the copy of Great Expectations - Ophelia

 

 

“Vincent?”

“Hmmm?”

“Did you ever see anybody wear a toupee before Mr. Mocks?”

Vincent exhaled, in his breath the sound of a smile. “Never.”

“I think he uses tape to hold it on – I’m pretty sure.” Devin paused, reflecting for a moment. “It doesn’t seem to work very well.”

The darkness seemed to amplify Vincent’s snicker. “Probably cellophane – it sounds kind of crinkly when it slides.”

Devin snorted and then clapped a hand over his own mouth, ever wary of waking Father. But the picture of Mr. Mocks, with his above-the-waist trousers and his travelling toupee, was simply too much fun to leave alone. “Maybe it’s a new fashion for the topsiders.”

“Or an old fashion for math teachers,” Vincent replied.

They chuckled, then their amusement ebbed, a moment of silence between them. The dusky stillness of their chamber formed a cocoon of communion that could as easily rock them to sleep as foster their chatter.

“Devin?”

“Mmmm?”

“Did you like William’s dinner tonight?”

What? It was dinner. “It was okay,” he shrugged against his pillow.

“Do you think food tastes very different when you make it yourself? Roast it over an open fire? Under the stars?”

Pausing, Devin thought of where they were, and where they had never been. This was the launching point of dreams, but tonight the waters of the Mississippi and the mountains felt very far away, even here in their safest place. His irritation began to rise. “I suppose.” He didn’t like the shortness of his own voice. “I wouldn’t know. I never roasted anything on my own.”

“I think it does. Taste different. It must.”

“I guess.” Don’t be mad at him. He didn’t do anything. Just don’t be mad. He sighed, trying to let it go. “Yeah. It has to,” he asserted. “It tastes better. If it was charred to a crisp, it would taste better.”

The silence was full, and he could hear Vincent’s concern. “Devin?”

“You know, it’s pretty late. We need to get some sleep, especially you, since you’ll be running the gauntlet tomorrow.”

Vincent’s response was kind, though it bore the hint of indulgent reproof. “It’s a birthday, Devin, not a torment.”

“No,” he agreed. “Not a torment. More like a trial.”

Devin.”

“I don’t have your present yet, by the way. I’m planning for it to be ready, but it might be late, and I’m sorry. In advance.” Best get as many apologies over with as possible, although maybe really that wasn’t a very effective strategy. The need for apology, after all, never seemed to end.

“I don’t need a present. Your company is gift enough.”

It was true. Vincent liked presents, but he did not expect them in the way that others did, ever. “Well, you’ll have that at least, and every other predictable gift you always get.”

Covers from across the room rustled, and Vincent’s outline took shape, rolled over on his side and propped up on his elbow. It was easy to forget how well he could see in the night. “Devin, what’s troubling you? Tell me.”

Not wishing to be transparent, Devin smiled and reached for a note of lightness that was only a little bitter. He sat up. “I’m not troubled, I’m just . . . speaking truth.” Mostly. “I mean, honestly, does anyone ever do anything differently? We could write a list of virtually every event for tomorrow, and we wouldn’t miss a thing. During class the old man will find some excuse to check on you, just because. William’ll be grumpy when Mary starts to flit around, worried that he’s messed up the birthday cake. Then she’ll whisk you aside to fit you, at the last minute, for whatever garment she’s too late finishing. Molly will embroider you a handkerchief. Winslow will get you a map or a tool. Pascal will bring you something that makes sound, or has to do with the pipes. And Father will get you a book. Some awful, scholarly thing from his library that he’ll say is a ‘fine piece of literature,’” he concluded in scorn.

There was helpless, breathy laughter on the other side of the room. “Last year, it was Melville,” Vincent recalled.

“This year, I put dibs on Virgil.”

“Devin. If you have to predict with accuracy, please, predict something else.”

Vincent’s gentle humor eased his tension, and he grinned in spite of himself, leaning back in his bed, arms folded behind his head. He could feel Vincent watching him.

“Just be there,” Vincent urged. “That’s all that matters.”

What kid ever said “just be there” about his own birthday? Did Vincent always have to be so good? “I’ll be there,” he affirmed. “With your present.” A shiny red bike, a pair of boxing gloves, a ticket to Coney Island, or a rocket trip to the moon, if he could. Anything. Anything new, anything different. “And it won’t be a damn book.”

But by the end of the last class of the next day, Vincent’s new and different present was as elusive as ever. Devin was growing restless. He began to shift in his seat; he knew his impatient glances at the clock were evident to those around him. Father would, of course, pick that time to come and hover in the doorway, as foretold, and his disapproving glower made Devin want to vault from his chair.

He could leave to find the gift as soon as they finished reading the last passages of Great Expectations aloud. As usual, eyes in the classroom turned first to Vincent.

He won’t volunteer because he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. But he’ll do it if they ask.

The instructor tilted her head in a friendly way, her tactful deference to Father. “Vincent?” Father urged from the doorway. “Would you like to read?”

“Father, I ...” Vincent’s glance toward Father appeared apologetic. “I was hoping Pascal might consider reading, today.” It was a question, and Vincent turned hopeful blue eyes to Pascal.

Devin sat up in his chair. This was a surprise. A first, in fact. A gentle touch of rebellion, Vincent? He tugged with discipline at the corner of the lip that wanted to curl, with no small amount of pleasure, upward.

Father smiled, looking a little flustered, but recovered with grace. “Well, yes, of course. Pascal? Would you–" and he gestured in Pascal’s direction, “do us the honor of reading the last of the story?”

Pascal grinned and gave a smart nod in the affirmative. He wasted no time hopping up from his chair, taking the volume from the teacher’s desk, opening the book, and beginning to read in a high but clear voice. All attention was now fixed on him.

All attention except Devin’s. Unable to peel his eyes from Vincent, he looked at his brother with newfound admiration.

And then, watching his brother’s rapt focus on the words of Dickens, he thought his heart might freeze and shatter.

Oh, no.

No.

He didn’t even have words for what he felt. For there was Vincent . . . dreaming. Not about rafts in the Mississippi. Not about scaling the Himalayas, or listening to the wild roar of the ocean, or crossing the desert sands. Indeed, he was not sure Vincent himself understood, but that expression left no room for doubt. Vincent had not asked Pascal to read out of a concern for the fair distribution of attention, or a wish to defy Father. He had wanted to lose himself in the story. He had wanted to imagine a life such as men live.

Devin closed his eyes. You’re too young. What if it’s beyond you? Father will say it is beyond you. What of your heart, then? How will you deal with the hurt?

He looked about the room and wanted to cry, wanted not to be alone in this pain. Imagining Vincent beyond this age? He had not dared. He had pulled away from the natural tendency to project the rest of the story into the future. But now, the future seemed preordained. Vincent would be the pure, ascetic scholar. The teacher. Forever admired. Forever alone. Living in a hole in the ground. There was not an eye on his little brother, not a glimmer of recognition that in Vincent’s young heart beat a hope unseen, unacknowledged.

Staying seated required every ounce of forbearance he possessed. He gripped the edges of his desk and fought the irrational worry that he might break it in two. As soon as the reading was done, he burst from the class, the heat of Father’s eyes on his back. He ran to his chamber, scrambling through the few coins he had, knowing they would not be enough.

Blast it, hang it, damn it! It was the thing he didn’t want to get, but it was the thing that Vincent needed most. A book.

And not any book. A specific book. Not Father’s, not Winslow’s, and not the library’s. His. His book and his words, those words, to hold onto when the world tried to squeeze the dreaming out of him. Devin knew enough about that, he supposed. At least he knew that.

It was cold, and already the sun had begun to retreat outside. He would have to be quick if he was going to make it, and he knew that he probably would not. He had promised Vincent he would be there. But after leaving class the way he did, he did not want to face Father unless he had something that made the punishment worth the price. And he didn’t want to become so angry that he stopped caring  ... that he dropped the effort, because there was no one he could punish except the little brother he loved – the little brother who would take it, and keep loving him anyway.

A trip to look for bottles to supplement his meager stash of money, and a trip to the bookseller were both required, but his usual hunting grounds provided him precious little spare glass. So he bargained with the owner of the used book store. After several chores that took him well past sunset, he held a copy of the novel in his hands. Though used, it was in excellent condition, well-bound and sturdy. The store didn’t sell gift wrap, but the owner allowed him some twine and some brown paper from some old sacks for free.

When he arrived at the secret door he knew, his heart sinking, that he was not merely late, he was very late. The cake was gone except for one piece Mary had saved him. She and William stood, washing dishes, and Mary gave him a worried smile. He had no appetite and passed the kitchen without stopping, instead steeling himself to face Father, who would without doubt be waiting for him.

“Do you have any idea how hurt Vincent was when you left him waiting ... left us all waiting?” Father was flushed, his indignation especially acute, the way it always was when Vincent was concerned. “Why? Why did you bolt out mere hours before his celebration? Do you think about the feelings of others when you make these choices? Devin, I ... sometimes I just don’t understand you. Did you want to hurt Vincent by standing him up? You know that of all people he wanted you to be there. You did know that, didn’t you?”

He took it. There was nothing he could say that would be heard, and so he took it.

“Didn’t you?” Father repeated, more loudly.

If silence wasn’t good enough, if Father wanted an argument, he could oblige. “Yes!” retorted Devin. “I did! And you’re right, I did it on purpose, because that’s what I do! I fail everybody!”

He stared at Father without blinking, and Father stared back with a look of angry mystification. Brown paper rustled as Father snatched the book from his hand. “What is this?” he demanded.

“Vincent’s present.”

“A book?”

Again he glared, not speaking, at Father.

“Obviously a book.” Father spoke as if to himself. “You went Above in order to get Vincent this? Devin, why? If you wanted to give him something to read, why couldn’t you have just asked one of us to help you? We are not rich, but we hardly suffer a shortage of good literature Below.”

He would not let the tears fall, if it cost him everything. “I wanted to give him one that just belonged to him.”

“He has several that belong just to him. And did you think none of us so generous as to be willing to give a book to either of you without taking it back? Do you know so little of the place you live and the people who are your family?” Father frowned at the brown paper wrapper. “Is this particular book so important? Which book is it?”

Devin swallowed, hard. “Great Expectations.”

“The one he just read? Good heavens! We have multiple copies, Devin; all he need do is– “

“Borrow one,” Devin finished.

“And is that so terrible?”

He had nothing to say.

Father handed the book back and passed a hand over his brow, his voice calmer. “Please. Explain. I am trying to understand. Really, I am.”

Explain dreams? And hope? If they couldn’t discuss a book, how could they talk about dreams?

“Go to your chamber,” Father ordered when he received no response. “I’m sure I simply don’t know what to do with you, Devin.”

He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to look at Vincent. He tossed the book on the bedside table and headed straight for his mattress, where he threw himself down, face to the wall, arms crossed over his middle. He couldn’t wait until the lights went out and he could disappear, there on his bed, into the dark.

Vincent’s unasked questions were a weight on his chest, and he squeezed his eyes closed, hoping that the questions, the thoughts, the feelings might all go away on their own.

Vincent was mute, standing still behind him. The silence was growing louder, not quieter. It was hard to bear.

Devin gasped, trying to get enough air. “I’m sorry!” he exclaimed, and he balled his fists, pulling his arms tighter against his chest.

“I know,” came Vincent’s hushed reply. Devin thought Vincent was as frozen as he was, until he felt the bed dip, Vincent sitting close.

“Devin,” Vincent said, “it will be all right.” And he placed one hand gently on Devin’s upper arm, while the other patted the back of Devin’s head twice and then stayed there.

Unable to hold himself together long enough to offer an explanation, Devin just lay still. Finally, he gestured in the direction of the nightstand. His voice was hoarse. “The book is for you.”

The bed squeaked with a minimal bounce as Vincent crossed the floor. Paper ripped audibly, then fluttered to the floor. He could hear the brush of Vincent’s hand across the front binding.

“Why this book, Devin?”

Devin pulled up to a sitting position and pushed himself toward the head of the bed. He could feel the redness in his own complexion but would not say more without looking Vincent in the eye. “Because I saw the look on your face when you were listening to it.”

“The look on my face?” Vincent repeated cautiously.

He hoped Vincent would not ask him to say too much. “Vincent, I–" He had to swallow to ease the way for the words. “I have ... expectations.”

There was a bare nod of Vincent’s head, eyes riveted to his. “For yourself?”

“Yes.” Quietly.

A longer pause. “For me, Devin?”

It was a moment of choice – to believe or to settle. To build or destroy, fly or fail. There was only one answer. “Yes. For you.”

He saw in Vincent’s eyes, then, the shadow of an older being, and the blue sparkled with unshed tears.

The air was too thick for words, after that. He moved, carefully; they both moved carefully, simply being in the space with one another, unwilling to stress the fragility of their world. Eventually, Vincent left the chamber, but he was soon back with a tray and tea. They did not talk, but drank; the lights and voices of the tunnels extinguished, the ever-present tapping like a metallic, sporadic heartbeat that echoed with a comforting pulse. The boys climbed in their beds and blew out the light.

“Devin?” Vincent asked after a time.

“Hmmm?”

“What do you think happened – to Estella and Pip, after Pip took Estella’s hand and saw no shadow of another parting from her?”

He thought before he answered. “I think ... I think they helped each other in their broken places.”

“Hmmm,” murmured Vincent.

“Vincent?” he asked after a moment.

“Mmm?”

“When you–" He tried to find a way to say it, and then decided not to worry about it. “When you ... follow your heart, what do you think you’ll want to do?”

Vincent paused, as if deciding whether to share his thoughts. “Leap,” he said softly. “With love’s light wings.”

“Hmmm.”

“What will you want to do?” Vincent asked in return.

“I think ... go to Australia. See the kangaroos. Maybe drink some beer.”

The boys chuckled.

“Vincent?”

“Yeah?”

Devin did not know what the future held. Did not know how long he would manage to remain underground, if he would ever go to Australia, or if Vincent would ever leap. Did not know if such words would be shared again. But strong winds had blown, and they still had their tender, dreaming places.

“Happy birthday.”

 

Vincent standing in his room, holding copy of Great Expectaions

 

Next – Cyndi

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