I AM ALIVE

Joan Stephens

Catherine stretched luxuriously, wallowing in the feeling of well-being that coursed through her. The warm morning sun of Nevada shone brightly through the window, falling on her bed and on her. She felt as alive as the dust motes that danced in the sunbeam. She was well, at last, both physically and mentally. The nightmares had disappeared and the exercise program that she practiced daily had filled out the thinness of her body, returning the muscles to their pre-abduction fitness. The healthy diet prescribed by the sanitariumís dietician had returned the curves to her lithesome body, and she was in better shape than she had ever been in her life. Hugging herself tightly, she thought, Today is the day I reclaim my life with the man I love. She knew that Vincent waited impatiently in the tunnels below New York City for her return. Soon, my love, soon. Iím sorry I made you wait for my return Below, but I needed this time to prove to myself that I could be the woman I once was, and Iíve discovered that Iím even better.

She remembered the day that Peter had hesitantly entered her hospital room. He couldnít seem to bring himself to look at her as if he was afraid that it was all a big mistake. When he finally raised his eyes to look at her, he staggered and fell into the chair next to her bed. Slowly he shook his head in disbelief as tears welled in his eyes. It was all too much for him, and he was overwhelmed with the feelings that raged through him. Belief warred with disbelief, anger battled with relief, sadness vied with incredible joy, and guilt wrestled with knowledge. He should have been able to do something to spare her from the horrible ordeal she had gone through. He looked into the eyes he had first seen on the day she had come into the world, and he knew. It was Catherine, but a Catherine much diminished in body and soul. She looked so small and fragile that he was hesitant to give her a hug, afraid that he might hurt her. Smiling her own special smile, she held her arms out to him, and he tenderly and carefully enfolded her in his arms.

Her thin arms wrapped around him with surprising strength as she nestled into his neck, murmuring, "Peter, oh Peter, Iím so sorry."

He pulled back to look at her. "Youíre sorry? Why are you sorry? You did nothing wrong."

Nodding her head obstinately, she said, "Oh yes, I did. If I had only told you about the baby . . ."

"How could that have changed anything, pumpkin? You would still have been kidnapped." Reaching into his pocket, he extracted a hanky and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks.

"No," she said, shaking her head, "you would have sent me to Vincent, and I would have told him about the baby."

"We donít know what would have happened, honey; itís all supposition now." He laid her back into the bed where she rested softly as a feather. "Itís over and done with. Now we need to pick up the pieces and put your life and Vincentís back together."

Her eyes lit up at the mention of the man she loved. "How is he, Peter? Has he survived this terrible separation? Itís been over a year; I feel as if itís been a lifetime. Has he...?" Here she stopped unable to go on.

But Peter knew what she wanted to ask. "Found another? No, Cathy, how could you even ask that?" He was rewarded with a bowed head and chagrined smile. "He continually blames himself for not finding you. Heís been only half a man. He lives, but in truth, he only exists, waiting for the day he can go to you." He noticed that she shivered at his words. "Only his intense loyalty to his world and Father has kept him alive." He looked closely at this woman who was like a second daughter to him, basking in the glow of the knowledge that she was really there, even if she was a mere shadow of her former self. "What happened, Cathy? Why did you disappear? Was there no way that you could get a message to him?"

"No, I was taken so fast and so closely guarded that I couldnít even go to the bathroom by myself. They were almost paranoid about it, terrified of the man who owned them. When he finally decided that I didnít really know anything, he told them to kill me. I never even got to see him; he was always in the shadows or speaking through a microphone. Then I woke up here. They told me I was found in the desert by an old prospector." She chuckled thinly, "Sounds silly, doesnít it? But Iíve been assured that thatís what happened. Iím sure the doctors have told you that I was in a coma for the last year. Even my own government wouldnít let me contact anyone until they considered it safe. When they told me that he was dead, I asked them to bring you here."

She tried to sit up and, with an assist from Peter, was soon resting comfortably against a mound of pillows. Grunting with effort, she leaned intently toward her old friend. "I asked for you specifically because I want you to take a letter for Vincent. I need to explain to him why I am not returning to the city with you."

Peter reacted with a shocked, "Youíre not? But...but, Cathy, why? It will kill him not to be able to be with you when he finds out that youíre alive. You canít do this; itís unconscionable. I thought you loved him." He was rigid with anger, staring at her; he couldnít believe what he heard, and suddenly he wondered if the woman lying in the bed was really Cathy Chandler. "Iím beginning to wonder if you are really Cathy Chandler."

His anger pushed her deeper into the pillows. Raising an importuning hand, she said, "Please, Peter, let me explain. I, too, am afraid that he will be hurt, but I hope Vincent will understand when he reads my letter. I need this time to find out who Catherine Chandler really is. I thought I knew, but with all that has happened to me, Iím not sure anymore. I have to do this. I hope he wonít hate me." Covering her eyes, she began to cry.

As he calmed down, Peter began to see the reasoning behind her decision. "But what do I tell him, honey? How do I explain?"

Wiping her eyes, she reached for a book on the bedside table. She took an envelope from it and handed it to Peter. "Read it. Maybe that will help you." She closed her eyes, waiting for him to finish.

Peter took a folded sheet of lavender scented paper from the envelope. Unfolding it, he read:

Beloved,

Every rose has its thorn and the separations that we have endured, and will endure, have been the thorns of our love. Forgive me if I do not fly to your side, but Peter can tell you of my condition. I need this time to myself, to discover the Ďwho of me.í I need to find, once again, the parts of me that have been stripped away by all the drugs, the abuse, and the lies and deception. I need to regain the sense of safety and confidence that I once had. I need to heal. I know you are thinking that you could help me find my way, but I needĖIĖneed to do this myself. I want to return to you as a whole person. I hope you understand that my need of the stark beauty of the desert is the same as your need of the nameless river. Wait for me, my love. The thought of returning to you will speed my healing.

Never think that I have forgotten you; you are my heart, my life. I need you; you are the food my heart feeds on. I will keep you informed of my progress. Peter will be our Hermes, taking my letters to you and forwarding yours to me. Expect to see him almost every day.

Be well, my love, and try not to hate me too much. I love you so; you deserve the best I can give you.

All my love,

Catherine

*****

Peter left after two days, carrying Catherineís letter next to his heart. Frankly, he dreaded giving it Vincent. How could he explain her decision? How could he ease the manís heart? He was certain it would be broken. And Jacob. He had a sinking feeling that he knew how the tunnel patriarch would react. Any affront or pain given to his son was simply not to be tolerated. Peter was sure that his old friend would explode when he was told of Cathyís decision. Ah well, it was not his place to interfere regardless of how much he cared for both of them; he was simply the messenger, but it didnít make it any easier. It was well past midnight when he returned home. He breathed a sigh of relief; he could put off until later that night the upsetting duty of delivering Cathyís letter to Vincent. Thinking on it, he decided that it would be best if Vincent came to him, keep Father out of it until later. Let him vent his ire on the stone walls of his chamber.

That evening he faced a curious young man. "Sit down, Vincent. I have something very important to tell you."

Giving the elderly doctor an odd look, the young man sank into one of the wing chairs facing the cold fireplace, perching warily on the edge of the seat. "What is it? I can see that you are upset." He asked the question that gave Peter the opening that he needed. "Does it have something to do with the tunnels, with me?"

"Oh, it most definitely has something to do with you." Peter came to a stop in front of the young man. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the letter. Vincentís head snapped up as he smelled the aroma of lavender: Catherineís favorite scent. Taking a deep breath, Peter continued, "I donít know how to tell you this, so Iíll just say it straight out. Cathy is alive."

Whatever he expected the reaction to be, he certainly didnít expect Vincent to sit and stare at him as if he hadnít heard him. "Cathy is alive, Vincent," he enunciated each word clearly and still the man did not move. He seemed frozen, unable to move as if when he did the world would be the same as it was before he entered Peterís library.

Sheís alive. The words whirled around in Vincentís head. He couldnít breathe, couldnít move, unable to accept that his world might once more be lit by the glorious radiance of her love. He had lived in darkness for so long that he had come to accept that it would last for ever. He would die if this was nothing but a cruel hoax.

Peter leaned over warily to touch him on the shoulder. Vincent shook himself, took a deep breath, and cautiously asked, "Catherine is alive?"

"Yes."

"Youíre sure?" he asked calmly.

"Yes, Iíve spent the last two days with her. She is alive, Vincent...alive." The reality of her return finally sank in, triggering a spate of tears in the aged messenger.

Surging to his feet, Vincent looked around wildly as the truth of Peterís words penetrated his heart. "Then where is she? Why isnít she here?"

This was the Vincent Peter had expected. "Calm down; sheís not here. Sheís in Nevada."

"Nevada," Vincent shouted. "What is she doing in Nevada?" Pacing the room, he flung his arms out almost knocking over the floor lamp next to Peterís reading chair.

As he righted the lamp, the older man tried to explain. "She gave me a letter for you. She said it would explain her reasons for not returning to you."

"A letter? She thinks a letter can take the place of feeling her in my arms? She cannot love me or she would not do this." He turned away and strode toward the door. He felt angry, betrayed, and foolish. And to think that he had pined for her for a full year. What an idiot he was; it was nothing but a hoax.

Peter raced to the door and blocked Vincent from leaving the room. He knew he was taking his life in his own life, but he grabbed hold of the younger manís arms and yelled at him, "Listen to me, you big fool! She does love you, but she has her reasons for staying behind. At least give her the courtesy of reading her letter. She was so afraid that you would be hurt. I didnít agree with her at first, but I do now. She was right; you would have overwhelmed her with your care and concern, not giving her a chance to heal on her own."

"What do you mean Ďheal on her own?í" He had been ready to shove Peter to the side in his haste to get away from a difficult and traumatic situation, but as he calmed down, he felt the letter being pressed into his hand. The scent of lavender floated around him, reminding him of the woman he loved, and from somewhere in his heart he heard her whisper, "I love you and I always will. Never forget that."

As he leaned against the sturdy paneling of the study wall, he raised the letter to his nose and inhaled the fragrance of lavender which reminded him of all the times she had told him she loved him. She would not hurt him unless it seemed unavoidable to her. Carefully he slit open the envelope. As he read her letter, he started to relax and soon was nodding in agreement. He needed his solitude to heal as she needed hers. As much as it pained him to be without her, he had to agree. He would live through and for her letters.

Peter, who had retreated to stand before the fireplace, let out a gust of relief as he watched the younger man read the letter. It was going to be all right; Cathy knew the man she loved. Quietly he slipped into his reading chair, waiting for the inevitable questions that would be asked. He glanced back at the fireplace and thought that a fire would be very pleasant. In no time, a tidy little fire had been started and was soon warming the room.

Vincent read and reread the letter, drinking in the message of love from Catherine. At last, he raised his eyes to find Peter watching him expectantly. "How is she, Peter? Tell me truly; donít try to make it easier for me. Will it be long before she is well?"

Peter chuckled. "My dear boy, you know how determined Cathy can be. I wager sheíll be ready to come home in six months."

"Six months seems like a long time to me right now. But tell me, please, how is she?" He moved to sit in one of the reading chairs in front of the fire.

"The spirit and determination are there," Peter said gravely, "but the body and mind has been put through hell."

"Oh god," Vincent whispered as he clenched his fists, feeling the pain and despair that she must have gone through. "If only I could have found her, none of them would have drawn another breath," he said forcefully. "I would have gloried in ripping them limb from limb."

Peter rushed to say, "Exactly, and she is so thankful that you donít carry that painful memory in your mind and heart."

"I would face any danger and horror just to hold her in my arms and tell her that I love her."

"She knows you would, and she has known from the beginning that you love her even if you couldnít bring yourself to say the words." Peter leaned forward to stir the fire, giving the younger man a chance to settle down.

Vincentís heart thrilled with the knowledge that she had always known of his love. "Thank you, Peter, youíre a good friend...to both of us. Now, tell me what happened to her." He relaxed back into the chair more at ease than he had been since he had entered Peterís library.

"Before I left, I finally got the whole story from her. You remember that her boss, Joe Maxwell, was almost killed in a bomb blast?"

The leonine man nodded thoughtfully. "Yes. He gave Catherine a small notebook. Was that why she was abducted?"

"Yeah, and the District Attorney, John Moreno, was behind her abduction and was actually a part of it. When they couldnít force her to reveal anything, Gabriel ordered that she be killed and her body be disposed of in a far-off locale. He had them take her to the Nevada desert and inject her with an overdose of morphine."

Vincent shook his head in despair. "How was she found? It seems like a miracle that she was."

"I know. This is hard to believe, but she swears itís true and the doctorís concurred. An old prospector just happened to wander by where they had thrown her body. Evidently the killers were in a hurry to get rid of her because they were in a rush to get to Las Vegas, which is only a few miles away. So they dumped her near a small town called Alamo and took off. The prospector, Harry, I think she said was his name, packed her body to the nearest road and flagged down a passing vehicle. On the way to the hospital, he noticed a faint pulse in her neck. He forced a swallow or two of water down her throat. Alamo is close to the Nellis Air Force Base and the ER physician asked the Air Force for a helicopter to take her to Las Vegas."

"Las Vegas."  Vincent murmured. "The city of unending light."

"They worked on her for a long time and almost lost her once." Vincent shivered at the thought that she might not have been able to return to him. Peter continued with his narrative, "She finally responded but sank into a deep coma. They had to breathe for her for a while, but eventually she was able to breathe on her own. Why she didnít die is a mystery to all the physicians that cared for her. Sheís a phenomenally strong woman, but I think she just couldnít bring herself to leave you behind."

"I always sensed that strength in her. She said she got it from me, but I knew otherwise; I knew her strength." He looked up at Peter with tears in his eyes. "Does she know, I wonder, how hard it is going to be waiting for her to return? We donít have the bond to reassure ourselves that everything is all right."

"She knows. After all, it is going to be as hard on her as it is on you. But do you really understand why she is doing this?"

He looked straight into Peterís troubled eyes and nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do. She needs to prove to her own satisfaction that she is whole and well in both mind and body. And she needs to do it alone with no help from me; although, I would gladly give her all the strength I could. Once again she shows her deep courage."

Peter stood up and walked over to his liquor cabinet. Turning, he looked at his drained, young friend. Emotions can be so exhausting, he thought. "How about a drop of brandy? I could use one; Iím worn out."

Vincent smiled at his friend, "A small drop," and then he threw his head back with a laugh. "Sheís alive, Peter, really alive. I can hardly believe it. And she loves me still." Then the tears came. Covering his face with his hands, he sobbed quietly. Peter wisely left him to his tears, knowing that they were washing him clean of all bitterness, sorrow, and hatred, filling him with a calmness and joy he hadnít felt in almost two years.

Peter handed Vincent a brandy glass with more than a small drop of liquor in it and settled with a deep sigh of relief in his chair. "I hope Jacob understands," he muttered as he took a sip of his drink.

Vincent, with his acute hearing, heard Peterís murmured words. "I hope he does too, but I will not allow him to malign Catherineís reasons. He will just have to accept that I understand, even if he doesnít, and keep his opinions to himself." Sipping his drink, he eyed his friend over the rim of his glass. "He loves me, Peter, but sometimes that love is an obstacle. In his efforts to protect me, he has never accepted that I am an adult, no longer the little boy that ran to him for comfort with a scraped knee."

The older man nodded in agreement. "I know, but itís hard for us parents to realize that our children no longer depend on us. Weíre used to caring for them." Smiling, Vincent agreed.

*****

As Vincent had predicted, there was a firestorm when Father learned that Catherine was alive but not ready to return. As he started to rant, Vincent rose to his feet and stalked out of the chamber with the comment that when Father was ready to talk calmly about the situation to let him know. The tunnel patriarch sputtered to a halt staring at the retreating back of his son. Expecting him to go to his chamber, he followed the angry young man only to watch him rapidly hurry down the corridor and out of his sight. "Vincent," he shouted, "you come right back here...now!" Vincent just ran faster. He would find a measure of peace in the Chamber of the Falls.

Father turned back to his chamber and sat wearily behind his desk. What more was Vincent supposed to endure? How could Catherine be so callous? It was a sign of his deep infatuation with her that he could accept this last slap in the face. He must do something to wake his son up to the impossibilities of renewing a relationship with her.

Peter made more trips to the tunnels than he had ever made in the previous ten years. Cathy wrote almost every day, giving Vincent a clear picture of all she was doing to regain her health. Peter, with the aid of an ecstatic Joe, arranged for the return of her fortune. With the release of her funds, she had rented a house close to Alamo but far enough away for the solitude that she craved, hired a household staff, and began her rehabilitation. She wrote of the beauty of the silence of the desert and how peaceful it was early in the morning as she watched the sun rise from behind the sandy hills. She described the purple and lavender shadows that crept over the land as the sun slowly sank. She told him how much she missed and loved him in every missive that she sent, finishing with a progress report from her doctors and physical therapists. If Vincent couldnít be there, she made sure that he knew everything that was happening to her.

Carefully omitting Fatherís anger at her, Vincent filled his letters with news of their friends and family Below. He recounted Kaninís joyful return to Olivia and Luke and his even greater joy when he informed the tunnel family about their expected arrival in seven months. He told her of all the pranks and tomfoolery the children were getting into and how it was adding more gray hair to Fatherís head every day. He wrote of the budding romance between Rebecca and a newcomer named Jonathan, and of all the other newcomers to the world below. Even Mouse and Jamie seemed to be getting closer. And of course, Kipper had a crush on Samantha who had a crush on Zach. Everyone it seemed was growing older and he along with them. He could pour out on the page what he couldnít tell her in person, so he wrote of his understanding of her reasons for not returning right away and of his deep love for her. He described the delight he felt as he held her letters in his hand before opening them and savoring her written words. And he assured her that he was patiently (no, impatiently) waiting to hold her in his arms. He signed his letters as he signed them all: ĎSleep well, my dearest Catherine.í

*****

So the months past until he received a letter with one red rose in full bloom and one sentence:

And every night has its dawn.

Catherine

He had gone to the Chamber of the Falls to read it and raced jubilantly through the tunnels. Bursting into Fatherís chamber, he shouted, "Sheís coming home; sheís coming home."

"Humpf, itís about time," was Fatherís comment. "Itís taken her long enough."

Stopping in front of the old scarred mahogany desk, Vincent asked, "Canít you be a little glad for us, Father? Iíve tried to explain her reasons. If I, the one who is affected most by her actions, can understand her reasoning, why canít you?"

"Yes," Mary spoke up from the corner, "Why canít you?"

"Have I been morose or unhappy since I found out that she was alive?" Father shook his head. Then continuing, the younger man pleaded, "Be happy for us, Father. Be happy for me; I have my heartís desire returning to me."

"Iím just afraid . . ."

"Of what?" Mary cut in, ever on Vincentís side when it came to his love for Catherine. "That sheíll leave him as you were left?" She glowered at him. "I think sheís proven otherwise, donít you?"

"Yes, I suppose you are right." After a few tense moments, he finally smiled up at his son from his position behind the desk. "When you see Catherine, tell her that she is welcome here any time. Tell her welcome home."

Vincent sped around the desk and gave his father a heartfelt hug. "Thank you, Father. You can do that when I bring her home." After a kiss on the older manís cheek, he went to Mary and enfolded her in a thankful embrace. "Thank you, Mary. You have always been with us and we appreciate it."

She reached up and stroked his cheek. "No thanks are necessary, Vincent. Nothing...no one," and she looked directly at Father, "or nothing, can keep you two apart."

As the happy man hurried through the door, Father asked, "Do you know when she will be back?"

"No," he said over his shoulder, "but Peter will know. Iím going to him now."

*****

As soon as Vincent saw a smiling Peter at the threshold, he knew that Catherine awaited him in the library. It was the perfect spot for a reunion of long lost lovers. But he still had to ask, "Is she?"

"Yes, my boy, sheís waiting for you in the library." Peter clapped him on the back as he sped by him and raced up the basement stairs.

Pausing at the door, he took a calming breath, soothed his racing heart, and hesitantly reached for the doorknob. Now that he was about to see her again, he was suddenly shy. There were so many things he wanted to say to her, and he wanted to take her in his arms and crush her to his breast. God help him, he wanted to kiss her breathless, but he felt...he didnít know what he felt, only that he loved her and wanted what was best for her.

Very quietly he slipped into the room. She was standing in front of the fireplace staring into its depths. He watched her avidly as she stiffened, knowing he was there, and slowly turned to face him.

"Hello, Vincent," she smiled triumphantly. She had done it; she had fulfilled her promise to return when she was completely healthy.

For a long moment they stood there, drinking in the otherís presence. He gazed into her emerald eyes and saw all the love for him that he had thought he had lost. Slowly she walked toward him and when she was within armsí length, he swept her into his arms. "Oh Catherine," he fervently whispered. It was all he could say, and yet it told her all she needed to know. She fit so comfortably against the contours of his body as if she had been designed for that purpose.

Winding her arms around his waist, she laid her head on his chest and let loose a deep sigh of happiness. "I am home at last," she murmured as she burrowed her head deeper into his vest.

"And have you succeeded in your desires?" He kissed the top of her head, savoring the clean smell of her hair.

"What do you think?" she playfully asked.

"I think you wouldnít have returned until you were sure."

"Youíre right; I wouldnít have. Were you very hurt that I wanted to do it without you? You never let on in your letters."

"I was at first, but I soon saw your reasoning behind your actions. I am guilty of doing the very same thing. We are much alike, Catherine. More than we realize." He tipped her face up to his and gazed solemnly at her. Still hesitant to take the first step, he asked, "May I kiss you?"

"Of course, you donít have to ask, my love. Iíve been waiting for five years for you to kiss me." She stood on tiptoe, bringing her lips closer to his. As he lowered his head, she strained up to meet his lips with her own. It was the sweetest and most sensual kiss she had ever had, and she was instantly addicted. She kissed him back.

Dazed and little disoriented, Vincent groped for the nearest chair and sat down, holding Catherine in his lap. She gave a little laugh, "Oh, I like this." And initiated another kiss.

"Catherine, Catherine, we must stop this. I canít think; your kisses intoxicate me." He shook his head and leaned away when she tried to kiss him again. "As much as I want to kiss you, we have much to talk about."

"Oh, all right," she laughingly pouted. "Iíll be good, but it wonít be easy."

Vincent stood up and deposited her in one of the chairs in front of the fireplace. She clung to him as he slowly slipped from her embrace and moved away to sit in the other chair. Soberly he gazed at her smiling face. She couldnít help it; she was so happy that all she could do was beam at him. "What are your plans?" he asked.

"My plans?" The smile slipped from her face. "Well, I . . ." Had her assumption that he would welcome her Below been wrong? Did he want to return to the way it was before her abduction? She didnít think she could do that.

"You have no home Above anymore," he cut in. "I was wondering..." he said shyly, "...if you would..."

"If I would what, Vincent?" Could he be asking her to come Below? To live with him? Oh, she hoped so.

"If you would like to come Below for a while?" There he said it, but still gave her a chance to opt out. He couldnít feel her disappointment, but he wasnít blind. He saw her shoulders slump and the tears start in her eyes.

He only wanted her there until she had found a place to stay Above. She couldnít keep the quiver out of her voice, "Only for a while, Vincent?"

He bowed his head, hiding behind a fall of hair. "I would...," and then he rushed to finish, "...I would have you stay forever, Catherine, but it has to be your decision. Iím trying to give you the option of returning Above if you want to."

She knelt beside him and raised his head for him to see the truth of her words in her eyes. "Oh Vincent, my love, my love, what more can I do to prove to you that it is you I want more than the world Above or, for that matter, the world Below. Wherever you are is where I want to be. Nowhere else, only with you. Please, believe me. Please donít be so noble. Take what is yours and yours alone." She slid onto his lap and wound her arms around his neck. He capitulated completely and kissed her passionately. "Now, what are we to tell Father?" she said with an impish grin and waited tensely for his answer.

He returned her grin with one of his own half-smiles. "Well, he knows you have returned, but of our plans he knows nothing."

"What are our plans, my love?" She was going to make him say the words. She needed him to say them.

He laughed lightly. "Why...that you are coming Below and will live with me in my...correction...our chamber. Are you sure, Catherine? Itís not easy; itís like camping out all the time."

"Vincent, nothing could be as hard as living these last two years apart from you. Itíll be a piece of cake, as Joe says. As long as we are together, we can face anything."

"Yes, I believe we can." He bent his head to kiss her again.

Neither one of heard Peter quietly open the door and look in. Cathy was ensconced in Vincentís lap, and they were busily engaged in exchanging delighted kisses. With a huge smile of satisfaction on his face, he just as silently closed it. It felt really good to know that he had been instrumental in bringing about the happiness of two young people whom he loved as if they were his own. Whistling under his breath, he padded to the kitchen for a nice hot cup of tea.

 

Fini