EVEN STONES CAN FLY
by Karen Mason-Richardson
She would be thirty-seven years old on Friday. Thirty-seven years. No longer early or even mid thirties, but solidly headed towards middle-aged.
Funny how the years creep up on you much more quickly than you expect while you’re just living from day to day.
Catherine absently dug the toe of her sneaker into the gritty sand of the lake’s edge and dislodged a flat stone. The dull pop of her knee accompanied her crouch down to pick it up. Absently she noted her hands were showing their age as well, not as smooth as they had been fifteen years ago. Recurring mild headaches had led to last week’s appointment with Peter and resulted in his recommendation to consult an optician about reading glasses. Her! Glasses!
Knee pops, rough hands, those irritating strands of gray she was starting to find when she dried her hair, they all added up to a woman who wasn’t getting any younger.
The glasses issue wasn’t the only thing she had discussed with Peter during the last appointment. While in the waiting room she had picked up a pamphlet on depression. A lot of the symptoms described sounded uncomfortably familiar.
At least she could talk to Peter. She didn’t have to worry about her secrets with him, not like with that psychologist a few years ago. She had pretty much told him everything. It was worse than when she had fled to Nancy’s seven years ago: a deep gnawing hopelessness. A sense that this was it, there was nothing more and there would never be anything more.
Living day to day. It seems that was all she did anymore. There was nothing really to look forward to. Work, well it was always there. No matter how hard you tried, no matter the hours and heartache you poured into it, it was never enough. There was always more, more cries for help than you could answer, more problems you couldn’t solve. Holidays? They only brought the specter of her parent’s deaths. Vincent? That was getting to be just another trial as well.
Clumps of damp sand fell away as she brushed off the little gray rock. With a quick flick of her wrist Catherine spun the stone away across the water. One, two skips before it sank, leaving expanding ripples across the still surface of the lake. How many times could she bounce back up like that? How long would it be before she sank just like that stone?
Burnout. What an ugly word.
Joe was worried about her. More than worried, he had insisted she follow Peter’s recommendation of a month’s leave of absence. And Joe was right; she was getting burned out. In the last six months she had definitely been off her stride. Almost all her sick time had been used up on mornings when she just didn’t bother to get out of bed. Careless mistakes, bad calls and missed appointments had added up to being called into Moreno’s office for a discussion of her performance, or rather the lack thereof.
Well she had no problem with taking time off. Maybe she just needed to wind down a little, recharge. Of course it was too much to expect the State of New York to give her this much paid time off but the loss of salary didn’t bother her. Over the last few years the generous settlement from her father’s firm, combined with her mother’s trust fund, had been leveraged into a sizable sum. Enough money so she didn’t have to work another day of her life if she didn’t want to.
But if she didn’t work what would she do?
A light splash drew her attention to the water at her feet. Tiny wavelets lapped against her sneakers, the last gasp of that little gray stone. A weak ray of sunlight beamed through thick cloud cover and she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the water, warped and fractured.
She would be thirty-seven years old on Friday.
Vincent winced and repressed a sigh as he nodded acknowledgement to Olivia’s hasty goodbye and retreat.
They were avoiding him. Not overtly but just with little things. Not meeting his eyes when they passed in the tunnels, finding other places to be when he entered a room. It wasn’t malicious or judgmental. His family was just trying to give him some space.
Did everyone know? Was there no privacy to be had here?
Well that was a stupid question. Of course there was no privacy. The tunnels were a closely-knit community. Nothing went on without everyone knowing, usually within hours. He and Catherine had certainly not been quiet and unfortunately tunnels echo.
Catherine had been distracted that evening. No, that wasn’t quite true. She had been that way for several months now. No amount of gentle questioning from him had revealed the cause and he had respected her reluctance to discuss it.
It had been just after a walk in the park. They had gone to his chamber for tea.
“Next Friday is your birthday.” Vincent set the china cup and saucer before Catherine, and settled with his own across from her.
“What? Oh, yes. My birthday.”
Melancholy. Listlessness. Those feelings had been seeping steadily through the bond for the last six months.
“Perhaps, if you have no other plans.”
Impelled by the small spark in her voice and her hopeful smile, he had continued. “William has been discussing a small celebration, and-“
Silence had fallen. Usually silences between them were comfortable as they just relaxed in each other’s presence. But this silence had an edge to it, hovering sullenly in the charged air.
“If you would rather, your friends Above-“ The words were cut off mid sentence as she bolted upright, sending her chair backwards with a heavy thump to the stone floor.
“No! Don’t even bother; I can finish this sentence for you. Your friends Above can give you oh let’s see, I’ll take a wild guess. That big, expensive party that I deserve? Or how about days in the sunshine? You’ve used that one before. If it’s not one of those two you’ll think of some other excuse to pawn me off.”
“Catherine! I would never pawn you off.”
She had laughed then, a low mocking chuckle. “Yes, you would. You have. Every time I start looking for something from you, something other than a hug or a walk or a poem. As soon as I cross that line you back off or send me away.” She stalked to the other side of the chamber, back stiff. “Just once, Vincent, why couldn’t you have said ‘I’d like you to spend the evening with me?’ Why does it always have to be William’s idea, or a holiday like Winterfest, or a children’s concert, or some other excuse? Why can’t you want me?”
He had made no answer. What could he say? That he wanted her desperately here by his side, always? He couldn’t, couldn’t chain her to darkness like that. He had dipped his head to hide the flash of longing.
“Sure. Hide behind your hair! You do it so well!” Roiling waves of bitter anger burst through the bond and dashed away stagnant listlessness.
“Please, Catherine, what?” She marched back to the side of the table, braced her hands on its surface, and leaned towards him in challenge. “Please shut up? Please don’t make demands? Please don’t ask questions I don’t want to answer? What?”
The hot wind of her resentment fanned his burgeoning frustration. With studied control he rose from his chair and strode across the chamber. Anger deepened his voice to a growling rasp. “We’ve always known our limits.”
“Limits you impose! There are ways around them! Ways I’ve been patiently waiting seven years now for us to start looking for!” Her voice rose to a shout, hurling words through the room like knives. “I’m running out of patience! Tell me, whatever happened to going with courage and care? We’ve got the care part down pat but I’ve yet to see much courage!” She swiped away angry tears with a grunt of disgust. “You told me six years ago that we either moved towards love or away from it, there was no other direction. Well you were wrong, Vincent. There is another option. It’s called not moving at all!”
He spun and couldn’t suppress the harsh undertone of a roar. “What would you have me do? Risk your life for a dream? Risk all that we have, all that we are?”
Silence fell once more as her scream echoed off the chamber walls. Her voice turned cold. “Do you know how old I’ll be on my birthday?”
“That’s right. Thirty-seven.” She turned to lean against his table, head bowed. Her voice lowered to a hopeless whisper. “What have I got to show for those years? A family I can’t talk about, a career that’s dying because I’m too sick and tired of it to care, and a relationship that’s going nowhere.”
She had walked wearily to the coat tree, removed her denim jacket, and shrugged it on over slumped shoulders.
“Tell me Vincent. How much longer do we wait? Until we’re too old to care anymore? Until life has passed us by completely? Maybe Joe’s right, I do need a break. From work. From you. From everything.”
She had left then, had walked wearily from his chamber and ignored his roaring of her name except for a negligent wave of dismissal in his general direction. And now she had gone away from the city.
Away from him.
Catherine dropped the spoon back into her bowl with a grunt of distaste. The soup had gone cold, bits of mushrooms congealing in a salty white mass as appetizing as wood glue.
She should eat. She really should. But nothing appealed anymore.
Leaving the city had been an imperative. A few things tossed in an overnight bag and she was gone. Never mind that it had been past midnight when she’d left the parking garage, she hadn’t slept through a full night for months anyway. She had driven for hours with no real destination, just a need to put distance between herself and problems. But you can’t leave problems in a physical place, they’re yours and they follow you wherever you go. Even here.
The last time she had been to the Connecticut house had been just last summer. She and Jenny had come up for a long weekend. It was then that Jen had first mentioned her relationship with Barry, a new author published by her company. Jen had been reluctant to date him at first, fearing conflict of interest accusations. Barry was persistent, however, and had eventually won her over. Just last week they had announced their engagement.
The last of her single friends was headed for the altar.
Maybe that was one of the catalysts for the argument with Vincent. Well, calling it a fight would be closer to the truth. They had never fought like that before, not really. She had actually screamed at him.
She was being childish. She knew that. He was probably worried, wondering where she had gone, what she was doing. Tomorrow she would drive into town to use the pay phone to call Peter and have him get a message to Vincent. She could at least let him know where she was. It was really unfair to take out her anger at him like this but, if she were honest, it had felt good to let loose and yes, scream at him.
She picked up her bowl and dumped the mushroom soup into the sink. A spray of hot water washed the thick mass down the drain.
The kitchen was still as she remembered it from childhood; blue gingham curtains on the window and the same seventies style pine cabinets. The same, and yet.
This place had never felt the same after the aborted trip she had planned with Vincent. Oh, she had had so many wonderful plans! Now warm family memories had been dimmed by disappointment and bittersweet might-have-beens. Was it really six years ago he had promised ‘someday we’ll see that lake?’ Someday hadn’t come yet and it seemed like it would never come. It wasn’t just the lake either; it was everything they put off, calling it their dream. Dreams for him but possibilities for her! Possibilities he was too frightened to reach for. Possibilities she was getting heartily sick of waiting to become reality. She had done all she could to help him. Her switch to the Trials Division almost four years ago had resulted in much less danger for them both. She had given him her love and comfort whenever needed, had given him the time and space to work through his fears. Wasn’t seven years time enough? How much longer did he need?
It was probably pretty comfortable for him to be like that. No pressure and no risk. Stagnant. Lately she had begun to give up on things ever changing. To realize that, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now would probably still find her sitting by his side, not touching, drinking tea, and being pushed away if she dared ask anything for them. Sometimes she felt like a convenience. Which again wasn’t very fair but there it was.
It seemed nothing she did was enough. Not at work and not for him.
Out of habit she plugged in the kettle and reached for tea. A sting of rebellion stopped her hand and with a lift of her chin she picked up the tin of hot chocolate instead.
Right now she was heartily sick of tea.
“Hello, Mouse, have you seen Vincent?”
The uncommon voice caught Vincent’s attention as he browsed moodily through the upper loft bookshelves of Father’s chamber. He had been aware of Mouse’s riffling through the maps behind the desk below but hadn’t made his presence known. Truthfully it had been a relief to escape sympathetic stares and forced joviality. To be left alone to brood.
“Nope. Don’t want to.”
“Oh? Is something wrong.”
“Fight with Catherine. Big fight. Vincent’s not happy, snarled at Mouse.”
Snarled? He hadn’t actually snarled, had he? Perhaps he had at that. He would have to apologize later.
“Really? Then could I have some paper and a pen? I need to leave a message for him from Catherine. She-“
“I’m here, Peter.” The rattles and groans of abused metal accompanied his jog down the spiral staircase. “You’ve heard from her? Is she well?”
“Yes I have. She called me this morning from a pay phone in Connecticut. She’s taking a leave of absence from work and will be staying at the summerhouse. She wanted you to know so you wouldn’t worry.”
“A leave of absence? What does that mean?”
“It means that, for medical reasons, I recommended she take a large block of time off work and her office concurred. Has she not discussed this with you?” Peter set his briefcase on the desk, his gaze frankly assessing.
Medical reasons? “No, she hasn’t. Tell me, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t usually discuss patients with a third party.” Peter propped his hip up on the corner of the desk. “But in this case I think I need to. I’ve known both you and Cathy all your lives. Have you noticed any change in her in the last few months?”
Yes, he had. Her occupation, and the time they spent together, often led to late nights and short sleep, but lately “She’s been tired a lot, quieter.”
“And you didn’t try to find out what was going on?”
Had he? He had hinted, had been available to talk, but she would just give him a blank look and change the subject. He had let it go. Hadn’t pursued it. In truth he had been afraid of what she would say. Dropping his eyes to study the worn design of the oriental carpet, he spoke quietly. “Our bond, our connection, tells me she’s sad about something but she hasn’t wanted to discuss it. Work hasn’t been going well, and I thought.”
Peter’s sigh of exasperation cut through his musings. “Work is not the problem.” With a sharp click he opened his briefcase and withdrew a blue pamphlet, which he pushed across the desk. “I think you should read this and I think you should talk to Cathy. Really talk. I don’t think she’s reached this stage yet but she’s headed that way. And a lot of it has to do with you.”
The cheerful babble of the children as they made their way through the tunnels did nothing to brighten Vincent’s thoughts. He had been asked to escort them on this last minute food pickup, since the older children had been permitted above to take advantage of autumn’s last gasp of good weather. The blue pamphlet in his pocket seemed far heavier than a simple fold of paper should.
Clinical depression. He hadn’t believed his eyes when he read the title. It seemed so absolute, so final. But as he had read he had begun to understand Peter’s concern. Interrupted sleep patterns. Change in appetite. Feelings of hopelessness. Loss of concentration.
Six months ago she had mentioned difficulty concentrating, the lack of which had resulted in losing a crucial murder trial. The sleep patterns since the beginning of their relationship sleep patterns had often been erratic. Both had gone with too little, too often. Lately however, he had been aware of her nocturnal wakefulness but had chalked it up to concern with work. She had always been slim but in the last few months she had lost weight. Feelings of hopelessness; he had often felt her low whisper of melancholy echo through the bond.
How could he have been so blind?
“Vincent? Are you OK?”
An insistent tug on the edge of his tunic drew him from reverie. A small dark-skinned girl, wiry hair in braids, stared up at him.
“I’m fine, Kendra. I was just thinking.”
“Is she still mad?”
A growl of disgust was quickly repressed. Even the children.
Was she angry with him still? The bond, dimmed by distance, wasn’t telling him much. “Not mad, not anymore. She’s very sad I think.”
“Oh. Maybe you should go cheer her up.”
A simple, impossible answer. She had left the city for a place he didn’t know and couldn’t reach.
Ahead the excited babble of childish voices reached a peak as the entrance to the warehouse basement came into view. The warehouse, owned by a helper, was used for large deliveries. Henry had received an extra shipment of vegetables by mistake, or so he claimed, and had quickly arranged to send them Below. After listening intently, Vincent triggering the door. A loose chunk of concrete was used to tap an inquiry on the sewage pipe just inside the basement. Receiving confirmation, he ushered the children onto the freight elevator and sent it upwards.
“Henry, it’s good to see you. You look well.” The wiry young man had matured in the last few years. Marriage agreed with him. “How is Lin?”
“Busy! Between Ling, Max, and Donna she’s got her hands full.” Henry chatted amiably about his three children as bags of vegetables were unloaded from the van.
“What happened to your truck?”
“Oh, it gave up the ghost a couple months ago. We needed a new vehicle anyway. Did you hear we opened up a second restaurant? Business is pretty good, so between that and the kids we needed something more reliable. It wasn’t cheap but I can write it off as a business expense. How are you doing? How’s Catherine?”
“Catherine’s mad,” piped Kendra as she grabbed a bag of peppers. “She yelled, everyone heard.”
This time Vincent couldn’t contain his groan of embarrassment. “Kendra, hurry along now, William’s waiting for those.”
With a grin at Henry, Kendra scurried off to drop her bag onto the elevator.
“Mad, huh? I’ve been there, my friend. Lin has a dirty look that can melt steel. Will everything be OK?”
Vincent declined to answer as Henry turned to close the van doors. The dark blue delivery van shone with newness in the dim light, Wong’s – We Deliver and a phone number painted in red and gold on the side. New, reliable.
“I hope so.” Vincent eyed the van speculatively. “Henry, may I ask a favor?”
Late October sunshine beamed its warmth through bare branches. It was almost as quiet as the tunnels now, with the fall-color tourists gone.
She had gone into town again yesterday to buy some necessities: toilet paper, clothes, and groceries. Her reflection in the mirror of the small clothing store’s changing booth had been a rude shock. She had removed her blouse to try on a sweatshirt and had been able to count her ribs.
Grimacing in distaste, she forced herself to eat another spoonful of soggy cereal. Peter had been right. She was seriously underweight.
Peter had been right about a lot of things.
She worked too hard, or at least used to. Work was an antidote, something to focus on, to distract her from the real issues. It had served its purpose well for years but had reached the end of its effectiveness. That’s wasn’t to say she hadn’t gotten anything from it. There was a real flush of pride in putting away the bad guys, a feeling of usefulness and accomplishment.
Truthfully she knew what the real problem was. After all, everyone went through an occasional slump. It was normal. Usually there were other aspects of your life to help you past it. Except in her case what she had to fall back on was her greatest source of frustration.
She had meant every word she had shouted in Vincent’s chamber. Those feelings had been festering for the past year. Anyway, it was too late for regrets now. The lid to Pandora’s box had been lifted; it was all in the open now and couldn’t be unsaid. Anything he might have picked up on through the bond had finally been expressed verbally. Forcefully. A wayward streak of humor curled into a sheepish half-smile. She had never screamed at him before. He had been shocked.
The crisp tartness of apple tasted refreshing after the mushy cereal. She pushed the ceramic bowl away with her toe and leaned back against the deck railing. Maybe it was good that he was shocked. Maybe that shock would finally result in some movement, towards love, away from it, whatever. She was so sick of keeping so much hidden and of worrying that today something would be said or happen which would send him away from her again for her own good. God, how she hated that phrase!
Peter had discussed medication during her last visit. Medication? The very idea disturbed her. The only medication she needed was.
The crunch of gravel caught her attention. A vehicle approached down the lane. There were no other houses on this road, someone must have taken the lane by mistake and had to come to the end in order to turn around. There it was, a flash of reflected sunlight through the bare trees.
It was a van. A dusty blue van, Wong’s Delivery painted on its side. Henry and Lin’s restaurant.
Something must be wrong, very wrong for Father to send a helper this far to find her! A clutch of fear squeezed her heart and was automatically suppressed as she stood slowly and descended the steps to the ground. The van drew to a stop.
“Hey, Catherine!” Henry shouted jovially as he opened the driver’s door and stepped down.
“Henry, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Is there anyone here with you?”
“No, no one except for Peter and Vincent even knows I’m here. What’s going on? Why are you here?”
Henry walked to the rear of the van and opened the doors. “The sign says We Deliver. I’ve got a delivery for you.”
The bright light of day was not kind to eyes accustomed to moonlight and candles.
Her hadn’t spoken of his intentions to anyone this time. After he finished packing, he had gone to Father’s chamber, quietly informed him of his decision, and then simply left. After all, there was nothing Vincent could say that would keep Father from objecting or worrying, so this time he didn’t even try. This time there was more at stake than disappointment.
The pamphlet Peter had given him had mentioned suicide. That word had struck like a blow. Peter had said he didn’t think she was in danger of that. Yet. He clung to that belief. He could protect her from physical harm, but that.
Henry had picked him up at the warehouse very early this morning. It had been a long three hours in the back of the van. Finally the steady hum of tires on pavement changed to the grinding crunch of gravel and the occasional dip of potholes.
The sound of her voice, the feel of her near, had been the only affirmation he needed of the rightness of his decision.
Now morning sun beamed into the van. Cautiously he swung his legs out the back, stood, and stepped away from the vehicle. A fresh breeze tickled his senses, bringing with it the scents of pine, earth and water. Scents no longer muted by car exhaust and overpopulation. Scents underscored by the clean, sweet fragrance of her.
She stood ten feet away, hair shining dark gold in the sunlight. She had lost more weight and looked unhealthily thin. Her skin seemed sallow and pale. There were dark circles under her eyes.
“Vincent? What is this? What are you doing here?”
“That we would see this lake someday. I promised.”
She brought a trembling hand to her lips, as if to stem words she didn’t want spoken. “I thought you’d forgotten.”
“No. I have never forgotten. Perhaps I needed a reminder.”
The soft thump of Vincent’s leather satchel being set on the grass preceded the slam of metal doors.
“I have to run, guys. I need to get back before the lunch rush. Vincent, I’ll come get you Sunday night if I don’t hear different, all right?”
Vincent did not take his gaze from Catherine’s. “Is that all right, Catherine? May I stay?”
Silence. A sense of amazement rippled across the bond as her eyes dropped to the satchel on the ground. “You came to stay?”
Vincent swallowed nervously. All had gone according to plan up to this point. That was the problem, after this point there was no plan. “Yes. With you.”
Catherine raised her eyes to meet his again. “There’s no one else here. It will be just you and me, alone.”
“I know that.”
“Yes. If it’s what you want, then stay.”
Breaking eye contact with Catherine, he turned to see Henry give him a wink from the other side of the van.
“Take it easy, my friend. Enjoy your holiday.” Leaning forward conspiratorially, he added a final whisper for Vincent’s ears alone. “And good luck.” Footsteps scuffed the grass as he walked to the door and hopped up into the driver’s seat. The van restarted and pulled away on the turning circle. Henry waved as the van rounded the corner. “See you in a few days!”
The rumble of the vehicle’s engine faded slowly and silence descended. Catherine had not moved from her spot at the base of the steps.
“How did you find this place?”
“Peter knew. He gave Henry directions.”
Her hair lifted in the light breeze, shimmering. “I can’t believe you’re here. What did Father say?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t stay around to hear.”
“You just left?”
“Yes. Father’s made his opinion abundantly clear in the past. I didn’t need to hear it again.”
“Oh.” She glanced back towards the house. “Would you like some breakfast or something?”
She was trying. They both were. It was hard. At his hesitant nod she smiled, a small, nervous smile accompanied by a warm sliver of hope. “Then come on in and let’s get you settled.”
Vincent bent down to pick up his satchel, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly before walking up to join her at the base of the stairs.
“I’m afraid there’s not much choice. It’s cereal or cereal.”
Opening the cupboard, Catherine fetched down the cereal boxes and turned to set them on the scarred pine table. The fridge yielded a carton of milk and the sugar bowl was set beside the boxes. The bright whistle of the kettle was a sharp counterpoint to the low-level tension permeating the kitchen and she gratefully busied herself making tea.
He was here! Impossible, but true.
He looked nervous. It was hard to tell with him, his facial features were not as physically expressive as a normal man’s. But to one who knew him well, it could be seen in his eyes, in the way they darted from side to side periodically as if expecting an attack, in the stiffness of his shoulders. It was sad.
She set the two steaming mugs on the table and slid onto a chair beside him. “Well, go ahead. I’ve already had mine but you must be starving.”
He eyed the boxes like they were the enemy. Slowly he took one, opened the flaps, and poured cereal into his bowl, adding milk and an unhealthy amount of sugar. The sharp click of claws on metal accompanied his grasp of the spoon. He stirred the cereal slowly, hesitantly. His head was down, but she could see the glitter of his eyes as they darted towards her and back to the bowl.
He glanced nervously towards the cabin door, shoulders and neck visibly tensing. “I I’m not really hungry just now.”
Catherine sat back, staring at him in astonishment.
“You’re lying to me. Why?” She threw the brittle accusation at him, stiffening with indignation. Deceit was not in his nature. He was so bad at lying; she was outraged he would even attempt it with her.
He turned his head away quickly, letting out a long sigh. “Catherine-“
“Are we starting this song and dance again? Avoiding questions?” She set her mug down with a bang, ignoring the slosh of hot liquid onto the table. “You really don’t trust me at all, do you?”
“Of course I do! With my life.”
“Yes, with your life but not with much else. Why did you just lie to me? What are you protecting? What are you afraid of?” She was pushing. She knew that.
“I don’t like to eat in front of people.”
The bashful whisper slipped through the curtain of mane that concealed his features. “My teeth.”
Catherine leaned forward with a huff. “Is that it? Vincent, I’ve seen your teeth, lots of times. They’re no mystery; I know you’ve got fangs. What did you expect, that I’d run screaming? Or laugh at you?” She reached and pried the spoon out of his hand, absently noting its bent condition, and grasped his hand. “Vincent, look at me.”
Slowly he turned back and raised his eyes to meet hers.
“This is a perfect example of our problems. Our bond is a wonderful thing, but it’s not enough. We need to start talking to each other and trusting each other. I need to be able to trust you, to know that I can be myself, to know that I can reach for you without fearing that I’ll overstep your boundaries and be pushed away. It hurts me when you do that and every time it happens it cuts deeper.”
“You don’t trust me?” His voice shook.
“Sometimes, no, I don’t. There are so many times I’ve needed you but haven’t expressed that need because I didn’t trust you not to hurt me. You don’t do it deliberately. You’re afraid, of me, of my reaction, of yourself, I don’t know. But you let that fear dictate your response, so you distance yourself and it hurts. Because I know that means you don’t really trust me.” She looked down to the hand she held in hers, and absently ran her thumb across the sharp points of his claws. “You’ve got to learn to trust me, to stop hiding from me. And stop making decisions for me. When you do that, make a decision for me for my own good, I feel you think I’m incompetent or incapable of making that decision on my own. Vincent, I’m an adult. I know my own mind. You’ve got to trust that, and know that you can be yourself with me as well. We both need to.”
Silence fell once more as, barely breathing, they warily gazed at each other. Catherine felt a gentle squeeze of her hand as he dropped his head in a slow nod.
She saw him wince as he noted the bent spoon. He slid his hand from hers and picked it up, unbending it to a useable condition once more.
She watched with a small smile of hope as, with endearing determination, Vincent ate his breakfast.
Sunshine was like a living thing, a warm blanket that embraced you. Even closing your eyes could not banish the brightness, the dark replaced by glowing red. There was a nip in the air; after all, it was October. But one could still enjoy the afternoon sun, especially when dressed for the chill.
Vincent let out an unconscious rumble of enjoyment as he stretched and turned onto his left side. Catherine had called this thing an air mattress. It was wonderfully comfortable to lie on. After a long walk, she had brought the double mattress from a storage area, along with a foot-pump to inflate it. As he had worked the pump, she had fetched a book from the house. Once the mattress was filled to her satisfaction, she had lain down to read. Looking up at him, eyebrows raised in challenge, she had patted the place beside her in invitation.
She had wanted him to lie beside her. How could he refuse? It would be a refusal based once more on distrust and on fear.
She was right. They both needed to put fears aside and learn a new kind of trust.
It wasn’t easy.
She had started to drowse shortly afterwards and now slept beside him. Beside him! Last week such a thing had been deemed impossible. Even this morning it had been unthinkable. And yet, now it was simple fact. Undeniable.
It still pained him to know of her distrust, a gnawing hurt felt equally by both of them. They had been hurting each other for so long, since the beginning. It had become a part of him now, the fear of her. She could destroy him so easily.
They were both tired. Excitement and nervousness had denied him rest last night. The unfamiliar surroundings and enervating newness of daylight still kept him from sleep but it felt wonderful to finally relax. Catherine? Her presence kept him awake as well, a sweet ache that he still must guard against lest it become a roaring hunger that would not subside until
Catherine sighed heavily and rolled onto her side, turning her back to him. She had done much the same before, when she had stayed below after her father’s death. Then, he had lifted her head from his arm and forced himself to leave her. It had needed force, everything in him had screamed to stay, to tuck her small body against his protectively and surround her, guarding her slumber. Why had he not done so?
Fear. Fear that he would repulse her, that he would hurt her, that she would push him away. Like
Like Lisa. It was humbling to think that that one incident had left wounds that still remained unhealed over twenty years later, wounds that had spread to harm Catherine as well.
It had to stop.
Slowly he opened his eyes, squinting in the bright sun. She lay before him, hair gleaming against the blue mattress. Carefully he curled his right arm around her waist, pulling gently until she shifted back, spooning her body against his. Her sun-warmed hair was soft against his hand as he lifted her head and slid his left arm underneath, settling her gently down onto the pillow of his arm. Sharp claws slipped the hair from her face, smoothing it behind her ear. She looked so trusting, so right in his embrace. Her scent, sweet and enticing, wrapped around him and he dipped his head to nuzzle her ear, breathing a soft licking kiss across it before settling beside her with a contented sigh.
She was so warm and comfortable. She hadn’t felt this kind of bone deep relaxation for months and didn’t want to give it up. There it was again though, that strange thrum. Reluctantly she opened her eyelids a crack and focused on beige, knitted material. Vincent’s sweater.
She was lying against him. He lay on his back and her left leg was across his thigh, nestled between his legs. Her left arm was splayed over his chest and her head rested on his arm. They were they were cuddling.
His body was vibrating, a gentle rumble that ebbed and flowed with each breath. Raising her head, she looked at him. His eyes were closed.
“I’ve never heard you do that before.”
“It means you’re happy? Contented?”
“Can you talk while you’re purring?”
The vibration subsided as he opened his eyes slowly, blinking against the brightness.
Her wasn’t moving. He wasn’t stiffening up, or turning away. Instead, he turned his head and met her eyes, squinting in the sunlight. She felt a light touch of clawed fingers on her temple as he smoothed her hair away from her eyes.
“Does it bother you?”
“No! Not at all. It’s nice.” She shifted more of her weight against him, pushing up on her left elbow to lie partially on his chest. “Thank you for not hiding it.”
His chest expanded with a deep breath, let out in a long slow sigh.
“I’ve been considering our discussions, Catherine, both here and before, in my chamber.”
“Much of what you said is true. About trust.”
“Your words, they put much into perspective, things from my past, my fears. I’m trying. Learning.
“I think we both are.”
She felt his arm come around her once more, a gentle pressure easing her down against his chest. He was so solid beneath her. A light trickle of amazed pleasure danced through her and she lowered her head, rubbing her cheek against the beige sweater. “Did you sleep at all?”
“Perhaps a short nap. I dozed.”
“Good. This is nice.”
“I’m sorry for falling asleep, though. Especially on your first day outside in the sun.”
“You were tired. You needed to sleep. You still need more rest.”
“I know. I haven’t been sleeping well lately.” The confession slipped from her as she drank in his wonderfully soothing touch.
“Yes.” Vincent gently eased her off him and he sat up beside her. “Catherine, yesterday Peter came Below to give your message. He expressed some concerns.”
“Oh.” A ripple of fear snaked through her. “What did he say?” Bending her legs, she moved to sit facing him. As she came upright, he reached forward to take her hand.
“He told me of his worries for you. He showed me some literature.”
“The depression thing?”
“Yes.” Abruptly he looked down at their joined hands, fingering her wrist bones. “He’s very worried, as am I. He told me your office has put you on a leave of absence and what that meant. He also thinks that our situation has a strong bearing on this. That I have a large role.”
Oh God, no! He couldn’t know how bad it was. Not now, not while they were actually making progress. He would run, leave her for her own good again! “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. Really, I’ll be-“
“No!” The grip on her hand tightened as he looked up swiftly, blue eyes boring into her. “The trust you spoke of, it goes both ways. I need to know the truth, not what you think I want to hear. Please. Tell me.”
He was right. She was caught in her own net.
Vincent scooted backwards to lean against the deck railing, pulling her with him. A tickle of amazement shivered through her fear as he gently guided her onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her, cocooning her. A softly bristled cheek brushed against her forehead. “Tell me, Catherine.”
“I don’t think it’s clinical depression. Not really.”
“But Peter does?”
“Yes. He’s always been a worrier.”
“There is a basis for his worry, a feeling I share. You’re not eating, not sleeping. I’ve felt your melancholy .”
Catherine took a deep breath.
“It it’s just this feeling. That nothing’s happening in my life. That nothing I do really matters, and I’m always on the brink of losing everything.”
“You could never lose me.”
“Yes, I could! I’m so afraid that I will.” Unconsciously her hands crept up to grip his sweater and she burrowed her face into his neck.
“You told me work was not going well.”
She nodded reluctantly, her cheek brushing against rough wool. “Yes. Work’s bad. It’s just so much, all the time. It never stops. For everything I do, every person I help, two more step into that place. It’s so horrible, and I can’t do any more. But you count on me to stand for us, and sometimes it helps to work hard, to forget everything else, but it’s not helping anymore. I keep at it but I’m drowning.” Her throat was tight, but the words wouldn’t stop, pouring from her as the dam opened. “Work isn’t even the real problem, I could handle things if it was. It’s just that everything else seems so empty and hopeless too. There’s nothing else to turn to, nothing to fall back on. You’re the most important person in my life, but I can’t talk to you.”
“That’s not true. You can tell me anything, you know that.”
“No, I can’t! If you knew how bad it was you’d think it was your fault and you’ll send me away. I’m so afraid of that. What we have is the only thing that keeps me going at all sometimes. And it’s so fragile! I always have to be so careful not to ask for more when I need to so badly. You used to say things that I could cling to, like at the falls when dad died. Things that would give me hope but you don’t anymore. I’ve waited so long but nothing’s changing and sometimes I feel like you’ve given up, that there’s no hope of anything more. We’re not going anywhere and I can’t turn to anyone, can’t talk to anyone. I’m just getting old and everything’s slipping away and I’ll have nothing left if I ask for more but what I have isn’t enough!”
She was breaking. The wall that had held through years of denied hope and futile dreams finally cracked and shattered, pouring shards of brittle anguish into the bond. Vincent stiffened beneath her, breath catching. His voice roughened.
“Ask me. Please. Tell me what you need.”
“To know that you won’t send me away, that I can talk about things and ask things and want things and be safe. I’m so tired of being afraid of losing you.” She was sobbing, hard heavy spasms that tore through her. She gripped his sweater, clinging desperately to him. “Please, don’t push me away! I need you so. I can’t do it anymore. Not like that! It hurts too much. Please...”
His arms tightened, pulling her hard against his chest, his hand cradling the back of her head as she poured out her grief and fear. Feelings that she knew were his now as well, shared. Soft fur brushed against her cheek as he whispered in her ear.
She slept at last.
He hadn’t known, hadn’t imagined. To think that his fears had led to this that they might have destroyed her - destroyed them both.
She had cried like a child in his arms. Finally the storm had passed but the bond had remained open. The wall was down. He hadn’t imagined she could hide so much, for so long. Or how those hurts and fears could fester.
He had carried her into the cabin and settled her into bed for more much needed rest, before coming outside to think. She had been so light in his arms, so thin.
The lake shone gold in the sunset, a taunting mirror. How she had wanted to take him here so many years ago! She had wanted to give him this gift so desperately. It had hurt, to deny her. He had had to.
No, he hadn’t. That was a lie.
Fists clenched in anger as he paced restlessly along the lakeshore. So much of this was his fault.
He could have come, those many years ago. If he had really wanted to, he could have. The pleas of Father and his family were nothing but their own insecurity. He knew that. To be truthful, he had known it then. Known, but set that knowledge aside. It had been convenient.
He stopped at the base of a large pine and turned to lean against it, dropping his head back against the rough bark.
It was so easy to hide from yourself, so easy to make excuses and to build those excuses up to become a comforting barrier, a wall to hide behind. Safe. That was exactly what he had done, used the others’ objections to create his own place of safety - a place where he didn’t have to deal with her expectations or with the unknown. And it hadn’t been the only time he had done so.
A snarl of self-disgust rolled darkly through clenched teeth.
He hadn’t come that time not because of others’ fears but because of his own. He had been a coward.
He was so used to being afraid of hurting her. It was almost comfortable, that fear. Useful. A fear that kept him safe, kept him from risk. Not the risk of danger, of physical harm to himself - he had accepted that long ago. If he were truthful, deep down he didn’t think he would hurt her.
What she needed required him to take a leap of faith, to gamble everything on the possibility of true acceptance, and chance rejection.
Rejection. That was his real fear, one that paralyzed him. An all-consuming dread that chained him, kept him from reaching for what they both needed.
He was coward, hiding behind his own personal demons. A sniveling coward.
The unconscious snarl thickened, rage coloring sunset a deeper red. Rage at himself, at what he had let himself become. Muscles clenched and shot his claws into extension; claws that gleamed scarlet in the fading light.
Was this what he wanted? To hide behind what-ifs and maybes? To let fear rule him? To let it destroy the woman he loved above all others?
A savage roar ripped from his throat as he knifed upright and spun. Lethal claws snapped forward, slicing into the tree trunk with an audible rip, leaving four parallel slash marks.
It had started with Devin, with the scars he had left on his brother’s face. Four parallel lines. It was then he had first felt fear of himself, of what he was capable of. Fear that had grown, nurtured by the incident with Lisa, with every time he had done violence. Fear that he used to avoid facing his true demons.
The fresh smell of pine cut through his reverie. The rough bark was cleanly cut, the bright white of heartwood shining through, scenting the air with the inner essence of the tree.
Leaning forward, he braced his arm against the sturdy trunk and sighed. His fear was like that bark, protecting him.
It had to end.
Sunrise was a remarkable thing.
He had sat for hours at the base of the tree, wrapped in comforting darkness. Thinking. Nearer the dawn, he must have slept. Now, the rising sun heralded the beginning of a new day and darkness fled into shadows. The dawn called forth stirrings of life around him. A rustle in the dry grass spoke of mice. From the treetop a bird sang. The still lake was disturbed by a silver splash and expanding ripples as a fish jumped.
With a deep breath he stood, bending backwards to ease stiff muscles. Catherine wasn’t the only one getting older.
His feet crunched on grass whitened by light frost. Sand shifted beneath him as he made his way to the water’s edge and crouched down. His reflection met him and he stared at it impassively. This is what he was and if that was Catherine’s choice then he must accept it. He had to trust her. The reflection dissipated as he scooped water into his cupped hands and splashed his face. He couldn’t contain a snort of exhilaration at its bracing coldness.
His toe disturbed a stone as he shifted his weight forward to rise. A flat gray stone. Curved claws scooped it from its bed and swished it through the water, washing away clinging sand. Giving in to impulse, he stood, stepped back, and with a nimble flick of his wrist sent the stone winging across the lake. One, two, three skips, the third going high in a twisting spin before sinking.
They all sank, eventually, everyone and everything. It was the throw that made the difference. A good one lets you take to the air, keeps you above water. Given a skillful cast, even stones can fly.
From behind him the dry creak of the screen door heralded Catherine’s presence, her approaching footfalls easily audible through the fallen leaves.
“Good morning.” Her voice was hesitant, nervous.
“It is.” He gazed over the lake. A loon called from behind the point, a lonely echoing wail. “Today is your birthday.”
The sibilant rustle of her windbreaker accompanied her as she came to stand beside him. “Yeah. Thirty-seven years old.”
“This bothers you. I can feel it.”
"No. yes. Sort of.”
He glanced over at her as she drew lines in the sand with the toe of her sneaker, head bowed, shoulders hunched. “I have something for you.”
“From the children?”
“Not from Father.”
She looked up at last, eyes luminous in the soft light, gazing at him with dawning hope.
“From William then?”
“I certainly hope not.”
She couldn’t not look at him. There was something in his voice, a determined confidence that she hadn’t heard in too many years.
He reached for her. Furred hands grasped her shoulders and turned her to face him as he stepped forward. Fingers slipped through her hair to cup the back of her head.
He smelled of fresh air, of pine. The ends of his mane were wet. He lowered his head and kissed her forehead, a lingering kiss, warm and easy. His cheek grazed hers, a softly bristled caress. He was so close she could feel the heat of him. Nibbling kisses trickled down her cheek and he paused to linger near the scar by her ear. His voice washed through her, a tender whisper against dampened flesh.
“I love you, Catherine. Know that. Know also that nothing can change this and nothing can or will come between us. Never again. I need you too much. We need each other.”
She didn’t try to contain her whimper of joy. The texture of heavy wool was gladly bypassed as she wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her hands into the heavy mane that grew luxuriant down the back of his neck.
His touch slipped firmly to her waist and her eyes drifted closed. She felt his breath against her only moments before the light touch of his lips. A feather caress, barely felt at all.
She clenched her hands into his mane, tugging gently, a wordless plea answered with a growling moan of compliance. Claws dug lightly into her waist and neck as he lowered his head once more. She stood on her toes, straining upwards to meet him half way. A clutch of anticipation twisted through her at the downy brush of his upper lip.
He swayed against her, pulling her up and into him as his lips took hers. Firmly and with no hesitation he devoured her, the firm pad of his upper lip a sensual counterpoint to the soft moistness of his kiss. His tongue, delightfully rough, slipped across her and she opened for him with a shivering sigh.
Finally, trembling, he lifted his head. He was purring again. She could feel it more than hear it, a deep internal shiver. Heavy. Sensual. Enticing.
She opened her eyes to meet his gaze, an expression that gleamed with promise. The steady rumble from his chest rose and fell as he kneaded the back of her neck lightly. She stroked her palm around his throat and downwards, to rest against his chest. Here the audible thrum was most easily felt, tickling through her hand. It was wonderful.
She smiled in hazy delight as he lowered his head, his eyes glinting bashfully through rumpled mane. But he didn’t pull away and that steady shiver of happiness continued, spreading through her.
Years stretched ahead, gleaming with bright possibilities. So many discoveries awaited them; there was so much to look forward to.
After all, she was only thirty-seven years old today.