Clenched Soul

~ Aliset



artwork: Linn Bankson


A/N: This story takes place about a week after “Fever.”

--//--

“As you all know, there's been an outbreak of chicken pox,” Father announced at dinner one night. Nearly everyone was present save Mouse (who was still recuperating in the hospital chamber) and Cullen, who was one week into his thirty day Silence for stabbing Mouse. “Everyone who didn't have it as a child needs to let me know as it's a more serious illness in adults.”
Vincent looked up from his meal of stew and made a note to let Catherine know not to come below if she hadn't had it as a child; he remembered having chicken pox (he and Devin had been sick at the same time and it had been during their quarantine that Devin had first discussed sailing on the Mississippi.) Father continued, “There's no need for panic or alarm; this is something we've dealt with every year. The sick are to stay in their chambers and those who haven't had it can either stay with their families or sleep in one of the spare chambers. Adults who haven't had it, please come and see me as soon as possible.”
Father resumed his seat to much murmuring. Vincent finished his meal and went back to pick up Cullen's ration from William. The burly cook fixed him with a glance. “You're going down there?”
Vincent nodded, returning the look in kind. “No one else....was available, William. And it's no part of the Silence to let a man starve.”
William ducked his head, embarrassed; his own behavior during the strange storm of greed and envy hadn't been nearly as flagrant or as dangerous as Cullen's, but he had virtually stopped cooking, obsessed with what the treasure might have brought him, and it had only been recently that their continual schedule of canning and preserving had resumed. “I know,” he said gruffly, handing over a plate packed with the night's dinner. “See that he eats that, will you? Cullen barely touched his lunch.”
“I will,” Vincent replied.
***

Catherine, when she'd learned of his role, had been shocked into spluttering. “Vincent, they can't...you, of all people...” She'd taken a deep breath, then, “Cullen said hateful things to you. How can your people even think of asking you to do that?”
He hadn't answered for a time, not sure how to explain. Finally, he said, “Catherine, Cullen has been punished---for thirty days, no one will speak to him or even look at him. He cannot eat in the Commons with the others. And he's fortunate to have gotten only the Silence; there were people who wanted him exiled from the community permanently.” 
“For stabbing Mouse?” she asked, pulling her sweater closer against the chill night air.
“For that, for leading a dangerous stranger Below, and...for other things,” Vincent replied, hearing the echo of Cullen's words. He'd been much less angry with Cullen for his words than for his actions, but in the end, the community had sanctioned both. “When a sentence like that is handed down, it's tradition that someone keep an eye on the offender. No one else...would agree to get involved.”
Catherine absorbed this in silence for a time. “The Council was afraid he’d return Above?”
“Perhaps,” Vincent replied. “That’s not entirely the reason. The Silence can be terrible. The role of guardian---my role---is merely to make sure that he has food and basic supplies. And that---if all else fails---he be…persuaded not to return above and thereby endanger us all.”
She touched his hand where it rested on the ledge of her balcony. “I wish someone else had stepped up, Vincent. It shouldn’t always have to be you who gets the tough jobs that no one else can or will handle. First the Tong, now this.”
“I am…what I am,” Vincent replied, unable to explain the contradiction of his own emotions in such circumstances.
“What you are, Vincent, is very much more than…a watchdog.” She gazed up at him, green eyes intent, and for a second he saw the love, the fear (for him, not of him, he realized with a shock) flare in her eyes. The moment passed and she looked at the city skyline. “I’ve said too much, perhaps.”
“No,” Vincent said. “You’ve spoken your heart.”

***

Vincent was to remember that conversation many times over the next few days but now, as he walked to Cullen’s chamber, he was conscious only of a vague inchoate sense of worry. The pipes were largely silent; Pascal was one of the few adults Below who hadn’t had chicken pox and Father had asked for an all-quiet on the pipes except in cases of emergency. There was only the muted clack of the overhead trains but Vincent had grown so accustomed to their sounds that he barely noticed them anymore.
Cullen’s chamber was on the outskirts of the hub and Vincent wondered why the man had chosen such a distant chamber when others had been available. Perhaps there was a sign they all had missed; perhaps Cullen had not felt truly a member of their community. Or perhaps this was merely the chamber he liked, Vincent thought; it struck him suddenly that he truly didn’t know the other man well enough to guess which it had been. 
He reached Cullen’s chamber and shifted the food platter aside to tap lightly on the stone and was disturbed when there was no answer. Cullen was not confined; he could move about the tunnels, but Vincent sensed that he was inside his chamber. “Cullen?” Vincent called out. 
There was no answer and Vincent stepped inside the chamber. Cullen had clearly been carving recently; the floor was littered with wood shavings and a couple of open containers of varnish sat on a workbench next to a plethora of tools. The sight of the open containers of varnish was disturbing, as Vincent knew Cullen to be normally careful about such things. It was as if everything had simply…stopped. 
The chamber was roughly rectangular; Cullen had partitioned off a part of it to serve as his bedroom and Vincent approached that curtained area now. “Cullen?” he called again and was relieved to hear the other man’s breathing in the silence. Vincent pushed back the curtain and was stunned at what he saw.
Cullen was covered in angry red spots and his face shone with a high fever. “You’re sick,” Vincent said, putting the plate of food down on a vacant table.
Cullen’s eyes opened, brown eyes dull. “You think?” he gasped. 
“I’m going to call Father,” Vincent said, looking around for the length of pipe they all kept in their chambers. 
“No…the Silence…” Cullen said. 
Vincent shook his head. “You’re very ill,” he replied. The pipe was next to the bedside; Cullen could have called for help at any point and yet, had chosen not to do so. Vincent picked it up and banged out a quick message; even without Pascal in the pipe chamber, it should reverberate loudly with the pipes otherwise silent.
A few seconds later, Father’s message came back. “Father’s coming,” Vincent told the other man.
“…deserve this,” Cullen said. 
“No, you don’t,” Vincent replied.

***

Father arrived half an hour later, slowed by his limp. He brought a basket full of medical provisions and after examining Cullen and confirming Vincent’s diagnosis, pulled his son into the outer chamber. “He can’t be moved to the hospital chamber,” Father said in a low voice. “We have no vacant beds as it is, and his case is by far the worst one so far. I hate to ask this but can you…would you stay here with him? Mary’s quite got her hands full with the children and Peter can’t be spared yet from his practice Above, though he should be able to come down to help us tomorrow.” 
“Yes, I’ll stay with Cullen,” Vincent answered, quickly squelching the small inner voice of protest from the side of him that had been furious with Cullen. In the face of the other man’s illness, what use was it to resent him for the foolish, hateful things he’d said and done? “Will you have a message taken to Catherine? I don’t want her to be concerned.”
Father’s mouth tightened at that, but he nodded. “You might as well ask her to stay Above,” he said, “not only for her own sake but for ours as well.”
“I will,” Vincent agreed, knowing what Father meant. Even if she’d already had the chicken pox, any virus Catherine brought below could prove dangerous with so many people either sick or recovering.  Still, he would miss her greatly.
“I’ve asked the other helpers to stay away,” Father continued, more gently. “It’s not just Catherine.”
Vincent smiled, recognizing the apology under the words. “I know.”
Father wrote out a hasty set of instructions—things to watch for in case Cullen’s illness became worse---while Vincent wrote out a note to Catherine. “I’ll make sure Catherine gets this,” Father said. “If you need me, bang on the pipes.” Vincent nodded, and watched as Father left.
He turned at the low rasping sound---Cullen muttering something. “Promise me…” he whispered.
***

“You’ve had that cough for a while, Betty,” Cullen said, watching his wife as she leaned over their kitchen sink.
“It’s just a cold,” Betty said. “And what am I going to do? Go to the doctor and watch them charge us a couple of hundred bucks to tell me nothing’s wrong?” She coughed again, a dry, hacking sound. “I’ll be fine, Cullen.”
Cullen nodded. They had insurance but it was limited, the only policy they could afford. “Promise me you’ll get it checked out if it doesn’t go away?”
Betty smiled, her green eyes stark against the paleness of her skin. “I will. Now don’t you have some encyclopedias to sell?”
He kissed her goodbye and tried not to worry. She’d promised, after all. 


***

“It’s all right,” Vincent said for what surely must have been the thousandth time as he applied a damp rag to the other man’s forehead. The fever was coming down slightly but it was still far too high. He retrieved Father’s spare stethoscope and listened to Cullen’s lungs. No sign of congestion so he wasn’t developing pneumonia yet. Vincent sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, trying to sleep when he could. 
His eyes flew open an hour later; he’d been dreaming of Catherine walking in a bright field of wildflowers, the sunlight golden in her hair. Cullen was thrashing about, trying to scratch the itchy red blisters on his face and arms. “You must stop this,” Vincent murmured. “You’ll only make the wounds infected.”
“Can’t stop,” Cullen muttered. “Too far gone.”


***

“I’m afraid the cancer has metastasized---spread---into the bones.” The doctor---a nameless oncologist whom Cullen and Betty had never seen before and would never see again---gestured at the x-ray films behind them and took his glasses off. Gazing at them severely, he said, “It’s too far gone for a cure. I’m sorry.”
Betty recovered first. “How long…how long do I have, doctor?”
The doctor considered. “With chemotherapy, perhaps a year. Without, a few months.” He stood, his mind already on something else. “The receptionist will schedule your next series of appointments.”
Cullen was dazed as they left the hospital, appointments unmade. Cancer? Betty, the only woman who’d ever believed in him.  How could this be happening to her, of all people? “Cullen, we need to talk,” Betty said, tugging him into a nearly vacant restaurant. 
“I don’t understand why you’re so calm,” he’d blurted and was rewarded by a glimpse of Betty’s smile, too infrequent these days. 
“Because one of us has to be,” she said, gentle but firm. “We don’t have the money for the cancer treatments. You know that.”
“We have insurance---“ Cullen began.
“Which won’t cover all of the costs involved.” 
“But we could…I don’t know, there has to be some program somewhere that can help us.”
Her hands clasped his own, rubbing the rough spot where his wedding band had once rested. He’d had to pawn that last month to help cover the rent. “Cullen. I’m too far gone for any real help. This thing is gonna kill me regardless. Let me go out with some dignity.”
Dignity. Cullen remembered his mother drawing back to hit him with a bloodless grin on her face and an empty bottle in her other hand, then being shuffled from one indifferent relative to another until he’d finally run away for good. “I can’t lose you, Betty.”
She was the stronger of them. She always had been. “You can’t stop this, Cullen. But I love you for wanting to try.”


***

“Vincent?” 
The dry, raspy whisper echoed loudly in the small chamber. Vincent opened his eyes and looked at the man blinking at him confusedly. “I’m here, Cullen. What is it? Do you need something?”
“What are you doing here?” The brown eyes that gazed at him were not quite lucid. 
“You’ve been very ill. Chicken pox,” Vincent said, dipping a damp cloth in a solution of witch hazel and rubbing it gently on Cullen’s arms where the worst of the red spots was clustering.
“Why didn’t you just leave me? I’m no good at this…no good.”
Vincent shook his head. “We don’t forget our own here.” 
Cullen’s eyes slid shut and Vincent poured himself some coffee from the thermos. It was going to be a long night.


***

“She’s in a lot of pain,” Cullen told yet another doctor a few weeks later. “Can’t you give her anything stronger?”
The doctor---a young resident---nodded. “Do you or your wife have any family we can call?”
Cullen forced a smile. Betty was an orphan and he might as well have been. “No, it’s always been just us.”
The doctor was too young to have her mask in place, Cullen thought. “I’m so sorry,” she said, and he thought the regret in her eyes was genuine. She made a notation on Betty’s chart. “I’ll order a stronger dose of pain medication.” 
After she left, Betty stirred. “Cull…” she gasped.
“I’m here,” he said, taking her hand. “What is it?”
“Tired,” Betty replied. 
“Then rest,” he told her, stroking her hand.
“Not that kind of tired,” she said with a trace of her old spark. “You know.”
He understood immediately. “Don’t leave me, Bess. I’m no good without you.”
“Hush,” she replied, and a smile crossed her drawn face. “You’re a good man, Cullen. Don’t ever think otherwise.”


***

They buried her three days later and on the day Cullen returned from her funeral, he found a bill from the hospital in the mailbox and an eviction notice on their apartment door. At the sight of the two pieces of paper, he broke into hysterical laughter that soon turned to tears. He’d lost his job during the long weeks of Betty’s illness, pawned even his woodworking tools to pay for her medications, and the last bit of money had gone to see her decently buried. Didn’t they know he had nothing now?
He’d simply gathered his coat, his wedding picture and Betty’s wedding ring and left. There was nothing there he needed. 
As night fell, he wandered into Central Park, uncaring of where he was or what might happen to him.


***

Cullen opened his eyes to the rough ceiling of his chamber. His head hurt and he ached all over and his mouth was dry.
A faint snore drew his attention and he turned his head slowly to see Vincent slumped in the only other chair, in a position that would surely leave the larger man with an enormous crick in his neck. That it had to be you, Cullen thought, regret and shame roiling inside him. 
Vincent woke with a start. “Cullen? How do you feel?”
“Like a giant itchy sore,” he managed. Then he remembered the Silence. “What are you doing here?” 
“You don’t remember?” Vincent asked, rubbing the back of his neck. 
Cullen shook his head, then instantly regretted it. “Here’s some Tylenol,” Vincent said, handing him two of the little capsules with a cup of water. “We’ve had a chicken pox outbreak; Father asked me to stay with you because you were so sick.”
“I wish he’d asked someone else,” Cullen muttered. “It shouldn’t have been you sent here.”
Vincent merely gazed at him, the expression in his blue eyes disturbingly kind. “Cullen, we all make mistakes, do things we forever regret. It doesn’t mean we stop…caring. Or being cared for.”
“Bet you’ve never done anything as stupid as what I did,” Cullen said, and was startled to see Vincent’s expression darken with some old memory.
“I have,” Vincent said but didn’t explain further and Cullen felt the last of his energy draining away.


***

Cullen lived in the park for nearly a week. He wandered the park during the day and at night, he dodged the drunks and the junkies and the prostitutes and their johns and waited for death to find him. 
He thought it had come for him one night in the person of a dark hooded figure who sat next to him on a park bench late one night. “You've been out here for a while,” the figure said, the deep soft voice raspy but somehow...kind.
“Yeah,” Cullen replied. “Not long enough, though.”
“Not long enough for what?”
“Look, buddy. If you've been watching me---”
“I have.”
“---then you know. You must.”
The tall figure shrugged. “I suppose. But is there truly nothing left for you to live for?”
Cullen shook his head. “My wife's dead. I have no job, no place to live and no family.”
He had the distinct---and disturbing---feeling that none of this was news to the stranger. “What did you do...before?” 
“I sold encyclopedias,” Cullen said. “But...”
“But?”
“I carved wood furniture---cabinets, that sort of thing. I could never make a living at it, though.”
“I believe I know a place that needs a woodworker. Would you like to see it?”


***

And then I did that to him, called him a killer, stabbed Mouse. What have I done? Cullen wondered now. The Silence had been a mercy he'd not expected in view of his crimes. I'm such a loser. 
“You are not,” Vincent said, placing another cool cloth on his forehead. 
Cullen wasn't aware he'd spoken out loud. “I shouldn't have said that.”
“You believe it, though,” the other man said. “You're not a loser, Cullen. You've had some hard experiences, done some unwise things and made some bad choices. But you're not a loser.”
“How do you know?” Cullen challenged. “I damn near killed Mouse. Called you a killer and led Thorpe below.”
“Yes,” Vincent agreed. “Bad choices, all of them. But Mouse will recover.” A rare smile touched his face. “He believes you were ill yourself.”
“Mouse---”
“He wasn't wrong, Cullen,” Vincent continued. “Pascal left his pipes. William stopped cooking. You and Winslow and the others stopped working on critical work here in the tunnels and began fighting among yourselves as if you were enemies instead of family. What else but a sickness could cause that?” 
“And what about what I said to you?” Cullen said. “I called you a killer.”
Vincent looked at the ground then back up at him, eyes veiled. “I have killed, Cullen, you know that. It wasn't an untruth.”
Cullen fell silent for a bit, trying to come up with the right words. Finally they surfaced from the depths of his aching head. “I know you have but....not like that. You've killed to protect us. But you're not a murderer. And I shouldn't have...flung it at you like that. I was wrong. And I'm sorry.”
Vincent wrung the water out of another cloth and folded it in between his hands. “I....thank you, Cullen. I appreciate it.” He took the cloth off Cullen's forehead and placed the new one on it. “Now, rest. Father will return soon.”

22 comments:

SandyX February 25, 2011 at 12:17 PM  

Wheee! A 10th hearthside! Thank you for this, Krista. I've always wondered about Cullen's past ... and now I know.

Krista February 25, 2011 at 1:14 PM  

Thank you, Sandy. That this story makes you know Cullen is the highest compliment---thank you so, so much for reading :)

-Krista :)

OKGoode February 25, 2011 at 2:21 PM  

Just what I needed, post WFOL! How wonderful to hear Catherine tell Vincent that he shouldn't always be the watchdog, to listen to her speak her heart! So good to have him hear that, too! Thank you, Krista!!

Krista February 25, 2011 at 2:40 PM  

Thank you so much, Laura. :) It was hard for me to remember how early "Fever" was in their relationship (especially since almost all of my stories are post-Season 2)---but even then, at their very beginning, Catherine would speak her heart and utter those uncomfortable truths. A

Thank you again for reading and commenting--I really appreciate it :)

-Krista :)

Cyndi D February 25, 2011 at 2:55 PM  

I want more!!! Thank you Krista!

Cyndi

Krista February 25, 2011 at 5:27 PM  

Cyndi---thank you. It means a lot to me that you want more of this :)

-Krista :)

Cyndi D February 25, 2011 at 5:47 PM  

When I got to the end I cried out "NO!" There has to be more! lol I was looking for a chapter 2 button! lol

Krista February 25, 2011 at 5:54 PM  

Cyndi, that's a fantastic thing to say---thank you.

There might be more to the story at some point...but not quite yet. One day, but not today.

Thank you again, so much :)

-Krista

Michelle K. February 26, 2011 at 1:40 PM  

Oh Krista, this is just wonderful! You have captured Cullen beautifully ... his voice - and Vincent's - rings true. I do hope you'll give him more attention in the future! I want to see more of him with his wife - you've painted a beautiful portrait of who they were together and I would love to see them before all the pain. Well done!

Krista February 26, 2011 at 2:02 PM  

Thank you, Michelle---that's very kind of you to say :) I'm not at all certain that there will be another Cullen story but I'm glad you think it's worth writing.

Thanks again,

Krista :)

Ophelia February 27, 2011 at 9:06 AM  

Krista - I love this. What I appreciate about it, sadly, perhaps, is how very real it is. These are the real things that happen to real people. Cullen's actions didn't occur in a vacuum. His struggle, with Vincent, toward understanding and forgiveness is layered. Even Betty's strength - through it all - a choice she made through love - is very genuine. And Cullen's journey back from the cemetery? I felt like I knew that man. Like Michelle, I would love to see Cullen and Betty in happier days. It would have been a real loss had we not been able to read this one, so thank you for its addition! This makes me look forward to your next one all the more.

Vicky February 27, 2011 at 9:38 AM  

Oh, wow! I wanted to scream at him, to be angry at him, to say "D&#$% right you did!"... But you took me inside his head, his memories... and I ended up wanting to help with that cloth on his forehead... Beautiful job, Krista! I very love this.
And yea for Catherine as always! Hee.

Krista February 27, 2011 at 9:41 AM  

Thank you, Ophelia. I'm getting all sniffly here :) Cullen was a very hard nut to crack; the sense I got of him from "Fever" was that he truly wasn't sure he belonged in the community, and that part of him---perhaps the largest part--was still reeling from his wife's death. He acted abominably but he's not, at heart, a bad man.

Thank you so much for wanting to read more of this---the fascinating thing about all our Hearthsides is that they all could be made into longer stories. I'm so happy you want to see more.

-Krista :)

Krista February 27, 2011 at 9:46 AM  

Hey Vicky!

That's the thing with Cullen, isn't it? He's so completely contradictory, a good man who did horrid things but yet...not completely irredeemable.

Thank you so much for reading and commenting :)

-Krista :)

Carole W February 27, 2011 at 9:46 AM  

"Don't leave me, Bess." How you've made Cullen real! So delicate beneath the exterior shell. So much pain to work out, disappointment, guilt that his meager belongings, his ability to provide, couldn't buy her enough treatment, regardless of the reality of her disease. No wonder he went off the deep end in Fever. Now we understand.

The possibility of redemption. A necessary.

If ever we needed a reason for WFOL to have lasted an extra day, this is it. Thank you for this. :-)

Carole

Krista February 27, 2011 at 9:59 AM  

Carole, that tears it--I am officially sniffling. Thank you. :-) Cullen's reaction in "Fever" was so extreme that I believed there had to be some deeply hidden pain behind it. And what could be worse than finding that all his efforts couldn't save the woman he loved?

Thank you again, for reading this story in all its versions and still commenting. I appreciate it. :)

Linn February 27, 2011 at 12:30 PM  

Just beautiful Krista, you gave Cullen so much depth and character. Very realistic and deeply touching(being a nurse I can honestly say that people do avoid getting chemotherapy because they feel they can't afford it and it is heartbreaking). Thank you for this wonderful story.

Krista February 27, 2011 at 1:41 PM  

Thank you, Linn. Knowing that you've seen some of this in the real world and found the story believable means so much to me.

Thank you so much for reading and commenting--I really appreciate it. :)

-Krista :)

NYC Utopia July 17, 2011 at 9:31 PM  

Whee! Another story I missed at Winterfest!

Krista July 17, 2011 at 9:37 PM  

Hey Claire!

Well...(*cough, cough*) this one wasn't used during Winterfest; I'd written it at Carole's request as a backup story in case she didn't have the nine stories she needed. Once WFOL was over, it was posted here. ;)

Glad you're enjoying it!

-Krista :)

NYC Utopia July 17, 2011 at 9:51 PM  

LOL! Sorry - I should've read the other comments first. At least I must have visited this page before and have run short of time to read this "10th Hearthside", because Linn's portrait of Cullen looks vaguely familiar to me.

Carole W July 18, 2011 at 2:21 AM  

Claire - you're right about Linn's drawing. Since we used just 9 stories at WFOL, Linn submitted her Cullen (which she'd drawn in case we needed it) to the Art Gallery independently. But now, here it is as it was meant to be, story and drawing on the same page and together with the Hearthsides. Glad you found it!

Carole

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