- I. –

 

White. (faded in a heartbeat)

 

More white. Infinite, depthless.

 

She held her eyes open by an act of sheer will. Unable to move her neck or feel her own body, she cast her glance in the few directions available to her: up ...left ...right.

 

She saw only an endless expanse of white. Nothing existed to test her perception; the void could have stretched on forever or ended two feet from her eyes.

 

Instantly her mind grew weary, and she sank into the familiar oblivion of sleep.

 

***

 

“Yes, Joshua!” she said. “I’ve watched over her for months; I’ve talked to you, to the others; I’ve prayed; I’ve debated.” An eloquent shrug: “This is the best way. Not the easiest for her, certainly, but the best.” She covered Joshua’s hands with one of her own. “It’s the only way.”

 

He searched her face for a long moment. “Very well,” he said.

 

“Thank you.” She stood and turned to leave.

 

“Maggie,” Joshua called as she reached the door.

 

She waited.

 

“Don’t fail,” he said.

 

“I will not,” she replied, and left the room.

 

***

 

Maggie left Joshua’s bare office and headed for her own. It was a ten-minute walk and she used the time to think, although it seemed as if she’d done nothing but rack her brain for several weeks.

 

Joshua’s question was fair.   Was she doing the right thing? She’d examined this question from every possible angle. She had sought advice from all quarters, but the final decision was hers. The only answer she could reach that gave her any peace was, Yes. As she’d told Joshua many times, it was the only solution.

 

She approached the door, barely noticing the name CATHY, suspended in large letters. Below it, one lonely letter smaller than the name: m.

That’s me, she thought, placing her hand on the brass knob. M for Maggie: M for meddler: M for must, as in I MUST get this right.  

 

***

 

Cathy awoke with a start. This time was different. She still could see nothing but a white world surrounding her, but now she could feel her own body, remember her own name.

 

But where was she?

 

Slowly, with exquisite caution, she sat up and looked around. She was lying on a soft, white table, featureless except for a pillow and some bedclothes. Her feet were bare; she was wearing a simple white gown. A hospital gown, she thought, fingering the slightly coarse material. But it wasn’t, not quite.

 

She looked around the room, for now she was able to identify it as such. There was a door to her left, but nothing else - no furniture save the table, no windows, no carpet. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. She carefully re-examined the gown she wore. Something about it bothered her; something, she could almost see...

 

Something clamored outside the door. Cathy stiffened. She watched the doorknob slowly turn. As the door opened, light spilled in, and into the room walked...an angel.

 

Cathy stared at this apparition as a realization hit her full force. An angel - a white room - of course, she was in heaven!

 

This thought quickly faded when the angel closed the door behind her, shutting off the brilliant light and revealing herself as an ordinary woman.

 

The woman walked toward Cathy with both hands outstretched. “Cathy,” she said. Her smile was radiant; her hands were warm and strong.

 

“Who are you?” Cathy whispered. She was frightened, despite the woman’s reassuring appearance and kind touch.

 

“You can call me Maggie,” the woman replied in a voice as warm and rich as her smile.

 

“Maggie,” Cathy repeated.

 

Maggie released Cathy’s hands and lightly patted her shoulder. ”I should think a far more enlightening question would be, where are you?”

 

Cathy blinked and shook her head. “Of course.” She looked around the room, then back at Maggie. “Where am I?”

 

“Why, you’re in a coma,” Maggie cheerily replied. She sat down on the table, close enough so that Cathy could benefit from her warmth. She glanced at Cathy, whose mouth hung ajar, whose eyes widened, then smiled.

 

“This is not funny!” Cathy said.

 

“No, of course not.”

 

“Where am I, really?”

 

Maggie leveled a direct gaze at the girl. “Do you remember anything before waking up here?”

 

Cathy wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the floor. “I don’t know. Everything’s so foggy, so...unreal.” She looked at Maggie. “Can you help me?”

 

Maggie slid off the table and began pacing, arms folded across her chest. “That’s why I’m here.”

 

”Why am I here?”

 

Maggie stopped pacing and stood directly in front of Cathy. “Tell me your name,” she snapped.

 

“Catherine Chandler,” Cathy answered, taken aback by the change in Maggie’s manner.

 

“Your age?”

 

“Thirty-three.”

 

“Where do you live?”

 

“New York. Manhattan.” Cathy’s eyes widened as a vision of the balcony outside her apartment flashed through her mind.

 

Maggie leaned forward, placed her hands on Cathy’s knees and gazed into her eyes. “Who do you love?”

 

“Vincent,” Cathy whispered. She closed her eyes for a moment as blackness whirled across her thoughts. Hot tears flooded her face. “Oh, God,” she moaned and teetered into Maggie’s embrace. The pain of missing him was a soul crushing blow.

 

Maggie held her, silently soothed her, let her cry. Finally Cathy sat up, her face ravaged by sorrow. “I’m dead and he’s all alone.”

 

“Oh, no!” Maggie said. “He’s not alone, you have nothing to feel guilty for, and you most certainly are not dead!”

Cathy looked up at the woman, hope kindling in her eyes.

 

Maggie’s voice was gentle. “Do you remember your baby, Cathy? Vincent’s son?”

 

This provoked a fresh flood of tears. A few seconds passed before Cathy could respond. “Yes,” she said in a choked voice, “I remember.” Maggie produced a handkerchief, which Cathy accepted. “What happened to him? Is he all right?”

 

“Yes, love, he’s perfectly fine. They both are.” Maggie sat next to Cathy.

 

“Vincent too?”

 

Maggie hesitated. “Well. Vincent’s alive. He’s surviving.” She chewed her lower lip for a moment. “He misses you terribly.”

 

“But he thinks I’m dead. They all think I’m dead.”

 

“Maggie.”  Cathy grabbed the woman’s hand. “Tell me what happened. Tell me what this is all about.”

 

Maggie nodded. “I can tell you some things; others I will show you. After you wake up - if you wake up, and I stress that that is entirely your decision - there will be others who will tell you more.”

 

If I wake up?”

 

”Don’t worry. It will all come clear eventually.” Maggie took a deep breath. ”Let’s begin.”

 

***

 

Cathy and Maggie sat cross-legged on the table, facing each other.

 

“Now I remember it all.” Cathy looked at Maggie but barely saw her. “The months of waiting. Being drugged and questioned. The examinations.” Her mouth trembled. “When I had trouble during labor, Gabriel walked in and said, ‘Cut the child out.’ As if I didn’t exist or matter.”

 

“To Gabriel you didn’t exist, except as a vessel for his own warped plans.”

 

“He didn’t even let me hold my baby.”

 

“Forget about him. Let go of all that.”

 

“How can I?”

“He’s dead, and your current problems are serious enough without letting yourself be dragged down by hatred.”

 

“Dead.” Dark satisfaction clouded Cathy’s face. “I’m glad he’s dead.”

 

“So are several thousand other people in your world.”

 

They exchanged an ironic glance.

 

“How did he die?” Cathy asked.

 

“Later,” Maggie replied. “There are other things I need to tell you first.” She hesitated.

 

“Go on, Maggie. I think I’m ready.”

 

(I hope so, love.) “All right. You’ve told me the last thing you remember is the injection the doctor gave you. The one that should have killed you but left you comatose instead.”

 

“Thank God,” Cathy said.

 

“The circumstances of your rescue will be explained to you when you end the coma. Suffice it to say that you were spirited away to a place of safety and obscurity.”

 

“Where?”

 

“For the past three months…”

 

“Three months?!”

 

“You’ve been kept in an FBI-operated medical facility in upstate New York. The number of people who know of your existence there - here - can be counted on the fingers of both hands.” Maggie raised one hand, slowly wiggling the fingers. “And that’s not counting thumbs, mind you.”

 

“But why?” Cathy’s expression was one of utter bewilderment.

 

“Why didn’t you die, why were you taken out of one place of confinement and brought to yet another, and why are we having this conversation?”

 

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Cathy sighed.

 

“My dear, you are involved in something that is beyond the scope of anything you could ever imagine. The details you seek, the ‘why’ of what happened to you - it is all for naught. Soon you will have your answers. But right here, right now, we will focus on what is in the world to which you may soon return.”

“I will return,” Cathy said.

 

“Please God,” was the short reply. Maggie pointed to the blank white wall opposite the door. “Watch here,” she instructed Cathy. “It will seem like a movie, but I assure you that you will see events in your world that concern you just as they are happening.” She held up a warning finger to halt the question on Cathy’s lips. “No!” she said. “Don’t ask me how this is done. Be content with the reality. Watch, listen and learn.”

 

“O.K.” Cathy nodded and turned to the wall. “I’m ready.”

 

Maggie also faced the wall. She held out one hand, close enough to the wall to cast a dim shadow. She spread her fingers wide, quickly balled them into a fist, then withdrew.

 

Suddenly a living picture appeared on the wall. Cathy gasped. Not only could she see the exterior of an old brick building, she could hear the traffic, smell the exhaust of countless cars and trucks, as if she were there. She hugged herself to still the trembling that had crept back into her body.

 

“Where is this?” she whispered to Maggie.

 

“Your city.”

 

A young woman stepped through a door and onto the street. She was tall and slender,

with dark blue eyes and long red hair framing her pale, delicate face.

 

“Her name is Diana Bennett,” Maggie said, maintaining a low voice. “You don’t know her, but you will. At this moment, she is one of the most important people in your life.”

 

Cathy watched as the woman adjusted a large bag over her left shoulder and turned to walk away. “Where is she going?”

 

“You’ll see.”

 

The picture faded, replaced by another. This time the view was dark, hazy. A fine mist of smoky dust filtered through dim golden light.

 

Cathy caught her breath. She knew this place. It was the drainage tunnel beneath Central Park - an entrance to the world Below.


Chapter 2