Being back in Rose Red, the house that eats his family, is a little like being frozen in time at five. It was the age when the dark still scared you when it slid under the closet door and shaded your bed from the light. As a child, Steve Rimbauer remembered all the little rituals he'd had at bedtime. There was the nightlight, of course, which any child relied on, next to his bed. The sheets, when pulled up over his head, made a barrier against the creeping fingers of the dark. If he held his breath and stayed perfectly still, the crawling evil things with teeth wouldn't notice him.
Being in Rose Red brings back all of that to Steven, those fears and the way his stomach tightens. His heart has been beating faster, pounding in his temples since he opened the gate. Except when you're a kid, Steve knows, those small defenses work and, here in Rose Red, closing your eyes and not breathing just makes you easier prey. Steve didn't want to end up like the rest of his family. He didn't want Rose Red to eat him.
D had said that this place was a dead cell but as soon as they'd stepped out of the car and his shoes touched the grounds, Steven could feel the place coming to life. It was like fingers on the back of his neck, caressing, and the wind seemed to speak his name. A part of him, deep down inside, had looked at Annie and her bright smile. He'd cowered and whispered 'you want her, eat her, not me, but Steve had ignored it, tried to block it all out until Nick had asked him about being a boy in this house.
He'd forgotten about that, about the smell of sawdust and sickly sweet perfume like a gentle rot, the creaking of door and stairs, the tools on the ground and how nice Rose Red seemed in comparison to his home. Home, where he packed brown bag lunches with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches himself, like a big boy, and tried to ignore the desperation and uncertainty at watching his mother drink, then go out to find money to try and drink more.
"Steve." He looked up from his thoughts, feeling the moisture the lukewarm and sweating Pepsi can had left on his forehead where he was holding it. Think of the devil. Steve pointed to the other chair next to the fire. "Couldn't sleep?"
"Nick," he said back, by way of greeting, as Nick folded himself in to the armchair. He was holding a glass of wine, probably from the cellar. "Not really."
"Where is everyone else?"
Steve shrugged a little. "Joyce is out there playing with her toys the last time I checked." That had been about twenty minutes ago, before Steve had wandered into the room and dropped down in front of the fire. He'd tried to talk her into coming away, coming to bed, but she hadn't heard a word he'd said. Steve was used to that with D. D for drive, D for determined and, D, in his own head, for Dick. As in Moby Dick. Rose Red was the white whale of the parapsychology world and Joyce was Captain Ahab. "Everyone else went to bed. I assume they're sleeping."
"I'm sure they are. Emery's probably dreaming about the actress right now," Nick said wryly, taking a sip of his wine.
Steve raised his eyebrows, amused in spite of himself. "Is that a guess?"
"Possibly." Nick grinned a little, looking down into the ripples of wine. He took another, longer, drink and set the glass aside. "I believe no one is going to be sleeping restfully tonight."
"Except Annie." Steve had a feeling that Rose Red wanted Annie to join her willingly. Forcing her would only make Annie angry and, from what D had told her about the girl, Annie was as likely to destroy Rose Red as she was to help.
Steve was voting for destroy, himself.
"Except Annie." Nick smiled, agreeing with him. "She's sleeping the sleep of the innocent right now, I'm sure."
"At least one of us is," Steve said, nodding slowly. "We shouldn't have brought her here, should we?" Nick was strong apparently, Joyce had said so when she was searching out psychics for this project, but it was more a strength that had to do with versatility than power. Nick could do a little of just about everything, even precognition and farseeing. He hoped that Nick could see the outcome of this expedition, see if they weren't coming out like so many people had.
"I don't know, Steve." He paused, picking up his glass again. "I do know that not all of us will be leaving. Already the house has captured one person. It's going to get more."
"Yeah," he agreed. "It will. She always does. I'm just hoping we can hit back before we leave." He snorted, shaking the Pepsi can in his hands to see how much of it was left. "If we leave. I don't want to be eaten."
"For what it's worth," Nick said, lips curling. "I don't particularly want to see us eaten either."
Steve laughed at Nick's words, draining the last of the warm drink. He tasted good on his tongue, like real Pepsi, and didn't have the taste of sawdust. The sausage pizza earlier had tasted like that, like the house, like childhood fears and like knowing the bogeyman was waiting in the closet to get you. This was different. It tasted like the outside. It didn't have the taint of Rose Red. Steve appreciated that quality. He appreciated even more Nick and Nick's words. They had been what triggered the return of normal tastes.
"Yeah, I'll drink to that."
Nick raised his glass of wine, the fire light glinting off the rim, and nodded his head. "Cheers," he said quietly and drained the wine.
It was good to have an ally in a place like Rose Red.