CLOWNS, CROWNS, AND COMEUPPANCE
"I do believe that is checkmate, Father,"
"What!" the older man exclaimed, eyeing the board set up between him and his son. "But... it... it can't be checkmate; not again so soon!"
With an air of superiority, which was very unlike him. Vincent moved his chess piece forward and then sat back in his chair, his expression carefully neutral. "Would you care to play another game, or are you ready to retire for the night?"
Peering over the rims of his spectacles to examine his remaining chess pieces, Father afforded them a withering scowl. Blast it all; it was checkmate, yet again. Obviously exasperated, he looked across the table at his opponent, who had bowed his head, allowing a cascade of golden hair to fall forward, concealing his expression. But the flowing tresses did nothing to conceal two massive shoulders, which were quivering slightly up and down.
"Yes, Father?" Leaning forward on the table, the tunnel patriarch peered beneath the ragged-edged bangs, accusing, "Even though I can't quite see your expression from this angle, I know you're smiling... under there."
"Hrrumpph!" Father snuffled indignantly. Which of course, meant, 'You're not the least bit sorry, you scoundrel. You know it, and so do I.'
Peering up, Vincent was about to take his life in his hands by saying something more, when a sudden flurry of activity on the nearby pipes caused both men to momentarily refrain from further conversation. Realizing that a message at this hour of the night was usually a forewarning of potential danger to their world, the chess opponents cocked their heads toward the pipes, listening intently.
When the short message came to an end, Vincent smiled at the man seated opposite him. Leaping to his feet, he exclaimed, "What a marvellous surprise!" Turning on his heel and taking the stairs to the entryway of the library in a single bound, he disappeared from view.
"Ah me," Father muttered half aloud to the stone walls, "It would seem we're in for it now, and devil take the hindmost." As he placed the chess pieces slowly and carefully into a black, lacquered box, a completely unexpected explosion of chuckles caught him unaware. After glancing toward the upper level of the large room, to make sure no one was lurking about up there, like Mouse for instance, he laughed again, his usually somber grey eyes sparkling with delight. From the message just received, it would appear that the proverbial 'Black Sheep' of the family was once again in their midst.
Lord help them all, Devin was home for one of his infrequent visits.
Getting slowly to his feet, Jacob made his way toward a large oak desk on the far side of the room. Favoring his right hip, he eased down into his favorite chair and reached toward a haphazard jumble of newspapers. Picking up the first one his fingers made contact with. he flipped the paper open to no page in particular. Then, deciding he really wasn't in the mood to read of the usually dire goings-on in the world Above, he set the newspaper aside. Sitting back in the chair and rubbing at the bridge of his nose, he sighed heavily and closed his eyes.
* * *
Jerking forward in the chair a few moments later and finding himself still alone in the room, Father stretched to ease a kink in his spine and eyed an antique, gilt-edged clock on the far wall. It was nearly midnight. How like Devin to make an impromptu visit at such an hour, without taking into account the fact that he may well be causing an inconvenience to those still awake. Waiting impatiently for his eldest son to make an appearance, he picked up the newspaper again, folded it in half lengthwise, snapped the pages taut, and began to read.
"Hi, Faddah," came a sudden, unfamiliar voice from the top of the chamber steps.
Having been caught up in an editorial about the latest fiasco in The White House, Jacob started in surprise. Half turning in the chair, he peered in the direction of the library entrance. After eyeing his oldest child for a moment, he reached for his cane and rose to his feet. "Good Lord, Devin," he began, limping toward him, "Who on earth did that to the left side of your face?"
"And hewwo to you, too." Clumping down the few steps, a man with a mop of dark wavy hair, which was lightly tinged with gray, plopped his hind-end to the edge of the' old man's' desk. Gingerly placing his right hand to the left side of his face, Devin growled, "I had to have a toof pulled."
Understanding now, why his son's tone of voice had sounded so bizarre a moment earlier, Father moved to stand directly in front of him. "When?"
'''bout two hours ago," the younger man replied, wincing as a sudden rush of cool tunnel air entered his mouth, causing him more than a little distress.
"Was it an upper tooth or a lower one?"
"Wower... " Opening his mouth just a bit, Devin gestured toward his throbbing wound "... in de back."
Leaning forward to examine the wound, Father nodded his head slowly up and down. "Hm, yes, I see. And is that a bruise?" Lifting one hand to his son's face and cautiously slanting his head slightly to the left, to view it better in the muted candlelight, the tunnel elder studied him closely for a moment. "Yes it is. And there's also a great deal of swelling along the line of your jaw."
Forgetting, just for a moment, where he was, and exactly whom he was talking to, Devin snapped, "No thit."
Keeping out of Father's range of vision and turning slightly away from him, Vincent put one hand to his stomach and the other one over his mouth. At the same time, he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. But it didn't help all that much. He was just going to stand here and quietly explode from fighting to suppress his laughter.
Deciding to ignore Devin's uncalled for remark. at least for now, as well as the ill-disguised strangling noises emanating from behind him, Father queried, "The tooth was badly infected, was it?"
Eyeing his brother, and noting the wide-eyed look Vincent afforded him in return, Devin shoved the chunk of gauze padding in his mouth to one side with his tongue before replying, "Yeth."
Immediately yanking one end of his quilted vest upward. Vincent stuffed the end of it in-between his teeth and bit down - hard. "Mmftl"
Without turning around, Father commanded gruffly, "Cease that annoying tittering at once."
At the use of the word 'tittering,' Devin waggled his eyebrows in his brother's direction, causing him to lose what remained of his dignity. Collapsing sideways against a bookcase, Vincent proceeded to cross his left leg over his right and start bouncing up and down.
Eyeing his brother's new and wholly undignified posture, the first thing that crossed Devin's mind were the words of a song from Disney's Winnie the Pooh: "The wonderful thing about Tiggers, is Tiggers are wonderful things. Their tops are made out of rubbah, their bottoms are made out of springs. They're bouncy, flouncy, jouncy, pouncy, funů fun... fun... fun. But the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is h-e-e-e's the only one. Hee... hee... hee... hee!"
Stealing another glance at his brother, Devin swallowed his laughter, knowing if he opened his yap that wide he'd only cause himself more pain. But it was true -- Vincent was definitely a Tigger.
Utterly ignoring the sound of his younger son marching in place behind him, or whatever in the name of the Heavenly Host he was doing back there, Father refocused his full attention on Devin. "But, couldn't the dentist crown the tooth, or cap it, or whatever they do to teeth these days, to salvage them?" Not waiting for a reply, he continued, "Why did it have to be pulled?"
Not really in the mood to be discussing this any more right now, Devin sneered, "Cuz I was in so muth pain, it was either remove the toof, or my head, dat's why!"
Finally catching his breath, and deciding that it would be prudent to wade into the conversation before it deteriorated any further; Vincent swiped at the tears streaming from his eyes. Oh merciful Saints, his poor aching ribs! Stepping forward, he placed his left hand on his brother's slender shoulder, suggesting quietly, "Perhaps it would be better to retire to my chamber for a while, and continue this conversation at another time, after you've had a bit of supper- liquids of course- and some rest?"
Clearing his throat a bit guiltily, Father declared, "Vincent's right, of course. Go and rest for a while...son. And I do hope you're feeling well enough to join us later, for the evening meal."
"Fanks." Sliding his butt off of the desk, Devin followed his younger brother from the library.
"Devin," Father called out, eyeing his retreating form.
Responding to that with a somewhat cockeyed grin, which was followed by dribbles of pink-toned saliva oozing from the left side of his still numb bottom lip, causing Vincent to wrinkle up his nose in disgust, Devin nodded his head. And then immediately grimaced in pain, deciding that moving even that much hadn't really been worth what it had just cost. "Thee you later, Faddah - if I wive."
* * *
"Oh-h-h-h Lord, take me now and get it over with!"
"Devin, really!" came a growl from the vicinity of the desk. "I've been putting up with your nonsense for two days now. With Catherine visiting her friend Nancy these past days, I thought my company would be of help, which is why I allowed you to remain here, with me, instead of ensconcing you in one of the guest chambers." That said, Vincent eyed his brother. "But it's quite obvious that my concern for you has come to naught."
From the vicinity of the bed came a sarcastic, "Ah, for crying out loud, will ya speak English!"
Casting his brother an openly disdainful look, Vincent responded, "I am. What language are you listening in?"
Making a disparaging gesture with his right middle finger, Devin snarled, "Bite me."
Having heard the euphemism before, on his treks Above, at night, and then having the strange jargon explained to him by a nearly hysterical Catherine, he considered doing precisely that if the oaf lolling on his bed complained one more time. Narrowing his eyes, Vincent accused, "You're acting like a spoilt child, you realize? It's simply not possible that the removal of one tooth could still be causing you so much pain."
Glaring at him, Devin asked, "Have you ever had an abscessed tooth yanked outta your mouth?"
"Well, actually, no, I haven't," Vincent admitted.
"Then keep your opinions to yourself until you do, tunnel brat."
Looking more than a little impatient, Vincent returned to the book he was reading, muttering under his breath, "Baby."
Hearing that, Devin threw a bed pillow at his brother's head - and caught him on the left side of the jaw. "Thud up, you clown."
Hurling the pillow back in the direction from whence it came, and catching Devin on the bridge of his nose, Vincent retorted, "I am not a clown, but you are a baby."
Stuffing the bed pillow behind him, Devin glowered at his huge lunkhead of a brother. "Vincent..."
"Don't make me have to come over there and kill you."
At that, the younger man laughed aloud, his tone openly taunting.
"You... kill... me? I don't think so."
"Oh yeah?" Devin spat. "I'd just need a big enough bat, that's all."
Narrowing his eyes and displaying two rows of very white and extremely lethal-looking teeth, Vincent snapped his jaws together twice, then hissed, "But with both of your arms removed, my dear elder brother, how would you manage to actually swing it?"
* * *
"... and you would simply not believe how childishly he's been behaving, my Love."
Shaking her head slowly back and forth, Catherine murmured, "Poor Devin. He must be in such terrible pain."
Surprised by that observation, Vincent arched an eyebrow. So, she was taking his part, was she? "Catherine, it was merely a tooth, one single tooth, not...major surgery."
Furrowing her brow, she replied, "Well, I've had an abscessed tooth worked on. The dentist managed to save it, but I was in dreadful pain for about five days."
"How terrible for you, my dear. But, of course, that was to be expected,"
Vincent offered, smiling at her. "After all, you're a woman."
"Yes, I am." Placing her hands at her hips, she scowled up at him. "And precisely what did you mean by that rather condescending remark?"
"I'm on to you, you know," she announced, her tone rising in obvious irritation.
"On to me," he repeated, furrowing his brow.
"Yes. So stop answering a question with a question. You have a habit of doing that when you're trying to avoid the truth - and you know it!"
Seeming puzzled, Vincent tried to recall his exact words. "I...I truly don't understand the sudden vexation I hear in your tone of voice, my dear."
"Oh, you don't?" Poking him in the chest, Catherine proclaimed, "Just because I'm a woman, does not mean that I can't face pain as well as a man."
"That's not what I meant."
"Well, that's what you said."
Trying to make amends, Vincent held his hands out before him, palms up.
"I only meant that Devin is not acting..."
"Like a man," Catherine growled, finishing the sentence for him.
"Like an adult."
As a sudden wave of anguish disturbed the tranquil ebb and flow of their connection, Catherine relented, at least outwardly. "Let's not waste our time together arguing?" Putting her arms around the one she loved, she snuggled against him and said nothing more.
Assuming that he'd been forgiven for whatever it was that had upset the dearest, most precious part of his life, Vincent buried the tip of his nose into Catherine's sweetly scented hair and inhaled the first deep breath he'd taken in several moments. And, although he tried very hard. he simply couldn't determine what on earth he'd said to upset her in the first place.
* * *
Another forty-eight hours passed, and finally Devin was his old self again, which was either good or bad, depending on who you asked. Whistling as he strode toward the kitchen, and breakfast, he was brought up short by a feminine voice behind him. "Hey, you with the boo-boo."
Coming up alongside him, Catherine smiled. "My, my, aren't we sounding chipper this morning?"
"Aren't we just? May I escort you to breakfast, Ma'am?" Grinning at her, Devin crooked his arm, the gesture and obvious teasing in his expression causing her to link her arm through his and grin back at him.
Patting her hand, he asked, "So, where's himself?"
"Still drying off after his shower."
"Ah yes, I remember." Devin chuckled. "Does it still take three towels?" Biting her lower lip, Catherine tried very hard to keep a straight face and took the turn in the corridor leading to the kitchen.
Still grinning, Devin offered, "Four?"
Bursting into laughter, she thumped him on the forearm. "Stop that."
Lurching sideways, as though the blow had truly wounded him, Devin observed impishly, "Well, if it doesn't take at least four to dry his bod now, I bet it will soon."
Catherine seemed puzzled. Releasing his arm, and stopping in her tracks, she questioned, "What makes you think so?"
"Well," Devin began, hauling her forward again as his stomach rumbled impatiently, "My little bro is getting older, but he sure as hell ain't getting any smaller!"
* * *
Striding into the kitchen with a large white towel still draped around his neck, Vincent slid in beside Catherine on the kitchen bench and smiled, teasing quietly, "Did you leave me a muffin this time?"
"Of course I did." Licking small dabs of butter off of her fingers, she looked at the towel slung over Vincent's shoulders, then glanced across the table at Devin, who was grinning at her like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Looking away before he took advantage of their earlier bit of silliness and made her laugh again, she crinkled up her nose. "I don't really car for the peach ones." Lowering her voice to a whisper and leaning closer to him, she went on, "Especially when Samantha makes them with uncooked peaches."
Eyeing her, and then reaching toward the basket, which contained crumbs of various other types of muffins, and three of the peach ones, which he had never acquired a taste for, Vincent sighed, "Neither do I."
Listening to this exchange from his vantage point just across the table, Father sat back in his chair, stirred his cup of tea around and around and smiled. It was quite pleasant to be sitting here, like this, on a Sunday morning, with his family all gathered together. Which was so rare an occurrence, especially now that the boys were adults. Happily, they didn't fight at the table as they used to, in days gone by.
Eyeing Vincent and Catherine surreptitiously, he couldn't help but envy them, just a bit. To see such love, to partake of it even in the smallest way, to warm oneself in the reality of it, was astounding - and miraculous. Glancing at Devin, who was regaling Mary with one of his tales of his days as a knife thrower in a Carnival, the elderly man shook his head from side to side. Even that scamp seemed to be finally getting his life together. Of course, that life wouldn't be down here, but as long as he stopped by from time to time and stayed in touch...
"Nuh!" His train of thought was suddenly derailed, and the various conversations around the room immediately halted, as Vincent emitted a low-pitched growl and leapt to his feet, nearly tumbling Catherine to the floor in the bargain. "Holy blessed Saints!" he exclaimed, grabbing at the right side of his jaw. Whisking his napkin off of the table, and not making even the slightest attempt at courteousness, he brought the scrap of linen to his mouth and spat into it, grumbling, "That hurt!"
Her expression mirroring her concern, Catherine rose and stood beside him. Putting one hand on his forearm, she questioned hurriedly, "What happened? What's hurt you?"
Peering down into the napkin, Vincent used his clawed thumb and forefinger to retrieve an object approximately an inch in diameter. Holding it up, he sneered, "This did."
Examining what he was holding, Catherine gasped, "Oh dear, you've bitten into a peach pit!"
Curling his bottom lip, Vincent stared at the object. "Yes, that's precisely what it is." Finally remembering his manners, he peered quickly around the room. "Everyone, please forgive me for... creating a scene, but biting into that... that... thing hurt like the very devil." Running his tongue along the right side of his jaw, he muttered, "And it still does."
Picking up her napkin, Catherine dabbed gently at his lower lip. "Please hold still? You're bleeding."
At that, Father got to his feet. Walking over to Vincent, he clasped him firmly by his left forearm, insisting, "Come along. We'll assess what damage has been done in the hospital chamber." When his son held his ground, the tunnel physician gave him a look that said just about everything. "If that meets with your approval?"
Looking utterly disgruntled, Vincent allowed Father to steer him toward the corridor with Catherine and Devin hot on their heels.
* * *
"Oh, that tasted vile!" Gagging as Doctor Mike, a Helper who was also a dentist, finally removed a large piece of hard pink rubber from in-between his front teeth, Vincent discovered that it was terribly difficult to speak without actually opening his mouth. Finally, ignoring the pain, he announced, "I'm twuly all wight, Faddah." When there was no response from that quarter, he tried Catherine. Trying to smile at her, which made the entire right side of his jaw feel like someone was digging needles into the very bone, he insisted, "Weally I am."
After patting him on the arm as one would comfort a hurt little boy, Catherine turned her full attention to what Mike was saying to Father. And she didn't like what she heard.
"I'll have to grind the tooth down a bit to smooth off the broken edge, and then crown it, Jacob. Or I can cap it, but that would require much more interior work, and more pain as well, I'm afraid. And I'd have to use some sort of sedation if I go into the pulp that deeply."
Shuddering inwardly at use of the words grind, pain, and pulp, and wishing he were just about anyplace but this damnable hospital chamber, Vincent closed his eyes, leaned back in the chair, listened to the discussion, and said nothing.
"Well then," Father sighed, "Capping it is, of course, out of the question." Nodding in agreement, Mike explained further, "Then it's either crown it, or pull it, which is certainly going to be more than a bit painful without sedation. When he bit down on that pit, Vincent not only cracked his lower back tooth, he damaged the surrounding periodontal tissue as well."
"I see." Peering over at his younger son, Father waited for him to say something, but he didn't. Looking down at his vest, Vincent seemed to be counting the leather thongs hanging there one by one by one.
"Did you hear Mike's explanation of the... um... dilemma you're up against, and the choice you must make?" The question was rhetorical, of course. Vincent's hearing was as unique as he himself was. Or as Devin had put it when 'younger, "When a mouse sneezed, Vincent said, "God bless you."
"Well, what's it to be then, a crown or... the other?"
Not particularly caring for either of those options, Vincent rubbed at the center of his forehead, hoping to ease the sensation of tightness there. He'd never had a headache in his life, and if this was the beginning of one, how on earth did people survive them?
Looking at Mike, his eyes pleading for any sort of a reprieve he could get, he tried to move his tongue around his sore gum, asking quietly, "Can't we wait for a few dayth, and allow nature to... take ith course?"
Mike shrugged. "Where you're concerned, I can't honestly say that either choice is the right one or the wrong one, Vincent. Let me have one more look in there..." Picking up a thin metal probe, he motioned for his patient to open his mouth again, praying silently that he would keep it open long enough for one more hurried examination. Other patients had chomped on his fingers from time to time, but this particular patient could remove those fingers altogether if he so chose and without even half trying.
Sneering at the long shiny God-awful thing being aimed in his direction, Vincent slowly parted his jaws until there was approximately an inch of space between them.
"More," the dentist commanded softly.
Which got him another inch.
Sweating profusely from the obvious tension in the room, Mike waited, but that damn jaw hadn't moved. Almost as though he could feel the distress his patient was fighting so hard to deny, he sighed and waited a bit longer, hoping that Vincent would come around. Sixty seconds passed. Well, he decided, pursing his lips, one thing was absolutely clear; that long jaw simply wasn't going to budge another inch without a crowbar. And even if he had one, he was certainly not going to risk life and limb by even pretending to use it on this usually gentle, but quite unique human being!
More than a little cranky from being called out of his home on a Sunday morning before he'd had even one lousy cup of coffee, the short, chubby, usually well-humored man finally came to the absolute end of his patience. Curling his fingers very carefully around the two sides of Vincent's lower jaw, Mike stared into those big blue eyes, proclaiming glumly, "Look, I don't have fingers that small, okay? Now, let's just get this done. Please, Vincent, be reasonable? Open... your... mouth."
* * *
Three days after what he had privately deemed 'Vincent's moment of comeuppance,' Devin stopped just beyond the threshold leading into his brother's chamber, calling out, "Hey in there, is it okay to enter the inner sanctum, or are you two up to something nasty - I hope?"
"Get in here, you big jerk," Catherine decreed, laughing.
Entering the room, Devin discovered his brother sprawled on the bed with his right hand cradling an ice pack, which was pressed against the side of his jaw, and his newly crowned tooth, and his left arm cradling his beautiful lady. "Hiyah, folks, what's shaking," he asked nonchalantly, trying to decide what in the hell to focus on besides the bed.
"Not much." That said, Catherine motioned toward the chair beside the desk. "Park it there." When both men shot her a startled look, she peered from one to the other. "What?"
Chuckling, Devin waggled his finger at her. "Better not let the 'old man' hear you talking like that."
Plunking both of his feet on the end of the bed and leaning back in his chair, Devin snorted, his sarcasm obvious. "Cuz he'll sure as hell blame me for being a b-a-a-d influence on ya."
Smirking at him, Catherine announced, "Just because I choose not to use certain words or phrases doesn't mean I don't know them." Then, utterly disconcerting both men a second time, she tilted her head to the left and studied Devin. "So, are we cool?"
Deciding that he had been ignored quite long enough, Vincent touched Catherine lightly on the arm, his tone of voice almost pleading. "Are you still going to ask William for that lemon tea you mentioned earlier. my Love?" Sighing dramatically, he went on, "Or I suppose I could ask Mary... "
"Whoops! I'm sorry, Vincent. I forgot all about it!" Sliding reluctantly off of the bed, Catherine started for the chamber entryway, smacking Devin on the top of the head as she hurried past him. "Would you like a cup of tea, old thing?"
"Old thing!" Rubbing at his assaulted pate, Devin griped, "Hey woman, that's my brain you're messing with up there, ya know!"
Halting mid-step, Catherine afforded him an angelic look. "And one mustn't mess with something that small, must one?" Continuing on her way, she tossed her hair back, away from her eyes, announcing haughtily, "Besides, for me to mess with your brain, you'd have to stand up."
Before Devin could make any sort of response to that, she was gone. Which left him alone with Mister Affable. Oh joy. Folding his arms across his chest, he grinned at his obviously irritated little brother. "So, how are we feeling today?"
"We are feeling just fine, thank you."
"Should there be?"
"About what prethicely?" Blast.
"Aha!" Slapping the top of the desk with his palm, Devin snorted. "You still have that annoying habit!"
Trying very hard not to stumble over any more words, Vincent glared at him. "Wath... what annoying habit?" .
"You still answer questions you don't want to answer truthfully with another question!"
Furrowing his brow, Vincent made no reply, finding it more than a bit disconcerting that his brother would accuse him of something like that, especially since Catherine had recently done the exact same thing. He really didn't respond to questions with questions - did he?
"So, you're not in any pain at all, huh?" "What sort of..." Sighing, Vincent admitted, "There is a bit of pain, now and then."
"Oh really?" Leaning forward on the desk and grinning widely at him, when Devin spoke again, his tone was openly sarcastic. "But, how can you still be in pain, after three whole days? And your toofie wasn't even pulled." Ducking the pillow that whizzed by his left ear, he pointed at his brother, accusing, "So, tough guy, who's the baby now?"
"Devin, do you recall our conversation, here, in this chamber, when you were... in distress... a few days ago?"
"Some of it, I guess. Why?"
"There was a phrase you used which had something to do with eating, or was it chewing?"
Nibbling at his bottom lip, Devin thought about it for a moment, then nodded his head. "Oh, you mean bite me?"
Staring at him as only he could stare, through eyes that had narrowed to dark blue slits, Vincent rumbled, "That's the one."