Devin advanced toward the outermost row of carousel horses. “What is this supposed to accomplish?” he asked without any real expectation of a satisfactory answer.
“Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it will make you hate me even more. But whatever happens, I think you deserve to know the truth, Devin…” Father paused, as if unwilling or unable to finish whatever thought he’d begun. Devin watched the old man look down, half-raise his face, and take a rallying breath. Finally Father met his gaze again as he said, “…my son.”
Those two words hung there in the air. Devin stepped down off the carousel platform, closing the distance between them. Father looked away again, clearly unable to meet his eyes.
“My real name is Jacob Wells. I first met your mother in the early fifties…”
My son. Devin heard Father’s words; he heard the explosion they made in his mind with perfect clarity. They echoed in his ears, the barrage of sound they made growing tinny and hollow. My son? Why’d he say that? What’s that supposed to mean? He can’t mean—
The carousel, the horses, the huge pipe organ, Vincent…all of it faded to darkness around him. Father seemed to still be talking, but in the wave of shock and disbelief, Devin could make no sense of the words. He could hear his own breathing, could feel the pulse of a heartbeat in his head and the tingle of the cool night air as it evaporated a sheen of sweat he hadn’t felt break out on his face, but the noises Father made held no meaning for him.
“You’re my father?” The question barked from his lips.
Whatever he’d been saying, Father stopped mid-sentence when he interrupted. “Yes, Devin. You are my son. Truly. You are.”
“You’re my father.” He shook his head and repeated the syllables again, as if this time they might cease being nonsense. “My real father?”
“I am.” Father opened his palms to face Devin, like a man trying to prove his lack of weapons to a potential combatant.
Devin felt the numbness wearing off, replaced now with a tremble that quaked through him and made his stomach grind against itself. When the tremor spiraled down his legs, he staggered backwards and felt the whole carousel shudder as his calves struck the platform. The world tilted and heaved, sending his full weight collapsing onto the metal surface. Over his shoulder, a black horse with a shaggy forelock and glistening, chestnut eyes grinned mockingly down at him.
“I’m your father, Devin,” the Old Man inched closer, “and I hope you can forgive me, son, for not telling you this many years ago.”
Devin looked at him just in time to see Father’s hands coming toward his face as if to cup it between his fingers.
Without thought, Devin parried the gesture with a forearm. He scrambled to his feet and moved backwards in full retreat. He turned on his heel and charged the gap at the base of the corrugated metal door. With his heart drumming a tattoo in his chest, he escaped into the mists of Central Park.
Jacob watched Devin’s flight and leaned more heavily on his cane. His free hand rasped across his scalp where a thousand more gray hairs were surely sprouting. What did you expect to happen, Jacob? That he’d welcome you with open arms, like some kind of Prodigal Father? When he turned to his other son, he saw Vincent looking worried as Catherine stored a thick envelope in her purse.
“I believe that could have gone better,” Jacob said ruefully.
“There was no way for a revelation such as this to be anything other than a blow, Father,” Vincent replied. “The shock will wear off, in time. We must allow Devin a while to process…everything.”
“He’s right, Father,” Catherine said. “This was something of an ambush, after all. Give him some time. It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
Jacob nodded in rote agreement and slouched toward the exit, but not before he saw Vincent and Catherine share a look, one of those looks wherein entire conversations are held in a glance without a word needing to be spoken.
No, I don’t believe it, either, Jacob thought, but what good will it do to talk about it?
Devin stood at the top of the spiral stair. He gripped the wrought iron railing with freshly bruised knuckles and stared down at Jacob where he sat entrenched behind his desk. The older man removed his spectacles, folded their spindly metal arms, and set them onto the scratched wood. He held a fist to his lips and closed his eyes, sitting there for long minutes in solitude and silence. Devin leaned against the balustrade until Jacob startled as if he’d sensed he was being watched. He looked first to the tunnel entrance; seeing no one there, he scanned the chamber. Finally, when there were no other options, he looked up.
Their eyes locked. The détente was broken.
“You must have stood like this,” Devin said, pleased to hear the emotionlessness and control in his own voice. He held the high ground in this moment; he knew it and planned to use it to his advantage.
“Stood looking down on me while I lay in my crib, watching me as I slept…watching me while I played and learned to walk…watching me when I didn’t know you were watching… But you knew. You knew when you held me, fed me, took care of me… and all the time— All that time, you knew. And you denied that I was yours.” Devin stopped. Breathed. Swallowed. “Why?”
“Devin…” Jacob sighed.
Devin pushed off from the rail. Pivoted. Marched to the coiled steps.
“I’ve been walking through the park and the city all night… all morning…” He descended, turning his head again and again to keep Jacob in his sights. “And I kept asking myself that question. But you know what, Old Man? You know what?”
Devin stopped at the base of the stair, crossed his arms in front of his chest, and stood with his back against the riveted steel pillar. “No matter what scenario I imagined, I couldn’t really conjure up any good answer to the question, why?”
Jacob opened his mouth but Devin gave no quarter.
“No, that’s not exactly true. After a good long ‘talk’ with a brick wall,” he looked at the raw, excoriated skin on his fists, “I did come up with one answer. Not exactly a satisfying one, true. But it’s the only one that fit the facts. I know I did a lot of things that disappointed you through the years; I’ll give you that one. But when I was that brand new, tiny baby lying in his crib, I hadn’t done anything yet to disappoint you. I was as perfect and innocent as anyone else then.”
Devin felt the burn of tears threaten and cleared his throat with a growl.
“So it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me, Father.” Devin didn’t expect the venom he heard in that name until he said it, but it was the truth, so he pressed on with the assault. “It was you. That newborn lying next to his dead mother hadn’t had time to disappoint you yet. No. No, you were disappointed in you.”
The look between them lingered, the silence stretching across decades of ache.
Then Devin heard something he couldn’t recall Father ever saying before.
“You’re right, Devin. You’re absolutely right.” Jacob heaved a shuddering sigh. The darkness beneath the old man’s eyes as he closed them had nothing to do with any candle shadows. He bowed his head, baring his neck as if to the guillotine. “I’m not proud of— No. I am deeply ashamed of how I behaved after your birth. I would change…so many things…if I could go back… If I could do it all again…”
He seemed to age right there in front of Devin’s eyes, shrunken and withered in defeat.
The anger that had been his ammunition through the uncounted hours of pacing Above was spent now, Devin found. A no-man’s land in the center of the chamber loomed between the two men, but he made no move to cross it.
Father pulled himself to his feet and held the edge of the desk as he circled it, using the massive piece of furniture to steady his steps. He paused at its far corner, and then toddled toward Devin. He’d left his cane behind the desk, and his footfalls were unsteady and halting as he approached the pair of chairs beside the hexagonal table. He lurched the last half step and caught himself on the high back of one of them.
“I’m sorry is insufficient, I know, Devin. But I am most truly, truly sorry.”
Devin’s arms fell to his sides. “Did you love her? My mother?”
“I cared for her. She was a good woman. A very good woman. You look so much like her.” Father sighed. “She saved my life when she brought me here. I was nearly dead physically by then…and inside I wished I could just die and be done with it. I was married before Grace brought me Below.”
Devin cocked his head at this news.
“Margaret. She left me. I lost everything. I lost my job, my reputation…lost my home, my self… I had nothing left to live for. And then Grace brought me here. I found a life, a purpose again, thanks to your mother. One night, she and I…” He pursed his lips and turned away as he sank into a chair.
Devin waited for him to speak again, but Jacob only stared off toward something unseen. He took one small step toward the older man.
“Father, that’s no big deal. People have sex. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“There was. Of course there was. There most certainly was,” Father retorted. He brushed a hand through the air between them. “Oh, I read the papers, Devin. I know that times have supposedly changed Up Top, but… It was wrong. It was wrong of me. Not wrong of Grace, though, no. It was wrong for me because I was the one who was still married. In my heart, if not in the law. I still belonged to Margaret, but I betrayed that vow with Grace. It was wrong of me. But your mother… She paid the price for my sin.”
Father covered his face with his hands.
Devin, moved beyond imaging by the words of this man he’d known all his life yet never truly known, closed the gap between them and sat in the chair flanking his side. He sought something to say, but as Father had pointed out at the carousel, they’d never learned how to talk to each other. He listened to Jacob’s quavering exhalations until the Old Man was able to look up again.
“It wasn’t your fault. I know it wasn’t.” Devin’s whisper was so faint that he thought Father might not have heard it had there been more than a few inches between them. “You’d have saved her if you could. I know you would have.”
Jacob reached out a hand toward Devin’s sleeve, but withdrew it again without touching his son. “I did everything…everything I could. It simply wasn’t good enough.”
The young boy still living in the grown man's heart pounded his fists against Devin's chest, screaming a lifetime’s worth of questions unasked and pain unspoken. He shook his head, trying to still that inward child. His voice fell to a whisper even fainter than before and he stared at the floor at their feet.
"I loved you so much, Father. I loved you like a father…even though I knew you weren't mine.” He swallowed and forged on. “And I wanted so much for you to be proud of me. I studied music and math and Shakespeare ‘til I could beat all the older kids’ tests... But it was never good enough for you.”
He could sit there no longer. He had to get up, had to move, had to do something. He scarcely saw where he paced but maneuvering the chamber helped.
“If I missed even one point, you'd dwell on that single mistake instead of all the things I got right. I loved you so much, but I thought you... I could tell that you—” Devin stopped at the brazier and looked into the smoldering coals there. “I could tell you didn't like me. No matter what I did...or didn't do...you just didn't like me. It made me not like myself much, either... I think... I think that's why I kept becoming other people when I left... I kept hoping—hoping that eventually…maybe I'd become someone that you could like...”
Devin hadn’t meant to say so much; he wasn’t even sure that he himself had ever realized any of that was the truth until this moment. When he turned, it was to see an expression of unspeakable horror and hurt on Father’s face. The boy in his heart would have expected to feel victory in that, but the man recognized it as purely Pyrrhic.
“I'm sorry, Father. I shouldn't have said that.” He half-extended his arm, but it was too meaningless a gesture to complete and he abandoned the movement.
“Dear God, Devin! Never! Never—not for one moment—did I think I had hurt you so cruelly. I did see all that you accomplished; I was quite proud of you. Proud of you then—and proud of you now—for telling me these truths. I needed to hear the hurt I caused you. It’s—It’s painful to see one's self through the eyes of another, but it is also necessary at times, as well.”
Jacob gestured to the chair at this side; a request, an invitation, an overture. With the barest nod, Devin accepted the proffered truce.
“I am shamed, my boy, and most profoundly sorry. I have made any number of excuses—to myself and to others—to try to justify my actions. And my inactions. But please believe me when I tell you, Devin, that there has never been one moment of your life that I didn't love you. I swear that’s true. And until Vincent pointed it out to me, I didn't even realize that I had been harder on you than all the other children.
“I should have been gentler with you, son, and sterner with myself.”
Devin had never known Father to fall on his sword at all; he certainly could never have dreamed that he could do so, so completely.
“Can you find it in you, my son, to forgive an old fool of a man?”
Father held his hands outstretched again, the same gesture of supplication Devin had rebuffed at the carousel. Devin leaned forward into his father’s touch. Soft fingertips and thin-skinned palms cupped themselves against his cheeks and then suddenly, Father pressed a kiss onto his forehead.
A visceral memory erupted from the depths of Devin's soul. It was a living thing all around him—
Devin was in the Great Hall, that first Winterfest; an exciting and unprecedented celebration in his small, young universe. The brightly colored candles were burning low as the festivities drew to a close. The last two dancers lingered to a languid violin. Mary stood behind Father, her hair darker and face less careworn. In her arms was baby Vincent, his limp limbs dangling bonelessly with the exhaustion of an over-stimulated infant. A couple of other tunnel women were ushering the children off to their beds like a pair of kindly shepherds.
Devin scurried over to Father and crawled onto his lap; his arms barely fit around the old man’s shoulders. His beard felt soft and scratchy all at the same time.
"Good night, Father! Love you!"
Father held his face between both hands and kissed his brow.
"Good night, my boy. I love you, also."
Devin longed to keep savoring that long ago moment, so vivid he could still smell the spicy cologne of a Helper wafting through the Great Hall. But as Father broke the kiss, the memory burst like a soap bubble in the grass.
It was the last time he’d said that to Father. The last time he’d heard Father say it, too. Devin opened his mouth to speak, but choked on a lifetime of unspoken words.
“I love you, son.”
He took Father’s hands into his own and squeezed them. Then letting go, he placed his own on either side of Father’s face, and returned the kiss.
“I forgive you,” he whispered against his father’s forehead. “I love you and I forgive you.”
Father and son, smiling through their tears, rested their foreheads together. The wounds they never suspected were still unhealed suddenly didn’t hurt either of them anymore.