Dancing in the Shadows
At first Catherine thought she was back in the tunnels. But she had no memory of coming here, no awareness of how she had arrived. And if she was in the tunnels, where was Vincent? Where were the ringing of the pipes, the smell of torchlight and candles?
She sensed that she was standing, but she had no awareness of her body. There was no pressure of the floor against her feet, no touch of air sliding across her skin. There was only a vast, dim, nothingness.
She was alone.
She turned, and silver mist swirled around her legs.
"Vincent?" No response. Not even the echo of her own voice. "Vincent, where are you?"
Somewhere nearby, she sensed a presence, a slight ripple in the fog.
"He can't follow you here, Cathy." It was a familiar voice, full of warmth and affection. "Not this time. You've come too far."
The mist shifted, parting to reveal him standing a few feet away. "Hello, Cathy."
She wanted to run to him, to fling herself into his arms. But something held her back.
"I can't move . . ." The fact didn't bother her as much as it should have.
He nodded. "I know."
"Because you haven't decided yet."
With a wave of his arm, he indicated the vast emptiness. "Do you know where you are?"
She looked around her, and then up at a sky devoid of stars, devoid of clouds, devoid even of the moon. Then she took a deep breath and inhaled nothingness that melted in her mouth like strands of spun sugar. "Am I dreaming?"
"No." He shook his head. "Not a dream."
Uneasy, and a little frightened, she smoothed her hand along the gauzy fabric of her dress, a dress she didn't remember owning. "Tell me."
"You're caught between two paths of existence." His voice had a faint echo, as though he was standing right in front of her, and at the same time, very far away.
Paths of existence? The absence of sensation was distracting her, making it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. "I don't understand."
"You're dying, sweetheart." He paused for a moment, watching her while the words sank in. "But Vincent is with you. His love is holding you back, giving you time to think. To choose."
She blinked. "But I feel fine. Only somehow I'm standing here talking to you, and I know that isn't possible because—"
"I'm dead, I know." He smiled, a little sadly. "It's only your consciousness that's here with me, Cathy. Your . . . soul, though I've never really thought that an adequate word."
"So, this is Heaven?" Somehow this vast emptiness wasn't what she would have expected.
"Not exactly." He watched her with the fatherly worry she recognized from her childhood. "Do you remember," he said finally, "when you almost drowned?"
The memory came to her with a cold shiver. "Yes." She remembered strong arms and the comforting thud of a frantically beating heart. "Vincent saved me."
Her father nodded. "He's a good man."
"Yes." Just then, she felt an odd pulling sensation—like a reminder of something she was supposed to do. But she couldn't tell where it came from. "He took such risks, made such great sacrifices, for me."
"More than once, from what I understand." Her father took a deep breath. "Cathy, what do you want?"
The question confused her. He’d said it so seriously, as though the fate of the universe depended upon her answer. "What do you mean?"
He waved a hand. "The ones who come here—they're confused. Torn. They can’t decide which way to go." His eyes were sad, as though he grieved for those lost souls. "Sometimes they stay here for eternity, caught between somewhere and everywhere." He looked around at the mist, at the nothingness. "I want so much more than that for you."
"But I'm not confused."
"Aren't you?" His eyes were gentle as he watched her. "There's a part of you, Cathy, that wants to let go, to leave the pain and the sadness of your physical being behind. A part that's tired and wants to rest. But something is holding you back."
"Vincent." There was that tug again. Like the flutter of butterfly wings in her hair.
He nodded. "Partly."
She considered his words while he waited for her in patient silence.
"My son," she said at last. She met his eyes. "Daddy, I have a son." The word felt strange in her mouth. She rolled it over her tongue again, testing its shape. "My son."
"Yes." He looked proud. "And a handsome boy he is, too."
"You've seen him?" It seemed impossible. And yet so much of what she'd once thought impossible wasn't, really.
"Do you know where he is? Can I see him?"
He nodded. "But not here. Not now. First, you have to choose."
"There is no choice, Dad. He's my son. I would do anything for him."
"Listen to me, Cathy. You need to understand what I'm about to say, because once you decide, once you choose, there's no changing your mind. They don’t give refunds here. The next time, if there is a next time, you may not have a choice."
"I'm listening." She bit back her impatience. Why wouldn't he hurry? Why wouldn't he take her to her son?
"There are only two ways out of this place we're in. This . . . Between. Back the way you came, or forward. If you choose to go forward, to join your mother and me, you'll be able to watch over your son, to see him grow up and become a man. And you can watch over Vincent as well. And Joe Maxwell, and Jenny Aronson, and Nancy, and all the other people you care about."
"Even the people Below?" Catherine asked.
"If you like."
He looked troubled. There was something here she wasn't seeing. Something she didn’t understand.
"There's something else, isn't there," she said.
"It's all you can do, sweetheart. If you come with me, you can only watch."
A chill shivered up Catherine's spine. "Look, but don't touch?"
"Something like that, yes."
"And if I go back?"
"It won't be easy, Cathy. Even now it's almost too late. With each passing moment, the choice is slipping away from you." He took a step toward her, opening his arms. Then he stopped. Tilted his head. Listened to something Catherine couldn’t hear. Slowly, he dropped his arms back to his side, a look of impossible sadness in his eyes.
"Cathy, I made my choice. I was old. And tired. And I had done the things I needed to do in that world. But you still have a future. And it's a future full of possibilities." He hesitated, and when he went on, it was to give her a warning. "But if you do go back, you need to understand that you may not survive the journey. And you may never see your son again."
"But wouldn't I just end up here again?"
He shook his head. "No. If you try to go back, and your physical body dies before you get there, you'll spend eternity on a path that leads nowhere."
It was a frightening thought.
"But Vincent is there." And there was that tug again. The pull was becoming almost familiar.
She met her father's eyes. "And I would find my son," she said. "I would find him even if it was the last thing I ever did."
He watched her, troubled. "Maybe."
In the end, it wasn't a difficult choice. She'd thought maybe it would be, that maybe staying here—where it was safe and warm and comfortable, where evil couldn't reach her, and where she could at least see her son even if she couldn't hold him—might sway her decision.
But Vincent was there. Vincent. Who loved her. Who gave her . . . everything. Who showed her what it was, what it truly was, to be beautiful.
She looked into her father's eyes and knew he understood. "I love you," she said. "And tell Mom—" Her chest ached with the pain of saying goodbye again. "Tell Mom I love her, too."
But he was fading into the mists already—or she was, she wasn't really sure. Slowly, she slipped into darkness, a darkness so deep that even Vincent couldn't reach her.
Vincent carried her home.
Later, he'd have little memory of that trail of tears. Only fragments. Vague images and sensations. The weight of her in his arms, the sheen of lamplight on her hair, the muffled night sounds of the city that never slept.
He laid her on her bed, the soft mattress accepting her slight body. Welcoming her. Holding her. Her hair spread out across the pillow. She looked like she was asleep, and for a heartbeat, he almost believed that she was.
"Out, out, brief candle," he murmured, kneeling down beside her and taking her hand in his. His face was wet with tears. He had no sense of the passage of time, no concept of minutes spilling over into hours until at last some part of him, some deep, instinctive sense of self-preservation, drew his attention to the encroaching dawn.
He couldn't stay here, but his heart cried out against leaving her.
Somehow he summoned the strength to stand, to move away . . . but he had to turn back. Slowly, he bent and placed a tender kiss upon her lips. How sad it was that this simple intimacy, denied to her in life, was the only thing he had left to give to her in death.
"While I live, you live. With me. In me." His voice cracked. "Always."
He forced himself to walk away, only to stop at the open balcony doors and turn back for one last look at her beloved face, one last thought of the dream that had been, the dream that could have been.
"Always . . ."