"Take me out of the darkness,

Out of doubt...

Will a change come while we're waiting?"

Sarah McLachlan: 'Witness'

From the album: 'Surfacing'

 

CHAPTER SEVEN


A muffled feminine groan sounded from somewhere underneath the rumpled bedclothes. Morning sunlight streamed like an insult through the translucent curtains, illuminating the cozy bedroom. Since its first tentative venture into the room, a lance of brightness had slowly progressed down the wall to strike gold highlights from the crown of shiny hair visible from beneath the thick comforter. Silence descended for several minutes, until another protesting groan issued from the area of the bed.

'No no no,' thought Catherine vaguely as she shifted to her side and drew the covers more tightly around her neck. 'Don't think about it and it will go away. Go. Away.' Determinedly, she snuggled down into her warm haven. Sleeping in had become such a luxury that it was to be ended only reluctantly. Relentless, the pressure in her lower abdomen continued to build, sending out a demanding throb. "Damn it!" Blankets flew as she sat up abruptly and stalked into the bathroom. That particular necessity taken care of, she returned to the bedroom, wrestling with the desire to go back to bed vs. the chores she had promised herself would be taken care of today. A glance at the clock revealed it was shortly after nine-thirty. Mentally Catherine measured out the time to make two to three appointments, and with a reluctant sigh shrugged on a warm terrycloth robe and made her way to the kitchen.

Coffee was always the first order of the day. Long days and even longer nights working for the DA's office had reinforced her personal addiction and she knew she was a real cow before that first cup. Mechanically Catherine measured the three scoops of French Roast it took to give the morning kick‑start, and started the small four-cup coffee maker brewing. As the wonderful aroma of premium grade Colombian began to fill the apartment, Catherine couldn't repress a small smile at the memory it summoned.

"Hold me tighter. Tighter!"

Catherine had felt his anxious presence arrive on her balcony as she began her shower. Rushing through it, she simply ran a comb through her wet hair and set about getting rid of Jenny. Poor Jenny. Joe must have asked her to come; it was good to have such loyal and caring friends. Jenny had picked up on Catherine's meaning after a few seconds, and had made herself scarce in short order. Seconds later Catherine had rushed to the balcony and to Vincent's desperate embrace.

He had been shaking. Catherine wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck, pulling him down to surround her, lending him her strength as much as he gave her his own. He had buried his face in her neck. His breath had gusted warmly into her hairline. They had clung to each other for who knows how long, simply drinking in each other's presence. Incoherent murmurs were exchanged and they had both cried in remembered horror, and in relief. Gradually however, in the way of things, the world reasserted itself and she shivered as the cold March wind chilled her back.

"It's too cold for you out here. You should go inside now."

"No! Please don't leave. Will you& come inside with me? It's warm there, and we could still make that fire."

Catherine couldn't help but remember, before this had all begun, how close he had come to crossing this somehow forbidden threshold to her world. She had felt his arms loosen as he straightened, and an arrow of panic had flashed through her. Surely after this night's near tragedy he wouldn't let that invisible barrier keep them apart?

Vincent had drawn a sharp breath as her panic communicated itself to him through their bond. Wordlessly, he bent down and swept her up into his arms. The French doors were still open and two strides took him through them into her apartment. As he moved, a squelching noise surfaced with each footfall. He had lowered her to her feet, turned, and closed the French doors behind himself decisively.

For a moment she had been unable to move, only to stare. After two years, to see him finally enter her home! He looked so good in it. But he was staring down, at his feet. Her eyes followed his and looked at his boots, still wet and caked with half-dry lake mud. Black footprints marred the light carpet.

"Vincent! Your poor feet, they must be frozen! Stay right there! Don't move!" Backing up as she issued her orders, she had turned and half ran to the bedroom. In front of her dresser, she had knelt down and opened the tightly packed bottom drawer.

What was it about love that it made you want to give? So many times, walking through Saks or some other Fifth Avenue shopping Mecca, her feet had turned and of their own accord led her to the men's department. Her fingers had trailed over soft sweaters and warm trousers, and she had imagined Vincent wearing them. Often, she found herself unable to resist a purchase. Of course, most of the time the impulsive buys had ended up here, hidden like guilty little treasures. Rationally, she knew that these gifts would make Vincent uncomfortable, especially since he would feel he had nothing to give in return. At least that was what he would think. What he gave her in truth were things that money could never buy, and infinitely more precious than any material object.

Two of her purchases in particular had come to mind, and it was these she sought as items were sifted through and removed. The beautiful cream-colored Aran-style wool sweater she had found in that lovely Irish store was moved to the side. An L.L. Bean catalogue had made its way around the office, and the pair of warm flannel lined denim jeans, and matching shirt she had been unable to resist ordering were taken out next. A visit to the Ralph Lauren boutique had resulted in the forest green flannel robe, monogrammed with a medieval styled 'V' in burgundy and gold. 'Maybe, someday' she had mused briefly as it too was shifted to the side. One of the items she sought came up next. A pair of warm double knit wool socks, size Men's Extra Large, purchased in anticipation of woodland hikes for the ill‑fated trip to Connecticut. And there, beneath them, were the handmade sheepskin slippers she had acquired from a craftsperson's booth at a mall just before Christmas last year, soft brown on the outside and creamy fleece inside. Sweeping both items up, she had grabbed a clean towel and returned to the living room.

Vincent had been surprised, but grateful for the gifts. She had pawned their presence off as being bought for her father, and if he had sensed a falsehood, he had let it pass. She had offered to make some hot tea, and left him in privacy to dry his feet and change. A few months previously she had made them cocoa, for a chilly fall evening on the balcony. After forcing himself to drink half of it, she had wormed out of him the fact that he didn't like chocolate. Tea was fine and dandy, but tonight Catherine felt the need for something a bit stronger. For herself, she had brewed coffee, strong. She wouldn't be sleeping for quite some time anyway.

She had returned to the living room to find Vincent coaxing along the beginnings of a good blaze in the fireplace, his boots set to dry nearby. She had tossed some cushions on the floor beside him and passed him his tea, sweet the way he liked it. Together they had sat quietly, absorbing the warmth of the hot drinks, but more importantly each other's presence. Catherine leaned against Vincent, his warmth and strength a balm to her frayed nerves. Tentatively, his arm came around her waist, pulling her gently against him. Warm and contented, Catherine felt his chest expand as he sniffed the air quietly.

"What is it?"

"Your coffee. We don't have it below; the expense makes it prohibitive. What a wonderful smell".

Catherine had lowered her head to her cup appreciatively. "Would you like to try a sip?" she had asked. At his quiet affirmation, she had passed her cup to him. Briefly their eyes had met as he took a mouthful.

If eyes could be said to shrink into one's head! White canine teeth had flashed as Vincent's face crumpled into a grimace worthy of a contortionist. His tongue had made a brief appearance and shudder rumpled his body. A rough choke had followed as he forced himself to swallow, followed by several coughs and snorts through his nose. "Gahh!"

Catherine had watched, horrified, as the truth dawned. She liked her coffee black. Vincent needed two spoons of sugar to even make tea palatable to him. She had stammered out an apology as Vincent attempted to rid his mouth of the horrible bitterness, making helpless grunts of disgust. Suddenly, the tight tension and fear of the evening, which had never quite left her, melted away. Dear dignified Vincent, her strong and brave rescuer, looking for all the world like a two-year-old hating strained peas! Catherine had collapsed forward onto his shoulder, helplessly shaken by gales of laughter. Though the bond, Vincent couldn't help but pick up on her hilarity. They had laughed together for a long time. They had needed it, and healing had begun.

The memory could still make her chuckle. She needed to laugh, after the last few weeks. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on sending the memory along with her love, picturing it in her mind as an arrow sent below to find Vincent. Rising to fetch down a mug from the cupboard, her eyes widened and she almost stumbled. Was that what she thought it was? His answer? A warm swell of love, somehow subtly different from her own emotions. And something else. Hope. Catherine closed her eyes and breathed an answering prayer that all was not lost, that there was still a chance for them.

Wandering over to her desk while the coffee machine popped and burbled, she rooted through the top drawer and pulled out her address book. It would be a miracle to get a hair appointment with Marcel, but hopefully the memory of her usual generous tip would ensure he found an available space. Dropping down on a couch, Catherine was startled from her musings by a loud, piercing ring. With a yelp, she dropped the address book and snatched at the phone, practically dropping the receiver in her haste.

"Hello!" she practically shouted.

"Whoa! Wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?" The lilting, teasing voice of her friend Jenny made Catherine smile in chagrin.

"Sorry. I just got up. Didn't mean to take your ear off."

"Don't tell me ‑ no coffee yet, huh?" The two friends chucked at Catherine's well known and reluctantly acknowledged foible. "Listen, I know things have been a little crazy lately, so I thought I'd just remind you about our brunch with Nancy."

Catherine couldn't help but grin. This date had been planned weeks in advance. It wasn't often Nancy Tucker came in to New York from her suburban home in Connecticut, but during those infrequent visits the three always made a determined effort to get together. "Relax, I haven't forgotten. Tomorrow, eleven o'clock at The Snow Goose. I'll be there."

A few moments' silence greeted her statement. "Cathy... what time zone are you in? Tomorrow is Monday. Today is Sunday. We're meeting in a little more than an hour from now." For a moment Catherine sat in shock. Impossible! She couldn't have slept a whole day away. Could she?

"You're kidding, right?"

"Cath, are you sure you're alright? If you're not feeling well&"

"No. I'm fine, really. I guess I must have been more tired than I realized. Wow." Catherine quickly glanced at the clock. It was just past ten o'clock. "Oh. Oh my God! Thanks for calling. I'll see you there. I gotta go!" Catherine could hear Jenny's laughter as she hung up and scurried for the shower.

* * * * *

Catherine saw her reflection in the glass door as she hurried up the stairs and grimaced in distaste. For some reason, her normally well-behaved hair had chosen today to have a tantrum. It was only liberal use of styling mousse that held it an approximation of its customary smooth sweep. The majority of personal grooming chores that should have been accomplished on the vanished Saturday had had to be put off yet again. Plucking her eyebrows now would only result in red swelling and besides, after wrestling with her hair there hadn't been time. She had been planning on wearing her new green jersey dress, but one look at her legs as she began to put on panty hose had axed that plan, too. Instead, she had dug out a pair of black dress slacks, and paired them with a turquoise angora sweater. After that, just some make up. Impulsively, she had decided to wear her crystal, usually kept safe in a velvet bag for special occasions.

The Snow Goose was one of the newer restaurants to open its doors in Manhattan. It was located on the first floor of a converted brownstone, and it had received very flattering reviews in several newspapers for its brunch menu. Reaching the top of the stairs, she opened the glass doors and entered a warm wood-paneled lobby. The lobby hostess had directed her to the rear of the restaurant, where the 'Tucker Reservation' had been waiting for her. The restaurant was functioning at capacity, by the looks of the full tables discreetly placed for maximum privacy. The renovated former home still contained individual rooms, and in the one furthest back, which contained only four tables, Catherine finally found Nancy and Jenny, pouring over menus.

"Oh, my God! Look who finally deigned to grace us with her presence. Sleeping Beauty herself." Jenny's eyes twinkled devilishly as she mercilessly teased her friend.

"Can it, Aaronson. You're just jealous," Catherine replied as she sank into her chair with a smile.

"So who is he?" Nancy asked slyly.

Catherine stiffened, automatically defensive, as her hand twitched toward her crystal. 'Don't be such an idiot' she chastised herself. 'Relax'. "Who do you mean?"

"Why, the fellow who could keep you in bed for a whole day without you even knowing it, that's who. No one just loses a day without reason." Nancy answered with an evil smile. Placing her hands in a posture of prayer, she spoke in a deep voice. "Confession is good for the soul."

Catherine erupted into giggles as she feigned tossing her napkin across the table. Instead she smoothed it onto her lap and took the opportunity to control herself. "Uh oh. Don't tell me it's going to be one of those lunches? Jenny, help me over here."

Jenny held up her hands in mock surrender. "Hey, you're the one who was late! We spent a good few minutes gossiping about you in revenge and now you'll pay the price. I declare it official Pick On Cathy Day."

"Oh, thanks a bunch, friend," Catherine said sarcastically as she deliberately picked up the menu, avoiding the two who laughed at her display of haughtiness. It was always like that when the three of them got together. It happened so seldom that it always seemed to turn into a three-person party. Inevitably, they embarrassed themselves, publicly giggling like schoolgirls at times.

The waiter cleared his throat from behind Catherine to gain their attention. Surely a student, he didn't look a day over twenty. Automatically he recited the brunch specials and left them to mull over their choices.

As he walked away, Jenny sighed. "Are we getting old, or what? Remember Adolfo's?"

Nancy and Catherine grinned and nodded at the reminder of their old college haunt, a small Italian restaurant near the dorm, a favorite of many students for inexpensive but delicious meals.

"Remember Mario?"

"Ohhhhh, yes," Nancy replied slowly. "Who could forget him? He was such a hunk." Mario had been the eldest son of the owner and worked most evenings in the restaurant. "We weren't the only ones who found him as yummy as the food."

Beside her, Catherine snorted indelicately.

"Well, I hate to say it, but that 'kid' who is waiting on us is probably the same age he was." Groans of disgust greeted Jenny's observation.

"Shut up, Aaronson, or you'll have us thoroughly depressed. We're not in the retirement home yet!" Catherine responded. "Besides, the distinguished-looking gentlemen over at the next table hasn't stopped checking you out since I sat down."

"Who? Which one?" Both Nancy and Jenny tried to discreetly locate the mystery admirer. Finally Jenny resorted to the old trick of checking makeup with a compact mirror, using it to look behind her without turning around. This of course, as planned, sent Nancy and Catherine into near hysterics.

"Ahem." The young waiter was back, and patiently waited for the ladies to pull themselves together. Behind them, an equally youthful blond girl bore a tray to another table, and the aromas of whatever was on the plates wafted over to Catherine. Her stomach chose that particular time to let loose with a particular loud and embarrassing curl of hunger.

Nancy and Jenny both ordered coffee, fresh orange juice, and the strawberry praline waffles.

Catherine opened her mouth to echo their order with the same, when she felt her stomach cramp in hunger. The smell of whatever the people nearby were having caught her attention again. A discreet inquiry of what they were having netted a description of a provolone vegetable omelet, served with maple smoked ham, garlic sautéed potatoes, and buttered toast with preserves. Enthusiastically, Catherine indicated she would have that as well.

As the waiter left, Catherine noted both Jenny's and Nancy's stare of astonishment. "What?" she asked. "I'm starving!"

"Well," drawled Jenny. "I suppose we have to understand. After all, she did 'sleep' all day yesterday. Or something& I suppose she's earned it." This set them off in another round of hysterical giggles. The rest of the time waiting for their meals was spent reminiscing, catching up, and in the merciless but lighthearted teasing that had marked their relationship since the beginning. Once the meals arrived, however, things quieted down.

For a moment, Catherine felt a twinge of guilt. Vincent, far below, was wrestling with their future, and here she was stuffing herself silly. It was puzzling. Usually stress had the opposite effect on her. Generally, her appetite deserted her, and it became necessary to force herself to eat. Well, that certainly wasn't a problem today. With relish, Catherine tucked into the delicious food and, to both Nancy's and Jenny's amazement, didn't leave a morsel unconsumed. The three friends spent the next hour lingering over coffee, being unashamedly silly, and generally having a wonderful visit.

* * * * *

The FreshMarket was usually packed on Sundays, and today was no exception. Catherine knew for a fact, however, that with all her time in the last week spent divided between Below and the office, her refrigerator contained nothing but some cartons of Chinese food probably dating back to the Ming Dynasty, and assorted condiments. A blanket of tiredness settled over her as she maneuvered her shopping cart around the fruit displays. Maybe Nancy was right, maybe she was coming down with something after all.

The brunch had been great. It was always so good to spend time with Nance and Jenny. The three of them always had such fun during their little get-togethers and the relaxed change of scenery had done her good. Mentally more than physically, Catherine thought wryly. If she kept eating like she had, the 'physical' might end up being a lot larger than she was used to. It was unfortunate that Jenny had had to bow out early. Of course, Nancy and Catherine had managed to wriggle out of her that she was meeting "someone" in a couple of hours, and had only permitted her to leave after being promised specifics later.

Once Jenny left, Nancy had taken the opportunity to concentrate on her friend. Catherine smiled to herself as she remembered Nancy's concern over her relationship with Vincent, and how it was going. Since the night she had bolted back to New York with Nancy's car, they had spoken several times briefly on the phone, but Nancy had never pried.  Now, face-to-face, she had finally asked the questions Catherine had known were coming.

Catherine had told her some of it. Especially about how Vincent had been very sick lately, and she had been spending all her time with him as he recovered. For some reason, Nancy's reply haunted her: "you'd better be careful, Cathy. Maybe what he had is catching. I wasn't going to say anything, but you look so dragged out and tired. You've got to take better care of yourself. It won't do him any good if you get sick too."

Well, she felt tired now. Catherine reached up to rub between her eyes. The feeling of dense tension that had started as she left the restaurant was increasing. Maybe Nancy was right. There had been a flu bug going around the office a few weeks ago, maybe it was catching up with her. Determinedly, she shook her attention back to the present. 'I'll just finish shopping, go home, make a hot chocolate, and sit back. Maybe a nice hot bath.... I definitely won't need supper. At least, I don't think so,' Catherine thought with a grimace.

Seventy-five dollars later, Catherine was wondering what happened to the 'bread, milk, yogurt and fruit' idea she had when she first entered. For some reason she had been unable to resist several purchases, including the box of six sinful looking cheese Danishes she had dropped into the cart. A decision just to taste one on the drive home had resulted, to Catherine's horror, in the disappearance of the entire box.  It had taken some maneuvering, but the bags were lighter than she expected and she carried them up to her apartment in one trip. After putting away her purchases, the hot bath idea looked better and better.

Walking into her bedroom to undress, Catherine noted she had not even had time to make the bed this morning. It was sooo... tempting. Another wash of dizziness swept over her. The clock beside the bed read three thirty. Perhaps a short nap was called for. If she wasn't sleepy later, maybe she'd go below and visit Father. He was probably lonely without Vincent and would welcome a new victim... err pupil, for chess. With a contented sigh, Catherine crawled into bed and fell instantly asleep.

* * * * *

Phone. That was the phone. Ringing.

A hand reached out from under the covers to grope its way to the insistent telephone on the night table. The receiver disappeared underneath the pastel comforter. A rough clearing of throat sounded and a slightly raspy voice issued from the warm nest.

"Hello."

"Radcliffe? Is that you?"

"Yeah, it's me, Joe. What's up?" The covers shifted as the disheveled, nude figure began to dig her way to the surface.

"If you're going to take a sick day, I wish you'd call."

A feeling of dread spread over Catherine. Lifting the covers and sliding her feet to the floor, she noted her alarm clock read ten fifteen. It was easy to read, with the daylight streaming in through the French doors. Daylight. It must be Monday. 'Oh no, not again'. "I'm sorry. I overslept. I'll be in as soon as I can."

"Listen, you don't sound so good. Don't bother coming into the office if you're sick, we can handle things."

Catherine cleared her throat again. "No, I'm fine. I'll be there in an hour or so, OK?" Receiving his reluctant affirmative, she hung up and rushed for the bathroom. A few minutes later she walked slowly, almost dazedly, back to the phone. Dialing Joe's office extension, in a rough trembling voice she informed him that she would indeed be taking a sick day after all. Immediately afterwards, she dialed another number.

"Dr. Peter Alcott, please....  Peter? It's Catherine. Could you come to my apartment? No, it's not Vincent, it's... just, could you come now? Please?"

 


Continued in Chapter 8