changed tactics. Her voice melted into a mellifluous timber, and her movements turned languid while she slowly closed the gap between them. “He murdered me. I want to punish him. Me, not someone else, you understand…” On her last words, she reached up to his collar and traced the parallel lines of his lapels down his chest.
Trying to play the siren to lure him into complying with her wishes?
I couldn’t see her face, but Joseph’s looked unimpressed.
When her hands reached the middle of his chest they disappeared from my view – but her arms gave her away – the split second prior to the punch she tensed.
Hurry, hurry, hurry! I knew her aim. If she grasped his heart, she could use it to find his bones and siphon away the energy held within. Lurching sideways I fished for the knife in my pocket. Finally grasping it, I quickly slit the sack sitting next to me halfway open.
The simple latch on the brass-bound box would take a single moment to open. Then I could finish what I started on Pumpkin Mountain. Picking up the sack of salt with one hand and reaching for the door with the other I prepared to confront the Woman In White myself.
However, Joseph’s bored tone stayed my hand on the handle, “Are you finished now?”