Things That Are Not ...

A THIRD SEASON ROUND ROBIN STORY


Chapter 8

by Kuli und Heft

 

Diana jumped, swore, and burned her hand with slopped coffee all in one go. Still swearing, still swiping at the coffee dripping all over the place, still trying to keep from dumping any more, she spun around to find the source of those words. He was lanky and narrow-faced, with an easy smile and the sort of bright, joyful eyes that the harsh realities of the world should have doused during puberty. What she could see of his hair sticking out from under a blue Mets cap was dark, and he had the slightly unkempt look of one who often got too wrapped up in other things to remember to do the laundry or get a haircut; Diana knew the signs of that kind of lifestyle intimately.

“Who the hell are you?” she demanded, the soft skin on the back of her hand still stinging and wet. “And how the hell did you get in here?” She thought she had a very good idea of the answers to both of these questions, but that didn’t help her temper any.

His smile turned into a grin, like she had made some kind of joke. Devin had a habit of grinning like that, and it was damn well just as infuriating on him. “I thought detectives liked a good mystery. I left lots of clues to follow.”

“You’re looking pretty spry for a dead guy, Kristopher.”

His grin disappeared; he looked suddenly stricken. His bright eyes clouded over, like he was remembering something terrible, and seeing her cheap shot hit its mark so squarely made Diana feel wretched instead of triumphant. She wanted to apologize, but she was still angry with his sudden existence in her loft, and the words didn’t come.

“I am dead, aren’t I?” he said. “I forget.”

Diana was still processing the idea of someone forgetting that they were dead when Kristopher brightened. “Hey, have you got any more of that coffee?”

“Oh. Would you…like a cup?” Had he forgotten that being dead and not having a body meant he couldn’t eat or drink, too? Only he looked pretty solid from here. Would he be able to pick up the mug at all? Would the coffee pour right through him and all over her floor? Considering that she only had movies to rely on for her information about ghosts and that none of them had been very accurate so far, she decided to play this thing by ear.

“I’d love a cup!”

“Sure thing.” She crossed to the kitchen and took a moment to rinse her hands and pat the pink, sore spots dry. With the kettle back on the stove, she considered the state of her clothes and found far less coffee dripped down the front of her than she had expected. With a glance, she confirmed her suspicion; most of it had ended up on the floor behind her desk. She grabbed a couple paper towels and went to take care of it.

Kristopher invited himself to lounge on her couch while he waited. So much for images of rattling chains and the solemn recitation of spiritual timetables. Marley should have just pulled up a chair and demanded a glass of port, if you would, old chap.

“So, what did you think?” Kristopher asked. “Did you like them? Just don’t tell me if you hated them. I couldn’t stand it if you did. How about the big guy?”

“Vincent?”

“What did he think?”

The kettle, already half full with warm water when she started, began to whistle then, and she used that as an excuse to not answer, to focus her thoughts while she poured the water and pressed the coffee and carried the mugs to the couch.

Kristopher took his excitedly, reminding her strongly of Mouse, and he sipped without any apparent damage to the furniture.

“Kristopher, why are you here? Why are you doing these things?”

He looked up from his coffee, alarmed. “You do hate them.”

Somehow, even with all of his antics so far, Diana had expected more otherworldly tidings, more mysteries of the universe, and less…well, this.

“Not at all,” she hastened to say.  “You captured Vincent very well. I just wish I didn’t have to look at a painting to ever see him that happy, that relaxed. But why the paintings? Why the poetry and the hocus pocus with the elevator?”

“I was trying to get your attention. Both of you. I can’t always just show up.”

When he didn’t elaborate on why that was, Diana leapt to her next question, eager to have it asked and answered before he faded away on her. “I have to know. Are there any more paintings of Vincent? Anywhere?”

“I know, I know. He’s a secret. The most wonderful things usually are.”

“His life depends on absolute secrecy. Tell me if there are any more. Maybe in this newest collection?”

He shook his head before taking another long sip of coffee. “Cross my heart.”

Diana’s shoulders let go of tension she hadn’t even realized she’d been carrying all afternoon. “OK.” That took care of the vital parts, but it didn’t begin to address the larger mystery. “So why are you doing all of this, Kristopher?”

“Cathy’s worried about him.”

Diana choked on her coffee and ended up spitting half a mouthful back into her cup so she could cough. After a moment’s consideration, she set the mug aside, for when her guest had gone. “Cathy Chandler?” she managed.

“Does the big guy have a lot of other Cathy’s to worry about him? Something happened a while back. She’s worried.”

“You can talk to her?” With an effort, she kept herself from looking around the loft, suddenly half expecting to see Cathy Chandler behind her. Although, Diana strongly suspected she’d be a rather more sensible spirit, pale and see-through, if only in deference to the look of the thing.

Gentian frowned. “It’s not talking, really. I mean, we don’t all get together for Sunday brunch and a chat. It doesn’t work like that, like you and me talking to each other. But sometimes you’re aware of things, a presence, a feeling, from the people who have passed on. And she’s been around more lately, checking on him. Worrying about him.”

“Why?”

He met her eyes earnestly. “She wants to see him happy, too. Only he won’t let himself.”

“So you’re trying to play matchmaker.”

He sighed gustily, dramatically. After a moment of frowning concentration, he said, “The problem with art is that no matter how good it is, no matter how beautiful or moving any of it is, it’s never real. It’s an idea, an imitation, a feeling, a flash of life. You and Vincent, that’s real. That’s life. And it shouldn’t be wasted. Not on the dead.”

“Are you saying that Vincent and I have Cathy’s blessing?”

“Sure. Anyway, the world’s too cold a place as it is to deny the things that should be.”

The phone rang then, and Diana got up to answer it. It was just a wrong number, but when she hung up and turned around, she somehow wasn’t surprised to find herself alone, Kristopher’s empty cup on the coffee table the only proof that she wasn’t losing her mind.


*                           *                           *

It was a typical Saturday evening after dinner, and Vincent’s afternoon had been blessedly normal. He had returned to his chamber to read while Jacob played with blocks and toy trains on the carpet, but the boy had grown tired of his imaginings and crawled into his father’s lap to lay with one ear pressed against Vincent’s chest. It wasn’t until he had seen Jacob perform this ritual with other central adults in his life that Vincent began to have vague recollections of sitting much the same way in Father’s lap, listening to his heartbeat and attracted by the contented calm that always seemed to come with reading. He had even mused that his deep love of literature may have been entirely gained, quite literally, through osmosis, and the notion always made him smile a little.

Jacob lifted his head, alert, and the movement pulled Vincent away from the page to see what had caught his son’s attention. Ah, Devin, just covering the last steps before he became visible in the doorway.

Devin strode in and settled himself in a chair without preamble. “So, how are my two favorite fuzz butts?”

It was useless, trying to reason with Devin about dropping that ridiculous nickname, but Vincent glared openly at his brother, nonetheless.

“M’not fuzzy,” Jacob piped up with an air of great authority. “Mary says.”

“Oh! Well, if Mary says, then it must be true. You have my apologies.”

Jacob scooted off Vincent’s lap and clambered up onto his uncle’s. He ran his hand over the stubble on Devin’s jaw, with what was a day or more past five o’clock shadow. “You’re fuzzy!”

“Uh-oh.”

You’re a fuzz butt!”

The little brother warred with the responsible father in Vincent as Jacob launched into a sing-song of “Fuzz butt, fuzz butt,” in Devin’s general direction.

Devin, seeing his chances of getting help were fifty-fifty at best, leaned his face in close to Jacob’s. “Do you know what happens to little boys who call their uncles names?”

After a moment’s thought, Jacob tried to get away, but Devin was ready. He snatched up his nephew and began tickling mercilessly, until the toddler was pink-faced and breathless with squirming laughter. When their mischievous energies were spent, both flopped back in the chair, one against the other.

“I think I’ll have to start visiting more often,” Devin mused. “He’s starting to be very corruptible. Anyway, if he ever becomes a big brother, he’ll need an example to live up to.”

“Big brother?” Vincent asked, alarmed.

Devin only grinned. “Sure. You know, if you ever get up the guts to run topside to play doctor the next time Diana says she needs a little looking after.” The way he said it made the suggestive eyebrow waggling entirely superfluous, but that certainly didn’t stop the added gesture.

Vincent started to protest, but Devin only shook his head.

“Don’t think I didn’t see the way you were eyeing that portrait. She’s a fine looking woman. Smart, strong-willed, and absolutely head over heels for you. What have you been waiting for?”

Vincent wanted to get up, to pace, or else maybe to bolt, but Jacob was watching him, so he focused on maintaining the emotional barriers he’d erected to shield his son.

The way Devin’s brows knit suggested that Vincent’s attempts at outward calm were failing him. “Vincent? What’s wrong?”

Jacob twisted to peer up at his Uncle Devin at the uncharacteristic drop in tone.

Vincent picked up the book he’d been reading from where he’d left it on the table. “Jacob. I’ve just remembered that your grandfather wanted to borrow my book this evening, for his classes tomorrow. Would you run it to him for me?”

It was a common code through the tunnels, when a very young child arrived to deliver an apparently random object; the receiving adult was being asked to keep the child occupied through the course of some unforeseen occurrence. For Jacob, this usually meant a story told at his grandfather’s knee and a pilfered treat of some kind, so he hadn’t been difficult to train to the game.

The boy scrambled down off Devin’s lap and reached for the book, but Vincent held it away, leaning forward to draw his son’s attention.

“It’s important that you deliver this book quickly and in exactly the condition it is now. You must be careful with it.”

Jacob nodded solemnly. He took the book in both hands and trotted from the chamber. Vincent watched him disappear around the corner down the corridor; it was only another two turns to Father’s chamber. The concept of baby-proofing was hardly feasible through most of the tunnels, so safety was maintained through strict rules, constant vigilance, and a little touch of faith. Vincent had never given this fact much thought until he had a curious toddler of his own to safeguard. Father, on the other hand, was alternately deeply sympathetic to or highly amused by Vincent’s anxieties.

“I wish they’d developed that system when I was little. I mostly just remember Pops telling me to get out a lot,” Devin said.

“Do you imagine, even at that age, you could have taken anything anywhere without an argument?”

“If Pops asked me? Probably not,” Devin conceded with a shrug. He leaned forward in his chair. “So? What’s with you and Bennett?”

“Diana has her life Above. I do not factor into it, except in friendship.”

“I don’t buy it for a second. Try again.”

“This is not worth discussing. It will change nothing.”

“Avoidance doesn’t look good on you. Try again.”

Vincent found himself pacing before he even realized he’d stood up. He had set the images of the portraits aside when he’d stowed the canvases in a safe place that afternoon, but now they rose up in his mind again, potent and unbidden. Things that are not and should be. He knew the words, had known them from boyhood. Why should they suddenly pound in him, through him? Everything was fine, exactly as it was. He and Diana had an understanding. They had from the first. And even if life had changed in the intervening years, he hadn’t.

He paused in his pacing, tilted his head to listen to the tapping. Diana was on her way Below.

 

contact the author: kuliundheft@gmail.com

 

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