Interludes ~ Questions ~ The Only Gift
3rd in the arc Beyond the Stained Glass
Monday morning. Too bright. Noisy. Hemmed into the back corner of the elevator overwhelmed by chatter. She would need all her resources to make it through this day.
Her desk. Already piled high with new folders, a stack leaning precariously and each of them marked with red on the spine for urgent.
She checked her watch. Nine hours to go, if she were quite lucky.
“Cathy!” Rita met her at the break room door. “You look ... not rested! Did your vacation wear you out? Where did you go?”
“Umm, I just visited friends out of town. Lots of late night talks ... you know."
“You need an extra week to catch up on your sleep?”
“That might do it.” Hoping to jump start her day with a second cup of coffee, she filled her cup. “What’s been happening here?”
“Joe can’t bear it when you’re gone. He misses you! Don’t tell him I said that.” Rita laughed. “He must have made the turn toward your desk a dozen times and by Wednesday he was in a total snit. He needs a vacation. Or the rest of us do.”
“It looks like he made it to my desk. Did you see the folders? What is all that?”
“Big doings. Joe will want to see us first thing.”
“No doubt.” Catherine winced at the bitterness of the coffee. “Have we changed services? This is bad.”
“No, it’s the same.”
“Must be me.” She thought of William’s rich brew and of the coffee she'd shared with Vincent. That had tasted wonderful and the last kiss she’d taken from him bore the hint of mocha.
“Let’s have lunch,” Rita grinned at her, irresistible. “I want to hear all about your trip.”
“Sure!” she said, smiling and waving as she walked away, but inside she rehearsed her cover story.
“Cathy!” She read Joe’s lips through the window of his office and his door slammed open. “Cathy! I hope you enjoyed yourself. You won't get another vacation for a decade! All hell broke loose while you were gone. Didn’t you get my messages? Where were you? That’s the last time I tell you to get out of town. We’ve got a dozen fires to put out, no, two dozen! In my office, five minutes. Bring Rita. And call down to the interns’ shop ... tell them to clear everything off their tables. They belong to me now.”
He yanked the door shut behind him, rattling the window in its frame and she saw him grab up his big rubber band from his desk blotter. He resumed a striding pace, his brows knit in study, the elastic stretched between his two twirling hands.
“Home, sweet home ...” she said under her breath, as she gathered legal pads and fresh pencils, watering the potted plant with her coffee.
They had agreed, though Catherine had protested and argued for a while, that she would stay Above this week.
“The whole week?” She made a face. “Don’t say it,” she said, her hand in the air to stop him. “My face will freeze like this. I know. I’ve heard that a million times. It was Dad’s favorite saying after I turned eleven or twelve.”
“Did you often resist and pout, Catherine? And exaggerate?”
“Pout? I don’t pout!” She tried to sound annoyed, but he made her laugh. “All right. All right,” she said, gathering the fabric of his shirt in her fist. “I know you won’t budge once you’ve made up your mind.”
She tried once more – at the park entrance that morning at dawn – to change that agreement. The words she whispered in his ear were few but meaningful, and though she took his breath with them, he managed to reconvey his steadfast opinion.
“I’ll miss you.”
“Be well, Catherine. It's a beautiful day for a run in the park.”
He called her back when she was no more than a few paces out. Standing in the shadows of the tunnel, he was unseen but she heard him – just – not entirely sure if she heard with her ears or with her heart. She rose on her toes to meet his kiss and it was that last sweet mocha kiss of the morning she remembered all the day through.
Home at dusk.
She needed a cart to trundle all the paperwork home with her. Joe had been adamant, stacking folder after folder on her outstretched arms. Her feet hurt; her head hurt. Her muscles hurt all over. She couldn't be sure of the cause – was it the stress of work or pure withdrawal from her days Below? Only a week had passed though an earthquake had shaken her, had made the rivers run backwards. The entire course of her life was changed.
She needed groceries. She needed sleep. She had mountains of paperwork to clear.
I need you, Vincent.
After depositing everything on her couch, she stood staring at the mound, her hands on her hips. Stealthily, she backed away into her bedroom where she changed her clothes. Groceries were necessary or she’d never sleep from hunger. She didn’t remember what she’d eaten that day, and though Rita talked a mile a minute during their measured lunch (Joe was counting), she could not remember a word of their conversation.
"This will not do," she chastised herself.
So she shopped and came home and made dinner and settled in with a dozen folders in her lap ... and fell asleep.
Later, well into darkness, Vincent dropped onto her balcony. The doors were open to the spring breezes, to him, he knew, and a soft light spread from her living room to her empty bed. He hesitated, though he’d counseled himself on the walk over to not, but still, he lingered at her threshold. He knew she was inside, knew she was well, though exhausted. For a moment, he considered a silent return without waking her ... but it was just a moment.
Softly, he called to her. “I’m here.”
She stirred on the couch and when he knew that she saw him, he went to her side and kneeling, rescued the folders spilling from her loosened grip. She traced the bones of his face with the tips of her fingers and smiled a sleepy smile at him. He put kisses in the palm of her hand.
"It was the longest day," she whispered.
"I'm here," he said.
For Chapter 2: Click Here