The blue of Vincent's eyes was lost in the dark reflection, but not the calm intensity with which they were illuminated. The glass was cool, and Vincent pressed his cheek against the slender barrier that kept him from the outside world. Mirrored back to him against the night, his leonine image projected into the quickly passing forest. He watched his reflection sprint through the evening wood, around trunks and over roots, guided only by the light of the full moon. Vincent's body pulsed with quicksilver, and even the fur on the back of his knuckles stood upright. However, his breath came in even, full, and deep. It was a strange sensation, to feel so unbound within the confines of the small van.
It was the most peaceful trip that Catherine and Vincent had taken. The sky was clear, and along the roadside, the greens rose and fell with the shadow and light of the quiet spring evening. As Catherine turned off the main road, a beam of moonlight caught the woven silver band that she wore on her left hand. It shone like the North Star, a guiding light which Vincent followed to home and heart.
Though it bore no resemblance to one, they had just turned onto Devin's private driveway. In fact, everything about the road was designed to discourage the wayward explorer from attempting to travel it. From the main road the turnoff was nearly hidden. The first 10 miles of the drive were void of any signs of habitation—no mailboxes, neighboring homes, or even signs. The pavement wound its way through the forest in a serpentine fashion and, at times, seemed to double back on itself. Suddenly, the pavement ended and was replaced with a rather bumpy, narrow stretch of packed gravel. This continued for another three miles, continuing to narrow and deteriorate in quality. It was at this point that even the most adventurous joy-riders would turn around. However, if they continued on, as Vincent and Catherine were, in another few minutes they would discover that the gravel morphed again into a short paved drive leading up to a small cabin.
As the lights of Devin's cabin came into view and the noise of the tires on gravel passed away, Vincent was struck by a realization. It had never occurred to him that the crunch of wheels on gravel could become a familiar sound, but now it had. And, not only was it familiar, but it carried its own connotation. As the noise faded, he was filled with a restless joy in anticipation of reaching their destination.
After so many trips, nearly everyone in the tunnels had lost their anxiety over these visits upstate. Only Father still kept his doubts, hidden away in a safe place like a valuable heirloom he intended to pass on to the next generation. Despite his efforts at secrecy, Vincent could sense the old man's continuing disquiet. The risks were genuine, but so was their willingness to barter risk for small liberties.
Meticulous protocol was followed religiously. The van Catherine had purchased in preparation for their first journey upstate, was fully inspected by one of the best mechanics in New York. Any and all problems noticed were immediately repaired regardless of their legitimacy. Catherine was certain she was being swindled out of hundreds of dollars in unnecessary repairs, but she was purchasing something far more valuable: Father's ease of mind.
In the back of the van were two spare tires, water, gas, oil, and even windshield wipers. She made sure that the registration and insurance were up-to-date. The children had assembled an emergency separation kit in case Vincent needed to make a quick escape. It contained food, a map, and one of two long-distance walkie-talkies. Mouse had even used his engineering skills to create a secret compartment that would allow Vincent to easily hide if they were ever forced to stop. They drove safely and only after nightfall.
This was the third time the two of them had driven deep into the Adirondack Mountains to visit Devin. Six months ago, Father had joined them after receiving a message from Devin that Charles was intensely ill. A dynamic increase in the severity of his neurofibromatosis was followed by a dramatic decline of his health. Although Devin and Father had done their best to restore health to the body of their friend, in the end Father was forced to admit that Charles' comfort was the only remaining goal. Charles' passing had been quiet and peaceful. He had transitioned to a place of far better relief.
Vincent heard Sparks, a yellow lab, spring to life in all manner of yelps and howls. The door to the rustic cabin flew open and yellow light spilled onto the wooden porch and stone steps. A tall, athletic frame filled the door, arms spread wide.
"Hey, you made it!" Devin called as Catherine and Vincent exited the van.
Catherine took a moment to stretch her limbs, stiff from the long drive. Too eager to wait, Vincent sprang up the steps in two long strides and nearly tackled Devin. "Devin! It's good to see you."
"You too—Quiet, Sparks!" Devin shouted at the lab which had begun to paw at Vincent's leg, desperate for attention.
Vincent reached down and petted the happy creature that automatically rolled onto its back, exposing his belly. Catherine reached the top of the stairs and embraced Devin warmly. Through the bond, Vincent could sense her mood was lighter, despite her weariness from the journey.
"Hey sis, how was the drive?" Devin asked.
"Oh, it was wonderful, really lovely. It's nice to get away from the city and into the fresh air."
"Don't I know it! Can I get your bags?"
"Yeah, that would be terrific, actually," Catherine said. Her words were weighted with fatigue.
Vincent turned to his wife and put an arm around her petite figure. "Catherine, you are exhausted. Why don't you go inside and rest? Devin and I will join you in a moment."
Unwilling to protest, Catherine went inside and flopped down on the leather couch. Sparks followed her, tail wagging, and laid his head on her stomach. Vincent laughed, watching through the screen door, as Catherine beckoned Sparks onto the sofa. He gratefully leapt on top of her, causing her to emit a loud, "Oof!" as the weight of the lab knocked the breath from her body.
Devin tossed two large duffle bags onto the porch. With the energy of a teenager, he bounded up the stairs. Devin leaned against the porch railing beside Vincent, quietly taking in the scenery.
Vincent loved this place with its sheltered forest and rolling hills. The greens were deeper here than in the city, the smell cleaner. The air, unadulterated by pollution, brought fresh vitality to Vincent's body. He breathed deeply of its sweet spring fragrance of a thousand blooms opening to the sky. The stars were out, millions more than could be seen in the city. The sky was white with their number. A silver moon hung high in the sky, daring Vincent to lose his breath. In the woods, a whippoorwill sang. Its call was answered by both a sparrow and an owl. The mountains cast their spell over Vincent, and he was loathe to break its hold, but Devin had begun to fidget, uncomfortable with the prolonged silence.
Vincent turned to his adopted brother, surprised at the new gray by his temples. The familiar scars across his cheek still made Vincent wince with remorse, even though Devin had long since forgiven him. Sensing Vincent's gaze, he turned and smiled.
"They don't hurt anymore, you know."
Quietly, Vincent answered, "I bear those same scars, though you cannot see them." He clenched his fists, unwilling to look at the sharp claw-like nails at the ends of his fingers.
Devin laughed quietly to himself. "I never told you did I? That's how I come up with my new identities: the story behind the scars. People always want to know."
"Hey, don't worry about it. Besides…chicks dig scars." There was a vindicating twinkle in his eyes.
Eager to change the topic, Vincent inquired, "Have you been well?"
Looking away Devin responded, "Yes. Yeah. I guess so."
"You miss him, don't you?" Vincent asked, speaking of Charles.
Devin smiled and nodded. "He was one of a kind. After a while, he adjusted to being treated like a human being, and he had a lot to give back. He loved animals, maybe because they weren't afraid of the way he looked." Vincent understood all too well. "I remember the day he brought Sparks home. There was this little mangy thing in his arms covered with fleas and ticks. I wanted to take it to the pound—thought it was going to die and Charles wouldn't be able to handle it. But, there was no convincing him otherwise. He loved that dog. I wish I could have done more for him."
"It sounds to me like you did a great deal. You gave him a home, a place where he could love and be loved. That is not an easy gift to give." Vincent could see that Devin was fighting to keep his composure and spoke no more.
Devin sniffed hard and surreptitiously drew a hand across his cheek. "I'm really glad that you and Catherine were able to come this weekend." The long settled lines on Devin's face relaxed a little.
Vincent put an arm around his shoulder. "We were only too happy to come when we got your letter. We so rarely get the chance to leave New York."
Devin snorted, "That's the understatement of the year!"
"I love it here. The seclusion gives me a small taste of freedom. I spent my first day in the sunlight in your backyard. I saw poetry come to life in these woods. It's been good for Catherine too. There are few places in her world which we can share. This space is a safe haven."
"That's why I chose it! I wanted a place where Charles could go outside without people staring at him. But, now that he's gone," his voice cracked, "the quiet gets old pretty fast. It would be nice to live a little closer to the school—it's a heckuva drive in the morning."
"Didn't I tell you? I'm a teacher now. Mr. Wells, eighth grade World Geography."
"How did you manage that?"
He admitted meekly, "I may have fudged a little on the application. And the diploma. And, maybe I drew up a fake teaching certificate."
Vincent laughed at how nothing changed. "Well, considering your background, I can't think of a more qualified man for the job! Do you like it?"
"Short answer: yes."
"And the long?"
"One day on safari in South Africa the wind suddenly changed and this mother rhino caught our scent. She figured we were too close to her nest and charged, angry as heck, bent on keeping her calf safe. Vincent, I love teaching, but there are days I would rather face that mother rhino than a classroom full of teenagers."
"The children Above can't be that much worse than Below."
"No, it's not all bad really. The kids seem to enjoy all my stories. It's rewarding, molding young minds and all that."
His words were mostly bravado, or at least rote memorization, of that Vincent was certain. Devin had a restless spirit, and he wondered how much longer that spirit would allow him to remain before it pressed him to the next conquest of life. Nevertheless, he was glad that Devin had, at least for now, some stability.
Inside, Vincent felt Catherine's mind wander off into sleep and he longed to join her. The men chatted for a few more minutes, mostly on lighter tunnel topics, before Vincent mentioned sleep.
Devin, ever the night owl, made no motion of coming inside and remained on the porch staring off into the woods. Vincent threw his arms around him again and murmured, "It really is wonderful to see you again."
Catherine was fast asleep on the couch. Sparks had moved to his mat in front of the fireplace. Not wishing to disturb her, Vincent took great care to move their bags into the guest bedroom silently. It was small and largely undecorated. The bed and a small writing desk served as the only furniture in the room. The walls were bare, except for three framed photographs Devin had taken of the local area. Although the landscapes held all the makings of inspirational vistas, the perspectives were detached and impersonal.
Returning to the living room, he tenderly lifted Catherine off the couch and carried her to the bedroom. She whispered softly into his ear, "I love you, Vincent." He breathed deeply, drinking in both her words and the love flowing from her heart.
"And I, you," he answered as he gently placed her on the bed.
She had stirred just enough from sleep to change into one of Vincent's undershirts, not unlike the one she had worn during her recovery Below five years ago. As they drifted off into sleep Vincent's heart was filled. Had he known happiness was so easily within his grasp, he would have reached for it much sooner.