THE LETTER

Joan Stephens


Vincent couldnít believe what he felt. From the rapid diminishing of their bond, he knew that Catherine was leaving and that she was on a plane. But what was worse; she was leaving without a word of goodbye. He had sensed a disquiet, a sadness in her that she refused to talk about, but other than that she had been her normal loving self. He searched through their time spent together last night and could find no hint that she had thought of leaving him. As he did so, Fatherís words came back to him, "Someday she will tire of the dark, of the burden of your secret and return to the open sunlight of her world." Could now be that time, Vincent wondered as the light dimmed in his soul?

It was close to dawn, but he had to find out for himself, and he soon found himself on the balcony of her darkened apartment. He peered through the glass panes of the French doors into empty rooms devoid of furniture and her light. Forcing the doors open, he entered from one darkness into another. This had not been a sudden decision, and his heart slowly died as he realized that it was a carefully thought out plan. And she hadnít even had the decency or courage to tell him that she was leaving and never coming back. In his love for her had he misjudged her this badly, giving her attributes that she didnít possess? Was it as she said that her courage came from him? But to leave him with nothing, not even a goodbye hug or letter hurt more than the leaving. He fled the silent apartment as the first glimmer of dawn appeared in the east. He raced through the tunnels, but where could he go? He couldnít face Fatherís smug assurance that it was all for the best, and that he should have known that it would happen. Instead he turned and sprinted to the River With No Name.

**********

In the SST that was flying her farther and farther away from the man she loved more than her own happiness, Catherine was valiantly trying to hold back her tears until the bond was stretched as thin as the thinnest wire. Then she could safely give in to her emotions. She knew she would never be happy until she was safely back in his arms, and she hated deceiving him like this. But she knew him well enough to know that he would never have let her leave, if he had learned the reason for her disappearance: that she was being investigated for the killings that surrounded her. He would have sacrificed himself and his world to keep her with him. That she could not allow. At least, he had the letter that she had placed in his journal, telling him why she had left in such secrecy.

Finally, after agonizing hours of controlling her emotions, all sense of him was almost gone. He would not suffer from her unhappiness added to his own. Staring out the window of the plane, the tears started to roll down her cheeks. Clutching the crystal he had given her, she curled into a tight ball and buried her face into the back rest of her seat. "I love you, Vincent," she silently cried.

***********

A week later Vincent returned a changed man: silent, withdrawn, morose. Announcing that Catherine would no longer be coming to visit, he turned on Father who was about to open his mouth. "Do not mouth any of your platitudes or truisms to me, Father. The incident with . . . ," he stumbled to a halt then continued, "Catherine is over and best forgotten." He spun around and hastily retreated to his chamber. The rose she had given him and his journals for the past two and a half years were hurriedly placed in a box. In his desire to rid himself of them, he never noticed the envelope that marked his final entry in his latest journal. Tempted as he was to throw them into the Abyss, he could not do it; so, he put the box in the farthest corner of a storeroom, determined to forget them. From that day on he refused to say her name or to speak about her, as if by banishing her from his consciousness he could banish her from his heart and soul. It was only sometime later that Father learned from Mouse that Vincent had bricked up the entrance to Catherineís apartment building.

Three unhappy, desolate years followed. Unbeknownst to Catherine, when she disappeared, the investigation fell apart. Not one of her friends except for Elliot even knew about the tunnels, and he had promised her to forget about them. And even though he never forgot, the investigators only questioned him about the series of killings that surrounded Catherine, and he never offered any word about the tunnels they had walked through. From their questioning of her friends and co-workers, all they ever learned was that there was a mystery man in her life and that the killings were committed by some kind of unknown animal. Nothing was ever learned about the Tunnels. They were safe. The case went cold and the detectives relegated it to the Unsolved Case Files. Catherineís plans had been well-made, and she had succeeded in disappearing, never knowing that the authorities had stopped looking for her.

After a few weeks of unreturned phone calls, Jenny and Nancy contacted Joe and Peter only to find out that neither one of them had heard from her for two weeks and that she had not turned in a resignation. As soon as he could, Peter went Below to talk with Vincent and was met with a wall of silence on the subject of Catherine. He was ordered out of Vincentís chamber when he tried to talk with him about her. Greatly puzzled, he hurried to Jacob to ask him what had gone wrong. All Jacob could tell him was that one night she was there, and the next day Vincent had fled to his private retreat. When he returned a week later, he refused to mention her name or even hear others speak of her and that he had even closed the threshold to her building. Peter returned Above as baffled as he had been when he went Below. He informed Jenny and Nancy about what he had learned and that was where the matter rested.

Vincent seemed to slowly return to the image of the man he was before he had met her. But with one big difference, he never really grew close to anyone. And he had lost all interest in the world Above. Father was happy and content to have his son back and did not see that under the calm exterior was a desperately miserable man.

********

Two years later Vincentís misery was brought to an end by a young girlís insatiable curiosity, only to be replaced by another form of misery: guilt. Deanna, a lively, intelligent adolescent, had only joined the community a few months ago and needed some furniture for her chamber. She and Zach were exploring in one of the storerooms when they came upon an old dusty box shoved in a corner. Wondering what was in it, she opened it. Exclaiming over the beauty of the porcelain rose, she listened with sad eyes as Zach told her the story of Vincent and Catherine. As she replaced the rose, she noticed the corner of something blue protruding from one of the journals. Picking up the journal, she extracted an envelope.

"Oh, itís a letter," she said. "Unopened."

Zach looked at it. "Itís addressed to Vincent in Catherineís handwriting. Iíd know their handwriting anywhere; I used to deliver notes for them."

"He hasnít read this," she stated.

"Guess not," he shrugged.

Putting the envelope back where she had found it in the journal, she said, "Maybe we should give it to him."

"I dunno." Zach was not eager to bring Vincentís wrath down on them. "He refuses to speak about her."

"Yeah, but maybe this will make him feel better."

Zach shrugged again. Heíd leave it up to Deanna.

Grabbing the envelope, she had decided. "Iím going to do it. Letís give it to him right now."

"Ok," Zach grudgingly agreed as he hurried after her receding form.

**********

"Vincent," Deanna called excitedly, dashing into his chamber. "I have something for you." She thrust the well-remembered stationary into his hand. Noting the handwriting, he dropped it as if it was a burning ember. "Itís from Catherine," she rushed on, "and you havenít opened it." Stooping, she picked it up and placed it on the table. "Maybe you should read it," she advised as she backed out of the chamber, leaving the overwhelmed man sitting rigidly in his chair. He felt as if a hurricane had blown through his room, leaving him smashed into little pieces and like Humpty Dumpty could never be made whole again. Why did this have to surface now when he had finally found a measure of peace in his life? Reading it would only open old wounds that were better left closed. But even as he had these thoughts, his hand had crept out slowly and touched the envelope with a forefinger, moving it slowly toward him. As it was about to fall off the table, he grabbed it, and sighing deeply, he slit it open. Removing a single sheet of paper, densely written on both sides, he shivered on seeing her name: Catherine. Unwillingly, he began to read, too numb to understand a word he read:

My Dearest One,

In my solitude, I have called you that every time I have thought of you. That and many more lovely endearments. But that is not the purpose of this letter. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, not for what I have done but for doing it in secret. I know that we have promised never to lie to one another or to keep a secret. While I have not actually lied to you, I have been secretive about my actions. There is a good reason for my deceiving you; I knew you would not let me go.

Beloved, I must leave you. As much as it breaks my heart, I have to drop out of sight. I can picture you shaking your head vehemently but I must. One day, about a month ago, I was in Joeís office leaving a deposition on his desk when I noticed the name C. Chandler on a folder partially hidden by another folder. Overcome by curiosity, I picked it up and read it. The authorities are conducting a secret investigation of me, concerning the number of deaths that have happened around me. Even Joe, Vincent, was in on it. I thought he was my friend. He never treated me any differently than he always had. But his loyalty to the law would have him prosecuting his own mother if he thought she had broken the law. The file contained all the information on the killings collated according to date, time, and case. I could sense that they would soon take me into custody and question me. After hours of questioning, even I could make a mistake and make a misstatement that would lead them to the tunnels and the end of your safe place. I will not allow that to happen.

Elliot is the only person who knows anything about the tunnels. He has promised to forget about that night on the docks and our subsequent journey through the upper tunnels, but I cannot and will not put my trust and your life into his capricious hands. There is only one thing I can do: disappear.

Please, Vincent, brick up the entrance to my building and never, never use the Park entrance again. I know you will be cautious but, please, be even more careful now.

I know that this separation will be difficult for both of us. To paraphrase what Frodo told Sam in ĎLord of the Rings:í I have tried to save the tunnels and I hope they have been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, my love, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. And so it is with me. You and your world are safe but there is no safe place for me. I must lose you. But Ďmy time may come.í

I hold to the hope that someday I will see your beautiful face and kiss your wonderful lips again. I have to believe that to be able to do what I must. I will not say goodbye or farewell. Remember me, remember love and never forget: I love you.

Your Catherine

Woodenly, he placed the sheet and envelope on the table, and settling back in his chair, he glanced at them. The word Beloved jumped out at him. Beloved? Beloved! Fearfully, his heart began to beat a little faster. Hastily, he picked up the letter and this time he read it slowly and carefully. Oh god, she had not willingly left him. She had left only to protect him and his world. What had he done? How could he have doubted her? He realized with a sinking heart that he had succumbed to distrust and anger. He had let Fatherís fears and words influence him, after all. He had to admit it, even as it disgusted him, he had almost hated her. But no, that wasnít right, he hadnít hated her; he had hated himself because he couldnít trust his own heart and had transferred that odium to her. His shame flooded over him. He bounded to his feet and began to pace, needing the physical effort to purge the turmoil in his soul. How could he have failed her like this? When she came back, if she came back . . . what could he say to her? How could he confess the grievous wrong he had done her? What excuse had he? He would live in an agony of fear and indecision until he saw her again, either in this world or the next. But he could not keep his heart from singing with joy. She loved him and no matter how long they were apart; she would still love him. And he? He would continue to wait for her no matter how long it took. Oh Catherine, can you ever forgive me? I never stopped loving you; truly I didnít. Please come back . . . soon.

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

After three years, Catherine cautiously began to send out feelers to discover what the investigation had uncovered. But what she did learn astounded her: no one was looking for her. Hope blossomed. Maybe if she was extremely careful, she could go home to the tunnels and Vincentís arms. She had already disappeared from the city so no one would miss her now. She began to make plans, and within a week, she was on her way home aboard the same SST that had flown her away from Vincent. The hardest part of her return was to act as if she had nothing to hide; so she sauntered casually and confidently through the airport lobby. Leaving her luggage behind, she would not need it, she snagged an empty cab and directed the driver to take her to the nearest threshold. She prayed that it was still open. Entering the old hotel, she stole quietly into the basement then through a hidden door into the tunnels. The beam from her flashlight picked out a pair of manís boots. Her heart somersaulted and her stomach clenched as she raised the beam to the manís face. With a gasp of joyful recognition, she saw the face she had waited almost three years to see. "Vincent," she cried ecstatically as she leapt into his open arms.

***********

Vincent felt the bond grow stronger as she neared the American shore, and soon it was humming as strongly as it ever had. She was coming back to him. Unworthy as he felt himself to be, he could hardly contain his joy. No one, least of all Father, knew of his turmoil this past year. He felt that Father would not understand, and so he had kept his joy to himself, nursing it like a flame that warmed the cold feelings of disloyalty that swept through him whenever he thought of the unhappiness that she must have felt at being separated from her tunnel family for so long a time. He couldnít summon the temerity to include himself in the realm of her family. Whatever happened, he would never let Catherine leave again or be sent away. He would make Father understand that his happiness, indeed his life depended on her.

He couldnít breathe as he watched her struggle through the threshold entrance. He wanted to rush to her and take her in his arms, but the thought of his betrayal held him captive. It was only with her joyful gasp of his name that he was able to raise his arms and open them to her. With her leap into his arms, he was released from the stasis that held him in its grip. "Catherine, Catherine," he murmured over and over.

"Iím here, love. Iíll never leave again," she said, twining her hands around his neck.

"No, never," he concurred.

"Oh Vincent, Iím so sorry that I had to leave you as I did." She looked up at him, noticing the look of pain on his beloved face. "What? What is it? Is something wrong? The tunnels are safe . . . ?"

"Everything is fine, Catherine," he answered stiffly.

"There is something; I can feel it." Tenderly, she stroked his cheek, making him feel even worse. "Tell me," she begged.

"Not now, not here," he answered somberly. "Come. Weíll talk in the Chamber of the Falls." Silently, he took her hand.

"Ok," she answered uncertainly.

Thankful that he accommodated his long steps to hers; nevertheless, she trotted at his side in a hurry to find out what was wrong. Her mind was in a turmoil with unanswered questions. Could the unthinkable have happened? In the three years they were apart, could he have met someone else? Immediately, she discarded that idea; she had seen his look of love when he met her and felt even now his deep love through their connection. The tunnels were safe. Could it be Father? No, he would never have been reticent about that. It must be something to do with them, but what?

As he led her to the chamber, he was in an agony of indecision. How should he tell her of his lack of trust in her and their dream? How to tell her of his bone-deep fear of rejection, of his constant effort to accept the love and trust of Father and his family, feeling as undeserving as he did, and how with her it was ten times worse.

Settling her on the stone ledge that overlooked the falls, he began to pace in short, choppy steps, not in his usual graceful, flowing manner. She watched him anxiously. "What is it, Vincent? Youíre frightening me." He stopped and bent an unreadable look upon her. "If you canít forgive me, I . . . ," her forlorn voice faded to a whisper and then into silence.

He threw his head back and cried, "Forgive you?" Suddenly, he was on his knees, his face buried in her lap. "Oh Catherine," he moaned as he wrapped his long arms around her hips, burrowing his head into her abdomen. "Can you forgive me?" he sobbed.

"Forgive you for what?" she asked, caressing his long, saffron-hued mane as she bent over him trying to comfort him.

"I failed you," he mumbled into the softness of her denim-covered thighs.

With extreme difficulty, she managed to raise his head so that she could look into his eyes, but he lowered them and looked away. "How have you failed me, my love?"

"I donít deserve to be called your love. I . . . I didnít trust your love and faithfulness," he said. "I thought you had abandoned me," he continued, shame apparent in every word and on his face.

He could feel her confusion on hearing his confession. "But I would never . . . My letter! What about my letter? Didnít you read it?"

Slowly he shook his head as he rose and sat beside her. "No, I didnít see it. Then I put the rose and my journals of our years together in a box and put them away."

"Oh Vincent," she cried, tears starting in her compassionate, emerald eyes. "How awful for you. You thought I had left you, after all my promises."

Miserable, he nodded his head then he gazed at her in adoration. Catherine. Always so understanding. She knew him so well. Her words gave him the courage to go on. "It wasnít until two years after you left that a curious, young teenager, new to the tunnels, found the box in a storage room and discovered the letter. I didnít want to read it. I was afraid of what it would say."

Gripping tightly the arm she held, Catherine felt his pain as well as her own. She had handled the whole affair in a miserable fashion. She should have left the envelope in plain sight, but at the time she was afraid that he would have tried to stop her if he read it too soon. He had spent two miserable years because of her, and he was asking for her forgiveness and castigating himself for not understanding. "Itís all my fault," she said, hugging him fiercely.

"Wait. There is more." Pushing away from her, he held her at arms length. He needed to see her understanding in her eyes as well as through the bond. "I said to myself that I hated you." Her eyes widened. "And I refused to speak your name or allow others to mention you around me," he continued.

"Oh Vincent," she said mournfully. "How much I have hurt you. Can you forgive me? What I did, I did for the best of reasons: to save the tunnels. Iím so sorry." Her tears were flowing freely now, and she was openly sobbing.

As she was acknowledging her part in this debacle, he was saying, "Can you forgive me for all that Iíve thought and felt before I read your letter?"

Together they both wept, clinging to each other, knowing that the hurt felt by the one was experienced by the other. At last, drying her eyes with a handkerchief she had taken from her jeans pocket, she gave him a watery smile, "We must each forgive the other, my love. We both made mistakes. After all, we are only human." Dabbing the tears from his cheeks, she kissed him.

"Oh Catherine," he whispered, "I love you so much. Even when I said I hated you, I knew that I loved you."

"I know. Letís put this episode behind us and never mention it again," she said.

He nodded his head slightly. "But there is one more thing I have to confess."

She moved to place her fingers over his lips; he kissed them then brushed them aside. "Let me have my say, Catherine."

Sensing that this was very important to him, she desisted and waited calmly for him to continue. He took her hands in his and, looking directly into her eyes, said, "The first time I read your letter none of it made any sense to me. I was so sure that you were saying goodbye, and I was so numb with dread that I read it then dropped it on the table. As I did, one word leapt out at me: beloved. It shocked me out of my paralysis and I began to think again. I snatched up the letter and reread it. This time your words sent me to heights of glory and to the depths of hell. You hadnít abandoned me; you loved me. That was the glory. Then, when I realized how much I had misjudged and mistrusted you, I was overcome with shame. That was the hell." Catherine started to say something, but he stopped her with a shake of his head. "I didnít know if I would ever see you again. But as crushing a thought as that was, I still had the consolation of knowing that you loved me. And, Catherine, if I never did see you again, I would have died a happy man having known your love and devotion."

His words left her speechless. She reached for him and pulled him to her, raining kisses on his cheeks, his eyes, his mouth, wherever she could reach. "I love you and Iíll never leave you again."

"But you must."

"No, never again." She shook her head vigorously. "Never again."

"What of your life Above?"

"Donít you understand, Vincent? I have no life Above. It ended when I fled to Europe. If I resurface now, the investigation will only start over again."

"Oh. Iím so sorry, Catherine." He rose and walked a short distance away from her, peering out at the falls.

Confused, Catherine cried out, "Why? Donít you want me here with you?"

Spinning around to face her, he said, "Of course I do, but not this way. Not because there is no other place for you. You should have a choice."

Rising from the stone ledge, she held out her hands, palms up, "This has always been my choice, Vincent: to live with you, to wake in the morning and to go to sleep at night with you beside me, to grow old with you, my love. Donít send me away. Not now, not after all the pain weíve been through. Please."

His Catherine was begging him to let her stay when every bone, every nerve in his body was saying, "Yes, yes!"

"I canít let you go if you truly want to stay here. I, too, want to grow old with you beside me," he confessed.

"Then ask me," she said, coming to stand before him.

It was corny and unabashedly romantic, but it seemed to fit the occasion; so, he opened his arms and said, "Come live with me and be my love."

With a delighted chuckle, she flowed into his arms and replied, "And we will all the pleasures prove."

Fini