by Pat King
Vincent sat looking at the chess set, but his mind was not on the game. He finally realized that Father was trying to get his attention and looked up into the worried grey eyes.
"Vincent, are you all right? You seem distracted."
"I am fine, Father; however, perhaps it would be better to postpone our game ... my concentration is elsewhere this evening."
"Is Catherine all right?" Father asked the question almost dreading the answer.
Though he had grown to love Catherine, she tended to draw his son into danger time and again. He was certain that most of his grey hairs had come since that fateful April night.
"She is in no danger." Vincent understood well his father's fears. "There is a sadness, a melancholy, that seems to envelope her." He sighed, echoing her despair. "I wish I could ease her unhappiness."
Though Vincent's involvement with Catherine worried him, Father understood the depth of his son's love and was beginning to accept that Catherine's was just as deep and true.
"Do you know the cause of her sorrow? Is there something we can do?" Father's caring words warmed Vincent's heart.
"We have not had much time together lately. She has been working diligently on a case, and I have stayed away so that she could rest."
"It's Friday night, why don't you visit her? Perhaps your presence will be enough to cheer her." Vincent's surprised looked made Father chuckle. "Go on ... neither of you will be happy until you see each other."
With a flick of his cloak, Vincent was gone.
The weather Above was bitterly cold but dry with a brisk breeze. Vincent shivered as he lightly dropped onto Catherine's balcony. He reached out to tap on the glass but his hand was stopped by the site of Catherine huddled on the sofa before the fire. The flickering light reflected the sadness in her eyes and the dampness on her cheeks as she stared into the flames. The pain he experienced at her sadness tore his heart, and her face turned to the balcony as if he had called her name.
She rushed to the French doors, and he stepped back as she opened them and flung herself into his arms. No words were spoken as she just held him tightly. His reassuring strength helped to soothe her sadness. She shivered in the cold and he wrapped her more securely in his cloak.
"I must go ... it's too cold for you to be out." He tried to pull away but she held him tighter. "Catherine, you must go inside before you get sick."
She looked up at him, the distress evident in her green eyes. "Please, come inside ... I've missed you so much." She pulled him toward the door but he hesitated. "Or, wait here and I'll get my coat. Please don't leave."
The pleading in her voice cut his heart. She was his life ... he would do anything for her. Why was crossing this threshold so hard? Making his decision, he squared his shoulders and allowed her to lead him inside. He stood just inside the doors as she closed them against the chilling wind.
"Would you like some tea? Or some cocoa, perhaps?" He could tell that she was trying to be casual about his being there, trying to put him at his ease.
"Cocoa, please." He looking longingly at her as she disappeared into the small kitchen then glanced around the room, willing himself to be calm. He slid his cloak from his broad shoulders and laid it across the back of a dining chair.
"Make yourself at home," Catherine called out, and he went to stand gratefully before the fire. On the table in the corner was a small tree, and several boxes of Christmas ornaments were open on the desk. The tree itself was undecorated, and he studied it across the small distance. It was an odd looking little tree -- very asymmetrical with bare spots throughout -- it didn't look like it belonged in the stylish apartment.
"It's sad, isn't it?" Catherine's soft voice interrupted his musing as she handed him the mug of cocoa. "Sort of a Charlie Brown tree." He mused over the reference as she walked over and gently touched the branches. "It looked so lonely and unloved sitting there that I had to bring it home. The man selling the trees thought I was crazy, but was happy to sell it. I think it was destined for his fireplace."
"I've felt your sadness ... is the tree the cause?" He looked at her questioningly, certain that there was something else causing her depression.
"Not really." Her eyes began to glow with tears, and he held out his arms to her.
Moving into the comfort of his embrace, the tears flowed freely. As the crying eased, he rested his cheek on her head. "Tell me."
"It's silly," she said, not wanting to leave the warmth of his arms.
"Catherine." The loving admonishment told her that he would never think her silly. He led her to the sofa where she sat in the curve of his arm, her head against his chest.
"I decided to try and get into the holiday spirit. I bought the tree and found the boxes of decorations that I'd saved from my Father's house. I didn't realize how hard it would hit me."
He could feel her sadness intensify. "These were the ornaments from your childhood."
She bit her lip and nodded. "Uh huh. I hadn't seen them in a long time ... Daddy kept them at his house. When I opened the boxes, all of the memories came back, and I realized how alone I am ... and how much I miss them ... Mother and Daddy."
His arm tightened around her shoulder, and his loved washed over her like a wave.
"It is normal to miss loved ones during the holidays, especially when you were close as you and your father were. But Catherine, you are not alone. You have many friends who care about you, and you have those of us Below who count you as one of our family."
She snuggled closer against him. She realized that though the season had instigated it, part of her despondency was due to the fact that she'd missed seeing Vincent over the past two weeks. His absence intensified the aloneness she felt. He could feel her despair easing.
"Would you like me to help you decorate your tree?" He eyed the pathetic little thing, thinking that perhaps decorations might help. Catherine was correct, it did look lonely and unloved -- if a tree could be lonely or unloved.
She leaned back to look at him. "I'd like that a lot. I don't know if I could do it on my own."
He helped her from the sofa, and they went to look at the tree. "I have some lights here somewhere," she said as she rummaged through a box. "Ah hah!" She pulled a carefully wound ball of multicolored lights from the carton. "We'll have to make sure they work."
Surprisingly, when she plugged the string into the outlet, all of the tiny bulbs lit up, and she smiled in satisfaction. After turning the radio to a station playing Christmas carols, she and Vincent began to string the lights on the branches.
Catherine carefully removed the various ornaments from their boxes and handed them to Vincent to hang on the tree. With many of the decorations she would pause and stroke them gently, remembering bygone holidays with her parents.
Vincent encouraged her to tell him stories about the various ornaments, and she entertained him with happy stories from her childhood.
Every year her parents would let her select a new ornament for the tree, one that would be special to her. There was the tiny ballerina dressed as a sugarplum fairy she'd selected at six after her mother had taken her to see The Nutcracker. There was an assortment of animals -- dogs, cats, horses -- as well as angels, stars and carousel horses. Vincent felt a stab of grief and turned to see Catherine holding a small white and silver angel. A sad smile graced his love's face as tears trickled down her cheeks.
"Catherine?" He moved to her side to look at the fragile figurine.
"I got this the Christmas after my mother's death. I used to pretend that this was my mother in heaven, that she was an angel looking over me -- taking care of me." Her voice was a whisper.
He took the angel and hung it in a place on honor on the front of the tree. She watched him with love. She was so lucky to have someone who cared for her, loved her, the way he did -- someone who understood. He reinforced the strength that she had found within herself, strength that she had not known was there until he had pointed it out.
After filling the branches with the ornaments, they scattered strands of icicles on the branches and stood back to look at the finished product. Catherine leaned against Vincent, her arms wrapped around his waist as they admired the tree.
"Oh, Vincent, it's beautiful. All it needed was a little love and care, and it's not sad any more."
He rested his cheek on the crown of her head. "Neither are you, my Catherine."
"I guess I just needed a little love and care too." As she looked at him with shining green eyes, he thought his heart would break with the love he felt for her. They hugged each other tightly as they watched the twinkling lights.