It was past noon when Baird turned off of the back woods highway we had been traveling all morning. Our route took us down a paved drive flanked on either side by six-foot tall stone wolves. The large statues stood at attention, atop square pedestals, their unseeing eyes staring outward. Behind these sentinels, rows of hedges loomed toward the sky, stretching away to connect seamlessly with the thick forest, creating an impenetrable wall of green that made it impossible to see what might be beyond. I hesitated only a moment before turning my car after Baird’s tortured looking truck.
Beyond the hedgerow lay an over-grown lawn spreading out before us, seemingly forever. Twisting up from the tall grasses weeping willows stood in what appeared to be precise lines, but they were far enough apart that I couldn’t be sure. Blue and yellow wild flowers were in full bloom, for some reason, they made me think of Erin.
“You can call her you know.” Zoe, smiled. I wasn’t looking at her but I could tell.
“How do you do that?”
“Do what?” Her surprise might have been sincere. Maybe.
“Read my mind. Is that part of what we can do?” If it was then she was definitely teaching me how to do it. I’d find a way to make her.
“Don’t be paranoid. I can’t read your mind.” She rolled her eyes. “You had the same look on your face just now as when you spent the entire movie staring at Erin.”
I felt my cheeks redden. I hadn’t realized anyone had been aware of my preoccupation. At least she couldn’t read my mind. “Great. Nothing like being exposed as a slobbering horn dog.”
“Relax. She didn’t even notice.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because she was really surprised when I told her.”
I might have retorted to her clever remark, I was certainly planning to, but the manor came suddenly into view.
“This thing must be visible from space.” I muttered in awe.
The building before me was immense. Its size seemed to defy comprehension. Constructed of maroon colored brick and some sort of red wood, gleaming as though it had been polished every day for a hundred years, the Manor was easily six stories high. It was capped by a cathedral like steeple containing a large stained-glass window, depicting a wolf among storm clouds. A wide, rounded balcony extended from the second floor out over the front entrance, creating a sheltered parking area, its outer edges supported by a trio of thick stone pillars sculpted to resemble wolves.
“It’s beautiful,” Zoe breathed, leaning forward in her seat.
I couldn’t disagree, but I wanted to. I had an unshakable feeling of unease crawling on spindly legs up my spine. The size and magnificence of the structure before me was intimidating, but it wasn’t that-or rather, it wasn’t only that-which made me uneasy. The thought washing my body in a cold sweat was that my father, and maybe my mother too, had run from this place-he had even changed his name. Despite all of the obvious splendor, my parents hadn’t wanted any part of this place. The thought gave the building a sinister countenance.
I followed Baird’s example and parked beneath the over-hanging balcony, opposite the front entrance. I noticed the driveway looped by the front steps and led away to several outbuildings, one of which looked like an old horse stable converted into a garage. I wondered how many cars it held. It couldn’t possibly be as many as it’s length and number of doors suggested.
Baird stepped out of his truck, his sheathed sword in one tightly clenched fist, and shot me a strange look as he passed by the hood of my car.
“Stay here for a minute,” I instructed Zoe, hoping she would listen to me for once. Something about that look had urged caution.
“Is something wrong?” I could hear fear in her voice, which I hated, but I hoped it would keep her in the car.
“I’m not sure. Just stay here.” I answered and quickly followed after Baird. He was standing at the base of the rounded brick steps leading up to the elegant front doors of the Manor. He stood like a man awaiting judgement; nervous and defiant. I stood beside him, a little puzzled and a lot scared.
The doors opened outward slowly, ominously, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Baird stiffen as a huge bear of a man emerged. Dressed completely in black, from his thick trench coat and turtleneck to his slacks and loafers, the russet-skinned beast paused at the top the steps to run big hands over his slicked-back hair. Black of course. The style was odd, shaved clean on the sides to just above the ears. “Baird” He acknowledged in a German accent, baring gleaming white teeth in a menacing smile, as he adjusted dark wrap around shades.
“Rudy.” Baird returned with exaggerated casualness and a slight smirk.
“I trust everything went well?” Big Red’s tone sounded disinterested.
“Sorry Rudy, I really don’t see how that’s any of your business.” I must have been imagining the taunting edge in Baird’s gravelly voice. Either that, or he was crazy. As loud as it was, there was no mistaking the sound of the big guy grinding his teeth.
“You try my patience sword-bearer”
“Yeah well, you’re an employee here. You’ll live with it.” Baird’s smirk slipped from his face like a silk veil “Or you could die that way.”
“I hope there is not some sort of trouble here.” Both men straightened at the sound of this new voice. Rudy stepped aside as another man emerged from the Manor, ducking under the door frame. While Rudy had been, up to that point, the largest man whom I had ever seen, this man was monstrous! I blinked, trying to make my eyes agree with my mind about what was physically possible. How could anyone be so gargantuan? Almost seven feet tall, his huge bald head sat atop a bull-neck and truly massive shoulders. He had the same dark gray eyes I was beginning to associated with all the men of my family and his dark brown beard was neatly trimmed along his jaw line, widening as it met his moustache. He was wearing a light gray suit that looked like it cost about as much as my car, with a deep crimson tie which matched the leather gloves stretched tightly over fists almost as big as my head.
“Theodore.” Baird inclined his head in a gesture of respect seeming at odds with the barely restrained anger I heard in his voice.
“Baird” Theodore’s voice was molten steel and his thin smile could have sliced concrete. “Am I to assume you are behind the sudden shift in the weather patterns?”
“Couldn’t be helped.” Baird’s jaw clenched as he answered. He didn’t look Theodore directly in the eye, rather he stood staring straight ahead at a point somewhere on Theodore’s chest.
“And what, exactly, was so important that I must have Alexander spend a great deal of his precious time fixing the weather?” Theodore’s gloved fists shook at his sides.
“Tradition. The funeral.” Baird’s voice was clipped and cold as chipped ice. The tension in the air was thick enough that I could feel layers of built up anger between these two-it was obviously something going far beyond their current disagreement. Whatever that was.
Theodore held his glare on Baird for a moment longer. Then visibly relaxed. “Yes, of course. The funeral. Tradition.” He nodded thoughtfully as he turned to smile down at me. It seemed less angry. “This must be young Ichabod.” He looked me over, his eyes scouring every follicle and clogged pore, his smile, turning slightly sour. While he continued to speak to Baird those eyes never left me. “Baird this boy looks as though he might kill himself trying to light a candle. I expect you to remedy this.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what his words meant, but I understood that some kind of insult was implied. I felt my face flush with anger and embarrassment. I locked stares with the bald behemoth. There was no way I was going to let him know how intimidated I was. I had managed to hold stares with Baird, mostly; I could manage this, too. Unfortunately, I wasn’t fooling Theodore any more than I had Baird.
“Top of my to-do list.” Baird answered
Theodore again began nodding, but stopped short, focusing his attention over my shoulder-just as I heard the distinct sounds of a car door open and then close behind me. Why couldn’t the little twerp ever listen to me?
“And this must be the lovely Zo….” His voice cut off with a small strangled noise that sounded odd coming from such a mountainous man. The smile which had begun to slink across his face froze into a grimace.
I turned to see Zoe, standing beside me now, at a loss to explain what about her could possibly elicit such a reaction? For her part, Zoe stared back up at Theodore with a smirk very similar to Baird’s. What the hell? I was getting the feeling there was a lot going on I didn’t understand. I couldn’t tell if the low growl was coming from Baird, Theodore or me. I guess it could have been the other guy; Rudy? I stepped protectively in front of Zoe, trying to prepare myself to face-off against the giants. Problem was, I was no David and there were TWO Goliath’s.
The moment I interposed between their locked stares Theodore recovered himself with a minute shake and on oily smile. “Pretty girl.” His voice had become stiff, formal, neutral. “I want her put under Genevieve’s tutelage.”
I saw Baird and Rudy both flinch and wondered what Theodore’s words could portend. Baird spoke before I could ask. “I don’t think….”
“The decision has been made!” Theodore whirled towards him, fists shaking and his gray eyes alight with barely controlled fury. “What you think is irrelevant!” His snarl broke, mid-sentence, becoming a bellow of rage. Baird’s eyes tightened as the bore back into Theodore’s, but he nodded his acceptance. Theodore’s calm returned instantly, he even chuckled and straightened his tie. “Good. Rudolph and I will be in Toronto until the Summit. Try not to demolish the Manor in my absence.” He laughed at his own joke, striding off in the direction of the garage, the unjolly red giant following close behind him. “I expect to see progress by the time I return.” He called back over his shoulder with a joviality somehow more menacing than any of his angry outbursts had been.
Holy crap. My parents had run because their family was mad. Stark raving mad. Was this where my fits of rage came from? Was it genetic? Zoe had said our…. thing, was hereditary. When Theodore had finally disappeared from sight all three of us exhaled audibly. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one the Big Bad Baldy had that effect on.
“Someday,” Baird growled from behind clenched teeth.
“I don’t suppose you’d mind telling me what the hell that was all about?” I asked without any real hopes of actually getting an answer.
“Nope,” Baird replied, still staring in the direction Theodore had gone.
“Screw this. Come on Zoe, let’s get outta here.” I grabbed her by the hand to lead her away.
“Itch…” Her tone held a warning.
“You’re not going anywhere punk.” Baird’s free hand barred me from my car.
“I’m beyond fed up with this crap. If you don’t…..”
He was fast. Too fast. So Fast, I didn’t realize he was moving until I felt his hand wrap around my throat and the back of my head slam off of the hood of my car. Bright colors exploded across my vision. It could have been the painful head trauma, but I thought we had been at least a half dozen feet from the car only a second before. Baird’s blazing gray eyes were the first thing that penetrated the psychedelic fireworks display, followed quickly by his face, and although his voice was politely conversational, small flecks of foam collected at the corners of his mouth as he spoke, “You were about to speak fighting words.” His iron grip on my throat tightened infinitesimally. “To me.” He paused, allowing me a moment to fully appreciate my predicament, I didn’t like my chances. “Do you honestly think that was a good idea?” his hand loosened enough for me to shake my head. “Good. Because if you ever speak fighting words to me, we’re going to fight. And you’re going to lose. Am I making myself clear?”
I nodded as best as I could in assent.
He held me for a second longer, then in one liquid motion pulled me to my feet and released me. I barely noticed. I was too busy trying no to wet myself. I was far beyond trying to hide my intimidation this time, I couldn’t even stop myself from trembling. I had never been so terrified. It was more than being afraid of Baird, which I most certainly was, it was gut churning fear of recognition threatening to shake me to pieces. Recognition of that familiar glow in Baird’s eyes. The same glow I’d seen reflected in the mirror during my fits. I felt sick. It was hereditary, and apparently it would get worse. Judging my Baird and Theodore. It wouldn’t be safe for Zoe to be around me, for anyone. For Erin.
“Are you okay Itch?” I felt Zoe’s tiny hand slip into mine and give it a reassuring squeeze. How long until just that simple gesture became too dangerous?
“He’s fine,” Baird answered for me as he walked up the steps toward he still open front door. “Are you punks coming?”
“Itch?” Zoe’s voice sounded very far away for some reason.
“I’m okay.” I lied a little breathlessly and, with some effort, forced myself to follow Baird into the Manor. Amazingly, and to my relief, I was able to walk without my legs wobbling.
Beyond a small anteroom, housing various coats and boots we passed an inner door. Less ornate than anything outside, this door was heavy, bound in studded iron bands running from it’s pointed hinges, and old. I crossed beyond its threshold expecting a dungeon. Initially, all I could see were the multitudinous glittering of dust motes floating in the bars of light slanting in from windows high above and behind me. Once my eyes adjusted to the Manor’s strange play of light on shadow I felt my jaw slowly drop. Literally drop. I tried to take in the entire sight, but there was simply too much.
We had entered into a huge hall, from which dozens of ornately carved sliding oak doors led off in every direction. Between each door, the walls were covered with countless portraits in ostentatious gold frames that, from the few I could see clearly, depicted men and women from a myriad of different time periods. Or Halloween parties. Across from us a wide staircase swept up to the second floor, which apparently spread out from the railed balcony looking down on us as it wrapped around the entire hall. The design seemed to have been built for the singular purpose of drawing attention up to the impossibly large chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling-a ceiling so high up it made me dizzy to look at it. What was up with everything being so big?
“I’m going to get lost in here.” I realized aloud.
“Nothin to it.” Baird slapped me on the shoulder. Hard.
“I’ll draw you a map.” He chuckled and headed for the stairs.
Okay, maybe he was bi-polar or something.
I made sure I had a firm grasp on Zoe’s hand before I followed. I had the feeling paranoid thought that my tiny little sister would disappear amid all the space and grandeur. As we walked across the long hall, I got a better look at the many portraits we passed. For the most part, it was easy to tell all of these . people were related: this one had that one’s nose, or chin or bearing, but there was one trait every single one of them had in common.
“They all have gray eyes,” I pointed out.
Baird turned and followed my gaze to the nearest portrait. It depicted a wiry young man dressed in the regalia of the quintessential cowboy, he even had a six-gun belted to his waist. The brass plaque on the bottom bore the bold inscription “Jasper Cayce 1831-1901”.
“Course they do. All Cayce’s have gray eyes.”
“I don’t,” Zoe said beside me.
“You’re young yet, Squirt, maybe they’ll change color.” He turned quickly and began walking again.
“It just means you’re special,” I reassured her.
“That’s sweet, Itch, but I’m not six.” She rolled her eyes.
“Fine, weirdo.” I pushed the back of her head lightly and she laughed.
At the top of the staircase, we headed directly across to a door that opened onto a narrow, less ornate, flight of stairs. These stairs made a slow spiral upward. Stopping at several small landings and then heading upward again at a different angle. I thought it was four, maybe five, flights of stairs later that we reached a simple wood door at the head of a long hallway sloping downward into darkness.
“Billy always told me your kind of a loner,” Baird explained as he swung the door inward. “So I figured you’d like a room away from everyone else.
My new room had obviously been an attic a short time ago. Cobwebs still clung to the exposed beams that ran from the floor to the peaked ceiling. An antique four-poster bed and a large desk covered with tiny drawers sat side by side in the center of the room atop a large oval rug that might have once been brown or orange but was now neither. A naked bulb hung from the ceiling by a thick electrical cord, however, the room was currently illuminated by sunlight sparkling in through the round stained-glass window I had noticed from outside. A standing wardrobe stood along the opposite wall next to a slightly ajar door, which looked like it led into a bathroom. My own bathroom. Sweet.
“There’s a laptop and a cellphone in the desk. They’re yours,” Baird off-handedly. “I’ll have the Bean-pole run your stuff up to you later. Relax here for now. I’ve gotta run the Squirt down to her new digs.”
“I’ll come with you.” I offered.
“Relax. She doesn’t need you to baby-sit her, I’m passing her off to her baby-sitter. Besides, it’s the South wing. No boys allowed.”
“But you just said that you….”
“No boys allowed, Punk. No boys.”
“It’s alright Itch.” Zoe gave my had a final squeeze.
“I’m much too adorable for anyone to want to hurt me.”
“if anybody tries, just threaten to give them a make-over,” I joked and gave her a hug. I hoped there would never come a day when I would be too dangerous to hug my little sister.
“I know Erin gave you her numbers and email, so no excuses.” She smiled and reached up to flick the tip of my nose as she backed of the room.
Once they were gone I turned towards the desk, all of my thoughts focused on the cell phone concealed within. Should I call her? It seemed like a ridiculously unimportant question given everything that had happened, but it still made me sweat as if my life hung in the balance. What would I say? I certainly couldn’t tell her the truth, not if I didn’t want her to think I was completely off my nut. But what did that leave? I pulled the tiny scrap of paper Erin had given me out of my pocket and set it on the desk where I could stare at it. Some desperate part of me hoped the sight would somehow inspire the answers I needed. I sat heavily on the edge of the bed and tried to clear my mind. It didn’t work, all I could see was a pair of clear light green eyes. I dug out the cellphone and dialed the number at the top of the paper before I could talk myself out of it. I still had no idea what I would say.
She answered in the middle of the second ring.
“Hello?” Erin’s voice was slightly breathless.
“Erin?” I asked unnecessarily and immediately felt stupid for doing so.
“Ichabod?” Did she sound happy? Nervous? Irritated? My mind sprinted ahead, asking questions I had no way to answer. There was a long silence as I struggled for something to say, hopefully something that didn’t sound completely moronic.
“Ichabod? Is that you?”
“Um, yeah. Hi.” I suck. I smacked the heel of my palm into my forehead in admonishment-also hoping to kick start my brain.
“Hi.” Another long silence followed, then. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah, sorry. It’s just, well, I’m trying to figure out what to say. It’s not going so well. I probably should have thought it through before I called, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you and I wanted to hear your voice.” So much for kick starting my brain. Maybe I didn’t have one. I almost hung up in embarrassment.
“Wow,” she breathed. “Now I’m the one who doesn’t know what to say.”
“Sorry, I’m an idiot.”
“You’re refreshingly honest.”
“And an idiot.” I insisted miserably. I was an idiot. Rather than looking after my little sister, or maybe using my alone time to mourn my parents, I was talking to a beautiful girl and making a mess of it. Not to mention feeling guilty about it. When had I become so complicated? It had been only a few days ago that it had seemed like all I needed was my music and my car to be happy. Or something like happy. That was before my date with Erin and before my parent’s murder-would I go back to undo the latter, if it meant undoing the former?
“Are you okay?”
Ah, our perennial question. “Yeah,” I lied, and hated myself for it. I didn’t want to lie, not to her, but I didn’t know how to tell her the truth-even the parts of it that wouldn’t make me sound like a raving lunatic.
“You don’t sound like you’re okay.” She was silent, the only sound her breathing. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I miss you,” I blurted and felt like an idiot. Again. She sighed before answering. “I miss you, too.”
“Is that such a bad thing?” I asked trying to figure out why I would ask a question I felt sure I didn’t want to know the answer to. Stupidity probably.
“No, not bad,” She explained slowly. “Just weird. We don’t really know each other.”
I was about to tell her how ridiculous that was, of course I knew her, when it hit me-she was right. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but I really didn’t know her. All of the time I had spent staring at her I had imagined what she would be like, I had dreamed about who she was, but I didn’t know her. All of these feelings turning my thoughts into chaos were for my idealized version of Erin, not Erin herself. The realization filled me with intense shame. Great. That was all I needed, something else to feel guilty about. I had always imagined my love to be pure, but now I had to admit that maybe it wasn’t love at all-maybe my Erin and the Erin had nothing in common. I had just told Zoe I didn’t really know Erin, but I hadn’t believed it, it had just been my way to avoid answering her question. Was it even possible to be in love with a girl who only existed inside of your head? Was there any basis for my over whelming feelings?
“Are you still there?” Her voice startled me from my reverie.
“Yeah. Sorry.” How could I explain to her? Why did I never have the right words? Hold on, hadn’t I already decided that, for some crazy reason, the truth worked for Erin and me? Maybe I could tell her part of the truth, the part about how I felt. There was still the possibility I would sound like a raving lunatic, but I decided to risk it. “I was just thinking that you’re right. We don’t really know each other, but I know how I fell and I know I want the chance to find out if it’s real.”
“How do you do that?” she whispered. I wasn’t sure if she had meant for me to hear.
“Doesn’t matter,” She laughed. “ I….I feel the same way.”
“Really?” Maybe the receiver on this phone was broken and I’d heard her wrong.
“Yes really. Don’t sound so surprised.”
“Okay, Okay, this is good.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself from smiling. “So where do we start?”
“I don’t think we need to try to fit it all into one phone conversation.”
We tried anyway. Our conversation became easy. Conversation was never easy for me. We talked about everything-you know, almost-neither one of us mentioned my parents and I steered clear of anything likely to get me committed in the real world. Everything else. She told me about her dream of someday traveling the globe and shared with me her guilty pleasure for 80’s rock ballads-which I thought was hilarious. I told her about my dream of someday driving cross-country in my car and shared with her the frustrations that came with being Zoe’s big brother-which she thought was hilarious. It was hours later when I heard her mother call her for dinner.
“Call me tomorrow?” She asked.
I was practically floating when I final hung up, immediately braking into a dance.
“Ahhhh, puppy love.” The gravelly voice coming from my open doorway stopped me cold. I turned slowly to face Baird, who was leaning against the door frame, with his arms folded across his chest.
“What do you know about it?” I asked, annoyed that he had interrupted my moment.
“I know that what you’re feeling right now is mostly the fault of hormones and bad romantic comedies,” he snorted. “Come on, I came to get you for dinner. Figured you’d get lost and starve without an escort.”
I was angry enough to forget that this man terrified me, angry enough that I would’ve told him to go to hell-if I hadn’t realized he was probably right about me getting lost and starving. I spent a quick moment weighing my annoyance against my hunger, and the sheer size of the Manor. My rumbling stomach tipped the scales. “Lead on.”
We walked down the sloping hallway, rather than the stairs leading back down into the entrance hall. It seemed to take forever to navigate through the wide corridors, I only vaguely noticed the antique furnishings everywhere. With each passing minute I found myself being more and more grateful to have a guide. Even if it was Baird. It had just begun to feel more like a hike than a walk through the house when we finally reached our destination, which turned out to be a huge modern kitchen. By this time the huge part wasn’t much of a surprise, every thing here was super-sized. But the modern part….it was the first room I’d seen whose furnishings had been made after the turn of the century. The last century. With all the stainless steel it looked almost like a surgical room, or a morgue.
“Sit down, kid, I’ll make you a sandwich.” He motioned to an uncomfortable looking stool rising out of the floor like a steel mushroom, it was one of a dozen which surrounded the kitchen’s central island.
“When is somebody going to tell me, what’s going on?” I asked as I sat and wondered who was going to eat all of the food he was pulling out.
“I know you’ve got questions and you’re entitled to some of the answers.” He cut a loaf of bread lengthwise. “But not tonight. You’ve already got enough to take in without adding more to the mix.” Amazingly, he actually sounded reasonable.
“Are you bi-polar?”
“Kid,” He said, handing me a thick roast beef sandwich. “They don’t have a word for what I am.”