Wilhelm stood silently at the bottom of the stairs, one elegant hand curled around the cold metal of the iron doors. He watched his nephew intently, eyes wide with anxiety, his brow furrowed. Christofer's blonde head was bent over something he held in one slim hand. Wilhelm's eyes strayed to the rusted nail that protruded from the wall. Usually a tarnished brass key hung there, but noting hug there now, the faded wall paper beneath it scraped bare.
~Should I say something or just wait? ~he asked himself, his indecision a pain in his heart. Why did he always feel so inadequate for this situation? It was nigh overwhelming at times, and he wished to flee, forgetting his nephew and what had happened here in this house for so long. But he had taken on this responsibility; he would not abandon Christofer now. Not when he felt he owed the youth - something.
He could see the young man was struggling with something himself, and he feared to interrupt the internal battle going on at the top of the stairs, though he knew that if his nephew made even the smallest indication that he was going to open that room . . . .
Suddenly Christofer hung the key back on the nail, and turned. He started when he saw his uncle staring up at him, dark eyes intense.
Wilhelm forced a smile to his lips. What should he say? What could he say?
"Yes, I . . . Feodor said you had come up here. I wasn't . . . ."
"You weren't certain that this was a good thing for me to do?" Christofer finished for him, allowing a wry smile. "I'm sorry. It was . . . foolish of me. I . . . I panicked and . . . but I'm fine now. The air here is a bit . . . stale."
Wilhelm nodded, knowing that the boy was not being entirely truthful with him, but he had no wish to remain here in this cold stairwell forever, staring up at the scarred door behind his nephew's slender form. The air here was not - right, was the only word the man could think of to describe the heavy feeling of oppression and fear that seemed to permeate the very walls themselves. How Christofer had survived up here as long as he did was a miracle in itself. It was not healthy.
"Yes, let us go downstairs."
As they walked side by side down the main staircase, their footfalls muffled by the rich carpeting on the steps, worn down and shiny in the center of the treads, Christofer turned slightly to look at his uncle as his long, slender fingers of one hand trailed over the polished teak of the banister.
~Did he ever believe me? ~ he wondered, his eyes moving to the floor beneath his feet. ~ Did anyone? ~ He wished he could ask, but knew that the words that wanted release from his soul would get caught somewhere between his heart and his tongue. As always the question would go unspoken. Perhaps he wasn't ready for the answer he might receive. In silence they descended the staircase, both trapped in thoughts that shrouded their voices.
A hot rush of tears was quickly blinked back. He felt a sudden weariness descend upon him. He wondered where the letter bearing only one word and the small red teardrop was. Gone no doubt. Out of sight out of mind. He suppressed a sigh of defeat. Would this ever stop haunting him? Who had sent it if not 'him'? How had he known he had come home? Had he perhaps been watching him the entire two years? Did he know of everything that had happened in that time? Was he merely biding his time until the moment was ripe for the taking?
"No," he breathed. "He . . . he is not real. It is not going to happen . . . not again."
Wilhelm turned to look at him reluctantly. He had nearly spoken, nearly said, "Did you say something?" But he would not allow himself to ask. He had heard the quiet words only too well. He drew a deep silent breath, willing his pounding heart to return to normal. Hadn't Elena just said, not many minutes ago that he had not mentioned this very thing.
"Did you get to eat what Blanca brought to you?" he asked instead, a much safer question for them both, as they made their way to the first floor. "No. I . . . I am not hungry. I think I will go lie down for a while. If that is alright with you, Uncle Willie."
Wilhelm did look at him then. The blue eyes were down cast, and he could see the shimmering line where tears had slipped down the too pale cheeks.
"That is alright. We shall see you at dinner then?"
Christofer nodded, and turned to go back up the stairs to his 'new' room, his head still bent, shoulders slumped beneath the terrible new fear, which was in fact an old, dreaded fear returned.
"Dinner is at seven," Wilhelm called quietly, watching him move silently down the hallway.
After he heard a distant door close somewhere down the dark hall, Wilhelm continued down the stairs in silence. Elena and Feodor were waiting for him in the parlor, both looking up when he entered. Though the fire crackled cheerily in the hearth, the room was decidedly chill.
"How is he?" Elena asked her large eyes filled with concern. She moved to embrace him, feeling the tension that stiffened his body even as her arms held him close.
"He is tired and going to lie down for a while," Wilhelm answered slowly, staring at the small clock on the mantle. "He said he would be down for dinner."
Feodor, who was not as tactful as Elena, grunted and folded his arms over his chest, his eyes dark beneath furrowed brows. He glared up at the man who was now his employer.
"Did he go into that room?" he demanded.
Wilhelm's gaze moved slowly, as if with great effort, to the small man. They were all angry, the weight of guilt was not an easy thing to live with.
"No. No, he didn't. He was - he was just staring at the key when I arrived, but then he hung it back up. Of his own volition."
"I am going up there now to take that key down and hide it somewhere. I don't know why we haven't done this already." The man's voice was harsh with criticism, not only of them but of himself also. Yes, guilt was not easy to live with. He moved across the room and out into the hall. They could hear him stomping up the stairs, muttering to himself.
"Well," Elena said, steering Wilhelm toward the sofa. "At least he didn't go in. That is something."
Wilhelm nodded as he sat down, his eyes staring at nothing now. It was something. A small victory he supposed. If only . . . He shook his head and drew a ragged breath.
"What else happened, Wilhelm?" She asked quietly, moving to stroke his troubled brow with cool fingers. "Please tell me."
"I cannot right now, Leni. Not - yet."
Elena sighed, pulling her shawl more tightly about her slim shoulders. A sudden chill of foreboding filled her. They should never have come back to this house. It was too full of unpleasant memories. This was not healthy. Not for any of them. She began to wonder just what Dr. Derwent hoped to accomplish by sending them here. But she spoke of none of her fears; Wilhelm was already bearing more than he should have to. She would not burden him any further with her own doubts and troubles. She leaned her head against his shoulder, eyes on the darkening sky that was spitting snow. Her gaze slipped to the fireplace. Inside the evidence of the letter had vanished, eaten by the flames. Hopefully there would be no more letters. No more reminders of the past. Then her gaze moved to the tray with the tea things on it. Untouched.
~Give us the strength to endure, ~ she prayed silently, one hand moving to touch the silver crucifix that lay beneath her dress. ~ Help us to endure - what lies ahead. ~ She recalled the blood red teardrop she had seen on the bottom of the letter, and she couldn't help but wonder what they would do if their nephew's fears were real after all.