In Need of a Hug

Midnight Rose 1994

Winterfest Online Contest 2004

Untouched by the oppressive heat of August, deep in the cool earth, a tiny hidden community flourishes. Tonight, they pass the evening listening to a narration of a classic tale of lovers. The candlelit chamber of the Library was filled with almost every underground resident. They sat on chairs, stools and crates, on the floor and spiral staircase, leaned against furniture and tables, hung off the balcony, and settled on any other surface that made a suitable place to sit or lean.

The Tunnel’s patriarch, affectionately called Father by everyone, sat in their midst, his reading-glasses balanced on the end of his nose. His deep, Shakespearean voice was well suited for the reading of Romeo and Juliet.

Returning late from an excavation site and then waiting for an empty bathing chamber, Vincent stood in the lower doorway of the vaulted room to listen to "The scene on the balcony." The expression of love’s joy, love’s sorrow, and love’s hope; so beautiful and bittersweet, always moved him. The impact of emotion never diminished no matter how many times he heard the tale or read it himself. Vincent’s blue eyes scanned the people crammed into the book-cluttered room, his shadowed gaze beneath a deep topaz brow lingered fondly upon the numerous pairs of sweethearts. They sat content in each other’s presence and touch; an arm laid across the shoulder; a lazy caress of a back; the entwined knot of fingers; an encircling embrace. As for the children, some were sitting in the lap of a parent or adult while others were on the floor leaning against a friendly set of legs.

For a moment, Vincent envied the physical loving contact between families and lovers. He yearned for the days of childhood when he had been small enough to climb into a lap or prompt a hug by a simple request. He missed the casual affection---longed for it. He dipped his head, hiding the brief pain that crossed his leonine features behind the curtain of his golden mane.

He should not think such thoughts. What was there really to long for or envy? He was loved. The children, friends…Catherine…often hugged him; his peers gave him an occasional pat on the back. Father would often pull him close, hold his head between his gloved hands, and kiss his brow. These physical expressions of affection should be enough. Yet, there was something else that he longed for but dare not acknowledge. Casual affection was not the answer...or sufficient to fill the void in his soul.

As these thoughts spiraled through him the reading of the passage concluded and Vincent moved on, leaving the family gathering behind. He was restless, discontent. He had reached a point in his introspection, a very personal point, which left him unsettled in his resolve. Should his relationship with Catherine move forward—could it? She had become bolder in her touches during the long weeks of his recovery. He looked forward to their frequent visits and savored each brief loving contact she offered. He found himself almost dying from anticipation for an absent-minded touch, a comforting caress, a lingering hug, or a comfortable embrace. Then there was her sweet kiss against his velvet cheek that Catherine would give him before their time together would end. A kiss so sweet and innocent, but with a strong undercurrent of passion. How he lived for these moments. How he dreaded these moments. How he longed for the next moment.

Father’s lifelong warnings were beginning to ring hollow in his ears, yet he still heeded those whispering voices. Catherine’s more romantic thoughts and actions left him uneasy, yet hungry for what they promised; promises of a closeness that could never be between them. There were too many dangers to risk ruining what they could share. Vincent had not told Catherine how much her desires really affected him or of the unhappiness they caused. He was ashamed of having the same wants and desires as Catherine; they plagued his dreams. He tried to distance his mind, detach himself, as was his lifelong habit, but the whispers of her passion were become too hard to resist.

"Vincent." It was Mary’s voice that broke him from his troubled thoughts. He turned as she met up with him in the narrow tunnel.

Mary was the self-proclaimed surrogate mother to every tunnel child, young and old. Vincent was twelve when the saintly lady came to the tunnels and immediately took charge of the orphans and abandoned ones. Her auburn hair was turning gray and her weathered face was beginning to show her age but Mary was no less radiant and beautiful. She had a generous, warm heart and her sweet smile was timeless.

The maternal woman opened her arms wide beckoning a hug as she stepped up to the leonine man standing head and shoulders over her. Mary stood on tiptoe as the golden man stooped to allow her to wrap her thin arms around his lofty neck. Her hug was fierce.

After a moment, Vincent pulled her back to arm’s length, his sapphire eyes silently inquiring about the reason for the impulsive action.

"You looked like someone in desperate need of a hug," Mary smiled sweetly. "I’ve seen that look of longing on many a child’s face."

Vincent cocked his elegant golden head. A shy smile touched the corner of his unique mouth. "I am hardly a child," he said in his soft, gravel voice.

"Oh, we never outgrow affection," Mary returned. She sighed and her expression became reflective, as if remembering years past. "Though it seems to come less and less frequently the older we get…I wonder why it is so?"

"Yes." Vincent agreed, his sculptured features warming at Mary’s spoken truth.

The tunnel elder went on. "It feels so good when a child comes to me for a hug. It is like a reward…making me feel warm and wonderful inside."

"Ah...the days of childhood," Vincent sighed. "Curling up in a lap…The passing tousle of one’s hair…Hugging a pair of legs…" He chuckled, the rumble deep in his barrel chest.

Mary laughed as she made herself comfortable on Vincent’s elbow as his walk resumed.

"Sometimes, even the affection of a child or friend is not enough," Mary remarked quietly.

Vincent was silent, listening.

"There is an affection that can only be given by someone truly special; an intimate closeness that only they can give and satisfy you." Mary spoke as if remembering another place and time; memories of a long, lost love. "I miss that love…that physical closeness most of all."

"What do you do when you cannot…have it?" Vincent asked. Father had reminded him over and over that there was no place in his life for intimacy. A physical union was not his to embrace because of what he was and the danger his differences and primal passions could unleash. He was told to never want physical closeness, never seek it out, and somehow that yearning would go away or cease to exist at all. A teenage tragedy proved Father’s belief was right, but his relationship and bond with Catherine challenged Vincent’s resolve every day.

Mary was quiet for a moment. "I think we find and embrace our own substitute to fill the void. The children do this for me…I do not know what I would do without them."

Vincent had to agree. He often gave the children a hug if they initiated one, but he never offered it himself. He returned their hugs as a teacher and friend. The hugs from Catherine were stolen moments of bliss, but marred by his continuing inward battle for discipline and control. Even when he was so bold as to pull her close, his passions would threaten his offered comfort.

The gentle, burly man halted and turned the tunnel matriarch to face him. He looked deep into her soft brown eyes. "Is it ever…truly…enough?"

Mary looked down and away for a moment. Thoughtfully, she nodded her head. "Most of the time."

Her eyes raised and narrowed at the tall, golden young man. Her motherly instincts did not miss the angle of his question. "It is never enough to totally satisfy my heart---if that is what you want to know."

It was Vincent’s turn to look away like a child whose indiscretions had been discovered, hiding his features behind the curtain of his long red-gold flax. Unsatisfied…that described him too well.

Mary touched his arm lightly. "Vincent, doesn’t your relationship with Catherine give you what you seek? Doesn’t she satisfy your heart?"

The furrow of his bristled brow deepened as he raised his head, his blue eyes shifting to look over her shoulder, away and beyond the tunnels, focusing somewhere unseeing. "Catherine is my greatest joy…yet she brings me my greatest pain." He moved away from Mary, paced to the tunnel wall and put his back against it. The light of a nearby torch and the shadows accentuated the exotic panes of his animal-like features. "I can only safely offer her my friendship, a platonic relationship. I welcome her hugs…but… any other physical closeness is impossible for us because of who and what I am. She wants so much to give and I cannot…I do not dare accept it or give it in return. The dangers…" His voice trailed off as he shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of hopelessness.

Mary’s heart went out to this extraordinary leonine son of Jacob. The boy, now a man, so sensitive in nature and affectionate toward those who asked him to express his love, could not accept that same affection from someone waiting to give him the personal closeness he craved. He needed a lover’s tender, healing touch. How tragic that in the parental name of love Vincent had been taught that this basic human need was not for him to receive or even want. This selfish craving was a source of shame in him. Father’s hard-lined way of thinking had been so deeply ingrained into his son that it had survived the darkness that had consumed and changed this fragile soul.

"I hear Father talking." Mary said sadly.

Vincent bowed his head low and sighed. He let his distress show. "What am I to do?"

Mary stepped in front of him. Her fingers brushed back his heavy fall of golden mane, so that she could see his face. "Vincent," She said softly, "You must follow your own heart. You must not be afraid to ask for what you need so badly and be willing to receive it with open arms. Every person needs to be loved; everyone needs to be held…especially you. Don’t be ashamed to want it."

The deep-set eyes glittered in their shadow. He shook his head sadly. "I cannot."

Mary lightly gripped his arms. "What are you afraid of?" She asked him.

Vincent looked away and was silent so long Mary was sure he had reverted into his old habit of withdrawing from subjects he did not wish to discuss.

"I am afraid of myself." His voice faltered and became a hoarse whisper. "I am afraid of …losing myself…losing control…hurting her…losing her." There was such pain and turmoil in his eyes.

Mary smiled. "Oh, Vincent…You are not going to lose Catherine, especially after everything you have been through…Even I know that you could never hurt her."

"How can I be sure?" Vincent lamented.

"Because," Mary said, putting her hand on Vincent’s chin and lifting his eyes to meet hers. She looked straight into those baby blues she loved so much and declared, "Catherine came out of that dark cave without a scratch on her."

Vincent was silent, pondering this. When he was beyond control of himself, in the aftermath he would find Catherine there. She had faced the beast within him several times and each time she came away unharmed.

"Vincent, you need her," the tunnel mother continued gently. "You need what only Catherine can give you…her love…her touch…There is nothing to be afraid of. Go to her. Tell her what you have told me…Tell her you need her."

Mary watched hopefulness fade as the old fears reared their stubborn heads in the troubled blue orbs that met her sparkling smile. How Vincent wanted to believe her, how he tried.

He sadly shook his head. "It is…too risky," Vincent insisted. "It is impossible."

Mary nodded with love and understanding. Nothing she could say would be able to persuade him. Vincent had to discover the truth on his own. She knew nothing was impossible where Vincent and Catherine were concerned. Some things would just take more time. Mary could only hope that she had planted the seed of possibility within him.

Vincent looked like he needed another hug and Mary gave him one and whispered that she loved him.

"Catherine’s love alone is enough then…to satisfy your heart?" Mary asked as she released him and stepped back.

Vincent looked into Mary’s calm gaze, and sadly sighed, "It has to be…for me." Even as he said it, Vincent was no longer sure of his own declaration and without him being fully aware of it, within his heart, a small seed of hope took root.