Cold gusts of wind swept the pathways of Central Park as Catherine made her way through the crisp October evening. Wistfully she thought that summer seemed to be passing more quickly every year. The prospect of the long and dreary winter months ahead did nothing to lift her spirits. Dismally she watched a flock of crows that perched on an old plane tree a little further down the lawn. It was a beautiful tree with wide branches and still enough foliage to make the crown look majestic and dignified. How much she had loved climbing trees like that as a child. How comforting it had been to lean her cheek against the rough bark and spread her arms to embrace the trunk. Her heart twisted painfully in her chest when she realized how far away she had come from the little girl she had been then, how far away from herself.
Her sentiments were dispersed at the sudden sound of wood cracking noisily, as if under some great weight. Then everything went silent, aside from the sound of beating wings as the startled crows flew up from the tree. Catherine spun around to scan the path behind her, but there was nothing - and no one, she noted uneasily. The park was not a good place for a young woman, especially at this time of day.
Catherine looked around her one more time but thankfully there wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Pulling her collar more tightly around her neck, she accelerated her footsteps as she headed for the nearest exit that would take her back to the crowded sidewalk. She thought that Mrs. Bernstein had been right to warn her not to take the way through the park. In the light of day it seemed pointless to miss out on a beautiful walk just because of an old lady's worries. But now, with the light almost gone, she wished she had heeded the solicitous words.
Thinking of Mrs. Bernstein helped calm her mind and soothe her nerves after the rush of adrenaline the incident had sent through her veins. Smiling, she remembered her first meeting with Emma Bernstein two months ago. There had been an instant rapport between the two of them and Catherine was glad about her decision to do something meaningful and join a group of people who would visit elderly citizens, keeping them company once or twice a week, talking or reading to them to keep them from feeling lonely. Mrs. Bernstein was in her late eighties and an endearing old lady, literate and highly educated. Soon Catherine had found herself looking forward to the visits in the old-fashioned brownstone. Not only because she was always welcomed there like a family member, but also because there was something about the house that spoke to her on a deeper level. From her very first visit she had felt strangely at home, comfortable to a degree that surprised her. Normally she preferred modern designs and soft pastel hues, like in her own apartment. But somehow everything about Mrs. Bernstein's house was perfect, especially the large living room. Light slanted in through large windows, lending color to the slightly worn, but still rich carpets, and warming the dark polished mahogany furniture.
A car honked and Catherine was pulled back to her less than pleasant surroundings. Fortunately it wasn't far now. It was only two more blocks to the inviting brownstone and a cup of hot coffee.
Dusk had shrouded the room in darkness, but Emma Bernstein was still holding the book she'd been reading. There were footsteps in the hallway, and she leaned back on her sofa, expectantly looking towards the sound. She smiled when the tall figure of a man appeared in the door. He stopped for a moment before he finally entered the room.
"Thank you for coming, Vincent," she said and switched on the lamp next to her chair. She raised her hand to take the small box her visitor held out to her. "And thank you for these."
"Father said not to take more than two pills a day," the man called Vincent replied, and Emma thought yet again how amazingly soft his voice sounded for someone that big. She smiled up at him, gesturing for him to take a seat opposite her, but he shook his head, his long reddish blond hair swaying with the movement. "I'd better be going. Your guest will be here soon."
Emma felt the smile fade from her face as she took in Vincent's slightly disheveled appearance. His hair looked more tousled than usual and there was a tear at the side of the dark cloak he wore. She considered asking him about it but then she just sought his eyes and held them for a second before looking down on her hands. "I wish you would stay," she said quietly, annoyed at the brittle sound of her voice.
"I wish I could," he gave back and she heard the rustle of his clothes as he knelt down beside her and brought up her face to have her look at him. "But you know that I can't."
Thoughtfully she studied the features that were so familiar to her and yet so strange to the rest of the world. The haunting blue of his eyes made her heart ache with memories untouched by the hands of time. She reached up as if to caress his bristled cheek but then let her hand fall away. Tears threatened to fall, tears she didn't want him to see, tears that must never burden him. She felt the warmth of his palm as he covered the back of her hand. He didn't say a word, although she knew he was aware of her sadness. Fleetingly she wondered if it was tactfulness or self-protection that kept him from asking. With a slight squeeze he released her hand and rose to his feet. Emma looked up at him, relieved when he gave her a reassuring smile. But there was a moment, just before the smile reached his eyes, when she glimpsed the entire loneliness of a man doomed by his appearance to live a life in shadows, to hide from the light of the sun.
"Please give my regards to Jacob," she said, deliberately breaking the silence between them. "And thank you once more for coming."
Suddenly Vincent cocked his head, listening intently to something beyond her range of hearing, and with a last look of goodbye he was gone.
Emma was not surprised when only a few seconds later the doorbell rang. Carefully she drove her wheelchair through the hallway to answer the door.
Silently Vincent hurried down the stairs that led to the basement of Mrs. Bernstein's brownstone. His steps slowed as he ducked through an opening normally concealed by a shelf. As if in slow motion his hand closed around a lever that would slide the heavy piece of furniture in place behind him, but the voices from above made him linger just another moment. Emma sounded concerned when she asked, "Have you come through the park yet again?"
"I didn't realize it was that late," the young woman replied. "I promise to be more careful in the future."
Resolutely Vincent pulled the lever at last and headed for the safety of the tunnel world that was his home. He tried not to think of the incident in the park a little earlier. The young woman named Catherine had been lucky he'd been there, and he wondered yet again if she knew just how dangerous the park was at this time of day. Had he not been on his way to Mrs. Bernstein, too, in order to deliver Father's medicine, the man with the knife, who had been following the young woman, may have had his way. Vincent could still feel the taste of rage that had seized him when he had leapt forward. There had been no other sound than the cracking of a branch when the man had hit the trunk of a tree.
With a forceful shake of his head Vincent tried to get rid of the memory, but he knew how futile the attempt was. The image would stay with him, haunting him, until he would be ready to let go of yet another piece of his humanity. Maybe one day, Vincent mused, when there was nothing left of his soul, maybe then the pain would stop.
Catherine closed the book she had been reading to Mrs. Bernstein. With a fond smile she regarded the old woman who had fallen asleep in her chair. Outside the large window the silhouettes of the trees faded against the darkened evening sky and Catherine savored to the peaceful moment as she listened to the old woman's regular breathing. Suddenly she turned her head and scanned the semi-darkness of the room.
"Who's there?" she asked, instantly feeling foolish for it.
Sure enough Emma raised her head and looked at her with surprise that turned to fond amusement."Sometimes I, too, have a feeling as if these old walls were talking to me," she said in a comforting voice. "Let's draw the curtains and switch on the lights, shall we?"
Catherine returned Emma's smile and rose to her feet. The velvety feel of the curtain as she closed it triggered some distant memory, which was gone the moment the lights went on.
"It's late," Emma said quietly. "Please promise me to take a cab, will you?"
"I will," Catherine promised as she set to helping her friend to prepare for bed.
Vincent froze at the unexpected sound of the doorbell. He mentally chastised himself for forgetting the time over the books. After all, he had known Emma was going to have a guest tonight. From the corner of his eyes he glanced at the heavy box filled with books he was to take to Father's library. There was no way getting it downstairs now. It would have to wait.
The doorbell sounded again and Vincent realized that Emma wasn't aware he was still up here on the gallery overlooking her foyer, so he couldn't expect any help from her. Quickly he considered his options. Maybe he could make it downstairs and into the tunnel before Emma even reached the door to answer it, but he decided against it. All he could do now was keeping out of sight by remaining behind the shelves as Emma opened the door and welcomed her guest.
With interest Vincent watched as the young woman took off her coat and placed it over the backrest of a chair. "You didn't come through the park again, Catherine, did you?" the old woman inquired.
Catherine laughed good-naturedly. "No, I took a cab, don't worry."
"Good girl," Emma replied, gesturing for her to take a seat.
Vincent shrank back into his hiding place when Catherine turned and scanned her surroundings. He got the fleeting impression that she was drinking in the sight, reveling in it.
There was a slightly screeching sound as Catherine took a seat and Vincent expelled a quiet breath as the two women started to chat. Careful not to make any noise he took a step in retreat and resigned himself to waiting patiently until an opportunity for his departure arose.
Gradually the steady ebb and flow of the voices lulled Vincent into a trance-like state and he almost missed the point where Catherine exclaimed, "I'll go and get it."
Soundlessly, as it was his habit, he got to his feet and pulled up his hood. As he heard footsteps on the stairs leading up to the gallery, he pressed himself flatly against the wall at the end of the aisle, his heart hammering against his ribcage so loudly that he feared it may be audible to the young woman who was coming towards him. He could see her silhouette against the illumination of the room behind her. She was scanning the shelves for some book and he hoped against hope that she would simply find it and leave without turning her head and looking at him.
He never knew if it was his gasp or the rustle of his cloak, but suddenly she spun around, trying to pierce the shadows with her gaze. Instinct told him there was nothing left but flight. With one giant leap he rushed by her, inadvertently pushing her against the wooden rail as he dashed down the stairs. Emma's brittle voice followed him down to the basement as she called out, "Vincent? Is that you?"
Fighting down the surge of adrenaline in her blood, Catherine struggled to regain her senses. She heard her name being called from below.
"Catherine? Are you all right, dear?"
Slowly she straightened and walked downstairs on still unsteady legs. "What was that?" she asked, gesturing toward the basement. "Who is Vincent?"
Mrs. Bernstein smiled and patted the sofa beside her. "Come and sit, child. That was Vincent, a dear friend of mine. He comes here to borrow books, since he is an avid reader. Did he scare you? You must know he is very shy. He doesn't like to be seem because of his ... appearance, but he's a good soul." She interrupted herself with a giggle. "I bet you startled him just as much as he frightened you."
Catherine joined into Emma's mirth. "So it seemed." Turning to look more closely into the eyes of her hostess, she asked, "What is it about Vincent's appearance that makes him so shy?"
Emma lowered her eyes. "He wouldn't want me to speak about it," she said quietly. "And I don't want to betray his trust. I've suggested that he stay and get to know you, but...."
"But he didn't want to," Catherine finished pensively. She could still feel the chill running down her spine as the huge shadow had appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
Emma shook her head. "He is very sensitive, you know. The thought that his appearance might frighten anyone is unbearable to him."
"That's understandable," Catherine mused, trying to recall something, anything, about the strange encounter she'd just had.
She felt Emma's hand on her arm as the old lady patted her gently. "Stop thinking of him, Catherine. Just leave the matter alone. Do you think you can do that? It's what he would want."
Catherine didn't respond at once. Her thoughts revolved around the man who was forced to live a life in hiding. She didn't want that for him, or for anyone. "What kind of a life could that be?" She wasn't aware she had spoken those words aloud until Emma answered her question.
"Don't pity him, child, his life is not as miserable as you may think. He may not be able to walk in the light of day, but his mind has traveled to every place anyone has ever written about. He is a thinker, a philosopher even, and I believe he has reached a certain degree of peace with his fate."
"How did you come to know him?"
There was no reply to that for a long moment. Finally Emma said, "We have mutual friends who introduced us when he was still a child. Be assured that he was reared by people who loved him and cared for him."
Catherine felt that this was all the old woman was going to say about the matter, so she smiled and rose to her feet. "I'm afraid I forgot to get the book for you," she said, heading for the gallery yet again.