I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.11

The darkness suffocated Vincent's entire body, yet he didn't really care. He only felt slightly annoyed because he couldn't see anything.

"Strange, isn't it?" chirped a soft voice near him.

"What is?" he wondered.

"How you could go on living with that young face, even though it should have withered away years ago."

"Yes..it should have," he agreed.

There was an eerie silence that seemed to stretch on forever.

"But still more strange," commented another voice suddenly, "that you could live among normal people as though you yourself were normal."

"I never claimed to be normal."

"Why not?"

He scoffed at the stupid question. "Because I'm a monster," he answered simply.

"A monster!" A monster!" chimed several voices out of nowhere, "You are a monster!"

So many cruel voices burst into chaos: they cackled, wailed, jeered, and screamed into his ears all at once. His head throbbed painfully as the deranged voices squeezed into his mind, each demanding his full attention.

"A MONSTER!" they shrieked as they strangled him, "A MONSTER! A MONSTER!"

Vincent suddenly woke up from his nightmare. Much to his amazement, he found himself seated by a window in some crowded train. He stared blankly all around himself, scrutinizing every detail his eyes stumbled across. He heard two young women gossiping behind him; several passengers lingered near the iron doors, murmuring softly amongst themselves. There was a drunkard snoring loudly two seats ahead of Vincent, and a little urchin stealthily picking that man's pocket.

Yet, try as hard as he may, Vincent could not remember how or why he had boarded this train. Indeed, his whole mind felt so muddled, he simply fell back against his seat in exhaustion. He did not care anymore.

"I say, Sir," asked a kind voice, "Are you alright?"

Vincent opened his eyes to find an old man comfortably seated infront of him. The man appeared to be very concerned.

"You look very tired," smiled the old gentleman, "Hard day at work?"

Vincent's memory slowly floated back to him: he remembered feeling very sick that morning, but had insisted on going to work at the gun shop anyway. The day had drifted away like any other, and now he was returning home on the usual train.

I must have dozed off without even realizing it, Vincent thought tiredly.

"I myself had a most exhausting day," continued the good-natured old man, "I had to baby-sit my grand-daughter at my son's house. They live way over in Sector 6."

Vincent nodded his head thoughtfully.

"Ah! Kids," chuckled the man, tapping his cane knowledgeably, "What a handful they are, especially for us old folk."

Vincent studied every feature of the old man: from his wrinkled face to his trembling hands. He noted the tufts of grey hair that clung to the man's head. He traced his hunched up figure with his weary eyes until he reached his spotty, wrinkled forehead.

He must be very old, mused Vincent.

"But I must declare, young man," prattled on the friendly gentleman, "I never saw such.."

Vincent did not hear the rest of the complaint. The words "young man" set his mind adrift in spite of himself. He stared absent-mindedly at the old man's moving mouth, his brain revolving those two strange words over and over again; they disgusted his heart beyond endurance.

Maybe this is how I *should* have been, Vincent wondered bitterly: baby-sit my grand-daughter on some lazy afternoon; walk around with a cane in my hands; wake up every morning to look at my wrinkled, old face in the mirror..

But no...instead, I'm a "young man"...

"You're so lucky, Vincent," whispered a mocking voice into his ears, "nobody can see what's really behind that mask you wear.."

Vincent gave a start on hearing that familiar voice. He sat upright, looking all around himself to find the speaker. The train had emptied significantly during his reverie, but otherwise, nothing else had changed. He had imagined the voice.

"..that's what I said," concluded the old man, startling Vincent with his booming voice, "What do you think of that?"

"Uh..yes..," he agreed, even though he hadn't listened at all.

"Ha ha!" laughed the old man delightedly, "Not many young people agree with me on that point."

The man chattered away about some miscellaneous topic. Vincent leaned his head against the foggy window as he stared vacantly at the talkative companion. He could not understand any of his words, nor did he care to.

"Well, here's my stop," smiled the kind-hearted gentleman, "Good-bye, son."

The train screeched to a halt. Its large doors lazily withdrew to release the passengers trapped within. Vincent helped the shaking old man to his feet, and handed him his inseparable cane. The gentleman thanked him warmly, declaring that "the young still respected the old", then tottered away with a smile.

Vincent sunk against his seat again when the train finally resumed its journey. Silence dominated the entire place, except for the rude snores of the drunkard at the end of the cart.

Vincent mechanically rubbed the misty window next to him, and stared gloomily through the glass. The sun had disappeared long ago, yet some of its golden rays still lingered over the grey city, very reluctant to abandon it.

Black, sooty buildings and banal offices rolled past Vincent's hollow eyes, interrupted occasionally by a colourful billboard or some gaudy poster. So many bright lights flashed across his pale face, crying for his attention.

However, he merely passed them by in an almost trance-like state. Though he tried to busy himself with any useless subject, his mind always returned to the same melancholy thoughts.

I wonder, Vincent asked himself, I wonder if that old man..is what I should've been like..

But no voice answered him that time.

At around 6 o'clock in the evening, Vincent staggered into his apartment, then slammed the door behind him. As he tossed his burdensome overcoat on a hanger, he felt his whole face and eyes blaze furiously with fever. Vincent slumped against the door, rubbing his forehead to relieve a throbbing headache. His breath quickened; his head swam around.

Damn it, he growled, am I that sick?!

"Vincent?" called a gentle voice near him.

He gave a violent start when Aeris touched his arm, as if caught in the middle of a crime. The girl instantly yanked her hand away, and stared oddly into his pallid face, wondering what troubled him.

"Are you okay?" she asked softly. Her eyes tensed with concern.

"Yes," mumbled Vincent, "Yes..I'm fine."

And to prove it, he straightened himself infront of her. Small droplets of sweat trickled down his face, but he contemptuously wiped them away. His eyes strained every nerve to avoid her anxious look. Indeed, Vincent's entire countenance betrayed such agitation and annoyance, Aeris hesitated to speak a word.

"Yo, Vincent!" greeted another friendly voice. It was Cloud, who had been visiting Aeris that particular afternoon. Tifa, unfortunately, could not come with him; she had to work at the restaurant.

"Hello, Cloud," muttered Vincent under his breath.

"Aeris was getting pretty worried about you," laughed Cloud with a pat on his friend's shoulder, "but I told her not to freak out if you're late a bit. Trains can be a bit sluggish, especially around rush-hour."

It took Vincent all his strength, patience, and self-control to force out a "yes" instead of a horrible oath. Luckily, Cloud did not notice his friend's discomfort, but perceived that he was withdrawn more than usual.

"Say, Vincent, are you alright?" he inquired; he felt very uneasy with the man's moroseness.


"Well, it's just that you look kinda pale."

"Are you making fun of me, Cloud?" asked Vincent, glaring suspiciously at him.

"Huh? Oh no!" he cried, ".I..I didn't mean it like that! I meant to say you look *paler* than usual."

Vincent frowned, not at all amused. Cloud scratched the back of his head in genuine embarrassment; he immediately realized that his friend was "in another one of his weird mood swings", so decided to retreat.

"Right, it's getting late," he smiled good-humouredly at Aeris, who had been lingering behind him, "I'd better get going."

Vincent mumbled something like a farewell, then brushed past the two friends in a most abrupt manner.

"Take care, Aeris," Cloud warned when Vincent had disappeared into the kitchen, "He's in a really rotten mood. He must've had a bad day."

Aeris nodded her head feebly. An extremely ominous feeling crept up her heart.

"We ordered a pizza, Vincent!" shouted Cloud as he grabbed his heavy coat, "It's in the oven. We saved you three slices! Hope you like pepperoni!"

No reply came, nor did Cloud expect any.

He wrapped the coat around himself hurriedly. Aeris handed him his scarf, reminding him not to forget it like last time.

"Oh yeah. Thanks," he laughed, "Well, see ya later. G'night."

"Good night," she smiled in return. Aeris shut the door gently after Cloud left.

An unnatural, deathly silence slithered through the apartment the instant the door closed. Aeris stood nervously in the dim hallway, not daring to disturb the stillness. But her concern for Vincent swelled to such an unbearable pitch, she immediately tottered down the hallway to find him.

She found him seated in the kitchen. He had both elbows firmly rooted to the table top while his ashen face sought refuge in his hand and claw. He had torn off his red bandanna, so his long, jet black hair fell all around his head in thick strands.

Vincent sat perfectly still; he seemed almost oblivious to his surroundings. Aeris paused by the door, wondering should she interrupt him or leave him in peace.

Vincent slowly lifted his head to glance at the anxious girl, but soon plunged back into his own gloomy thoughts.

An icy silence followed.

"Aeris?" he called in a hoarse whisper.

He did not look at her.

"Wh..what is it?" Aeris answered gently.

"I'm very tired. I'm going to take a nap in the living room."

Vincent mechanically stood up. He pushed his lustrous hair with a flick of his hand, then staggered out of the kitchen. Aeris instantly made room for him to pass.

"V..Vincent?" she asked timidly.

He stopped and turned his careworn face to her.

"Don't sleep on the couch," she pleaded in a low voice, "please, sleep on the bed."

"Aeris, I can't do that," he protested weakly, "That's where you sleep."

"No, no, it's okay! Really," she insisted, "You take your nap on the bed. It's only for a short time, right?"

After further protests and entreaties, Vincent finally accepted the kind offer. Therefore, without another word, he dragged his dead feet into the bedroom, then gently closed the door behind him.

Aeris' eyes followed him all the way until he had shut himself inside. She wandered back to the kitchen, trying to gather all her scattered thoughts. A red cloth on the table immediately grabbed her attention: it was Vincent's bandanna. Picking it up, Aeris examined it with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

A week had already passed since that harrowing fight with Davoren. Aeris woke up every morning, anticipating a sudden attack any minute. But the days calmly rolled by, and still no sign of the gunman.

Although the girl constantly worried herself about Davoren, Vincent had resumed his daily routine with such indifference, she wondered whether he had completely forgotten Davoren. He either read a book, repaired some gun, or did both at the same time.

He was morose, as always, but sometimes invited the timid Aeris to sit by him and tell him about her afternoon with her friends. Aeris knew for a fact he did not care a fig about those trivial matters. Nevertheless, he made an effort to listen, which greatly pleased her heart. She guessed he was just trying to make her more easy around his presence.

Yet during the last three days, she had noticed alarming changes in Vincent: he scarcely ate at all; his disturbed eyes burned feverishly; he seemed to detect some invisible force about the room. He grew strangely distant and aloof, even more than before.

"Oh, he's just being himself, Aeris," Tifa had assured the girl.

"Yeah, Vincent can get pretty crabby at times," Cloud had agreed, "Just stay outta his way."

But they couldn't see, like she could, the turmoil raging in his mind. And every day, every hour, it grew more intense. 

-End of Chp.11