Watson or Lestrade or someone pounded on a door again.
Holmes rang the doorbell.
Joe's eyes snapped open.
The doorbell rang again, and he glanced over at the alarm clock, already afraid of what he would find when he opened the door. It was after two o'clock in the morning. Someone knocks on your door in the middle of the night, he reasoned, it's never good news. He slipped on a pair of dark green gym shorts and moved quickly out into the hallway.
The apartment was above Trachtenberg's Antiques on the steep hill of Main Street that led down toward the Hudson. It was a bitch to pedal his bike up that hill, but Joe had fallen in love with the apartment right away. The antique shop was on the first floor, and Joe had the upper two. The second floor had a living room, dining room and kitchen, all good-sized rooms with beautifully restored woodwork. The top floor had two bedrooms and a bathroom, and plenty of closet space, which had been added when the recent renovations had taken place.
It was perfect for a bachelor. Better than perfect, and probably more than he ought to have spent on an apartment for just one person. But the second bedroom made a wonderful office, and he had plenty of room to entertain.
He hadn't done much entertaining since he met Emily.
As he moved clumsily, still half-asleep, down the narrow stairs to the apartment's street-level door, Joe began to finally come fully awake. Thoughts of Emily had shaken the last sleep from his mind, and when he pulled the door open to find her standing there, he was not at all surprised.
It had started to rain. Emily wore burgundy shorts and a dark green T-shirt, and it was obvious she'd pulled them on without much planning. Her blonde hair was damp from the rain, and several strands were plastered across her left cheek, a stripe across her eye and face. A tiny drop of rainwater hung from her nose.
Joe started to open his mouth, to lift his hand to pull her in. As if this were all the reaction she had been waiting for, Emily seemed to fall forward into his arms, crossing the threshold and tumbling into his embrace.
"I tried to go to sleep," she said, her voice choked with tears she had cried and tears that were yet to come. "I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. I . . . I don't want to be alone. I'm sorry."
"Ssshhh," Joe whispered in her ear as he brushed the damp hair away from her face. He kissed the top of her head and then held her to him, using the strength in his arms and the shield of his body to give her warmth and stability, a safe haven she had obviously been seeking quite desperately.
While he held Emily's left bicep, Joe reached out and shut the door, closing out the night and the rain. He turned the lock, sliding the deadbolt home, and then he wrapped his arms around Emily again, hugged her tight, then stepped back slightly and met her pleading eyes.
"Let's go upstairs," he said and gently propelled her in that direction. She plodded up the stairs as if she were about to collapse, and he feared it was true.
In the living room, he sat with her, touched her cheek, and asked the question. "What's happened?"
As Emily spoke, her voice was choked with sobs and she shook her head in despair and surrender time and again. Her hands waved wildly, as though she were throwing her fate to the winds. In a way, she was. Joe's heart broke as he listened to her tale, how she found Thomas, the emotions that had ravaged her, and how her ex-husband now lay in a hospital bed only a few floors away from their son.
She paused. Her red, moist eyes searched his own. "I . . . I didn't want to come here," she confessed. "I wasn't sure you'd understand. I'm sorry if I . . ."
"Would you stop with the sorries," he said, and smiled in sympathy. "I'm the one who's sorry. Sorry that I wasn't as understanding before as I might have been. If I'd been more of a grown up about everything, maybe you would have come here first instead of going home to sleep."
Emily rolled her eyes. "I couldn't sleep. Not in that house. Too many ghosts there, now."
Suddenly, her eyes went wide and a look of horror crossed her face. "I didn't mean it like that," she said quickly. "I mean, not ghosts, but . . ."
Overcome by her despair, Joe pulled her to him again and held her in a tight embrace. Emily trailed off midsentence and fell silent. And they sat like that, on the couch, holding one another in silence, for almost twenty minutes.
"The only thing you can do is leave it to the doctors now," Joe told her, his words sounding slightly hollow, even to himself. "That's what they do. You aren't responsible for whatever psychosis Thomas has, and there isn't anything you could have done to stop him doing what he did."
Emily met his gaze, nodded resolutely, and smiled, just a bit.
"I want to be back at the hospital early tomorrow morning. I have to talk to Nathan's doctors, and Thomas's as well. Plus I . . ."
"You need to call your lawyer," Joe finished for her.
As if her resolve were the flimsiest of masks, Emily's face crumbled at that. She nodded, even as the tears sprang once more to her eyes, rolling down her cheeks.
"I don't want to do it, but he's . . . until I know he's okay, I can't be tied by whatever his wishes are for Nathan. I . . . Nathan needs me more than ever, now. His father isn't doing him any fucking good!"
She said this last with such vehemence that Joe blinked a moment, but then when he saw the pain in her eyes, he understood.
From Emily's point of view, Thomas had abandoned her, left her all the responsibility for Nathan, and now for him as well.
"Does Thomas have any family that you should call?" Joe asked.
Emily nodded, wiping her eyes. "His sister, Tricia, lives in California. I called her. But she has a family of her own. If Thomas isn't in any immediate danger . . ."
"Damn, that's cold," Joe said softly.
"They've never been much of a family," Emily said, as if that explained everything. Then she shuddered. "I don't know if I can handle this."
"You will. You can. You just do what you have to," Joe reassured her. "Meanwhile, I'll be backing you up all the way."
He kissed her head again, and this time, Emily lifted her mouth to meet his, and their lips met. There was love and tenderness there, but also a weird sense of relief. He would get her through this. Somehow.
Together, they started up the steps toward the bedroom. At the top of the stairs, they turned into his room, where only the dim light of the television cast any illumination. Emily reached for the button of her shorts, undid it, and slid them down over her calves to her ankles, then stepped out of them. She looked ethereal in the flickering light, a goddess of the silver screen come to three dimensional life.
But when she put her arms around her body, hugging herself, the spell was broken. No illusions remained. Only the pain.
"I just . . . I just need to sleep with you, Joe. To have you just hold me. Is that all right?"
He held out a hand to her. "How could it not be?" he asked.
They crawled into the bed together and she curled into him spoon style. He lay a leg across hers, and an arm across her abdomen, and it was in that position that he drifted off to sleep once more.
When he woke a short time later, her hand was on him, drawing him up to a state of arousal before he was truly awake. For barely a moment, he caught sight of her face, and the desperation and pain there, and he opened his mouth to speak but she stopped him with a kiss of passion and hunger. Fervor. Fever.
She kissed his neck, and she whispered to him. "I'm so lost," she confessed. "I don't know who I'm supposed to be anymore. What I should feel or who I should love."
Again, he started to speak, but he stopped when she took his hand and laid it against her naked thigh, urging him toward her.
"It's not going to go away, Joe," she said with certainty. "Not soon. I just . . .”
Her face came up, and she stared into his eyes, and he saw the truth of her words there. She was lost.
"I just need to know, just for tonight, who I am. Where I am. Find me. Remind me of Emily."
He made slow and sweet and gentle love to her, and pretended not to notice her tears. After Emily had fallen asleep, Joe stayed awake watching over her, stroking her hair, and falling ever more deeply in love.
* * * * *
The echo of Thomas's scream had yet to fade entirely when he heard the tinny bong of a bell just off the side of the path. He spun quickly, staring at the burned out remains of what had once been Grumbler's cottage. What little timber remained on the ground was charred and warped, and even the bricks were burnt black.
Behind the chimney, something moved, and Thomas's eyes widened as he heard the noise of the bell again.
Amazed, he narrowed his eyes. Then, almost unable to believe he was speaking the words, he opened his mouth and with a choked voice called, "Tinklebum, come out of there."
Somewhere deep within, Thomas knew what would happen next. But the man he was, the being that had eclipsed the boy who had first come to Strangewood all those years ago . . . he just stared. Eyes wide, his mouth opened just a bit as the diminutive bell-shaped man stepped out from behind the chimney. He was bald and his skin was a light blue, smooth as fine china. A lavender stripe ran around his body about chest high, and another just above where his legs began. He was stooped slightly, almost like a hunchback, and though his chest and belly were rather flat, his back belled out as though he were a firefly or a wasp. And when he began to move toward Thomas, the clapper inside — the heart of any bell-bottom — clanged happily and noisily from side to side.
"Tinklebum?" Thomas whispered, mind whirling.
Strangewood was real, of course. He'd always known that, ever since his first visit. But real knowledge fades over time, just as wounds heal. It had been a knowledge, and a truth, that he had kept to himself — to prevent accusations of insanity — for so long that there had been whole weeks, perhaps even months, that had gone by where the truth had escaped him. Periods where the knowledge of Strangewood's reality had simply slipped his mind. Eventually, he'd forgotten it altogether.
As a boy, he had known with great certainty that Santa Claus was real. And elves. Vampires. Everlasting love. These things he had taken on faith, until that faith was shattered. But they were things he had never seen. Strangewood was something else entirely. He had been there. Seen it. Smelled it. Touched it. It had not been as simply dismissed as the myths of childhood. And yet, over time, even reality could blur so that it was remembered only as a dream.
Thomas blinked. With wonder in his eyes and his heart, he stared at Mr. Tinklebum, and he could not help but smile.
The expression on the little bell-bottom's blue face was pure bliss. "Our Boy!" he cried. "It's true. It's really true! You've come back!"
Mr. Tinklebum trotted toward him, bell swaying from side to side, the noise echoing along the Winding Way and, suddenly, Thomas was afraid. Not of Tinklebum necessarily, but of Strangewood. Granted, he had not been here — really been here, as something other than a dream — since he was a boy. But this was not the Strangewood he remembered. And it most certainly was not the Strangewood he had "created" for his books.
He stared at the happy little bell-bottom. Thomas wanted his heart to soar with that same joy, the joy of being reunited with a part of him he had left behind so long ago. Even in the many dreams he had drawn on over the years, the times he had visited Strangewood, asleep or awake, it had never seemed this real. Not since that first time.
He stared at Tinklebum and recalled that when Nathan first began to make his wild claims, to voice his fears about Strangewood, he had said that Grumbler and Feathertop had murdered Crabapple, his own imaginary friend.
For the first time since the madness had begun, it occurred to him that perhaps they had. Fear and rage rose up inside Thomas Randall, and now his senses seemed to kick into overdrive. Nothing in this place was safe. Not anymore. Nothing could be trusted.
When Mr. Tinklebum reached Thomas, he threw his hands up like a child waiting to be lifted high in the air and tossed into space as though he were flying. Thomas only stared at him.
The smile drained slowly from Tinklebum's pale blue features.
"Where's my boy?" Thomas asked suspiciously. "Where's Nathan?"
"We can help you find him," Tinklebum said and nodded vigorously, causing the clapper to clang within him. "Come, Our Boy, we don't have much time."
Tinklebum looked saddened now, but pleased to be of service. Thomas didn't, or rather, he couldn't, believe. Instead, he reached out and grabbed Tinklebum around what ought to have been called his neck and hefted him off the ground. Tinklebum's tiny arms beat weakly at Thomas's hands.
"Our Boy!" the bell-bottom screamed in terror. "You . . . you can't hurt us!"
"Of course I can!" Thomas snapped.
Inside, his heart ached horribly. He had no idea how he could do such a thing, and to a creature he had always thought of as so gentle, so kind.
"I can't trust you!" Thomas roared. "I can't trust any of you. I just want Nathan back, that's all that matters."
In Thomas's hands, Tinklebum seemed to slump, stung by his words. "You mean we don't matter. We, the forgotten ones, don't matter." There was a long pause, and Thomas began to feel horrible about the way he had handled Tinklebum. Until the bell-bottom glanced up at him with rage in his eyes.
"Maybe the Jackal Lantern was right, Our Boy," Tinklebum said slowly. "You made it like this. You ruined it all and left us here. It's all ruined now because you just didn't pay attention. But you came back for your child, didn't you? Maybe the Lantern was right."
This last he said weakly, sadly, and the fury had gone out of his eyes, to be replaced by a terrible, weighty sadness. The little blue and gold flecks in the deep blue eyes began to redden, and Thomas thought Tinklebum was going to cry. His lip quivered, and his eyes darted around as if he wanted to look anywhere but at Thomas.
He set the bell-bottom down. Knelt on the dirt path beside him, his own face silently pleading for forgiveness. "I'm sorry, Tinklebum," he said, as kindly as he was able. "I just . . . I've got to find Nathan. Please, I just want him home safely. Then . . . if I'm responsible for what's happened here, I promise you I will do everything I can to make things right again."