By Judith Nolan
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
“What do we have here, then?” Huddling deeper into his ragged clothing tied close to his thin body against the cold, Falcon bent to peer under the snow-covered pile of cardboard. He blew on his bare fingertips where they protruded from the ragged holes in the ends of his woollen gloves, trying to restore some circulation.
He grimaced as he
thought, January 12th,
the coldest damn day of the year…and he was out in it, mucking
around with things that didn’t concern him. He frowned, wondering if it
was worth his while even bothering with whatever it was under the
cardboard that had cried out when he’d been about to step over it,
hurrying on his way home through the snow from the back entrance of St.
Vincent’s hospital. This was his third dash in two weeks for supplies of
much-needed and precious medication. Being forced to wait for Dr. Alcott
to appear this time had made him late in returning, and he couldn’t
He poked at the pile of snow-covered debris with his boot and shook his head. “Probably just some kittens or a puppy someone’s dumped. I got places I gotta be.” He straightened, about to turn away, when the sound came again; a plaintive mew of sound that barely carried in the frigid winter’s air. He turned back. “Well, that don’t sound like any damn cat…” He blew a disconcerted breath, torn between duty and compassion.
He was on an
important mission; he didn’t need to be distracted from his purpose now.
Father was relying on him to get the new batch of medicines from Peter
Alcott delivered back to the home tunnels right quick. Lives were
depending on his speed. And it was getting dark fast.
He still had a long way to go…
As he stared, stomping from foot to foot to keep his feet from freezing, the cardboard moved slightly, rose and then fell back, the snow covering it also lifting and settling again. Almost like the last breath of a drowning child. “I’m gonna get skinned for this…” Falcon shifted his grip on the precious parcel clasped beneath his arm as he bent down again and lifted a corner of the cardboard, uncovering a tiny bundle of rags. The bundle moved again, the mewling cry muffled by a cloth bag tied over the creature’s head.
“What on earth? Some people…” Putting his parcel aside, Falcon bent closer, drawing a knife from the side of his boot, using it to gently slit the strings holding the bag in place. Carefully removing it he lifted it away to reveal… “Well, I’ll be…” He swallowed convulsively, staring at what he’d uncovered.
It was a baby, that much was obvious. A tiny infant swaddled in rags to its tight-shut eyes with a shock of dirty blond hair sticking out the top like an exclamation mark. It mewed again, a soft, pathetic cry for help, wriggling slightly within the confines of the rag bundle.
“Well, kid, I don’t have the time to run you all the way back to the hospital. Peter’s probably gone home by now anyway and I’m late as it is. Whoever chucked you away obviously ain’t comin’ back any time soon. So I guess you and I are stuck with each other. And there’s only one place I know of where we can both get out of the cold and all this damn snow…”
Scooping the baby up into his arms, he was amazed how light and thin it felt. Boy or girl, Falcon couldn’t determine, but he knew instinctively the little thing was very sick. It barely moved again as he unbuttoned his coat and slid the tiny bundle inside to nestle against the steady beat of his heart. Holding the baby close to him, and grabbing up his parcel in the other hand, he set off through the snow, muttering about Topsiders, and praying Father wouldn’t yell too much about the delay.
Inside his coat he felt the tiny child settle, wriggling closer to the vital warmth of Falcon’s body. He smiled ruefully. He did wonder what Father was going to say about receiving yet another mouth to feed, however tiny. But he had an odd sense it was going to be all right. Like somehow, this abandoned kid he’d found was the beginning of something; some new phase of the tunnel’s badly chequered existence. Lord knows they surely needed any kind of miracle right now…
“I hope that real
love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in
“What did they do?” Catherine’s nervous fingers worried at the bandages covering her face. “My eyes!”
A voice replied from beyond the smothering darkness. His voice. A voice she could never forget, even if she lived to be a hundred years old. And yet they’d first met barely five minutes before. It was then he’d told her she was safe, she was safe, now. After what had happened to her, it made no sense at all, but still…
“Your eyes were not hurt,” the voice said quietly. “We made sure... Rest now.”
Rest… Catherine moved disconsolately against the stabbing agony of her battered body. In pain, confused and disorientated, rest was the last thing on her mind. She wanted to understand, make some kind of sense of it all.
She turned her head as she heard the soft movements of his garments drawing away from her and she knew he was leaving her alone in the terrifying darkness. She wanted to reach out to him, beg him to hold her, not caring about dignity or what was proper; or what her father would say if he could see her now! She set her teeth, smothering a scream, a desperate plea for him to stay, but she managed to suppress the impulse.
She shuddered, struggling to understand what had happened to her. Had there been a place, a time, where she could have stepped out of this madness? Remained safe, tucked up in her own bed, in her apartment, oblivious to the seamier and degraded side of city living? A world where people were hurt and mutilated simply for the enjoyment of seeing them suffer.
She had been hurt for no other reason than she had been mistaken for someone else. Catherine frowned, trying to remember. A woman called Carol…that was the name. Catherine’s ragged breath hitched with pain and confusion.
Of course she should have stayed with Tom at the party, put up with his sour humour over Eve’s need for comfort and she would have remained uninjured. She would still have been emotionally trapped in a slowly disintegrating relationship she couldn’t see a way to escape from, but safe. There was that word again, that illusion of security she’d always relied upon.
Despite his faults Tom was good to her. And her father liked him. That had to count for something, didn’t it? She liked the feeling of safety being Charles Chandler’s daughter afforded her. She’d enjoyed it all her life. And now it had all been stripped away, leaving her naked and exposed; vulnerable to a thousand unvoiced fears.
With her eyes bandaged the disturbing visions were inescapable. Always it was a dark alley and rough hands grabbing at her, tossing her bodily into a van without any regard for how much they bruised her soft flesh. And the knife…bright and shining, mesmerising, as the man waved it back and forth before her frightened eyes, telling her she would remember him always…every time she looked in the mirror…
She wished she could remember what had happened to her after that. It was all so fuzzy in her mind. She knew she was no longer in the van, she could sense that. She now rested on something unmoving, soft and solid. She was covered with blankets and her head rested on soft pillows.
But where she was and what was this unfamiliar place she had found
herself in, she could only guess at. Sounds echoed to her, the odd
tapping noise that never cease. The dull pounding was giving her a
headache. Trains rattled back and forth, somewhere far above her. She
guessed she was in Brooklyn or
She could smell earth and dampness, candle wax and kerosene. She could hear the crackling of a fire somewhere close at hand. But there was no background noise of cars, or televisions, no radio chatter. No constant sound of people hurrying about their daily lives that had always underscored her consciousness like a heartbeat. Crazy as it may seem, had she somehow slipped into another dimension?
And what did they want with her? What did he want with her, the elusive owner of that voice, with its warm, beautiful timbre and soft lisp of impediment? He was the only link to her past and her future. He was the bridge. Had he brought her here, to wherever this was? If so, could he take her back again? Back to her father, back to her life. Back to everything she knew and cared about. Back to that elusive sense of cushioned safety that had betrayed her so utterly? Her lawyer’s mind gnawed incessantly at the problem.
‘Rest,’ he had said. ‘Rest now’. Was that the secret? Give up the struggle to remain conscious and drift away, then perhaps this would all become nothing more than a bad dream, some nightmare from which she will soon awake. Her eyes, struggling against the confinement of the bandages drifted shut and she sighed.
But that voice…his voice…went with her into the darkness. Trembling on the edge of sleep she thought she heard it again, promising someone he would watch over her. The softly spoken assurance wrapped around her senses and cocooned her, whispering to her inner ear that it would be all right. That he would keep watch over her…always… He would never let her fall…
“No one will hurt you. You’re safe here...” he’d said, and she believed him, as she had believed nothing else in her life before. Finally she slipped willingly over the edge of consciousness into sleep…she was safe now…
“I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”
Jacob Wells settled his fedora closer on his head, turning the collar of
his suit coat up against the chill wind blowing off the
He inhaled deeply, the chill air searing his lungs as he mustered the last remaining shreds of his courage. It would be so easy to simply lean forward, out past the point of equilibrium and topple into the cold clutch of the tide to be swept out to sea, away from all the pain and heart-ache of the last few weeks.
Alan Taft, his good friend and lawyer had tried to warn him, make him see reason at the committee hearings and keep his mouth shut. Let Allan do all the talking. But Jacob hadn’t listened. His troubled conscience would not allow him to remain mutely defiant.
Now it was too late. It had been a year from hell, a year in which Jacob
had lost everything. It had been taken away, almost as if none of it had
existed at all. It was all gone, his life’s work, his home and good
name, and then the final agony. The woman he loved more than life itself
had annulled their marriage—or her powerful father had. Margaret was now
“Such is the stuff of dreams…” Jacob looked down at the small suitcase at his feet and sighed. All it contained were the few effects he couldn’t bear to part with. Among them their wedding picture and the last letter his wife had written to him; the one severing their love and relationship. The wreck of my memories, she had written, pleading for his acceptance and understanding…Jacob sighed. He would take those things with him into oblivion. It seemed only fitting.
The frigid winter air swirled around him, nipping at his exposed face and hands. The snow had begun to fall in earnest now, muffling any sound. He’d been wandering for hours—days—in fact, without purpose or goal. He couldn’t remember what he had done, not even the last time he’d eaten anything. His empty stomach churned at the thought of sustenance.
And now he didn’t even possess his thick woollen overcoat to cut the chill to bearable. In his last act of humanity on this earth, he’d given it away to a homeless man he’d seen some miles back, huddled in a doorway beneath a pile of newspapers and cardboard, and precious little else. The pathetic look of gratitude in the man’s eyes had been all the thanks Jacob had needed. Besides, where he was going, a warm coat wouldn’t be necessary.
“Well, here goes nothing indeed…” He picked up the case. As he leaned steadily forward, his mouth quirked bleakly at the irony of it all. He wondered what obituary they would write to complete his public humiliation. Would they even notice he was gone from the face of the earth?
“Hey there. What’ya doing?” A woman’s soft voice inquired from behind him.
“I beg your pardon?” Jacob jerked back from the edge, turning to look.
“I said what are you doing there? If you’re not careful you’ll fall into the river and drown.” She frowned, slipping a large knapsack from her shoulders to rest at her feet. “Or is that your idea?” She shrugged. “Be a bit of a waste, a good-looking guy like you. Surely you got some options left.”
“Not many… In fact, none that I can think of right now.” Jacob stared at her, not sure how else to respond beyond total honesty.
She appeared older than him, dressed in ragged and patched clothing with a thick woollen shawl covering her dark hair against the biting cold. She was not pretty, but her inner beauty shone through in a strong aura of vitality, as if she loved life and still believed in it. Her dark eyes gleamed with a keen sense of self-worth and pride. She held herself as if she was wearing the finest haut couture.
“A pity about that then.” The woman grimaced. She jerked a gloved thumb over her shoulder. “Back down there, old Albert said a good-looking young guy in a smart, uptown suit and hat had given him the coat off his back without being asked. That was a real nice thing to do. Not many fine city folk would even see a guy like Albert.”
“I decided I had no further use for it. Not where I’m going.” Jacob shook his head. “His need seemed greater than mine.” He shivered in the biting cold and moved his feet, stamping them to try and keep the circulation going. He looked pointedly into the distance, encouraging her to leave him alone. “Look, I’m kind of busy here. Now, if you don’t mind...”
“So you’re still gonna jump then?” The woman’s mouth turned down at the corners. “You sure about that? Seems a bit mad to me.”
“That is the general idea.” Jacob moved his shoulders helplessly.
“Well then, don’t let me stop you.” The woman folded her arms across her chest. “But, before you go, mind if I ask about the case?”
“The case?” Jacob looked confused.
“Nice suitcase.” The woman indicated it with a lift of her chin. “Chucking it in the river would be such a waste. What ya got in there anyway?”
“Memories…” Jacob’s shoulders slumped. “A lot of sad and painful memories. Now please, will you leave me alone?”
“I see. Well, my name’s Grace.” The woman ignored his plea, holding out a hand towards him. “If you’ll let me, I can help you. Show you another way.”
“What? To kill myself?” Jacob couldn’t suppress his ironic laugh as he clasped her hand briefly. “Thanks, but I think I have this. Now, if you’ll please just go…” He turned away; back to watching the river’s black passing, trying to muster the courage to jump, but knowing he no longer had the strength of will. Perhaps he never had it in the first place. Another failure to add to the rest…
“That’s the point. I do mind if you’ve decided to kill yourself,” Grace
admitted bluntly. “I mind a lot. Someone once said;
cowards die many times before
their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.”
“Shakespeare…” Jacob’s head snapped up as he spun back to face her. “Julius Caesar. How did you…I mean, where did you learn that?”
“Where I live there’s a guy who knows all sorts of fancy stuff like that. He loves to quote things. John’s got a whole library full of books. He’s always got his nose stuck in one. But we look out for one another there. We each have our own space and it’s warm and dry, and we have all the room we need. Not like up here at all. I could take you there, if you like.” She tilted her head to contemplate Jacob closely, from head to toe and back again. “That’s if you have anything to offer us…beyond misery and an old suitcase. We don’t have any use for free-loaders.”
“I am…I was…a doctor.” Jacob heart tightened in his chest. The pain was still sharp and it cut deeply.
“A people doctor?” Grace’s dark eyes narrowed sharply.
Jacob smiled wearily. “Yes, a people doctor. But they took away my licence to practice. So, I guess I’m not going to be much use to you.”
“You didn’t kill anyone, did you?” Grace came closer, looking up at his troubled face. “I mean, that’s not why they took it away from you.”
“No…” Jacob replied on a rushing sigh. “In fact, I tried to save a lot of people, but no one would listen. Now it’s too late and I’ve failed. Now all I have been trying to do for the last ten minutes is kill myself. It seems I cannot even do that successfully or in peace.”
“Okay good, then.” Grace nodded decisively as she settled the large knapsack once more on her shoulders. “We could sure use a man like you. I’m gonna tell you something now that you will not believe. You’ll think I’m just a foolish woman. But what I have to tell you, and then show you, is all true. You just gotta believe in magic.”
“I would say I am fresh out of belief.” Jacob shook his head.
“Well, you just gonna have to go on trust then.” Grace advanced to seize his arm before he could think to evade her. “You’re coming with me. I’m going to show you a place where you can heal and begin again.” She looked over Jacob’s shoulder. “The river will always be here, if you change your mind and decide what I have to show you is not what you want after all.”
“You’re certainly a hard woman to resist,” Jacob complained, tightening his grip on his suitcase. But a profound sense of relief surged through him that the decision to live or die had been taken so easily out of his control. “Where are we going?”
Grace smiled, her whole face lighting up. “To a secret place a lot of good people depend upon for safety. We’re going below the city—below the subways. There’s a world of tunnels and chambers down there that most city folk don’t even know exists. There sure aren’t any maps to the places we’re going—it’s a forgotten world and we like to keep it that way. You’ll see. You stick with me, and you’re going to be just fine…”
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free
human being with an independent will.”
Mary Beecher sat on the bench in the park and watched the children playing in the sunshine. The sound of their chattering laughter twisted like a knife in her heart, but she couldn’t help herself. She still came here every day, sometimes staying all day when she was off work. Since her beloved family had been killed in a collision, her tiny rented apartment felt cold and empty. She hated being there. It had been more than two years now, but it still wasn’t a home. She knew it never would be, but she had nowhere else to go.
She ached in every muscle and sinew. She knew she should be trying to snatch a couple of hours of much-needed sleep, but a strange sense of restlessness had drawn her into the park. It was as if she hoped something would distract her from the dreary emptiness of her life.
Heaven knows she could do with a miracle or two right about now. She smiled sadly at the fanciful thought, feeling tired and defeated beyond belief. She inhaled deeply as she scrubbed at her cheeks with both hands, trying to erase all traces of the tears that had tracked down her face. She felt embarrassed to be seen crying in public, but it was becoming a tiresome habit she found difficult to break.
So intent was she on regaining her composure, she barely noticed the little girl who approached quietly to sit down beside her until a small hand reached to pat her forearm. “It’s okay,” a sweet, piping voice said.
“Is it?” Mary gasped, laying her own hand impulsively over the little girl’s. Jenny used to say that all the time. If Mary closed her eyes she could still see her six-year-old daughter’s innocent face frowning with concern. “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay…”
But it wasn’t okay. Not anymore. Not since Jenny had died...and Aaron and Ben… Mary’s sobbing breath hitched in her throat, making it difficult to breathe. She turned to look down at the little girl beside her. She frowned, wondering about the child’s mother. It was not safe to let such sweet, little ones wander off and talk to strangers.
Then she noticed a dark-haired young woman watching her from a short distance. There was a marked resemblance between her and the little girl sitting beside Mary. She smiled tentatively and the young mother smiled back. Mary couldn’t help noticing they were both dressed in an odd assortment of cast-offs, as if they were homeless. Her heart contracted with pity.
“So, what’s your name?” she queried the child.
“Amelia.” The little girl smiled brightly. “That’s my mom.” She indicated the young woman. “I asked her if I could sit here with you today. I wanted to tell you a secret. A big secret. Mommy said I could. I wanted to make you smile, because you always look so sad.”
“Ah, you sweet, little thing.” Mary stifled a fresh flood of tears. She wanted to hug Amelia, but she restrained herself. Then she frowned. “Always?” she questioned.
“Yes…” The word hissed through the gap caused by the child’s missing front teeth. She smiled. “We come here a lot, to play in the sunshine. You’ve been here every day. I’ve seen you.”
“You have?” Mary was astonished the little girl would even bother to notice.
“Father says we need to look out for everyone. Make sure they’re okay.” Amelia nodded wisely. “It’s our job. It’s important.”
“Well, that’s a nice thing to say,” Mary approved. “Your father sounds like a very good man.”
“Oh, he’s not my father.” Amelia’s auburn curls danced vigorously with her head-shake of denial. “He’s everyone’s father. He takes care of everybody. You’ll like him.”
“I will?” Mary was becoming more confused by the minute with the odd trend of this conversation.
She glanced at her watch. She really should be getting back to her apartment. But its bleak silence was what often drove her to seek solace in the park. She desperately needed to sleep, even if she had to finally admit defeat and take an extra dose of the pills the doctor has prescribed. Her life was slowly spiralling out of control and she felt unable to prevent it from happening.
The child’s mother approached slowly and sat down beside her daughter. She surveyed Mary closely. “You’re a midwife over at the hospital, aren’t you?”
“Yes I am.” Mary considered the other woman’s fresh
loveliness, wondering how she knew. The two of them may be dressed in
rags, but they both looked clean and healthy. The sweet scents of
beeswax and candle-smoke clung to their clothing. Maybe not homeless
then, just different. Hippies left over from the 60’s perhaps.
“Where we live, we could use a good midwife.” The child’s mother sighed. “I lost my last baby because she was born too early. There were…complications.” She held out her hand. “My name’s Sara. Emma said we would find you here. We’ve been watching you for some time now and you always look so sad. We thought we might be able to help.”
“Why would you be watching me?” Mary demanded to know, even as she returned the gesture, taking the other woman’s hand briefly. “What did Emma tell you?” Emma was a good friend of hers, a nurse from the hospital. She’d tried her best to help when Mary’s family had been killed by an out-of-control, drunk driver. But nothing eased the pain, which seemed to grow rather than diminish with time.
“That you lost your husband and children in a car crash and you’ve been questioning everything ever since. You’ve been asking if you’re really making any kind of difference in this world. And what’s the point of it all anyway?” Sara’s voice dropped, and she sighed. “That you have…contemplated suicide.”
“Oh my dear…” Mary swallowed tightly then she nodded. “Yes, I did say that. And once, I did wonder about ending it all. But I fail to see why it’s any of your concern. I’m a stranger to you.”
“Because I care. Emma knows all about our circumstances and she’s tries to help us where she can.” Sara looked at her closely, holding her gaze. “As I said, where we live, we could use a good midwife. It’s a place where you could make a difference; a really big difference just by coming and helping us. It’s a place where you could find a family again. Maybe even find a new love, in time.”
She glanced down at Amelia. “There are lots of children there. We take in all those we can find room for, orphans and strays; the homeless. Many of them have been…hurt by those who should’ve cared for them, but didn’t. One in particular is very special. They all can get a bit wild sometimes, so they really need someone to look after them. Love and care for them as if they were your own. Would you like to do that?”
More than anything in the world… Mary tightened her lips against the impulsive answer. She knew nothing about this woman, or where she lived. “Perhaps…” she allowed cautiously.
“Then met us here a week from today.” Sara stood up, taking her daughter with her. “Bring only what you really need in the way of clothing and personal items. We will help you with anything else.”
“Wait…” Mary put out a detaining hand. “Where is this place? Where are you taking me? I can’t just leave everything behind on a whim.”
“Why not?” Sara questioned directly. “Emma understands. She will help you get things sorted. What do you really have here? All you need to know is this is a place where the children really need you. Where you will be safe and loved. Where you will never need to cry again and you will sleep like a baby every night. Does that sound like heaven to you?”
“Oh, yes…” Mary’s face crumpled and the tears began to flow anew.
“I told you it was a big secret.” Amelia came back to throw her small arms around Mary’s neck and hug her tightly. “But it’ll be okay. You’ll see,” she whispered into her ear and sorrowing heart. “I love it there. You will too. It’s one big family. We look out for each other.”
Mary pulled back to stare at her. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because I believe…” The little girl smiled. “It’s a magic place. Just wait, you’ll see. We’re special.”
“Until next Wednesday then?” Sara questioned.
“Next Wednesday.” Mary nodded. What did she have to lose but her aching loneliness? To watch over children and guide their steps…it truly sounded like heaven…
She wiped away her tears as she watched them leave and her heart warmed with anticipation. She looked around and the park and somehow the colours seemed brighter now and the children’s chattering laughter no longer cut so deeply. Maybe it was going to be all right, after all. Just maybe…
“And over our heads will float the Bluebird singing of beautiful and
impossible things. Of things that are lovely and that never happen, of
things that are not and that should be…”
He crept to the corner of the tunnel and peered around. He ducked his head. Lights…voices…people! He gasped with consternation, crouched and scurried backwards into the shadows where it was safe. They wouldn’t see him in the dark. He looked for an escape route, he wanted to run. His limbs trembled with the need to be gone. Bad mistake to be here. Not good... Then a larger shadow loomed over him.
“It’s all right. We talked about this, remember? No one will hurt you here. You’re among friends now. It’s only a few more steps. You can do this.”
Huddled into the smallest ball he could make of himself, he squinted upwards. His new friend Vincent was standing there, holding out his hand. He stared at it, unsure if he could still trust his friend’s words.
People were dangerous. He knew that. They chased him, shouted at him. People tried to grab him, make him go where he didn’t want to. And words—always words. Such noise in his ears. Hurt them; made them sore—made him flee to the dark places, the safe places, where he could be alone and unseen. He hid from words and the pain they caused.
Then Vincent came with new words, soft words. Words in books and letters. Teaching him, showing him. Spending lots of time in silence, just watching and waiting. Vincent was good at waiting. Vincent tried to make him listen, tried to make him understand. Sat with him many, many days now. A very long time.
Again and again he brought more words and new things like food, clothes…he touched on the thick, new shirt he wore now. It kept him from being cold. He glanced down…trousers and boots too. He patted them lightly, wonderingly. Vincent said Mary had made them for him. He said she was waiting to meet him. Father too, Pascal and Winslow—lots of names, lots of people. There in those lights, with all those others...
Vincent crouched down beside him. “I have told them all about you. They are my friends. They would like to be your friends too. You just need to trust us. I will be here beside you always. I won’t leave you alone again.”
Trust…there was that word again. Vincent used it a lot. Like it was a magic word. Like it would help to make things better. He sighed. He really didn’t want to go there, to those lights and those people. It was better in the darkness, he was safe there. No one could see him, catch him. He had a whole world of caves and tunnels to hide in. He knew even Vincent wouldn’t find him, if he didn’t want him to. But then he would be alone again…
He crouched, staring at Vincent’s hand, still open and out-stretched, still beckoning. Asking him to trust. He thought again of running, but his chest hurt when he was alone. That was the difference in him now. Without Vincent around, his chest hurt, made it hard to sleep, to think. With Vincent near him, he felt better and he didn’t hurt anymore. He felt safe. He knew Vincent was different too. Like him. He said he understood the pain. He said he could make it go away.
Slowly he unfurled his body. Tentatively, jerkily, he reached out and took his friend’s hand, allowed him to draw him to his feet. He bobbed his head in acknowledgement. He dragged in a steadying breath and released it slowly, tightening his grip on his friend’s strong fingers. Together they walked down the tunnel towards the lights and the people who were gathering now…waiting and smiling…
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
“And you’re really sure this thing is actually safe?” Joe peered into the echoing depths of the spiral staircase. He stepped hastily back, clutching Vincent’s intended birthday gift close against his chest. “I mean, I can’t even see the bottom from here. It could have rusted out down there for all you know.”
“I guess it just takes a little faith, Joe.” Catherine smiled. “But it’s the quickest way down to the home tunnels and it is safe. I use it all the time. You do wish to go there now and help us celebrate Vincent’s birthday?”
“Hey, Radcliffe, you’ve spent years trying to keep me out of the place, when you didn’t know that I knew all the time. Ever since Vincent saved me from being gutted like a fish, that night in the park, I’ve owed him big-time. I ain’t about to pike now.” He peered over the railing again and grimaced. “I was just checking up on the safety rating. But if you’re sure…”
“Vincent says, what’s life for, if it doesn’t contain an amount of risk?” Cullen remarked drily, his hand settling encouragingly in the small of Joe’s back.
“Yeah, all right, I get it. Rag on the new guy.” Joe divided his glance
of distrust between them. “So, this
is the fastest way down? I
“It’s time to show you everything. You’ve earned it.” Catherine took his hand. “You promised to keep all our secrets and you’ve kept your word. Now this is the biggest one of all.”
“You know I would never do anything to endanger you or those you love,” Joe replied honestly. “Lord knows they did a better job of protecting you, when you needed it, than I ever could. I guess I must come a poor second to Burch and what he can do for you with his money and all, but you know you can trust me never to spill the beans.”
“I know, Joe.” Catherine reached to kiss his cheek. “But now you have to have a little faith in us and take the first step. Everyone’s waiting for you down there. It’s going to be a wonderful celebration.”
“Yeah, I was afraid you were going to say that.” Joe sighed. He turned to Cullen. “How about you go first and I’ll follow after Catherine? Give me something soft to land on if anything gives way.”
“Topsiders...” Cullen sighed roughly, shaking his head in resignation as he stepped off the top step without hesitation and started down.
“Come on, you can do it. Race you to the bottom.” Catherine grinned at Joe before also moving easily down, their combined footsteps echoing hollowly into the distance.
“If my mother could only see me now…” Joe drew a steadying breath. He followed gingerly, testing each rung twice before venturing to step on it as he crept slowly down towards the glowing amber light that both illuminated the staircase and concealed the mysterious realm that lay far beneath. He was aware this was only the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his life. Something truly magic and special was about to happen, and he couldn’t wait...
about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
George Bernard Shaw
Glancing behind him, Elliot now
knew how the Pied Piper of Hamblin must have felt. But that guy had been
followed by a stream of rats, not a straggling line of raggedly dressed
children clutching precious birthday gifts for a good friend. Elliot
smiled at the chattering throng. They all seemed very content with their
lot, as they vied good-naturedly with each other to take the lead.
Every child was burdened with several stainless steel tubes bound in tooled navy leather, each containing one of the maps Elliot had so painstakingly gathered over the last few months. The collection stretched to nearly two hundred, both large and small, and it had taken many willing hands to carry them as they began the long journey into the world Below from the newly created entrance beneath Elliot’s apartment building. They were intended as birthday gifts for Vincent. Elliot was shouldering more than his fair share while beside him Mouse trotted, burdened with even more of the cumbersome tubes.
“Good maps?” the tinker demanded to know, peering over his awkward burden. “Shows us stuff we don’t know? Good stuff.”
Elliot laughed. “I doubt I could ever show you things about your world you don’t already know. But this collection is the best money could buy. I’m sure Vincent will find them useful. Once he’s had time to look at them all.”
“Okay good, okay fine.” Mouse adjusted the grip on his load which threatened to escape his control. “Father, Vincent, these will be good for them.” He slanted Elliot a considering glance. “You’re Vincent’s good friend now? You’ll keep all our secrets?”
“Of course. How could I do anything else after the trust you have shown to me?” Elliot agreed, looking around in wonder at the maze of tunnels and chambers they were passing through. This whole world was far bigger and more complex than he had ever imagined. He couldn’t wait to begin exploring it all. “I could never betray any of you. Besides, Cathy would kill me if I ever did anything to hurt those she loves and protects. She can be really fierce when she’s provoked.”
Elliot smiled, as he remembered the night he’d finally gathered his courage and followed her into the drainage tunnel for the first time. Catherine had flown at him obviously intent on doing him some serious damage, before Vincent had intervened, saying it was already too late for recriminations. It had been an interesting night.
The night he’d met Catherine’s mysterious lover for the first time…Elliot shook his head ruefully. Vincent was the biggest surprise of all. But they’d found themselves almost immediately in total accord about the city they both loved so well, each with their own, unique perspective and view on how it should be protected and best served. Catherine had watched them in seething confusion, but she had not intervened. And now Elliot had finally been issued with an invitation to a surprise party. He’d been asked to venture into this amazing, hidden realm…
“Yes, that’s right!” Mouse skipped a step and nodded. “Not good to have Vincent’s Catherine mad at you.” He sighed. “Mouse tries to be good. Can’t always.”
“I can understand that problem all too well.” Elliot stared at the steam pipes running beside them as they moved deeper underground. He was fascinated by the rhythmic tapping that never stopped. Sometimes near and then further away, echoing back and forth like messages being sent and received. He shook his head in amazement.
This whole place
was way better than
“Then better not to tell,” Mouse advised seriously, his guileless face crumpling into deep concern. “If Elliot ever gets locked up, Mouse would have to get him out again. Might get into trouble for that with Father.” He winked conspiratorially. “But I got skeleton keys that’ll unlock anything. You’ll see.”
Elliot halted, his eyebrows rising in astonishment. “You would do that for me? Someone you don’t even know all that well?”
“You, Vincent’s friend.” Mouse nodded vigorously. “And Catherine’s friend. Now Mouse’s friend too. Got to help friends out. It’s what they’re for.”
“Mouse, my friend...” Elliot began walking again, shaking his head slowly. “If you need anything, and I mean anything, I want you to come to me first. Okay?”
Now Mouse halted stock-still in awed wonder. “Anything?” he asked breathlessly. “Good stuff? Up Top stuff? Not broken? Not need fixing?”
“Good stuff, Up Top stuff and brand, spanking new.” Elliot laughed at the tinker’s deeply astonished expression. “It’s a firm promise.”
“Oh, Mouse likes Elliot…” The
boy’s blue eyes widened. “Mouse likes Elliot a lot! We’re gonna be just
“Okay, but for now we’d better
keep moving, or we’ll be run down by that lot.” He jerked his chin over
his shoulder at the chatting group of burdened children who were
catching up to them fast.
“Good idea.” Mouse grinned as he
jerked back into forward motion.
But his face was still filled with wide-eyed excitement and Elliot quickly became concerned he may have over-stepped his newly-won authority. He could almost see the list growing ever longer behind his new-found friend’s eyes, and he prayed he could live up the grand title of being Mouse’s friend. He’d already figured out it came with a heavy sense of responsibility…
“And he showed me things not known to kings.
And secret between him and me;
colours of the pheasant as he rises in the dawn…”
“Won’t you even look at him?”
Anna Pater held out the small bundle in her arms. “He’s only a tiny
baby. What harm can he do?”
“What’s the use?” Slumped in a
chair before the desk in his chamber, Jacob Wells sighed, dragging a
tired hand across his reddened eyes. “I failed her and she’s gone. And
it’s my fault. She was too old to become pregnant, but she wanted so
much to have a child and I couldn’t deny her. I should have known
better. We…” he shook his head wretchedly, unable to go on.
“Some things just can’t be
mended,” Anna replied quietly, gathering the sleeping baby against her
breast again. “Grace wouldn’t have wanted you to suffer like this. She
knew you were doing everything you could. We all did. There’s no blame.”
“But I’m a doctor.” Jacob held
out his hands before him, palms uppermost. “I save people. It’s what I
do. But it was she who really saved me. A year ago, she brought me down
here, to save my life, for me to begin again.” He closed his hands into
fists and they fell back into his lap. “And now I feel I have achieved
nothing, learned nothing.”
“Well, what I know is you can’t save everyone. Ask John, if you don’t believe me. That’s an impossible belief and you know it,” Anna reasoned, in the face of his stubbornness to accept the hand cruel fate had dealt him. “I know Grace wanted to live. But I think towards the end she knew she wouldn’t make it. Perhaps she chose to give her life for her son. Your son. It was the kind of woman she was; beautiful and selfless.”
Jacob’s head jerked up at that. “Sometimes I feel I am cursed; first Margaret and now Grace. It’s as if I’m never destined to keep anything I love. Perhaps I am being punished for some past transgression.”
“It’s late and I don’t feel like debating philosophy with you right now.” Anna sighed, advancing towards him. “But if you need someone to love, your son needs you. For a start, he needs a name, if nothing else.” Without ceremony she deposited the small bundle in Jacob’s lap before he could evade her.
He looked down helplessly into the baby’s tiny face. A shock of dark hair stood out at all angles on his head and as his father drew a deep, sorrowing breath, the boy’s eyes opened and looked at him. The dark blue gaze of the new-born considered him solemnly and Jacob felt something move deep in his chest and the tears began to flow unheeded down his cheeks.
“Devin…” The name slipped from him almost unconsciously. “I shall call him Devin. Grace would have liked that.”
“A good, strong name,” Anna approved. “It will serve him well.”
Jacob looked up at her, his face haunted. “I wish I had your certainty.”
“If you would only stop being so hard on yourself.” Anna shrugged. “But, for now, it’s your son that matters. Care for him and everything else will fall into place. You will see. You just need to give it time.”
“Devin…” Jacob whispered, looking back at the child who had fallen back asleep. Slowly, he lifted the baby to gently kiss his soft forehead. “Together we shall see what the future brings…”
light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter
with another human being.”
“I’m sorry, William, but this letter is the final straw. I have to let you go. I can’t afford the threat of any more lawsuits because of your behaviour.”
“Aw, come on, Tony.” William scowled at his boss, the owner of the upmarket La Tripoli restaurant where he worked as the head chef. “The woman ate my food and said she liked it. Then she had the cheek to complain about how badly the plate was dressed to anyone who would listen; like it was some great, federal crime. It wasn’t that bad. She didn’t even have the decency to come into the kitchen and face me. Get my side of the story. Understand we were seriously short-handed that night and everyone did their best to get us through the service. We have a great team here and now you want to ruin everything.”
“Because that’s what she does.” Tony groaned, briefly lowering his head into his hands. He looked up again. “She’s a food critic for the New York Times, and by yelling at her in front of a restaurant full of paying customers you’ve pushed her into a corner.” He stabbed a finger at the letter. “She has to follow through. But she says here she will let the matter rest, and not print a bad review, if I fire you. She’s given me no choice.”
William folded his arms across his massive chest. “So that’s it then. Four years of back-breaking work—slaving day and night—to get this place up and running, and now that it’s a success, you no longer need me. You’ll get someone cheaper and younger.”
“That’s not why you have to go and you know it.” Tony raised his hands helplessly. “But my reputation is on the line here. We could go broke overnight if I don’t get on top of it. One bad review and we might as well shut the doors. My hands are tied. You know how fickle the public can be.”
“So what about my reputation?” William stabbed an accusing finger. “This is what I do best. I cook and I feed people. What else is there for me?”
“I’m sure you’ll find something,” Tony responded, a little too quickly. “You’ve a great chef. Tons of places will want to hire you.”
“Yeah, sure there are.” William tore open his white chef’s coat and flung it down onto the kitchen bench. “After they find out what went on here last week, they’ll be queuing up to hire me.”
“If you’d just keep that damn temper of yours in check, then you’re a fine employee.” Tony came close as if to grasp William’s shoulder and then let his hand drop when he saw the hard look in the other man’s eyes. “If you need anything, a reference, or some money to tide you over, you know you only have to ask.”
“Keep your charity. I don’t need it.” William stalked to his locker in the back of the kitchen and shrugged into his winter coat. Gathering his old Navy duffle bag he slung it over one shoulder.
The brisk autumn chill bit at his cheeks, as William slammed his way out the restaurant’s service entrance. He thought he saw someone dart away from scavenging in the restaurant’s dumpster further down the alley, but when he turned to look there was no one there. He shrugged. “Must be too many late nights and not enough sleep…” It was none of his business now, anyway.
Automatically, he began to head for his apartment but he felt too
restless to lock himself away behind four walls and brood on the
disappointments of his disintegrating life. Instead his feet turned
He raised his eyes to the scudding clouds overhead and released a heavy sigh. His whole life seemed over-full with disappointments and failures. Just when he’d finally gotten a hand on something permanent it always slipped away again. Nothing good was ever likely to happen to him now and that was a fact. He was getting too old and set in his ways, and the world he once knew seemed to have moved on without him, beyond his reach.
This last job had been the longest he’d be employed since leaving the Navy twenty years ago. Somehow his temper and sense of fair play always got the better of him, no matter how hard he tried to contain it. Push him too far and he pushed back, in spades. And now everything he’d put into making the restaurant a going concern had evaporated before his eyes. His hands clenched involuntarily. If he ever saw that damned critic again...
Head down, intent on his thoughts, he didn’t see the boy until he cannoned into him. Unconsciously, his hands reached to clasp the child’s shoulders to keep him from falling on his butt.
“Hey! How about watching where you’re going?” The boy twisted neatly aside from his slackened grasp. “You could’ve broken something. You’re big enough.”
“Sorry about that,” William rumbled, frowning down into the boy’s open and cheeky face. “Guess I wasn’t watching where I was going. Too much on my mind.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you’ll keep an eye out in future.” The boy’s dark eyes assessed him closely. “I know you, don’t I?” He cocked his head. “You work over at that fancy restaurant, La Tripoli. I saw you coming out of there not so long ago.”
“So it was you in the dumpster.” William assessed him closely. “I thought I saw somebody.” Dressed in ragged and patched clothes, the kid looked like a homeless runaway. “Don’t worry, I won’t report you for stealing. I got fired from there this morning.”
“I’m cool. They won’t ever catch me,” The boy replied confidently. “I’m too fast for all of them.” He grinned and stuck out a hand. “My name’s Devin. Pleased to meet you.”
“I’m William.” The cook took the boy’s hand. He tried to remember what he’d last thrown into that dumpster and hoped it had been still fit for human consumption. “You know, if you needed a meal, you only had to knock on the door and ask. I would’ve rustled you up something. There’s always plenty of left-overs. I hate to see good food going to waste.”
“So you can cook?” Devin’s frowning assessment intensified. “You any good at it?”
“The Navy never complained and I’ve won a few awards,” William replied slowly, not sure where this line of inquiry was heading. Was the kid making fun of him too? His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Why?”
Devin shook his head. “That’s fine, but can you actually cook food people would want to eat? We don’t need fancy stuff that the rich folk like. We need good food, plain and filling and lots of it. We don’t have any fancy equipment either. We have to make do with what we’ve got or can make.”
“So, you’ve got an opening for a cook?” William frowned. “You sure about that? You look like you don’t even have the money for a hot dog.”
“I get by. But yeah, we sure could use a new cook real bad. Our old cook just can’t do it anymore. He does his best, but he’s getting too old. So we’ve all been pitching in to help out lately. Can’t say much about the results; but so far it’s been edible.” Devin’s fine mouth turned down at the corners. “Of course the job doesn’t pay much, if at all. But you get free room and board and we supply everything else. Why, you interested?”
might be. It depends on a few things.” William folded his arms
guardedly. “Any of those damn
“Nope.” Devin’s dark eyes danced as he laughed before shaking his head. “Not a one. It’s kind of a secret place. Not too many people know about it. I can’t say more right now. But I can show you; if you’re willing to trust me, that is. You wanna go somewhere you’ve never been before?”
William shrugged as he spread his hands. “What have I got to lose beyond some time and maybe my dignity. This could be interesting.”
“Then please come with me.” Devin made a curious, courtly bow at odds with the clothes he wore. “I’m going to show you a place where what you do will be appreciated. Where you can do what you do best.” His dark eyes narrowed. “Maybe there you’ll find what it is you’ve been searching for…”
“You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not
forgotten you, that it holds you in the palm of its hand; it will not
let you fall…”
Ranier Maria Rilke
“My crime was that I grew old. You see, in the world Above people don’t want to look at me, an old man; this unpleasant reminder of their future. I was to be cast away, hidden from the eyes of the young who want to believe they’ll live forever. In the world Above I’d lived too long. But here—Below—I’ve not lived long enough. So why am I here? To make memories; so that the last moments of my life may be as full of warmth and love, as were the very first moments of my life.”
Erik smiled as he bowed his head and stepped back into the shadows, allowing the next dweller from the world Below to take his place. Giving them each the chance talk to Brian, the boy who’d followed Catherine into their underground home. Hoping to convince him their closely-guarded secret was worth preserving.
As Erik watched his friends come and go, he thought of his own childhood, when he’d once been as wide-eyed and full of life as the impulsive young man he’d just seen. His life too had held so much promise back then when he thought he owned the world and would live forever. How swiftly things had changed, distorted by time and circumstance.
He closed his eyes and drifted into the past, remembering Cecily, the love of his life, and the children they had brought up together. His throat tightened with unshed tears. Their married future had seemed so different then, when they were both young and filled with hope. He’d been a carpenter and a builder, a man who worked with his hands and gave everything to his creations. He had built the house they were to live in for over fifty years. But those years had passed, too swiftly to recall, and Erik had grown old.
Then his family—his own flesh and blood—had sold his beloved home right out from under him after his wife had died, and they’d tried to force him into a home for the elderly. A place where you waited to die and you had nothing to look forward to except the next meal. And even that was on the clock, like some darned prison camp. His family had wanted to put him somewhere he would be unseen and forgotten. It made it easier for them to get on with their own lives; thinking he was well-cared for.
But Erik had baulked at the whole idea and he’d run away. His mouth quirked now as he considered the absurd notion. He’d actually run away from his own life! But he’d never gone back to that soulless existence. And now, by some miracle, he had a new life, one full of purpose and meaning. He watched Catherine lead Brian away to speak with Father. The boy needed to understand everything that was at stake before he was guided out of the tunnels again.
“It will be all right…” Erik nodded, knowing Vincent would be the next to speak after Father and he felt good about that.
They all worked so hard to protect Vincent always. He’d been the one who’d found Erik one night five years ago, huddled cold and alone, in the scant shelter of a church doorway.
At first Erik thought he was seeing things when his now good friend, had loomed up out of the chill darkness—hooded and cloaked like a mysterious angel—coming just close enough to ask him if he was all right and did he need any help. The hand of a stranger… Erik shook his head on a ragged sigh.
Back then it had been Vincent’s voice that had first arrested Erik’s attention, making him pause in the act of flight to frown in wonder. It had been so full of concern and understanding, as if the voice’s unusual owner genuinely cared about what happened to a homeless old man and knew his pain.
Erik had swallowed his worried concerns about being approached by such an exotic stranger and answered he’d nowhere to go right then. That he had no idea what to do next. After they’d spoken together for some time, he’d trusted his new friend enough to go with Vincent to a secret world he’d had spoken about. What did he have to lose anyway?
And it had been the beginning of something new and wonderful. He was working again with the tools he knew so well. Mending and creating whatever was asked of him. It was all right now, he was wanted and needed. Erik smiled. And there was still so much more living to be done before his long life finally drew to its natural close, and he would finally see Cecily once more…
that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Elizabeth Follett packed everything she could possibly fit into the large backpack. Then, alongside her precious paints and brushes, she filled two old suitcases with the few things she couldn’t bear to leave behind.
“So this is it…” she muttered as she straightened, easing the nagging pain in the small of her back with both hands.
She looked around the dingy
sadness of the single room she called home. It wasn’t much to show for
forty-five years of living. But after her husband had died unexpectedly
ten years ago she couldn’t afford anything more on her wages as a
short-order cook in a third-rate greasy spoon restaurant over on
Her only outlet had been her
painting. For years she’d bought old framed prints at the local street
markets and after carefully taking them to pieces she’d turned the print
over and painted a new picture on the reverse. Then she’d return to the
market and sell the finished piece. Her various customers had often said
her work was striking with considerable natural talent. But still they
always bargained hard, pushing down her asking price. The few dollars
But now she was being evicted, charged with intentional damage to her landlord’s valuable property. “Old fool…” She strapped the last suitcase closed with unnecessary force before slumping into a nearby chair. She looked around the room with resignation.
She couldn’t remember when she’d
first decided to paint on the walls. The dark floral wallpaper of her
room was truly awful. One night, haunted by the nightmare of unpaid
bills and unable to sleep, she had taken out her paints and started.
Soon the whole room was covered in her artwork. Cityscapes, landscapes
and portraits adorned every available surface. Her landlord had been
horrified, demanding she pay for the damage. Unable to afford the
exorbitant amount the man had quoted for returning the room to its
original bleak state, let alone the next month’s rent,
“But I’m not finished.” She inhaled deeply now, running her hand lightly over a lovely portrait of a good friend. “Nothing is finished yet. Just you wait and see…”
She knew where she was going.
That was her cherished secret and she held it close to her chest,
keeping her warm as she stepped out of the apartment building into the
blowing chill of a winter’s day in
The necessary burdens of her heavy back-pack and suitcases felt light as she hurried to the nearest subway station and started down. She was following the directions she’d carefully memorised over the last few weeks, even since she’d lost her job. She had been as thrifty as humanly possible, sometimes going without meals, to expend the last of her meagre savings on amassing a cache of food and essentials in her new home. The things she would need to survive until her good friend came to find her.
Childless herself, Elizabeth had been concerned that her friend seemed too old to be pregnant, but Grace had laughed it off. She said her lovely man was a doctor, and he wouldn’t allow anything to go wrong. She radiated good health and vitality. She seemed supremely confident and happy with her lot, even if she dressed like a homeless person.
She had been very good and kindly to
And then Grace had revealed her amazing secret. “There’s a whole world of tunnels and chambers below this city just begging to be painted. And you’re a good artist. I’ve looked around and found just the place for you.” She went on to say she’d been searching in the higher areas where there were abandoned subway tunnels with smooth concrete walls. “You could live down there and no one would ever disturb you. And the best thing is it’s all free. It’s a truly magic place.”
She was aware it would be a
while before anyone came for her. Grace had been close to full term with
her pregnancy. But she’d promised to come and find
She and her husband used to love going to the games. But that was in the past, only to be revisited now in her paintings. “And it begins today,” she murmured to the silent tunnels.
Now she was here, she couldn’t wait to begin the painting—and for Grace to come and find her—to show her that other magic world even further below her new home…
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make
you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
slipped away to her chamber and changed out of her party dress as soon
as her mother’s attention was distracted by the clean-up the morning
after Winterfest. She grimaced as she tossed the offending garment onto
her bed before shimmying happily into her old, well-worn jeans and a
serviceable shirt. The well-washed garments made her feel more
comfortable, more like herself.
Pulling on and lacing up a thick woollen vest against the cold, she
hurried to find Mouse. As usual, she found her friend tucked away in a
deeply shadowed corner, trying to avoid Father’s sweeping glance, as
their harassed patriarch searched keenly for more volunteers to help set
the Great Hall back to rights.
was tinkering with his latest invention, something only he understood.
He looked up when Jamie dropped to sit cross-legged beside him. “You’re
gonna get in trouble,” he remarked, his mouth settling into a
disapproving line as he stared at her boy’s clothing.
“I turned 15 last week, so now I can make up my own mind about what I wear,” Jamie defended herself stoutly. “So have you done as I asked?”
“Father won't to let you be a guard,” Mouse opined darkly. “He said there’s never been a girl on the gates. Besides no girl asked before. And you know you’re not a boy.” He seemed satisfied with his own logic. “Only boys allowed. Father said so. Said it’s too dangerous. You might get hurt. Better not to change.”
“Mouse…” Jamie scowled at him. “I thought you at least were going to be different. I can do anything you can, and better too. I can run faster than any of you, even Vincent will admit that. And I can fight too. So why can’t I do it?”
“Maybe. But anything happens to you, Father would blame Mouse. Vincent too. And your parents. Not good. Best not to do it.”
“But nothing’s going to happen to me,” Jamie countered patiently. “We’ve just got to convince Father to allow me to try it. Show him that I can do it. If you would just ask him again.”
“Talked to Vincent already.” Mouse shrugged. “He said maybe. He said couldn’t see why not. He said we could go see him. But not now. Too many people around. Father might see us. Ask what we want.”
on, Mouse! Why didn’t you say that before?” Jamie punched him in the
shoulder. “That’s great news! You can be such an air-head sometimes. I
just knew Vincent would understand.”
“You talk, talk, talk…” Mouse carefully placed his half-completed invention in a nearby box, his concentration disrupted. He rubbed at his shoulder absently. “Always want me to do things for you. Make you stuff. Mouse likes silence.” He looked up at his friend. “Why you want to do boy things anyway?”
“Because being a girl sucks big time,” Jamie told him roundly. “I can’t sew, I hate cooking and I like things messy, not all neat and pretty. Boys get to go and see all the cool places way down below and climb the trees Up Top. And when they’re 15, they get their own staff and become apprentice guards. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was little. You know I’m a better shot with the cross-bow than you. Vincent knows it too.”
“Father doesn’t know.” Mouse jerked a warning glance in the old man’s
direction. “If he knew I made you a bow, he’d...! You better give it
back. Before he finds out. He yells at Mouse. Too much noise.” He
clapped his hands over his ears.
“Make me,” Jamie challenged him, her eyes narrowing with displeasure. “It’s mine and I’m keeping it. Besides, you’d only shoot yourself with it.”
“For a girl you’re a lot of trouble,” Mouse stated mulishly, dropping his hands disconsolately. “All right, will ask Vincent to talk to Father again. But not ‘till he’s finished with the Great Hall. He’s in bad mood right now.”
“Thanks, Mouse.” Jamie jumped to her feet as her unwilling companion stood, clutching his precious boxful of stuff to his chest. “I knew I could count on you. I’ll owe you big time. It’ll be all right, you’ll see. Vincent will make him see sense.”
“Yeah, okay good, okay fine.” Mouse frowned. “Being a boy is no big deal anyway. Still get bossed around. Go here. Do this. Fix that, carry it over there. Where’s Mouse? Need Mouse now.”
“But no one’s ever tried to make you wear a dress when you really didn’t want to, have they?” Jamie caught his arm, as he turned away.
“No…” Mouse blinked as he looked back. “Guess not.” He stared at her with renewed respect. “Okay, Mouse will try. Will go see Vincent again. Then we talk to Father. Make him understand.”
“That’s all I ask, Mouse.” Jamie sighed. “Just to have the chance to be myself and do what I know I can do best. Why is that so difficult for everyone to understand?”
behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
Charles crouched against the rock wall, trembling and deeply afraid. He couldn’t cross that bridge into the unknown. He just couldn’t do it; no matter how many times Devin tried to tell him about magic places; places where Charles would be safe and find friends.
Where no one would laugh at him or demand he remove the hood he wore to keep his face from being seen. But everywhere was the same and people were all the same. Cruel and demanding, not liking anything that was different. He’d heard them laughing just now. Nowhere was safe, no one would want him. He was just a poor freak. He was better off alone…or dead. If it hadn’t been for Dev…
“Remember what I told you.” Devin crouched down before him, to plead with him. “About the secret place where I was born. It’s right over there, across the bridge. It’s full of music and candles everywhere you look. And the people, they’re like a family.”
“I heard them laughing,” Charles complained, looking beyond his friend’s shoulder towards the bridge he’d been so afraid to cross. He couldn’t do it. His limbs trembled with the need to run. “They won’t want a freak, an ugly freak.”
Devin was his adopted brother, he gave him courage. But other people he could never trust. They only wanted to hurt him, make him feel small and afraid. Why should these new people be any different?
As Charles wondered what to do next, there was a sound, a sense of movement from beyond the bridge. Devin rose, turning to look. Charles scrambled to his feet, crowding up behind his friend to also look across the bridge. He blinked, frowning, wondering if he was now seeing things in this strange place.
A man was standing there. A tall, powerful man with a flowing mane of hair…and his face…such an incredible face. Charles leaned forward to get a better look. The man looked like one of the lions they’d kept chained in cages back at the carnival, where Charles had been exhibited in a cage by his own brother. Eddie had laughed at him too. Said he was good for nothing and not worth the trouble. But Eddie said he was the only family Charles had, so Eddie would take care of him. But Charles had to pay his way by showing the people what they’d come to see…the freak. The ugly freak…
Charles’s sobbing breath hitched and he blinked behind the cloth covering his own head from view. How could such a man as this walk around with his face uncovered? Didn’t he scare people too? Didn’t he make people so afraid they screamed and ran from him?
And then the man spoke… “There are no freaks…here.” He raised his hands, lifting back the hood from his hair, exposing more of his unusual face to the warm glow of the torches illuminating the vast cavern. Still he seemed unafraid to show them what he looked like.
Charles stared, even as he eased away from the certain security of Devin’s strong presence and stepped into the unknown. He inched forward, moving out towards the bridge which had so recently scared him. He stepped carefully from plank to plank, his eyes fixed on the man before him, who stood calmly on the other side, watching and waiting. Charles saw him raise his hand, an inhuman hand with fur and claws.
How can this be? Charles swallowed, but he didn’t falter, slowly creeping further out onto the bridge, going on faith now, a belief in himself he had never known he possessed until this very moment. Like he mattered, and someone other than Devin actually cared about his feelings. Even Eddie’s carping voice, telling him he was ugly and useless, was strangely quiet in the back of his mind.
Reaching the far side of the bridge he stretched out one arm and their hands touched, folding and connecting as Charles made it to the man with the unique face who watched him so calmly, acceptingly.
Charles stood staring in wonder. He wanted to touch the other man’s face, but he dared not. Instead he remained still, waiting and wondering as Devin came up behind him. His friend clapped a hand on Charles’s shoulder but he was looking at the other man when he said, “Hello, little brother. Long time no see. This here is Charles. You could say I’ve adopted him, made him part of the family. So I guess that makes him your brother as well, Vincent.”
“Welcome to my world, Charles,” Vincent replied softly, watching him with curiosity. “No one will hurt you here.”
“Brother…” Charles nodded his thanks as he savoured the word. “Brother…” he said again and sighed, as he looked at the two men. He liked the sound of the word when Devin said it.
It meant something then, something warm and safe. It made him feel secure, like he was cared for and didn’t need to be afraid any more. Brothers…
“In the end these things matter most:
How well did you love? How fully did you live?
How deeply did
you let go?”
“So this is where you were hiding when you were missing for those ten days.” Charles Chandler looked around him with interest. “No wonder they couldn’t find you. Even now, after all that has happened, it doesn’t seem possible. How could I have missed all this?”
“What doesn’t seem possible is your having been in witness protection all these years,” Catherine replied softly, coming to stand beside him and putting her hand on his forearm. “And my not sensing that you still lived. We were all convinced you’d died in that hospital and we buried you. I came here to be with Vincent and to mourn for you. I almost stayed with him. I was so sure there was nothing left for me up there with you gone. It all felt so empty and pointless.”
“I know and that I will always regret until the day I die.” Charles sighed. “But the FBI persuaded me there could be no other way to keep you safe. Gabriel’s influence was so dangerous and pervasive. He’d already tried twice to have me killed. I couldn’t risk it. I had to keep you safe, so I was forced to disappear, no matter how much it hurt.” Charles clasped her hand tightly. “But if I had known this place existed… I have missed so much in my ignorance.”
He gazed out over the mysterious beauty of the Whispering Gallery.
Music drifted softly on the breeze, snatches of conversation and echoes of old sounds. The yawning pit below the bridge beckoned with its swirling mist and hidden realms. Charles shook his head in wonder. “I have lived in this city all my life and yet I feel now I never knew it at all.”
“I have lived beneath this city all my life,” Vincent remarked quietly, standing beside Catherine. “But, until the night I saved Catherine—so long ago—I had never truly seen it. It was only an unsafe place, to be avoided at all costs. I walked its streets at my own peril, listening for every sound, watching every shadow, looking for each new danger. Not beauty or love, those were things I never thought to possess. But then Catherine showed me the grace and the magic that great city up there possesses. She opened my eyes to a whole universe of possibilities I never could have imagined, despite all the books and poetry I have read. Nothing prepared me for the strength of her beauty and her love.”
“And now you’re married and you’ve given me grandchildren.” Charles cupped his daughter’s cheek, ignoring the tears running down his cheeks. “I don’t know where to begin. I wish…” He sighed. “I wish it could all have been so different. That you could have trusted me with this incredible secret of yours. But I do understand. I know now how wrong I was to doubt you and how your life was turning out. But I was so afraid—”
“Don’t, Dad, please, it’s all right. Everything is all right now. We will start again from here. It’s what I want more than anything. We can do this together.”
“If it is what you want, then I will do my best to make it so.” Charles drew her into his arms and hugged her close. “I don’t know when I’ve been happier or more proud of you than I am in this moment.”
He reached to clasp Vincent’s hand, nodding his thanks for all the other man had done for him, and his beloved daughter. If there were words to express what he was feeling, he didn’t know them. He drew a deep breath, releasing it in a long rushing sigh of gratitude.
“If we are together anything is possible…” Catherine drew back to smile up at him. “Vincent taught me that. And it is so true. We have come too far to ever turn back now. We will be all right, we will…”
“You have to
accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it
with the best you have to give.”
Peter Alcott stood watching the elderly, black musician coax notes of pure magic from his saxophone. It was as if the instrument was an extension of the old man’s arms, so sweetly did he play it; even while he was muffled in the depths of a heavy coat and woollen gloves against the winter cold. Peter closed his eyes, becoming lost in the music. He often passed this way on his way home from work, stopping to listen and remember.
He’d always loved jazz, much to Jacob’s disgust. His good friend since their early days together at medical school, Jacob could never see its merits, preferring the classics and opera. Of course this frank dismissal of a whole class of incredible music had provoked many an argument. They used to…
“Forget it…” Peter’s eyes snapped open. “It’s old history.” He sighed and shook his head. Jacob had been gone for nearly two years now and it was no use trying to bring him back so they could argue about the relevant merits of music.
In fact it had been on this very date that he’d disappeared. Peter frowned in puzzlement. Two weeks from now it would be January 12th, the coldest day of the year…it didn’t bear thinking about if he was still out there somewhere, cold and homeless. All because of the blind stupidity of the government commission investigation.
“Old fool…” Peter grimaced. If
only Jacob had asked, Peter could have secured him some kind of
employment where Peter himself now worked at
Even without a medical licence
there were still things Jacob could do. Peter could not believe his good
friend had drowned himself, either on purpose or by accident. His body
had never been found, despite the police dragging the
But it still made no sense. Peter was never going to believe his good friend was dead. Despite serious set-backs, he had so much talent as a physician, so much to live for. It was as if he has simply passed into another room and was waiting for Peter to find him again. If only…
Peter’s brows snapped together, as he became aware the old musician had stopped playing and was now watching him patiently. “Oh, sorry, hang on…”
He reached for his wallet, extracted three, ten dollar notes and dropped them into the jazz player’s open saxophone case. “There you are. Thanks for some great music. You brought back a few wonderful memories.”
“No problem, Dr. Alcott.” The musician nodded his acceptance, reaching to shake Peter’s outstretched hand. “I’m here every afternoon when it’s fine. My old bones don’t like the cold so much anymore. But I’ll be here, if you have any questions.” As he spoke, his calloused hand slid from Peter’s, leaving behind a folded piece of paper.
“How do you know who I am?” Peter stared at the note, feeling foolish. “This is crazy. I don’t know you.”
He looked up at the old man, who just winked, tapping the side of his nose conspiratorially. “I know exactly who you are. I made sure first. Now that’s a note from an old friend. Take it and read it. You’ll be fine. Just do what it says.”
Then he took up his sax again and began to play as if nothing had happened. Peter stared at him, then looked back to the note in his palm and then up at the early afternoon pedestrians flowing around him. He wanted to ask if the old boy had made a mistake, but the warning look in the man’s dark, rheumy eyes stifled the question before it escaped him. He pointed with his chin, indicating Peter should be on his way now. He was blocking access for the paying customers.
“Okay…” Peter shrugged, taking the broad hint. “Thanks.”
As he walked away, he slowly unfolded the note, keeping it hidden within his palm. It was a note from an old friend and what it said stopped him in his tracks. His heart gave a hard thump of shock, and then began to race with anticipation. He just knew it! Jacob was alive after all… He read the note again quickly, trying to decipher and understand the message behind the stark words.
“I have urgent need of medications. You are the only man I know I can trust. If you care for me as a friend then meet me tonight on the lower level of Grand Central Station, platform 122. And please come alone.”
pleasure to a single heart by a single act is better than a thousand
heads bowing in prayer.”
Rebecca knew she’d seen the book somewhere. She just had to find it.
But the random chaos of Father’s library meant the book she remembered seeing the last time she’d helped her mother dust and tidy the chamber could now be anywhere. Father had a habit of disorganising what had just been neatly organised into some semblance of order, simply because he could. He hated his things being touched, so the roster system of household chores they all worked under often clashed with his sense of necessary disorder.
Everyone knew nobody was allowed to touch his chess set. Often he and Vincent would leave a game half-completed and no one dared to disrupt it.
But Rebecca wasn’t interested in chess. The game bored her. What she wanted more than ever was that elusive book. Father had said he certainly had no use for a book on the art of candle-making. He couldn’t even imagine how he came to possess it in the first place. He said it was hers if she could find it.
Rebecca had smiled happily and thanked him. Even at seven years of age she’d already determined that she would succeed her mother as the candle-maker for their world Below. She already helped with the craft after her schoolwork had been completed. But her burgeoning sense of style and flair sometimes clashed with her mother’s more ordered sense that candles were simply a utilitarian item that didn’t need any embellishment.
Rebecca strongly disagreed. It had been her idea to colour the latest batch of Winterfest candles into their three shades of white, yellow and red. She was very proud of the way they’d turned out. Everyone had said how pretty they looked and what a great idea. Her recent success only made Rebecca more determined to find the book and make use of its many new and radical ideas.
“There you are…” she breathed finally, leaning across the several piles of Readers Digests blocking her reach. Her fingers just managed to seize the candle book before the entire stack decided to give way, tumbling her to the floor with several more piles of books cascading down on her head.
“What on earth?” Father’s exasperated voice cut across the din of tumbling books. “Who is that and what are you doing in here?”
“It’s only me.” Rebecca fought off the offending books, surging to the surface, clutching her own prize in triumph. “I found it!”
“I can see that,” Father replied drily. “And ten year’s worth of Digests as well.” He shook his head in despair, but his blue eyes twinkled at her boundless enthusiasm. “Well, I guess they needed tidying anyway. And since you went to so much trouble to find it, the book is certainly now yours.”
“Thank you.” Rebecca clutched the book to her chest excitedly. “You won’t be disappointed. I am going to make you proud.” She closed her eyes on a deep sigh. “I am going to make such pretty candles…”
“I already am proud of you. Your Winterfest candles were a great hit.” Father ruffled her mop of blond curls. “Maybe we need to go and have a chat with your mother. We’ll see just what you can be allowed to create since it means so much to you.”
“I’d like that.” Rebecca nodded. Her world was secure and her future full of twinkling candlelight. She couldn’t wait to begin…
Winslow brought his blacksmith’s hammer crashing down on a piece of metal that had once been the rear door of a Buick. It made him feel better to hit something. It eased the nagging pain deep in his chest, clutching at his heart. The clanging sound of metal being beaten into shape echoed around the chamber.
Soon the piece would be transformed into another patch for Father to use in his constant vigil against water leaks and burst pipes. Winslow lifted his hammer and brought it crashing down again. The resulting percussion rattled his teeth, making his arm ache and his head throb, but he persisted. It was better than being idle and brooding on the things he couldn’t change.
Vincent watched him closely, sitting cross-legged in the old, rump-sprung leather armchair Winslow sometimes slept in now, when he wasn’t working at the forge. These days the blacksmith hardly seemed to sleep at all. Every time Vincent looked in, the fire was always glowing luridly, and the sound of metal being beaten into submission echoed endlessly in the nearby tunnels.
“I never knew my real father.” Vincent sighed as he watched the rivulets of sweat running down his friend’s naked torso, soaking into his well-worn jeans, making his skin gleam like polished ebony in the dancing firelight of the forge.
“Then I guess you got saved a whole world of pain,” Winslow growled, looking up from his work. Instantly he regretted his harsh words as he saw the flicker of dismay in the boy’s watchful blue eyes. It didn’t help to take his deep sense of guilt out on the kid. “Sorry, Vincent. That was uncalled for.”
“It’s okay.” Vincent shrugged. “I understand.”
“Thanks.” Winslow sighed as he returned his gaze to the work at hand. “But my father should never have been down there in the first place, digging around in that tunnel looking for a leak no one else could find. He knew the risks of a cave-in were too great. I tried to tell him, but he wouldn’t listen.”
He glanced back at his visitor. The kid was incredible. Even at barely ten years old Vincent had the uncanny knack of putting his finger right on the cause of the pain; like he was seeking out the source of a toothache. The boy probed until he discovered the truth. And then he tried his best to fix it. But, like now, some things were beyond mending.
Winslow’s pounding rhythm gathered momentum again. “That whole area down there was far too unstable to be messed with. Father should have closed it off years ago and left well-enough alone. Just like the Maze you kids are always playing in.” His angry gaze snapped up to snare Vincent’s guilty look. “That place is a death-trap too. Some day someone’s going to get trapped down there and we’ll be forced to move heaven and earth to dig them out again, before they end up just as dead as my old man.” He brought the hammer crashing down again with extra force. “And I don’t want that on my conscience as well. No sir.”
“Your father heard your fears,” Vincent replied quietly. “But he had to go. He had to because there was no one else skilled enough to do it. He knew that. Father knew it too. That leak would have flooded all the chambers below it. Your father saved people and their possessions. He fixed the leak.”
“And got crushed by a ton of falling rock for his efforts!” Winslow snapped, looking up again. He sighed on a grimace of apology. The kid was only trying to help.
“It wasn’t your fault, Winslow.” Vincent shook his shaggy mane. “Your father knew what he was doing. The risks he was taking. You couldn’t have stopped him. No one could have. It was what he did. He looked out for us all and tried to fix things as best he could.”
“Yeah…” Winslow sighed roughly. There he goes again, he thought. The kid sees too damned much for a boy of his age. “But it don’t change the facts.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Again Vincent’s shaggy mane danced with the force of his assertion. “But now it’s your turn. You need to do what you can to honour his memory by doing his work. Making things for all of us. Making it right.”
“I…” Winslow blinked, his hammer pausing, half-raised, as he stared at the boy. “But I don’t have his skill. He was a real craftsman with metal and wrought iron. He could turn his hand to making anything. He was trying to teach me, when he…” He exhaled roughly. “I’ve always been too ham-fisted.” He raised one large, clenched hand. “I’m good at bashing out pieces to fix things. Beyond that, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“The beginning is a good place to start.” Vincent released his long legs and stood. “We can ask Pascal. Maybe he can put the word out to our helpers Above. Find some answers for you. Father is bound to have books on the subject. He has books on everything else. You can do it. I know you can.”
“Kid, you’re surely somethin’ else, do you know that?” Winslow shook his head as he slowly lowered the hammer for the first time in days.
Suddenly his arm felt too weak to continue. In fact his whole body ached. He put a hand to his throbbing head and his eyes began to burn with unshed tears. But the pain in his chest had eased slightly, allowing him to breathe freely for the first time in a long while.
Dropping the hammer he staggered to the chair Vincent had vacated only moments before and collapsed down into it. He rested his head back and closed his eyes. It felt good to rest now. Tomorrow would come soon enough.
“See ya, kid,” he murmured. “Go on now, I’ll be fine. I think I’m just gonna take a nap. I didn’t know I was so darned tired.”
Vincent picked up a nearby blanket and placed over the blacksmith’s recumbent form. “See you tomorrow. Sleep well.” He smiled as he left the blacksmith’s chamber on silent feet. Winslow was going to be all right now, he could feel it…