A VISIT FROM PAULIE by KaRylin +quot;My niece is coming for a visit,+quot; Jennifer commen

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A VISIT FROM PAULIE by KaRylin "My niece is coming for a visit," Jennifer commented to Roger as she put away the last of the dishes. "Oh?" Roger was in the process of cleaning his hands, which were covered with blood. He did this by licking them, rather like a cat. Jennifer, convinced that he did such things for the sole purpose of offending her, ignored him. "Could you toss me something to wipe my hands with?" He asked at length, having reached the point of diminishing returns. "Wash them in the sink. I don't need you getting that stuff all over my dishtowel." Roger, disdaining to rise from his seat on the kitchen table, wiped his hands on his pants. "I expect you to behave yourself while my niece is here, Roger. I do not want you frightening her." "Oh?" Roger said noncommittally, and infuriatingly. "She'll only be here for a week. All that I ask is that you sit in a chair, for instance." She snapped the damp dishtowel at him. "Do that again," he challenged. Instead, she hung the dishtowel up to dry. Roger extended his two sharp, retractable fangs and began to use them to clean underneath his fingernails. Jennifer began to grow angry. "I hope you don't intend to do that while my niece is here. She is also bringing her ten-year-old son with her. I hope you will set a good example for the boy." "You didn't think to ask me if you could invite your niece and her brat. Why should I show any consideration for our feelings?" Actually, Jennifer had not exactly invited her favorite niece. Paulie had called earlier that day, and asked her for directions. "If it's not too much trouble, Aunt Jen. Mark and I are having some problems." Jennifer had long since made it clear to Paulie that she was welcome to visit at any time. Although that was before she had moved to the big old house in the country, which was reputed to be haunted. When Jennifer figured out the truth about Roger, she found the cubbyhole under the stairs where he slept in the daytime, waited for him to wake up, and suggested (with her mother's silver crucifix tucked into her shirt and an oxyacetylene torch in one hand) that the house was big enough for both of them. It was an arrangement that worked out well enough-- most of the time. "Roger, please. They will only be staying here a week or so." "Or so. You expect me to behave in a fashion which is unnatural to me for 'a week or so' for the benefit of our relatives. What do I get out of it?" Roger looked at her with calculation. "Supposing you were to buy me a couple of rabbits, though. Nice fat ones..." The day of Paulie's arrival came. Jennifer's niece looked haggard and thin, and Timmy looked as if he were about to explode into one of the temper tantrums for which, Paulie had said, he was becoming famous. "Come on in," Jennifer said warmly. "I've fixed some cookies, and there's lemonade in the 'fridge." "I don't suppose you've got any beer." Wearily, Paulie pulled a suitcase from the back seat of her car. "No... whiskey, but it's only noon." "I'll take it. It's been a rough drive." Jennifer took the suitcase from her niece, lifting it easily with one hand. She was a big woman. "Got any candy?" "Timmy," Paulie remonstrated without any force. "I told you, I made cookies. Chocolate chip." She ruffled her grand-nephew's hair affectionately. "I don't want anything you made. I want a Hershey bar." Jennifer subdued an urge to cuff the boy's ear. "Come in the house, Paulie. You look like you could use to sit down." "I want a Hershey bar. My grandma always has Hershey bars. And Coke and Doritos. All you've got is cookies?" They had reached the door of the house. "Timmy, why don't you play in the yard while Aunt Jen and I talk." "I don't want to. I want to come in the house." He smiled; it was a game. "Please? I'll buy you a Hershey bar in town tomorrow." "Tonight." "Timmy, I may not be able to get into town tonight. I'm not sure how late everything is open. Now play in the yard." "Two Hershey bars?" "All right, two. Tomorrow." Jennifer was suddenly reminded of Roger. In the kitchen, Paulie collapsed in a chair. "Thanks for letting me come out here, Aunt Jen, just thanks a million. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been able to take a break from everything at home." "Things are that bad, then, with Mark?" "And Timmy." Paulie lowered her voice. "I don't know how I can take it, sometimes. He's just unmanageable." Jennifer had never been a mother, and wasn't sure what advice she could offer her niece. She stood up. "Paulie, why don't you try some of these cookies." Roger usually came downstairs shortly after sunset to sit in the living room for awhile, but there was no sign of him that evening. The next day, Jennifer and Paulie went into town for groceries. Jennifer stopped at a nearby farm and bought two healthy rabbits, and Paulie laid in a large supply of Hershey bars. Back at the house, Jennifer put the wire cage containing the two rabbits outside on the lawn. She figured they might as well enjoy the outdoor air and munch on the grass a little. But when she came back to check on them a couple of hours later, Timmy had set them free, and was frightening them by waving a stick and running back and forth. "Just what do you think you are doing, young man?" Timmy looked up, guiltily, and one of the rabbits made a break for it. Jennifer caught the rodent by the scruff of its neck, carried it back to the cage, and put it back inside. When she went to get the other one, Timmy began waving his arms and yelling, "Run! Run!" The rabbit froze, making it easy for Jennifer to scoop it up and put it in the cage with the other one. She closed the top and secured it. "Do you have some explanation for all of this?" "I was just giving them a chance," Timmy said obstinately. "I figured that if they could get past me, they deserved their freedom." Jennifer looked at the boy with an emotion that was close to affection. "Those rabbits are tame, Timmy. I don't think they could survive in the wild." Although it would be better than their chances if Roger got hold of them. "Besides," she made her voice sterner, "They don't belong to you." All she needed was to have to go and buy a couple more rabbits. She had a finite amount of money, and Roger coaxed her into buying his dinner often enough as it was. "Now come in the house and have lunch." Jennifer expected Roger to put in an appearance the following evening, but he did not. Jennifer had not really thought he would find having strangers in the house so distressing. She felt a little guilty about it-- it was his home, too, after all-- and she realized, with some surprise, that she would miss Roger if he were to disappear. God knew he had his character faults, but at least he didn't talk her ear off about his personal problems. He was good company. She put Timmy to bed, while Paulie sat in the living room smoking. Jennifer sat down, sipping at a whiskey-and-water (she didn't usually drink, except on social or very trying occasions, but Paulie did, and so Jennifer joined her to be companionable). Paulie did most of the talking, and Jennifer, who could not think of much to say, nodded and made pro forma noises of encouragement, breathing shallowly in an attempt not to cough from cigarette smoke. Suddenly, there was a frantic hammering on the back door, followed by an incoherent scream. Paulie leaped up. "Careful! Don't answer it!" Jennifer was cautious at night; she had lived in the city most of her adult life, and the rural darkness still spooked her. Sometimes, especially after eating rich foods, she had nightmares in which Roger's victims-- usually rodents and stray dogs-- came back to life in vampiric incarnation. Attack of the vampire voles. She smiled at the fancy in the daytime, but at night, she kept the door locked. Besides, if people such as Roger existed, who knew what else might be out there? But Paulie was fumbling with the chain Jennifer had installed on the door. She unfastened it, and turned the key in the deadbolt. "It's Timmy! It's my baby!" It was indeed Timmy. He stumbled into the house yelling for his mother, ran past her, then came back and clung to her waist, babbling incoherently. Jennifer relocked the door and secured the chain. "Timmy, Timmy what is it, oh darling, it's all right, Mommy's here." She looked at Jennifer. "I thought you put him to bed?" She went back to comforting her offspring, so relentlessly that, if Timmy had anything to say, he would have had a hard time getting a word in edgewise. He contented himself with snuffling into the crook of her elbow. Jennifer went into the room she had prepared for Timmy, where she found the window, as she had expected, open to the night air. She closed it, and went back into the kitchen. "I did put him to bed," she told her niece. "He crawled out the window." She pulled the boy away from his mother and asked, in a low, intense voice, "Why were you yelling? What did you see?" "He t-t-t, he, he," Timmy began to sob. "There, there. You're too old to cry. You sound just like a little baby." She disliked herself a little for using this ploy, but she wanted to know what Timmy had seen. "He tore the rabbit's head off," Timmy sobbed. Jennifer was relieved to hear this, but Paulie found it rather alarming. "Who? Who did you see, baby boy?" Jennifer did not think that Paulie's shrill tone, and the way she was shaking her son, were very conducive to calmness. "A-- A man. I didn't know him. He smiled at me, and told me he-- he'd kill me if I didn't go back to bed. He hurt my arm." Jennifer frowned. "Let me see." "He twisted it." Timmy sniffed, but was too involved in his narrative to engage in any more serious crying. "And what were you doing out of bed in the first place?" Timmy looked at his great-aunt in disbelief, shocked that she would chastise him in his moment of drama. "Well?" "I was going to let loose the rabbits," he said defiantly. Jennifer repressed a smile, imagining what must have happened. "He tore the rabbit's head off!" Timmy recapitulated. "He said he'd do the same thing to me if he ever saw me again! There was blood all over the place, and he started licking it up! And then he, oh, gross, I think I'm going to throw up." "What did he do then?" Jennifer was curious, despite herself. Paulie shot her a look of outrage. "He smushed it. He squished it all up, and one of the eyeballs came out. Then he threw it, like it was a baseball." Paulie looked worried. "Jen, do you suppose someone really did threaten Timmy out there? Do you suppose he really saw something?" "No, I don't. And if he did, it must have been one of the neighbors. Let's forget about it, and go to bed." She shielded her nose discreetly from Paulie's cigarette, which the younger woman was waving about in her agitation. "Forget about it! My little boy does not make up things like that. Well, I mean I'm sure he made up some of it, or misunderstood what he saw, but he must have seen something. I think we should go out and look around." Jennifer thought that if Paulie really believed her son, this ought to be the last thing she'd want to do. It seemed like a poor bet either way. "If there is something dangerous out there, aren't you worried we could be hurt?" "I don't really think there's anyone out there. I just want to check. I won't be able to sleep, otherwise." Against this illogic, Jennifer could say nothing. She hoped Roger had cleaned up after himself. Knowing Roger, he probably hadn't. The two women ventured out into the back yard, armed with only a flashlight. Jennifer shone it in a semicircle, and saw nothing out of the ordinary. "Satisfied? Let's go back inside." "No, I'm not. Give me that flashlight." Jennifer surrendered it reluctantly. This, she thought, was a hell of an inconvenient time for her niece to develop a backbone. "Where did you put that rabbit cage?" "Over there." "Where? Oh, I see it..." Paulie walked toward the cage. "Jen, there's only one rabbit in here!" "Timothy," Jennifer suggested wearily, "probably let it loose, and made up that story in the hopes that he wouldn't be blamed." Paulie laughed. "Yeah, you're right, of course. The little devil had me going. I never dreamed he had such a vivid imagination. A shame about your rabbit. I'll pay for it, of course... Cute little things, aren't they. Hi, there! Come here, I won't hurt you. Oh, my God! Blood! Jen, there's blood here!" Two hours later, Jennifer finally managed to get her niece calm enough-- or drunk enough-- to go to bed. It had been a long day, and promised to be a long week. Damn him! He had promised. The next day, both Paulie and Timmy were quiet and subdued. Jennifer thought, with a sinking sensation, that they would probably leave; she would not have minded if they had gotten tired of visiting, and left, but she didn't want them driven off. For years, Roger had used scare tactics to make it impossible for the owner of the house which Jennifer now rented, to find a tenant; she wondered if he was trying to use the same strategy to get rid of Timmy and Paulie. That night, as she was getting ready for bed, she heard a timid knock at her door. Assuming it was Paulie, she opened it. It was Roger. She grabbed him by the arm and drew him into the room. "There you are," she whispered. "Where have you been?" "Around. Do I have to whisper?" "Well, you are liable to wake up Tim and Paulie. They have already had quite a scare." Roger looked abject. "You have no idea how sorry I am about that." He hung his head and looked up at her through his long bangs to see her reaction. It was difficult to remain angry with him; he had such a beseeching expression. "I can understand what happened, Roger, but I wish you could have had a better introduction to my relatives. Where have you been for the last few days, anyway?" "I have been here. I've just been very quiet." "Well, you could come downstairs and meet my niece, you know. You don't have to hide under the attic stairs the whole time they're here." "I'm very bashful around people I don't know. But I have been watching your guests." "Come down and introduce yourself sometime, then." "All right, I will do that." He smiled at her and left. "It's him! Mommy, it's him! He's the one I saw!" "Oh, so you're the one that threw such a scare into Timmy!" Jennifer was astounded at her own boldness in taking this tack. "You wouldn't believe the story he came up with." "Well, I'm afraid I did speak rather harshly to the lad," Roger said, equally brazen. "He was setting loose the rabbits you got me." Jennifer wished one of them had thought of something to explain the blood. "But Mommy, he tore its head off and then he--" "Hush, Timmy." Paulie's cheeks flushed with embarrassment, and she smiled apologetically at Roger. "Paulie, this is my neighbor, Roger. Roger, my niece Paulie and her son Timmy." She smiled at Timmy; she felt a little sorry for the boy. He had told nothing but the truth, but because of his age and the implausibility of his story, he was being ignored. To her relief, Roger not only sat in a chair and kept his shoes on, but did his best to charm Paulie and even Timmy. Timmy wasn't having any, but the evening passed pleasantly, and ended uneventfully, which suited Jennifer just fine. Things went uphill from there, by Jennifer's estimation. Timmy seemed better-behaved, possibly due to Jennifer's constant threats that she would tell Roger on him if he displeased her. Timmy was still afraid of Roger, which did not seem to bother the vampire; Jennifer caught him baring his fangs at Timmy once, and gave him a dark look. Roger looked apologetic, but Jennifer suspected he went on doing the same kind of thing when her back was turned. But Roger was very polite when Paulie was around, and it was her niece's opinion that really mattered to Jennifer. The days and nights passed peacefully, and Jennifer began to relax. Roger seemed to be keeping his promise, which he usually did, after a fashion. Then, early one morning, Jennifer woke to hear Paulie calling her, frantically but at some distance. She shrugged into her housecoat, wondering irritably why the girl couldn't come to her, if it was so urgent. It was scarcely dawn, and she was not accustomed to rising quite so early. She followed Paulie's voice out into the hallway, and heard a whisper of disquiet within her half-awake brain. Her niece's voice was coming from upstairs. By unwritten agreement, that part of the house belonged to Roger. What was she doing up there? She mounted the stairs slowly, becoming more alarmed with each step she took. Paulie's voice was coming from behind the door that led to the attic stairs. She opened it. "Aunt Jen! There you are. I can't get out of here. Help me, would you?" Jennifer stood in the doorway, frozen with atavistic dread. In the darkness, she could see Paulie's face only as a pale blur, but it was clear that the younger woman was trapped in the tiny space beneath the attic stairs. And there was no way that she could be. The one time Jennifer had been under there, she'd had to pry up three of the steps with a crowbar. She bent and felt the steps; they were solid, undisturbed since she had repaired them with three-inch patio nails. Paulie's hand came out from between the steps and grabbed her wrist. She flinched. At that moment, Paulie seemed to Jennifer like a ghostly and inhuman presence, crouched in the darkness beneath the stairs. "Can you pull me out of here, Aunt Jen? I can't seem to squeeze through, by myself." "The space is much too narrow. I doubt Timmy could fit. How on earth did you get in there?" "I don't remember." Paulie retracted her arm. "Just get me out of here, will you?" "I'll have to get some tools. I won't be long." She hurried downstairs, thankful that she'd awakened before Timmy has heard his mother's cries. She collected her crowbar and flashlight, and went back upstairs. She shined the flashlight under the steps. "Are you all right?" "I'm fine. Just get me out of here!" Shielding her eyes from the flashlight's glare, Paulie seemed more annoyed than frightened. "Stand back, so you won't be hurt." Jennifer went to work with the crowbar, and soon had two of the steps loose. After her niece had climbed out through the gap, Jennifer threw the steps far back into the space beneath the stairs. One of them hit the waist-high door to the crawlspace over the porch, Roger's daytime resting place. "Now, Paulie, try to remember how you got in there." Jennifer had been in the crawlspace, and knew there was no other entrance. Paulie lifted one hand to her head, dramatically, in lieu of a reply. Jennifer, noticing something amiss, grabbed her by the wrist. "What did you do to your arm?" She demanded. "Nothing," Paulie snapped, snatching the arm away. "I don't feel well, Aunt Jen. I want to go to bed." "Not until you tell me what happened to your arm. What have you been doing, shooting heroin?" Although she could think of a more likely explanation for the bruise and the two slightly swollen puncture marks on the inside of Paulie's elbow. "I don't remember. I think I'm going to pass out. Stop bothering me." Paulie sat down on one of the remaining stairs. "All right. Come downstairs, and have some breakfast." "I don't want any breakfast. I'm very tired. I just want to go to bed." Paulie allowed herself to be drawn to her feet and led downstairs. Jennifer led her protesting niece to the kitchen, where she fixed an omelette garnished with pieces of bacon left over from the day before. Paulie sat complaining that her head hurt, that the light hurt her eyes, and that Jennifer was wasting her time because she, Paulie, would throw up if she tried to eat anything. Jennifer, seriously worried about her niece's condition, ignored everything she said and continued to prepare breakfast. When the food was actually set in front of her, Paulie allowed herself to be persuaded to try a few bites; soon she was eating ravenously. Jennifer kept a careful eye on her niece for the rest of the day. Paulie did not go to bed, but seemed very refreshed by the omelette Jennifer had fixed. She found this gratifying; it was nice to have someone besides herself to appreciate her cooking. Roger, needless to say, did not. Jennifer waited until after dinner. Then she took the flashlight upstairs, and managed, with a certain amount of strain, to fit through the aperture she had made in the attic stairs. Crawling on all fours, she went through the small door that led to the space under the porch roof. Roger, neither moving nor breathing, was sprawled on a bare mattress at one end of the long, narrow room. The place was considerably neater than the last time she had seen it; Roger's clothes were folded in semi-neat piles and arranged on the floor along one wall. Jennifer sat down and held the flashlight loosely in one hand while she waited for Roger to come to. After a short time (Jennifer had timed her visit so that she would not have to wait long), he lifted hid head, blinking with surprise. "Jennifer...? What are you doing here?" "I am very, very annoyed with you, Roger." "What?" He did not sound completely awake. "I said I am very annoyed with you. You bit my niece. You promised me you would behave." "Oh, that. Do you consider that a breach of etiquette? Frankly, I don't think it's any of your business." Jennifer was nonplussed by this frank admission. "Well, actually, I think 'breach of etiquette' is an understatement." "I really find this highly offensive." Jennifer was outraged. "I find what you did to my niece highly offensive!" "I'm afraid that I don't quite see your reason for objecting. Are you under the impression that I forced myself on her?" "Paulie says she doesn't remember what happened. What did you do, hypnotize her?" To Jennifer, this possibility was more horrifying than the use of physical force. "Really, Jennifer, you have been reading too many penny-dreadfuls. Do you actually think I can hypnotize people? If I could, I would have hypnotized you to leave when you first came here, rather than enduring your continued presence." Jennifer, hurt by this sentiment, said nothing. "Incidentally, I thought I set as a condition of your remaining here, that you are never to come into this room while I am sleeping. I suppose you ruined the attic stairs again?" "I had to to let Paulie out. She was trapped in here." "Oh," he said sheepishly. "Oh, I guess I forgot." Jennifer pressed the advantage. "Roger, I want you to keep your hands-- and your teeth-- off of my niece!" She found that she was angrier than she had been in a long time. "No," Roger said quietly. "What? Roger, you promised to behave. Are your promises worth nothing?" "I am behaving," he said sullenly. "It is you who are being rude. You have no idea how rude you are being." "Roger, I will not tolerate your feeding on my niece. Why can't you go back to catching squirrels and mice?" "Too much trouble, for one thing. Have you ever tried to catch a chipmunk with your bare hands, in the middle of the night? Besides, it is much... nicer. I wouldn't expect you to understand. "Let me assure you, however, that I did not in any way coerce Paulie. I certainly did not hypnotize her." He gave the word a scornful inflection. "If you must know, she offered herself to me." "That's not what she told me." "Has it occurred to you that she does not wish to discuss the matter with you?" "Well, I will ask her if what you say is true. I had better not find out that you are lying... Incidentally, I think you ought to know that Paulie is married." "I really don't see what that has to do with it. If you think it has anything to do with the sex act, whatsoever, you have been misinformed." Jennifer, who did not spend much time wondering about the sexual habits of vampires, let this slide by without comment. "I will ask Paulie. But I will tell you, I do not like this at all." When Jennifer was under stress, she tended to slip into the speech patterns of her German immigrant mother. "Do you think I like having you burst in here, waving that light around, asking about things that are none of your business and which you don't understand to begin with?" "I won't have you victimizing my niece." "I am not victimizing her." Jennifer, who was tired of arguing and felt that her point had somehow gotten lost, did not reply. She crawled out of the enclosure backward, wishing that she could make a more graceful exit. Roger followed her. "I hope you're going to fix my stairs." "No, I am not. Fix them your own God damn self." "Please?" He tilted his head to one side. She was far too angry for it to work. "Keep your hands off Paulie, and I will." "Forget it. Come to think of it, it will make it easier for Paulie to come and see me." "Stay away from her, Roger. I'll buy you all the rabbits you want. And fix your stairs." "Keep the damn rabbits. I knew you wouldn't understand." "No, I don't. Maybe I'll fix your damn stairs, after all. How did Paulie get in there in the first place, anyway?" "You wouldn't understand." That evening, after Timmy had been put to bed, Jennifer went into Paulie's room. "Paulie, I need to ask you something. About Roger." "Yes?" Paulie regarded her aunt warily. She seemed morose and listless; since that morning, her moods had alternated between gloom and an uncharacteristic, sunny cheerfulness. "About this morning... you really can't remember what happened to you?" Paulie turned away. "I really don't want to talk about it," she said through clenched teeth. "I'm afraid we have to. I know what he did to you. He claims he had your permission. If he is lying to me, I may go out in the shed, tomorrow, and sort through the scrap lumber to see if I can find anything that will hold a point." "Don't hurt him, Aunt Jen! You can't do that!" Paulie stood up, as if she were afraid Jennifer intended to go after Roger with her bare hands. "Talk to me, Paulie. What really happened?" Not looking at her, Paulie said, "Roger told you the truth. All right? I lied. I didn't want to talk about it, so I lied. Are you happy now?" "Why on earth would you permit him to do a thing like that?" Paulie blushed. "I'd really rather not talk about it." "All right. Fine. I wish you had said that in the first place, though. You could have saved me a lot of embarrassment." "I'm sorry," Paulie said woodenly. Now, she would have to apologize to Roger, and fix his stairs... Yes, she definitely thought she would fix those stairs. She was itching to ask Paulie how she had gotten underneath of them in the first place, but she suspected her niece would just say she didn't want to talk about it. She, Jennifer, had put her foot in her mouth enough for one day. "I'm going to fix myself a drink. Can I get you anything?" That afternoon, they went into town to buy groceries. Jennifer bought several more rabbits for Roger, partly in atonement, and partly in the hopes that it would keep him off Paulie. Shortly after sunset, Roger reappeared and began lounging around the house, as was his custom in the early evenings before he worked up the energy to go hunting. He did not speak to Jennifer, but merely gave her an occasional cold look. She decided it was up to her to try to reestablish diplomatic relations. "I fixed your stairs, Roger." "I noticed. I asked you not to." "I distinctly remember your asking me to fix them." "I changed my mind." "Well, I'm sorry," Jennifer said with difficulty. "For not believing you about Paulie, too. I bought you some more rabbits. They're outside, in the cage." "I don't recall asking you to do that, either." Jennifer left the room without another word. She had gone as far as she was willing or able to. Roger could go back to Indianapolis with Paulie and Timmy, if he liked, and live in the attic of their garage. It was all the same to her. Paulie had been there for over two weeks, but she made no mention of going home, and Jennifer was content that she should remain. Her niece had taken over the housework, and most of the cooking, and she no longer bent Jennifer's ear about her husband's personal failings. She seemed to have forgotten that he existed. Timmy made a pet of the surviving rabbit of the two Jennifer had bought on the day after his arrival, and decided to call it Spot. Roger showed no signs of mellowing toward Jennifer, but she had noticed that three of the additional six rabbits she'd bought had disappeared. She bought a separate cage for Spot, and installed it in Timmy's room. He painted a sign reading TIMMY'S RABBIT, DO NOT EAT, and added a second sign, which said, THIS MEANS YOU ROGER. The signs aroused Paulie's ire; she was in one of her moody phases when she saw them. "What do you mean, giving my son a pet without asking me! You know as well as I do what's going to happen to that rabbit. Are you deliberately trying to provoke hostilities between Timmy and Roger?" "You don't have to let him take the rabbit home with him, if you don't want to, but as long as he is here, that is Timmy's rabbit. Roger has plenty of his own, for which he has never properly thanked me." Paulie tucked her hands into the long, loose sleeves of her dress. "Well, he isn't taking it home, that's for sure. They're filthy animals." She stalked off. Jennifer was in the basement, applying her cutting torch to a piece of sheet metal, when Timmy came running down the stairs. She shut off the torch, and pushed her safety glasses up onto her forehead. "Timmy, I've told you not to come down here while I'm working. You could be hurt. Now, what is it?" "My mother, I think she's fainted! Please, Aunt Jen, you've got to come and help her-- she's just lying there!" Jennifer set down the still-cooling torch and followed Timmy up the stairs. Paulie had collapsed in a heap on the kitchen floor. Jennifer checked her pulse, and found it to be steady but quite rapid. She lifted her niece, carried her into the bedroom where Paulie had been sleeping, and laid her on the bed. "Timmy, get a pitcher of water." Jennifer unbuttoned the cuff of her niece's shirtsleeve and rolled it up above the elbow. The inside of Paulie's arm was a bruised mass of puncture wounds. She rolled up the other sleeve and found more of the same, although not to the same extent. She swore in German and rolled the sleeves down so the Timmy would not see the wounds. He returned shortly with the pitcher, slopping full of water. Jennifer asked him to leave, and closed the door. She took a handful of water and splashed it on her niece's face. Paulie coughed, and opened her eyes. "What are you trying to do, drown me?" She said weakly. "You fainted." Paulie started to get up, then lay back on the bed, looking pale and exhausted. "I think we had better get you to a doctor." "No!" Paulie sat up. "That isn't necessary. I'm fine." She noticed her unbuttoned cuffs. "Nosey, aren't you." "When a person faints, you are supposed to loosen their clothing," Jennifer said virtuously. Paulie gave her a dirty look. "Paulie, I think we had better talk about this. What you do is your own business, but you are going to die from loss of blood if you keep letting him do this to you." "Aunt Jen, it's not what you think." Paulie's manner abruptly became sweet and conciliatory. Jennifer, who for once was not at all sure what she thought, remained silent. "He's really a wonderful person, Aunt Jen." Her lips curved faintly in a beatific smile. "He's just lonely and misunderstood. I wish you'd give him a chance, just try to get to know him a little." Jennifer, who thought that she knew Roger a lot better that Paulie did, said, "Did you know that he chews on the furniture?" Paulie blinked. "What?" "Yes, he does. He rips up the upholstery, with those fangs of his that you like so well. I don't know if you've ever noticed all those places on the back of the couch? I might as well have a cat. He also leaves dead animals lying around, and gets blood all over the place. Sometimes he even bites his toenails." Paulie gave her aunt a deeply offended look. "You won't even try." "He really does those things. I swear it to you, Paulie. He just doesn't do it when you're around." "Can't you see that none of that really matters?" "I think you'd better get some rest, Paulie. I'll wake you for dinner." Conversation at the table that night was strained and monosyllabic. Timmy kept looking anxiously at his mother, who looked much better, to Jennifer's relief, and seemed to have a good appetite. Later that evening, after she tucked Timmy in, Jennifer went into the living room to say goodnight to her niece. "Now, for heaven's sake, if Roger comes around bothering you, tell him no. Tell him to go out and catch a squirrel, or something, all right?" Paulie answered her with a hostile look. "If you pass out again, Paulie, you'll wake up in the hospital. I promise you that." Troubled, she went to bed and dreamed of finding Paulie's drained corpse, draped over the attic stairs. In the morning, she quietly opened the door to Paulie's room and found that her niece was sleeping peacefully. Her breathing was deep and regular. Maybe the girl had some common sense, after all; she hoped so. Two days later, Paulie announced that she was leaving. "Timmy needs his father. And he needs to spend more time with children his own age. So, I've decided to give dear old Mark another chance." Jennifer thought her niece's eyes looked red, as if she had been crying. Timmy certainly cried, when he was told that they were leaving; he resigned himself to going only when Paulie agreed that he could bring Spot. Roger took their departure badly. He moped around the house, looking dejected and miserable. Jennifer felt sorry for him, and she missed Paulie, too, but at the same time she was glad her niece had left the house before Roger succeeded in completely exsanguinating her. About a month after Paulie's departure, a letter arrived at the house. Jennifer saw that it was from Paulie, and was about to open it, when she noticed that it was not addressed to her. She left it on the attic stairs, and that night Roger came into the living room, beaming with joy, and handed Jennifer a flowery weed he had found in the yard. "Paulie is coming to visit us!" "Oh?" Jennifer was a little miffed that Paulie hadn't seen fit to inform her of her plans. "Did she say when?" "Christmas," Roger said, smiling fatuously. "Oh, I almost forgot-- she says to tell you she said 'hi'." Christmas was a long way off; she didn't need to start worrying about it now. Not until, say, October, at the very earliest. --KXR--


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