The word echoed through his mind with each step on that first January morning as he followed the usual group of children, with one added to their number.
That’s what Jamie is, or at least is trying to be – brave, strong, and resolute.
Vincent walked the long journey from the nest of Tunnels that encompassed the Hub, the hospital chamber, the nursery, to the outskirts of their world, closest to the centers of Manhattan—the Park, Times Square. He would wait for them, the band of explorers, count their numbers, see what treasures they brought back, breathe a sigh of relief as each one was accounted for.
He had only recently been allowed into the adult world, and with that induction, he was no longer shielded from the knowledge of all the terrible things that could happen to children.
Ironically, the full implication of Jamie’s life had been one of the first he hadn’t been shielded from, one that hadn’t been explained away. She had come to them so beaten and burned, Father had confessed he worried about permanent damage. How unfair that had sounded to Vincent’s young ears—to have been so hurt at six years of age that it would affect you for the rest of your days.
Of course, Father’s disclosure about the little girl was also around the same time Vincent had realized that no matter how much time and energy he devoted to Mouse, the boy would always be stunted in his speech.
Was it a wonder that the two children found each other? Mouse with his brilliance in construction … and deconstruction, and Jamie with her dexterity and determination.
He had watched the girl physically heal and begin the long road to trusting again. She had, at first—and strangely, for everything that had been done to her—gravitated to the men and the boys. Eschewing dolls and books, she would watch warily from the outskirts of the security meetings. She would follow sentry routes, delve into surveillance logistics, study defense techniques, but only learning what to do to keep the World Above out. She hardly played, and never ventured Above with the other children. It had worried Vincent then, and still worried him.
There were those in their World that never ventured Above, but they were usually older, with lifetimes of pain to keep them underground. To see a child who never wished to explore, who never tried to play in the sun, saddened him in ways he couldn’t truly express. It was as if that part of her had died with the past she claimed—truthfully, if Vincent read her right—not to remember. Instead, she endured the nightmares of her Tunnel scheduled sleep hours, and spent sunless days learning practical skills. By eight she was the best marksman with the slingshot in all the Tunnels, which the older boys learned when they wouldn’t stop teasing her about Mouse.
She grew stronger, but Mouse was her weakness.
The boy was barely verbal when they first met, but even without many words, they somehow forged a friendship. Perhaps she recognized a fellow soul whose strength in certain areas made up for inadequacy in others.
On New Year’s Eve, a night even the children were allowed to stay up to the wee hours, Vincent, from a quiet perch on the stairs near Father’s study, overheard Mouse and Jamie, their two heads bent in earnest conversation.
“Gotta get stuff. Big party Up Top. Metal, glass, shiny stuff left. Tomorrow before trash guys. You come too, Jamie.”
He was assuming she’d set foot in the World Above. It would be the first time since Eli found her in an alley with no identity except a first name, and a face so beaten her eyes were swollen shut for days.
“No,” she answered his presumption.
“Why?” Mouse asked, genuinely puzzled.
“I don’t want to go ‘Up Top’, Mouse,” she said, shaking her head.
He put his little hands on his hips and countered, “Don’t want vegetables. Father says, eat anyway.”
“It’s not the same, Mouse,” she protested.
“Come on!” The little boy reached for her hand, then gently added, “Together.”
The violent little girl pulled her hand back.
“Cold Up Top,” he huffed. “Topsiders running, running, running.” He motioned with his hands like mice scurrying. “We run. We take stuff. For Winterfest! Got ideas!”
By her crossed arms, it didn’t look like Jamie was taking the bait, even as Mouse attempted to make getting “ideas” sound like it was a new and noble thing.
“I don’t go Up Top, Mouse. Mary said I don’t have to.” Jamie twirled her hair out of the braids her caretaker had tried in vain to tame her locks with.
“Don’t have to…” Mouse said, looking down, thinking, and kicking the dust up on the ground, something Father detested. “Don’t have to,” he repeated, “but Jamie…” His tone took on the heaviest sincerity a ten-year-old could muster. “Jamie takes care of Mouse. Jamie not scared. Never scared.”
If Vincent’s senses were correct, it was a completely untrue statement.
And yet, here they were that early morning, walking towards the unknown. Mouse’s further goading had elicited a shaky promise from the girl to try. She wanted to be resolute, and maybe for a few moments she was but, as they navigated the twists and turns of the passageways, Vincent could almost taste her fear. It rolled from her in waves, the smell putting him on edge, making him doubt this course. Mary and Father had never urged Jamie to return Above. Perhaps they were right. Mouse had pushed her hard, perhaps nobly, perhaps selfishly. She might not be ready. Even at nine years old, she was still so young and hurting.
Vincent wasn’t surprised when her steps faltered the closer they came to the entrance.
Isn’t that the way with resolutions. Noble intentions weaken, and either we chose to try again, or we let them go. Maybe this wasn’t the year, he thought, although it saddened him to think of another year of forced darkness on the girl.
Mouse held her shoulder.
Vincent was about to ask the same when Randolph, the oldest of the children, spoke up next to him. “Look, Vincent, the babies can’t keep up.”
“Yeah, maybe the ‘babies’ should stay back,” Danny said from the middle of the pack. Some of the others nodded, perhaps in agreement, but probably hoping not to be on the wrong side of the older boys.
“Randolph, they are not babies,” Vincent said, walking back towards Jamie and Mouse with his lantern held high. “Give them a moment.”
“Yeah, not a baby,” Mouse yelled over the other children’s heads towards the bigger boys.
“Up Top is tough,” Henry chimed into the fray with a sardonic shake of his head. “It’s not for wimps.”
“We can’t wait long, Vincent. Maybe they should stay behind,” Deborah added, not unkindly meant, but unkindly taken by the scowling girl.
“Leave us alone, Deborah! Mouse is not a baby, Randolph! He needs stuff. He’s got ideas,” Jamie insisted, fear now firmly given way to anger.
The small girl grabbed the smiling boy’s hand, and pushed through the group to the front, even past the light of Vincent’s lantern, towards the park door. Vincent’s long strides and light finally caught up to them. There she stood, tapping her foot, as if the idea of setting out into the world that tried everything it could to destroy her was her own.
Vincent smiled. The boy had known she didn’t thrive on only kindness. He had recognized, even when her elders didn’t, she didn’t need to be coddled, she needed a challenge.
He wasn’t her weakness. He was her strength.
“I’ll be here when you return,” Vincent said as he worked the mechanism to the entryway. “Be careful.”
Jamie skirted through the opening door without another word, so Mouse answered for her. “Don’t worry, Vincent. Father said, New Year, do something you should. Jamie should go with Mouse Up Top.”
So that’s what this is about. A New Year’s resolution. He almost laughed.
Mouse scrambled outside to follow his friend, calling back. “Jamie takes care of Mouse. Mouse takes care of Jamie.”
Vincent watched from behind the sheltering wall as each of the children followed the smallest ones into the beginning light of the new year. Once released, the latch allowed the gate to close again. Vincent settled down on the gritty floor and tugged free his copy of Little Dorrit from his pack to pass the time until their return.
He glanced back towards the door, wondering what marvels the two mending children would find in the world.
They have endured, he thought, smiling to himself again. How lucky they are to have found each other.