Father was dozing over a worn-out copy of Great Expectations when he heard the slow step behind him and came almost instantly awake. Peter had departed some hours earlier, promising to return with research and treatment alternatives, and Vincent was still sleeping soundly. So who was entering his chamber?
He turned his head and nearly dropped the book. It was Vincent. I gave him enough sedative to put him under for six or seven hours. What on earth?
“Vincent?” he managed. “Are you all right?”
The change in the tread of those booted feet as they came towards him sent his instincts clanking. Vincent was sometimes awkward with his sudden growth spurt and he walked slower to keep from tripping over his feet. He wasn't walking that way now; his footsteps were even and quick, and, as he came to stand in front of Father, Father understood what his instincts were trying to tell him.
This was Vincent. Except that it wasn't. This was the Other, who moved with a feline grace and power that was strangely hypnotic to watch. “Why, hello Father,” the Other purred. “It's time we had a chat, don't you think?”
“What do you want to talk about, Vincent?” Father asked calmly. He would not treat this...personality as anything other than his son's delusion. Oh, Vincent, I wish I knew what to do for you now.
“I'm not Vincent. He's weak,” the Other replied savagely. “He couldn't even make it to Lisa, though she wants us.”
Father felt chilled as Lisa's name was mentioned. Did he know? How could he? “You are Vincent,” he insisted. “You're not weak. Just very...ill.”
Vincent came close to him suddenly, nearly nose to nose. The Other's breath stirred the hair on Father's face as he spoke. “I smell her scent on you. Where is she?”
Her...scent? Oh, dear God. The letters. “She's not here, Vincent.”
“Then why do I smell her scent on you?” One clawed hand gripped his shoulder and Father fought the tremor of fear. He can smell her scent on the letters she sent down, the letters I burned without reading. And I can't tell him that she's been trying to contact him.
“I touched some of her things, Vincent. Truly, she's not here.”
The creature---Vincent---sniffed the air and released him suddenly. “It doesn't matter. She will be ours soon enough.”
“I see,” Father said quietly. There would be other lunges at the gate, other tries at escaping and clearly, sedation wasn't the answer anymore.
“You sent her away,” Vincent said accusingly.
There was no point in lying. “Yes, I did. She was----”
“She wanted us, so you sent her away.”
Father got up from the chair, unnerved by the sight of those feral dark eyes staring down at him. “No, I sent her away because it was time for her to go. It had nothing to do with your...relationship.”
Oh, didn't it? The little niggling voice that sounded like his own father muttered. She was a threat to your son, so you removed her. May I suggest that now is not the time to lie to Vincent?
He needed---and needs---protection, so I sent her away, Father said to his internal voice, then chuckled humorlessly. Here am I, having a debate with my son's delusion, while I'm debating with myself over whether it was all right to lie to him. Kafka couldn't have come up with a better scenario. Aloud, he said, “Vincent, it was time for Lisa to go.” He made himself walk across the chamber and face his son.
“It was not!” the creature hissed. “She wanted us!”
Which told Father that his suspicions were true; just prior to that last, devastating incident in the Great Hall, there had been some teasing on Lisa's part, of the sort that he'd witnessed for years between teenaged couples in the tunnels. It was normal, if awkward and painful to watch at times. But this kind of teasing from Lisa had scalded his son and driven him to madness. That little....did she know she was playing with fire?
“She hasn't written you, Vincent, not once. She doesn't want you, “ Father said. “She's gone Above, and she will not be coming back.” It hurt to say the words, but if this delusion could be turned from his plan of going Above.....
“So you say,” the Other snarled. “But why should I believe you?” And he was gone, black cloak flying after him like some malignant ghost.
Father sat down heavily in the chair, hands shaking from delayed shock. He'd seen madness and delusion before, but this was his son. Oh, dear God. What have I done?
The search parties had gone and come back, each more disheartened than the last. The main gate had been reinforced and strengthened, but there were no signs of Vincent anywhere. “Probably went to ground,” Winslow said, remembering Vincent's disappearance after Devin left.
“Which brings up another...concern,” Father said uneasily. “When Vincent is found, he must not be allowed to leave the tunnels. It's for his safety and our own.”
Winslow folded his arms. The alternatives were bad, and growing worse by the hour. Sedation hadn't worked, nor could they count on simple exhaustion to confine Vincent, not for long; even worn out by fever and delusion, he was still stronger than many of them. And rumor had flown faster than Father knew. People were scared, afraid that Vincent might surface from nowhere and attack them.
“Preposterous,” Father had said, when Winslow informed him of this. “The only person he's been attacking is himself. It's himself he battles.”
“Try telling Lisa that,” Winslow said, and Father threw him a sharp look. “Look, Father, rumors are flying faster than the facts right now and maybe you should, I don't know, tell everyone what's really going on. Or tell them something, if you can't tell them everything. It's gonna get ugly if you don't, because people are damned jumpy right now.” His voice softened. “What exactly did happen between them? I know they quarreled and she left, but there's something else going on. ”
And Father told him everything. When he finished, Winslow shook his head. “She's lucky she only got away with a few scratches. And this is why Vincent's so sick? Because he blames himself for hurting her?”
“Yes, I believe so,” Father said. “But without any sort of testing, there's no way to know the cause of his illness.” He rubbed his eyes. “In any event, I will call a general council meeting to try and put these fears of Vincent to rest.”
The meeting, much as Father feared it would be, was less a gathering of rational people than a mob on the verge of panic, worried about this new, erratic element in their lives. As much as they knew and liked Vincent, the fact was that he'd never acted this way among them. “Vincent is very ill,” Father said for what felt like the umpteenth time. “He poses no danger to anyone so long as he is not confronted.”
“Jeremy saw him at the gate,” a woman spoke. Father recalled her name as Andrea; she had been in the tunnels only a few weeks. “How can you say he poses no threat?”
Father turned, looking for Jeremy, and found him sitting on the bannister. “Jeremy, did Vincent hurt you?”
The man shook his head. “No. I ain't fool enough to get near him when he's like that.”
“Common sense is a remarkable thing,” Father stated dryly. “I've heard the rumors that have been spreading, some foolishness of Vincent leaping out of the shadows to attack you all.” Various people in the crowd ducked their heads, trying desperately not to be the target of that sharp-eyed gaze. “Vincent is very, very ill. He's battling some force within him that only acts out when confronted. So don't confront him. If you see him, send out a message on the pipes and stay out of his way. And if you have any questions about what's really going on, may I suggest asking me instead of starting these rumors?”
After the crowd left, more subdued than when they arrived, Father saw Winslow and gestured him forward. “You think that settled matters?” Father asked.
“Well, if it didn't, it should slow them down some.” Winslow folded his arms, looking grimly determined. “And if it doesn't, I'll take care of them. Vincent's a good guy, and he doesn't deserve to have people whispering about him.”
The pipes erupted in a burst of sound. It was from young Pascal, who'd joined one of the search parties looking for Vincent. V found. Ninth Street entrance. In shock. Help needed.
It was some six hours later when the searchers managed to get an unconscious Vincent back to his chamber. The Ninth Street entrance was so far away, so seldom used, that Father speculated that Vincent must have roamed all hours of the night to find it. He was cold and clammy as they laid him in his bed, despite the blankets the search party had piled around him, and his pulse, to Father's horror, could barely be felt. Shock, he thought. Or the lingering effects of the sedative. Either way, I dare not use a tranquilizer on him.
He rubbed his eyes wearily, casting through his mind for options and finding none. Peter had sent a note that only reinforced how utterly out of their depths they both were: Nothing in research. Call if emergency. P. So that, apparently, was that---Vincent was ill, delusional, perhaps near a nervous breakdown, and there was nothing at all that anyone could do.
A low growling brought him abruptly out of his thoughts. Vincent, restless on the bed and shivering so violently that Father could feel the vibrations through the layers of bedclothes. He flailed about, searching, hunting for something that wasn't there. Or someone. Father came to sit beside him on the narrow bed. “Vincent,” he said softly, capturing one of the cold hands between his own. “It's all right. I'm here.”
The restless reaching calmed somewhat. Father's eye fell on a book he'd read to Vincent often, because of its depictions of sun and savannah and places and things that Vincent could never, would never see. Would the sound of his voice reading the book help now?
He released Vincent's hands, and watched as they settled, motionless, on the covers, and picked up the book. Opening it, Father began to read. “'There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and singing and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, into Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys in Africa....'”  Father looked over at his son, and was pleased to see that Vincent was starting to relax, as if the murmur of words was reaching through the madness and anchoring him, somehow. I would read every book in this library twice, if it kept you whole and sane, my son.
Father continued to read through the night and into morning, until his eyes blurred and the text grew wavy and his voice grew hoarse. He finally stopped when his voice gave out completely, but by then, it didn't matter. Vincent was asleep and closing his eyes, finally, so was Father.
4 Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country
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