AND DIE INSIDE

By Joan Stephens


Vincent had been acting strangely since his return from that dark cave where he and Catherine had fought for his life and sanity and had won. She couldn't put her finger on it, but he seemed to be drawing away from her and that hurt. When she took a leave of absence to care for him, she didn't expect gratitude or praise. She did it because she loved him. But she hadn't expected this new aspect of their relationship.

Tonight she had decided to ask him what was wrong. She stepped into the entrance of his chamber and stopped in shock. Vincent was passionately kissing another woman. When they broke apart, she heard him whisper huskily, "Oh, Lisa, Lisa. I never thought you would return to me. I've missed you so, my love."

An anguished sob escaped Catherine. Seeming to be in slow motion, the couple turned to look at her: Lisa with a triumphant smile and Vincent with an embarrassed grimace. "I'm sorry, Catherine. I was going to tell you. When Lisa returned this time, I found that my feelings for her were as strong as ever." The arm that had been around Lisa fell to his side, and he moved away from her to fumble with the unlit candle on his writing table. He couldn't even look at the stricken woman standing in his doorway. He was so embarrassed for her. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I think it is best that you leave and never return." When he raised his eyes to hers, she saw nothing but pity in them.

Unable to say a word, Catherine whirled around and dashed down the tunnel. At the threshold to her basement, she sank to her knees, sobbing, her arms crossed over her waist as if to protect her from any more pain. His distancing of himself finally made sense; he had never loved her. He loved Lisa, had always loved Lisa, and for three years she had been deluding herself. Was it gratitude, during his illness, when he had told her that he loved her? Oh god, what would she do now? She had built her whole life around him and his world. How could she live without him? The storm of tears finally abated, and she pushed to her feet. For the last time in her life, she walked through the white light and then into the basement.

********************

Back in his chamber, Vincent wilted like a punctured balloon. All the air whooshed out of his lungs as he collapsed into his reading chair with such force that it cracked, dangerously close to breaking. He passed a shaking hand over his eyes, looking up at a stunned young woman, tears streaming down his face. "She is in such pain," he said, his heart aching for her. "But it is for the best."

"I know I agreed to go along with this," Lisa said, "but I didn't expect you to be so cruel. I'll admit that I didn't think she loved you that much, but the vulnerable, lost look on her face told me otherwise. Why, Vincent? What was so terrible that you had to do that to her?"

Slowly Vincent shook his head. "I can't explain. Just know that it is best for her to return to her life above."

"You're a great actor, Vincent," Lisa sniffed disdainfully, shaking her head sadly as she stepped through the entrance. She would never understand him. She knew he loved Catherine with his entire being and that Catherine loved him in return. Wondering what would become of them, she returned Above.

Vincent explained to a bewildered Father that Catherine would no longer be coming Below and that he could safely rest as he would no longer be going Above. When his puzzled parent asked why, he simply told him that he and Catherine had decided on this path and that he would answer no more questions.

***********************

Catherine was so numb with pain that she couldn't think coherently. How had things gone so wrong? How blind she had been? Thoughts, events, words flew through her mind in a mad confusion. Nothing made sense. Beneath all the hugs and loving words, he had still loved Lisa. He had tried to be kind, but she could see the pity in his eyes when he had told her to go and never return. The kindness she expected but not the pity. That more than anything told her that he didn't love her. But she still loved him; she couldn't turn it off so easily. Well, she would soon fix that; she would set about to forget him if she could. The first thing to do was to get away. Go somewhere where she could not feel him. Suddenly, a door closed in her heart, and she knew he had shut down the bond. Now she was truly alone, not connected to the one who knew who she was. The hollowness in her heart spread and enclosed her completely. It was too much and she fell to the floor unconscious.

The following day Father knocked on her door. There was no answer. He left a note for her under the door. Then he asked the doorman if he knew when she would return. "I understand she won't return for quite sometime," the doorman answered. Father's heart crumbled. There was no chance to get them back together.

*********************

Four years later, a Helper brought a clipping to Father. Slowly sinking into his antique chair, he passed trembling fingers through his greying hair as he read it. The clipping was an obituary that told of Catherine's death in childbirth. Without a word, Father handed it to his curious son. As Vincent read the unhappy news, he began to shudder then crushed the offending piece of paper in his hand. "No!" he roared, "this shouldn't have happened." Collapsing in a heap, he curled into a fetal ball, great wrenching sobs exploding from him. "No, no, no," he sobbed.

Taken aback by his sons unexpected, violent reaction, Father attempted to console the inconsolable man. "Vincent, please, what is it? It isn't as if you love her."

Raising wet tear dimmed eyes, Vincent gasped out through his sobs, "Love her? She is my life."

Perplexed, Father asked, "I don't understand. It you love her, why did you send her away?"

"Not now, Father, I must go to her." He struggled to his feet and lurched out the entrance.

"Vincent! Wait! It's not dark out," Father called after Vincent's retreating back.

***********************

Searing ghostly white in the light of a blue moon, Catherine's gravestone glowed hauntingly. Vincent's moon shadow followed him silently as he drew near the headstone. Flinging his body spread-eagled over her grave, he dug his claws through the funeral flowers that were strewn there into the raw earth beneath, trying to force his body through the earth to lie beside her.

None too gently, a harsh toe nudged his shoulder. "What are you doing here?" a sharp voice demanded.

Years of training had taught him to automatically turn away, and averting his face, he pulled his cloak and hood closely about him. Climbing to his feet, Vincent stared out of the corner of his eyes at the grieving man standing on the other side of the grave. In the bright moonlight with his extraordinary eyesight, he could see the tracks of tears on the other man's face. "Who are you?" he whispered.

"I'm her husband, Elliot Butch."

"Husband," the heavy-hearted man repeated laboriously. Vincent dropped his eyes, all strength and energy left him and his knees buckled. With supreme effort, he held himself erect. Why was he surprised that she had done what he so often had urged her to do? That he had hoped she would do when they parted?

"Yes, why were you laying on my wife's grave?"

Unable to meet Elliot's eyes, he replied, "I loved her."

The identity of the miserably unhappy man suddenly blazed in Elliot's eyes. "I know you; you're Vincent," he cried. "She told me all about you when I asked her to marry me. You tore the heart out of her, man. You killed the light in her. She died with your name on her lips."

"It wasn't supposed to happen this way. I sent her away to save her life." Vincent tried to explain.

"The woman I married was only a shadow of the woman I once knew. You did that to her," Elliot accused him harshly as his glacial, blue eyes raked over Vincent.

"If she had stayed with me, she would have died," he cried.

"A futile effort, she died anyway."

"I don't understand. It shouldn't have happened. The dream . . ."

Seething, Elliot brutally cut in. "A dream," he shouted. "You destroyed her because of a dream?" He looked at Vincent as if he was mad, "Do you know what that makes you? The biggest fool the world. You gave up her love for a dream."

Frantic to explain, Vincent exclaimed, "She died in my dream because of me. I couldn't let that happen."

His explanation cut no ice with Elliot, "She did die because of you!" Vincent shook his head violently, trying to deny the other man's words. Elliot continued to rage at him, "Because of a stupid dream, you took the life out of the most vital woman I have ever known. My god, man, I would have sent her back to you if it would have made her happy."

"I loved her more than my life."

"You have an odd way of showing it, my friend," Elliot said in a bitter voice.

"I did what I had to," Vincent stated defensively, his certainty beginning to waver.

"You killed her," Elliot flung the words at him.

Taking a step backwards at the harsh words, Vincent stammered, "No . . . I didn't . . . I only . . ."

Nothing he thought, nothing he said seemed to make sense. His thoughts spun incoherently in his brain. He had tried to save her only to condemn her to a life of pain and regret. He finally realized that she had died because she didn't have the strength'the strength of his love'to fight for life. He seemed to wither in upon himself and, turning lifeless eyes to Elliot, he agreed, "I did kill her."

So suddenly that he startled Elliot, he spun around and was running as if the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels. "Run away if you can, but you can't escape what you did to her. At least, she left me a son. He could have been yours," Elliot called after him triumphantly.

Dying, he was dying inside. He was in his own private hell, one of his own making, and he knew of only one place that would solve his dilemma. He had to get to her to explain, to tell her that he had always loved her. Vincent ran until he reached the Whispering Gallery, and as he took the single leap over the rope guardrail, he felt his heart shatter as he plunged into the abyss. He could not live with the guilt that was slowly eating its way through him. When next he saw her, he would beg for her forgiveness and pray that she would give it.

"Catherine," he screamed as he bolted awake, still lost in the sensation of falling. Frantically he searched for the bond and finding it, he trembled with relief as he felt the peaceful, slumbering emotions of his beloved.

Reassured, he fell back into the soft pillows. Everything was so clear now, and he understood that dreams belonged in the realm of illusion. The future they projected was only one of an infinity of possible destinies. He could choose his own life path, his own fate. Life was to be lived in the present, the only time that really belonged to him. He would not send her away again.