"I hate you!"
Jacob's heart twisted in his chest, just as his patchwork blanket twisted around his midsection.
"I hate you! I will always hate you!" The young voice had risen. And even though it was beginning to deepen, it had cracked, that time, reminding Jacob that Vincent, for all his slender height, was still in puberty, when he’d screamed it.
Vincent. It was Vincent's voice, and they were both a good bit younger.
Jacob saw the dream image through his own eyes, but he knew he was standing near a stone wall, well back from how far the chains could reach.
How far the claws could reach.
The pointed nails shone, in the lamp light. The fingers were slightly curved, the arms were tensed and bent at the elbow, wrists held back by the manacles. Manacles which were clearly frustrating his son.
Father stayed right where he was. It was either that, or die. Jacob had no illusion about that.
Vincent was perhaps only fifteen, but they'd known the damage his claws could do, even when he was much younger. Devin's face had borne witness to that. Not to mention Lisa's back, more recently.
“Let me go! Now!” Vincent demanded, his young son’s image and demanding tone seeming very clear, in Jacob’s mind.
“No. I’m sorry, but no, Vincent.”
The young, leonine face changed, and the mobility of it was shocking for Jacob. Vincent took on a supplicant’s expression, and the adolescent voice took on a pleading tone. And an utterly false one.
“Please… Father. These chains.” He held them out. Iron rattled. “Just loosen them. A little compassion is all I’m asking you for.”
Jacob knew that they didn’t. And if they did, it was because Vincent was tugging against them, leaning his weight forward.
“Don’t pull on them.”
“They’re too tight. I beg you —“
“No. We will get you through this. I promise —“
Vincent’s face had changed instantly, from one of contrived pleading to one of absolute fury.
"You're old! Used up! And you're a useless failure! And when you're dead, I'll celebrate! Father!"
Vincent had all but spat the last word, and had leaned forward, straining against the manacles that held his wrists. Jacob watched the as-yet-undeveloped muscles in his shoulders and neck strain, before he gave up, and simply stood there, glaring. The chains rattled again as he dropped his arms, but his fangs were still showing, his teeth bared.
Then, after a moment, he gave that up, too. The hateful glare remained.
“We’re trying to help you, Vincent. We will help you,” Jacob recalled giving the promise, praying it was one he could keep.
Vincent’s warning had dripped venom. “One day, I won’t be in here. And I will remember,” Vincent had vowed. “Remember how you chained me. What you cost me. Remember… everything.”
The blue eyes were piercing. And becoming increasingly predatory.
Jacob remained where he was, on the far side of the room near the door. The days in the narrow cell were becoming increasingly hellish. Jacob remembered thinking it, even as he dreamed it.
“I… hate… you.” Vincent had spaced out the words, and continued to glare daggers.
"I will never hate you. Never, Vincent." Jacob remembered responding.
Sweat had matted his foster son's hair, and even dripped from his chin. His brow line had been dark with perspiration, and it made the crystal blue eyes seem impossibly brighter. Impossibly less… human.
‘The fever is spiking, again,’ the doctor in Jacob remembered thinking, as he dreamed it.
Jacob laid in his bed as he watched sweat bead his son’s upper lip. He knotted his sheets between arthritic fingers.
"You need water," Jacob had said, pushing forward a mug with his walking stick.
"Go to hell!" Vincent had screamed, knocking it away as soon as it was within kicking distance. The contents had spilled on the stone floor.
Vincent had been panting, open-mouthed, expelling water he hadn’t taken in, with his heavy breathing. His armpits were sweat-stained. His chest was, too.
There was nothing to be done for him. Not like this.
Jacob remembered turning from the scene. Remembered re-thinking the decision to restrain the only “son” he had left.
Not that it had been the wrong decision. Simply that they'd used the wrong restraints.
They'd need to strap him to a table, if he was going to survive. Give him an IV for fluids. Wait for sleep to claim him, so that he could take in some form of nourishment, through the needle.
Still in the throes of the dream that was actually a memory, Jacob plucked at the bed linens, remembering that as bad as the first days in the narrow cell had been, they’d been nothing, compared to this.
The nightmare continued.
Vincent remained standing, defiant to all offers of help, or aid. Such a contrast this was to even three days ago. Then, he had submitted meekly to the manacles, had put his own wrists in the restraints, having already felt the increasing loss of control.
He hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone.
Jacob had tried to reassure him that the sad, desperate measure would be a temporary one. He remembered a lick of fear, now. Was his son going to die in chains?
No. No, that mustn’t happen. It must not.
Jacob had harbored no fantasies that the wild creature in the narrow room would submit peacefully to any requests, now.
Father rubbed his bearded chin, in his dream. They would need to get Winslow. And probably Pascal the Elder to hold him. The pipemaster had large arms. And the young black man was already stocky, and muscular. They might also need Olivia’s father. Richard was tall, and though not necessarily powerful, he had a long reach.
It was going to be a difficult day. An ugly day. Make that “another ugly day.”
Jacob watched his dream self leave the confining room, hearing Vincent’s unholy snarl, as he departed.
“So… those are the pills Doctor Alcott sent down for my blood pressure?” William asked. Vincent wrote something on a chart, as Jacob pushed the bottle forward.
“Yes, and they’re new to you,” Jacob said, rubbing a worried-looking brow. He looked at the white-capped bottle again, knowing there was something else he was supposed to say.
“Make sure you tell me of any side effects,” Jacob instructed. “Dizziness, insomnia, ringing in your ears, that sort of thing,” he said, content he’d remembered what he was supposed to.
William nodded. “Same dose as the other ones? Twice a day?” He picked them up, and tucked them in his apron pocket.
“Yes. And take them with food, William.”
Vincent’s eyes shot up from the clipboard. That is wrong. It’s half the dose. It’s part of why Peter suggested --
William turned to go.
“William… I believe Father meant to say that only one pill would be required of these.” Vincent shot Father a glance. “And yes, do take them with food,” he added, covering for Jacob’s incorrect prescription.
William came back to the table and produced the pill bottle from his apron. He handed it back to Jacob, as if the gesture might help, somehow.
It was a manufacturer’s sample bottle, devoid of dosing instructions. That was a thing that would be done at a pharmacy. One this particular batch of medicine would never make it to, thanks to Peter Alcott.
William looked to Father, who immediately blushed. Of course William should take only one of these. They were time released, and would stay in his system all day. It was part of why Peter had recommended them.
That, and his old prescription was being taken off the market.
Jacob’s voice stumbled, as he corrected his error. “Uh, yes, William, excuse me. Vincent is right. Of course… Just take the uh… the one pill. And still… be sure to let me know of any… any side effects, all right?” Father stammered, recalling the directions Peter had given him barely an hour ago. He eyed the bottle again.
“Sure, Father. No problem,” William replied, taking back the medicine from Jacob’s outstretched hand.
William knew that Father was too fine a physician to make mistakes of that sort. Still, he supposed everyone was human.
William left, and Father leaned back heavily, in his chair.
“It has been a very long day,” Jacob sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He felt incredibly weary.
It’s been half of one, Vincent thought, aware of Jacob’s obvious fatigue.
Vincent set down the clipboard he’d been holding, and came over to his tired parent. He set a well-meaning hand on his Father’s shoulder.
“You seem tired. Are you all right?”
Jacob looked down at Vincent’s clawed hand on his shoulder, and for a moment, Vincent swore he felt Father wince, beneath his touch. Jacob seemed disturbed by something, then shrugged it away.
“I suppose I didn’t sleep well last night, now that you mention it.” He rose from the chair, and Vincent removed his hand as he watched Jacob steady himself, with his cane.
“Thank you for stepping in with William. I don’t like to think of what might have happened if you hadn’t,” Jacob said.
Vincent merely nodded, watching his father walk slowly across the room, seeming to need the support of his walking stick more than usual.
Vincent spoke up. “There is still work to do in the tunnels east of the hub. Cullen asked me to join him. There are things I should attend to. You’re sure you’re not ill?” Vincent asked, not liking the unusually slow progress of Jacob’s gait.
“No, no. I’m fine, Vincent,” Jacob waved him off. “Just… just a bit tired,” he admitted, leaning against the table a little, as he gathered the things that were to be put back into his medical bag. He carefully wrapped up some of the equipment he regularly used. The blood pressure cuff was a Vietnam War relic.
Vincent wondered what the old device would tell them both about Jacob’s current condition. There was a tight look around Father’s nose and mouth Vincent didn’t care for.
After a moment, Jacob seemed to straighten, and shake off some of his lassitude.
“I’ll be fine, Vincent. Go along. Really.”
Vincent nodded, keeping his discerning gaze on his father. He does look tired. And more. He looks… burdened by something, Vincent thought, deciding then and there to send a message to Peter Alcott.
Perhaps Father would tell Peter what he would not tell him. Or perhaps Peter, with his medical knowledge, could discern what was wrong. It wasn’t like Jacob to make mistakes. And he’d been making several of those, the last few days, though none as serious as giving an incorrect dosage of medicine to a patient.
Before, any minor missteps had seemed like fairly understandable mistakes in what was often a hectic day.
Now, Vincent wasn’t so sure.
“Rest,” Vincent urged. “I’ll tell Mary to bring you a tray. Check in on you after I return,” Vincent said, tugging on his cape.
Jacob continued to brush aside any concerns. “Don’t bother to look in. I’m all right,” he returned, putting away his stethoscope. “Not very attentive today, I grant you, but just fine. Thank you again, for stepping in with William,” he said, closing up his bag. “It’s fortunate that you were there when Peter gave me the pills.”
Yes. It was.
“Very well,” Vincent said, knowing he’d look in, anyway.
Mentally, Vincent calculated how long ago they’d buried Margaret. It was nearly two months, and for almost all of that, Jacob seemed fine. Quieter, at times, to be sure, and he’d mourned deeply, at first, though those days seemed fairly well behind them.
Still, a restless night’s sleep or two was bound to happen. Vincent acknowledged that mourning was more a process, than an event, and put Jacob’s restless night down to that.
“Too many memories?” Vincent asked gently.
Jacob set a roll of gauze on a shelf. “You could say that,” he answered, clearly not wanting to elaborate, as he turned his back.
Jacob moved away from the table to collect William’s chart, and put it where he kept those. As much as he could, Jacob liked the hospital chamber to function like a real hospital, with a place for everything, and everything in its place.
He was aware of Vincent’s eyes on him.
“I... um… I’ll just finish tidying up here. Then perhaps I’ll lie down, for a bit.”
Vincent was satisfied with that answer.
“As you wish. I made notes about Olivia’s anemia on her chart. Peter says he’ll send prenatal vitamins down for her.” Olivia was expecting her first child.
“That’s fine,” Jacob said, gathering up that chart, as well. He saw the note, in Vincent’s left handed scrawl. He settled the charts in the battered filing cabinet he kept for that purpose.
Vincent watched, as Jacob went about his routine. After a moment of seeing nothing amiss, Vincent went on about his day.
Longing for rest, Jacob returned to his chambers and tried to take a nap. It felt as if his eyes had barely closed, when the unpleasant dream came.
Jacob knew where he was, and he was not in the tunnels.
At least, not yet.
He was sitting in a shabby efficiency apartment, Margaret’s letter clutched in his hand.
How many times had he read it now? Five? Fifty?
How many times, vainly searching each line for some hint, some hope that they could be salvaged?
There was none.
He leaned back in the battered chair, knowing it was over. His license had been suspended. Make that his license to be a doctor as well as the one that indicated he was a husband, apparently.
His money was gone, his bank accounts frozen, and there was no more cash in his wallet for the rent-by-the-week disaster of an apartment he now found himself in.
He glanced to his left. There was a gas stove wedged in the corner of the tiny kitchen.
It was a sudden temptation. Loosen the hose, or just blow out the pilot lights, close the window, and it would be so easy…
‘No. Mustn’t do that. Mustn’t even think it.’ He clutched the letter in his hands, as he remembered saying it aloud, to the peeling wallpaper.
Jacob wept, as he considered suicide for the very first time in his life. He cried hard, crushing the envelope in his fist, holding the injurious letter in a tight grip, in his other hand. His tears smudged the ink, some. His breath hitched, and his chest heaved, as the sorrow in his heart threatened to utterly crush him. He wasn’t sure if he could breathe, any more. He wasn’t sure if he even wanted to.
After a while, the emotional storm spent itself, trailing away to a hiccupping series of sobs, which eventually yielded to damp-eyed resignation.
He looked around the shabby room, with its battered belongings, few of which were actually his.
Everything he owned in the world could now be fit inside a narrow valise. Everything.
Tomorrow, he would have to leave this ugly place. Perhaps he’d seek refuge in one of the shelters downtown. Or, fearing being recognized there, perhaps he’d just keep his hat low on his head and sit in the park, for a while. Maybe an answer would come. Maybe Margaret would change her mind, and miraculously find him. Maybe he’d go through with ending his life after all, and throw himself into the East River. He didn’t know. He had no clear idea.
And he wasn’t sure it even mattered if he did.
“The Wreck of my Memories…” Jacob moaned, both aloud and in the dream. Had there been a worse day than this, in his life? He wasn’t sure.
Then the image of the wretched room dissolved, and he remembered that there had been.
In an odd twinkling, the substandard apartment gave way to a substandard hospital room. Or at least, a very crude one. Stone walls replaced patched plaster. He was home. And he was pulling the sheet up over the face of his latest patient. There was blood, everywhere. And crying.
Mother of his child. His wailing child.
Her middle aged, sweat soaked face disappeared beneath the tattered sheet, as the blood from her labor stained its middle.
The “crying” sound wasn’t adult, but infant. It was her son. Their son. A son he would never claim.
Well. Almost never.
And as bad as Margaret’s shredding of his heart had been, this was somehow worse.
He’d had sympathy for the plain woman, and a certain fond regard, but he wasn’t sure how much compassion he’d shown her, not really. He hadn’t loved Grace. And he knew he should have. Or at least, he should have tried.
She knew it, too. In the end, she died bleeding and bereft. Unloved, by either her lover or her son. The former had had time enough to at least attempt something with her, but the latter hadn’t, and never would.
What a sorry epitaph, for her.
Someone was swaddling the infant, and for the life of him, in the dream, Jacob couldn’t remember who. In his dream state, that took on some importance, and he struggled with it, while he slept. Had it been Peter? Mary?
No. No, Mary hadn’t come Below, yet. That wouldn’t be for another year or two.
Not that Mary’s being there would have made any difference, for Grace. Grace’s blood pressure had gone wild, during the delivery, spiking on the one hand, and dropping to almost nothing, on the other. It happened, sometimes, during labor, and Grace wasn’t exactly a young woman. Her thirty five year old body had had no experience with this.
Jacob had promised to shepherd her through her labor.
It hadn’t been enough. He hadn’t been enough.
A hospital might have been able to save her. A syringe full of epinephrine might have done the trick. As it was…
Grace’s had stopped breathing almost the instant her son had started.
Devin continued to wail, and Jacob knew someone was swaddling him.
Not Mary, though.
Jacob’s dreaming mind was trying to pierce that minute detail, the dream making it feel crucial, as dreams were often wont to do.
Not Mary, holding the son he now didn’t have to confess was his, to anyone. Was it Peter then? Jacob looked over at the pinned up blanket that served as a wall, and couldn’t pierce it to know who was on the other side. There was no hint as to who was cradling his screaming, motherless son. Pascal? God forbid, was it John?
No. No, it was none of them, and for the life of him, Jacob couldn’t remember who it was who had assisted in the delivery of his only child, and watched the only woman who’d made him a real “father” die.
His son was crying.
And though Jacob knew that he should be, too, he felt too… inferior, for tears, the word feeling oddly chosen, even as it felt correct.
The child on the other side of the cloth was more than just his bastard son. He was why there would now be no clear way back to Margaret, no matter what.
Jacob had lived Below for two years. But he remembered that this, this was the moment that all hope for a reconciliation with his wife had abandoned him… and then, both tragically and miraculously, had been restored. It wasn’t the moment he’d lain with Grace, or even the moment he realized she was pregnant.
It was this one.
Margaret might have forgiven him, might have forgiven him anything, but this? Would she consent to raise another woman’s child? Would she be content to stare, day after day, at proof that he’d turned to someone else, after her abandonment of him?
No. No, she wouldn’t. Jacob knew she wouldn’t. And the part of him that thought he’d have to finally let her go once and for all realized he didn’t actually have to do that.
It was a selfish, ugly, self-serving thought, and though Jacob only had it for only a moment, he knew what a monster that made him. Knew that his enduring love for his faithless wife was part of why his heart had not been able to warm, to Grace.
And now, a child needed him. A child no one knew was his. Grace had been utterly close-mouthed, on the subject, for her own reasons.
Jacob damned himself as a father and as a man, and decided then and there to say nothing about Devin’s parentage, consoling himself with the understanding that he would be “Father” to the child, anyway. ‘Devin would fit in better that way,’ he told himself. It would be enough.
Except for the part of him that knew it was a rationalization, and a coward’s way out.
He’d done everything he could to save Grace. He knew that. His brow was sweat-soaked and his back was beyond sore, having assisted with her delivery and tried valiantly to save her. He knew he hadn’t planned this, and didn’t wish it for her. For them.
But since it had happened this way…
The oil in the lantern burned low, and sputtered. It had taken Grace a long time to deliver, and now the sparse light that lit the bare chamber was leaving them both in darkness. Jacob tried to turn up the wick, but it was no use. The oil was gone. Grace was gone. And Jacob was left with nothing but burdens, cares, and a lie of omission.
His son cried louder.
No. No, not ‘his’ son, Jacob amended mentally. The baby. The baby cried louder, as if sensing it had just been thoroughly abandoned.
Jacob wrestled himself awake, shaken to his core. He’d willed himself not to think of that distant day in such detail. It took him several long minutes to calm himself.
He glanced around to see that someone, probably Mary, had left a tray on his side table. A cooling bowl of soup and a pair of dinner rolls graced the wooden slab that had once been part of a kitchen cabinet door, now drilled with handles to make it easier to carry.
Jacob ignored the food, listening to the pipes for the time of evening. Sentry change. It was after seven.
Though Jacob had slept for four hours, he never felt less rested. Recalling the exact moment he’d decided to do wrong to Devin… he hadn’t thought of it in years.
He pretended to be asleep, when Vincent came in to check on him.
Then laid awake and stared into the cavernous ceiling of his chamber, long into the night.
“It’s been… very disturbing, Peter. I’m just not sleeping well. Bad dreams, I’m afraid,” Jacob explained to an eagle-eyed Peter Alcott, the next day.
“Bad dreams? That doesn’t sound like you, Jacob.”
“Yes. Yes, well, I’m afraid the last few nights, it has been. I even tried to take a nap, yesterday. It was quite the disaster.”
“Anything specific, in these dreams?” Peter asked, not liking the dark circles under Jacob’s eyes, or the way his coloring looked.
“Meaning are they recurring? No. Nothing like that. Just bad dreams. One after the other. Of Vincent, of Margaret, of Grace. Just… unpleasant memories. Some of my worst, I’m afraid.”
“Memories? You mean you’re re-living past events?” Peter asked cannily. That was different than conjuring phantasms, from the subconscious. “Do they differ from what actually happened?” he asked.
“Some, though they’re mostly very accurate. In the dream of Grace, I couldn’t remember who was standing nearby, in the delivery room. I know it wasn’t you. And I prayed it wasn’t John.”
Peter recalled the somber day that both blessed them all with Devin, but robbed them of Grace. “I was Above, delivering triplets that day. I’m so sorry, Jacob.”
It was an unnecessary apology. They all knew Grace’s unexpected passing was no one’s fault. Or at least, Jacob knew that when he was awake, and thinking clearly.
“I know you are, as am I,” Jacob said, sipping his tea. Chamomile. Like the doctor ordered. “Peter… who was there? Do you recall?”
Peter searched his memory. He remembered coming down after the birth, after word had reached him.
“I can’t be sure of course, but I think it was Anna Pater. At least, that’s who I remember handing Devin to me, to examine,” Peter recalled.
Anna. Yes. Dear Anna. Gentle, lovely Anna. That was it. Jacob felt much relieved to recall that a kind woman had shepherded his son’s birth.
“There are some pills I can give you to help you sleep better,” Peter offered, picking up Jacob’s wrist to take his pulse, without asking.
Jacob knew of the kind he meant. It was the type of medication that left you sluggish, and suppressed the appetite. “You know, I don’t think we’re there yet. I’d rather not,” Jacob said, allowing the examination without a fuss.
Peter nodded. His friend’s pulse was a bit high, and just a touch erratic, as would be expected of anyone under prolonged stress.
“Very well. Stick to chamomile and stay away from chocolate, Earl Grey tea, or anything else containing caffeine.”
“Yes, Doctor,” Jacob replied dutifully.
“And if this continues, I want you to send word to me. I don’t like your color, Jacob. You’re looking pale. Even for someone who doesn’t get out in the sun.”
Father knew he was right. And that Peter’s prescription was no different than he would give, if their situations were reversed. Jacob sipped from his cup, and wondered.
Mercifully, the next day was one where Jacob’s duties seemed lighter. William seemed to be tolerating the new medication well, though it was likely too early to say that, for certain. Olivia had more energy. The arthritis in Mary’s fingers wasn’t bothering her too badly. Sam Denton had enough pills to see him through to the end of next week, and Peter would have a fresh bottle for him in a few days. A round of runny noses had passed from child to child, but that seemed all but through.
Jacob knew he could stay in his chambers. He could read, or receive visitors, and not strain himself, overmuch.
Vincent stopped in before heading off with some of the other men.
“Still working in the Eastern Tunnels?” Jacob asked, noting the canvas bag of heavy equipment at his son’s feet.
“Yes, still. There is much work to do, there.” Vincent confirmed, looking over Jacob without trying to seem too obvious about it. Father’s eyes were deeply shadowed. At least as bad as yesterday. Maybe. It was difficult to tell, by candlelight.
“Do you need anything, before I go?” Vincent asked.
Jacob shook his head and adjusted his spectacles. “I’ve the sentry roster to make out, and some inventory to do, in the hospital chamber. Nothing overly taxing. Enjoy your day.”
Vincent hefted a heavy lug wrench. “As much as tightening down loose bolts on leaking pipes will let me. You’re feeling better?” He knew Peter had come down.
Jacob nodded at that, even though it wasn’t true. “He told me I’m to avoid Earl Grey and opt for chamomile. Among other things.”
Content that the situation was in capable hands, Vincent picked up his bag of tools and left to join the rest of the work detail. His booted footfalls joined those of others, as they moved down the passageway.
Jacob heard them all go, relieved for the peace of the now-solitary room.
“No. No, I’m not feeling better,” Jacob whispered to no one, as soon as he was absolutely certain that even Vincent’s sensitive ears couldn’t pick up the sound.
Last night, mixed with dreams of days in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he’d recalled the brawl that restraining Vincent onto a makeshift gurney had entailed. How Vincent had screamed, and fought. And ultimately… lost. How his proud, bright, vigorous son had been reduced to a whimpering, weeping, fever-ridden shadow of his former self. For days. Longer.
How he’d come out on the other side of that. Quieter. More reserved. More accepting of Jacob, and Jacob’s judgment, at least for a time. How the second half of his adolescence was markedly different from the first. He was more thoughtful, the scholar in him seeming to not be able to get enough of books, but also… not wanting much else, besides them. He’d kept to his chambers, or to Jacob’s. He’d stopped swimming with the other boys, stopped… dreaming, as much.
But for books, his appetite was now unparalleled. Philosophy, Shakespeare, languages… It was as if he’d finally found a way to have the things he knew he was never going to have… as long as he kept all of those on a printed page, attached with a binding.
Jacob rubbed his hands together for warmth, remembering the bad old days of Vincent’s captivity, remembering reading to his son both while he hissed and raged, and then still reading to him after he gave up the fight, and grew terribly, almost frighteningly quiet.
There were days when Jacob wasn’t even sure Vincent heard him, except that sometimes, just now and then, there would be a stray question, here and there, hours, or even days apart. A “Why did he say that?” or “What does ‘farthingale’ mean?” Something. Something so that Jacob knew he was actually listening.
When they were done, when the fever was finally nonexistent and the violent outbreaks seemed a thing of the past, it was Jacob, not Vincent, who dared to ask if his son might like the restraints removed. Jacob recalled the poignant moment.
Vincent, propped up even as he was still strapped at the legs and wrists, looked as if he’d simply stay there forever, accepting this new, strange fate. One where Jacob read to him and Pascal senior spoon-fed him, and Richard helped take care of his bathroom business.
“Vincent… do you think it would be all right if I loosened the restraints, now?” Jacob had asked, closing the cover on Ivanhoe. They still had two chapters to go.
Vincent’s calm blue eyes had darted a little, left and right, as if he were checking for something. Checking to see if he had hold of the beast that had raged within him.
“Yes,” he’d answered simply. “Yes, Father. It would be all right.”
So Jacob had unfastened the belts and straps that had held his teenage son down.
“Will you read to me, later?” he’d asked. “Finish the rest of the story?” The young voice was definitely changing. Deepening. Though it was a subtle shift in Vincent’s adolescent register, it was there. Jacob thought he detected the ghost of an outline of golden beard, on his foundling son’s cheek.
“Yes. Yes, of course I will. Why don’t we get you cleaned up and changed, and then we’ll sit in my chambers? And we’ll read some more. Would you like that?”
The blue eyes looked at the cover of the book, and not at Jacob.
“Yes. Yes, Father. I would like that. Very much.”
And they’d never spoken of that dark time, again.
Jacob rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, wondering why any of it seemed like it mattered, now.
He rose and picked up his cane. The place he now had the urge to visit was one he hadn’t been to in a very, very long time.
The Eastern Tunnels. It was as much a place name as a direction, like the Abyss or The Great Hall.
Jacob rarely came here, there being nothing much he wanted to see. Thanks to their proximity to the East River, the eastern passageways were the least habitable section of his home.
While some chambers here were comparatively dry, many of the walls were algae covered and damp, as moisture seeped through the rock. Though pipes ran along the passageways, they were prone to leakage as the naturally damper atmosphere promoted rust and weathering. Larger, older sections of pipe were problematic, since their size meant they carried more weight, a thing which also led to frequent repairs.
False walls and diverted passages that led into dead ends kept city work crews away from the area, a thing everyone agreed was necessary, to maintain tunnel security.
Jacob knew that Vincent and the others were busy stabilizing an older section of pipe, well past East Harlem. They were making sure the rivets were tight, that the bands that held it to the wall were secure. They were a good bit farther past the hub than he intended on going.
Father made his way down the same passageway Vincent and the other men had used, just an hour before. But Jacob veered to the left, while he knew his friends and family had stuck to the main path.
Jacob knew that if he went too far along the downward-sloping area he now tapped through, he’d run past the perimeter, and into the no-man’s-land full of nesting bats, deep puddles, and on at least two occasions, John Pater. Jacob was aware that from time to time, the alchemist had been observed on the edges of where they all lived, though it had been years, for that.
Closer to the hub, the land was more stable, though still uneven. The granite bedrock rose higher before it fell, and the rooms were dry, though they were often narrow, and small.
Small enough to frame a door up, and seal it with a lock and key.
No, John wasn’t here. Not now. But he had been, years ago.
Jacob made his way to the one place the Below world had, that he hated to claim. It was a jail cell. There was no use saying it wasn’t.
Rust had stiffened the hinges, but the heavy wooden door still swung in when Jacob put a tired shoulder to it.
It was an austere place.
A rectangular slab bolted to the wall served as a bed. An iron ring on the floor was the only hint that a length of chain could be run through it, and be used to secure a set of leg irons, and manacles.
The chains were gone now. But they had been here.
Jacob remembered the day he’d so recently dreamed of, the day Vincent had run against them, and pulled them to their end, trying to break free, trying to inflict damage, with his claws.
The room’s only other occupant had done no such thing.
Wearily, Jacob leaned on his walking stick, and remembered a very distant day. One when he was even younger than when he’d been with Vincent, in here.
Memories gathered, like an unwelcome mist.
John had sat on the makeshift bed, chained at the wrists and ankles. The same chain they’d used for Vincent. Only Paracelsus had remained sitting, while Vincent had often stood. John had worn the chains as if they were some sort of negligible jewelry, and like they couldn’t hold him, if he didn’t want them to. He sat with one leg propped up on the bed, his arm draped casually across the knee.
“Come back to the scene of your crime, Jacob?” John had asked him.
Jacob searched his memory for what his reply had been. Something also about ‘crime.’ After a moment, he had it.
“There’s been no… crime, committed here, John. At least none by me.”
“Ah, good,” the alchemist had said silkily. “You’ll be loosening my restraints, then. And returning my son.”
“I said that there’s no crime committed by me. You… well. You are another matter.”
“I’m above your judgement.” It was said with unmatched hauteur. Jacob could remember that, even to this day. It was the root of John’s problem, that hubris. And why they had all been poised on the edge of a knife, then.
“You have to leave, John. Vincent of course, will –“
John’s dark eyes had pinned Jacob so hard, that for a moment, he’d lost the sentence. Jacob knew he was being stabbed, visually. He all but felt the knife they’d taken off of John’s arm go in.
“No.” It was a succinct refusal.
“…will stay with us,” Jacob had finished, forcing his voice to sound firm. “Yes, John. We found Anna. They’re… burying her, now.”
John’s eyebrow had given a sardonic lift. “Are they? How… unfortunate.”
Jacob had no idea whether or not he meant it was unfortunate that Anna was dead, or unfortunate for Paracelsus that they’d found her. Father suspected the slender man meant the latter.
“You can’t stay here. It’s been decided.”
“And if I… refuse to leave?” John asked.
Jacob remembered being forthright, even as he’d tried to dodge answering directly. “I beg you not to force the issue farther than you already have. There would be… consequences.”
The threat was obvious. If Anna’s murderer did not leave the inhabited part of the tunnels of his own volition, he would either remain imprisoned or be killed, there being no other choice available.
Jacob relished neither outcome. He could only pray that John didn’t, either.
John set his leg down on the floor, and folded his hands in his lap, a schoolmaster about to give a lesson. “Ahhhhhh…” Paracelsus had drawn out the word. “Soooo. The worm has turned. The taken-in dog has whipped around to bite.”
“Grace took me in,” Jacob defended.
“Only because I allowed it. We were once friends, Jacob. Or we could have been.”
Jacob had little to say about that. Even if it was true, it didn’t matter, now. Jacob remembered that he’d continued as if John hadn’t said it.
“Tomorrow, you’ll be taken to an area past the perimeter.” Jacob recalled how weary his tone had been. “You’ll be left there, to do what you will. Don’t return, John. For all our sakes.”
John’s stare was as unforgiving as the rest of him. “Or you’ll… what? I’m going to make you say it, Jacob. You know I am.”
Jacob sighed heavily. “Or you’ll be… imprisoned. Permanently.”
John sneered at that. “’Permanently’ is a long time, old ‘friend.’ There’s only so much room for that kind of compassion, in your little Utopia. You know I’ll find a way out. And I will make you pay…”
“You’ll be killed, then.” Jacob remembered admitting it, giving the evil man what he’d wanted.
John almost smiled that he’d made Jacob say it aloud, made him confess that they’d execute him, if they had to.
“Good dog. See? That wasn’t so hard.” John’s voice was like velvet, wrapped around a rusting saw blade. He was determined to do damage. And in forcing Jacob to admit they might have to kill him, he had.
Jacob felt the power of the ugly words. Felt them, and owned them.
But it was hard. More, it was anathema to everything they were trying to build.
‘How can we be creating a Utopian Society when we admit we are killers, too?’ Jacob worried, as John looked away, indicating the interview was over.
There were no answers, now, in the terrible room that had once held both John Pater and later, Vincent. There was only a musty smell, and a gathering of cobwebs.
And Jacob’s sense of sorrow, which seemed almost impossibly deep.
Later, Father sat back in his rooms, knowing that in some way, what he’d been facing lately had been a collection of his hardest, most desperate days. The times when he’d been at his lowest, with no relief at all, in sight.
The times he’d lost. Sometimes far more than he’d bargained to lose.
The times when the educated, compassionate, thoughtful person he usually fancied himself as being had been at his darkest, either spiritually, mentally or emotionally. Or all three.
The argument with John was part of that. It was why he thought he’d had to go to the makeshift prison cell, to face down his old demons.
Some of whom seemed bent on visiting him nightly.
“Perhaps all the talk of repair crews in the Eastern Tunnels brought all this up,” he reasoned, aloud, not sure if Grace’s passing had been a part of that, or just one more page in his internal book of tragedies.
He rose, and looked dubiously at his rumpled bed. He dreaded going to it. And also hoped that this time, his dreams, if not pleasant, would be at least absent. He longed for rest. Of any kind.
Slipping off his boots, he lifted up the blankets, and tucked himself into bed, hoping that by visiting the awful cell, by willingly confronting a dark time, his trials now were over.
It was the Eastern tunnels, again, and Jacob utterly despaired that he would be back here. He almost preferred the HUAC debacle to this, or even the shoddy apartment where he’d first considered suicide, after reading Margaret’s letter.
He was past the jail cell. Past… much. Down near where the work crews had been busy.
Vincent’s back was too him, and he was swinging his arms, tearing at something on the ground.
Jacob stepped cautiously closer.
Vincent’s clawed hands were covered with blood.
Horrified, Jacob saw Vincent’s victim. The middle-aged man wore the blue jumpsuit of a city utility worker, and his hard hat and been knocked askew, the flashlight in it turned to reveal hazel, lifeless eyes. The rake of Vincent’s claws was on his cheek. And on his neck.
Vincent continued striking the man’s abdomen, as if he wasn’t dead, already.
“So much work to do,” Vincent said, giving a last, satisfied swipe at the man’s midsection. Jacob felt his gorge rise, at the damage.
“He wandered too far,” Vincent said, wiping his bloody claws on one of the few clean spots of the man’s clothing that he had left. “My territory. Mine.” The last word was said with an unmistakable growl, at the corpse.
Jacob knew he was talking to the wild part of Vincent. Not the Protector, the Predator. The part Vincent often struggled to contain.
The part he’d last seen when Vincent was fifteen.
Vincent grunted over the body, and stood, as if the killing of an innocent man was a negligible thing, an inconvenient chore.
“Perhaps that wasn’t… necessary,” Jacob said carefully, offended at Vincent’s shrug.
“It probably wasn’t. I didn’t do it because I had to, Father. I did it because I wanted to.”
Jacob’s eyes never left his unblinking son’s. He recognized the stare.
“No. You’re better than this. We’re better than this,” Jacob said.
The smile was a cruel one, and full of fangs. “You’ll leave me no other sport. No other hope. I might as well be good at this, then,” he looked down at his hapless victim. The name ‘Tony’ was stitched to the man’s jumpsuit, though the blood was rapidly obscuring the lettering.
Jacob was appalled. “You can’t mean that. Can’t think that. If you do, you’ll be no better than John was.”
The blue eyes were diamond hard. “Paracelsus? He was a hopeful amateur, compared to me.” Vincent held up a bloody claw. The pointed nails were crimson.
“You haven’t seen true evil until you’ve seen what I can do,” Vincent vowed. “I will make John Pater seem like a bumbling novice. He killed without conscience. I promise you I’ll be far worse. I’ll kill for far worse reasons. For sport. For entertainment. Because I can. Because I’m good at it.”
“No!” Jacob protested in horror, as the words struck home.
The blue eyes narrowed. “Yessssss.” The last was a sibilant his of sound through the bared fangs. “It’s what I’m built for. You’ve always known. And it’s your fault. Yours! Father!” Again, the word was spat, just at it had been when he was fifteen. Spat, and punctuated by that.
Vincent spit on the already blood-soaked ground, dismissing Jacob with a turn of his back, as he went back to his victim.
“You’ll excuse me. I have things to do. An evisceration to finish.” He turned his head to glance over his shoulder, and his look was pure malice. “And Rebecca to see, perhaps… later.”
The tone gave no clue as to Vincent’s specific meaning, but Jacob knew it wasn’t good. Did he mean to kill her? Or… something else?
Jacob felt overwhelmed. He knew this wasn’t Vincent. Except for the part of him that knew it could be, at least in his nightmares. None of the rest of them had seen the hateful look in Vincent’s eyes, when he was young. Jacob had.
“This isn’t you.” Jacob insisted.
Vincent ignored the statement.
“When you die, this place will be mine. Mine! And I won’t have to listen to you, anymore.” He bent over and raised a claw to strike the Tony, again.
“Vincent, I beg you…”
“Do you?!” Vincent stood and spun, grabbing Jacob by the shoulder, and slamming him against the wall, hard. The clawed hand was to his throat.
It was all accomplished so quickly that Jacob could barely separate the motions, in his mind. Vincent was fast, so fast, for a big… man. And aside from his time of madness, he’d only ever raised a hand to strike Jacob one time before. Lisa.
“Do you? Do you beg me?” Vincent repeated. Again, the words were bitten through Vincent’s long fangs. His face was an unforgiving as it was uncompromising. Jacob clutched at Vincent’s arm, trying to relieve the pressure on his windpipe.
“How does it feel to be old, Father? Remember when I begged you?”
Vincent held Jacob tightly against the wall, leaned in, and let Jacob understand the threat of his fangs. His breath was fetid. His threat… unmistakable.
“Stupid. Impotent. Lame. It’s a miracle any of them listen to you. It’s a miracle I ever did.” Vincent opened his hand and let Jacob stagger, and struggle to regain his footing. Vincent stepped well back, content to let Jacob fall.
Father threw himself back against the stone wall, and used it for uneven support. He felt his backbone catch a protruding stone, and knew that the injury would make the pain from his hip feel negligible, by comparison.
“Everything I ever did--” Jacob began.
“Was to serve your own ego. Fool!” Vincent scooped up a loose rock off the muddy floor, and heaved it so hard it shattered, an inch from Jacob’s head.
“Be silent!” Vincent screamed. “How many mistakes did you make?!” “And how many are you still making?! Father?!
Vincent raised his hand to strike. “Is this what you want me to be? This, and nothing else? Is there no room for compassion in your philosophy, Father?!”
The clawed hand raised higher, and Jacob knew he was about to be killed, by his unbegotten son.
Jacob woke up, choking back his own scream.
“It has to stop. They’ve gone from terrible to… horrific, Peter.” Jacob accepted the bottle of white pills with no reluctance whatsoever. It was how Peter realized how bad things were.
Peter poured Jacob a glass of water, wishing his friend wasn’t about to start taking a sedative, so he could pour them both a good glass of brandy, instead. Jacob’s hand shook, when he tried to lift the glass.
“Does Vincent know?” Peter asked.
Jacob shook his head, then swallowed the pills. “He suspects,” Jacob answered.
He would, Peter realized. Jacob had gone from tired-looking to absolutely haggard, in the space of a day.
“But you haven’t told him?” Peter prompted.
“I’m afraid the last one was rather… pointedly about him. And… ugly beyond all reckoning. No. No, I haven’t told him. He knows I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Not about the latest.”
“And you say in this one he was threatening to harm you? To kill you?”
Jacob nodded, finally managing to get a sip of the cold liquid into his mouth without spilling it. “He was wild. Savage. Not the Vincent we know. Not the Vincent anyone knows.”
Jacob set the glass down and then pushed it away. “He asked me if there was room in my philosophy for compassion. It’s the same thing John said, or close to it. Right before he made me doubt that. Right before we…” Jacob couldn’t finish.
“Right before we exiled him. He was bitter. I remember.”
“And… Grace?” Peter prompted.
Jacob sighed. “I… owed her more compassion than I showed, certainly. I wasn’t cruel, Peter. But I was still… reeling from Margaret. I could have been… oh, I don’t know. I could have tried harder than I did. I could have… given more.”
It didn’t take a licensed physician to know that Jacob was miserable.
“To Margaret, as well,” Jacob added. “The lawyers her father hired told me to rescind my testimony, back when there was still a chance.”
Peter watched one of his oldest friend beat on himself. It wasn’t a thing he would tolerate, for long.
“Jacob… let me be a little better of a friend to you than you’re being to yourself,” Peter began. “With Margaret and the HUAC…I don’t think you could have done anything so much differently than what you did, given the position you were put in, and the mood of the country. You were trying to save lives.”
Jacob knew that much was true.
Peter continued, as he put away his things inside his medical bag. “With Grace… well. We both know her death wasn’t your fault. And it’s safe to stand far away from those early years and say we could all have done more. But living in that time isn’t the same thing as remembering it, if you get me.” He snapped the leather satchel closed, and sat down opposite his friend.
“You’re a good man. I’ve always trusted that you’ve had your reasons, for everything.”
He held up a restraining hand, as Jacob was about to protest. “Even if some of them were selfish ones,” he amended. “Sometimes, we remember a thing only so correctly, and we don’t necessarily remember all the particulars.”
Jacob sat back, and Peter beheld his friend’s careworn face and bloodshot eyes.
Jacob rubbed the latter, knowing they felt scratchy, and dry. “Thing is, the other dreams were… well, memories,” Jacob said. “They really happened. The one I had last night never did.”
Peter leaned back as well, giving Jacob room. He wasn’t quite sure what to do.
“You could come to my place for a few days,” Peter offered. Rest in a regular bed. Even watch a baseball game on television,” he said, knowing Jacob would refuse, even before he did so.
“Let’s try the pills, first. Just for a while,” Jacob deflected.
“Just for a while,” Peter agreed. “I don’t want you growing dependent on these.”
“If they’ll let me sleep without dreams, I’ll gladly deal with that later,” Jacob said, clutching the bottle of white tablets as if they were a lifeline.
“Jacob, in all these nightmares… aside from compassion, is there any other common thread? Anything that gets said to you, or that you see?”
Jacob shrugged, searching his tired brain for answers. “Not really. Before this, they were all just… hard days. The hardest days of my life.” Something pricked his memory.
“Death. Death runs hard, in all of them. John forced me to say we’d execute him. I was afraid Vincent would die in chains, or restraints. In each of them… I think I’m struggling with compassion, or being accused of lacking that. In the ones with Vincent in them, he wishes I was dead. Or I’m thinking about suicide. I remember during the trial, Margaret’s father calling me on the phone, telling me he’d rather I was dead than married to his daughter. In the one where Devin is born, it’s Grace who dies.”
It’s not like a part of you didn’t, that day, Peter knew, but was wise enough to keep his own counsel.
“Sounds like one hell of a theme,” Peter observed.
Jacob nodded. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“Do you?” Peter asked, knowing enough to remain silent. Part of good psychoanalysis was letting the patient talk, and assume.
“You’re thinking that Margaret’s death reminds me of my own mortality, of the mistakes I’ve made. She was two years younger than I. That there are surely more years behind me than in front of me. Vincent called me old back when I was in my forties.” Father shook his head. “I’m a good bit farther down the road, now.”
Peter watched Jacob rub an arthritic hand across the back of his neck.
“We’re both that,” Peter said, understanding.
“But Peter, we’re doctors. We understand our own mortality. It’s just a fact of who and what we are. It doesn’t frighten me, not really. It never did.”
Peter knew that was true. But he also knew a part of Jacob was wrestling with something.
“Last night, you said the scene you imagined never happened.”
Jacob nodded, reaching for the water again, mostly for something to do with his hands, rather than because he was actually thirsty.
“I wish there was brandy in this.” He echoed Peter’s sentiment, and took a long swallow, before he answered.
“Vincent was killing an innocent man. A thing he’s never done, at least as far as I know.”
“Did you know the man?”
Jacob took another drink then shook his head, in the negative. When he set the glass down, Peter refilled it, and added some sugar, and squeezed in the lemon from Jacob’s tea. Weak lemonade. It was probably half the nourishment Jacob was taking in.
“Vincent was screaming at me,” Jacob recalled. “Telling me all the things he was going to do. Evil things. Saying it was my fault.”
“We know that’s nonsense. Vincent isn’t evil. If anything, he’s one of the noblest men I’ve ever met. And you hardly lack compassion, Jacob.”
Jacob agreed with the former, even as he wasn’t sure about the latter, at the moment.
“Peter, if all of this has been about death and dying, and I don’t deny that much of it has been… Margaret’s passing… it left a hole in me nothing will ever fill, I don’t deny it, but… I don’t know. This seems wrong. Seems like it must be about something else. Something I’m not seeing, not really.”
Dr. Alcott filled his own glass, letting Jacob talk. Sometimes, the secret to being a good therapist was to know when not to offer a hasty opinion.
“The subconscious can be wickedly… imprecise, sometimes. Even when it’s trying to tell us something,” he offered.
Jacob nodded. It had indeed been a hard couple of months, even before the nightmares had begun. Losing Margaret had been hard. Just going back Above had been difficult, much less everything that had followed it.
But Jacob figured correctly that time was healing those wounds.
Or at least, like they were healing some of them.
“Peter…” Jacob looked away from his friend’s face for the first time, and Peter saw him get lost in another memory.
“When Catherine helped me get out of jail… when we separated, at the subway… I said something to her. Something I’m… Something I’m not sure I don’t regret.”
“Did you?” Peter asked, setting the chipped water carafe down, carefully.
“I’m afraid I told her something. Something that might sound as if I lacked compassion, though I swear I didn’t mean it to sound that way.”
“That… that if she continued to see Vincent, it would be a mistake. That she could bring him… only unhappiness.” Jacob’s blue eyes were bleak.
“Because of Vincent’s differences?” Peter asked, thinking he understood.
Jacob’s brow furrowed, slightly. “No. Because of his similarities. Because part of him is a man, Peter. Not because of… well, not because of his other parts.”
Peter stayed still, letting Jacob’s own realizations wash over him.
Jacob remembered saying good-bye to Catherine at the subway entrance. Remembered looking up at the beautiful young attorney, as she looked down at him. She was lovely, and strong. And sure of her position. She’d said she loved Vincent. Gently, yet bravely, as if there was no question of it.
Jacob knew that love was returned.
And that loving her was something Vincent marveled at - even as he became increasingly dependent on it, for his own happiness.
Is there no room in your philosophy for compassion?
Jacob rubbed his mouth with tired fingers. “Peter… if she listens to me… If she pulls away from him--”
Peter cut him off. “Jacob, I’ve known that woman since she was an infant. If there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s that I doubt if she’ll heed your warning, though I’m sure she did hear the words.”
“Do you agree, then, that they should have a relationship?” Jacob asked.
Peter chose his next words very carefully. “I agree that it’s them who should choose, Jacob. Not you or I.”
Father sighed. “So you think I’m making a mistake, telling Vincent he can’t have more, can’t have a… well. What would pass as a ‘normal life?’ Remember what happened with Lisa.”
“He was a teenager with a crush. Even you told him he didn’t do anything wrong,” Peter reasoned.
“I’m not speaking about that. I’m talking about… after.”
Peter breathed in deeply, knowing full well what Jacob referred to. Vincent had wrestled a darker part of himself down, and he held that part away from himself. It was a thing they all knew, and seldom spoke of.
Peter continued to choose his words with care. “Jacob… To tell a man, any man… that he can have a life of work, and even purpose, but no more than that… I’d think you were making a mistake if you said that to anyone. But especially someone as… sensitive, and caring as Vincent. He hardly has a heart of stone.”
Dr. Alcott raised an interrupting hand. “If you cut him off, what is it you leave him with? This place, when you’re gone? This place, and no chance for anything else, anything… more? That’s a bleak inheritance, isn’t it, my friend?”
Jacob realized that Vincent had told him much the same thing, in his nightmare. He turned the glass around on the table, watching the condensation leave concentric rings, on the wood. He didn’t want any more to drink.
“It is that,” Jacob forced himself to agree. “I want… what she wants for him, Peter. I just…” he shook his head. “She could break him. And we both know what that looks like, how… ugly, how terrifying that is, for him.”
Peter knew that Jacob was speaking from bleak experience. And he likely wasn’t wrong.
“She could,” Peter allowed. “She could also uplift him, though, Jacob. Give him a part in a life that none of us, including him, has even thought possible. I don’t deny that there’s risk involved. I just… I think they’re his to take. Theirs to take. Vincent is cautious, but he’s not averse to taking risks, entirely. That was true even before he met her.”
Jacob felt the pills start to kick in. He didn’t like the sensation, on his empty stomach. “I’m too exhausted to know what’s right, any more. I only know I’m tired of reliving my darkest days, and of dreaming up more of those.” He sighed.
“You know that Vincent isn’t vicious. That he’d never become what you dreamed.”
Jacob felt the same medicine that was queasing his stomach start to relieve the tension, in his shoulders. That, he did like.
“No, I know he wouldn’t. I’m just afraid of… well, what you said. We all ask so much of him, Peter. And as much as we give… we can’t give him the chance to be in love.” He sighed. “In a way, I’m fighting something that’s already happened, and I don’t dare be wrong, here, for his sake. For all our sakes.”
Peter put a steadying hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Thirty years ago, you lost your wife. And then you lost her again, just a few months ago. Allow for that, Jacob. Allow for it, and… try not to be so hard on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect. None of us can be that.”
Jacob sighed. “Perfect… no. But perhaps I need to be better.”
Peter said nothing to that.
“Sleepy, yet?” he asked.
“No. Too wired for that. Second wind. Just feeling some of the tension go out of my neck and shoulders.”
“Take two more before you go to bed tonight. And put something on your stomach.”
“Yes, Doctor,” Jacob said.
A serving of tea and toast later, Jacob knew that as grateful as he’d been for Peter’s steady council, there was really only one person he wanted to speak with. A woman.
And tragically, for both of them, she couldn’t answer him, not really.
He rose from his chair, testing his balance against the sedative Peter had given him. He knew he was fine for walking. Stress had severely blunted the impact of the medication. It was the second dose that would likely knock him out.
He made his way down to one of the saddest parts of his home.
Jacob had been seeing dream visions and memories of past acquaintances so much lately, he half expected to see Margaret Chase sitting by her grave marker, toying with her pearl necklace.
But he didn’t.
The love of his life lay under cairn stones, wrapped in tunnel linens, resting not too far from Anna Pater. The carving on her headstone was free of lichens or other mosses, there being not quite enough time for those to get established, yet. Kanin Evans had etched her stone.
Margaret Chase Wells
Sixty. Margaret had been sixty years old. Just.
It had been no small feat to bring her back down, after her passing. First, she’d had to be taken above, her death recorded, and a standard (yet sadly small and private) funeral conducted. She was, in her way, a public figure. She couldn’t simply disappear.
Jacob had needed Catherine to describe the scene for him. She said that Margaret’s chauffer had looked solemn, and sad. Her maid had wept copiously, and her cook had sat dry-eyed, praying on a rosary. Lou had sat near the back. There were not so many more. Catherine said all of them had spoken well of her.
Jacob knew Alan Taft would have been in their number, had he lived.
After the service, Jacob knew it was Peter who had arranged for her remains to be returned to the tunnels. None other than Vincent had carried her wrapped body down, gently as a baby. In sorrow, they’d laid her here, and said their good-byes, both here, and at the Mirror Pool.
“We had seven days,” Jacob told her headstone, knowing she wasn’t “here,” yet feeling closer to her, as he sat.
“Seven days and a… wasted lifetime, for each of us. I never asked… did you ever blame me for any of it, Margaret?” His deep blue eyes studied her gravestone, wishing it would answer. “Ever… wish I had taken the easy way out, and told them they were all right, rather than… fought it? Ever wished I’d been smart enough to not tilt at windmills? In your darkest hour, did you ever wish I’d… died, even? Or that you had, back then?”
He settled his walking stick firmly in front of him, as he gingerly seated himself on a boulder opposite of where she lay.
“Your father’s friends tried to tell me it would do no good, you know. I think even Alan did, at one point, though he said he respected my decision.” Jacob let his voice drift, as the memories did.
“The thing I never got to ask. Did you?”
The stones gave him no answer. He gripped his makeshift cane a little tighter.
“I love you. And I hated you, at one time. I was bitter, and angry, and I remember… I remember wanting to die, Margaret. One day. The day I got your letter. I remember thinking I should, that it would be so much easier than… than anything else. Easier than living.”
He looked to the side. A fat beetle made its way across the ground, then scurried away.
“I never said that to you. I knew I shouldn’t have, and I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Or that I don’t wonder, now, how much those days cloud my judgment.”
But the last resting place of one of the wealthiest women in Manhattan, - and the only woman he’d ever married- had no clear answer for him.
Jacob sighed, and simply sat, soaking in the atmosphere of this place. Though it was a solemn one, there was a strange sense of peace to it, as well.
Anna was down here, of course, as was Grace. Both were back in the deeper reaches. Back when they’d first realized they’d need a place to bury their dead.
Anna, Grace, Margaret… John. Three dead women and God only knew where John was, at present. Possibly dead, as well. They’d all been… mistakes he’d made, in judgment. Serious ones, at times. Devin was, as well. They all assumed he was dead, also. Jacob only knew that he didn’t know, for sure.
Jacob caressed his wife’s carved name, with his tired eyes. “Now I’m closer to the end than I’ve ever been, and I’m having nightmares. About every difficult day I’ve ever lived through, plus some.” He shook his head.
“I know I was unfair to Devin. Now I’m desperately afraid I’m being unfair to Vincent. But I don’t know how to fix it. Don’t know how to send him… ‘up there’ with a clean conscience.” Jacob looked up to the ceiling, and imagined the city, over his head.
“Don’t know what words to say to him, or how I should say them. And I’m desperately afraid that if he follows my advice and forgets her, that he’ll… he’ll survive, but he won’t… live, if you know what I mean.”
Jacob bent his head low, over the head of the cane. “I wish you were here. I wish I could ask you.”
He remembered looking up at Catherine, from the subway entrance. She’d sounded so sure.
Then again, so had he, he recalled.
“She says she loves him. I wish I could believe for his sake that it won’t all end in some sort of huge… disaster, for him. For both of them.” Jacob was positive that his assessment was a sincere one.
“So many mistakes… Anna never should have gone back to where John was, after she brought me Vincent. But we didn’t know. I didn’t know. I wonder if she knew? If she knew what he was capable of?” Jacob mused sadly.
He wouldn’t say Grace’s name in Margaret’s presence. But that didn’t stop him from thinking about her. Grace. Plain, wise Grace. Grace, who could work for hours and not tire. Lift, clean, sew. He remembered the day he’d caught her chopping wood with a little hand axe, her hands wrapped in dish towels to keep them from blistering. They’d needed kindling, so she’d gone and made some, out of a termite-chewed dresser. She was strong. And if Jacob was honest, he had to admit she’d been no more in love with him than he’d been with her.
There had been no reason to think she wouldn’t survive childbirth. Until she hadn’t.
“I’ve made mistakes. You don’t even know how many. Was being an honest man in front of congress one of them? It lost me you, Margaret. Margaret Chase. Wells.” He read the name on her stone out loud.
Her name conjured an image of the face that was never far from his thoughts, the image of her as she’d been when they married. Margaret. Ethereally beautiful and staggeringly wealthy Margaret. Never a “Maggie” or a “Meg.” Preston Chase’s only daughter and as in love with Jacob as he’d been with her.
Had he asked too much of her, that she should stay by his side, come what may? Or had she given too little, to them?
It was a question he’d never asked her, either in their beginning or at their end, because he knew the answer didn’t matter, in either place.
Until it did.
He never saw her letter coming, not until it had literally hit him right between the eyes. Had never seriously considered suicide, before or since. He’d thought of destroying himself.
But not before he’d destroyed them.
He’d misjudged what his actions would cause. Been unaware of what would be wrought from them.
“Was there a way to keep us together, and me still be an honest man? Was there… no room for compassion, in my philosophy?” he asked aloud.
The sentence reminded him of John. John’s staggering betrayal of all trust was a thorn that still had the power to twist, in his aching side.
Had I known… had I known… It was a sentence that seemed to mock him, lately.
Lost in thought, he didn’t hear Vincent step quietly into the chamber.
“Somewhere down here, there should be a gravestone for my medical license. ‘Here lies the promising medical career of Doctor Jacob Wells,’” he said aloud, framing the words with a sweep of his hand.
Vincent scuffed his booted foot in the sand, scattering some of the pebbles, making his presence known.
“Father?” Vincent asked, catching the last bit of comment.
Jacob turned as Vincent came forward.
“I spoke with Peter,” Vincent said gently, moving nearer to his troubled parent. Jacob scooted over on the flat-topped boulder, and Vincent sat beside him.
“He said that you haven’t been sleeping well for longer than you’ve been letting on. That you’ve been having bad dreams, and that they’ve been growing worse?”
Jacob rattled the bottle of pills in his pocket. “He gave me something for it. I know I should have just tried to go straight to bed after taking them, but…” Jacob sighed. “Truth to tell you, I’m more… upset than tired.” He patted his son’s patched knee, in reassurance.
“I’ll be all right. Just… some of the bad old days, coming back to haunt me, I suppose.” He eyed his wife’s headstone, and remembered his parting, with Catherine.
“Vincent…” Jacob turned tired, pleading eyes to his son.
“Yes?” Vincent asked.
“How is Catherine? Have you… seen her, lately?” Jacob knew he hadn’t. That he’d been very busy in the Eastern tunnels, along with many of the rest of the men.
Vincent was more than a little surprised, at the question. He knew Father strenuously objected to his forays Above, and was even less supportive when he knew the trip was to see Catherine.
“It’s been… difficult, this last month or so,” Vincent explained. “Her concerns are… pressing. Or mine are,” Vincent admitted, patting Jacob’s hand, reassuringly. Father returned his hand to his cane, and sighed.
“I’m sorry you’ve been so… occupied, lately,” Jacob said, as if he were somehow to blame for that, as well. They both knew he wasn’t.
“Catherine has had certain… obligations as well. There’s been little time, these last few weeks.”
Jacob could hear the wistful acceptance in his son’s voice.
Father’s next words were careful. “Perhaps you should… make time, this evening. Go and see her.”
Vincent’s expression clearly betrayed his astonishment. He didn’t need to ask “why” out loud. The question was clearly written on his expressive face.
Jacob kept his blue eyes fixed on his son’s. “She… she did something very kind, and very brave for me. For me and for Margaret,” Jacob allowed. “And I’m afraid I… well. I’m afraid I said something unwise to her, though I didn’t mean it to be unkind. I know it was weeks ago, but… still.”
Vincent was well aware of Jacob’s opinion regarding his chances with Catherine.
“I’m sure she bears you no ill will. That sort of thing isn’t in her, Father.”
No. No, it isn’t. More’s the miracle of that.
“Vincent, I wonder if you would… please… please tell her I… that I sometimes misjudge… things…” Jacob stammered.
“That’s a difficult thing for you to say,” Vincent said gently. “Doctors are under a tremendous… pressure to be perfect.”
Jacob’s tired eyes closed, momentarily, in gratitude. Vincent understood. God bless his special son, he understood. Or at least, in his capacity for compassion, he was trying to.
“Yes. Yes, there is,” Jacob agreed. “If we’re wrong, someone might die. It’s no small thing to live with.”
Vincent was sure it wasn’t.
“You are correct far more often than you are incorrect, Father,” Vincent soothed.
Jacob cleared his throat. “Yes. Well, ah, be that as it may. I’m afraid it causes me some… difficulties at times. A certain… reluctance to let go of an idea, once I’ve latched onto it.”
Vincent was more than well aware of that character trait, of Jacob’s.
“Indeed? I’m certain I never noticed,” he replied, tongue just a little in his cheek.
Jacob snorted a bit, in agreement. “I’m afraid that makes us terrible husbands and fathers sometimes,” he admitted, trying to find a trace of a self-deprecating smile, for his son.
He wasn’t sure if he succeeded, but he nudged Vincent’s arm, nonetheless. “Best be on your guard. You still have the soul of a doctor.”
Vincent absorbed the words, and their implication, for him. We make terrible husbands and fathers, sometimes. Surely Jacob didn’t mean…
He didn’t. Not exactly. His next words confirmed as much, even as they upheld the prior statement. “I don’t know what’s possible,” Jacob admitted. “I don’t know where your limits are or hers. But I know that I’ve made some terrible mistakes in life, Vincent. And that when I’ve done that, they’ve cost people nearest to me. Cost them dearly.” He looked down at Margaret’s somber stone, and sighed.
“Anna should still be alive. Maybe,” he said. “Margaret and I should have had a long life, together, happy or sad, rich or poor. Perhaps I should have insisted Grace deliver in a hospital. Perhaps I should have understood what the HUAC was, before I dared defy them. Perhaps I fear so much for your safety, I forget… or I misjudge…” The sentence trailed away.
Jacob straightened, and looked back to his amazing son.
“There comes a time in a man’s life when his mistakes loom large, and his triumphs seem so… small. I don’t want what I think of my fears about you and Catherine to be another… error on my part.”
Vincent sat utterly unmoving, with that gift of perfect stillness only he seemed to possess, while Jacob continued.
“I’m not so sanguine as to all of this that I feel I can give you my blessing,” Jacob clarified, “This is… dangerous. For you. For both of you, perhaps. But I promise you that I’ll give you no grief for it. And I beg you to tell Catherine that I… apologize, if anything I said gave her a moment’s disquiet.”
Jacob rose from the makeshift bench, and Vincent rose with him. The lion-faced man looked at the gravestone of the only wife his surrogate father had ever had. He stepped closer to the stone, and Jacob did likewise.
“Your triumphs are not… small, Father,” he said, touching his odd fingers to the large rock in a soft benediction. “But for some of those… I would not be here. Neither would many others.”
Jacob put a kiss on his own fingers and touched the marker inscribed with his wife’s name.
“Thank you. Thank you, for that,” he said.
Jacob turned, and the pills shifted in his pocket. He heard them rattle. And thought that perhaps, just perhaps, he wouldn’t need any more of them, after all.
“You’ll go see Catherine? Tell her for me?” Jacob prompted.
Vincent knew he would. Not that he’d needed more urging.
“I will. I promise.”
The two of them began to walk the subtly inclined path back to the inhabited tunnels. The way was wide enough for them to walk side by side, as long as Vincent allowed for the movement of Jacob’s cane.
“Father,” Vincent paused, making sure the tunnel patriarch cleared a particularly rock-strewn patch of ground, before he continued.
“The night Margaret passed… Catherine said that the tragedy of the two of you was that you had a beginning and an end, but no middle. Did you feel that way, as well?”
Jacob considered. “Sometimes. I know Margaret did. But… well. We all had the lives we had. In the end, it had to be enough.”
Father concentrated on the ground in front of him. It was harder climbing up than it had been coming down. He negotiated an area where the pebbles tended to be loose, and treacherous, for his cane. His son stayed near, making sure he stayed steady.
When they were past the area of loose gravel and sand, Vincent’s gentle hand restrained him, taking hold of his elbow. Jacob looked up.
“You are not done helping good to happen in this world. Not yet. You do know that. Don’t you?”
Jacob looked back up to the rock-strewn path before him. It was steep in places, and gently rising, in others.
“You think so?” Jacob asked.
Vincent’s tone was the soul of agreeability. “There is still Kipper to raise without breaking every bone in his body on his skateboard. Arthur to cage and Mouse to scold for it. Mary needs you. William needs you. And I need you. Very much, Father.”
Jacob closed weary eyes over his son’s encouragement. He’d rarely felt more mortal.
“I’m getting old, Vincent. There will come a day when—”
“When I may ask you an impossible question, about Catherine and I,” Vincent interrupted, his mind leaping to an impossible day. One where Catherine stood before them both in a veil, while Jacob said holy words, over them.
“An impossible question?” Jacob said, opening his eyes and raising a foxy eyebrow. Vincent’s expression said words he wouldn’t dare utter. They both knew what the impossible question might be. Explanations weren’t needed, here.
Oh, my son. Be careful. Be careful, of this incredible dream.
Vincent simply nodded. “Yes. Very impossible.”
Is there no room for compassion, in your philosophy? The thought echoed through Jacob’s mind, as he beheld his son’s hopeful, yet guarded expression.
Jacob knew that there was. And that further, the compassion Catherine had shown to him was part of why Vincent loved her; and part of why Jacob had been allowed to spend seven days, with Margaret.
He owed Catherine. He owed both Catherine, and Vincent. Understanding, at least, if not an apology. He owed them enough to try to believe in what they were trying to believe in. At least a little.
Jacob straightened his shoulders, not sure how much help he could be with any of this, but determined to be at least some aid to it. “An impossible question. Well. I guess I’ll just have to parlay that into a reason for continuing.”
He turned back, and negotiated the rise. It was time to lighten the moment, again, between them.
“And in the meantime, there’s always hoping you’ll finally figure out how to beat me at chess,” he threw back over his shoulder.
They made it to a more level patch of ground.
“I’ve won four of our last six matches,” Vincent reminded him, playing along.
“Have you? I think I remember it as three and three.” Jacob walked on ahead, and Vincent came up behind him, making sure the uneven path didn’t cause Jacob to fall backwards. Vincent smiled a little, letting Father have the number.
“Perhaps that means it’s time for a rematch. Just to break the… tie,” Vincent emphasized the last word, just a little.
Jacob kept walking, a little faster, a little steadier, now. “Perhaps. But not until after you’ve gone to see Catherine. I need a good night’s rest if I’m going to be sharp enough to beat you. There, see? I can admit that, at least,” he said, striding down the passageway with his usual sense of authority, now that the ground was less rock strewn.
Vincent’s empathic sense told him that Jacob was well on the road to getting past… whatever had been bothering him, of late. He sensed an almost… hopeful purpose, inside his only parent.
“Very well. Do you think you can see yourself safely home?” he asked, knowing he’d walk with Jacob at least as far as the hub, just to make sure he reached the pipes, without incident.
“Of course I can. And Vincent… tell her…” Jacob faltered, searching for the right words, for a moment. “Tell her I can’t thank her enough.” For everything. Not just for Margaret. For loving you. For trying to make it work, even after what I said. I’m not sure if I was wrong. But I’m not sure of much else, either, right now.
“I will tell her,” Vincent replied, remaining close until their arrival at the hub indicated it was time for them to part company. Jacob would continue on toward his chambers. Vincent would go the other way, and cut across the nighttime park, to be with Catherine.
Jacob nodded, taking in the image his son presented, as the wind swirling through the hub lifted his flaxen hair from his shoulders. He was taller than Jacob thought he’d ever be, and far broader. The gangly youth he’d once been hinted at his eventual height, but not his breadth. Powerful shoulders framed a physique built for strength, and long legs gave testament to how fast and steady a runner he was. The blue eyes bespoke his intelligence, as well as his bravery, and humanity. And some of his hopes, as well.
The part of his son that was a man was a fully grown one. And perhaps… just perhaps… this was his time to explore that, and find out all it meant for him. For all of them.
“Be careful.” Jacob couldn’t resist saying it.
“You know I will,” Vincent replied.
Later that night, while Vincent was reading John Keats to Catherine on her balcony, and most of the rest of the tunnel world slumbered, Jacob dreamed of a very difficult day. One presaged by an impossible question.
The bride wore white, while the groom wore royal blue. A resplendent coat framed Vincent’s wide shoulders, as he held his left hand out patiently, something balanced in his palm.
There was a mighty assemblage behind the couple, and the Great Hall glimmered with more candles than Jacob had ever seen. The chandeliers were laden with white tapers, and pearl-draped pillars sat on every table. Atop tiered candelabras, more candles framed the bridal couple. Red and white roses surrounded a wedding candle, on the table before them. Its steady flame flickering gently, as it warmed the air around them.
Even beneath the antique veil, Jacob knew he was looking at Catherine, through the filmy gauze. Pearls swung at her ears. Diamond-like tears shone in her sparkling eyes.
In the dream, Jacob saw himself, as he attempted to deliver a blessing, desperately trying not to stumble through the words. Doing so seemed almost impossible, considering how much he wanted to weep.
For joy. He knew what Vincent held out, in front of him.
Wedding rings. The simple gold bands shimmered, in Vincent’s unlikely palm.
Jacob was conducting their joining ceremony, and they were at the part where he was supposed to ask for the blessing of the rings. It was the last thing he’d do, before they were placed upon the bridal couple. The last request he’d make, before Vincent was a married man, and Catherine was a married woman, in his world.
He was having trouble steadying his voice.
The two plain gold bands glinted in Vincent’s outstretched hand, one large, one small. Jacob knew he was supposed to take them, hold them up, and ask the loving company there to send every good wish forth, into them.
And he was supposed to be able to do that with a clear, authoritative voice. And not drop the rings. Of course.
Holding up a ring in each hand meant he’d have to stand without the use of his walking stick, for a few moments.
Normally, that would not be a problem. Today, however…
His hands shook, betraying just how unsteady he was. Not just in “balance,” but in… everything. His memory was having its way with him, as he held the rings aloft. Was he supposed to ask for the groom’s ring to be blessed first, or the bride’s? Both, together?
It was another difficult day.
But as the groom smiled softly at his bride, who returned it, Jacob knew that this difficult day was suffused with an incandescently luminous kind of bliss.
Jacob woke up with a smile on his face and just a bit of wistfulness there, too.
He’d have to practice standing without the use of his cane, holding his arms up over his head. Need to do some of the exercises he’d been neglecting lately, to keep his bad knee from locking up, as he stood. Just in case.
After all, he might just have another “difficult day” or two to get through.
He prayed it would be so.
No matter where you are in your own fairy tale, I wish you love. ~ Cindy
Illustrations supplied by the author