Because I Could Not Stop for Death


Cindy Rae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because I could not stop for death -

He kindly stopped for me -

The Carriage held but just Ourselves -

And Immortality." 

 

~Emily Dickinson

 

~~

October 25th, 1986, Central Park.

Six months before… well.  You know.

 

 

 

 

The October night was a cold one. Park lamps seemed to struggle to provide any light at all, and even that seemed trapped in yellow pools, on the brittle ground.  There wasn’t even a low-hanging moon to tear its dragging bottom across the bare branches of the leafless trees.  The mercury was diving, hard.  There could be frost by morning.

 

Not an odd thing, for October 25th.  Not a welcome one, either, Vincent felt.

 

As he moved through the park, the dark gave no comfort, even though it did give concealment.  He was all but an invisible shadow, in the autumnal, empty night.

 

It suited his current mood.

 

In a way, Vincent already felt increasingly “invisible” to many.  Or if not “invisible,” at least… apart.

 

It was a thing he’d felt often, lately.  Like he was one of them, and yet …not.  Like the kind of life they all sought, the level or personal satisfaction they all reached for was possible - for everyone but him.  Like he was “there,” yet not really a part of anything.

 

The sense of disconnection was jarring.  And increasingly unavoidable.

 

It wasn’t brought on by all the things in his life that he could have.

 

It was brought on by all the things in his life that he couldn’t.

 

Well, maybe just a few of those.

 

That kind of life… not for you, Vincent.

 

Jacob hadn’t meant to be cruel, the first time he’d said it.  And he’d said it a long time ago, and in different words, and different ways.

 

The words were true, after all, and so uttering them was no sin, Vincent knew.  There was nothing venal, in the pronouncement.  They all knew it was a fact.

 

An increasingly incontrovertible one, it seemed.

 

And though Father (for his own reasons), had to say it, only Vincent had to bear it.  And the weight of that load was a slow, sure, subtly increasing sorrow, in his heart.

 

No, they were not evil words.

 

But they were cutting him to ribbons, just the same.

 

1986 had felt like a hard, grueling year, for Vincent.  One where the work had seemed too long, and the rewards too few.

 

Now it felt as if the often taxing, somber year was dragging itself toward a ragged, dismal close.

 

Though it was autumn still, the hard kiss of winter was coming on early.

 

Vincent hated that.

 

Though the increasingly shorter days and longer nights meant he could go out earlier, the weather had been steadily deteriorating, and the barren, lifeless quality of the park was casting long echoes, down his sensitive awareness.

 

He’d worked without respite, lately, and then carried the stark realization that no matter how hard he worked, how much he helped,  how “good” he was… he would never be a part of someone else.  Not the way he longed to be.  Not really.

 

It was not a new realization.  But it was an increasingly grueling one.

 

This particular day’s work had been constant, but it had brought no joy, no sense of accomplishment.  Fall was harvest time, at the farmer’s markets.  Food was cheap, and in some cases, almost free.  As always, a thing that was good for the Helpers was good for the tunnel community.  Food was abundant, donations, steady.  It was that time of year.

 

It should have been good news.  And in a way, it was.  Autumn’s bounty was part of what indicated the kind of winter they’d have, and what kind of Winterfest.

 

He’d never felt less like attending it.

 

Vincent rotated a stiff shoulder inside his heavy cape.  He’d been asked to lift much, and carry often, this morning.  It wasn’t the first time, for that.  And he’d done so, without complaint.

 

It wasn’t the first time for that, either.

 

And then he found out there was simply more to do.  Others pushed the wide food cart, while he simply lugged supplies, on his shoulders.

 

By afternoon, he felt like a glorified pack mule.  By dinner, an ache across his shoulder blades let itself be known.  Foodstuffs were heavy.  A good harvest and generous donations meant much, for his people.

 

He wondered (and not for the first time) just how much it meant for him.

 

Food in the belly was a good thing, there was no doubt about that.  Not every year was this bountiful.

 

Why, then, did he feel like something inside was starving to death, slowly?

 

Vincent had no answer, as he walked on down winding paths.  The dark, chilly night actually felt like it was clinging to him.  Clinging like the ache in his back.  And the one in his heart.

 

He moved through the cold night and thought of simply turning back, of heading for the warmth of home.

 

But, no.  Something about “home” had felt confining, of late.  Like the deep, stone walls were increasingly closing him in, shutting him off from all respite, and all hope.

 

The world of heavy granite rooms seemed, if anything, more barren than the park, in spite of the human bounty it contained.  Home did not feel like a place to escape his loneliness.  It felt like the place that contained it.

 

He could see his breath.  Late October.  He’d never liked it, he admitted to himself.

 

He tried to shrug off his dark mood by blaming it on the time of year, and knew he’d only be “so” successful.

 

Halloween was a week away, and William’s shelves were bending beneath the weight of the donations.  He should have felt the “wealth” that implied, felt its comfort, and by extension, some measure of cheer. Yet he rarely remembered a time where he felt more bereft, more impoverished.  More like he wanted something he knew he could never have.

 

Vincent knew it wasn’t the lack of material wealth he was feeling.  And in truth, it wasn’t any “one” thing at all, but a combination of many of those.

 

There were half a dozen things he could use for blame, for his current mood.  The children were increasingly unruly and inattentive.  Jacob’s hip bothered him more and more, as the temperature dropped.  The soreness in his own body.  The way sleep was no longer bringing him much, in the way of peace.  It was part of the reason he’d wanted to go Above, in spite of his fatigue.

 

Perhaps if I simply walk, simply wear myself out…

 

But wasn’t life already doing that?

 

And while the earlier sunset meant Vincent could indeed stay out longer, he knew that the deepening cold usually drove him back down that much sooner, as well, leaving him feeling as if some vague opportunity had been missed.  Maybe.

 

It seemed that he had no answers.  Or at least, no good ones.

 

With winter not officially even here, yet, something inside of Vincent longed for spring, already.  But spring felt like it was much too far away.

 

April felt like a distant dream.

 

A dream that had gone unfulfilled for him, this past year.  As much the rest of the year had.

 

If spring was the time for lovers, and fall the benefit of that, with its harvest glory, the year had come up empty, for Vincent, and he knew it.

 

“Harvest Time” was actually a feeling others carried.  “Plenty” was an emotion, as much as it was a tangible fact.

 

But not for him, he realized.  And not for a while.

 

For him, the signs of plenty, of bounty, of comfort, almost mocked his inner self.  The emptiness inside him was a place he was starting to feel more and more often.  It was settling deep, inside his heavy bones.

 

Kanin and Olivia were newlyweds, and while Vincent knew he should be able to share their joy, a stabbing envy all but threatened to overtake him, lately.

 

The gift that is Kanin’s… will never be mine, his heart told him, with increasing certainty.

 

There was an ache in his chest.  Not from lifting too much, or straining to reach too far.  This was far more spiritual, and for this ache, an hour in the hot springs followed by a night in an empty bed was no cure.

 

Vincent knew he was crossing a dangerous line, in his relationship with his own aloneness.

 

They were becoming almost constant companions.

 

Alone.

 

The reality of it was starting to hold him in a hard grip.  Like a tentacular thing, wrapping long arms around his heart.

 

In years past, he could throw himself into more work, and forget for a while, that at the end of the duty shift, others would go home to loving companions, either Above or Below, while he went back to a cold bed, or simply passed the time with Jacob, until exhaustion overtook one of them.

 

And while there were those who were as single as he, they were older than he was, for the most part, and had taken their turn at love.  Or no matter what their age, they still possessed the chance of it.

 

It wasn’t just that Vincent had never truly done that.  It was that he was coming to accept that he never would.

 

It was a hard truth to bear.  And the understanding that he’d had years to accustom himself to that fact made it harder, rather than easier, for some reason.

 

Jacob’s gently spoken, devastating truth was the kind that left a sore, struggling place, just under Vincent’s solar plexus.  A sore and struggling place that was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, and to carry.

 

Vincent made his way down the concrete path, knowing he was heading in the direction of the nearest bridge.  There was no particular reason for the destination.  It was just a way to walk.

 

There is no reason for anything, when you think about it, he thought morosely.  What is there, but more toil?  To use my strength until it fails?  To lift, until my back breaks?

 

Until my heart… breaks.

 

He hadn’t told Jacob of his recent, sad musings.

 

And in a way, that’s how he knew how bad things were becoming.

 

In years gone by, Father’s counsel would have been the first he sought.  But he already knew Jacob’s opinion of his romantic chances, and they were far from encouraging.

 

There were other friends he could turn to, of course, but Winslow was no help for such things, nor was the agoraphobic Pascal, who preferred his pipes to people.  Cullen’s widowhood had a bitter edge, and Kanin’s joy at being newly married was all but insufferable.  Rebecca was like a sister to him, Mary like a mother.

 

None of them could help, with this.

 

Yes, Vincent knew he had friends aplenty.

 

That almost made it worse, for all of those friendships only heightened the limits he’d reached, in his life.  He could wait another month.  Make another friend.  Make another dozen of those, if that many came to live in the tunnels, over the course of the next year.

 

And then I will still be alone.  But with more friends.  And possibly more… dependents.

 

It was an uncharitable viewpoint, and Vincent knew it.

 

He knew that drawing more friends into his life, doing more work, reading more books, wouldn’t help.  Because none of it was the answer to the loneliness that was steadily gnawing away at his inner self.

 

He knew this wasn’t just a “mood.”  It was a state of being, and it was his to live with.  It was the harsh realization of a reality.  A harsh reality he had no choice but to embrace, and make the best of.

 

Make that another one of those, he thought sadly.

 

Suddenly, his life seemed too full of that.  Like he’d had too much acceptance, and too little joy.

 

He mounted the stairs to the bridge, each step feeling like he was lifting an almost interminable weight, as he drew away from the ground beneath him.

 

His mind spun with questions it had no answers for, had never had answers for.

 

Is there an end to this misery?  Do I just tell them that they are all not enough?  What earthly good would that serve?  Can I face the long years of my life, like this?  When does it stop?  Am I long-lived?

 

He didn’t know.  But it was a testament to his misery that he almost idly hoped that he wasn’t, for the first time.

 

Perhaps I am farther through middle age than anyone suspects, he mused, ignoring the obvious vigor of his physical condition.

 

He knew he wasn’t old, not yet.  He was a male in his prime.  A mate-less male.

 

And the solitary nature of his condition felt… unbearable, at times.

 

Like this one.

 

He walked to the center of the bridge and looked down.  It wasn't a long drop.

 

Just long enough, though.  Maybe.  At the right angle, a neck might snap, and head first would mean certain--

 

Vincent snapped himself back from the utterly morose and unexpected thoughts.  It hadn't been that bad.  Not so bad that he would seriously consider--

 

An owl he couldn't locate hooted from somewhere above him, and a nighthawk answered.  The raptors were on the prowl, trying to score an easy meal.

 

Something small squeaked, in the grassy area to his left.  And then it died.

 

Vincent wasn't sure which creature he shared more in common with, at the moment: the hunter, or the prey.

 

On the one hand, he could feel himself searching.  Searching for… something.  Inspiration.  Purpose, outside of his daily toils.  The end to an aloneness that was slowly, surely, eating him alive, inside.

 

He was both hunting for its solution, and knowing that its effects were dragging him down.

 

But the aloneness itself was like a predator, and it was running him to ground, sapping his strength, and destroying what will he thought he had.

 

On a good day, he felt like he was carrying a ceaseless weight.

 

On a bad one, he felt like he was being devoured, from the inside.

 

It was not so much more complicated than that.  And it was likely the “why” of his idle musings turning to such deep despair.  He knew as much.

 

He heaved a sigh at the depressing path his thoughts had been wandering down, the last few weeks.  Though he'd embarked on the late walk hoping to clear his head and bring himself a decent night’s sleep, as it turned out, the solitary nature of the walk had brought him just more of the same things he’d been fighting.  More loneliness.  More isolation.

 

He left the center of the bridge to make his way down the other side.  The world is too much with me, late and soon, he pondered, descending the bridge to walk the path below.

 

It’s late October.  His birthday was a few months off, but October 25th was uncomfortably close to January 12th, for him.

 

January 12th.  The nights would get colder, still.  The remaining leaves would fall, and the landscape would grow more bleak.

 

And he would grow a year older, with only more loneliness to show for it.

 

He wasn't sure if he had another year of solitary walks in him.  And he struggled with that knowledge, as he continued this one.

 

Though he fought mightily to push that stark conclusion aside, he knew his loneliness was consuming the better part of him.  That it was owning his will to go on.

 

I'm healthy.  I'm whole, he reassured himself as he tugged his cape more tightly around his shoulders.  I have friends.  I have a family.  He tried to uplift himself, as he moved across the solid ground on the other side of the bridge.  But the downward direction of his steps as he came down the slight embankment mirrored his own thoughts, too closely.

 

If I’m healthy and whole…why then, does it feel as if I'm…losing something, inside of me?

 

It was a thing he'd been aware of, but hadn't dared speak about, to anyone.  Not just to Jacob, nor Winslow, nor Pascal, but also not to Eli, or Peter, or even Narcissa.

 

For what could any of them be?  They couldn’t unmake what he was.  Couldn’t help him to a happy life.

 

No one could do that.  No one.

 

And as each year slipped past, that reality (and all it meant for him) was becoming increasingly apparent.

 

Father had tried as gently as possible to tell him that certain things would not come into his life, and as he lived that life, Vincent understood that the old man had been correct.

 

He was now coming to realize the difference between “understanding” a thing, and having to live it.

 

I will be alone.  I must learn to accept --

 

A hundred yards or so away from the bridge, Vincent realized that he wasn't as alone as he'd thought.

 

A carriage sounded like it was about to emerge from the underpass the bridge made, and he could hear the clopping sound of shod horse feet on the concrete path, though he couldn’t see anything, as yet.

 

 

 

It was odd to have carriages through here, but not unheard of.  This area of the walkway was generally reserved for pedestrian traffic, with the carriages restricted to the park's perimeter.  Cold weather tended to keep paying customers indoors, and the lateness of the hour made a ride through the park… inadvisable, to say the least.

 

Yet the sound drew closer, and Vincent knew what that meant, for him.  He'd need to get off the path and conceal himself, until the buggy went past.

 

A stand of pine to his right made for a convenient hiding place, and he pushed his way through the close-knit branches with more than enough time to ensure that he was concealed from anyone's view.

 

Turning back toward the bridge, he watched, and waited.

 

The sound grew louder, yet went on for an extended time, as if the carriage was both very far away, yet ridiculously close.  The pace of the horse's hooves was a steady, rhythmic, unshakable beat, as if the animal had been born trotting at this same pace, and would die at it.

 

Clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop...

 

The beat was a metronome of horseshoes on stone, and it was accompanied by the roll of unseen wheels and a telltale squeak of springs.

 

Yet Vincent could see nothing emerging from the shadowy tunnel formed by the bridge.

 

Clop, clop, clop, clop…

 

Just when Vincent was about to conclude that (as impossible as it seemed) there was no carriage, and that the sound was some sort of elaborate hoax, a patchwork horse emerged from the tunnel.  Heavy hooves hit the stones at the same pace Vincent had been hearing, though the noise seeming no louder, (and certainly no quieter) for its proximity.

 

The carriage followed the animal.  And it was unlike any carriage Vincent had ever remembered seeing, before.

 

The horse-and buggy-combinations that generally rode around the park were usually fairly uniform, in color and design.  They were sturdily made, and open to the air, with a bonnet that pulled up against inclement weather, and a wide, low door to accommodate formal attire and bridal gowns.  They were sleekly modern, in their way, and black, almost always.

 

Not even the color was right, on this one.

 

As the unexpected coach passed beneath the light from the bridge, Vincent could discern a battered canvas hood, either tan or dusty grey, stretched across an equally drab frame.  Large in size, the four wheeler had no "doors" per se, just an open area cut out of each side.

 

A brown and white horse of questionable lineage tugged it along, as a coat clad driver with a heavy cap held the reins with an air of disinterest, as if he regularly drove through the park at this ungodly hour.  He wore his heavy, fur trimmed hat low, and kept his face down a bit, as he urged his nag along.

 

The coach carried a lone passenger, though Vincent couldn’t see the shadowy figure well enough to discern his particulars, as the unexpected vehicle began to pass by.

 

As he thought that, the passenger reached up to turn up a lamp that swung inside the carriage.

 

There was nothing about the carriage itself that indicated it was for tourists, and the closer it drew to him, the more Vincent could discern that its passenger looked almost as out of place as the coach did.

 

Most who rented a carriage were fairly young, well heeled, and often coupled.

 

This man looked like none of those.  He looked a bit round-shouldered, and sported a heavy wool coat, a grizzled beard, and a low stocking cap.  The swinging lantern inside the carriage revealed him to be older, and there were patches sewn onto the shoulders of his coat.  A drab scarf kept the chill off his neck, and his face looked a bit ruddy.

 

He looked as unimpressive as the horse, and whoever he was, he’d obviously concluded that taking a ride in a museum-worthy vehicle across the park was a wise idea, for some reason.

 

From behind the interlocked branches of the pines, Vincent watched the carriage draw close, the horse maintaining the same, steady, “clop, clop” tempo as before.

 

And then it stopped.  Directly in front of him, on the path.

 

Which wasn't to say that it slowed down, and the driver tugged on the reins and yelled "Whoa," or whatever command it was a coachman gave a horse that looked well past its prime.  The carriage suddenly ceased moving, as if horse and vehicle had hit some sort of invisible wall.

 

Inertia simply stopped working, and the lantern also stopped swinging, as if an invisible hand had reached out to hold it still.  The horse’s mane didn’t move.  The wheels no longer turned.  Neither the driver nor his passenger “jerked” to a halt.

 

It all just stopped.  Immediately, and without warning.

 

A dozen things would seem wrong with that, to Vincent, on later reflection.  On how it shouldn't have been able to happen.  On how the driver's body didn't even sway forward, from the sudden loss of momentum, or that the horse's tail never twitched from it, or that the springs barely creaked, or that the wheels (which had been previously turning at a steady pace) just suddenly stopped rolling, as if the carriage had been rather unceremoniously dropped there.

 

All Vincent could do for the moment, was stare.

 

Stare, and maintain his concealment, behind the tall trees.

 

The horse stayed still, and the driver simply held the reins, making no move to come down, and no move to ride on.  He rested his elbows on his knees, waiting for Vincent knew-not-what.

 

It was the passenger who called out to him from inside the cab.

 

"Well?  Are you gonna get in?  Or just keep standin’ there behind the pines, contemplatin’ yer mortality?" the older man asked.  There was a touch of Brooklyn, in his accent.

 

Vincent didn't move.  I couldn't have been seen.  His mind refused to accept it.  The night was too dark, the cover too deep.

 

"It's a cold night, Vincent.  I know the horse doesn't look like much, but this hasn't been his first pick-up, this evenin’.  D’you mind if we get a move on?"

 

Whoever this was, Vincent realized that the man knew not only his location, but his name.  Yet, both seemed impossible, even as the passenger turned his bearded face toward Vincent's concealment, and leaned forward in his seat.

 

The springs creaked, with his shifting weight.  The horse’s ears twitched.  The driver remained motionless.

 

"I need to be across town in an hour.  Not everyone has a choice," the man said mysteriously.

 

Vincent decided to step carefully away from his hiding place, very aware that it felt uncomfortable to do so, yet also feeling that he should.  The man had obviously seen him (unlikely as that was), and just as obviously, knew him.

 

Who was this?  A Helper?  Some… friend of a friend?  Vincent wondered.

 

Vincent knew a desire to see the older man’s face, more closely.  The driver still hadn’t moved from his position, atop the box.

 

"Are you a Helper?" Vincent asked, cautiously stepping clear of his hasty cover.  The horse whickered an answer.  The coachman reached a hand down, to set the brake.

 

"There's some who’d call me that.  Not many, I grant you.  But some," the older man replied.

 

Vincent drew a little closer, and realized that the area around the carriage grew chillier even than the late October air that enfolded it.

 

What was this...?

 

"You sound like Old Sam, but you aren't him," Vincent ventured, stepping farther away from the trees yet not quite wanting to draw close enough to the carriage to touch it.  He kept his booted feet on the grass, rather than on the path, simply because instinct told him to.

 

"Who knew Old Sam sounded like the Grim Reaper?" the man replied, collecting a walking stick from beside him.  He kept his head low as he eased his weight off the bench seat, and then stepped down from the carriage.  Once he had his two (shabby) booted feet on the ground, he settled the old walking stick down.  The paint on it was chipped, though it looked sturdy enough.

 

Like its owner, it looked like it had seen much use, and better decades.

 

He was shorter than Vincent, and stocky, grey haired, from what Vincent could discern from beneath the cap, with the black stocking cap drawn down over his ears, against the cold.  His brown gloves sported multiple holes and the grey scarf around his neck was beginning to fray, on the ends.

 

If this is Death, he clearly needs a better tailor, Vincent concluded.

 

And yet…

 

The way the carriage had sounded both close and far off nagged at his mind, and its sudden, absolutely unearthly stop was still jarring his sense of reason.

 

Not to mention the fact that the man knew his name, though Vincent swore they’d never met, before.  And the atmosphere…  If the night air was chilly, the air around the coach was positively frosty.  And there was something else.  Something Vincent couldn’t quite put his finger on, at the moment.

 

“You are Death?”  Vincent asked, wanting to make sure he understood the offhand introduction correctly.

 

The man bowed, took off his stocking cap, and swept it low, as if it were a top hat. He had a bald spot.  The driver turned his head a little, to watch.  He put two fingers to the brim of his cap, and saluted a greeting, as well.

 

At your service, sir,” the older man replied.  He tugged the cap back on.

 

Vincent eyed the ancient-looking coach with wary eyes.  "If I step inside... I will be dead?"  Vincent asked.

 

The old man chuckled, a little, revealing a need for a good dentist.  "No," the man said, "but you'll be on your way to it, to your fate.  I'll take you there, to where it happens.  When you get out... that's when you choose.  That’s where it occurs.  If you want it to.  You’ll see, at the end of the ride."

 

Blue eyes scanned the amazingly ordinary looking vehicle.  "And if I choose to not go with you?" Vincent asked.

 

Death smiled a rueful smile, showing several missing teeth.  "Y’know, everybody asks me that, yet they all know the answer, already.”  He buttoned the top button on his jacket, against the chill.

 

“If it ain’t today, it will be tomorrow.  If it ain’t this year, it will be some year.  I'm here ‘cause you called for a carriage, Vincent.”  He indicated the opening of the vehicle with an almost absent wave of his gloved hand.  “And rather loudly, I might add.  If you don’t mind me sayin’ so."

 

The old man turned his eyes in the direction of the bridge.  Vincent followed his gaze.

 

Ah.  "So when I thought about the bridge..."

 

"When you thought about dyin’ on it.  Or under it, to be more precise.  Yep.  Heard you.”

 

The horse whickered in agreement, and the driver simply nodded.  His face was shadowed by the bill of his cap, but Vincent had the feeling he was younger.  Dun colored hair peeked out from under the sturdy hat.  Flaps covered his ears against the chill.

 

Vincent was taken aback. "I was not seriously contemplating suicide," he protested.

 

His grizzled companion gave a snort that was positively equine worthy.  "And my horse is really a white rabbit who's very afraid he'll be late.  Pull the other one, Vincent.”  He stepped over and patted the horse’s white rump.

 

“You've been thinkin’ about dyin’.  Or at least thinkin’ about how livin’ is wearin’ you down.  Not just tonight, but at random times, off and on, for mosta this past year."

 

The horse’s tail twitched, and the driver leaned back in the seat.  The flaps of his hat concealed his profile.

 

Vincent said nothing, in answer.

 

Death heaved a sigh, and scratched his grizzled cheek.  Vincent did not think either of the two men looked particularly daunting.

 

The familiar, Sam-like voice went on:  "You're lonely, you're tired.  You wonder if your life has any meanin’, other than more toil, and more struggle, and more… loneliness."

 

Vincent didn't know if the old man was describing him specifically, or if that was the universal condition, at times.

 

"Does it?  Have meaning?"  Vincent couldn't resist asking.

 

Death shrugged.  "I am the very last being in the cosmos that could tell anyone the meanin’ of life, Vincent.”  He patted the horse again.  “I only know the inevitability of death," he concluded.

 

Vincent continued to stand there, feeling the dampness of the grass creep into his feet through his boots.

 

"I thought you'd be somehow... more fearsome," Vincent replied, eying the man's frayed collar and disreputable brogans.  The laces were mismatched.  His dark slacks were patched, at the knees.  He looked like someone who had come from the tunnels.

 

"You mean with a long black robe and a big scythe?" the man asked, revealing the gap-toothed smile, again.  Vincent nodded.

 

"You mistake me for one of my brothers.  And no, you definitely don't want to be collected by him.  Them.”

 

He stepped back to stand near the doorway of the cab, again.  “You ain’t an evil person, Vincent.  There's no need to make this seem more frightenin’ than it probably is."

 

The driver tied the reins to the brake, clearly tired of just holding them.

 

“Death has a companion?” Vincent nodded to the sandy-haired compatriot.

 

The older man shrugged.  “Death has many drivers,” he replied.  “One’ll get you there as good as any other.  But this is Chance,” Death introduced.  Again, the driver gave Vincent a nod, a deeper one, this time.  His hairless chin added to Vincent’s impression of youth.

 

Chance turned his face back to the road, as if it were more interesting than anything going on beneath him.

 

“What has Chance to do with Death?”  Vincent asked, noting that the driver did not remove his hat at the introduction, nor look particularly interested, in the exchange.  He tended to keep his eyes toward the path.

 

“Chance has something to do with everything,” Death replied.  “Leave five minutes later and you’re in the pile up.  Get out of the wrong cab, and you don’t bump into … her.  You know how it is.”

 

“I don’t, actually,” Vincent replied.

 

Death sighed.  “Fine.  Take the left fork past the maze and get caught in the cave-in.  Take the right one, and you’re fine.  Chance.  Luck.”

 

“Fate?”  Vincent asked, curious.

 

Chance shook his head, but didn’t speak.

 

“Nah, not exactly,” Death explained.  “More like the randomness of things comin’ together in a certain pattern.  Not predestination.  Just luck.  Good or bad.  Chance.”  He held up an outstretched palm and indicated his companion.

 

Vincent simply nodded, and stepped a bit closer, in spite of himself.  He was now on the road.

 

“It’s colder, here,” he said.

 

“Yeah.  Sorry about that.  Death isn’t really a warm thing, though it’s not so bad, inside the carriage.  I don’t mean that to scare you with that.  It’s just the way things are.”

 

Vincent nodded, aware that he was becoming accustomed to the chill.  Does that mean I’m … He didn’t finish the thought.

 

“It feels like winter.  Even before you came, I was thinking it,” Vincent said.

 

’If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’” Death quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley.

 

Vincent had no answer for that, either.

 

The horse stamped an impatient foot.  The coachman looked down and seemed to give his friend a rather pointed glance.  Death nodded.

 

"I'm here to give you what you think you might want,” Death said.  “But we really do need to get goin’."  He pulled a pocket watch out of his coat and checked it.

 

"In the Bowery, there's a woman starin’ at a bottle of pills, right now," he explained.

 

Vincent was alarmed. "Will she choose to die?" he asked.

 

"That's none of yer business.  That's her business.  Or at least, it's between her and me.  Sorry," Death said, closing the cover of the watch.

 

The horse stamped its heavily shod front hooves and swished his tail again, as Death returned the watch to his pocket.

 

"I was only asking—“ Vincent began.

 

"Yer not just askin’.  Yer deflecting.  You thought you wanted me.  Now, yer not sure if you do.  It's all right.  Most folks are nervous, when they see the likes of me.  You're handlin’ it pretty well, all things considered," he complimented, stepping back near the door-less opening of the carriage.

 

Vincent looked at the long coach, and the hard, ironwood wheels.

 

"'Because I could not stop for Death...'" Vincent quoted, the line suddenly coming to him.  Emily Dickinson.

 

The shabby man cracked a grin, and so did Chance.  "Something like that," Death replied.

 

"Why do you appear so... normal?  So ordinary?" Vincent asked.

 

At that, the grizzled man fixed him with what Vincent could only describe as an uncompromising look.

 

"I am normal.  Death is a normal thing.  But why do I seem so… mundane to you?”  He patted the pocket that held his watch.  “Prob’ly because we have more in common than you think.  You fear the monster inside you.”  At that, he raised his walking stick and pointed it at Vincent.  “Everyone fears the monster inside me.”  He tapped his chest with the handle of the cane, and set the end of it back on the ground.

 

Vincent suddenly became aware that as empathic as he normally was, this person gave him no “vibe.”  Nor did his companion.

 

Odd.  That’s the thing I’ve been feeling since the coach stopped, he realized.  It’s like they are here, yet… not not here.  Not alive.

 

It was probably much of why he’d accepted this stranger’s identity, to begin with.

 

It was often true that he could read some people better than others.  But it was almost unheard of that he would have no sense of these… people, one way or the other.  Vincent sensed no evil in this creature.  Indeed he sensed no particular intention at all.

 

Because he doesn’t have any.  Intention implies he’s plotting, or planning something.  He’s not.  He’s an inevitability, Vincent realized, vaguely comforted by the fact that the man seemed so matter-of-fact, rather than terrifying.

 

“Death has many faces, but seldom shows his true one,” Death explained.  “Not to anyone.  For probably the same reason you don't like to show yours."  He raised a knowing eyebrow, as he said it.

 

Vincent considered his words.  No, he did not like it when people saw the Beast inside him.  Even though he knew that part of him wasn’t evil, he knew it could be… uncompromising.

 

Then he realized he hadn't simply sent the man on his way, hadn't run back to the tunnels, refusing anything to do with this conversation.

 

Had he really been contemplating his own mortality, so loudly?

 

"Is there--"

 

"No.  No more questions.  Not with you standin’ there.  If you want me to answer anything more, you have to get in."  He gestured toward the carriage.

 

"Will you show me your true face, if I do?"  Vincent asked, curious.

 

"For you, this is my true face.  And that is a question.”  He stepped into the cab.  “Good-bye, Vincent.  I'll be back to pick you up some other time.  We will meet again, don't doubt it.  And that ain't a threat.  It's just a fact."

 

Vincent understood that much was true, for everyone.

 

The driver began to untie the reins from the brake.

 

"Wait!"  Vincent called, not sure why he was inviting the coachman to stay.

 

"Can't wait.  Death doesn't do that.  For anyone,” Death answered.  He settled back into his seat.

 

Chance threaded the long reins in between his fingers and regarded Vincent, from his perch atop the carriage.  He was waiting for some signal to move on.

 

"It isn’t that I don’t want you to understand,” Death explained.  “It’s that when you're in the carriage, time stops.  We can take a long ride, if you want.  Go around the park.  You can tell me anything you want.  You know I'll never tell anybody.  Ask anything you want.  I’ll answer as best I can.  Once yer in the coach, we can talk, if you like.  And the answers gotta be the truth."

 

Vincent regarded him.  "Because Death is an honest man?” he asked.

 

The shabby man cocked his head.  "Think about it.  Death is very unpopular.  But it's never a lie," he replied, taking a moment to adjust the lantern so that it gave a little more light.

 

"And if I decide that I want to live, after all?"  Vincent asked, seeing how the brighter light from the lantern accentuated the crow's feet around the man's eyes.

 

"Then you live.  Ending your life is a choice, Vincent.  It's not a fate, unless you make it one.  And that really is your last question, from out there."

 

He lifted his staff, and Vincent understood that once he signaled the driver with it, they would be done.

 

Vincent was afraid to go with him.  And a part of him was afraid to just stay, and go on as he had been.  Vincent knew that.  He suspected they both did.

 

With loneliness weighing heavily upon him, Vincent mounted the single step and sat opposite his singular host.

 

Death rapped on the hard floor of the carriage, and with a slap of the reins, Chance took them away, into the cold, October night.

 

oOo

 

Death extinguished the lantern inside the cab, but the park lights shone inside as they passed down the concrete walkway.  It didn’t feel quite so cold inside the carriage, and Vincent stared across at his companion, who seemed his fairly genial self.

 

The old man smiled, a little, then looked out the window, watching Central Park move past them.  Light played over his features, and then receded, and once again, Vincent was strikingly aware of how… ordinary it all seemed.  He did not feel threatened, or in danger.  If anything, there was an aura of peace, inside the coach.

 

Perhaps death is that, too, Vincent mused, realizing that it was likely true.

 

The park rolled by, illuminated by the occasional streetlight, and the yellow lamps which lined most of the park walkways.

 

Trees were a soft blur, and the sound of the wheels was almost comforting.

 

“Could we go anywhere?  Anywhere in the world?”  Vincent asked, realizing he’d asked his first question, while inside the unusual contraption.

 

Death shrugged. “We could, if I was in a travelling mood.”  He raised an eyebrow.  “Out of curiosity, where is it you’d like to go?”

 

Confronted with the question so abruptly, Vincent realized he had no one clear answer for that.

 

“The Eiffel Tower,” he replied, simply because it was the first place that popped in his mind.  Everywhere south of Oz, and north of Shangri-La.  “The Louvre museum.  To the home of the women who’s holding the pills, perhaps, in the Bowery,” Vincent replied, realizing that the last one would be by far the more important destination.

 

“Her life doesn’t tangle with yours. And yours isn’t part of hers.  That’s for someone else to do.  Or not.  But don’t worry.  While we’re in here, time is still.  So she’s just holding them.  Hasn’t decided, yet.”

 

A viburnum shrub slid by to their right.  Benches lined the path.

 

“Do you care if she lives or dies?” Vincent asked, curious.

 

Death gave a small shrug.  “I can’t care more than she does,” was his simple answer.

 

But the brown eyes were not unkind ones.  “As I said.  I’ll meet her again, eventually.  I meet everyone.  But even I know there’s a huge difference between a life well-lived, and one cut short.”  He eyed the bare trees.

 

“Even I feel the passage of a year.”  He surprised Vincent by saying it.

 

“You do?”  Vincent was amazed at the revelation.

 

Death shrugged again.  “More than you do.  Time stops every time I get in the carriage.  So a year takes longer for me.  Still…” He looked out into the night.  Something they were passing caught his attention.

 

He pointed with his walking stick.  “I remember that sycamore tree when it wasn’t much more than a sapling.  Then the years went by, and it grew.  A little girl used to love to climb it.  Pigtails.  Pretty. Close to your age, now, I guess,” he reminisced.  “Her father used to stand beneath it, and worry.”  Death shook his head.

 

Vincent simply listened.

 

“There was no need for him to be so afraid.  She wasn’t going to fall,” Death said, as if that explained everything.

 

Vincent eyed the tall, spreading tree.  He could easily picture a venturesome child, high in its branches, and a worried parent, beneath them.  “How did you know?”  Vincent asked.

 

Death sighed.  “Because I wasn’t there for the little girl.  I was there for her mother.”

 

The park continued to slip past.  “Lovely woman.  Sad.  She hated to leave them, but her time was drawing close.  She wanted to see them one last time, so we did.  I took her from the hospital to here,” he remembered.

 

“Her daughter was way up on one of the highest branches, looking out over the world.”

 

He raised his gloved hand to indicate “height.”  Vincent nodded his understanding.

 

“It made the woman smile.  She’d been in a lot of pain.  It was a quiet ride,” Death remembered, turning his eyes back to Vincent.  They were not free of compassion.

 

Vincent breathed in deeply, and looked out into the same area Death had indicated, as the path wound around.  The sturdy sycamore tree spread its bare branches out to the deepening night, not far from the road.  Then it slipped past his view, as the carriage rolled on.

 

“You did something kind,” Vincent said.

 

“There was no reason not to,” Death replied.

 

Things grew quiet again, between them.  It was Death who broke the silence.

 

“What if I told you that the next thirty years were going to be much like the last thirty?” he ventured.  “Full of toil, of care?  Of sorrow with only some few joys, and most of those really belonging to others?  What then?  You could step back out of the carriage, once we stop.  You could go live that life.  Would you?”  Death asked.

 

The words slapped at Vincent’s awareness.  Hard.  “Is that my fate?” he asked.

 

Death simply shrugged, again.  “I don’t know.  Not yet.  Certain… things haven’t happened yet.  Not the least of them being what you decide at the end of this ride,” his companion answered.

 

Vincent inclined his head to one side, considering.

 

“So?  Would you?” Death prompted.

 

Vincent looked down the long years, full of the bareness, the aloneness Death had described.

 

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.  “That is a bitter pill to swallow.”  He looked out at the night, his blue eyes reflecting both strength and sorrow.

 

Death knew well how the latter could sap the former.

 

He scratched his whiskered chin.  “You’re honest, at least.  That’s a virtue.  And it’s a hard one to live with.”

 

He cocked his head to one side as he said it, his posture an echo of Vincent’s own.  “Most people lie to themselves, sometimes.  Most people need to.”

 

Vincent looked back at him, steadily.  Something about this unlikely creature encouraged honesty.

 

After all, what’s the sense in lying? Vincent thought.

 

“There are days when I think my heart is dying,” Vincent said.  It was the first time he’d ever uttered the thought aloud.  There was so much power, in the words.  So much terrible power.

 

Death sighed, again.  “There are days when you are exactly right, then.  It is,” he replied, in a tone of voice that indicated neither compassion nor censure, just simple agreement.

 

Death brushed at his patched slacks.  “Loneliness has killed more people than plague ever thought of doin’.  And I should know,” Death confided.

 

Vincent realized how right his strange companion probably was.

 

“With some, it’s the outright cause.  They just can’t bear it, no more.  For others, well… not every disease just… crops up.  The weariness in their soul runs ‘em down, makes them open to… well, all sortsa nasty things,” he stated.

 

The statue of the falconer slipped past their view.  Vincent had always liked it.

 

 

“You’re feeding the wrong Beast,” Death said, out of the blue.

 

Come again?

 

“I have no idea what you mean,” Vincent replied.

 

“The Beast.  The one inside you.  The one that has ahold of you.”

 

“I’m aware of it.  There are days when it takes all my strength to keep it contai—“

 

“No, not that one,” Death scoffed, or seemed to, just a little.  “Not the one who fights, or rages.  That’s not the reason you’re feelin’ this way.  This Beast is much more simple, I’m afraid.  And just as deadly, for you.”

 

Death stroked his grizzled beard as he eyed the same statue Vincent did.  “Falcons.  They mate for life.  Did you know that?” he asked.

 

Vincent wasn’t sure if he remembered knowing that particular fact.  He probably did.

 

“And rabbits.  Did you know rabbits can die of loneliness, if they get lost or separated?  I like rabbits.  But there it is.  More than a few days on their own and they can just shut down.  Stop.  Heartbroken.  Parrots, too.  Sometimes otters.  Social creatures.  You aren’t the only one, Vincent, though I grant you’re more complicated than an otter.”

 

Vincent had the idea that Death was trying to tell him something, without saying it outright.

 

“So the Beast that I’m feeding is…”

 

“Feed what you love and you’ll feel that love.  Feed loneliness, and…?”

 

“I am not feeding my own loneliness.”  Even though it does feel like a Beast, at times, Vincent added mentally.

 

“Perhaps,” Death said carefully.  “But you ain’t starvin’ it, either.  Yer givin’ up because the scenario that I described for you terrifies you, and you’d sell your soul—or give it up, to avoid it,” he concluded.

 

Vincent knew there was no sense in denying it.

 

“Lately, it seems as if I have no choice,” Vincent replied.

 

“Said by everybody contemplatin’ their own mortality, ever,” Death rejoined.

 

The wheels of the carriage clattered on, and Vincent felt a bump in the road.  Death seemed not to notice.

 

“What’s the answer, then?” Vincent asked.

 

“I never told you there was one,” Death replied.  He adjusted his scarf.  “Too many things are always in play.  You could get out of the coach, go back to yer life, and end up fallin’ to yer death, the next day.  You think you have years, and then you realize you don’t, after all.  Or you could live another hundred years, give or take.  And they could be magnificent.  Or they could be… less.”  He shrugged his rounded shoulders.

 

“Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is take a chance,” he concluded, grinning up toward the driver he couldn’t see.

 

Vincent stared at his own work-worn gloves.  “I suppose it is,” he answered.  He leaned out a little so he could look up at the night sky.

 

If this were my last ride… he thought, but didn’t finish the sentence. 

 

There was no moon, tonight.  Pity.  He would miss it, if this was destined to be his last night on earth.

 

“Remember the first time you saw it?”  Death asked.  Vincent had the distinct impression that his mind had just been read.

 

“It was… magnificent,” Vincent answered.  “And I frightened a little girl,” he remembered.

 

“She forgot her fear.  And you never forgot the moon,” Death said, as if that meant something.  Perhaps it did.

 

Vincent’s blue eyes searched the night above him for he knew not what.  “No.  No, I never did,” Vincent acknowledged, taking in the black of the night sky.

 

Vincent felt the carriage turn off the wider path, and go down one that was much more narrow. They stuck to it a while, and Vincent rode in an almost companionable silence, with his unexpected acquaintance.  Places he knew moved past his searching eyes.

 

Was there really so little to say?  Vincent wondered.

 

“It’s not about what you’ll say.  It’s more about what you’ll do,” Death answered, as Vincent got the impression his mind had been read, again.

 

Vincent simply continued to look out the window, as the view changed to an area of the park he rarely travelled.

 

“We’ve been ridin’ a while.  We’re almost there,” Death said softly.

 

Vincent nodded.  There was no sense in drawing the ride out further.

 

“Can I see the moon, again?  Like the woman saw her child?” Vincent asked.

 

Death shook his head.  “Not if you leave tonight.  There isn’t one.  I don’t make miracles happen, Vincent.  I’m just a force of nature.  Like the moon, or the sun, or the wind.  Or love.”

 

Death left Vincent to consider that.

 

“I don’t have a soul.  And I don’t necessarily envy you yours,” Death declared.

 

Vincent was actually surprised, at the information.  Not for what it meant for Death, but for what it might mean, for him.

 

“I have a soul?”  Vincent asked, aware that it wasn’t the first time Death had used the word, but that it was the first time it had been used in such relevance to himself.  There were times when Vincent wasn’t actually sure he had one.  Other people, perhaps.  But me…?

 

“So silly to doubt what you know you have, since you feel it inside you.  Of course you do,” Death answered.

 

“So there’s an afterlife?  A place where souls go?”  Vincent pressed.

 

Death didn’t answer, right away.  When he did, the answer wasn’t as direct as the one Vincent was hoping for.  “That’s one of the few questions I don’t like to answer.  Because there is no ‘right’ one, for you.”

 

“How so?”  Vincent asked, feeling the carriage slowing down.

 

“Because if I tell you there is, and it’s wonderful, it might prompt yer decision to go.  And if I tell you there is, and it’s terrible, it will only make you afraid.  And if I tell you there’s nothing at all, I have no idea what effect that might have, but it will have one.  And if I tell you all of those things are true, depending on who you are… well.”  Death collected his cane.  “I’d rather you make the next choice based on your life; not on your afterlife.”

 

Vincent regarded his ragged companion.  “You’re wiser than I am,” he concluded.

 

“I’ve had more time to become so than you have,” Death replied modestly.

 

The carriage creaked to a squeaky stop.  Vincent wondered if the painted looking horse had just suddenly “ceased moving” again, the way he had when they’d all first met.

 

“Ah, here we are.  The place where it ends.  Where your fate changes, forever,” Death said, climbing down out of the carriage.  “Time to take a chance, Vincent.  One way, or the other.”

 

Vincent leaned out and looked around.  They were in a part of the park he rarely came to.

 

“So I get no guarantees.  Only the answer that I can get out of the carriage, choose to live my life, and trust that chance will see me through?”  Vincent asked, glancing in the direction of the coachman.

 

“If you want to,” Death replied.

 

Vincent knew what he was going to do.  In spite of the pain he carried, he knew life was meant to be lived.

 

He emerged from the carriage and looked at the cold, empty pathway before him.  It looked as desolate as his heart had been feeling, lately.

 

He was in an empty, shadow-cast section of the park.  One he almost never visited.  They were very near a stretch of city road.  An “s” curve led to a steep embankment.  Water collected at the bottom, along with weeds and bracken.

 

“Will chance change my fate?” Vincent asked, not sure what he was supposed to be seeing, here.  There seemed to be nothing for him.  There seemed to be nothing for anybody.

 

“Chance changes everybody’s fate, Vincent.  Haven’t you been listening?  Sometimes, the changes are good.  Sometimes….”

 

“Sometimes they are unfavorable.”  He understood that much.

 

“Sometimes.  And sometimes, what looks like the one, ends up as the other.  Chance.”

 

Vincent looked around.  “If I decide to stay, to stay in my own life …”

 

“Then I ride on.  Without you.”

 

Vincent nodded.  Then a realization struck him.  “I won’t remember this, will I?  Won’t remember you.”

 

Death gave a bit of a smile.  “Ah, you’re figurin’ it out.  No.  You won’t remember me.  Either we go through with things or we don’t.  If we do, you have no need to ‘remember’ me.  If we don’t… well, you don’t need to remember me, then, either.  I’m greatly feared, I understand that.  But I’m not greatly remembered.”

 

“Perhaps you should be,” Vincent said, stepping away from the carriage.  Death walked with him.

 

“So… this is where it happens?”  Vincent asked, looking around.

 

Death looked up toward Chance.  The driver simply nodded.

 

“He says ‘yes.’  If it happens at all, it happens here. This is where it ends.  Where yer fate changes, forever.  From the life you’re living now, to the one you live… well, after.”

 

The life I live after.  The afterlife.  “So I die here?”  Vincent asked, wondering about that.

 

How?  A gun?  Some stray bullet, some accident?

 

Blue eyes scanned the scenery.  He was back a ways from the road, therefore not likely to get hit by a car.  Still, accidents happened.  This was New York.

 

“I said, “This is where it ends.  I didn’t say that this is where you end,” Death replied, glancing around the desolate spot.  “Not much to recommend it, is there?”

 

Vincent looked past the embankment, to the barren stretch of pavement, beyond.  The city street was painted with yellow guidelines.  It lacked both decent lighting and a guard rail of any kind.  But the curve of the road wasn’t difficult to hold.  It was just a lazy bend in the two-lane street.  The embankment beneath it was steep, but not too steep.  There was scrub brush to one side, and a sapling to the other.

 

To say that there were prettier stretches of park was an understatement.

 

“It seems wholly unimpressive,” Vincent replied.

 

“Mmm.  Well.  I need to get along,” Death said, heading back toward the carriage.

 

“I thought we were discussing whether or not I wished to end my own life,” Vincent stated, watching Death get back into the odd coach.

 

A soft chuckle came from the carriage, as he settled.  “Ah, Vincent, you were never about to kill yourself, not really.  Your heart is sore, but it’s a strong one.  You’ll need that strength, to carry you forward.  You’ll need to remind someone else that they have strength, too.”  He leaned back in the seat, preparing to go.

 

“Who?”  Vincent asked, feeling as if he needed to know.  He stepped back toward the coach, and stood near.

 

Death merely smiled.  “I got no idea,” he replied, rapping the floor with his cane.  Chance took up the reins.

 

“Wait,” Vincent said, reaching out to grasp the bridle of the painted horse.  His skin was cool, to the touch.

 

Death sounded just a touch annoyed, for the first time.  “Vincent… I really am a busy man.  And you don’t actually want anything to do with me.  If I’m wrong about that, get back in, and I’ll take you back to the bridge.  You can throw yourself off it, and we’ll be done.”

 

“Just one more question….”

 

“Why?  Why, when you won’t remember the answer?”  Death asked impatiently.

 

Vincent paused.  I may not remember it here,” he said, indicating his head, “But I may remember it here,” he said, rubbing his palm over his heart.

 

Death sighed expansively.  “Yer a tough customer.”  He leaned his head out of the cab.

 

Chance looked down from the driver’s seat, and a silent communion seemed to pass between the two odd men.  Vincent let go of the horse’s bridle, in a gesture of good faith.  Death fixed Vincent with a steady stare.

 

“Yer afraid that in the long years of your life, you’ll always feel separate, feel alone.  You’ve waited patiently, and impatiently, and neither has worked, neither has helped.  You fear yer own nature, and you fear yer fate.  There is only one piece of advice I can offer for that, Vincent,” Death stated.

 

“And what is that?”

 

“That you must do what you did when you climbed into this carriage.  You must face yer fears, and move through them.”

 

Chance tightened his hold on the reins, and Vincent stepped back, as the painted horse shook his dark head.

 

“The woman… the one in the Bowery.  Tell me she’ll live!” Vincent said, as the reins came down.

 

“Yah!” Chance shouted, and the carriage pulled away down the path, and off into the October night.

 

Death’s answer drifted back to him, from the open window.  “There’s always that chance…”

 

Vincent looked after the coach as it rattled down the stone walkway, managing to look both mundane and a bit surreal, at the same time.

 

He’s heading for the Bowery, Vincent realized, hoping for a good outcome for a woman he’d never met.  And never would, according to his unique travelling companion

 

The coach disappeared around a curve in the path.  The moment it was out of his sight, it was also, inexplicably, outside his sense of hearing.

 

Vincent wondered if a certain woman was hearing the clopping sound of horse hooves, right about now.

 

What an amazing night, Vincent thought.  ‘Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.  The carriage held but just ourselves, and immortality…’

 

Vincent shook his head.  While it might be true that Death had stopped for him, it was Chance who had taken him for a ride.  He wondered if that meant something.

 

And then he felt the memories begin to slip away.

 

We do not what we ought, What we ought not, we do, And lean upon the thought that chance will see us through,’ Vincent quoted Matthew Arnold to himself, trying to hold the word “chance” in his mind, somehow.

 

He did not like the feeling of the evening rewinding itself, in his mind.  Had he seen the Falconer statue, this evening?  He was no longer sure he had.

 

Now that the carriage was gone, the cold night fell suddenly silent, all around him.  Silent except for the sound of his own soft breathing, inside his hood, as he stood surveying the area the coach had brought him to.

 

“If it happens at all, it happens here. This is where it ends…  Where yer fate changes, forever.”

 

But… if he wasn’t going to die here… what did that mean? Vincent wondered.

 

What ends, here?  My loneliness?  My pain?  My ability to hope?  What?  Vincent didn’t trust to hope.  Not yet.  And there was no reason to trust anything else.

 

Trust chance, then.  It’s all I have, he realized.

 

The area he stood in was a patch of greensward, nothing more.  There was nothing in the area to investigate, nothing which drew his eye.  And it was too close to the road, for him.  It was why he often avoided it.

 

Headlights pierced the darkness, as if they’d come to punctuate that understanding.  Vincent stepped reflexively behind a nearby oak, as an old car’s headlamps spread uneven illumination, across the roadway.  The right headlight looked fairly steady, but the left one was aiming down, some, as if it was struggling to remain a part of the car.

 

As the driver took the bend in the road, the left headlamp swung loose in its housing.  The sedan rattled around the curve, and Vincent saw the left light go out, as the ancient vehicle lost a piece of itself, to the turn.

 

Inertia and a bump in the road cost the car the reflector, from the headlight.

 

It went rolling toward the grassy knoll, as the relic of a vehicle belched smoke into the New York night, and puttered on.  The driver didn’t even slow down, either not knowing, or caring about the part he was leaving behind.

 

Perhaps he’s running from something, too, Vincent thought, as he watched the round metal car part wander drunkenly toward the edge of the road, and then tumble down the embankment.

 

Or no.  Perhaps he’s going toward something, and doesn’t want to be late.  Perhaps he’s going toward “her,” and no matter what happens, he’s determined to get there, Vincent thought, going over to pick up what fate (or chance - or Chance) had cast in his direction.

 

Vincent felt himself losing more memories of the night, and he scrambled over to the useless piece of junk, determined to keep it, to try to use its solidity as a reminder of what had happened, that evening.

 

The reflector had been scratched and slightly dented long before it had made contact with the road.  He suspected it was an original part of the car, which put it somewhere near thirty years old, at best, by his inexpert reckoning.

 

“It’s the same age I am,” he thought, turning it over in his hands.

 

Cracked down one side, he could see why it had come loose.  It had simply sheared itself off of the moving vehicle, and given itself freely to the New York night.  The reflector bowl had seen better days.  Or better decades, for that matter.

 

This is a useless piece of scrap, Vincent thought, turning it over smoothly, in his hands.  Designed to aim light, it gave off a poor quality reflection.  It was indeed useless, for him

 

But he knew the description was an incorrect one.  He wasn’t sure exactly why, but the reflector bowl felt… right, in his hands.  Like it was tied to his fate, in some way.  Like it would serve some sort of… purpose.  He had no other word for it but that.  He slid it carefully inside a deep pocket in his cloak.

 

My fate is in this place.  But how? Vincent wondered, looking around at the otherwise desolate spot.  He knew this wasn’t an area he normally visited, unless the night was particularly foggy, particularly dark.  The proximity to the road meant he had to be careful to avoid being picked up by passing headlights, and the grass near the embankment tended to be marshy, thanks to its ability to collect water.  The area was often mist-shrouded, even when other parts of the park were fairly clear.

 

It makes no sense, he thought.

 

As he began to walk toward home, he knew he was forgetting things he didn’t want to forget.  Forgetting the ride, the conversation with the ordinary-looking old man, and the odd way he’d passed the incredible October night.

 

The reflector swung solidly against his leg, tucked down deep.  And though he knew he’d picked it up from the area near the road, by the time the drainage tunnel came into view, he had no idea why he’d walked there, this evening.

 

As the moonless night grew more chill, he remembered that next week, Halloween would come.  He needed to get some sleep.  Tomorrow… today, really… the children would begin to pester Mary for scraps of clothing they could turn into costumes, and they’d begin to scavenge old bed sheets and bric-a-brac.

 

In less than a week, Jacob would be telling ghost stories and William would be baking cookies.  Mouse would probably make some sort of mischief or other, and the children would all be busy folding paper hats and monster masks, pretending to be what they weren’t.

 

Vincent knew he couldn’t do that.  That he’d never been able to, really.  Never been able to pretend he was anything other than what he was.

 

He heaved a sigh, at that.  And then tried to move past any feelings of melancholy.  There were others to think of, after all.

 

Perhaps, next week, he’d sit on the stairs in Jacob’s room, and let Samantha and Kipper hold his hands, so they wouldn’t get scared while Jacob recounted the story of John and Deirdre.  Again.

 

Fear was a terrible thing, after all.

 

“You must face yer fears and move through them,” said a voice with a Brooklyn accent, inside his mind.

 

Now, where did that thought come from?  Vincent wondered.

 

Vincent had no idea, and he shook off the odd sentence as the product of a tired mind.  It had been a long day.  A very long one.

 

He would go to his chambers.  He would rest.  After he put the dilapidated treasure on his shelf, he would climb into bed and try to get a decent night’s sleep.

 

He stopped at the entrance to the tunnel, and looked back over the late October night.

 

It’s a long time, until April, Vincent mused again, still longing for spring.

 

Not so long as you think, a certain voice inside him whispered back.  ‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’

 

Holding Shelley to his heart, and a battered reflector lamp inside his pocket, Vincent made his way inside.

 

Perhaps the winter won’t be so long, after all, he hoped.

 

One never knew what might happen in the spring.

 

~~

 

No matter where you are when Chance takes you for a ride, I wish you love.

 

~ Cindy

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

 

Illustrations supplied by the author


 

 

 

 

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