Hours pass, days pass, time stands still

Light gets dark and darkness fills

My secret heart forbidden...

Sarah McLachlan: 'Ice'

From the album: 'Fumbling Towards Ecstasy'

 

CHAPTER NINE


Catherine blinked slowly as an insistent noise sought to gain her attention. Muzzily, she glanced around at her surroundings, seeking the source of the annoyance that had awakened her. She was in her bedroom, seated on the chair in front of her vanity. Strange. 'How could I fall asleep here?' she thought with confusion, as determinedly she began to shrug off the enveloping weight of slumber. The insistent beeping came from the telephone receiver, which was lying on the floor at her feet. Automatically, she bent down to retrieve it. It was only when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror that she froze, and the phone once again fell with a soft thump.

It was not her face that stared back at her. Correction. It still recognizably displayed her own features, yet altered, the proportions changed. Catherine leaned forward and traced slightly trembling fingertips over her nose and cheekbones. The continuing muted beep from the phone at her feet was eclipsed by another repetitive sound, this one coming from the door of her apartment. Peter. That would be Peter. She had used the phone to call him, and had sat here waiting, unable to processes what she saw reflected back to her.

The knocking at the door grew louder, and Catherine heard Peter's voice call her name. Stirred to movement, she slowly got up, feeling another draining wash of fatigue as she did so. A glance downward reminded her to fetch and put on her bathrobe before answering the door. She shuffled through the living room, unfastened the chain and turned the deadbolt. Then she stepped back, away from the door to look out toward her balcony.

Slowly the doorknob turned and the door eased inward slightly. "Cathy?" Peter spoke as the door swung wider. "Are you here? Cathy?"

Catherine cleared her throat, and spoke. Even to her own ears, the voice that issued from her sounded different. Softer. Raspier. "Come in Peter". A sigh of relief sounded from behind her, as she heard her friend enter and close the door behind him.

"So, what's wrong? I came as quick as I could. You don't sound the best, have you come down with the 'flu?"

Catherine knew what was coming. She had observed it many times before, although from an admittedly different perspective. Gathering her courage, she turned to face the man who had known her all her life.

Peter's medical bag fell with a muffled thump to the carpet.

"Oh my God".

* * * * *

"When did this start to happen?" Peter asked softly. He had made his way over to one of the small couches and sat down. Yesterday, he would have considered Vincent to be the strangest medical anomaly he had ever come across in his career. Well, that certainty had just been blown out of the water.

Catherine sat across from him, on the opposite couch. At his quiet question, she raised her head, once again displaying the shocking alterations that had led to her call. Even her eyes seemed different. Oh, they were the same soft green-gray they had always been, but the surrounding changes gave them a more exotic cast.

Eyebrows, elongated and tilted. Her nose had flattened somehow. The area where it ended between her eyes was raised, the indentation almost gone. There was the beginning of a dusting of fur along the top of her nose, lighter in color in comparison to her hair. Hair that seemed shaggier, fuller, wilder. Her cheekbones were more prominent. The resemblance to Vincent's differences was crowned by the deepened vertical indentation under her nose, almost enough to be a true cleft lip.

"I'm not sure. Things have been strange lately." As Catherine spoke, Peter thought he glimpsed a slight elongation to her canine teeth. Even her voice had altered. It was still hers, but with a soft underlying rasp. Again, much like Vincent's.

Rising, Peter picked up his medical bag, moved over to the figure curled against the arm of the opposite couch, and sank down beside her. Slowly, he reached over to grasp the hand that was clutched in the folds of her robe, and drew it toward him. For a moment he contemplated the changes that were obvious here as well. The back of her hand held the same light dusting of pseudo-fur as was visible on her nose. The nails, usually well-filed ovals, were thicker, longer, more curved. Claws. Or the beginnings of them. Peter passed his thumb over them, drawing a slight hiss of surprise and discomfort from her. "Did that hurt?"

"Not exactly. They feel swollen, kind of thick. Like when your feet are waking up after being asleep. Like when you warm up after being really cold. Something like that. Peter, please tell me. I think... I'm becoming like Vincent? How can this be happening?"

"How about I just do a quick exam first. Maybe it can tell us something other than what is obvious to the eye." At Catherine's nod of acquiescence, Peter reached into his medical bag for some basic supplies. He felt her pulse, double-checking his count on the other wrist. Using his stethoscope, he listened to Catherine's chest and asked her several times to take deep breaths. Using an old fashioned wooden tongue depressor he peered down her throat, asking her to vocalize. The blood pressure cuff came next. He palpated her hands, face and feet, going over each changed feature carefully with his fingertips. Finally, he attached a needle to an empty syringe. "I'd like to get a blood sample, all right?" At her nod, he applied a tourniquet, found a vein and, after some difficulty, drew two vials full. "Why don't you tell me about those strange things you mentioned before."

Catherine drew a deep breath. Where did she start? Where did this start, when she first noticed something different? "I think the first unusual thing I noticed was just after Vincent and I were hurt in the caverns. Peter, you know of the bond he has with me?"

Peter nodded slowly. He had discussed the phenomenon with Jacob several times during their late night chess games and technical conversations.

"I've never been able to feel him in the same way he does me. Sometimes I came close, like when he and Father were caught in the cave-in. Somehow I heard his fear and need for help. But it's never been as strong in me as in Vincent, not even close. Although it did grow. When I first met him, I couldn't feel him at all, but the longer we knew each other, the more I could sense. After the catacombs, though, my sense of him got so much stronger. I could actually feel the connection, and his feelings, more each day, even when he was asleep." Catherine fell silent as she tested that silent connection. Vincent was... sleeping. Content for now.

"Was that the only change?" Peter prodded delicately.

"No... no. After Vincent left Friday night I came home, I had some supper, and went to bed. I felt so drained and tired. I slept until Sunday morning. I'd say that was strange. After being up for only six or seven hours, I went to sleep again, and didn't wake up until I called you. And I'm eating so much. It's like I'm starving. Like now. I have to eat." Abruptly, she rose and went into the kitchen.

More slowly, Peter followed. Entering the kitchen, he found Catherine taking out eggs, juice, and bread from the refrigerator. Grabbing a frying pan from a cupboard, she set it quickly on the stove and put a spoonful of butter in it. Pouring some juice, she downed the entire glass. Toast went into the toaster, only to be removed before it popped up, spread with jam, and practically inhaled. Peter leaned against the doorjamb and observed thoughtfully as Catherine began to put away food in a manner and volume that would challenge a lumberjack. Cracking four eggs into the hot buttered pan, she immediately put in four more once the first set was done. Astonished, Peter continued to watch as Catherine polished off a dozen eggs, the last few raw. Blushing, Catherine looked away, muttering about the fact they took too long to cook. Eventually the feeding frenzy slowed and finally stopped.

"I see what you mean about the eating problem," Peter said lightly, trying to ease Catherine's obvious embarrassment.

"It's like I can't stop, like I have no control. You know what the scariest thing is?" Catherine asked quietly. "It's that I'm not upset about this. The whole thing. The changes, the sleeping, the eating. It's like someone pushed the mute button on my emotions. Intellectually, I know I should be panicking. But I can't seem to get upset. It's like I'm in some kind of fog. Peter, please, help me. What is causing this? Can it be stopped or reversed?"

Taking her hand, Peter led Catherine back into the living room and sat on the couch, settling her beside him. He noted the framed picture of Charles Chandler, which sat on the side table. 'How would you handle this, old friend?' he thought with an inner sigh. "Much as I'd like to give you all the familiar platitudes, I won't lie to you. You're too smart to stand for that anyway. I know you want answers, but I need to think about this a bit before I can give you a proper medical opinion. All I can give you right now are facts. Your blood pressure is below normal, as far as I can tell. It's hard to be sure my instrument is working correctly, because I think your musculature has become denser. That's why I had so much trouble taking the blood sample. Your heartbeat has slowed by about five beats per minute. The changes to your cheekbones are palpable as bone, rather than any kind of soft tissue growth. You have increased density of hair growth on your lower arms, legs, and it looks like your hairline is extending down your neck. The nail beds of your fingers and toes seem to have acquired a new set of tendons and ligaments, and have increased in thickness and depth. The soles of your feet have thickened and roughened as well. Your vocal cords have acquired several new membranes. Your tongue is exhibiting small hard backward-curving growths on the upper central surface. And your canine teeth have increased in length."

"Like Vincent's." Catherine turned to look Peter in the eye.

Slowly, reluctantly, Peter nodded his head. "Yes. Like Vincent's. Most of the changes you are exhibiting are, as far as we know, normal for him. The dense musculature, the slower heartbeat, everything. However, so far these alterations you are experiencing have not become as pronounced."

"Not so far anyway... Peter, this isn't stopping, is it?" Catherine glanced down to gaze at her hands. Reluctantly she examined the short stubble of fur on the back of her left hand, and pushed the tips of her fingers against the hard, curving claw-like nails.

"In all honesty, Cathy, I just don't know. I don't have any hard-and-fast answers for you. This has never happened before. Let me take the blood sample to the lab and check it out. I also want to do some reading. But I think you would agree with me when I say that you shouldn't leave this apartment, or have any visitors, until we figure out what's going on. Right?"

Catherine nodded. "Right." Before she could stop it, a yawn of weariness caught her. Intense fatigue hit her like a brick and she could feel her eyelids drooping.

"Cathy? Cathy!" Her name brought her to attention as Peter reached forward to take her hand and help her up. "I think you need to go back to bed now. I'm going to write you a medical leave of three weeks, and I'll take it to your office. I think it's Joe Maxwell who should get it, right?" At Catherine's bleary-eyed nod, he continued. "I'll do that now, and be back to check on you in a few hours. Will you be all right?"

"I think so... I'm just so tired." Catherine barely avoided stumbling as she leaned on Peter. Before she knew it she was back in bed, and in a coma-like sleep practically before her head hit the pillow.

For a few minutes Peter stood at her bedside. Thoughtfully, he reached down to stroke her hair back. As his fingers slid into the honey brown mass, he noted the beginnings of a lighter but thick undercoat beneath the long strands. Somewhat reluctantly, he acknowledged to himself that his hypothesis was more than likely correct.

Before leaving, Peter picked up the set of keys from beside Catherine's purse. Quietly, he let himself out, and locked the door behind him.

* * * * *

Several hours later, the grind of a key in the lock heralded Peter's return. The paper sack of groceries in his arms was quickly stowed in the kitchen, and he entered the bedroom to check on Catherine.

Even though he had only been absent for a few hours, the continuing changes in her were noticeable. Her nose seemed flatter and the cleft in her lip more pronounced. Lifting the covers to check her feet, he saw that the thick callous-like formations on the balls and heel had darkened and thickened further, while her toenails had become even more claw-like. After ensuring she was resting comfortably, Peter returned to the kitchen to tidy up and put away the extra groceries he had purchased, including three-dozen eggs. He had a feeling they would be needed.

It occurred to Peter that the three-week medical leave of absence he had arranged for Cathy might perhaps become a permanent thing. If these changes continued, it was highly doubtful she could ever return to her job. Joe had quite understood about Catherine's need for sick time. Peter had just about fallen over sideways when Joe turned to face him and he had first seen the four parallel scratches on his neck, marks that were eerily familiar. Delicately, Peter had probed to see if he had noticed any strange behavior from Catherine, but Joe had clammed right up. When asked directly about the scratches, Joe had insisted they happened in a fall against concrete. Possible, but highly unlikely, in Peter's opinion.

He filled a large glass with water and returned to Catherine's side. Sitting down beside her on the bed, he lifted her up and helped her to drink. After a barely intelligible and groggy mutter of thanks, she was immediately back asleep.

Resigned to his own company, Peter pulled a chair close to the bedside and retrieved the medical texts he had brought from his quick stop home. A change of clothes and some other personal necessities lay in a small overnight bag stashed by the foldout couch. He had sandwiched that stop between the visit to the DA's office and dropping off at the lab the blood samples he had taken from Catherine.

With a sigh, Peter settled in and opened the first text. This one had a chapter on spontaneous mutation in amphibians, if he recalled correctly...

* * * * *

May 26, 1989

It's the strangest thing, to feel so free when nothing except myself has really changed. All the outside limitations are still there. I can still never go Above in daylight. But inside myself, the world seems somehow altered. Sounds seem clearer. Movement is an experience in appreciation, and of joy in its own possibilities.

It has been difficult to stop listening to the rules. Ingrained habits of a lifetime are hard to break and I find myself backsliding at times. One thing I am discovering, though, is that the more I relax the rules, the easier it is not to break them. This is not to say I will never do so. I must accept what I am, and force myself no longer to be what I am not.  

Never have Rilke's words seemed so clear to me. Many years ago I read his exhortations to "love the questions themselves, and someday you will grow into the answers." Perhaps I am growing into some of my own answers.

For, if there is one thing I have learned, it is that there is no Dark One. I feared the so-called beast so strongly that I gave it a face and a name in order to separate it from my concept of self. That side was suppressed so long and so unyieldingly that its very alienness lent it life of its own. In releasing that hold on my nature only in times when there was no choice but to fight, to kill, I assumed that was all it was capable of. Fearing it even more, I would work harder at suppressing it. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy. For suppression leads to rebellion - eventually, something has to give.

After long rumination, I feel that perhaps this was the root of my recent illness. The hallucinations of the dark beast were only my internal visualization of the struggle for expression of that feared and hated inhuman side of my nature.

Perhaps the question was the answer...

How this will affect my family and loved ones I know not. I have told several others that to truly love someone you must love who they are, and not who you want them to be. It is not without rueful humor that I realize I must now 'put my money where my mouth is'. Those who love me will accept this, and those that do not... will have to, as Catherine says, deal with it. I think, in many cases, it will not be easy.

Vincent raised his head, his journal temporarily set aside. Catherine. The bond had been so silent in the last several days. Only once or twice had he felt emotion from her, and only while she was asleep, dreaming. He had been puzzled by this lack of communication until he realized that she was probably, in deference to his request for solitude, repressing her emotions as she had during her kidnapping by Paracelsus. So like his Catherine, to give willingly whatever she thought he needed. He missed her presence, but reluctantly acknowledged that, with her new sensitivity to his emotions, her muting of the bond was probably a wise move from that quarter as well. Vincent had enough difficulty reconciling the wildness he had found in himself. How she would have interpreted those emotional swings... Flexing his cramping fingers, he retrieved his journal from its undignified drop to the sand, and completed his entry.

The one thing I am sure of is that Catherine's love will not waver. Our bond assures it. As to the other matter, that of our being together... that I have yet to understand fully. But that side of myself which is becoming my ally rather than my enemy, tells me in its wordless way that something is changing. There is a confidence there that I cannot understand, but which gives me hope that all will be well.

Vincent replaced his journal in his leather backpack and got up to stretch. Muscles trembled pleasantly, and the mane along his spine stiffened then relaxed. Wandering over to the river for a drink, he gazed at his reflection yet again. The face that stared back at him was no longer ugly to his eyes, only unique. One eyebrow seemed to wriggle impishly, and looking closer Vincent spied a minnow, just below the surface. Impulsively Vincent flashed forward to catch it. Hands moved blindingly fast as they cut through the water, and when they were raised the little minnow swam between his cupped palms, wriggling frantically. With a chuckle, Vincent carefully lowered his hands to the water, allowing the frightened fish to dart away.

A faint squeak caught his attention, and his eyes unerringly focused in on movement from above. Across the river, about two thirds of the way up the cavern wall, was a ledge, and it was from there the sounds came. For a second, Vincent glanced down at his feet. His remarkable healing abilities had ensured the blisters that had covered the bottoms were all but gone. Flexing, he slid out his foot claws, and pondered the ledge again.

In an explosion of movement, Vincent was across the river in two splashing leaps. The third carried him six feet up the side of the cavern wall. It was with an intense spike of satisfaction that he felt his rock-hard claws, both hand and foot, extend and dig into the stone, finding the slightest crevices for purchase. With a nimbleness and surety he had not experienced since childhood, he swiftly climbed upwards and reached the ledge.

Mice scattered, terrified, in every direction, and in seconds were gone. Looking down at the river and his camp, Vincent felt a surge of accomplishment and pleasure at his strength and agility. A deep rumbling roar filled the cavern with sound. Just because he could. And because it felt good.

* * * * *

Peter leaned down to brush the bangs away from Catherine's face. The changes had progressed. It had been almost twenty-four hours since his first glimpse of her. If the, for lack of better word, mutation continued, he estimated it should run its course within two days at most.

The strange behavior had also continued. Catherine remained in an almost coma-like state, awaking only for bouts of frenzied eating. She craved meat, dairy products, and especially eggs, and had gone through the three dozen he had purchased in short order. Peter was sure that the volume of protein and calcium consumption was fueling the musculo-skeletal changes. In any case, supplements could certainly not hurt. Loading a syringe with a multi-vitamin and iron complex, Peter caught the sudden movement to his left.

Catherine had leapt out of bed and stood, trembling. Her eyes held a wildness he had only ever seen in one other being. Ignoring his sharp inquiry, before he could stop her, she leapt to the French doors, threw them open, and practically flew out to the balcony. A flash of panic rushed through Peter. She had not been exactly conscious of her surroundings the last few times she had partially awakened. Rounding the corner of the bed to follow her, he was frozen from the sound that came from beyond those doors. It was a roar: one with definite feminine overtones, but unmistakably a lion-like roar.

Reaching the doors, he was barely in time to catch her as she slumped downwards. Half carrying her limp form, he guided her back into the room and to bed.

"Cathy, you just about scared the life out of me! What on earth possessed you to do that?" Peter asked, the remnants of fear making his words sharper than he intended.

Drifting back to sleep, Catherine softly murmured her response. "Because it felt good."


Continued in Chapter 10