Pairings: Ellen/Bobby, Ellen/William
Spoilers: For characters introduced in Season 2. Other than that, full speed ahead!
Word Count: 7,292
Written For: promisetodepart participant defaulted
Prompt: "Romance or a new life together" and "Lots of romance, bantering back and forth, maybe kids."
Author's Notes: This fic originally had three parts, but the second part was just not happening, so I killed it. Instead I give to you two tightly written parts which I think work nicely together. I did try for happy!love, but I ended up with brooding!love and young!love instead. This is my first Ellen fic; hope you enjoy! A very special thank you to ladybug218 and lil sis A for betaing this - without the two of you, there would be no fic. ♥
--Amber Spyglass: His Dark Materials, Book III, Phillip Pullman
The bar is always full, but it doesn't matter much any more, not with Jo being gone. Ellen finds herself looking less and less often when the door opens, no longer watching for a blonde with a kickass grin, the same one William used to wear when he came back from a successful hunt.
Jo's a big girl, Ellen tells herself. Jo can do this. She can.
Ellen tries to ignore the other thoughts, the ones that remind her that doesn't have a choice anymore, can't protect Jo the way she tried to protect William. Sometimes after the bar closes she'll sit down with a bottle of whiskey and take out the family photo album, which consists of two shoeboxes filled with old Polaroids. She takes each photo out and lays them all side by side, watching the growth and destruction of her family. Here's William tossing little Jo up in the air, before he was stolen from their lives. Here's a eight-year-old Jo sticking her tongue out at the camera, her mind just beginning to fill stories of with demons and death. Ellen used to ask herself, "Am I doing enough to keep her safe?" Now she wonders, "Did we teach her enough to keep her safe?"
A month or so after Jo leaves, Ash brings home a girl who looks so familiar Ellen does a double-take. When she's sure it ain't Jo, she goes back to rubbing down the bar with a clean cloth.
"Ellen," says Ash, pulling up his pants. "This is my woman, Claudia."
Claudia is a pretty girl, no doubt about it, and Ash must have done some fancy talkin' to get her to follow him home. She looks the cheerleader type, the one who makes out with boys under the bleachers and blinks long lashes up innocently when her parents ask where she's goin' on Friday nights. The longer Ellen looks at her, the more she wonders what the hell this cute little thing is doing with Ash.
"Nice to meet you," says Ellen.
Claudia smiles, and Ellen notices her eyes. There's something wise and worldly in her eyes, something that doesn't fit against the backdrop of her kewpie doll face and long blond curls. It's almost as though her eyes have seen more than they should for a girl her age.
"Nice to meet you, too, Ms. Harvelle. Ash has told me so much about you."
The comment makes Ellen raise an eyebrow at Ash, who is staring intently at the floor. Before Ellen can ask Claudia what exactly Ash shared with her, Ash says, "We're gonna be a little bit... occupied for the next few hours. Things to do. Do you think maybe..."
He gives a kind of nod that makes Ellen wonder if he's havin' some kind of epileptic fit, but then she sees the way Claudia is looking at him and she understands. "I won't send anybody back."
Ash's face lights up like it's Christmas come early and he's been real good this year.
"Thank you kindly," he says and, with a brief look at Claudia, he moves past Ellen towards his room. Claudia smiles as she follows him past Ellen. As Claudia disappears into Ash's room, Ellen finds herself wondering where her own little blonde girl has gone to.
Thoughts of Jo consume her for the rest of the night, until Claudia's piercing eyes have drifted into the back of Ellen's mind and she's no longer thinking about them.
Claudia doesn't come out of Ash's room until long after Ellen has started closing up. She's fully dressed, hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, and she looks to be eyeing the door. Ellen quirks an eyebrow at her. "Leavin' already?"
"Oh, yes." Claudia fidgets with her ponytail, her eyes on Ellen. "Things to do, places to go."
There's something funny about her accent, Ellen realizes. It's something she didn't notice before, probably because Ash was in such a damned hurry to get the girl in his bed that Claudia hadn't had time to say much.
"Oh?" says Ellen. "Where you headed?"
"A little bit of everywhere, I think."
This tidbit is interesting enough that Ellen says, "Would you like a drink before you go?"
"Only if you'll join me. I don't like to drink alone."
Ellen smiles. "All right. What's your pleasure?"
"Good choice. Think I'll have some of the same."
There is something about this girl that's starting to itch at the back of Ellen's mind, something she can't quite wrap her fingers around. I need time, she thinks to herself. I need time to figure out who this woman is, and what she means to me. If she means anything to me, she amends, and focuses on pouring their drinks.
At last she sits down next to Claudia, who has taken a seat at the bar. "So, you're off to Anytown, U.S.A.?"
Claudia laughs. "I suppose you could say that, yes."
The laugh rings a bell somewhere in the back of Ellen's mind, but she still can't quite place it. The laugh, the accent - she needs more to go on. "Any place in particulary?"
Claudia looks away for a moment. "It's a spiritual journey, more or less. I'm going away to celebrate my oldest sister's life. She died recently."
"I'm sorry," says Ellen, the words coming to her lips automatically, the way people answer, "fine" to "how are you?" even if their hearts are breaking.
"It was unexpected, so it was quite a shock. After the funeral, I..."
She pauses, and Ellen doesn't urge her on. Ellen knows what it feels like to have that emptiness, that unexpected heartbreak, and the way reality comes and goes for the first few months afterwards. She still remembers mourning William like it was yesterday, and it occurs to her suddenly that she's already begun mourning Jo.
"After the funeral, I could feel her everywhere," says Claudia. "We had a falling out when I was young, much younger than I am now. We never reconciled. I regret that."
"Lots of folks have regrets after somebody passes," says Ellen. "I know I did when I lost my husband. Still do."
She's surprised by her openness with this girl, but every time her mind tries to raise the alarm, she relaxes instead.
"It was different for us," says Claudia, "I should have made more of an effort. I had so many years to... Well, it doesn't matter now. She's gone and she isn't coming back. I don't know what that means. I don't know how to be in this world without her."
"You'll get by," says Ellen. "You'll see. It just..."
Her mind starts to tell her no, not to say it, not to share that part of her, but then she's calm again and she hears herself saying, "You have to find a place to hide the hurt."
As soon as the words are out of her mouth, Ellen feels like she's able to breathe again, as though she's been holding her breath for years on end, but she doesn't have to anymore.
"You don't understand." Claudia shakes her head. "I can't imagine a world without her. I don't know what to do now that she's gone. I can't function anymore. I can't even find a reason to keep..."
Ellen's afraid Claudia will say "living," and she doesn't know how to respond to that. She's had those thoughts, but that was almost immediately after William passed. She never acted on them because of Jo. Jo needed her. Jo had been so small then, even smaller after her father's death, as though he'd taken a part of her with him when he went. In Jo's absence, though, Ellen wonders who will need her now.
Thankfully, Claudia says instead, "...doing this."
Ellen frowns. "For...?"
There's another long moment in which neither one of them speaks. Ellen thinks about Claudia's tiny hands, remembering the way Jo used to grab everything in sight when she was little. Ellen or William would have to pry the items out of her greedy fingers and find somewhere else to hide them. Jo was always good at finding their hiding places. Must have inherited that from her father. If William was still alive, he'd find Jo in a day, maybe less. Not for the first time, Ellen wished he was still alive. Almost as quickly, she buried the thought. She couldn't deal with both Jo and William leaving; she had to focus on Jo.
"So I'm not standing still anymore," Claudia says as though she never stopped speaking. "I'm moving on. I'm on a road trip, actually. I'm making my own way in this world, finding a new path."
"Good for you," says Ellen. "I mean that. I'm sure your sister would want you to move on."
The words are overly sentimental, but again she feels a strange calmness settle down around her after she says them. It's the right thing to say. She wonders why no one ever said it to her.
"Somehow, I doubt it, but I'm going to do what's right for me." Claudia shrugs. "I have to. The world is changing. Adelaide never understood that."
Ellen is suddenly on the edge of her seat, her attention fixed on Claudia's last few words. "What did you say? That name you said, what was it?"
"Adelaide," says Claudia. "I know, it's sort of old fashioned, but that's the way my sister was. She liked things to stay the same. That's why she never fulfilled her purpose. But here I am, going on and on about me. I don't want to talk about myself any more. Tell me about you, about your husband."
Ellen smiles at the glass, trying to hide the hammering of her heart. Adelaide? She hasn't heard that name in years, not since before William died. Still, it's not likely it's the same one. That Adelaide was banished long ago, from her life and her mind. It's not the same person, she tells herself. That's impossible.
"Sorry." Claudia shakes her head. "I shouldn't poke my nose in where it doesn't belong."
"No," says Ellen. "No, it's not that. I don't mind telling you. He was a good man, my husband. It's just... He's been gone a long time is all. Years and years."
Ellen drinks, enjoying the cool taste of the cola on her tongue. William never did like soda, but he loved a shot of Jack at the full moon. He also loved her, slow and sensual, which is why Jo was conceived so early in their marriage. She smiled at the thought of making love to William, of his hands on her, his wicked grin. Her heart hurts.
"What did you do?" says Claudia, bringing her out of her daydream. "How did you move on?"
Setting the drink down on the bar, Ellen says, "Some folks say I haven't."
"And the rest?"
"The rest are fools," says Ellen. "I live with my pain."
"Hasn't there been anybody since your husband?" says Claudia. "Anybody at all you feel close to, like you did back then?"
Ellen thinks for a moment, and the silence surrounds them again. It's an odd thing, this inappropriate closeness she feels to the girl - woman? - sitting next to her. She tries to think back over the years since William's death. A sea of faces passes before her: bar regulars, William's old friends, the occasionally traveler she'd see once but never again. Of all of them, only one face stands out.
"I suppose you could say there's been one," says Ellen, finishing her drink. "He's been good to me and my daughter. Understands the lifestyle we lead, doesn't make too many judgments. If I had to pick anybody to start over with, I guess it'd be him."
"What's his name?" says Claudia, and Ellen's surprised to find that she doesn't mind giving it.
"Bobby." Ellen smiles and shakes her head. "But if you ever tell anybody I told you that- Oh, forget it. Nobody'll believe you."
Claudia smiles at her, a smile that goes all the way up and touches her eyes. "Ms. Harvelle, you've been so kind to me, sitting and talking to me about my sister's death. May I give you some advice?"
Ellen shrugs. It's late and she's tired; that's probably why she's told this girl so much anyway. "Sure."
"You said yourself that your husband has been gone years and years. Now, I never met the man, but it's like you told me a moment ago: I'm sure your husband would want you to move on. He was a good man; you said so yourself. A good man wouldn't want his wife to stand still for the rest of her life, especially not someone like you. You've got so much potential. You're going places, Ms. Harvelle, whether you like it or not. The world won't let a woman like you sit still for too long, and like you said, it's been years already. Grab the bull by the horns and ride. It's a heckuva journey."
Claudia smiles at her. "Go get your man, Ms. Harvelle. He won't wait forever, and neither should you. Nothing wrong with new beginnings, now is there? Your daughter's off chasing hers; it's your turn now."
There are so many thoughts running through Ellen's mind that she's not surprised when the only word she manages to eek out is: "What?"
Claudia laughs, but it's not a mean-spirited sound; instead, it's the kind of laugh reserved for when a child realizes that the Earth is round. "You deserve a new beginning. Go and get it."
Ellen knows she should feel stiff and irritated with this girl, but she still feels only serenity. Some confusion, yes, but mostly just relaxed. She looks at the girl hard, hoping to find some sign that the girl is joking, but instead she's met by a face full of hope and expectation. Against her better judgment, Ellen stands, albeit jerkily, and moves around to the other side of the bar. She needs to get away from this girl so she can find some clarity. Enough with the Zen experience.
"Listen," Ellen says. "I'm sure you mean well, but I'm not interested in getting involved with someone. I adored my husband. No one will ever fill his shoes."
"Perhaps not to fill his shoes, but to stand alongside you. You take on too much, Ms. Harvelle, even I can see that. You're strong, tough as an ox, but everyone deserves a break. What you deserve is a partner, someone who can move past being a friend, someone you can trust wholeheartedly, despite everything you've seen in this world."
"I don't think so," says Ellen, reaching down for her cloth and beginning to wipe down the counter top. She needs the familiarity of the motion to get her out of this Twilight Zone she's entered. Best case scenario: she's dreaming. Worst case scenario: she's not dreaming.
"Think about it," says Claudia. "Just promise me you'll think about it."
Ellen wants to tell this girl she won't promise her anything, that she doesn't know her from Adam, that she ain't got no business telling people to go off half cocked looking for "new beginnings," but her mouth won't form the words she wants. It's in the air, she thinks to herself. It's something in the air. Instead, she says softly, "I don't think so."
Ellen expects Claudia's face to fall, but she only shrugs. "Well, can say I didn't try. Still, if you're not interested in him, you might be interested in a different kind of new beginning - a job offer, from me."
"Harvelle's is my home," says Ellen. "I'm not looking to leave."
"This is a different kind of job offer, Ms. Harvelle. It has to do with new beginnings, like I said. Lots of new beginnings. Helping people to get off on the right foot. Starting people off on journeys they know they're meant to take but haven't started yet. You'd be helping people fulfill their destinies, achieve their dreams."
As Ellen listens to this job description, everything falls into place. Ellen puts down the rag and an honest to goodness smile spreads across her face. It's as though that piece she couldn't find has just turned up. She knows who Claudia is now and what happened to Adelaide. In the end, it always comes back to destiny.
"You know, Claudia," says Ellen, "the only destiny I want to control is my own. Some days, even that's too much for me."
Claudia smiles. "Fair enough. Just think about it. If you won't think about going to Bobby, think about my offer. Lots you could do. Things you could start. Things you could prevent from starting. Your daughter's out there, starting on her own path. You could be involved in that, you know."
Without missing a beat, Ellen says, "I think my daughter'll do just fine without me or you involved in her life. She's a Harvelle, after all."
Shaking her head, Claudia rises to her feet. "On that note, I think I'd better get going. Thank you for the drink and the conversation, Ms. Harvelle. Please tell Ash I said thank you as well. He's a real nice guy."
"I'll do that," says Ellen, barely managing to keep from adding, "and don't let the door hit you on the way out."
A handful of minutes after Claudia leaves, Ellen dials Bobby's number. She doesn't know why she does it; she's trying to pretend it had nothing to do with Claudia, but some part of her acknowledges the power she just faced, and the fact that she's only human, so of course she'll succumb.
"Bobby," she says into the phone, "I need you to come down here. Something we need to discuss."
Damned if she'll let Bobby replace her William, but it'd be nice to have someone by her side again for a change.
Right from the start, Mama don't approve.
"Ellie," she says one morning, "I expect you'll be lettin' that Harvelle boy go any time now. He's no good, that one."
"Ma," says Ellie, "what did he ever do to you?"
"Don't matter," says her mother. "I can just tell."
Ellen's mother's always sayin' Ellen was a late Christmas gift - "like Christmas in July" - so Ellen knows why her mother's so much older than the other mothers, and why the women look at her sometimes and sigh.
Ellen pushes her chair in and hurries out of the room.
"Don't you be sneakin' out again tonight, girl," says her mother. "Folks'll start talkin'."
When Billy goes out of town, Ellen's mother takes her to see Miss Adelaide, who lives in a big house on a hill overlooking their town. Truth told, it's the biggest house in these parts, but up there on that hill with its roof so near heaven, it's almost sacred, so nobody says much negative about Miss Adelaide and her lot.
Out on the porch, Mrs. Groveport says, "Now you behave yourself, hear? Don't go messin' about touchin' everything you see. Don't none of this belong to us."
Ellen rolls her eyes and nods. She's already 16, but her mother can't seem to wrap her head around this, so she still talks as though Ellen's 10 or 12, and always will be.
The wait at the door seems endless, but at last there's a face at the screen and they're welcomed inside.
Miss Adelaide dresses in white, her blond hair curling around her heart-shaped face. She looks like a doll, thinks Ellen, like she's meant to be somebody's birthday present.
The house seems larger on the inside than the outside, with rooms that stretch on for days and days. Ellen follows closely behind her mother; she doesn't have a choice, what with her mama holding on so tightly to her that Ellen feels her arm go numb.
Miss Adelaide leads them to a large room. There's a plush white sofa so gorgeous Ellen's afraid she'll leave marks on it, even though she washed up before she came. She sits down carefully, as though the couch was made of snapping snakes instead of fabric.
"Would you like something to drink?" says Miss Adelaide. There's something about the way she says it that makes Ellen wonder if Miss Adelaide is from around these parts. She's always thought so, always assumed Miss Adelaide came from what her mama called, "old money," but now she wonders if that's really the truth.
"Ellie," says Ellen's mother, nudging her, "answer Miss Adelaide."
"Oh," says Ellen. "No, no thank you, ma'am." She adds the "ma'am" only after her mother nudges her again.
"And you, Beth?" Miss Adelaide turns her gaze to Ellen's mother.
"No, thank you," says Beth. Ellen's surprised to hear an undercurrent of fear in her mother's voice. Don't nobody frighten her mama. Well, nobody 'cept Daddy sometimes when he used to come home after a night of drinking with White Jim and Black Jim and Tommy, but he ain't done that since Mama threatened to leave his sorry ass and take Ellie with her. Ever since then, he's the right picture of sobriety.
"All right," says Miss Adelaide. "Shall we discuss the apprenticeship, then?"
Ellen looks from Miss Adelaide to her mother. Her mother's gaze is fixed on Miss Adelaide, so Ellen can't catch her eyes to ask her what's going on.
"Of course," says Beth. "My Ellie's just the girl for you, Adelaide. She's got good hands, long, thin fingers. Here, Ellen, show Miss Adelaide your hands."
She picks one of Ellen's hands up as easily as if she were picking up a tomato, showing off the leaves and the color to a potential buyer.
"She's got a good mind, too, Adelaide. Runs in the family, don't you know. She'd be a real asset to you. Knows how to keep a secret, too. I remember when her daddy and me told her to keep her grama's surprise birthday party a secret. My Ellie wouldn't even yell surprise when Gram came in the door to the party!"
Ellen can feel her skin prickling, the hair on the back of her neck rising. She wants to holler, "What the hell's going on?" like Daddy does when he's downright agitated; she wants to get up and run out of this house. All she manages, however, is a soft squeak that she hopes sounds like, "Mama?"
"Hush, child," says Beth. "I'm talking to Miss Adelaide."
Adelaide looks from mother to daughter and back again. "Beth?"
Beth shifts in her seat and sits taller. "Miss Adelaide, I don't reckon you have children, but if you did, you'd know a mother's got to protect her young. Me and Gerald, we want the best for our girl. This is it."
Adelaide looks from Beth to Ellen and back again. Before she can speak, Beth says, more quietly now, "Besides, sometimes she don't know what's good for her and what ain't."
A smile quirks up the corners of Adelaide's mouth. "I don't suppose you're talking about the Harvelle boy."
"I don't tell tales," says Beth. "Ask anyone around and they will tell you I don't tell no tales, I don't spread no maliciousness. Christ himself told us to honor one another and love thy brother and sister. Well, Miss Adelaide, I love the Harvelle family, but I don't trust them, not for one minute. There's something off about that little family, always off somewhere or another, always covered, head to toe, in black and blue, even the girls. No, ma'am, I am not telling tales when I say that that Harvelle boy is no good for my Ellie."
"And you think an apprenticeship will help take her mind off him?" says Adelaide. "That if she's busy enough, she'll forget about him?"
It's at that moment that Ellen finds her tongue again. Her mouth is bone dry, the shock of her mother's brazen announcement having shocked her so suddenly that she's forgotten to breathe. She inhales deeply, then says, "Mama-"
"Ellie, let me handle this. You and I can talk later."
"Mama, that is not-"
"Ellen, I will not say it again. Mind your manners and keep to yourself."
Ellen closes her mouth, feeling as though the fury is pouring out of her into the open room, filling up all of its cracks and crevices. She balls her hands into fists, but her mother doesn't seem to notice.
"Ellen," says Miss Adelaide, and the word so startles Ellen that she jumps. "What do you think of becoming my apprentice?"
"Adelaide," says Beth, "I'll thank you to let me speak for my daughter on this matter. She ain't grown yet."
"Beth." Miss Adelaide's voice is low and soft, her tone gentle. "I want to hear from Ellen that she's prepared for this. It will be a challenge for her, just as it was a challenge for me. I need to know that she is willing to this on. She's got to want it of her own free will."
Beth looks as though she wants to say something, but shakes her head as though changing her mind. She looks at Ellie. "Go on, talk to Miss Adelaide."
Ellen looks up at Adelaide. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't understand. An apprenticeship in what, exactly?"
Adelaide's smile reappears. "It would be better if I showed you. Can you come back tomorrow evening, just as the sun's going down? I do my best work at night."
Ellen looks at her mother. Beth nods so fervently that Ellen's afraid her head will topple right off if she's not careful.
"Yes, ma'am," she says. "I can do that."
"All right," says Miss Adelaide. "I'll see you tomorrow."
The next day is as hot and dry as the first, but there's a quietness about the Groveport house that Ellen finds unsettling. Her daddy sleeps late - it is Saturday, so he ain't got work to do - and her mother makes sweet tea, a drink that, to Ellen, represents everything about her childhood.
As Ellen is standing in the kitchen watching her mother stir the tea, Beth says, "Ellie, you and me, we need to talk."
"Now you want to talk?" Ellen shoots back. "I'm suddenly allowed to have an opinion?"
Her mother stops stirring, leaving the spoon to stir momentarily by itself before falling with a soft thump against the side of the pitcher. "Ellen, please."
There's that fear again, the same fear Ellen heard the day before when they were sitting in Adelaide's living room. She backs down, lets her mother speak her piece.
"You don't know what it's like to grow up like your daddy and me did," says Beth. "We want you to be happy. We want you to have everything you could possible ever want."
"But Mama, I do! I-"
"No," says Beth, looking away. "You don't. We Groveports get by, sure, but we ain't never gonna be as well off as the Kulpeppers or the O'Malleys. We ain't never gonna have more than we need. We'll just keep barely gettin' by."
She drops to the floor on her knees then, grasping Ellen's shoulder. "Don't you see? We want you to have everything we can't give you. We want you to have a life, a real chance to make somethin' of yourself. It's time someone in this family made it. Miss Adelaide will help you do that.
"She makes more money than the mayor, I hear tell, Ellie. She meets with rich folks from out of town and then she's buying new furniture or adding a room onto that castle of hers. She's got it made, Ellie. I want you to have that, too."
"Mama," says Ellen, but her throat is dry again.
"Please," says Beth, "please just listen to what she has to say. Please."
"I- I will," stammers Ellen. "I'll listen, Mama."
Beth kisses her on both cheeks before standing up and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "All right. I have to finish this tea or your daddy'll have a fit when he wakes up. I swear that man married me for my tea."
Miss Adelaide's house don't look quite so inviting in the darkness. The shadows of the trees surrounding the house which seemed protective in the daylight now look like hungry dogs in wait for some unsuspecting prey. Ellen takes a deep breath and plods onward. She's surprised Mama let her come up here by herself, but she had insisted, and it is only a twenty minute walk or so. Her mother had relented, but Ellen suspects it's only because she's going to see Miss Adelaide.
When she rings the doorbell, she hears it reverberate through the house. Unlike the first time they visited, Miss Adelaide is at the door lickety split, her presence a beacon in the darkness of the house.
"Come in," she says, holding the door open. Ellen shivers. She feels so cold entering the house, as though someone's walking over her grave.
"This way," says Miss Adelaide, and there's a kind of excitement in her voice that wasn't there this morning. Ellie figures she must just love her job.
They go down a long, narrow hallway, Ellie trailing behind Adelaide. She doesn't remember the house being this long and wonders when it grew the extra space before she realizes she sounds like her friend Tammy Mae, who has about as much common sense as a nickel. Instead she focuses on following Miss Adelaide down the hall. Miss Adelaide looks like a ghost, her gown flowing in the darkness, running like a river against the wood floor.
At last they reach a set of double doors that are each larger than the front door of the house. The hallway is frighteningly quiet now that they've stopped walking, the echoes of their footsteps having faded away. Ellen feels the goosebumps rising on the back of her neck again. She wonders what it is about this place that makes her feel this way, but before she comes up with an answer, she hears Miss Adelaide begin muttering under her breath.
"Ma'am?" says Ellen.
Miss Adelaide doesn't say anything, just continues whispering. The way the shadows fall against her face, it still looks as though she's a doll, yes, but her face looks cracked, aged. Her hair, too, looks stringy, as though it's a wig gone wrong, mussed from too much wear. Ellen watches, her mouth half open, as Miss Adelaide's beauty falls away and the cracks and creases are revealed. Her dress is gray, almost ashen; her Kewpie smile losing some of its innocence.
"Ma'am?" Ellen says again. It's all moving much too fast; she doesn't think she can handle what's about to happen.
At once, a loud click echoes down the hall. Miss Adelaide stops her murmuring and reaches out for the doorknob. She smiles as it gives under her wizened fingers before turning the knob and opening the door.
Ellen's breath catches in her throat. She's never seen so many threads, never seen so many colors of threads, before in her life. She gazes transfixed at the rows and rows of what appear to be spindles that stand before her. She recognizes them from one of her baby books, the ones she doesn't look at much any more, with that girl whose mother was stupid enough to marry her away for a lie about golden thread. Ellen suddenly wonders what happened to the mother in that story, and what will happen to her own mother.
"What is this place?" she asks.
"It's my workshop," says Adelaide, and Ellen can tell the age has crept into her vocal chords.
"Workshop?" says Ellen. "What do you do here?"
"She ends lives," says a new voice, a voice Ellen recognizes. "She takes away children, parents and grandparents. She robs people of friends, lovers and siblings. She kills. It's her curse. Isn't it, Atropos?"
Ellen turns to see Billy in the doorway, his face the picture of fury.
"Billy?" says Ellen. "What are you doing here? I thought you were out of town for another week?"
"Got back early," says Billy, "and a damned good thing I did. What in the hell are you doing here, Ellie?"
"I-" says Ellen, but Miss Adelaide interrupts her.
"She's mine, boy," says Adelaide. "She's my apprentice. She's going to take this curse from me. She's already heard the words that open the door to this room. All she has to do now is take a blood oath."
Adelaide looks at Ellen, and there's something awful in Adelaide's eyes, something that wasn't there before. "You'll do that for me, dear, won't you? Take an oath? Help an old woman break free of this mortal coil?"
Billy looks at Ellen and back at Adelaide. "You leave her outta this, Atropos. She ain't got nothin' to do with it. She's mortal. She's never even heard of your kind. Leave her be."
"It's awfully difficult to find good help these days," says Adelaide. "I've had to be more... creative, lately. Her mother was so easy to manipulate."
"Ellie." Billy's talking to her now, Ellen realizes, and she tries to look at him but can't. Her body is stuck fast, feet planted on the floor, face turned to Adelaide, who seems to be aging faster as the seconds tick by. "Ellie, listen to me. Ignore her. She can't hurt you if you don't believe in her, baby. She can't control you, can't touch you. Just block it out."
Ellen can't even open her mouth to respond to him, to tell him his voice is getting fainter and fainter and that all she can hear is the pounding of her blood in her veins and Adelaide's voice as she croons, "That's it, darling. Just listen to Miss Adelaide."
Ellen wants to close her eyes and ears, to shut out the sound of Miss Adelaide, but she can't, frozen as she is. She tries to listen for Billy, tries to hear him over the din of Miss Adelaide's voice. Just as the sound becomes unbearable, she hears a shot. Her eyes focus again and she sees Adelaide glaring at Billy, holding her shoulder.
"How-" says Adelaide. "How- Who-"
"Didn't think I'd know about that, did you?" says Billy, and he's got that simple grin on, the one that first caught Ellen's eye. "Ain't every country bumpkin who knows that trick."
"The blood of a virgin doe," says Adelaide, only she sounds like she's gasping for air now. "No!"
"You betcha," says Billy. "So by my calculations, you gotta do what I say for the next- what, ten, twenty years?"
"No," says Adelaide again, but it comes out like a whisper.
There's so much going on that Ellen forgets to be confused, forgets to wonder why Billy's calling this woman Atropos instead of Adelaide, why she isn't dead though he shot her, why he seems to have made a slave of Adelaide. Instead, Ellen watches, transfixed, as Billy speaks to Adelaide.
Billy's face is firm as he tells Adelaide, "I want you out of this town. I want you on the other side of the Earth. I forbid you from ever comin' back here."
Even as Adelaide opens her voice in what appears to be the beginning of a scream, Ellen senses something isn't right. Adelaide must realize it, too, because she closes her mouth and smiles.
"Boy," says Adelaide, "you're a fool. Your father was a fool and so was your grandfather. Cursed, the lot of you are, with foolishness and idiocy."
"Git!" yells Billy, and he fires another shot into her.
Ellen wants to close her eyes but can't and so, as she watches, the bullet hits Miss Adelaide's shoulder and with a scream, Miss Adelaide disappears.
Ellen falls to the floor so suddenly she doesn't have time to catch herself. She knows she's banged herself up real good; she'll be black and blue all over come morning. She isn't real sure what she'll tell her mama about where the bruises came from, either.
Billy helps her to her feet. "Come on, let's get you home."
"Billy," says Ellen, "what happened back there?"
"Hush," says Billy. "Not now. Just walk with me, all right?"
"Billy," Ellen says again. "Look at me."
Billy ignores her, just keeps moving forward slow and steady. He looks just like his father then, all silence and pride, and, truth be told, she can't stand his father.
Ellen stops where she is and mumbles, "Stubborn ass."
This gets his attention. He stops as well. He's several paces ahead of her now, but instead of turning around, he just says, "What did you say?"
"I said look at me!" Ellen feels like she's on fire, like she's a tornado about to hit. She glares at Billy. "I want to know what the hell just happened in there!"
Billy does as she says then, his gaze intent on her face. He walks back towards her, his footsteps heavy, face dark with shadows. When he reaches her, he tilts her face up to his and she realizes he's smiling at her. When she sees his shoulders start to shake, she loses it.
"William Harvelle, I demand you tell me what is going on! Is this some kind of sick joke you worked up with your buddies while you were away? Did you plan this? Are you really laughing at me? I was scared to death! I-"
She pauses only when he falls to his knees in front of her and presses his face into her stomach, his arms wrapped tight around her hips. She realizes then that he's not laughing, not enough close to laughing, and that she's just made him cry. She's never seen him cry before.
Carefully she raises a hand to stroke his hair. "Hush. It's okay. It's going to be okay."
'Course that's not how she feels, but she'll be damned before she lets him know how scared she is. Instead, she waits while he shivers and shakes, his body convulsing against her, his sobs wetting her jeans. She waits while he rocks back and forth against her, expelling everything he's been carrying inside. When at last he's quiet, she tries to talk to him again.
"Tell me," she says, settling down on the ground with him. "Tell me everything."
He bites his lip. "I'm not supposed to. My Pa'll whip me good if he finds out I told you."
She reaches out and takes one of his hands in hers. "You leave your pa to me. Tell me what's going on."
"It's a family thing," he says, his tone so stubborn she swears he'd been kickin' the dirt if he stood. Another way he's like his father, she thinks with a grimace.
There's a long moment of silence before she whispers, "I am not going to ask you again."
It comes out of him then, slowly at first, but gradually the speed of his storytelling increases. He tells her about his pa and his grandpa and his great-grandpa and about the trips he takes out of town that aren't to visit family. He explains why he's got two brothers instead of three, and why nobody talks about how the other one died and why the body's not buried in town. He tells her about what he does, how hard he prays, how much he still wants to believe in some power besides evil and greed and vengeance. He talks to her about ghosts, not the kind her ma's afraid of, but the real kind, the sort that are anchored to the land and the people, and how he hates to have to make them go. He tells her about the time he got bit by something with teeth so sharp they damn near went through his arm. After a while, it seems as though he's telling her anything he can think of.
"And you," he says, a smile forming on his lips even as the tears begin again. "You beautiful, gorgeous, crazy woman. Instead of running for the hills, you demand to know what the hell's going on!"
He laughs then, but the sound is so sad it hurts her heart. His words are so strange to her ears that he might as well be speaking another language. Ellen wants to hug her knees to her chest and cry, hard and fast, sobs that will rack her body, get rid of this malaise that's taken over. She keeps her gaze fixed on him though, her eyes trained on his face. He ain't lying - it's too much for anybody to make up - and she's sure he ain't crazy, so she's stuck with the truth of it all, truth he's been keeping from her.
"I can't stop," he says, seriousness creeping back into his voice. "I can't stop, not when I know what's going on out there. It wouldn't be right. And if I did, I wouldn't be here tonight. I would have lost you, Ellie."
She doesn't know what to say to that. She's not sure how to respond when somebody shares their deepest, darkest secret that way, especially not when the secret has to do with bogeymen and ghosts and other names she can't quite remember right now but is sure she'll become used to hearing later. She doesn't think she even has secrets that cryptic.
"And Atropos, well, we've been watching her for years now," Billy says. "Taking people's lives like that, it'll drive you crazy. Her sisters, they're all right, never caused us any trouble. Atropos is a force to be reckoned with. Took bribes from rich folks to extend their lives; sometimes she honored her word, sometimes she didn't. When a being has that much power- Well, look what happened to Lucifer."
Ellen nods. It buys her some time to think about how to respond to everything he's told her tonight. Unfortunately, it doesn't buy her enough. They sit together in silence, couched in revelations. Ellen wonders if this is why she was so drawn to him in the first place, if she wanted the mystery and the magic he's presented her with now. She honestly doesn't know.
"Baby?" says Billy, and the fear in his voice is so palpable she thinks if she reaches out, she can grasp it, pull it all inside her, away from him.
"I'm here," she says, her tone smooth and even as the strokes he presses against her the following night, when she sneaks out to meet him in the cornfields back behind the house.
"Thank you," he whispers, clutching tight to her, their naked bodies pressed together.
She doesn't respond, just waits until she hears his breathing turn soft and slow. That's when she lets herself tremble at last, all her fears made real in own mind.
But she'll be damned before she'll let him catch her like that.