It was loud tonight. Everyone was present– a rarity. Jonathan Gallagher, a lanky, graying old man who demanded to be called "Sir" by his wards, was dozing drunk as a skunk next to a loudly snoring Miriam on the couch. Two of the boys were throwing punches out in the hallway while most of the other kids watched. Those that didn't were in the boys' room, smoking pot and rifling through unattended personal items. Lydia knew better than to attempt joining in and requesting a toke.
Chicken ramen. Again. She didn't have an appetite for it– or much of anything else– choosing instead to forego food altogether and attempt skirting past all the ticking timebombs to get to her bunk. With the other children busy and Miriam passed out cold, Jonathan felt safe enough to plant his palm on her ass as she passed.
Be invisible. Do not attract attention. Do not become a target.
The door to the girls' room slammed shut a bit louder than she meant it to, making her flinch harder than the sexual assault. By the time she got to her lumpy mattress, drew the makeshift curtain that cut her off from the rest of the world, and released the breath she didn't know she was holding, she was ready to cry. She didn't. That bastard made her trash an entire page. She could have put so many beautiful things on it and now it was gone. Everything and everyone was gone.
If she didn't put all this ugly, upsetting energy somewhere, she would end up crying again, and that would earn her a beating from the other girls. Trembling from the well of emotion bubbling up inside, she yanked the zipper on her backpack open only to gasp and lose hold of it completely.
It wasn't… He didn't…
Silent tears streamed down her faded pallor as the pads of her fingertips traced the beautiful sandworm embossing the front, the thick high-quality parchment making up the pages. An exquisite set of charcoal pencils forced her to choke an embarrassing, damning sob down her throat. Luckily, everyone was too busy dwelling with their chaos to hear it. She hugged the drawing pad to her chest like a precious thing, biting her lip so hard to stifle tears that it bled.
Then, for the third time that day, she said it; with pain and purpose, fully aware of who she was calling and what she was doing.
He hadn't meant to make her cry, and he didn't know the asshole "father" in this situation was a pervert. That ass was his and his alone. He'd have to take care of this after he got Lydia out.
He pressed his lips to her temple as she sobbed, wishing he was more real than he was at that moment. Then she said it… the third time that day. He wondered if it was enough…
Slowly, he materialized where he sat behind her, cradling her against his chest. He was rubbing her arm slowly, a scowl settled firmly on his face.
"Ya don't like it, baby? I saw the old one an' well… thought you could use new supplies. Don't worry. Any o' those bastards try to take it, the worm'll bite 'em."
She didn't expect him to be so close, but she did expect him. Manners mattered, and she couldn't just ignore a gesture like this. Nevertheless, the feeling of a pair of cold, girthy arms wrapped around her, a chubby gut pressed up snug against her back, and two stripe-clad legs spread on either side of her hips made her tense and freeze.
"I–" She hiccuped, jerkily wiping snot onto the sleeve of her ratty, overworn sweater. "I like it."
That was an understatement. It was now the nicest thing she owned. So nice, in fact, that fear of losing it had seized her as soon as she realized it was all hers.
"Wh… why are you here? Why are you being so…" A frigid, stubbly cheek brushed her own and she stuttered even worse over the rest of the sentence. "– n-nice to m-me…?"
He sighed as she immediately froze up. He didn't let up, however. No time like the present to get used to him touching her. He kept up the soft petting, pressing his cheek to hers gently.
"I'm always nice t'you, kitten. 'N I'm here because… 'cause I got some news. N' you should know too. N' then I saw the shithole they got ya livin' in n'...
He huffed. "Long story short, the marriage went through. So yer my wife. I'm gonna get ya outta this dump and set ya up real nice. You n' me can go anywhere! We can travel the world if ya want…"
One might argue that coercing someone into marriage under duress and taking advantage of the pressing circumstances they were under was not by any stretch of the imagination "nice"… but this was such a pretty drawing pad. Besides, the other things he said were much more deserving of her attention than this petty lie.
"We're not married."
Even as she denied it, she knew it was true. No one else seemed to hear it, not even the sandworm chow cuddled so casually around her being, but she did. She heard that decrepit little priest utter those damning words; "– and wife."
"You can't just– just–"
He was too close. It was too much contact, especially after having gone so long without so much as a hug. She bolted, scrambling to the opposite end of the small mattress like a frightened, beat dog– still clutching the cherished drawing pad close to her chest.
"You'll get me out of here in exchange for what? What do you want from me?"
Her eyes were wild, taking in every miniscule movement he made, every little twitch. He hadn't changed a damn bit. Not like her.
He sighed, reaching for her for half a moment before giving in and crossing hands in his lap. She looked like someone had assaulted her, not just sat behind her. He didn't like this one bit.
"What do I want? I want you to be outta here. I want ya happy n' I want ya t'keep me around so no one can fuck with ya again. If some other trade comes up, we can talk about it then."
He pulled out a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it, looking at her beneath hooded eyes.
"How about a test run? We can go to a hotel or somethin'. Take all yer stuff with us so the sibs can't fuck with it, n' we can hang out. Order room service. Pretend ya can stand me."
The tight line of her mouth squirmed with indecision. His offer was undeniably attractive, but so many things could go wrong. What if this was a trick?
How long has it been since you've eaten a decent meal, Lydia?
Coinciding with the traitorous thought, her stomach grumbled. Loudly. Would it be a nice hotel? Like the kind her wealthy father used to put them up in? Cozy featherbeds and unlimited hot water and not a single roach in sight…
No. This was dangerous. It was definitely a trick. Just as Lydia was about to open her mouth and tell him to shove it, the door opened, all three of her foster sisters coming tumbling in, high as a kite and laughing loudly about the show their brothers had put on. Luckily, the thin, dirty sheet that made up her "canopy" kept them hidden, but Lydia was thrown into panic mode, eyes rapidly flickering between her surprise bedmate and the certain doom outside her curtain.
Whimpering, pleading, she informed him in the quietest voice she could muster; "… I'm not allowed to have guests."
"Don't worry. You're the only one who can see me. For now. Wait here." He kissed her forehead, quickly before she could duck away, and was gone.
Moments later, the old, off-tune doorbell rang. When Miriam sent one of the boys to answer, Betel was standing there in a rather impressive, intimidating disguise. The man at the door was impossibly tall and bulky, his blonde hair kept long and swept back from his forehead, not unlike the way Charles Deetz used to wear his.
He was dressed in a freshly pressed black suit, a black and white pinstripe shirt peeking through from behind a green silk tie.
He smiled eerily.
"Hello, little boy. I'm looking for Lydia Deetz. I'm her new social worker. I'm sure you won't mind if I come in and look around while I'm here."
He stepped right past the boy and into the house, scowling dramatically. "Goodness. This isn't at all how it looked in her file."
Maybe she wasn't scared of him per se, but those words were enough to strike terror into her heart. Anything was possible with Betelgeuse on the loose.
Devon answered the door when it rang, lip split and bloody from his recent fight with Lamar. As a freshly initiated gang member, he didn't take too kindly to being addressed as a "little boy", but scowled and stepped aside to let Lydia Deetz's social worker in any way. Anything to fuck with the Gallaghers.
Lydia watched the scene play out from behind the rest of her foster sisters who were crowding the doorway, her small frame barely visible.
"The fuck're…?" At the sight of a stately white man in a suit, Jonathan Gallagher straightened up, jumping to his feet. He couldn't afford to lose one of his precious cash cows‒ he could, but who was counting? Definitely not the state‒ and Lydia had such a cute, pert little ass.
"Ahhh Mister uhhh…" He squinted to read the authentic-looking identification Betelgeuse flashed. "Beetleman. I's sorry 'bout the state o' things. The missus n' I, we just uh… money! That's it! Ain't got 'nuff money to keep things tip-top! Damn greedy gov'ment. Don't think you could uh… do somethin' 'bout that… could ya?"
Betel fixed the drunkard with a scowl. He took a step back when the man came toward him waving his hands and trying to convince him that lack of funds was the reason he was keeping these eight children in this shithole.
"Mr. Gallagher. I'm here to see Lydia, not you. But I must say, I have my concerns about the state of this place. You've got children bleeding and roaches on the walls. Why in Satan's asshole would I give you more money to spend on booze?"
He brushed the man aside and made eye contact with Lydia, smiling and winking at her playfully. "Now. Lydia will be coming with me for a few days while we work out some business with her father's estate. I'll return her on Friday. Maybe."
He sniffed disapprovingly and held out his hand. "Lydia, show me your room and we'll pack your bags."
When the devastatingly handsome, well-dressed social worker spotted Lydia through the barrier of other girls, they parted like the red sea, mouths agape. Lydia's reaction was only marginally less graceful.
"Now…?" She mouthed without actually speaking as if she just couldn't believe it. It was too good to be true. Again, alarm bells started blaring in her head, screeching this is a trap, even as her heart pitter-pattered in her chest, singing yes! Please! Take me away!
Mr. Beetleman's strong chin dipped in a single affirmative nod, and that's all it took for her heart to win the battle.
"I'm already packed."
She was always packed and ready to go, everything she owned staying folded up compact and convenient in her thrift shop backpack. Without further ado, she grabbed it off her bunk and floated his way, completely ignoring her foster siblings and parents and anything else that might have been in her path.
He nodded and wrapped his arm politely over her shoulders. "Perfect. Then we'd better get going, our flight to New York leaves in a few hours."
He shot the Gallaghers a sharp look. "Hopefully when you get back, conditions will have improved. Or else."
He looked around and narrowed his eyes. He might have to drop a hint to the actual foster care system. These kids deserved better than these shitty excuses for parents. They didn't even ask to see his credentials. He could have been any psycho waltzing in and kidnapping his bride.
He led Lydia outside and in a flash of electric green light, they were gone, standing instead outside a towering hotel just off Times Square. He walked in, produced a fake ID and credit card, and booked the honeymoon suite for a week. She might not want to stay that long, but it was better to have it just in case.
"Please bill the room service and anything else to the room. We'll have some purchases from Saks delivered this afternoon."
The bellhop jumped to help them, carrying his mostly empty suitcases that had appeared in the doorway and leading up to the massive room.
This was exactly the kind of hotel her father would have booked once upon a time. More than that, Lydia had actually stayed here in this exact building before, when Delia was going on one of her remodeling binges and absolutely had to have the living room of their penthouse suite leveled to put in a skylight. At the time, Lydia had considered their stay here all very dull and boring. What a spoiled fucking brat she was.
Delia and her father had deserved better.
Very silent and nervous now that they were alone together, she kept her distance while Betelgeuse made the arrangements. She didn't feel like she belonged there. This wasn't her world anymore. Quiet as a mouse, she trailed several feet behind him as they rode the familiar, spacious elevator to the top floor, trying and failing to put painful memories away.
However, she couldn't stay silent anymore once they got to their room. Rose petals. They were everywhere, leading a trail to the large bed at the center of the room. The only bed. There was a bottle of expensive champagne in an ice bucket next to a bubbling in-ground hot tub‒ also littered with damning rose petals.
This was it. The catch. The price. She was an idiot.
"Fuck you," she snarled, immediately on the defensive, and without waiting for an explanation tore off right back through the entrance and toward the elevator. She would rather take her chances on the street.
He probably should have explained better. Who the fuck were these people? He came in with a sixteen-year-old and they do all this? He bolted after her, catching her hand.
"Woah! Lyds… I promise I didn't think about this. I just thought it would be nice. Amenities n' such… Promise I didn't bring ya here to do anythin' but catch yer breath."
He pressed a kiss to her palm, carefully turning the captured hand in his. He didn't want her to think he was putting the moves on her. Not yet, anyway. The marriage would be consummated, undeniably, but certainly not tonight.
"I want ya t'sleep as long as ya want. Eat what ya wanna eat n' when I take ya shoppin' later you're gonna buy every pretty thing you want. Money ain't an issue. My savin's account's been runnin' interest for centuries." He was teasing, mostly. But he did have an account with an astronomical balance. It did him no good in the Neitherworld, but up here…
He could spoil her for centuries.
"Pants stay on and I don't sleep so's the bed's all yours. Come on, Lyds. Please?"
Please. What a strange word to hear on a mouth so filthy. He had dropped his glamour now that they were alone, baring him in all his grotesque glory. Hearing that phrase uttered from him in this form weakened something in her. Maybe… just maybe… there wasn't a catch.
"I still have my knife," she reminded, low and savage as a malnourished midget threatening an ancient ghost could be. After a beat where it seemed as though she might bolt… her hand relaxed within his, allowing him to lead her back to their room. This was the closest to permission that he would be getting from her.
Once they again passed the threshold, Lydia didn't know what to do with herself. Bathe? Eat? Sleep? She wanted‒ needed‒ all three but was too overwhelmed to decide on just one. Her knees felt wobbly as she stepped further into the room, indecisive and exhausted, mentally and physically. Instead of doing any of the things she needed to do to maintain herself, she took a seat at the small table near the hot tub, the one that carried the ice bucket and champagne.
The chair wasn't as comfortable as the bed probably was, but she couldn't lay on that thing, couldn't possibly fall asleep in front of him. No, this was the only safe option. Her backpack of meager belongings was kept close, even now the girl not feeling secure enough to let it out of her grip. The aforementioned knife was tucked into the ankle of her boot, but Lydia wasn't stupid enough to legitimately think it would do her any good on him. It was a petty comfort.
"I never said I was going to go with you," she murmured low, watching as the rose petals in the hot tub rose and sunk to the surface with the jets bubbling at the lowest setting. "You shouldn't have done all this. The other kids‒"
She was in for one Hell of a beat down whenever she returned. Be invisible. Do not attract attention. Do not become a target.
"They're not going to like it."
"They don't gotta like it."
He kicked his boots off and sat on the edge of the bed, watching her closely. She was clearly still uncomfortable. He made the choice for her and picked up the room service menu.
"I'm starvin'. Whatcha wanna eat, babes? Or do ya want me to leave ya alone for a while so you can soak in that tub? Looks nice, huh?" He sighed and stared at her a while when he didn't get an answer. "Guess I'm sorry for hijackin' ya but seems t'me ya need this little vacay." Why was she being so difficult? He was being real good to her and she was ungrateful already.
Kids these days.
"Come on… ya know ya wanna lay back n' relax a while. I'll handle the sibs when we get back."
While he asked his simple, confusing questions, Lydia drew her legs up onto the seat with her, tucking her chin in between her knees. Eat, starve, sleep, don't, stay, go, live, die… All the different options pounded against her skull, driving her mad, twisting up her tongue and consciousness. She was used to being told what to do, to having no other options than what was presented to her– beef or chicken?
The decadence of choice that Betelgeuse offered was overwhelmingly too much freedom.
"I don't know," she whispered, well aware that she was being ungrateful and unreasonable, hating herself for it. Her too-skinny limbs curled into a tighter ball, bony fingers gripping painfully at the greasy hair on either side of her head. "I don't know."
In an effort to not be so fucking annoying and useless, she spat out an answer to one of his many questions, hoping that this might appease him.
Goddamn it. Could he not do a single thing right by this kid? Now she was freaking out. Maybe it was too much too fast?
Slowly, he nodded and reached for the phone, ordering a plain cheese pizza for his wife and a burger for himself. He also ordered the soda he knew she liked from before and an extra order of fries.
Just in case.
He sighed as he hung up and flopped face down into the pillows of the bed. The rose petals were crumpling under him but at least they smelled nice. He was starting to wear out. Between the many-mile transport and holding a human form for the two hours it had taken between getting Lyds out and getting them checked in, he was starting to doze.
Bad idea. She couldn't be left unsupervised.
He forced himself awake with a snort and sat up, scratching his gut. "TV, babes? Whatcha wanna watch?"
Finally. A question she knew the answer to.
"I like scary movies."
From there, he took that and ran with it, landing the large flat screen television on a channel that was broadcasting a George Romero marathon. Dawn of the Dead– the original, not the atrocious remake– was playing. Lydia untucked just a little from her protective ball for a better view. Snarling zombies and screaming victims helped exponentially in making the silence between them less awkward.
Pizza came. Betelgeuse answered the door and carried it all in, laying the entire box down in front of her. It was delicious. The best pizza she'd ever had– or could recall having in recent memory. She scarfed down three slices until she couldn't eat anymore, and then just for good measure because it tasted so good, she had another.
That bed was looking more and more comfortable, but she wouldn't lay there while he was on it. What if he saw that as an invitation?
"Thank you," she conceded quietly during a commercial break, ashamed of herself for thinking so poorly of him before. After all, he hadn't lied to her yet. Historically speaking, she was the one most likely to fuck him over.
He had eaten the burger and his order of fries by the time she spoke again. In fact, he was nearly asleep, her quiet voice startling him awake.
"Huh? Oh. Yeah. Not gonna kidnap ya then starve ya. I'm a monster but I ain't that cruel. 'Specially to my wife. Can you imagine?"
He shook his head, cracking one eye to look at her. "Ya know you can come sit by me. I ain't gonna touch ya unless ya ask me to. The whole grabbin' thing earlier was a fluke."
He held up his hands smiling at her. "I'll tie myself up if ya want. We could both have fun with that, I think. You can know I ain't gonna cop a feel n' I can daydream 'bout you coppin one on me. It's a win-win!"
The sexually charged joking did nothing to help his case. Still, despite every instinct telling her not to, Lydia found herself very slowly unraveling to trail skinny, weak limbs across the floor.
"Promise you won't…?"
Her intonation was wrong, like she meant to tack more onto the end of the sentence but ultimately decided it was enough on its own. The bed barely dipped at all with her added weight. Ever polite, she removed her shoes first, then her hole-ridden socks. She probably should have bathed before touching this beautiful pristine bed… but she didn't really want to ask him to leave‒ and she was so tired. If she tried, the likelihood of her falling asleep in such a decadent tub was high.
Idly, she toyed with one of the rose petals still smattered over the covers, rubbing it across the top of her hand just to feel the softness. It was a beautiful bloody shade of red, the color of passion.
"I still don't understand… Why...?"
The question was left to hang in the air unclarified. Why did he give a fuck at all? Just because she was his wife? That seemed… petty in the grand scheme of things.
He playfully drew a cross over his heart as she approached, his eyes never leaving her thin, frail form. He had to get this right fast or she'd waste away to nothing. He watched her settle delicately on her side of the bed and smiled softly. She was getting there. Maybe they could find common ground after all.
I still don't understand… Why…?
His smile faltered and he turned his attention to the ceiling. Why was he doing all this? It wasn't required of him. All he had to do was stay close to her. She could be an inch from death and he'd still get to stay topside.
"I ain't never done this marriage thing before. I was too busy with other shit for any girls to stay around long… yer special, I guess. I don't like seein' ya feelin' so shitty."
He glanced at her before continuing.
"You deserve to go see the world. Take pictures of anythin' those big ol' eyes can land on. I'm gonna get ya there. Kinda owe it to ya."
The bed was enormous. They could have fit three more of her in between them and they still wouldn't have been touching.
Take pictures of anythin' those big ol' eyes can land on.
Said eyes drifted shut so that she could play pretend. Fantasize. She could almost hear the static flash of her old Polaroid camera, the whirr of a photo flapping through the air before her deft fingers caught it. It had been so long…
Her eyes snapped open on the precipice of dreamland, dull and sunken under the dim glow of the television.
"You don't owe me shit."
Wasn't it her that stabbed him in the back after he upheld his end of their deal? What wedding was he remembering?
"They fed you to a sandworm. I let them. I was happy about it."
It was suicidal of her to rub this in his face now of all times after he had shown such uncharacteristic kindness and generosity.
"Do you still think I deserve to see the world?"
He looked at her, studying her face as she brought up the unfortunate Connecticut situation. He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. He had hated her for a long time. She had been the source of many gruesome and painful fantasies as he digested in the gut of the giant beast that had eaten him up.
He wanted her dead. More than dead he had wanted her to suffer. But seeing her now, he could tell that she had. His thirst for retribution was sated.
"Yeah. You do. I know you do. Anythin' I coulda wished on ya has already happened. Ya deserve anything my old, dead, stupid ass can scrounge up for ya."
Satisfied that maybe this wasn't an elaborate plot to hurt her somehow, the tension that had kept her wound tight for longer than she cared to dwell on eased. She was safe here. Any pain he might want to dish out would not be coming tonight, not while she slept on this cloudy mattress beside him with a sea of blankets keeping them apart.
"I'm sorry," she acquiesced, once more at the edge of sleep. The apology she gave him once in her dreamscape was beyond her memory's scope at this point.
"I wasn't… that happy… just a little…"
By the time he could formulate any kind of response to her sentimental bullshit, she was already gone.
He chuckled as she muttered reassurances, quickly dozing off once she was settled in the bed. He took the time to put the pizza away, sure that she would want it later, before settling in to watch her sleep.
He only made it a few minutes before he was nosily diving into her dreams again, glancing around at the still largely empty background of her subconscious.
Maybe this would help him find something to help her out. He sought her out and smiled when he found her, sleeping even here.
He retracted his mind and watched her a while longer before he too nodded off into sleep.