by Cindy Rae
The room was a gentle mess of streamers, balloons
and homemade confetti. A side table held a small stack of thoughtful
gifts. The larger table, the one usually used for communal meals, had
been cleared, mostly, save for the
eviscerated remains of the rather large sheet
cake that had originally held the words "Happy Birthday, Vincent" in red
frosting atop a chocolate background. It had been properly destroyed by
tunnel residents, one and all, not the least of whom had been Vincent.
Vincent hefted a cardboard box onto the gift table some two hours after the celebration had concluded. January 12th. It had been a good day.
It had been an amazing year.
Catherine had been in his life for every day of it.
Though there were times when they were apart, due to her obligations or his, he knew he carried her, everywhere. The bond lay gently between them, now, as she settled herself in her apartment. She'd spent most of the day below, celebrating with him. She was home, tired, and winding down. She would be asleep soon.
A concrete pen holder made by Samantha was the first thing he settled into the box, using its weight to hold the cardboard steady. He had no idea how she'd managed to drill three holes into it. Maybe Mouse had helped her.
Mouse. A tin windup toy restored to usability had been his bit of treasure. An impractical, ridiculous gift. An old train that chugged merrily down a nonexistent track, the paint restored, the sound a subtle grind of ancient gears. Vincent knew he would never "play" with it. But also that he would never part with it. He would set it among the treasures of his room, someplace Mouse was sure to see, the next time he visited.
Paper good wishes fluttered everywhere he looked. Birthday cards littered the table, most of them on construction paper, and all made by hand. Some poems and essays, authored by the children for him, sat in a neat pile. Many drawings in crayon and a few pictures in watercolor. All of it would be saved. All of it would be treasured.
Other gifts sat off to the side. A woven belt. A pair of brown gloves. A silver pen from Catherine, and a fresh journal from Jacob, both of which he would need in the coming year. The pages in his current journal were becoming full. The gift of a new one was a tradition, between father and son.
He'd read back through the current journal yesterday, the memories making him something between astonished and wistful. It had been an amazing year. Had he thought that before? He had.
A trinket box from Cullen, one carved with a rose "handle" on the lid, was meant to hold his pouch. There was a bag of marbles from Eric. A book of Keats from Peter Alcott, sent in absentia. The good doctor was in Europe visiting his daughter over the holidays, and had stayed another few weeks. He'd sent Vincent a postcard of the Eiffel Tower. That, too, would be saved among the things he valued.
Vincent looked around at the large room. Earlier, it had contained a bevy of well-wishers and "happy birthday" singers, and he'd basked in the attention a bit uncomfortably, but good-naturedly. His family was happy. Catherine was happy. They wanted him to be happy too, and he was.
He was supposed to box up his gifts and take them to his chamber, along with whatever was left of the cake. Everyone had had their fill. Very little remained. The rest was his, to eat or share as he wished.
It had been an amazing year. The words kept coming to him as he gathered his bounty. Amazing. Terrible, too, in places, to be sure. But... unparalleled in its scope. He'd not felt more free since the night of the carousel, with Devin, and the sensation of freedom had now lasted much longer than one night. Freedom. Inclusion. It felt so much like the same thing, sometimes.
He loved being on her balcony. Loved the height of it, and the astounding view. Loved that all the lights were cast before him, and that behind each one of them a story was taking place, a life was being lived.
And he was part of it, for as long as he stood there. Not cast out. Not cast down. A part, if an unseen one. They were all unseen parts, behind the lights. That did not make them less real. And he felt a part of it. A “real” part, like the Velveteen Rabbit toy in Catherine’s favorite children’s story. Did love make you real? It did. It absolutely did.
He leaned back against the table a moment, surveying the scene. A few noisemakers had been left behind, most from New Year’s. So were some of the balloons. The thing about having a birthday so early in January was that he’d often had “leftovers” from Times Square as part of his decorations. This year was no different. He smiled at the odd mishmash of color, the riot of textures that overwhelmed the room.
Also no different was the fact that Winslow would choose this day to break his resolution about his diet. Twelve days was pretty much all the big man had in him to give a promise to avoid sweets. That, too, was as per the usual. Had Vincent’s birthday come later in the year, it was a resolution breakdown he could have avoided hearing about. As it was, however, Winslow always complained… just before he accepted a corner piece full of frosting.
A hand-lettered paper banner dipped down, looking like a drunken party goer. A pair of forks had clattered to the floor under the table, and not been retrieved yet. A few straggling cups had yet to be cleared, one of them tipped, the contents dribbling across a festive yellow cloth that would need laundering, one way or the other. The table and floor were awash with torn paper “confetti.” The children had enjoyed the festivities at least as much as he had.
Vincent scooped some confetti off the table and swept it toward an open paper bag with his hand. Whoever had clean-up detail on the dining room would have a bit of a job.
"They haven't left you to clean up in here, surely?" Jacob's voice carried to him from the entrance. Vincent realized how lost in thought he must have been, to not hear the tapping of Father's walking stick.
"I just came back for my gifts," Vincent answered, sweeping more confetti off the table. Rainbow colors fluttered into the open bag as Jacob entered the room.
"Leave it. I'm sure Kipper and the boys will take care of it by morning. They might even take to... throwing it back up in the air, again." Jacob gestured ceiling-ward with his cane.
Vincent smiled at the picture. Catherine had been standing next to him as a shower of torn paper pieces fluttered around her. She'd shaken her hair to clear it, and brushed at his shoulders. He'd caught her hand and bid it linger a moment, as the paper and the sound and the well wishes had swirled around them. It had been a perfect moment.
"I'm sure they will." Vincent came back to himself, belatedly aware some sort of response was expected.
Jacob tapped his way into the room. It had been a long day for him. Vincent eyed his progress surreptitiously, trying to see if the hip was bothering Father more than it regularly did. On long days it was wont to twinge more than usual, and this had been one of those. Jacob settled himself in a chair near the cake. He seemed no more bothered by his limp than normal.
"The room looks a bit... forlorn, now that it’s all over," Jacob observed, watching his son take the chair opposite him. Neither reached for another slice of cake, though Jacob was considering it.
"It looks... well-reveled in," Vincent described, sitting back in the chair, eying the banner. "As if happiness was had, here."
Jacob's smile was paternal. "Did you have a good time?"
Vincent nodded, cutting the last remaining corner piece of cake for Jacob, and pushing it toward him on one of the remaining plates. A pair of wax birthday candles rolled across the table, remnants of the cake decorations. They'd not had enough to enumerate his age, so they'd simply used what was available from a mixed assortment of leftovers.
Jacob thought Vincent would join him in a second helping of cake, but his son seemed disinclined to stay seated, as he rose and made his way over to the long paper banner that had been decorated by many small hands. Vincent's own unusual hand smoothed the crinkles, and reattached the fallen corner.
"Feeling wistful?" Jacob asked, watching him re-tie the section that had come down.
"Feeling... contemplative. It has been quite the year, Father."
Jacob knew it was true, and for no one more than Vincent. "A lot of changes. A lot of changes, for you," Jacob replied, looking at the smattering of candles on the table. "Feeling old?" Father asked.
"Feeling young," Vincent answered, surprised that it was true. "I think I felt older when I turned twenty-five or twenty six, though I don't understand it."
Didn't he? In his mid-twenties he'd watched Olivia get married for the first time, watched other childhood friends claim their spouses, from either Above or Below. It had not been lost on Jacob that each birthday was starting to mean something to Vincent: to mean he was being left further behind, thanks to his differences.
Devin had left him. Others of his contemporaries were drifting away, finding their places in the world Above, or finding their life mates, or both. Only Vincent couldn’t do that. Only Vincent was being… well. If not “abandoned” by anyone, most certainly “left” by them, in one way or another.
"I think I remember feeling the same way between thirty-two and forty-one," Jacob confided, recalling the bad years after Margaret had left him, and then the better ones, as the World Below gradually became less hardscrabble and more... supported.
"So you have something to look forward to," Jacob tacked on, not picking up a fork but dipping a finger in the icing. William was a master.
Forty-five. Yes, that was on his horizon, Vincent thought. It would come for him, one day, just as it had come for Jacob. That, and all the numbers in between, and for that matter, after. Vincent wondered where he would be, then, where he and Catherine would be, with each other.
"I've felt free," Vincent confided, barely daring to say it aloud. He came back to the table and pushed a few of the candles around a bit, before gathering them into a loose pile. Most were too far gone to be used again, but there were a couple of the thicker ones that might be salvageable.
He picked the latter up and tucked them in his pocket, not wanting them to be discarded accidentally along with the rest of the trash. There was something about them that he wanted to save, though he couldn’t put his finger on “what,” precisely.
Jacob caught the gesture.
"Did you make a wish?" Jacob asked idly, a little terrified for his son. This woman, this very wealthy woman he'd attached himself to, this woman from a world that was so apart from Vincent’s own… Jacob prayed she was as unique and amazing in her own way as his son was. She seemed to be. There was no doubt Vincent loved her, unreservedly. For good or ill, his fate now rested with her somehow. Jacob knew that much, if he knew nothing else.
"I think I'll go Above," Vincent responded, leaving the box of gifts where it sat as he went to fetch his cape from a chair by the door.
"To see Catherine?" Jacob asked.
"It's late. She'll be getting ready for bed soon. She'll be tired." He swept the sheltering fabric over his shoulders.
Jacob realized that was now two questions his special son had not answered directly.
"And I suppose it's little good for me to tell you to be careful?" Jacob asked, finally picking up his fork. Vincent crossed the room and planted a soft kiss atop the elder's head.
"It's late, and it rained earlier. Cold. There will be no one out but me."
"Give Catherine my love. Not that I didn't see her just two hours ago," the old fox said to the younger one.
"Enjoy the cake," Vincent responded with good humor.
Okay, three times, now. Jacob was counting. Or four. It usually meant there was something on his special son’s mind. Parenting had its privileges, when it came to knowing one’s children, Father thought.
Jacob was left with whatever cares he had, and seconds on a fine dessert. There were days when he’d had only the former, where Vincent was concerned. Ah, well.
Vincent encountered more of his family in the halls, all of whom wished him a happy birthday, (again) and a couple of whom asked if there was leftover cake. He accepted their well wishes in stride as he directed them back toward Jacob. It looked as if the party was about to continue, in a smaller, scaled-down version. It was fine that it did.
January's air held both a mist and a bite as he made his way across the park. Not for the first time, Vincent wondered how people born in May celebrated their birthdays, if they always enjoyed it out of doors thanks to the weather, or if they stayed inside for the festivities, good weather or no.
The park was a ring of falling quiet, and it was only the crunch of icy grass underfoot and the sound of his own breathing that kept him company. He should have exchanged his old gloves for the newer ones, he thought, feeling the chill in his fingers. It was not the coldest night of the year. Not this time. That honor belonged to a New Year's Day cold snap, more than a week earlier. But it was frosty, nonetheless.
Also not for the first time, he wondered how he'd survived it as an infant, and blessed Anna Pater for the rescue. The old thought was a familiar one, by now. Like many other things about this day.
But a new thought, one that had been whispering in his brain, playing in his mind like so much background music, like so much of a repeated singing of “Happy Birthday,” was coming to the fore.
It was January 12th. He'd been gifted to, and sung to, and hugged and fed, and allowed to shirk chores. Catherine had even given him a soft farewell kiss on his cheek as she'd left him. He was blessed. He was lucky. He was... a year older now, he realized. Officially.
Streetlamps cast a struggling light that seemed almost incapable of reaching the ground, as the laboring light refracted on the hanging droplets of moisture-ridden air. It looked gauzy, and nondescript. Distant shapes became lost outlines, in the mist.
He made his way across the park and climbed up a steel fire escape that held the cold in its steel bars as it rattled with his weight. He was a large creature, passing through an almost deserted landscape. He'd told Jacob he anticipated being alone for this journey. He had no idea how right he'd be. It was that rare night where in between the drainage culvert and her roof, he'd literally not encountered another living soul.
There was a time when that would have made him feel lonely.
On the other hand, there was a time when even one person on the trek would have made him feel crowded, necessitating him diving for cover.
But now he felt neither. Now he felt... the same words he'd given to Jacob earlier. Free. Younger. And it made so little sense, except it did.
The strength in his form was his constant ally, and it saw him safely to her terrace as it always did. The lights were just going out. He'd come very late.
He'd barely raised his hand to rap at the pane before she opened the terrace door. She must have been looking out toward the windows.
"Vincent?" She was dressed snugly for bed, her feet tucked into soft, boot-style slippers. She looked warmly dressed. But not enough against this kind of cold.
"Go back inside," he urged gently. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I thought you might already be asleep."
"I was just getting ready to..." She grabbed her quilted housecoat from beside the door and put it on, stepping out into the cold with him. "Is everything all right?"
"Everything is fine. It is fine, Catherine. Go back inside. It's freezing out here."
"Will you come in?" she asked in confusion. If he thought she'd be asleep then why was he here? Had she missed something?
He shook his head at her offer to come inside, as she knew he would. He rarely entered her apartment. Some... unspoken preference he had. But he adored her balcony, no matter what the weather. Short of a monsoon, he stayed outside. She’d never begrudged him the choice, knowing how little time he ever got to spend both outside and far above the ground.
"Is there... can I help you with something?" she tried again, closing the doors behind her.
Vincent sighed, sliding his hands into his pockets. She was still awake. Her relaxed mind had been dozy, and he mistook it for dreaming. He'd planned to stay only a moment, then go. Now he was stuck for it.
She looked a little rumpled and cocooned, and perfect. And she wasn’t going inside until she understood why he was here.
"Catherine, what did you want for your birthday when you were fifteen? Do you remember?" he asked.
The question caught her by surprise. Had he not received something he wanted? When he was fifteen? And what did that have to do with now?
"I... I don't know. A fancy car, I guess. It was ridiculous to want one, I didn't even have a license yet. But some of my friends had one, and I knew I'd get my learner’s permit soon..."
A car. Of course. A rich girl's wish. Or perhaps just the wish of most topsider adolescents. A rite of passage he would never experience.
"I didn't get one," she defended, searching his expression for a clue as to what this was about. He was azure-eyed and distant. And a little inscrutable.
"And when you were sixteen?"
"I suppose the same thing. Daddy made me wait another year."
"No, that's not what I meant. I don't mean to ask 'what did you get.' I mean to ask what did you want? What did you wish for, when the day came, and they told you to blow out the candles?"
"I... I don't know,” she hesitated, reaching back through the memories. “Something... something silly, or something that fit the age I was. Something that seemed important at the time. A pretty watch. A red sweater."
"A blue Coach purse. Then a trip to Europe, with Jenny, for graduation, at eighteen." The memories were coming back.
"Nineteen? Twenty? Twenty one?"
Catherine tilted her head to one side. Whatever this was, he'd clearly carried it from the tunnels to here. There had been no hint of disquiet earlier.
"Better grades, or maybe it was a briefcase like my father’s. I don't remember. And... and a new party dress."
The last had been a lie. Twenty-one had been the year she'd wished Stephen Bass would ask her out on a date. Twenty-two had been the year she'd wished for an engagement ring, and gotten it. But she wasn't about to say that to him. She did not wish to bring up Stephen’s name just now.
"Why, Vincent? Why are you asking?" she questioned, wanting to cut him off from this line of interrogation before it wandered into more uncomfortable territory. That, and she realized how many times her “wishes” had been for unimportant or material things.
Besides, some years she truly didn't remember. It was such a trivial thing, really.
He dropped the soft baritone of his voice a step lower, nearly whispering the words, inviting a confidence. "What was the dearest, most secret wish you ever made? Will you tell me?"
His voice was a lure and her feet were getting cold inside her booties. And the cold didn’t matter. Because the answer to that question was easy to remember, though it was sad.
"The year after my mother died. I used my birthday wish to wish she'd come back, that she was still there, still with us." She'd have been eleven years old, then. And she’d never told a living soul that. And even though part of her knew it wouldn't happen, the other part, the part that had lost Caroline Chandler too young, had held the wish like a precious secret, knowing if you told someone it couldn't come true.
Vincent inclined his head in sympathetic understanding. As… difficult as his life had ever been, he'd never had to face losing Jacob, the only parent he had ever known.
"Was...was there something you wanted for your birthday, Vincent?” She prompted. “Something you didn't get? It's all right to tell me. I'll trade you a confidence for a confidence," she said, shivering a little.
"Right now, the only thing I wish is that you were warmer," he answered, sweeping off his cape and adjusting it over her shoulders. There. That was better.
"But now you'll be cold," she protested, guiltily admitting she loved the feel of the heavy wool cape. It smelled like the tunnels, and like him: Candle wax and oatmeal soap and an almost indefinably subtle musk that was uniquely Vincent.
"No, I won’t be." He shook his head, indicating his heavy sweater and padded vest. "That's just it. No matter how cold it is, as long as I know I'm coming to you..." His eyes fixed on the distant moon. "I don't think I've felt cold since... since the night I met you, Catherine," he stated, knowing it was an honest, if impossible, truth. Something about her warmed him from the inside out, and the feeling had stayed. Stayed? It had grown, even.
She snuggled inside his cape, still stamping her feet a little.
"You didn't mean me to catch you out here," she observed. "Do you mind if I ask why you came? Why you wanted to know what I wished?"
"I was going to leave you something," he replied, reaching inside his pocket.
"But it’s your birthday. We’re all supposed to leave you things," she said.
"I have gifts aplenty. More than you know," he answered, holding out his hand. "I was going to just leave them on the table for you. I realized I didn't need them. Not anymore."
She extended her hand and into her palm dropped three stubs of candles. Mismatched. One blue and twisted, one skinny and red, and a longer yellow one with but a wisp of a wick. Birthday candles. She recognized them from his cake. One still had a trace of frosting on the bottom.
"Birthday candles?" she asked.
"My birthday candles. In case you need them."
Catherine raised a softly sculpted eyebrow. Not that she was averse to the adage "waste not, want not," and not that that wasn't the adage under which the tunnel folk lived, but...
"From when I was fifteen. Every birthday. Every wish. Every wish, on everything. The first evening star, the wishbone from the Thanksgiving feast, the candles on the cake... It's been the same wish, Catherine. The same one. Every time. For everything." His voice was adamant, and his gaze pinned hers.
She stared into eyes that had deepened to the indigo color of the night. "One wish. Just one,” his emphatic voice continued. “Over and over, until I barely even thought about it anymore. And I was never supposed to tell, so no one knew. Mary might have guessed, once, or Jacob perhaps, but I could never say it. I never dared."
He stepped closer to her and she felt the warmth of his huge presence as she saw the city lights twinkle over his shoulder.
"I wished for you. I wished for love. For a brave woman with a warm heart who would love me, be connected to me. Look at me and see something more than just my face,” He paused. “I wished for an end to my aloneness..." He cupped her jaw, gently, and brushed her cheek with the pad of his gloved thumb. She turned her head to place a soft kiss inside his palm.
"Tonight when they were singing to me, the children helped me blow out the candles, and I realized for the first time ... I don't have to make that wish anymore. And I have nothing else to wish for, nothing else I want. I have you, Catherine.”
The sincerity of his words shook her to her core.
“I have… everything," he concluded.
He leaned his head down to hers, and she felt the warmth in him, the life in him. The vitality and the purpose and the... and the love. She felt his love like a warm wave, coursing over him and into her. No, he wasn't cold. He was right. He hadn't been cold in a very long time.
"So you're giving me your wish? Your birthday wish?" she asked, keeping the wax in her grip.
"You may need it. Just in case. Just in case there’s ever something. I have no use for it, not now."
She closed her eyes on the poignancy of his declaration. Living in a domain punctuated by what other people would characterize as sparse circumstances, he’d had just one wish, and it wasn’t for anything material. One wish, a secret he’d kept inside his mighty heart, for years. And she’d made it come true.
The thought was more powerful and more humbling than any other she could name.
"There's... we have challenges yet to face, Vincent. Some," she hedged, not wanting to spoil the moment but wanting to let him know she understood that there were still things they were working through, working toward, between them.
"Do you have any doubt that when we face those things, we will be together?" he asked, wrapping her warmly in arms that moved boulders, that lifted beams, that cradled children… that cradled her.
"No," she admitted. "No doubts. Come to think of it, I don't think I have any use for these candles, either,” she sighed, rubbing her nose into the warmth of his padded vest.
"Keep them then. Keep them for us. Perhaps someday, we'll need them. There’s still a wish left on them."
Her smile was softly indulgent, as she looked up into the eyes of the man she loved more than anyone or anything else in the world.
"All right, I’ll keep them then. Just in case. Any ideas as to what we should use them for?" she asked.
He looked forward into the future and saw her, looking as beautiful as a dream, as beautiful as a wish. Her softly featured face was obscured by a mist. No, not a mist. A veil. A bridal veil. Maybe. Someday. It was new, this wish, and was only just starting to form. He allowed the power of it to take shape, and settle. A new dream was being born inside his almost too-full heart.
He thought he might know what his next wish might be. Someday.
But those thoughts were for the future, and that future was not yet. He realized she was still waiting for an answer of some sort.
"Even if I did know, I couldn't tell you, Catherine," His face bore the ghost of a smile.
"Everyone knows you have to keep a wish a secret for at least a little while, if you expect it to come true."
So he did. And it did.
No matter where you are in your own birthday wish, I wish you love.
Happy Birthday, Vincent,
January 12, 2015