Gone . . . gone . . . gone. . . .
The grim cadence echoed in his mind with every step. For six endless, dragging months Vincent had searched for Catherine, a silent wraith cloaked in black who haunted the night-shrouded streets and alleys. Six months of interminable days passing relentlessly into sleepless, too-short nights; months that had stripped pounds off his massive frame and shadowed his eyes with deep circles. Six months of frantic seeking which had ended that night on a secluded rooftop when, unbelievably, he had heard her whisper his name. Now Vincent walked through the empty night with his burden, bringing Catherine home for the last time.
He was moving on pure instinct, for although his eyes were open he took in nothing of his route. All he saw before him was Catherine's face as he had seen it when he whirled around upon hearing her voice: pale, exhausted, her hair dark and matted with sweat, the strain of her long ordeal obvious in the deep lines around her mouth and eyes - oh God, those eyes! - dulled with pain and exertion but filled with joy at seeing him - looking at him with so much love yet holding depths of grief and sorrow and regret that he didn't understand.
Cradling her tenderly against his chest, Vincent continued on his heavy journey.
The sight of Catherine standing at the top of the stairwell when he had been so sure that she had once again been snatched beyond his reach in the helicopter that had lifted off mere seconds before he arrived on the rooftop, had been so overwhelming a shock that at first Vincent could only stand there, staring at her, paralyzed. Then that first stunned reaction had quickly given way to incredulous joy . . . joy which had even more quickly turned to horror when Catherine swayed and he recognized her weakened condition.
After that everything had happened so fast. . . . How could it all be over so fast? He had barely begun to realize that something was terrifyingly wrong with Catherine - and then she was dead.
" 'Though lovers be lost . . .' " Catherine's voice, breathless, laboring to get the words out.
" 'Love shall not.' " Her yearning gaze becoming unfocused, glazed, even as he spoke. The whisper of her final breath escaping as her eyes closed and his arms felt the slackening of her body.
" 'And death shall have no dominion.' " His voice, choked, barely recognizable even to his own ears. Her body, limp and unresponsive in his embrace. An aching void where his heart should be.
For a fleeting moment at the end Vincent's empathic gift had reappeared, and he had once more felt the gentle warmth of Catherine's love flood his senses. But even that glowing touch was no longer the healing benediction it had once been, for mingled with it had been her bitter knowledge that she was dying, and her grief at leaving him had been overwhelming. Even as he looked on in numb disbelief she was gone . . . and now once more there was only emptiness within where her living presence had so briefly touched.
"What's it like, to have a love?" Mouse had once asked him, and he had answered, "For me, it was the beginning of a new life . . . and the end of my aloneness."
Aloneness, aching and hollow; freezing his soul. The enormity of his loss left Vincent beyond tears. Agonizing though they had been, he would now almost have welcomed the return of the long, desperate months of Catherine's disappearance. At least then he could cherish the certainty that she was alive, nurse the hope that she would be found. Now all hope was shattered, as dead as the beautiful woman he carried in his arms. The knowledge that Catherine was gone caused a devastation in his soul so great that his senses refused to acknowledge it. It simply did not register.
Vincent blinked and looked around him blankly. A dull eternity seemed to pass before he was able to bring his eyes to focus on his surroundings. White table. White chairs. Rose bush. He was on Catherine's terrace. How did I get here? he wondered, without any real curiosity, dismissing the thought almost before it had formed. The question was too complex for his exhausted and numbed mind to grapple with. Fumbling with the catch, Vincent swung open the french doors that led to Catherine's bedroom.
Stepping carefully, Vincent moved forward and lay Catherine on her bed, cradling her head tenderly with his free hand while he withdrew his arm from behind her neck with as much care as if she were merely sleeping and he didn't want to wake her. He knelt beside the bed; then, for the first time since leaving the rooftop where they had been so fleetingly reunited, Vincent looked at Catherine.
Lovingly he brushed one stray lock of hair back from her forehead. Her skin is still warm, he noted absently. Catherine's face was calm, though marked by lines of suffering. Almost Vincent could believe that she was only sleeping . . . but the marble-whiteness of her skin, the bleached hue of her lips were stabbing reminders that never again would those beloved eyes open to gaze at him with their customary love and warmth . . . or her lips smile at him and part to receive his hesitant kiss. Never again would he hear her soft voice speak his name, or feel her body warm and pliant in his arms.
He looked at her again and was suddenly seized with an overpowering urge to hold her in his arms one last time. Lying down beside her he slipped his arm beneath her head and pulled her close, molding her slight body against his as he had so often in his dreams, and had never dared when awake. He kissed the top of her head, then pressed his cheek against her hair, now stiff with dried sweat. The familiarity of the action raised poignant memories of the long months when this had been the sole caress he'd permitted himself beyond their chaste embraces.
We loved so deeply, Catherine, yet always I was hesitant to touch you, afraid that my desire would overpower me, set free the darkness I hold inside. Forgive me.
Vincent closed his eyes, remembering the first time he had embraced Catherine, after her accident when she stepped into his arms before returning to her world. Even then he had known that this slender, seemingly-fragile woman from Above had captured his heart, and he could not resist putting his arm around her and gently holding her to him, even though he believed that she was merely seeking comfort and reassurance before facing her world with a mutilated face. What else could her gesture mean?
When he'd left her so abruptly that long-ago evening, upon hearing the voices in her basement, it was with the belief that he would never see her again, and his heart was heavy with the ache of that loss. How could he have known that that night marked the beginning of a magical time in his life, a time filled with joy and wonder surpassing his wildest dreams? For beyond any hope, any dream - beyond any conceivable imagining - not only did Catherine come back into his life, he learned that she loved him in return, with an ever-increasing depth and passion which never ceased to amaze and awe him.
::Though lovers be lost::
Vincent started. His eyes flew open, the pupils dark and wide with shock. Wild-eyed, he stared down at Catherine, pulling back in order to see her face. For one heart-stopping moment he'd thought he heard her voice repeating her dying words to him, the words of Dylan Thomas.
But only her still, dead countenance met his searching gaze, and his heart sank as he realized her voice had spoken only in his memory. Shutting his eyes tightly to hold back the stinging tears, he again gathered Catherine's body close to him for one more embrace - the final embrace. For the darkness of night had turned to silver, heralding the approach of dawn. He must leave her now, and the knowledge was agonizing almost beyond bearing.
Slowly, reluctantly, Vincent released his hold on Catherine. Nothing in his life had ever been harder to do. Feeling as though he were peeling the living skin from his body, inch by shrieking inch, he eased his arm out, then rose from the bed and knelt beside her.
Again Vincent took Catherine's hand in his and kissed it, gazing at her hungrily, knowing this was the last time he would ever look upon her beloved face. He could feel great pain beginning to well up inside him, but with hard-won iron control he clamped down on it - hard.
Not yet. Not yet could he give in to his grief.
Vincent glanced over his shoulder at the window, where the first rosy streaks of sunrise were showing. Turning back to Catherine, Vincent touched her face, stroked her cheek with the backs of his long, hairy fingers. "Goodbye, my love," he whispered, caressing her hand where it lay in his. And still he lingered, knowing the sun was rising dangerously high but unable to summon the strength of will necessary to leave her.
Leaning forward, the first tears beginning to scald his cheeks, Vincent gently kissed her pale lips. "While I live, you live," he murmured huskily, "with me . . . in me . . . always!" Momentarily he broke down, resting his head on the side of the mattress; then, blindly, he rose and started out of the room.
With one foot on the step up to the terrace, he stopped, swaying with pain and grief. Turning, he took one last look at Catherine's lifeless form, blinking hard to clear away the tears that obscured this last, infinitely precious view of her.
"Always, my love!" he promised her brokenly. "Always!" He stepped onto the terrace and began the long, desolate journey home. Behind him the sheer curtains stirred in the gentle dawn breeze, framing the still, white form on the bed.
You alone can make my song take flight.
It's over now,
The music of the night. . . .
(Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe)
Zach stopped whistling. What was that? The strange, roaring echo receded, leaving him standing perfectly still, his heart beating a rapid tattoo.
It sounded like it came from . . . He turned his head to the left . . . over there. What was it?
Cautiously the youth moved into the tunnel leading to the Whispering Gallery, his every sense alert for the slightest sound or movement ahead. As he neared the opening to the bridge he stopped short. His heart leaped. Someone was standing in the middle of the bridge. An intruder! But even as panic tightened his muscles to turn and flee, Zach recognized the black-clad figure.
Vincent! It's only Vincent. His sigh of relief was heartfelt. Zach stepped forward then froze, the words of greeting frozen on his lips. Something's wrong. How he knew this the boy couldn't say, but know it he did, with every screaming nerve in his body. Instinctively he backed away from the silent, hunched figure, ducking into the nearby observation point the sentries used.
Vincent made a strange, muffled sound. Almost like . . . a sob? the boy thought, then heard Vincent begin to walk slowly along the bridge, headed in his direction. As the slow, shuffling footsteps neared his hiding place Zach peered through the narrow slit in the rock wall. Icy fingers crept up and down his spine at the look on Vincent's face. Something terrible must have happened!
Catherine? As quickly as the thought came Zach rejected it. No! Nothing had happened to Catherine! Catherine was well! She had to be! They would find her. Tomorrow or . . . or next week, or . . . soon! He faltered. They'd find her! They would!
He came back out into the main corridor and looked after Vincent, seeing with troubled eyes his heavy, mechanical gait, such a sharp contrast to his normal innate grace of movement. Only two things could cause Vincent to look so . . . lost: bad news about Father or Catherine. And Father, he knew, was safe and healthy in his chamber - or at least he had been only minutes earlier. No, it had to be Catherine.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Zach began to follow Vincent, careful to keep well back, though he had a strong suspicion that Vincent was in no shape to notice anything as inconsequential as being followed. Luckily they encountered no one else during their slow trek down the tunnels.
When Vincent ducked into his chamber, Zach was left hovering uncertainly in the corridor outside. That something was terribly, horribly wrong was undeniable. Should I tell Father, or would Vincent rather be left alone right now? As the minutes slowly passed his internal debate continued. Finally the youth reached a decision.
Almost afraid to breathe, Zach cautiously poked his head through the craggy entrance. Vincent was sitting at his table. Not reading, not writing. Just . . . sitting. Staring in front of him with a glassy, unfocused gaze.
"Vincent?" Zach almost whispered, his voice dying in his throat. Vincent's glazed eyes never wavered from their fixed stare into nothingness. One furred hand groped blindly over the tabletop to pick up a folded scrap of paper and hold it out. Automatically, Zach took it.
"Take it . . . to Father." Vincent's voice was barely audible, even in the intense silence of the room. Zach nodded silently, his wide, frightened eyes never leaving Vincent's face. He backed out and sped toward Father's chamber. A few yards away he stopped and glanced around him. He was alone. Zach looked down at the note, gnawing at his lip. It had to be about Catherine.
All the children Below were very fond of the vivacious young woman from Above. Catherine was more than just a friend to them; she was benefactor, confidante, someone who would listen and advise and comfort, a voice of present-day experience to tell them about the mysterious, attractive, sometimes frightening world Above.
But, like Michael before him, Zach's feelings ran deeper than mere friendship. To Zach, Catherine was both friend and romantic fantasy, mother and dearly-loved elder sister. He was very protective of her. Knowing, as they all did, of the love between her and his idol Vincent, Zach had long ago decided that the greatest gift he could give these two was time alone together - something they rarely had. To that end, he tried to keep the other children from pestering the popular couple during Catherine's infrequent visits Below. His maneuvers, rarely subtle, often earned him a smile of gratitude (and secret amusement) from one or both recipients.
Catherine's disappearance had turned Zach's secure existence upside down. Many times during the past months he had sneaked out to go Topside and search for clues to her whereabouts - to no avail. With each week that passed the uncertainty gnawed more and more at the boy, causing him many a sleepless, nightmare-ridden night.
And so it was that Zach did something now that he had never done before, had never even thought of doing: he opened and read a private note to someone else that had been entrusted to his care. It was written in a careless scrawl totally unlike Vincent's usual strong, elegant script - as though the very act of writing demanded more effort than Vincent was capable of. The message was short and simple - and brought Zach's world crashing down about him:
Zach stared at the solitary word, instinctively divining its meaning. No! It can't be true. Not Catherine . . . NO! A trembling began in his knees and he had to lean against the rough wall for support.
"Zach? Are you all right?"
Zach whipped around. It was Nick, one of the younger boys. He was looking at Zach with a worried expression. Zach couldn't reply, could only look back mutely as he re-folded the missive.
Nodding his head mechanically, Zach managed to whisper, "For Father . . . from Vincent." He thrust the scrap into Nick's hand then turned and bolted, unaware of the tears streaming down his face.
We kissed in the shadows
We hid from the moon
Our meetings were few, and over too soon . . .
(Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II)
The rumor clattered through the pipe network, spreading faster than wildire: Catherine is dead . . . Vincent found her . . . What? . . . she was murdered . . . Dead . . . did you hear, Catherine's . . . Vincent found her . . . deadKilled . . . she'sdeadDeadDEAD! The pipes were ringing nonstop with concerned, even frantic, inquiries.
"Pascal, I can't tell one message from another anymore!" Kipper had his hands pressed to his ears, trying to muffle the almost deafening clamor.
Pascal nodded, pressed the boy's shoulder. "I know. It's all right." Grasping his metal tapping pipe, the short, wiry man strode over to the master pipe and banged out the short, emphatic code that signified URGENT! CLEAR THE PIPES! NOW! This command was used only for important messages, usually to or from Father. Even so it now took two repetitions before the pipes were silent.
Pascal grimly tapped out a message to the Tunnel community. NO VERIFICATION OF RUMOR OF CATHERINE'S DEATH. FATHER NOT IN HIS CHAMBER, NOT RESPONDING TO MESSAGES. I WILL SEARCH FOR HIM. PLEASE KEEP PIPES OPEN. Handing the tapping pipe to Kipper, Pascal told him, "I think you'll be able to handle it now. I'm going to look for Father."
Kipper grabbed him by the arm as he turned to go. "Pascal, it's not true . . . is it?" he begged. Pascal regarded him. "I don't know, Kipper. I hope not." His eyes were somber. He put his hand over Kipper's for a moment then set off in the direction of Father's chamber, jaw set tightly.
* * * * *
Father shuffled slowly back to his chamber, his limp more pronounced than usual, as was always the case when he was tired. And Father was tired - more than tired. He was exhausted . . . exhausted both physically and emotionally by the devastating news he'd received not long ago.
Vincent, he mourned. My son, I wish there were something I could do to ease your pain. I know the anguish you are feeling right now. Catherine . . . Dear God, why? Why?
Lost in his grief, Father had entered his chamber and started down the steps before sensing he was not alone. He looked up to find most of the Tunnel community waiting, silently watching him.
"What is it? What's happened?" Father spoke slowly, forcing the words through a thick fog of exhaustion as he struggled to come alert, to face whatever new crisis now confronted their world.
Pascal stepped forward, concern etched in his features. "That's what we want to know, Father. A rumor has started that . . ." He faltered. ". . . that Catherine is dead. Do you know anything about it?"
Father limped over to his desk, sank heavily into the padded chair. His face was deeply lined and gray with fatigue.
He looks old! Pascal thought, stunned.
Father surveyed the assembly a moment in silence before answering, heavily, "The rumor . . . is true. Catherine is dead." A smothered cry came from Jamie; she raised trembling hands up to her mouth. Mouse's head began a slow movement from side to side, denying his words, staring at Father with wide, horrified eyes.
"How, Father?" Mary asked, her eyes filling with tears. She clutched her wool shawl tightly around her, as if needing the tangible comfort of its warmth. "How did it happen?"
Father sighed, rested his head on his hand. "I don't know the details. Vincent - " he closed his eyes briefly, " - Vincent wasn't able to tell me much. All I know is that he found Catherine last night, only moments before she died - and that she was murdered."
Stricken silence filled the room. Many of the women were crying openly; a few men also had tears in their eyes. All were shocked speechless by this unthinkable tragedy. Jamie buried her head on Rebecca's shoulder, shaking with silent sobs. The older woman put comforting arms around the weeping girl, her eyes also dim with tears.
"How is Vincent?" This from Pascal. Father met his sober, worried gaze and shook his head slowly in eloquent reply. "Pascal, please put the word out to our Helpers and ask them to relay immediately any information as it becomes available. Perhaps later today we will learn some answers to our questions."
Father, with some effort, got into a standing position and leaned against his desk. "And now, dear friends, I must ask you to leave. I find that I am very tired; I must rest awhile."
Slowly the room emptied and Father was left alone. Moving over to the bed, he sat down on the soft mattress. Tears ran unchecked down his cheeks, while Vincent's image rose in his mind: Vincent, as he had left him only minutes before, weeping, and broken in mind and spirit as Father had never before seen him.
Catherine. That brave, bright child. May the good Lord show me how to help Vincent in these dark hours, for I truly fear we are on the verge of losing him also.