Chapter Eleven: The Hurricane Descends
"A man of many talents."
"It's just a coffee maker. Not like I'm scaling Everest."
"That thing's been broken for nearly a month. Even Dylan couldn't fix it, and he fixes everything."
"Why didn't you just buy a new one?"
"Oh, I don't know," Norma said, and I felt her press up against me, her chest to my back, arms sliding around my waist. "I was a tad preoccupied."
Coffee maker officially repaired, I pushed it back on the counter, set the screwdriver down. I didn't turn around. Merely let my hands rest on the edge of the counter, enjoying her nearness.
"You've had a lot to deal with."
"Mm." I heard her sigh long before I felt her breath on my neck. But then the warmth of it hit, a gust against the skin just below my ear, and when her lips brushed my jaw my eyes drifted shut, and I let myself lean into her.
Once we'd untangled from our morning nap—she'd spent two hours curled into my side, unmoving, lost to exhaustion and what seemed the first decent sleep she'd had in years—we'd puttered around the kitchen, orbiting one another, feeling out our boundaries and our connection. Piecing together the puzzle we'd finally unboxed.
It came slowly, timidly. A brush of a hand here, a sudden nearness there. A hip bump when one of us needed access to a drawer, her hand flat on my spine when she moved past me.
"But today's a good day," I said. "Isn't it?"
"Best I've had in ages," she whispered. She kissed my cheek, a barely-there gesture that, finally, got me to turn around and sling my arms around her hips, pull her into me. And then it was just her face nuzzled into the crook of my neck and her hands on my chest, and she let me hold her, without worry or protest or resistance. With nothing between us but the mutual desire to be there.
That, I thought, was a goddamned first.
"Norman's still asleep?"
"Yeah, I don't like to wake him."
"Kid seems like he needs the rest."
"He does. Well," she added, an afterthought, "and it keeps him out of trouble."
"If only I could keep you out of trouble that easily," I said.
"Oh, please. I'm not that much trouble." She pulled back, wide-eyed and visibly annoyed, when I laughed a bit too readily. "I am not that much trouble."
"I'll be dead by fifty with you around. And anyway—" I hissed in a sharp breath when she leaned in, too quickly to stop, and bit my collarbone. Hard. "…The Hell?"
Nothing. Just her mouth an inch from what would soon be a bruise, and her shoulders shaking with silent laughter.
"Norma," I said.
"Did you just bite me?"
"Well, yes. But you should know better."
"What, exactly, should I know?"
"Stick your hand in a tiger cage, Sheriff, and you're going to get bit."
I ran a hand over my face, shook my head with both a laugh and impending resignation.
"Christ," I said, "make that dead by forty-nine."
"There are worse ways to die." Her slender fingers hooked under my belt buckle, and she tugged gently until I pushed away from the counter and moved closer to her. Close enough that I could smell her shampoo or her perfume, something floral and impossible to name, and when she looked up at me her eyes were painfully blue behind the curtain of mascara-heavy lashes.
"You're beautiful," I said as I ran my thumb over the delicate point of her chin, up and over the blade of her cheekbone. It wasn't lost on me that we had been here, in nigh this precise situation, just a couple of weeks ago. But I had pushed too hard, and she had pushed me away, and that had ended in tears and too many shots of vodka and Amelia dragging me home at three in the morning.
Now it was simple. Or it seemed simple, for perhaps the first time since I'd known her.
Norma Louise Bates was many things. Uncomplicated was not one of them.
When she nuzzled into my palm I leaned down to kiss her forehead, winding a blond curl around my index finger. I harbored no illusions about the future: this silence, this peace and stillness and grand ease would not last. We'd broken down the walls, yes, and she knew that I loved her, of that I was certain. She understood, finally, that I would step in and protect her, protect her children.
Still, so many things were left unspoken.
She never said: I love you.
I never said: I killed Caleb.
She still couldn't admit: Norman killed my husband.
I was too afraid to admit: Amelia Paris is sleeping in my spare bedroom.
But that could wait. Or so I told myself. This was too sweet, too right, to push aside in favor of the unpleasant truth. There would be another day, something gray and unpleasant, and we would unravel our private storm then. For now I just needed her here, held tight against me, willing and unafraid when I brushed my lips against her temple and whispered, "I love you."
"I think you may need reminding."
"Is that righ—"
Her sentence swallowed whole; my mouth on hers, insistent and eager, before she could respond. But then the surprise dimmed, and I felt her smile, felt the vibration of a pleased chuckle, and when she slid her hands around my neck I leaned down to scoop her up. Easy enough to lift, and she was trusting, and gentle, let me hold her weight without complaint. Merely wrapped her legs around my hips—yet another echo of that earlier day in her kitchen—and nipped my bottom lip in playful protest when I kissed her a bit too hard.
I walked us to the kitchen table, set her down carefully on it, and she pulled away with a huffed little laugh.
"You need to shave."
"Mhm," I said, though it wasn't so much a word as it was a vague noise in the back of my throat, as I was entirely too busy kissing the side of her neck.
"I mean it!" But she gasped softly, an encouraging hand snaking up through my hair to hold the back of my head, and she craned her neck to allow me better access. "Your face is all rough."
She let me lay her back on the table, my palm cradling her skull until she was safely in a comfortable position. And then it was just a matter of slowly pulling her sweater up over her rib cage, each exposed inch of skin greeted with an affectionate nip, until I reached the swell of her breasts and went about removing her bra.
"And is that a problem?" I asked. I rubbed my cheek against the soft flesh of her chest, scuffed my jaw over her delicate skin until she arched her back under me, and when she spoke it was barely above a whisper:
"God, no. Not a problem."
I kissed my way down her body like it was a prayer. Pale and shivering under me when I splayed my hand across her rib cage, she responded to the press of my mouth with a series of barely audible sighs. And when my hands reached her thighs, sliding her skirt up with my thumbs and snaking my index fingers beneath the band of her panties, inching them down until her legs were free and the cloth fell to the floor, she managed a hushed "What are you doing?" the words too quiet and strangled in her throat, like she couldn't get a deep breath.
But I didn't respond. Just lowered myself to kneel on the floor, and threw one of her legs over my shoulder. Kissed my way from knee to crux of pelvis to the soft mound of her lower abdomen, and only when I heard her whisper my name, and I looked up to see her face flushed, eyes closed and body trembling, did I gently press my mouth to the heat of her, the center of her, and smile when her legs clamped tightly against the sides of my head.
"Do you always wear this? I don't think I've ever seen it before."
Somewhere in the fray we'd landed on the floor. My clothing bunched up into a makeshift pillow beneath me, and her head resting on my chest, wild blond hair constantly fluttering against my chin. She'd been playing with an old catholic medallion my mother had given me as a child, turning it around in her fingers and gently toying with the chain.
"Haven't worn it in years. Just decided to recently."
"What's it mean?"
"Mm?" I tucked my chin down to look at her as best I could, then shrugged. Idly stroked her back. "St. Christopher. Patron saint of bachelors, travelers, storms and gardeners."
"Catholics like to cover everything, as a general rule."
"Well, it's lovely."
"Mm. Commonly given to children. But he's not an official saint these days. Ousted from the canon."
"Catholics are fickle, too," I said. I felt her giggle against my chest, an easy sort of amusement, most likely for my benefit, and I buried my nose in her hair and kissed the top of her head. "My mother was very devout."
My smile was instant, and broad, and genuine: what we'd just done, and what we'd hopefully do for countless nights in the future, and Norma Bates wanted to know if I was a pious, rosary-clutching Catholic?
"Think it's safe to say I'm significantly less so."
"So why wear it?" I fought back a shiver as she traced the tips of her nails over my chest and down my side, her touch flitting in and along the curves of my ribs and down to my hip bone. Playfully tracing patterns on the top of my thigh, and peeking up at me through a messy chunk of her hair.
"Just seemed fitting, I guess." But I was lying. Didn't want her to know that she was the only reason. That she'd been the reason for just about every goddamned thing I'd done in the past two years, and somewhere along the line I'd grown accustomed to feeling lost in her tides.
And, anyway, it seemed impossible to explain. The day my mother decided to shuffle off this mortal coil, and I found her cold and tinged blue on the couch with an empty bottle of Vicodin in hand, my faith died so swiftly it felt as if I'd never believed at all. That woman had loved her church and her priest more than all wordly joy, yet I could never bring myself to enter another after that.
Hell, I'd barely made it to her funeral.
But Norma had crept in, under my skin and in through the veins, stirred up old ideas and whims and desires I'd long thought I'd lost to bourbon and long nights on the job and an empty house. Though it was almost painful at times, her face reminded me of God. And when her mouth was on mine and her legs wrapped around me and she mewled my name over and over in her sweet, soprano staccato rhythm, it felt like God existed and took up residency in the pit of my gut.
Like all the oxygen in the world couldn't supply my lungs, but it didn't matter. Something holy and intangible and sacred kept me alive and breathing.
"I wish I could've met your mother," she said, softly, after a long stretch of companionable silence.
It hurt to hear it, truth be told. Every mention of my mother still a knife in the ribs, though two decades had softened the blow enough that I didn't immediately reach for the bottle. I wanted to change the subject, distract her, get far away from this talk of my mother and saints, but instead I just said, "She would've liked you."
"You think so?"
"Mm. She always thoughts blonds were lovely. And she had a fondness for outspoken women."
"Outspoken, huh? Is that what I am?"
I muffled a laugh against my arm, feigned a yawn so she couldn't see my smile.
"That's certainly one way of putting it, yes."
"God," she said, slapping me on the chest, which only made me laugh harder and thus annoy her further, "you're such an obnoxious—" The low groan of a floorboard above us made us still, the room silent as we both stared at the ceiling, straining to listen. "Shit," she whispered when another creaked a few seconds later, "Norman's awake. Probably best if he doesn't find us naked on the kitchen floor."
We managed to get dressed in under a minute, though haphazardly; my shirt left untucked (though it irritated me immensely), her skirt askew and hair mussed. But she was tinkering reaching into the refrigerator for something to cook when Norman finally made his entrance, and I tinkered with the coffee maker.
Nothing to see. Just a family friend fixing an appliance.
"Hi, honey. I was just making some lunch. Grilled cheese sound good?"
"Yes, fine. Thank you." A long pause. I could feel Norman staring at me (or rather, my back), but I didn't turn around until he said, "Sheriff?"
"Afternoon, Norman." I wiped my hands on the dish towel—they weren't dirty, but this was the closest to a nervous gesture as I got. And why nervous? Because I'd just slept with the kid's mother? Told her I loved her in the privacy of her bedroom? Or something about the evenness with which he addressed me?—and nodded. "How're you feeling, son?"
Norman didn't immediately respond. He merely watched me, face mostly blank yet vaguely curious, as if he didn't understand why I'd be standing in the kitchen.
"Much better, thank you," he said, finally.
"I'm sure Sheriff Romero is very glad to hear that, honey," Norma chirped, eying me intently. A non-verbal nudge, I thought, her way of telling me to relax and lighten the Hell up. She moved past me to the cupboard, fetching a loaf of bread, brushing against me as she went. Her smile was subtle, secretive, even, but there nonetheless, and I felt the corner of my mouth flicker upwards in response.
"I'm sure he is," Norman said, quickly. Too quickly. The second I met his gaze I saw it, though what, precisely, it was, I couldn't necessarily identify. I watched his eyes narrow, flit back and forth between his mother and I, and the way he clenched his jaw—nigh imperceptible unless one was trained to notice tells—when Norma walked past me again and let her fingers brush the back of my hand.
"Everything alright, Norman?" I asked. "You look a bit—" Sharp. Enraged. A quiet, simmering sort of rage that one's own mother, blinded by devotion and optimism, was liable to miss. Less so a cop. "—pale."
The smile that spread across his face was tight, and controlled, and malicious. For a brief moment I thought back to another day in Norma's kitchen; our argument, the knife in my back, and then afterward, finding her blood-drenched son on the side of the road. Made me yearn for my gun. Just the weight of it, really, a familiar companion. But mostly I just yearned to figure out where the Hell I'd get thirty grand.
A single moment of eye contact with Norman Bates impressed me with how absolutely essential White Pine Bay was to him. And, most importantly, at least to me, Norma's safety.
"Everything's fine, Sheriff, thank you," he said, the smile still stretched across his face. Unnerving, really. But years of training and what Norma would surely call my own goddamned stubbornness refused to let me break gaze.
"Glad to hear it, Norman," I said. I leaned back against the counter, hands in my pocket, and returned his smile. Albeit a saner, calmer smile.
"Oh," he said, "but that reminds me. Will you thank your friend for me? She was very nice."
I blinked rapidly, surprised in spite of myself, and my gut went ice cold the second Norma chimed in:
"Friend? What friend?" Her eyes flicked from Norman to me, and her smile was warm, and sweet, and curious. And I wanted to open my mouth to say something, to head this off—because I could already see where it was going, could see the absolute train wreck this would be, and what an impressive corner Norman had blindly backed me into—but was powerless to stop it.
Like so many things in my dealings with the Bates family, it had long ago been set in motion.
"The woman staying with Sheriff Romero," Norman said. "I'm afraid I can't remember her name. Was it Amber?"
"…The woman staying with—"
"Norma," I said, softly.
"Andrea?" Norman asked.
"Amelia," Norma whispered. And though she said it to Norman, her eyes, already wide and watering and stunned and full of betrayal, stayed transfixed on mine.
"Yes, I think that was it. She was very nice to me. Will you tell her I said thank you, Sheriff?"
"Oh, my God," Norma whispered.
"Norma," I said, as gently as I could, "don't do this. It's nothing, I promise you. Just let me—"
"Oh, my God!"
"Mother?" Norman asked. Feigned concern; I could hear the pleasure in his voice, catch the unwavering smile out of the corner of my eye. But there wasn't time for that, not now. "Is something wrong?"
"Get out," she said, and for one brief, stupid moment I thought she meant Norman. Sending him up to his room so she and I could hash this out in private. But the frown etching its way into her lovely face, and the tears streaking her makeup down her cheeks told a much different story. "Just get out!" And this time she screamed it at me, and reached past me to the coffee maker, hurling it at me with a force and speed I found surprising.
By the time I'd ducked out of the way and regained my balance, she was sprinting out of the kitchen and up the stairs, screaming at me all the while. Unintelligible things, nonsensical things, just a steady stream of high-pitched threats and curses.
I bolted after her, taking the stairs two at a time, but she ignored my pleas for her to stop, or slow down, and as she'd had a decent advantage, by the time I reached the landing she'd ensconced herself in the master bathroom, the heavy oak door locked and immune to any attempt I might make to break it down or kick it in.
"Norma, please, open the door. Let me explain this."
"I told you to get out!" The words were strained, her voice thick with tears, and when I leaned in close to the door I could hear the distinct hiccup-beat of sobbing.
"Please, just listen to me. Let me in so I can talk to you, alright?"
"I can't believe you hid this from me. I can't believe I trusted you."
"It's not what you think. I didn't tell you because I knew it would upset you, and you and Amelia aren't on the best of terms, but that's only because you don't know one another."
"That's such a crock of shit. You're just like every other—"
"Norma, this is just a misunderstanding. I promise you. If you'd just listen to me—"
"—How can you harbor that woman in your house? She's here to ruin my life, don't you get that? Just like her brother."
"No, she's not. She just doesn't know you, and she's upset about Bob. But I can make her understand that you didn't have anything to do with—"
"You always defend her! Always! She shows up at my motel, looking for her horrid brother, and then she threatens me and now she's taking care of my son when I don't even know she's there?"
"It's not like—"
"And you show up at my door last night, a complete mess, and you tell me you love me and then in the kitchen you … you—" she broke off, her breath hitching in the most heartbreaking way, and as I listened to her dissolve into tears I pressed myself against the door as tightly as possible, wanting her to hear me, wanting even more to break the fucking thing down.
"Norma, please. I meant everything I said. And you can trust me. You can. I didn't tell you about Amelia because I knew it would upset you, and I wanted to wait until I was sure you'd be able to handle it."
"Handle it? Oh, thank you, Sheriff—"
"Don't call me that," I said. "Please. I hate it when you call me that." More and more it felt like a slap, the title twisted and wrong on her tongue.
"I knew there was something wrong. With you, with that girl. I knew it. She's been with you this whole time, hasn't she? That's why you defend her so much!"
"No, Norma. No. That's not it at all, it's just—"
"How dare you badger me for the truth, make me feel like I'm awful and keeping too many secrets and hurting you, when you're the one who's running around with some terrible girl and pretending to care about me just so you can … I don't know, Sheriff—"
"Stop calling me that," I snapped, my tone harsher than I meant it to. But her anger and my inability to open the fucking door and explain this to her were tearing at me, and each time she called me Sheriff instead of Alex it felt like a knife between the ribs.
"—What was your goal, exactly?"
"Christ," I whispered. The whole goddamned thing was out of control. I was out of control, and I hated it. Utterly loathed it. "There's no goal. There's no trick, Norma. Maybe I should've told you "sooner—"
"—But I did what I thought was best for you."
"Christ, Norma," I said. I let my forehead fall against the door. "Please open the door. Talk to me."
"Just get out. Leave!"
"I'd never do anything to hurt you."
"You already have."
"I hate you, Alex Romero," she said, only this time I could barely make out the words through her sudden and rapid-fire sobs. "I hate you. I hope to God I never see you again."
I stood on the porch for what must've been ten minutes. Stared at her front door, as if it would somehow help me figure out the next move. What I could say, or do, to make her trust me, believe me, or just come out of the goddamned bathroom.
But there was nothing, and she wouldn't, and I stayed rooted in place because dread was forming a knot in my stomach. Dread or maybe just the awareness that I'd fucked this up. I'd fucked everything up. And the venom in her voice when she whispered "I hate you" was palpable and genuine and more lethal than a bullet or arsenic or a high-speed chase.
I kept going over and over it in my head, trying to piece it together, but everything was muddled, hazy, the pain too fresh and still bordering on shock.
How the Hell had I gone from making her whimper my name to refusing to so much as look at me? To hating me?
And how the Hell do you climb out of a pit like that?
Like the fucking pit in her driveway.
I caught a flash of movement in the second-story window, and glanced up reflexively. Hoping it was Norma come to check on me, or invite me back inside, or maybe even smile at me. A sad, apologetic smile. Or an angry smile. But something that would let me know—
But, no. Norman stood in front of the window, watching me calmly. And as a slow, placid smile began to creep across his face, I thought of something he'd said back at my house, after Amelia had cleaned him up and I'd sat him down for a few questions:
"You touch her too much."
I'd lost count of both the shots and the hour. The world beyond the bar's windows were dark, but I couldn't remember when I'd stumbled in here and my vision was too blurred to make out the numbers on the clock.
Every so often my phone chimed, and I did my best to ignore it. Just a string of worried texts from Amelia, that much I'd figured out. But only after I'd checked my phone twelve times in the vain hope it was Norma, asking me to come back, to talk to her, to tell me that she forgave me and understood.
But it was never her, and as the night wore on and the vodka began tasting better and better, I soon had my phone out, dialing and redialing her number. Listening to it ring for ages, and then her voice mail barging in, and though it was sweet to hear her voice she never answered. Either because she was sleeping or because she hated me. Maybe both.
Tomorrow she'd wake up to a series of slurred, pathetic messages, and I'd wake up hungover and made of regret and something bordering on humiliation:
"Please talk to me. Just pick up and talk to me, Norma."
"I hate it when you call me Sheriff."
"I couldn't bear it if you hated me. Please call me back."
"I love you. I love you so goddamned much. Please don't hate me. Please don't—"
Somewhere along the line I managed to snap my phone shut and return it to my pocket. Ignored the frantic and constant texts from Amelia. Drowned each urge to call Norma again in another drink.
"Alex?" A warm, feminine voice broke through the alcohol haze, and I felt a hand grasp my shoulder.
I'd fallen asleep at the bar, arms folded in front of me and forehead resting on my wrists, and the unexpected touch startled me awake more forcefully than I would've liked; my stomach churned, sour and displeased, and I swallowed down the bile rising in the back of my throat.
"Hi, baby," Marge cooed. From beneath a heavy rim of artificial lashes she peered at me, her face a mixture of knowing and sympathy and something I couldn't name; something that belonged entirely to her. A wariness, maybe, or, underneath her glamor and her bright, wide grin, a sense of exhaustion. "You having a bad night, sweetheart?"
"Ah, you know. Fine. I'm fine," I said. I tried my damnedest to make each work clean, and clear, but I could hear the consonants blending into one another. Painfully aware that I was, officially, a slurring drunk, I shook my head and sat up straight. Trying to will it away. Couldn't have the Sheriff acting like a goddamned alcoholic fool.
"Of course you are, baby. Of course." Her hand on my forehead was cool, and maternal, and surprisingly welcome. My eyes drifted shut for a brief moment, thinking of that day I'd first met her, all those years ago in the Blue Moon Diner, and how she'd been something of a surrogate mother to me all these years, though I never would've dreamed of voicing such a thing.
But then a loud noise startled me again, and my eyes snapped open—some patron behind me dropping a beer bottle, the sound of glass shattering ricocheting off the walls—and I leaned away from her touch, trying to regain some semblance of authority.
"Must be late," I said.
"Oh, just after eleven."
"What're you doing out at this hour?" Marge had always worked the morning shift at the diner, and considering she rolled in around five a.m. I had difficulty imagining her staying up so late.
She gestured to a much younger man standing a few feet behind her with a roll of her shoulder.
"Out with the old ball and chain, darling."
"Don't think I've ever met your husband."
"Well, you met number four. This is number six," she said. A fluttery, flirtatious wink, fuchsia-painted lips spreading into the widest, shit-eating grin I'd seen in weeks. Made me smile despite my mood and the way the room had recently begun spinning. "You look like shit, baby." Must've been obvious; couldn't remember how much I'd had to drink, but I hadn't been this intoxicated in a long time. "You want me to call a cab?"
"No. But thanks, Marge."
"You sure, sweetheart? You don't look good, honey, you need to head on home."
"I'll call a friend." Amelia would be pleased to hear from me. And then probably spend the entire drive home calling me every name in the book for ignoring her texts and making her worry.
"Alright, sweetheart. You call your friend soon, you hear? I need to get Mr. Marge a drink, lest that dour little face of his freeze that way." She leaned in, a gust of powdery, cheap perfume momentarily overwhelming, but I didn't mind the kiss she planted on my temple ("Alcohol turns you into a lamb," Amelia once said. "You barely let me touch you when you're sober."), or her affectionate chuckle as she smeared the hot-pink lipstick off my skin.
"I'll see you later, Marge."
"You'd better," she said as she turned to go. "Oh, but before I forget, I'm so sorry you lost your friend, sweetheart."
"Lost my what?" I blinked several times in rapid succession, and frowned. For a moment I thought she meant Norma. But no, of course not, there was no way she could possibly have any idea. "My friend?"
"Yeah, you know, that pretty lady cop. FBI or DEA or some such thing. She used to come into the diner for lunch. Was always real sweet, you know, always asked after my family. Tipped well, too."
"Babbitt?" I asked, alarm rising. I felt it mix with bile and alcohol and rapidly skyrocketing blood pressure, my brain trying to piece together all the information suddenly flooding in, though it was a struggle. Like trying to think my way through a swamp. "Special Agent Babbitt?"
"That's her! Yeah, that's a damn shame. Such a lovely thing." When I didn't immediately respond, she frowned, and ventured on. "You hadn't heard?"
"Heard what?" I asked, trying to keep my tone pleasant. I felt like something important was scratching at the outskirts of my mind, but I couldn't pin it down. Couldn't think clearly enough to figure out just what, exactly, my own instincts and my memories and my intuition were trying to tell me.
"It's all over town, honey. They found her body a few hours ago."
"Mhm. Shot in the chest, apparently."
"Such a shame. She was a real sweetheart."