“Are you—oh my God, did I kill you?” the girl asked.
Normally a silly question. A dead person could hardly answer her. This was Grimbly Hall, though.
Luckily Babs was a lot tougher than she looked. There is probably some complicated scientific answer to why she was not electrocuted—perhaps the fact that her blood, being fresh water and therefore not containing any iron, was a poor conductor—but it might as well have just been magic. There was plenty of that in Babs as well.
“I’m still kicking,” Babs said. “Do me a favor though, huh? Don’t offer me a hand getting up.”
In point of fact the most significant casualty of the shock was Babs’s dignity. She rose, a little stiffly, to her feet. Glancing down at her arm she saw it was a little red where she’d made contact with the girl’s shoulders, but she imagined that would fade in time (to save us all having to remember about this injury, let’s just assume it did). “Let’s start again, shall we?” she said. “I’m Babs, and I imagine you know this is Grimbly Hall.”
The girl nodded. Her eyes were red from weeping and wide from fear.
Babs waited a moment before asking. “What do they call you, babe?”
“Oh. Oh! I’m, uh, I’m Catherine McGillicuddy.” She gave a little curtsey.
“Well, Cathy—Kate?” The girl nodded, not meeting Babs’s eye. “Kate, then. Perhaps you oughta come in. When I first saw you I thought you might have come to wrong dump. Now, not so much.” She gestured for the girl to follow her into the great hall. She considered taking her to the library, but then stopped to reconsider. “You, uh, you’re a live wire, huh? You’re electrified, I mean?”
The girl nodded, a quick little bird-like bob of the head.
“Not just your shoulders, I’m guessing. If I put you in an armchair, you’re just going to set it on fire. Maybe—yeah. Come through here.” She took the girl into a wing of the house that was being converted into her natatorium. The place was only half finished—which meant it was mostly just a big hole in the ground—but large blocks of marble had been stacked inside, some just the right size to serve as benches. Babs bade the girl to sit down. She wondered if she would have to run down to the kitchen and beg for a glass of water, but before she could even start to make a plan Hughes came into the room carrying a silver platter.
Kate screamed, a little, to see the platter seemingly floating on thin air. “I’m so sorry,” she said, covering her mouth with her hands. “I suppose I need to get used to things like this, if I’m going to spend the rest of my life here.”
Babs decided to let that go sans comment. “It’s just the butler. He’s harmless,” she said, giving Hughes a nasty look for the way he’d snubbed her earlier. “Useful, I suppose, if you’re on his good side.” The platter came to rest between the woman and the… well, young woman. It would be helpful for the sake of this narrative if there were some word for children older than twelve but younger than twenty, but there wasn’t one in common usage and wouldn’t be until well into the 1930s. So for now we will describe Kate as a young woman. Anyway—we were discussing the platter. It held a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. Babs poured for both of them but let Kate pick up her own glass. She wished she had some vodka to add to her own, but was more interested in hearing the girl’s story than running to the nearest bar (of which the Hall had several—Neville never liked to be more than twenty yards from offering someone a drink, one of his many charms as far as Babs was concerned).
“Let’s start with what you’re doing here,” Babs said, trying very hard not to let slang sneak into her words. She had a feeling this apple knocker bunny wasn’t hip to roaring New York’s flash tony lingo.
“I guess it started a couple of days ago,” Kate said. “When I was struck by lightning.”
Babs nodded appreciatively, thinking, now we’re getting somewhere.
“I live—I mean, I used to live on a farm not far from here. Just the other side of the woods, you know? I grew up playing on the hills up there. The other idea I was upset about something—I don’t even remember what. I suppose I’d had a fight with my mother, that’s typically the reason. Anyway, I ran out of the house and up to those hills where I’d always gone when I wanted to be alone. I knew it was raining, and that a storm was coming, but I didn’t even care. I was such a little fool!”
“There, there,” Babs said. She resisted the urge to pat the girl on the back.
“The rain grew heavier and heavier and I was soaked to the skin but I didn’t want to go back. And that was when the lightning came. It was so eerie! I saw the tops of the trees start to glow, like some luminous finger was counting them. The air smelled odd, like ozone, I guess, and then a stroke of lightning, just a little one, came down and smashed the ground, not a hundred yards from me. It was terrifying, and I forgot all about my upset, and I tried to run home. The lightning, though… it followed me. Chased after me, coming down again and again, always closer, like footfalls chasing after me and then… and then… well, I don’t really remember. In fact, for a while afterward I couldn’t remember anything. I felt very hot, and my hair was standing up on end all over my…” the young woman blushed. “All over my body,” she whispered.
“You mean…?” Babs asked, leaning close, though not close enough to touch.
Kate nodded and hid her face in her hands. “The hair on my… my calves, even,” she said.
Babs felt an urge to tuck her own immaculately shaved legs underneath herself, as if there were something shameful about having one’s knees exposed, even in such limited company. But of course that was nonsense, pure horsefeathers. “Go on,” she said.
“I felt so peculiar. I had no idea where I was, or where I was meant to go. I wandered about for a long time on the hills, and I think I would have caught a horrible chill and died if my father hadn’t found me. He called my name and it was like, well, like switching on a light. I remembered myself and I ran to him. And then he threw my arms around me and, and, and—”
“Oh dear,” Babs said. “I imagine he took a stronger belt than I did, just now.”
Kate nodded. “I burnt him, all over his chest and his neck. I hurt my own dear papa! I can never forgive myself for that. He’s a very proud man, though, like most farmers, and he wouldn’t hear a word of it. He brought me home and warned mama not to touch me. He wanted so very much to help me. They sent for a doctor who looked me over with rubber gloves but the doctor couldn’t make hide or hair of it. And the whole time I couldn’t even sit down! Mama was so very angry, because I kept setting the rugs to smoldering, until I put on the shoes I wear for physical culture class at school.”
Babs glanced at the young woman’s footwear and saw they were rubber-soled tennis shoes, of the kind commonly known as sneakers. Atrocious to look at, but apparently a vital necessity, now.
“The doctor said these lines on my skin are called Lichtenberg figures, and that people who are struck by lightning get them, though he’d never seen a case this bad, not even in his textbooks at medical school. Mama said she’d heard of them, too, but that they were called lightning flowers. She and the doctor had a big argument about it.”
Kate’s mother, Babs thought, sounded like an eminently disagreeable person. “Did this croaker help you at all?” Babs asked.
“He tried all manner of things,” Kate went on. “He thought perhaps they could discharge the electricity from me, so they hooked me up to a flat car battery, but it just made an awful lot of sparks and my fingers hurt from the alligator clamps. He tried feeding me nerve pills, but those just made me, you know. Ill.”
“I can imagine,” Babs said, who’d had a similar experience the first time she’d tried laudanum—the chief ingredient in such patent medicines.
“The doctor gave up, eventually, and he left shaking his head. Papa said not to worry, that they would take me to the city and find a specialist. It never got that far, though. This was last night. Mama came to me, at bedtime. I couldn’t even lie down in a bed, of course, so I just had to lean up against the wall and I was so tired, but mama told me I was cursed. She said I must have done something terrible to have brought this down on myself, that I must have offended God in some way.”
“Nonsense,” Babs insisted, not even bothering to say applesauce or banana oil, as she might if she weren’t so offended.
“She turned me out of the house, while papa was sleeping,” Kate said. “She told me to get away from them, so I didn’t burn the house down. What could I do? I ran off, into the night. I’ve been away from home all night, just wandering in the woods, in the frightful cold, except I didn’t feel cold at all. I think the lightning in me kept me warm. It was in the woods I met a very nice man, another doctor in fact, though he said he wasn’t the medical kind. I don’t know what he was doing out so late, but he came up behind me without my noticing and I was very startled. But he just smiled and calmed me down and asked me about my story. I told him as much as I dared. He said I should come here, to Grimbly Hall.”
“That would’ve been Doctor Thurlow, I imagine,” Babs said. She knew exactly what he was doing out in the woods in the middle of the night—and that it was probably only the girl’s affliction that kept him from doing it. Draining her blood, namely, as the local physicist was in fact a vampire.
“He said if I came here, the man who owns this house would take me in. That he’ll take in any kind of monster.”
“That’s… true,” Babs said. “Though let’s get one thing clear. Kate,” she said, wishing she could take the young woman’s hands in her own, “you’re not a monster.”
“I’ve been stricken with some kind of magical curse,” Kate pointed out.
“I’ve been disfigured horribly,” the young woman said, gesturing at the jagged red lines across her face.
“‘Disfigured’ is a strong word.”
“I’m possessed of a terrible destructive power. I’ve been shunned by human society,” Kate went on, ticking off points on her fingers. “At what point do I get to be called a monster?”
Babs had a sudden thought. “You want me to call you that, don’t you?”
Kate looked away. “I only figured—if I was a monster, then when I came to the house full of monsters, they wouldn’t eat me.”
Babs inhaled sharply. “I can assure you, we don’t go in for that kind of business in this house.” Well. Reggie might, though only during the full moon, and that was weeks away. “You’re safe here, Kate. I promise you—we’ll look out for you. And if there’s a way to help you, to get rid of this thing, we’ll do it.”
Which seemed to comfort the girl, a little.
Babs just wished she had any idea where to start.