Originally printed in the1993 Great Expectations Conzine.
Tilting his head back and inhaling ravenously, he pulled a draft of the chill night air deeply into his lungs. Exhaling the breath slowly, knowing eyes pierced the gloom, scanning the incline to his left. Then, a growl of indecision rose in Vincent’s throat. Though all appeared well, he was still apprehensive. Tonight, the world in which he would always feel like an intruder appeared to be overly serene. Even the usually tumultuous din on the streets of Manhattan seemed muffled, hollow somehow, like the rushing noises one heard after a lengthy swim left your ears blocked with irritating wetness. To him the hush was unnerving. This night everything must be secure. There was no room for even the slightest error in judgment, not up here, and especially not tonight.
Resurrecting the memory of Professor Hughes, and of their conflict here, in almost this very spot, Vincent narrowed his eyes and shifted his focus. Redoubling his efforts and barely breathing, he leaned forward, straining to clarify each fragment of sound. Tilting his head to the left, he listened to the mournful entreaty of an owl in the distance as it called out, perhaps to its mate. Or was it singing an ode to aloneness? That was a song he knew quite well.
Momentarily losing himself in the plaintive cries, an unsettling tremor tore through his body. For all his vigilance, someone could still be lurking undetected just at the edge of the darkness. Someone with a club or a gun could be behind any of the nearby trees, or hiding in the brush, waiting for just the right moment, for that fraction of a second it would take to catch him off guard and attack, or perhaps even kill him. Yet, knowing that such a possibility existed didn’t stop him from coming above night after night, year after year. He refused to be denied this one brief moment of utter freedom.
Even so, it had been on a night much like this one that he had been captured, caged, scrutinized and…shamed. One such occurrence had been more than sufficient.
Treading warily, Vincent moved beyond the clearing and disappeared into the midst of a cluster of trees. Blending into the darkness there, he became one with it, part of it. Effortlessly pushing through a thicket of twisted shrubbery, he glanced up into the branches of a lofty, ancient-looking oak. Leaning back against the tree, he gazed out over the park, regarding what he considered at this hour to be his domain. As he shifted his body into a slightly more comfortable position, an enigmatic scowl altered the composure of what society would have deemed to be a satanic face. He had a decision to make, and it must be made quite soon.
Dear God, this silence! As improbable as it was, he could hear almost nothing except the rapid cadence of his own heart. Curious sensation, that.
When the thick cloud-cover overhead shifted slightly and then parted, the night-sky came alive with an abundance of stars. Then, a pale winter moon seemed to peek cautiously out from in-between the wisps of frosty white. Skimming over the tops of the trees and elongating Vincent’s shadow, it enfolded him in shimmers of gentle radiance. Glancing up, he smiled, greeting the moon like the old friend that it was. Indeed, when he was younger it had been one of his few trusted confidants; one that would never reveal his secrets. He and that glistening orb had shared much over a span of years, some somber remembrances, and some events that had seemed almost enchanted. And one night had been quite different from the rest, truly magical, glorious. On that most wondrous of nights he had found…
Pulling back from the memory, Vincent contemplated his life for a moment, which seemed to evolve much as the seasons did, ebbing, shifting, and flowing ever onward. He’d witnessed so many years come and go from within the confines of these few acres. With its ever-changing smells and imagery, Central Park held a distinct place in his heart, and in his recollections.
In the Spring, on forays above he’d listened to the murmuring of lovers as they strolled the walkway around the pond on warm scented evenings. Tonight, perhaps due to the lateness of the hour and the nip in the air, there was no one about. No one but him.
Summer brought forth the homeless, those considered by many to be the dregs of humanity. How many nights, he wondered, had he listened with an understanding heart to the inebriated mutterings of those on the park benches, ‘sleeping it off’, as the expression went? Too many to count. Silhouetted against the hazy moon, those benches stood barren now, unclaimed. Shuddering as a chill wind whispered through the leaves over his head, Vincent burrowed down further into the warm recesses of his cloak. It was as though someone, or something, had imprisoned the entire city in a veil of hushed expectancy.
Inhaling and then releasing the breath roughly, he lifted himself away from the tree. Praying that he would not regret what he was about to do, he looked over at the culvert, his eyes probing the indistinct shapes there, outlines he knew better than others knew the palms of their own hands. Ah yes, there he was, waiting just at the edge of the clearing, as he had been told to. Perceiving someone only he could detect, loving eyes swept over a barely visible outline as Vincent smiled, displaying a flash of sharp white teeth.
Scanning the ground, he reached down, selected a small stone, and then pitched it toward the ravine, signaling to the one who waited there. When a small form immediately leapt into full view, a sudden urge to guide his son’s footsteps nearly overwhelmed him. Tensing stiffly and curling his nails into the palms of his hands, Vincent forced himself to remain exactly where he was. No, he mustn’t go to him. This was Jacob’s first time in the park at night. He would want to close the distance separating them on his own, to demonstrate that he could do this without anyone’s assistance.
As his child had so energetically explained to him only yesterday, he was ‘big’ now. And like all ‘big’ boys, he had their boundless curiosity, as well as a need to emulate his friends. They often spoke of the park, and of the good times to be had up there. Jacob, of course, had expressed a yearning to see this glorious site for himself. He also wanted to see the places that his father explored on his treks above; to walk those paths with him, as he put it, ‘like the other guys.’ ‘After all’, the child had reminded him, ‘a promise was a promise, and it was his birthday present; the only one he’d asked for.’
Remembering the eagerness in Jacob’s eyes as he waited to see if his request would be granted, Vincent smiled wistfully. Yes, his son was a ‘big boy’ now. Why, he was all of six.
Watching as his small son started across the clearing, every muscle in Vincent’s body stiffened as he stumbled and then fell to his knees. Instinctively jerking forward, he halted mid-step as the boy righted himself. Mumbling something under his breath, the child brushed off his trousers and then sprinted toward the protection of the trees.
Running feet scrunched noisily through the fallen leaves. “I thought you forgot about me, Papa!”
Clasping Jacob’s hand, Vincent squeezed it gently, his tone of voice reassuring, “Forget you? Oh, I would never do that.”
“Well, it sure was a long wait,” the boy observed, eyeing him. “I thought you were never gonna give me the signal.”
Although he tried very hard to conceal it, Vincent noted that Jacob winced as he bent his right knee. For the moment he allowed the obvious subterfuge to pass. “You did very well indeed by responding so promptly.”
The child beamed at such words of praise from someone he absolutely idolized. “It was really dark there, Papa, but I wasn’t scared even a little bit.”
“Yes, I know,” Vincent replied, smiling. “ You are very brave.”
“I was, wasn’t I?” Hurling himself full force into his father’s arms and burrowing against him, he hugged Vincent tightly around the waist, forcing out the breath he hadn’t realized he was still holding. “I…I fell down, you know, just like a…a baby! Boy, that was dumb!” Jacob sneered, disgusted with himself.
“Oh, you fell?”
He glanced up hopefully. “Didn’t you see me?”
Noting his tone of self-reproach, Vincent’s expression was one of utter innocence. “Actually, I cannot remember exactly what I saw.” Focusing worried parental eyes on the child’s lower body, he gestured to his knee. “Are you all right?”
Jacob looked slightly indignant. “Papa, I only fell down, that’s all. A’ course I’m all right. It’s just these dumb old laces…” Lifting his left foot, he wriggled it back and forth, pouting as the laces on his sneakers flip-flopped from side to side. “See? No matter what I do they just won’t stay tied!” Not losing track of the primary topic of conversation, he shot his father a look of total exasperation. “I was in that old ditch for a year waiting for you to signal me. A whole year!”
Patient eyes locked to challenging ones as parent and child stared at each other. At the look of annoyance Jacob nailed him with, Vincent barely managed to conceal a smile. To a child of six any time spent having to wait quietly for just about anything must have seemed interminable.
Kneeling down to retie his son’s sneakers for what had to be the umpteenth time today, he nodded, accepting the chastisement. “It must have seemed like a very long time, yet it was only a matter of fifteen minutes, I assure you.”
“Fifteen minutes,” Jacob echoed, his meaning quite clear. I won’t push my luck, but I still think it was a year, no matter what you say.
Feeling it would prove safer to change the subject, Vincent peered up at the sky. “The stars are beautiful tonight, aren’t they?”
Eyeing them, Jacob gasped aloud, awed by their brilliance. Stars sure didn’t look like this in books! Pointing upwards, he exclaimed, “Papa, look how big the moon is!”
“Jacob.” Although the word was gently spoken, the message was explicit.
Wide-eyed, the boy clamped both of his hands over his mouth. Suddenly remembering the rules that must be obeyed when he was above with his father, he gave him an apologetic look and lowered his voice, whispering conspiratorially, “Well we’re here, so what are we gonna do now?”
Furrowing his brow, Vincent tried to think of a game a six-year-old would enjoy; one that could be played safely up here in the time left to them.
When his father didn’t respond quickly enough, Jacob tugged impatiently on the sleeve of his cloak. “Papa?”
“Forgive me, I was wool-gathering.”
The boy glanced around dubiously. There were sheep in Central Park? Ohh… Nodding in sudden understanding, he observed, “Oh, yeah. ‘Wool-gathering’. That’s an idiot, right?”
“Mmfff…!” Tensing his stomach against the roar of amusement threatening to burst forth, Vincent shook his head from side to side, emphasizing the ending syllables, “Not an idiot, an idiom. But I’m very pleased that you were on the right track.”
Jacob proudly drew himself up to his full forty odd inches. Well, at least he’d been close. Hopping impatiently from one foot to the other, he repeated, “So, what are we gonna do now?”
Vincent shrugged noncommittally. “As it is your birthday, I shall abide by your decision…within reason. What would you like to do?”
Trying to decide, Jacob eyed the playground to his right. Nah, too dark. Besides, his friends weren’t there. He wondered if Papa like swings? Hm, the swings… Nah, he could do that in Mouse’s chamber. He had some way cool stuff in there! Peering up into the branches of the tree that shielded them, he pursed his lips, frowning, looking so much like his mother that Vincent’s heart constricted.
Reliving a time which had nearly shattered his soul, he was ripped wide open again as her son announced eagerly, “I’d like to climb this old tree, that’s what I’d like to do!” That said, he reached for the lowest branch. “I bet you can touch Heaven from way up there. Heaven must be a really beautiful place, huh?”
Keeping his face composed only by sheer strength of will, Vincent looked up. “Quite beautiful, I would imagine. Perhaps you truly can touch Heaven, from up there.” Turning slightly to the left, he kept both his expression and his tears hidden from view, and his thoughts to himself. ‘I have seen Heaven, son. All of it lay open to me for the taking, captured in your mother’s eyes. One day, through the eyes of the woman you love, one who returns your affection full measure and more, I hope you have the good fortune to experience such as wonder, and name it…Heaven.’
He was brought back to the present by a small foot edging into the palm of his hand. “Boost me up, okay?” Jacob whispered impatiently. “I choosed, and now I wanna find out how high I can climb.”
With his heart in his mouth and all of his misgivings reflected in his eyes, Vincent helped his son into the tree, and then watched as his diminishing form climbed higher and higher, further and faster away from the safety of his arms.
Choices. Decisions. Such terrifying words, if one truly thought about their meanings. Correct decisions could mean life itself, while inaccurate ones…
Swallowing the rancor that rose in his throat, Vincent wondered how one determined if the choices and decisions people made in their lives were the correct ones? This night, his decision had been the only one he could make, as far as Jacob was concerned, and at this moment that choice was profoundly disquieting.
For his sixth birthday, Jacob had pleaded to be allowed above at night, as he himself had pleaded with Father at that very same age. But when he’d begged for the opportunity to see the world he yearned for so badly, Father had said no. The memory of that word, the finality of ‘no’, altered his own initial response of denial to his child to one of consent. Looking into the eyes of his son and seeing the hope reflected there, he simply wasn’t able to bring himself to say no. A heart, especially that of a child, could be so easily broken by a single word spoken in haste; so easily torn asunder. This is knew.
Realizing, of course, that he must permit Jacob certain freedoms for spiritual growth, and that he would have to find his way in not one world, but two, troubled Vincent greatly. What if his child chose a path one day that led away from…him?
As he peered up at the tree, knowing within his heart that he had made the correct decision tonight was of no comfort. Jacob was so little, and like most children, he wasn’t very well coordinated at times. He could get caught in the branches up there and injure himself. Some could be too thin to support even his slight weight. Suddenly, the expression on Vincent’s face was one of utter panic. Dear God, what if he fell!
Shaking off his anxiety, and never losing sight of Jacob’s progress, one parent’s heart called out to another’s; to a man who also had a child who had wanted to climb trees. Running a trembling hand across his brow, Vincent implored silently, ‘How did you endure this, Charles Chandler? How did you abide such feelings of utter dread without crying out? Were you as anguished then, when Catherine climbed beyond your reach, as I am now, as my child rises beyond mine?’
“Papa,” a breathless whisper wafted down, “Look how high I am now!” From ten feet up, Jacob waved victoriously.
As he waved back, tears stung Vincent’s eyes. The boy seemed even smaller from this angle, so alone, so isolated. To feel all alone was a dreadful experience. This he knew all too well. Centering his focus on Jacob as he began his descent, he wanted desperately to cry out, Don’t fall! But he didn’t. He couldn’t. His throat was too choked with emotion to form the words.
With his entire being riveted on his son and the tree, Vincent wasn’t alert to another presence until a hand with slender fingers reached out to clasp his arm.
“Hi. How’s it going?”
Crouching slightly and whirling around to face the unexpected intruder, Vincent snarled, the sound thunderous, and then clutched his chest as his eyes met those of a woman. Falling back against the tree, he gasped, “Dear merciful God, you frightened me nearly to death!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. I wanted some fresh air and decided that now would be the perfect time to join the men in my life. I’m glad we discussed Jacob’s birthday venture. It made finding you a lot easier.” Smiling, Catherine reached out and curled her fingers through his. “So, it seems our son is also a climber, huh?” Tilting her head back, she peered upward, but as the moon drifted back behind the clouds, she was unable to distinguish anything but vague outlines and shadows. “How’s he doing up there?”
“Oh, Jacob will be fine.” With the fingers of his left hand still clutching the center of his chest, Vincent’s words tumbled out all over each other. “It’s I who may succumb at any moment from utter panic.”
“Why?” she asked, laughing softly. “Oh, Vincent, it’s not really such a big tree. You mustn’t worry. I climbed much bigger ones than that at his age.”
“Yes, I recall our conversation about that the night you finally cajoled me into climbing one with you.” Crystal blue eyes nailed hers. “I nearly fell that night.”
“I… remember.” Biting her lower lip and keeping her eyes focused on the ground, the woman he adored fought to stifle her laughter, and failed.
“I know that you remember.” Her bond-mate eyed her silently for a moment longer, then he reached out to pat her rather bulging tummy, teasing, “Is the impending birth of our second child the only thing preventing you from joining our eldest….” Hesitating, he afforded the tree a scowl of consummate displeasure, “up…there?”
Appraising the tree again, Catherine hunched her shoulders. “My ‘condition’, as Father so delicately phrases it, isn’t the only thing that stops me. I guess I’m just not as daring as I used to be.”
Once assured that Jacob was safely nearing the ground, Vincent wrapped both of his arms around Catherine and eased her backward, into the folds of his cloak. “Oh, I must contradict that statement.”
Half-turning, she tugged on a length of his hair and afforded him a look of mock indignation. “Oh you must, must you?”
“Most definitely.” Slowly turning her in his arms until they were face-to-face, Vincent’s eyes glittered almost silver in the moonlight as they claimed hers. Gliding the pad of his left forefinger gently over her mouth, he murmured, “You, my dearest Love, are utterly fearless.”
The look in his eyes was so openly hungry it seemed to edge along Catherine’s spine until it made her knees knock together. “Am I?” she whispered, easing strands of long, reddish-gold hair back into the confines of his hood.
“Utterly,” he repeated. “You are the bravest person I have ever met, or ever shall meet.”
A rustling sound from directly above them checked their conversation for the time being. “Hi, Mama!”
“Hi, imp.” Catherine smiled at her beloved son. ”Are you ready to come down now, Jacob? It’s getting very late.”
“Yeah, I guess so. But I wanna jump. Papa, catch me?”
Stretching his arms wide, Vincent caught the boy and set him to his feet, smiling as he took hold of Catherine’s hand and his and began swinging between them. Feeling at ease for the first time since entering the park, he led his family toward the culvert, and home. Watching their son as he ran ahead of them into the culvert, he remarked, “You really don’t believe how truly brave you are, do you, my Catherine?”
“I’m not brave at all, you know. I just put on a good act,” she retorted, winking at him.
“An act? No, I don’t think so,” Vincent disagreed lovingly. “No one can feign such courage; it must be a part of you.” Smiling at her, he continued, “It is a part of you, Beloved, and it always will be. How well I remember some of the decisions that you made years ago. I know some of them were quite difficult. But then, most of your choices have been complex ones.”
“Oh?” Catherine eyed him. “Which ones, for instance?”
“Returning Joe Maxwell’s book to him at my request, trusting in me completely, took exceptional courage on your part. To allow my misgivings to guide you, when I had no facts to base them on, was not a judgment you made easily.” His eyes locked to hers. “Was it?”
“No, it wasn’t,” she admitted, her expression somber. “But when I thought of what happened the night I wouldn’t listen to you and went to Stephen Bass, it became much easier to accept your insights without questioning them. My love, with all that’s happened in the last years I’ll never disregard your instincts again, believe me.” Stopping, Catherine peered up at him, knowing that she could easily get lost in his eyes forever. Placing both hands on his wide shoulders, she studied him resolutely. “Some decisions I made were for the best.”
“Three certainly were,” Vincent replied huskily. “Guiding me to trust in my heart instead of in my fears was a gift that I shall ever be grateful for, Catherine.”
“That’s one. What were the other choices I made that led you to think I’m fearless?”
Vincent’s tone of voice was so shy, so vulnerable, even now. “One act led to…the other. At a time when I was close to death, in choosing to save me you gave me back not only my life, but a child as well. Our son. My son.” Resting his mouth lightly on hers, he nuzzled gently back and forth. “For the miracle of him, I have no words to thank you. As for your third decision, you made that one long ago, almost nine years ago…”
“Nine years ago?”
“Yes.” The remainder of the words were breathed into Catherine’s mouth as Vincent leaned forward to kiss her with all of the yearning of a man in love for the only time in his life. “When you chose to share your life, your heart, and your love with…me.”
And in an extraordinary world below the city of Manhattan, the dream continues – always.