Babs nearly dragged Kate through the house, taking her to the back parlor. She’d read enough Agatha Christie to know that a drawing room was the perfect place to make a criminal confess their misdeeds. She plunked Kate down on a chesterfield and jabbed an accusing finger in her direction. “No more lies,” she said. “I know why you came here, and I know there’s plenty you haven’t spilled yet. So let’s stop the music and how about you come clean, kid?”
Kate’s face had turned such a bright red it hid her lightning flowers, making her look completely human again. It might have made her look more sympathetic before a jury of her peers. Babs had built up a pretty good head of steam, though, and her ire was not blunted. She was almost certain she’d figured it out. Kate had come to Grimbly Hall to scam Neville out of some money—who cared why she needed it, everybody needed money—with her hard luck tale of predatory storms and heartless mothers. Unfortunately for her, she’d picked a day when the soft touch was doing his taxes. Luckily for Neville, Babs was on the case.
“All that malarkey about letting the storm finish what it started, about not being able to handle the prospect of a new life as a monster, that was just smoke, wasn’t it?” Babs demanded. “Well? Answer me.”
Kate wept big blubbery tears, then, and hid her face in her hands. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Okay, I guess we’re doing this. You told me yesterday you had no idea how you got electrified. You said you were just minding your own business up on that hill. Yet last night I got a telephone call from someone who was looking for you. I’m guessing it was this spirit of lightning or whatever that put those flowers on your face and left you licking the light sockets. He said I was hiding you from him. Imagine my surprise—I had no idea that’s what I was doing. He said you made him some kind of promise.”
Kate stared at her with wide eyes. She clutched at her cheeks with her welding gloves and let out a keening noise like a leaky tire. “He knows where I am,” she said, so softly Babs barely caught it.
“So what’s the game?” Babs demanded. “The old fake-a-loo? You came here looking for some mad money so you could scram with this palooka? Figured you’d come sob to your agony aunt long enough and hard enough you’d break my heart? All for a little kale, is that it? Well?”
“You—you think I came here to steal from you?” Kate asked. There was no indignation in her voice. She seemed to find the idea positively surreal.
Which maybe put Babs on the back foot. A bit.
“You’re denying it?” Babs asked. “You saying you didn’t want any money?”
“I thought I might be safe here,” Kate said. “That’s all. I thought if I got far enough away, he wouldn’t be able to follow me. I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done—” and with that she dissolved in such a flood of tears that further words were impossible, if only temporarily.
There are, most likely, some fifteen-year-olds in the world who ought to be in pictures, who possess such innate talent in the dramatic arts that they could fool even a hard-boiled flapper like Babs. The vast majority of youths that age, however, would have trouble carrying off a really first-class lie if someone else had already unbolted it and put it on a handcart. So to speak.
Babs chewed her lower lip. She could tell the girl wasn’t lying, at least, not completely. And yet it was clear there was more going on here than had been previously revealed.
“Tell me the whole story,” she said. “Tell me everything, and maybe I won’t call the police.”
Kate’s face went from flushed to blanched in a moment. Clearly the threat of the local constabulary—a force consisting of one corrupt and not terribly bright officer—was more than she could bear.
“I will,” she promised. “I’ll tell it all!”
And she did, with several breaks for sessions of uncontrollable weeping and keening and gnashing of teeth.
It emerged that much of her story had been true, if incomplete. She had in fact been struck by lightning on the hill behind her family’s house. She had, in fact, burned her father and been turned out of the house by her mother. She had even met Dr. Thurlow in the woods, and been steered to Grimbly Hall.
The missing section of the tale was its first act.
“I asked for this,” she said, in a very small voice.
Babs raised an attentive eyebrow.
“I mean, literally, I asked for this.” Kate shook her head and blew her nose into the protruding shoulder of her makeshift shower-curtain dress. “That hill—it’s got a terrible reputation. Since years back, there are tons of stories about people walking up there at night and being found in the morning, stone dead. Covered in lightning flowers and with looks of utter fear on their faces. When I was a little girl, my friends and I would dare each other to go up there. Though always on clear days.
“I suppose the fact that nobody ever wanted to go up there is why I went there so often. I knew I could be alone on that hill, and sometimes, well, a girl just needs to be alone. When my mama would scold me, or some boy would say something nasty at school, I would run up there and be all alone with my thoughts and my worries. A couple of months ago I went up there on a rainy day, and that’s when I met him.
“I don’t know what to call him. He isn’t a man, not really. I mean, he’s not properly there at all. You just sort of think there’s a person there, standing behind you, with a rumbly voice. The hair on the back of your neck sticks up and you’re sure he’s about to talk to you. When you turn around, though, nobody’s there.”
Babs nodded in understanding. She’d met plenty of presences, disembodied spirits, invisible genius locii and ghostly butlers in her time.
“I was scared of him at first but then after a while, when he didn’t hurt me or anything, I started thinking of him as my secret friend. I would go and talk to him, tell him all my troubles, and he just listened. I told him about when Mama hit me with a switch, and when I failed my home economics exam. It seemed like I could say anything to him.
“I made a point of never going up there to see him when it was stormy. I thought that might be too dangerous. But then—the day I got these,” she said, gesturing at her Lichtenberg figures, “I’d had such a terrible fight with mama I needed to get away. I needed to get away forever, I thought. So I ran up the hill, even though the thunder was already roaring. I found my friend and I told him how I couldn’t live in that house anymore. About how papa never stood up for me when mama started in with her shrieking voice. I said I had to run away.
“And for the first time, he answered me. Oh, not like a person talks to you. But I could hear words in the thunder. Kind of. Maybe I just wanted to hear them so badly. He said he loved me. He said he would take me away.”
Babs drew in a sharp breath. “You didn’t… er, show him your navel?”
“Of course not! But I guess… I did make a kind of promise. I said I would go anywhere he wanted to take me. He said that there was only one way we could run away together. He was going to have to make me a little bit like him. So we could fly together on the storms, up in the clouds.
“I had no idea what that was going to mean. But I said yes.” Tears jumped from Kate’s eyes. “I said yes, I would do it. And then he—and then he—”
“Struck you with lightning,” Babs said.
Kate nodded. “But then I got scared. I was terrified he was going to kill me, that he would burn up my body and then take my soul away with him forever, and I couldn’t do that! I’m a good girl. I’m a good Christian girl and I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.”
Babs found a handkerchief and gave it to Kate. The young woman dabbed at her eyes with it until it started to smolder. Babs grabbed it away from her before it could actually burst into flame and stuffed it into a vase full of cut flowers that sizzled for a moment, then fell silent.
The room felt particularly still just then.
“I ran,” Kate whispered. “I ran as fast as I could. He chased me but I got under some trees and he couldn’t find me. The rest you know. But do you see, now? Why I had to lie to you? Now you know the truth and you must think me a terrible person. That I would make a promise like that and then refuse to carry it through. I did promise him. And now he’s found me again and there’s nothing I can do but fulfill that promise, even if it terrifies me, even if there’s nothing I would less rather do.”
Babs sat down on a divan and folded her hands in her lap.
“I promised him,” Kate said. “I have to go away with him. I owe him.”
Babs lifted her chin. Ground her teeth together for a moment.
“Bulls–t,” she said.