by Zara Wilder


Father followed Rebecca to the dead-end, where tumbled stones from an old rockslide blocked the passageway. They stepped alongside a scattered trail of yellow rose petals as they went. Rebecca halted at the trail's end. She set her lantern on a squarish boulder and stood silently, her young eyes worried, pleading. Father rested his hand on the girl's bony shoulder for a moment, thanking his guide without words, preparing himself. Then he passed the boulder and entered the dim alcove.

Vincent crouched in the shadows, scraping the tunnel wall with his claws. His hair swung in dusty tangles across his face. His clothes were torn. The boy must have fallen hard somewhere along the way.

"Vincent," Father said to him.

Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. He had worn his sharp nails down to nubs.

"Vincent," Father repeated.

Startled, Vincent glanced up and ceased scratching the wall. Father saw several mangled rose stems strewn around Vincent's bare feet.

Father cleared his throat. "I assume you found the bouquet Peter and Susan brought Below for you."

Vincent rested his clammy forehead upon the wall. "They want me to get better," he said faintly.

"Yes," Father replied. "Of course they do."

"But I'm not getting better. I'm getting worse."

Father drew a deep breath. Vincent was lucid—for the first time in a week. Father leaned his walking stick against the boulder. Vincent did not stir. Father moved toward the hunched figure and knelt beside him. He touched his son's wrist. When Vincent turned his head, Father looked into Vincent's bottomless blue eyes.

"No. You're not getting better," Father confirmed, and added, "Yet."

The blue eyes brimmed with helpless tears.


Father opened his arms and the boy crept into his embrace. "It's all right," Father murmured. "Are you angry with Peter? About the flowers?"

Shaking his head, Vincent mumbled into Father's thick woolen vest. "I don't want Susan to visit anymore. I don't want people always coming in, looking at me. I feel...everyone...their fear. I dream about it." He uttered a frightened moan. "The dreams, Father..."

"Shh. Shh. I know." Father ran his hand over Vincent's mane, a gesture that usually soothed the boy. Nightmares had jarred Vincent from restless sleep these past two nights, and during many other nights previous. Exhaustion had weakened him. This precious moment of relative sanity could not last long.

"I don't like the medicines," Vincent said next. "They trap me inside the dreams."

"The medicines have not helped you," Father agreed. Indeed, one drug very nearly killed their sensitive patient, although Father was unsure whether Vincent remembered that terrifying incident. "I'll talk to Peter. We won't try any more."

Vincent whispered, "I made my hands safe like the roses." He placed one trembling paw on Father's knee. "Do you see?"

Father saw fingertips and gnarled knuckles, abraded and bleeding from rough contact with stone. He longed for sterilized cloth and a bottle of iodine. He had neither down here, so he focused on attempting to understand Vincent's intentions. "Safe like the roses?" he asked.

"My friends did not bring me thorns," Vincent explained.

Yes, the stems on the floor all appeared slender and green, free of floral weaponry.

"If my hands are safe, we won't need the ropes anymore. Can you understand, Father? These hands will be good roses. The dreams will stop, and I won't hurt anyone else. I promise. Good...good roses." Vincent stared at his hand.

Father felt cold. He was losing him already. Again. He pressed his cheek to the crown of Vincent's head. He must think of some way to redirect the youth's wheeling thoughts, to keep Vincent from mutilating his hands any further.

"Is that why you broke the ropes today?" Father asked him. "To...learn safety from the roses?"

Vincent nodded. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "But they would not speak to the light."

Father tightened his arms around his son, feeling the heavy leather straps of the restraining harness that Vincent wore buckled over his shirt. More than iodine, Father wished for some kind of humane straightjacket to immobilize his fifteen-year-old child during the bad days. But no garment the Tunnelfolk contrived would serve. Vincent remained too strong for mere stitchwork. Too strong, it seemed, even for knotted rope.

"It's all right," Father said again. "Vincent, from what you've told me, I believe you want a quiet, dark place away from visitors. Is that right?"

Vincent nodded.

"Would you like to move into the Seclusion Chamber for a while?"

Vincent became silent. Thinking things over rationally, Father hoped. The boy curled his hand into a fist, lifting it from Father's leg to tuck beneath his feline chin. He said, "The Seclusion Chamber is for newcomers."

"True. To help them grow accustomed to our world. But there are no new friends among us right now. The chamber is empty, unused. Simply a quiet cavern with a door that closes."

"If a door is shut and you want it shut, / why open it?" Vincent recited.

A little surprised, Father answered, "Doors forget but only doors know what it is / doors forget."

"You missed a line."

Father smiled sadly and kissed Vincent's hair. "I must be getting old. I need you near to remind me of the important things."

"I..." Vincent hestitated. "I will try to stay near, Father. I'll be good."

"You are good," Father insisted, but Vincent suddenly lunged away. He swept his hands across the floor, gathering flower stems into a bundle.

"You will like the safe darkness," Vincent advised the naked roses.

Father reached for his walking stick. He got wearily to his feet. "Come, Vincent. Rebecca's waiting to walk home with us."

Vincent stood up too, clutching his deranged get-well bouquet to his heart. "Yes. I'm ready now." He gazed at his father's face. "I keep my promises," he said. "Just like you."

His words arrested Father between grief and admiration. The underworld doctor settled one arm across Vincent's shoulders. They walked together through the fallen rose petals, onward.


[Author's Note: The recited lines are from "Doors," by Carl Sandburg.]    





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