SunlightA 3rd Anniversary AU
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” – Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays 2. 1926-29
Until the words left Geoffrey’s mouth it had been a lovely day.
Unexpected, if Catherine were asked to describe it.
She wasn’t supposed to be supervising Tunnel children on her third anniversary of … meeting… Vincent. (She never could quite figure out how to define their anniversary, not that she actively broadcast it to everyone. A card commemorating the day the love of my life rescued me from dying of facial lacerations would never make Hallmark millions.) Yet there she was—counting heads aged 4-13.
She was meant to be getting her hair and nails done, but the children had needed her. (She hoped a cancelation fee and a big tip would take care of the rest.) The kids of the Tunnels had been cooped up most of the winter, so the council decided they must travel to the park at the first opportunity, which, of course, ended up being April 12th. Father had protested the day should be for her and Vincent alone, more mindful of Vincent’s needs after his illness. But they hadn’t planned on meeting until the evening anyway, and she’d already taken off work. She’d survive without the newest shade of polish, especially if it helped Vincent.
In a way, she’d meant the day to be a gift to him. Despite his reluctance to complain, even he’d grumbled about the children’s rough-housing and sleeplessness. The interns at the office were the same. They could feel spring, despite being imprisoned away from it. Not being able to take part in the season made everyone unhappy.
When she’d first seen her group before sunrise that morning, Vincent had been moving through like a precision breeze—shoes tied, bags gathered, lunches retrieved, hats found, an extra snack for Raúl’s blood sugar. Vincent had even packed her a lunch—peanut butter and jelly, apple and carrot sticks—and a first aid kit, of course. He was good at anticipating their needs.
But twelve? Twelve kids! The thought had nearly sent her running in the other direction. Only the realization that he believed she could handle twelve kept her there.
Vincent, like a sergeant with his troops, brought them to attention, in line and partnered up—Geoffrey, the eldest, carrying their ball and bat at the rear, and the smallest, Melanie, holding Catherine’s hand up front. Vincent had escorted them to a secluded exit in the Ramble, then offered her a rough itinerary—Shakespeare‘s garden first and a visit to the whispering bench, then playing around the theater and castle, softball, lunch at the Alice in Wonderland statue, finally back up to the new playground near Central Park West.
An embrace and his unexpected kiss for luck and they’d been off.
Along the way they’d greeted a multitude of runners, about a hundred dogs, a few horses, a dancing group who taught the kids a move called the “pop-and-lock”, sailed model boats at the pond, and met a remarkable woman using a puppet of herself to feed squirrels.
It had seemed impossible at 7:00 in the morning they’d make it to 4:00 in the afternoon, but, only two scraped knees, one jammed finger and a splinter later, they’d reached 3:30 with the children running and ranging through the playground. Vincent had gotten them ready for a successful day, and she had – nearly – delivered it.
It had been the perfect season for their adventure. Their many layers blended with the other children’s coats and were shrugged off as the day warmed, which happened faster than she’d anticipated, at least out of the shade.
Catherine had quick breaks to bask, eyes closed, under the sunlight’s heat—a welcome herald that spring finally settled in for the year. Vincent’s illness may have been short, but the recovery of his memories and slow return of their bond through the frigid days seemed very long. And without Joe managing the day-to-day since Moreno’s ouster, arriving at the office before dawn and leaving after sunset had lost what little appeal it ever had. No guilt from skipping out touched her. Corralling cute Tunnel kids versus corralling irritable interns – no contest.
“Vincent’s Brigade, this is your fifteen-minute warning!” she’d called—the name, his name, in the world brought a thrill. A chorus of okays and got it’s and even a thank-you had answered her. The Tunnel children’s politeness, their steering other kids at the park into safer, more creative play, their happiness in finding clutches of daffodils—their group’s name wasn’t the only reminder of him. He’d been everywhere. The Diana Ross playground wasn’t even far from where they first… met… touched.
While listening to feet scurrying through imaginary castles and make-believe ships, it had struck her again that many of her favorite places—the Tunnel entrances, the running paths, the playgrounds, the quiet Ramble by-ways Vincent had shown her on their night walks—were all near where he’d first found her. A dichotomy—the smell of wet earth evoked both memories of agony, but also comfort and possibility.
The sun had warmed her, and those past hurts dissolved in the perfectness of the day. The park was coming to life. Most of the trees hadn’t leafed out yet, but were expectantly close to blossoming and unfurling. The bravest of the early flowers were in their full glory, and more were on the way. Spring in the sunlight, winter in the shade, she had chuckled to herself, fairly sure not only was the quote Dickens, but also from Great Expectations. The king of coincidences himself would have been proud.
What was meant to be a gift to Vincent turned out to be his gift to her.
She couldn’t wait to tell him.
An obliging ice-cream cart had made wrangling her group out of the playground much easier. They’d nearly bought the Good Humor man out of push-up pops and ice-cream sandwiches before they’d gotten back in their lines and crossed Central Park West. She’d escorted her band to a side entrance of a building on 85th, one she’d passed before, but had never looked at twice. Vincent waited for them behind the second door in the sub-basement—a finger to lips to remind them they were too close to the surface for shouting, but also with a smile at her contented sigh for a worthy task completed.
All-in-all it had been a well-orchestrated, according-to-plan sort of day…
…until Geoffrey bounced past them, still on a sugar high.
“Thanks for the trip and the ice-cream, Catherine. You’re gonna be a great mom.”
“Are we really doing this tonight?”
Vincent looked up from the dinner Catherine had kindly supplied and he’d rudely pushed around his plate for the last ten minutes.
How can we not? he thought, although he couldn’t say it aloud.
She sat across from him, achingly beautiful, beautiful for him, in her white dress that glowed in the candlelight. Music wafted out of the open balcony doors.
Everything was perfect and he was going to ruin it.
Just after nightfall he’d met her, helped move her new table and chairs, and taken out plates of sole and asparagus, all without twenty words spoken between them.
Geoffrey’s prophecy had been more than enough to fill all the silences.
“Ok, I guess we are.” She exhaled, placing her fork down and wiped her mouth with the napkin.
“Geoffrey reminded me,” Vincent said, laying his fork on the plate as well. “He … brought truth home to us.” He couldn’t keep the hurt from coloring his voice.
“Oh,” she breathed. “I see.” She dropped her napkin to the table.
She didn’t see. She wouldn’t—lovingly obstinate.
“Catherine, I know you. I could sense your happiness this afternoon, in the sunlight. You deserve that.”
“Yes,” she nodded, agreeing, retorting. “Because of you, I had that.”
“Do I need to say the words?”
Waiting, tilting her head.
Yes, clearly, he did.
“You deserve that with children of your own.”
Blinding and astonishing rage attacked him through the bond, so sudden he nearly doubled over.
“I didn’t think you could be so cruel,” she said, tone flat, yet the sentence an assault.
He wanted to run from betrayal in her voice.
“Who should I have this family with, Vincent? With someone I could never give my heart to?” Her passion seemed to stir the air around them. Even the candles seemed cowed, whipping under her ferocity.
But then she stopped, shutting her eyes, breathing out her anger. She was trying, trying to soften.
“Don’t you see?” she asked, imploring him to understand. “You own a part of me.”
After moments when he couldn’t answer, she continued, gaze downcast.
“I gave you my heart, and I can never take it back. Any man …” She sounded disgusted at the idea of someone attempting to come between them. “Any man would eventually hate me for what I couldn’t give him.”
Vincent’s eyes traced the mosaic pattern in her new table for long seconds before he spoke again.
“And will you ‘eventually hate me’ for the things I cannot give you?” he asked with as much opposition as he could muster.
But she matched his defiance.
“After the reporter, after Paracelsus, after your sickness?” she challenged. “No, I can’t let you go. Not again.”
She looked straight into him.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe this is the day to deal with this. I think … I think we’ve been skirting the facts too long.”
Despite what she’d just said, Vincent’s heart raced, terrified that it would end here, that she would end them, yet what she offered instead didn’t make him panic any less.
“I could only ever have a child with one man—you.”
“We can’t know if I can … if we …” He couldn’t finish, at least not looking her in the eye.
No child should come from me. Of all people, Catherine, after last year, you should accept…
“I know what you are going to say, but I want to be together. You and the Tunnels have been my priority for a long time now. Maybe it’s time to cut our losses and move on.”
Losses—doesn’t she see that’s what she’s courting.
“It’s dangerous,” he protested.
You would risk everything, including your health, including my heart.
“It’s life,” she countered.
“Catherine, you know what I am,” he whispered.
I did not think you could be so cruel.
“I realize it’s hard for you to accept,” she replied, recognizing his pain, reacting with sympathy, “but, for me, there only this path.” She reached for him. “You found me, and all the other roads weren’t taken.” Tender, earnest—a gentle squeeze to accompany the promise. “I am with you.”
“You’re barely with me,” he growled.
Profane to pledge herself and just as obscene for him to reject the pledge.
She flinched at his anger.
“Yes. Exactly,” she whispered with finality, as if he were making her argument for her.
She wanted more of him?
A dream—outrageous, deferred and denied.
After a long silence.
“What you felt from me today—I was thinking of you,” she murmured.
A different argument and another he had no answer for.
“I loved being with the children in the park today, but I couldn’t wait to get back to you.”
“You are the best person I know, Vincent.”
Man, person—her stubborn clinging to that aspect … but only an aspect.
“You were with us, in me, in Leah, and Natasha, Raúl and Edward, Geoffrey and Melanie, all of them. I see your love in how they play, in how they treat others.”
Her white dress flowed, surrounding her as she knelt before him.
“Vincent, you made the park a place I can go.” She took his hand. “Even if I’d been found by someone else three years ago, do you think I’d ever have gone there again without you?”
She breathed a dry laugh.
“My father just wanted me ‘safe’. And my friends couldn’t believe I’d ever want to step foot in the park again. You were the only one who pushed me. Without you, I never would have had the courage to go there.”
Did he? He had simply offered to show her the places that brought beauty to his life. That’s all. Did walking beside her mean so much?
He watched her for a quiet moment. From his memories came the image of another woman in white dress, a guide on a dream journey, and another Catherine from a world where he didn’t exist, a world where he hadn’t saved her. Her fear and misery had broken him then and punctuated her argument now.
“Thinking of that,” she said, her thumb caressing the fur of his knuckles, “thinking of you, that made me happy today.”
She stood, still holding his hand, and peered down.
“You’re wonderful,” she affirmed, as if there were no doubt of the fact. “And if I want more of you in the world,” she said with a coy glance, “can you blame me?”
Not expecting a reply, she released him to take the plates back inside.
The night didn’t go better after that.
They’d planned on reading Great Expectations, in remembrance of comforts past, but, before they’d settled on pillows, the breeze picked up, rain clouds materializing.
Possibilities, like the wind, swirled all around them.
When the first drops fell, they couldn’t run, they didn’t fight, bathing silently in aftermath of the day’s intensity.
Collison or connection, fate or choosing, it didn’t matter. They would find no answers tonight.
He was about to bow to the storm’s power, leaving before he couldn’t navigate the climb, when he sensed her courage rise again.
She grabbed his arm.
“Vincent, before you go, I need you to understand. There is a chance it won’t work. I know that. There’s a chance we could never … have a baby—” needing to add, “—for a host of reasons. And if you said you never wanted a child, I’d be sad, but I would respect your decision.”
How? How could she give up that dream for him?
“There are so many little ones Below,” she answered, as if she’d read his mind. “If we made a life together there, we would never be without children in our lives,” she pleaded. “But I need you to know … I want to try. I think we make a good team.”
She wanted him.
She trusted him, despite his complete lack of trust in himself.
He remembered her fear that morning, after seeing the group that she was to take, and then her growing courage as he gathered the children and walked her through what they might do during the day. She would attempt that on a grand scale, a life’s scale, for him, because of him.
Lightening cracked, followed by thunder a few seconds later. The rain was more insistent now, cold and biting. They’d run out of time.
Her gaze straight into his, she let go in a gesture that said it was his decision to listen or not.
“If I’m going to have children of my own—and yes, today reminded me I do want them—I’ll only ever have them with you,” she vowed.
Her eyes dropped. “So, if it’s that important to you that I do—”
“I must go,” he said, stating the obvious before she could, a coward’s reply to her bravery.
Nodding, she disappeared inside, her sadness more frightening than the oncoming storm.
There was no rest that night or in the next dawn-less days Below. No distraction was enough to keep thoughts of her and this year’s anniversary—barely less disastrous than the year before—from overtaking every moment.
Dreams of equal parts comfort and disaster, passion and tragedy haunted what little sleep he found. One of a smiling Catherine, taut bellied with life stirring beneath his hand, brought him panting out his last rest two days ago.
He saw her everywhere and in everyone—in the gifted sweater Rebecca wore, an apron she’d made for William, reading glasses she’d picked up for Father, the knitting needles she’d brought in bulk for Mary and the knitters, and in the children…
Always in the children.
They were still talking of their park adventures, whirling and dancing with new steps, and still playing the games she had given scope and space away from their underground home.
And he doubted they would ever forget the ice cream.
“He was so funny,” Melanie shouted while bouncing on the bed, her black hair flowing as she went up and down on the old, squeaking frame.
“Who was funny? And Melanie, it isn’t time for jumping.”
Vincent’s turn to be the nighttime nursery wrangler may have coincided with the least sleep he’d had in recent memory, but it wasn’t the children’s doing … not directly, anyway.
He slumped into the reading chair.
“It is time to rest,” he said with what he hoped was a definitive air.
“The Ice cream man.” The little girl answered his question. “He was funny!” She yelled, ignoring his call for calm, still bouncing. “He asked Catherine, ‘Are all dees kids yours, lady?’” she mimicked in a passable Lower East-Side accent.
“And do you—” jump, jump “—know what—” jump “—she said?” Jump.
More of Catherine, of course.
Vincent put his hand over his eyes. He couldn’t do this tonight.
“No, Melanie,” he sighed. “I don’t.”
Abruptly the creaking stopped and Vincent uncovered his face to see Geoffrey gripping the little girl’s wrist to stop the jumping.
Before Melanie even registered she’d been caught she blurted, “Catherine said, ’Yup, they’re all mine.’”
With an abashed, yet haughty, scowl, the little girl pulled away. Geoffrey sustained his silent stare while she scrambled under the covers. Once in, she continued her tale.
“And that was silly too, because there were some kids from Above that weren’t in ‘Vincent’s Brigade.’”
He thanked Geoffrey with a nod and dragged the blankets up over the girl.
“But they didn’t have mommies and daddies there either, so she bought them treats too.”
Of course. Catherine would hate to see a child go without. She’s nurturing. It’s who she is.
Flashes of Catherine—of her tending her roses, of her warm caresses and encouragement during his illness, of her walking hand in hand with the children … of her with Ellie. Even in the hardest times, her love shone. She loved, and she would risk herself to love more.
Any child … any child … would be blessed to have her as his mother.
Shaken, but with a job to do, he scraped out, “It’s time for our reading now.”
“You know what Vincent?” Melanie asked as he tucked the covers around her.
The girl’s baby-fat fingers motioned for him to come closer. He bent, his hair scraping the sheet near her chin. She reached up to grab a lock, twirling it in her fingers while she responded.
“I wish Catherine was here all the time,” she whispered, a wish that shouldn’t be voiced too loudly if you wanted it come true.
He kissed her cheek and let her twist his hair until it fell from her grasp before he stood.
“So do I,” he confessed, swallowing tears that at least needed postponing if he were to make good on his night’s promises.
When Vincent rose, it was to see Geoffrey watching his interaction with the orphan girl.
The boy smiled, and the world somehow shifted.
In three years, under the care of each other, he and Catherine had become different people. They’d survived so much. He wanted her and she—as miraculously as first finding her in the park— wanted him. She deemed them worthy—and more—a potential creation between them worthy.
She’d given him a gift—the truth of the depth of her love.
He owed her a gift in return.
Near giddy with insights and possibilities, he wasn’t truly surprised by what Geoffrey said while handing over their bedtime book, House at Pooh Corner.
“Vincent, you’re going to be a really great dad.”
Rain still fell, torrential and unrelenting. It had almost certainly stopped and started again in the five days he had last seen her, but the persistent sheets gave the impression of having never ended since their anniversary.
He shouldn’t have chanced the climb in the downpour, but if talking about the future wasn’t perilous enough to deter him, neither was wet stone.
Catherine—her gauzy outline through the curtains, sitting on the bed, gaze distant, her thoughts as clouded as the sky. She still wore work clothes. Turmoil had given way to workday numbness that now teetered into despondency.
At his tapping, her hurt broke into surprise.
She didn’t believe he would be back … ever? Possibly.
He couldn’t blame her. He couldn’t believe it, either.
Yet, somehow, in the span of a few days, the world had shifted.
She opened the door to him.
“Vincent—” His name an almost question, her face strained. “I’m—”
She was going to apologize for their anniversary, for the truth. He couldn’t let her.
“Catherine—” he interrupted, speaking above the sound of the rain on concrete. “I want more of you in the world.”
“What?” She blinked against the words and water coming in, but her mistrust and hurt was slowly giving way.
“Catherine, I am afraid for you … for us. And these fears, I will always have them—”
He moved closer.
“But I cannot deny who you are.”
Hope, the smallest light, like a candle against the dark, lit inside her.
The universe blessed him with the ability to feel it.
“You are the most caring and bravest woman I know and …”
He took her hand and ventured to raise his eyes to hers.
“…I want you to have a child. I want you to have a child of your own.”
He pressed her palm to his face.
“If you will allow me … if you can be patient with me …”
Her fingers cupped his wet cheek in immediate assent.
“…I’ll show you how important this is to me.”
Happiness, like sunlight, broke through her pain and doubt. She ran a gentle hand down his jaw, then grasped his wet cloak to draw him inside, into her arms and out of the torrent.
They stood in the open door for long moments, him shielding her from the worst of the storm.
Finally, before he kissed her, sought her, gave everything to her, he whispered, “I love you, Catherine. I want you by my side, always.”
He smiled, “I think you’re right. We ‘make a good team’.”
Twenty years later, on the anniversary of day he rescued the love of his life from dying in the park, Vincent sat with Geoffrey and his partner, all thicker with age and experience, and discussed the frightening and glorious power of a long-ago boy’s prophetic and inspiring words.
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears”