23 - The Arguing

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A childish fear swept through her. For a moment, she was gripped with certainty that she was alone, not just in bed but in the house, the world. That outside was nothing but darkness and stillness, an endless black that would swallow her. But she swallowed back the fear, and as her senses returned to her, she forced herself from the bed and pulled a robe from the hook on the bedroom door, pulling it around herself as she ventured into the hall.

"Liz?" she called, and her voice sounded small and stifled in the darkness of the hallway.

The portraits in the hall, she was relieved to see, were all facing the right direction, their eyes their usual colors.

Down the hall, a narrow beam of light cut across the floor, emanating from Liam's room. She moved toward it, holding her robe closed with both hands as though it could somehow shield her from something. Though it was a hot night, the air from the vents blew against her sweaty, damp skin, sending a chill through her body.

The door was ajar, and she nudged it open. Liz was perched on the edge of Liam's bed, awkwardly fitted against his small mattress. The boy was curled against her, his head against a breast, his eyes half-lidded and drooping. Liz raked fingers gently through his hair, feathery white and fine with youth, and she murmured something quiet and nonsensical, some string of words meant to convey comfort without the substance of meaning.

"What —" Nat began, but Liz held up a finger to her lips to quiet her.

Instead, she bent and kissed him atop the head, then quietly slid her body out from under him. He muttered feebly in protest, but his voice was sleep-choked, groggy. It didn't take much for him to nod back to sleep, and as he snuggled down against his pillow his mother pulled a thin sheet up around his shoulder, smoothed his hair back one more time, and backed away from his bedside. She left the lamp by his bed switched on, but hit the switch for the overhead light, leaving the lamp to cast shadows like wide pools of darkness around the room.

That, to Nat, did not seem like an improvement over pure darkness. But then, she was not a five-year-old.

"Nightmare," Liz explained, in a whisper, as she shut the door behind her and started back down the hall toward the bathroom. "Surprised you didn't hear him screaming. Woke me up from halfway across the house."

She turned on the light in the hall bathroom and ducked inside, stopping in front of the sink and mirror. She ran her hands irritably through her hair, lifting it from her brows, burying her fingertips near the scalp before gathering her hair back into a ponytail and re-applying the elastic, smoothing out what had been a bed-rumpled hairstyle. Then she rinsed out the glass they kept by the sink — a plastic cup with the words "World's Best Mom" stamped on it in faded gold lettering — and filled it with cold water, drinking about half of it and dumping out the rest.

Nat wanted to tell her that she, too, had been woken by a nightmare. She wanted, selfishly, to be comforted like a child. To have her hair smoothed back, to be kissed on the forehead and tucked into bed, to be sat up with until the fear passed and she was able to slip once more into sleep. But it was not something she could ask for now, and so she hesitated, trying to push the lingering imagery of the dream from her mind. "I woke up and you were gone," she said, finally, because she felt that something needed to be said, some explanation given for coming down the hall to look for her.

"Do you know what Liam was dreaming about?" Liz asked, then, and there was coldness in her voice that Nat did not expect. "Do you know what he was screaming about when I woke and ran down the hall?"

The shadow of a great black dog and a hallway of portraits with empty white eyes, Nat thought, but did not say.

Liz turned to look at her, and her eyes were hard in the harsh light of the bathroom. "He said he dreamed that I killed everyone with a big gun," she intoned, flatly, but there was real anger in her eyes. "He said he saw you and his 'daddy' lying dead in the hall and saw me coming for him next. He was so scared when he woke up that he pulled away from me."

Nat's eyes went wide. That was not what she had expected to hear. As Liz explained it, she could visualize it all too clearly in her own mind: The dark red-black puddles of blood in the dim light, the crumpled silhouettes of bodies, the smoking muzzle of a shotgun or rifle. The image made her stomach clench.

"What the fuck, Natasha." Liz shifted her body, pressing her back to the sink, her hands rested on the edges of the counter. The suddenness of the movement coupled with the harshness of her voice made Nat flinch backward. "Where could he have gotten an idea like that?"

"I — I have no idea." It was late, the middle of the night, and she was desperately tired. Her own nightmare had begun to fade from memory, but the fear lingered, settling in her chest and now tightening.

"Bullshit."

Whatever she had been expecting Liz to say, that wasn't it, and it made her speechless in her surprise. Her breath hitched, a sharp intake of air, and she took a step backward without realizing she was doing it. In that moment, she was afraid — genuinely afraid — of Liz, for the first time. Liz had always had a hot temper, but it had never been turned toward her with such cold fury.

"I know you've been obsessed with that...family. I saw your laptop. The photos? Those fucking crime scene photos and all of those goddamn headlines?" Liz took a step forward, too, closing the space between them. She kept her voice low, so as not to wake Liam down the hall, but every word was laced through with ice. "What did you let him see, Nat? What did you let him hear? I know you're the one putting these sick ideas into his head, don't try to deny it."

Nat's mouth opened, but nothing came out. There were no words that came to her, at first, as though her brain were on a time delay. Like a camera on a tripod, poised for a family photo. A long expectant pause and then — flash. Thoughts. Words. "I didn't. He didn't. I swear to god, Liz, I didn't tell him anything."

She was too shocked to be angry about the accusation. But Liz shoved past her, into the hallway, without another word. Not believing her; not even acknowledging her. Nat stood in the doorway, feeling pushed aside, forgotten, betrayed. Her hands loosened their grip on the collar of the robe, and it gaped open, revealing glimpses of bare flesh beneath, and she didn't bother to fix it. She merely stood in the hall and stared after t Liz, waiting for her wife to turn around and come back with an apology, or an explanation, or even another round of accusations — but there was nothing, merely the closing of the master bedroom door, and cold silence on the other side.

Swallowing hard, trying to force down the sudden rise of acid at the back of her throat, feeling tears begin to build up at the corners of her eyes, she turned and went to the other end of the house. She pulled an afghan and old, lumpy pillow from the hall closet, where they kept their guest bedding, and made herself up a bed on the couch in the sitting room, face turned toward the back of the couch so she wouldn't have to look at the stupid dog with its pleading glass eyes and shadowy fur.

In the darkness, eyes screwed up against angry tears, face buried into the cushion, she did not see it move.

She did not notice the faint inclination of the head, the way it tilted subtly sideways, or the way its jaws widened, revealing the S-curve of its pink tongue, the glinting points of its grinning teeth. 

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