Chapter 6

 

-1-

 

Sunday, December 24, 1989

 

Catherine stood at the beginning of her run and stared down the pathway with dogged determination. Yesterday was the first time in her re-acquaintance with jogging that she had not ended the run in a retching fit, and she was set on a positive repeat performance this morning.

 

After ten minutes of stretching, she took off at a leisurely pace, grateful for the jogging shoes, shorts and athletic socks Diana had had delivered to her chamber the day before.    Catherine didn’t question why Diana herself hadn’t brought the large plastic bag containing the rest of Catherine’s belongings. Even though Diana was a co-conspirator in the meeting with Lang that evening, it was unlikely that her anger toward Catherine had disappeared.

 

I can’t blame her.  Catherine glanced at her watch. Being careful is how she survives. It’s how we all survive.

 

The other two items Diana had sent down were far more intriguing. Vincent had seemed grateful to have the piece of masonry back; he set it high up in an indentation in the wall, visible but out of reach. The two of them had sat together after Jacob was settled for the night and pored over the contents of Catherine’s file. Catherine was impressed by the thoroughness of Diana’s investigation, but both she and Vincent admitted to each other that perusing the information made them uneasy. Catherine tucked the file in the back of a bureau drawer, beneath folded stacks of her clothing. Maybe in a few years she would take it out and go through it; then again, maybe it would remain untouched.

 

As Catherine warmed up and began to pick up her pace, it occurred to her that the one thing she wanted back the most from Diana was the one thing she couldn’t have: her rosebush. The plant represented a link with her former life Above that stretched clear back to her childhood. Her mother had loved gardening, and Catherine had happy memories of hours spent with her mother under a bright spring sun, digging and planting flowers and vegetables in the garden at their home in Connecticut.

 

Catherine had planned to start with the roses, since they were her favorite flowers, and then move on to other flowers and perhaps even a few varieties of herbs. With a brief smile, she thought of all the how-to books and magazines she had bought when she planned to turn her terrace into a miniature country garden. How Vincent would have loved that! How wonderful it would have been to...she shook her head and pushed herself into a harder run.

 

She soon came to a turn in her route and out of curiosity decided to go straight instead.    She kept running, watching the ground carefully, and soon the passage began to look familiar. Brilliant colors decorated the tunnel walls ahead. She slowed to a walk, smiling at the stories so beautifully depicted on the drab walls. The painted tunnels...of course!     She had happened on Elizabeth’s territory.

 

After a few seconds, Catherine rounded a corner and found Elizabeth herself, deep into what appeared to be a new painting. Catherine cleared her throat, not wishing to startle the old woman. Elizabeth looked up. “Who’s there?” She peered through the dim light, her inquisitive face brightening as she recognized her visitor. “Catherine! Come closer, child.”

 

Catherine complied and was warmly received by the old woman’s outstretched hands. “Hello, Elizabeth.”

 

“It’s good to see you! Are you well? Yes, I would say you are by the looks of you.”

 

Catherine released Elizabeth’s hands and gestured to the walls surrounding them. “I’d forgotten how wonderful this place is, Elizabeth. It’s magnificent.”

 

“Just an old woman trying to keep busy,” Elizabeth said, but she smiled. “Come, see my new painting. Tell me if you like it.”

 

Catherine took a closer look and was smitten by a perfectly detailed reproduction of her son’s face. “It’s Jacob!” She turned to Elizabeth. “How did you...it looks just like him!”

 

“Oh, I have my ways. You and Vincent are next,” Elizabeth said, tapping the wall. “And I’m leaving lots of room around the three of you.” She winked at Catherine before stooping to mix a new batch of color. “Now, go on with you, child. I have work to do.”

 

“Can I come back again and see how it’s going?”

 

“Certainly,” Elizabeth said in an absentminded voice, once again absorbed in her own creative universe.

 

“Thanks.” Catherine left without waiting for or expecting an answer. Elizabeth was set in her ways and wasn’t used to being around people for any length of time. As she ran, Catherine decided not to tell Vincent about the painting but instead to bring him down later, when it would be nearer completion. For now, his thoughts, as well as everyone else’s, were centered on the Christmas Eve celebration that evening. And after the celebration...

 

Catherine felt a pang of anxiety. Tonight she would face one of the people responsible for nearly ending her life. Her face tightened into a grim mask as she ran. She had no idea what would happen, but she was determined that by the end of this day Lang would know exactly what Catherine thought of her.

 

 

 

-2-

 

The Christmas Eve celebration was a spectacular success. Unlike Winterfest, this occasion was observed only by members of the tunnel community. Father had begun the tradition many years ago when times were bad and the world Below had few resources. Even though life Below was still a day-to-day struggle, things were easier now and Father kept the tradition intact to remind everyone that Christmas meant so much more than the giving and receiving of gifts.

 

After a sumptuous dinner prepared by William and his kitchen mates, everyone gathered around the tree and exclaimed over the beautiful decorations. The twelve-foot tree was festooned with colorful paper chains, strings of popcorn and ornaments, all made by the children. After presents had been arranged and carols sung, Father called upon each person to speak, beginning with the children.

 

When Vincent’s turn came, a moment of stillness fell. He sat with one arm around Catherine; the baby sat on his father’s lap. He looked up at the sound of Vincent’s voice.

 

“Christmas in our world is a time of sharing and celebration. This has never been more true for me. I am surrounded by friends, family, loved ones…” He bowed his head for a moment. When he looked up, his tears were visible in the candlelight. “I give thanks for Catherine, Jacob, Father, all of you, but especially for Catherine, who has given me the most precious gift of all: her love.” He leaned over and gave his teary love a soft kiss on the lips, much to the delight of those surrounding them, who broke into appreciative murmurs.

 

Catherine wiped her eyes and smiled as the voices died down. “I can’t add anything to that. But I do want to thank everyone for accepting me into this community, especially those of you who might have had reasons not to do so gladly.” She looked out over the crowd, seeking Olivia. The two women’s eyes met, and Olivia gave her a reassuring smile. Catherine continued. ”From now on, Christmas will always symbolize the rebirth of my family and the love of my friends.”

 

Soon the ceremony ended and everyone began drifting off to their chambers. As they returned to their chamber, Vincent gave Catherine a questioning look. ”When you spoke this evening, I saw you look at Olivia. Are there problems between you?”

 

”No, Vincent, just the opposite. We had a long talk this afternoon. She’s been so kind to me, but I was still worried that she might resent me for what happened with Kanin.”

 

”And does she?” Vincent parted the drapes at the entrance to their chamber and followed Catherine inside.

 

”Not at all,” Catherine said. She placed their sleeping son on the bed, changed his diaper and began dressing him in warm clothes. ”She’s so strong. She misses Kanin terribly, but she knows he’ll be back one day, and that’s all she needs to know to keep going. I have to admit, I’m somewhat in awe of her. I don’t know if I would be as generous if our situations were reversed.”

 

Vincent sat on the bed next to the baby. ”She and Kanin share a deep love. Perhaps their trials will strengthen that bond between them.”

 

Catherine stopped what she was doing and looked at him. ”There are all kinds of bonds in this world between people who love.” She looked down at Jacob, who slept despite his mother’s efforts to dress him. ”I think children are a bond, Vincent.”

 

“And if the bond we once shared never returns...?”

 

“What we have now is enough...more than enough. We haven’t lost anything.”

 

He touched her face, and they sat in silence for a few minutes as Catherine wrapped a blanket around the baby. They stood, and she handed the baby to Vincent. “I guess it’s time.”

 

“Are you sure, Catherine? Must you do this?”

 

“Yes.” Her nod was firm. “I have to.”

 

He nodded; arm-in-arm they left the chamber.

 

 

 

-3-

 

By the time they arrived at the tunnel entrance to Sybil’s basement, little Jacob had awakened and was demanding to be fed. Vincent tapped twice on the door. When his light knock was answered by three taps, he pushed the door open and led Catherine inside.

 

The scene that greeted them was eerie. Catherine and Vincent nodded a greeting to Todd, the cab driver/helper who had brought Lang here. Todd had positioned a bright lantern in the middle of the room, which was augmented by the torch Vincent carried. The heavily disguised cabbie had made sure none of the cobwebs or piles of junk were disturbed. Everyone had agreed to leave the basement exactly as they found it so as not to arouse suspicion on the part of the building’s caretaker.

 

Todd was partially hidden in the shadows, but Lang was fully visible. She stood a few feet away from the lantern, wearing ear plugs and a blindfold. Her coat, shoes and gloves were ragged. She stood motionless, giving little indication through her posture of her feelings at being in this situation.

 

Vincent shoved the door closed and joined Catherine, who was staring at the tiny woman. Without a thought Catherine pulled her shawl around her, unclasped the front of her dress and took the baby from Vincent’s arms into her own to nurse him. She tried to stifle a sneeze but couldn’t. She looked up at Vincent and nodded. Vincent gestured to Todd, who removed Lang’s ear plugs and untied the blindfold. Then Todd returned to the shadows to wait.

 

Catherine watched as the fragile woman in her dingy coat blinked against the sudden light. After a few seconds, the two women found each other’s eyes.

 

Catherine experienced a mild shock. For many days preceding this meeting, the smallest thought of the woman standing before her had been enough to ignite a blaze of anger. But now...she stared at the tiny scarecrow of a human, who returned her stare with utter calm, and she was able to dredge up only the smallest vestige of rage. Lang spoke first, her eyes traveling downward to the nursing baby, then back to Catherine’s face. “Just as I thought. You are alive.” She nodded; a brief shade of satisfaction crossed her face. “I am glad.”

 

Lang’s words shook Catherine into motion. “Glad? Why are you glad? I almost died because of you! You could have helped me, I begged you to help me, but you never…”

 

“Wrong, Miss Chandler.” Lang’s voice cut an ice-like swath through Catherine’s furious words. “You asked me to take a message outside. I never went outside. And it is because of me that you are alive today.”

 

Catherine crinkled her face in amazement. “Because of YOU...what are you talking about?”

 

Lang ignored the question as she shifted her eyes to Vincent. “You are well?” When he nodded, she gestured to the baby. “And your son?”

 

“He is fine,” Vincent responded.

 

Lang took a few steps forward and Catherine pulled back, instinctively tightening her grip on Jacob.

 

“I only want to look at him,” Lang said in her implacable voice. She held her hands away from her body. “I mean no harm.”

 

Catherine pulled the shawl away and allowed Lang to come closer. At the sight of the baby, something in the nurse’s face seemed to shift. She did not smile, but an expression of softness and warmth crept into her eyes and spread over her features.

 

She looked directly at Catherine. “He is beautiful. You are most fortunate.” She backed off a few steps and waited for Catherine to speak.

Catherine replaced the shawl over the baby and moved a little closer to Vincent, grateful for the steady strength of his arm around her waist. “What do you mean: I’m alive because of you?”

 

“The doctor who gave you the fatal injection had every intention of killing you. Failure to obey an order from Gabriel would have meant not only his death but the deaths of his entire family. This was a clearly understood fact for everyone in his employ.

 

“Since the doctor and I worked closely, he often took me into his confidence.     Eventually he trusted me with restocking the medical supplies. The day your son was born, he showed me the vial of morphine he planned to use to cause your death. The dosage was high.” Lang paused as if savoring her own words. “I was able to dilute it.”

 

The words hit Catherine hard as all the implications ran through her mind. “You...diluted it? But how...how is that possible? I didn’t think...” Her voice trailed off in a confusion of too many thoughts.

 

“I am not a bad person, Miss Chandler, and you must not waste your anger on me. I have been a nurse for a long time. Being in Gabriel’s employ for so many years educated me in the ways of tampering and stealth. I didn’t want to endanger my life, but at the same time I was determined to do what I could to save yours.”

 

“I see.” Catherine glanced up at Vincent; he looked as stunned as she felt. “I...I don’t know what to say.” She narrowed her eyes at Lang. “Why did you keep the music box?”

 

Lang shrugged. “A sentimental notion. Many years ago when I lived in Vietnam I was given such a gift when I was pregnant. I lost the baby, and in our hurry to leave our country many other things were lost as well.” She nodded to the baby. “Sometimes I would play the music for your son. He may recognize it still.”

 

Catherine turned the baby to her other breast. Vincent had stood silent at her side all this time. He seemed to understand her need for his moral support. She spoke to Lang. “What will happen to you now?”

 

“I will survive as I have all my life. I am stronger than I look. And although my time may be nearing its end, I intend to fully live each moment.”

 

“What do you mean?” Catherine asked.

 

“You remember the man Pope?” Catherine nodded.  “He is out there, somewhere. He may find me someday.”

 

Vincent spoke for the first time. “Have you seen this man?”

 

Lang shook her head. “I can feel him. I am a link in the chain he must break in order to acquire what is left of Gabriel’s power. Tell your friends: if they find Pope, they will discover all they need to know about Gabriel. They will also save my life.” She called over her shoulder to Todd. “I am ready to leave, young man.”

 

Todd emerged from the shadows, staying out of Lang’s range of vision. “You through, Catherine? Vincent?” They both nodded. Todd repositioned the blindfold over Lang’s eyes and placed the earplugs in the little woman’s outstretched palm.

 

Lang started to insert the plugs, then stopped. Miss Chandler, Vincent...be careful.” She pushed the plugs into her ears and allowed Todd to lead her through the basement door after Vincent pulled it open. The light of his lantern rapidly faded.

 

Vincent and Catherine waited in silence until they were sure Todd and his charge were safely away. Catherine pulled the sleeping baby away from her breast and handed him to Vincent. They gazed at each other as she closed the bodice of her dress.

 

She sighed and shook her head. “Oh, Vincent.”

 

“You are no longer angry.”

 

“I came here to scream at her, and she tells me that she saved my life.”    She sighed.    “It’s going to take awhile to sort out my feelings.” Her eyes flew wide, followed by a loud sneeze.

 

“Come,” Vincent said, piloting her through the door. “We must leave.”

 

“You’re right,” Catherine said. She glanced around the room and shuddered. Without Todd’s lantern, their torch did little to pierce the surrounding gloom. Within minutes they were out of the dusty basement and passageway and on their way home.

 

By the time they reached their chamber, Vincent had grown concerned about Catherine.    She had said only one thing on their return home: “I don’t want to play the music box for Jacob. I don’t want him to remember.” He had told her he agreed, and the rest of the trip was spent in silence.

 

Now she sat on the bed, lost in thought, as Vincent put Jacob to bed. He sat beside Catherine, glancing at the entrance he had passed. The drapes had made a considerable alteration in his attitude toward privacy. It meant a lot to him to pull the drapes shut and bask in the intimacy of the world he shared with his family. Each day he silently thanked Catherine for suggesting this change.

 

He studied her for a few minutes before pulling her into his lap. This was a cherished position for them both. She had told him how loved and protected she felt when he held her. He wondered if she suspected that the feel of her small warm body against his provoked the same feelings in him. Yes, she was small and still quite slender, but her compact body hid a strength both physical and mental that only recently he had begun to discern. This was especially apparent when they made love. This beautiful, delicate woman offered her body to him and accepted his with a fierceness and single-minded devotion that was still a source of wonder and ecstasy to him.

 

Her voice startled him. “What are you thinking about, Vincent?”

 

She sounds so tired. Should I tell her...no. “I’m thinking that tomorrow is Christmas morning, and soon we’ll announce our marriage plans at Winterfest.”

 

“No, really,” she said, squirming a little closer.

 

He couldn’t see her face but knew she was smiling, just as he was. “I am thinking what it is like to make love to you. How strong you are, and how your strength makes me safe.”

 

She pulled away and presented him with a puzzled face. “I make you feel safe?”

 

“Yes.” He brushed her hair back and held her face in his hands. “Safe from aloneness; safe from sorrow; safe from the part of me that I fear most.”

 

“We have nothing to fear now.” She pulled his hands down and pressed them to her breasts. “I want you to undress me...slowly. Then I will undress you. Then…”

 

He stopped her words with a kiss, even as his nimble fingers carried out her request.

 

Chapter 7