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*Schwinn or Not
by Joanne Grier

The last of the multitude of candles were lit, extra chairs and benches were tucked in among the books.  Father surveyed the library wondering if his preparations were complete.  Absently he rubbed his head hoping to ease the pounding headache that was growing with intensity.  “I just hate this,” he muttered.  Walking to his desk, he took his seat and mentally prepared himself for the next hours.  The fading sound of the clock chimes was still echoing in the air as the room began to fill. 

Soon the cacophony blended into a steady roar, intensifying the headache Father felt rising several degrees.  He picked up his gavel pounded the desk, and slowly, the intense chatter ceased, all eyes turning expectantly toward him. 

“Thank you for coming on such short notice.  Mary, would you be so kind as to take the minutes of the meeting?” 

His eyes moved around the room and then came to rest in the middle of the spiral staircase where Vincent set with Kipper on his knees.  A silent message of love and respect was transmitted in those brief seconds before Father continued his visual sweep of the room. 

“Friends, I have called this meeting because the community is in dire financial need.  We must find a way to infuse cash into our treasury.  We have several major repairs that must be completed prior to the onset of winter and we currently have less than $200 in our emergency fund.  Money that we need to hold in reserve against the onset of a major epidemic, money that I refuse to touch for our daily survival.  I’d like to throw the floor open to suggestions as to how we, as a community, can earn cash to fill our treasury.” 

Eyes shifted as this unsettling news became clear.  Their Helpers provided much to the community, but even those resources had their limits.  From the beginning, many members of the community used the addresses of their Helpers in order to gain employment in the world Above.  Their joint earnings were placed in the community operating funds and became the bases for their survival.  

“We could go Above and begin seeking aluminum cans for selling to the scrap dealers.” 

“Our sewing guild members could seek jobs Above in the garment district.  There are always ads for seamstresses in the papers.” 

“Those with wood working skills could seek employment in some of the many restoration shops.” 

The voices continued to call out suggestions and Mary furiously wrote each suggestion into the minutes.  After twenty minutes, their voices grew silent. 

“Cullen, would you assume the key position and organize those with wood working skills.  You will need current copies of the latest newspapers for seeking employment. 

“Miriam, will you work toward getting suitable clothing for those gaining employment Above?  And Mary, will you assist Miriam in selecting the best of our seamstresses to seek employment?  Brooke and Jamie, would you please organize the oldest children into groups for searching for aluminum cans? 

“I thank each of you for your willingness to help.  If you think of other suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share them.  I shall be available to you at any time.  Thank you all for coming tonight.” 

Father continued to rub his head.  The burden of leadership often bore down heavily and tonight the weight was crushing.  They had to find ways to earn money as the vital repairs to the pipes had to be completed before winter. 

“Jacob?”  Cullen stood waiting until he was acknowledged before he assumed the seat Mary had vacated.  “Have you considered the cost of transportation for those going Above?  The restoration shops are scattered all over the city, many of them would require at least two different buses or subway lines to reach.  We would, of course, try for jobs that are in the closest area, but realistically that might prove impossible.  We might be able to gain a ride to some areas from our Helpers, but that will only be a small percentage of our work force.” 

“Father, excuse me, but I have a suggestion.  Last week Mouse was repairing a bicycle in his work area.  Mr. Wilkerson had asked if he could repair it as it had been damaged by a car and belonged to one of his best customers.  What if we could seek out abandoned or broken bicycles, bring them down and repair them?” 

Both Cullen and Father wore surprised, astonished looks as they listened.  “That’s a brilliant idea, will both of you seek out Mr. Wilkerson immediately to ascertain his willingness to help us?” 

Vincent acknowledged their admiration of his suggestions as he continued.  “Aside from new bikes, Mr. Wilkerson also sells used bikes in his shops.  Perhaps he would be willing to sell those we have restored.  We could ask Elizabeth for the loan of several of her advanced students to repaint the bikes with designs that would make them a stand-out in the world Above.  Perhaps we could keep several of the bikes for our members to use as transportation thus saving bus or subway fare?” 

“If this proves possible, it could be an excellent way to replenish our depleted funds.  Thank you, Vincent, for this marvelous suggestion.”  As he spoke, Father could feel his headache beginning to diminish. 

Together, Vincent and Cullen left the library, making plans to seek out Mr. Wilkerson as soon as his shop opened in the morning. 

******* 

Cullen walked into Mr. Wilkerson’s shop, spoke briefly to him and the two men retired to the office located at the back of the building.  Mr. Wilkerson wasn’t surprised when he opened the door to find Vincent already inside. 

They settled into the comfortable chairs and quickly explained the reason for their visit.  Mr. Wilkerson didn’t hesitate and immediately agreed to take whatever repaired bicycles they created for resale in his shops.  “I have one shop that sells nothing but used bikes, and it is located in a section of the city where new bikes are beyond the means of the residents.  I’ll agree to take all you can supply, and for the first one hundred you supply, I will give the entire sale price back to the community.  After the one hundred, I will keep only ten percent of the price, returning the other ninety percent to Jacob.  The ten percent will off-set my bookkeeping fees as well as salaries.  Does that seem fair to you, Vincent?” 

Vincent quickly agreed and they shook hands on the deal.  Cullen moved to the door, checked the interior hall, nodded to Vincent, and he hurriedly slipped out, disappearing quickly.  Cullen and Mr. Wilkerson stood outside the door talking for several minutes then they walked toward the front of the shop.  Shaking hands, Cullen left and immediately began his walk to another tunnel entranced located some five blocks away. 

*******

Jamie volunteered to become Mouse’s partner and together they and three other teams of older teens began searching the world Above for abandoned and broken bikes.  Jamie knew Mouse better than others, so she stuck like glue to his elusive shadow as they moved about the streets and alleys Above.  Father was reluctant for Mouse to search Above alone, but once Jamie volunteered to be his partner, most of his fears subsided. 

The first day they returned with only five abandoned bikes which they had retrieved from dumpsters.  Over the next two weeks lady luck sweetly smiled on them and their store of bikes increased to twenty-five.  A substitute partner was found for Jamie as Mouse began the task of repairing the bikes.  Vincent came daily to work with Mouse and the young genius was thrilled to be working with his hero. 

Progress was slow and it took several long days before they were able to restore one bike.  Geoffrey was in charge of washing the bike frames and Winslow assumed the duty of removing rust and pounding out dents.  Between his duties in the kitchen, William, along with two of his helpers, began the arduous task of degreasing the bicycle parts.  Soon, gleaming bicycle parts began to appear along side pots and pans in the kitchen.  For every three bikes they found, they were able to restore one and one-half re-cycled bikes. Their supply of parts increased and slowly their rate of finished bikes substantially increased. 

Restored bikes were taken to Elizabeth’s studio where her students began creating works of art.  They used hair dryers and heat lamps to dry and harden the paint they applied.  A lightening bolt appeared on top of bright green, red, and blue bikes.  Comic faces were the choice of the most advanced students.  Three “dull” bikes were requested by Cullen for three of the wood workers who had gained employment the furthest from the community.  Grumbling Elizabeth’s students filled the request turning out three plain red bikes adored with only a soldiery white stripe. 

******* 

Slowly, money began to trickle into the community coffers.  The rate was slow but steady and the worn, worried look began to fade from Father’s face.  They now had nearly five hundred dollars over his emergency fund balance. 

The community work schedule was adjusted twice as more members of the community gained employment Above.  William asked for more kitchen volunteers and Mary began training three more assistants for the hospital chambers. 

The building and repair of the bicycles grew exponentially until it consumed Mouse’s work room.  After a small debate by the council members, it was finally agreed to remove the rebuilding effort to the Great Hall.  It took two days for the work gang to move everything to the Great Hall, and then another day to create a highly organized work space.  The rebuilding was bringing in a steady supply of hard cash, and there were now ten residents, along with Mouse and Vincent, who were working nearly full time at this endeavor.  Vincent still maintained his morning literature classes, but Olivia volunteered to take over his afternoon classes.  Kanin agreed to search for a chamber that he and his crew could enlarge to become a more permanent home for repairing the bikes. 

Cullen again requested three additional bicycles for woodworkers who needed transportation to distant work sites Above. 

*******

The candles burned brightly in the library as Father poured over the community financial records.  He was no longer consumed with worry over their depleted financial reserves.  If everyone could continue working for another three months, they would have a healthy reserve after they made the necessary repairs to the pipes. 

“Father, we have company.”
 
A smile quickly spread over Father’s face.  “Catherine, my dear, how very good it is to see you.  I’ve missed your presence.  How have you been?”  He stood as she approached and held out his arms in welcome. 

“I’m well, thank you.  I brought along dinner from Mr. Pei’s so I hope you haven’t already eaten.  Vincent mentioned that the meal schedule was a little off these past weeks, so I thought I’d chance it and bring along dinner.  It’s been too long since we have shared a meal.”  The warm, caring tone of her voice touched Father and he quickly began to clear away his ledgers. 

Soon, the desk was covered with cartons of food and the conversation became lively as they settled to consume their meal.  Catherine laughed as the talk progressed to the bicycle repair.  “Mouse has proven once again what a mechanical genius he is, taking the most battered scraps that could barely be recognized as a bicycle and turning them into shining stars of the bike world.”  Father shook his head in amazement as he realized once again, how correct Vincent had been in his assessment of Mouse within the first years after they had discovered the young boy hiding within the community. 

“Mr. Wilkerson constantly praises the workmanship of the bikes we bring him.  He says they sell out almost the same day he puts them into his shops.  His repaired bikes were only a sideline in his business, but now he indicates they are becoming a solid portion of his daily sales.” 

“Is there anything I can do to help get the community finances back on more solid ground?  Perhaps I could supplement the need for appropriate clothing for those working Above?  Or, are there parts needed for the bike repair that I could help you to purchase?” 

“You are more generous to the community, Catherine, and once again, I thank you for your continuing support.  We have used a small amount of cash for clothing from second-hand shops and also obtained fabrics from some Helpers who are employed in the garment district.  So providing adequate work appropriate clothing has not been a problem.”  Father smile was relaxed, indicating how profound his burden had been eased. 

“For the most part, we find all the extra parts for the bike repairs from the bikes we scavenge from Above.  Spokes, new spokes that is, are often our most pressing problems.  Bent spokes are difficult to repair so we frequently need to purchase new in order to construct a solid, worthwhile bike.  We certainly don’t wish to short change Mr. Wilkerson or his customers.” 

“Please, Father, allow me to provide the funds for those.  I could speak with Mr. Wilkerson about ordering spokes or I could simply give him a check to cover the costs.  It would be my pleasure to do this.” 

“But you do so much for us.  You bring more than your fair share of food Below when we have festivities, clothing and linens you happen to find at bargain prices, and all the books you have contributed to the children’s classes.” 

“I’ve gained far more than I have given.  I’m no longer alone in the world; I have a large family now, and they have enriched and blessed my world beyond all the riches of the world.  I might, technically, be an orphan now since the passing of my dad, but that doesn’t mean I am without a loving family.”  Her smile was dazzling and the genuineness of her words touched Father.  There was nothing he could say for further words would negate the sincerity of Catherine’s love. 

“If you are certain you wish to do this, Catherine, then it would be our pleasure to accept your kind gift.  We humbly thank you.” 

Vincent had silently watched the subtle debate, certain from the outset that Father would concede when faced with Catherine’s love filled logic.  Over time, they had become less combative and were more open in expressing the growing respect and love that had steadily grown between them. 

“Father, if you will excuse us, I promised that I’d show Catherine how we have set up the bicycle repairs in the Great Hall.” 

Catherine took a step then turned and walked toward Father, hugging him and then pressed a light kiss on his cheek.  “Thank you,” she whispered and joined Vincent.  Hand-in-hand, they climbed the stairs, disappearing into the tunnel passage. 

Father stood listening as their voices faded.  He cleared the remains of their meal from his desk, retrieved his ledgers, and once again began posting his account balances. 

*******

As the walked, they were stopped by various members of the community, each wishing a few minutes with Catherine.  Vincent smiled, knowing it was impossible to hurry their progress, understanding the love and affection with which Catherine was received.  Normally, they could have completed their journey in twenty minutes, but tonight, since Catherine had been absence from the tunnels for several days, their journey took well over an hour. 

Upon reaching the Great Hall, Catherine was surprised that the doors were not barred as they had been at the outset of Winterfest.  Vincent easily swung open the door, allowing her to enter the dim room.  “Stay.  I’ll light some more candles.”  Vincent’s voice receded and Catherine followed his progress by the sound of his boots striking the hard stone floor. 

The light pushed back the shadows, giving a clear view of the changes within the Hall.  The majority of the tables were stacked near to the tapestry wall, serving as a protective barrier to their delicate threads.  Several large cloths were draped over the upturned legs offering additional protection. 

Three large tables rested against the opposite wall, each covered with a variety of bicycle parts or partially completed bikes.  Deeper into the Hall stood a rack of finished bikes, covered in shiny enamel in varying hues, decorated with everything from petite daisies to the latest comic book heroes.  The bikes ranged in sizes from those with training wheels to full size adult. 

Catherine paused in her inspection, her hand lingering to trace slowly across a bright red bike bearing a bursting star.  “Mine use to have stars on it and a license plate that said ‘Cathy’ attached beneath the seat.  I had more skinned knees learning to ride before I mastered staying upright.”  Her smile was infectious as she happily recalled her childhood.  “The first night I had my bike, I dragged it into the house and into my bedroom.  The next morning, Dad said he wouldn’t have been surprised if he found the bike in bed with me!  I was certainly O/C about it for the first six months!!” 

Her laughter echoed as she recalled further adventures with her beloved bike.  Vincent loved hearing the stories of her childhood, savoring each memory which he stored away to relive when they were apart. 

As they talked, it came to light that Vincent had never ridden a bicycle, as there were none in the tunnels in his youth.  Bicycles hadn’t appeared in the tunnels until Vincent was past the age for riding.  He was fourteen before the first one appeared, belonging to a family who joined the community for a short time. Although they currently didn’t possess many bikes, there were a few and those were shared equally among the youngest children.  “I’d guess we have about eight or nine bikes shared between all the children.  They learn to share the bikes as they learn that sharing is a daily part of tunnel life. 

“The children ride on some of the flatter trails, and of course, when they go into the Park during the spring/summer months.  That’s when they are most popular.  Father solved the problem of fighting over the bikes by setting up a rotating schedule according to ages.  It usually works out that each age group gets the bikes for one day per week.” 

“Are you sorry you didn’t learn to ride?” 

“Yes, in some ways I am, in that I’m not good at assisting the children in learning to ride nor am I able to completely understand their problems of balance.  They come to me asking for help, and, more times than not, I have to refer them to someone else.  I can sense their frustrations when that happens.”  His ability to help the children was a duty in which he took great pride and not being able to do so was a source of sorrow. 

“Why don’t you let me teach you to ride?  There’s enough flat space here and the stones are smooth.  It should be easier now because, as an adult, you already have a greater sense of balance than a child does.  Are you willing to try?” 

He looked at the bikes, then back at Catherine, and his eyes again swung back to the bikes.  His face was a study in conflict, the young teen who had never ridden, but secretly had desired to, openly warred with the scholar who had slight misgivings and reservations about his skills.  “Well, it would be nice to assist the children with their questions.  I imagine it’s more complex than it appears.  Yes, let’s give it a try.  I’m willing if you are.” 

“We’ll need a wrench to adjust the seat height.”  Together, they looked over the tools scattered across the work bench.  Grabbing one, Vincent checked it for size, nodded and they walked to the rack of finished bikes.  They found the largest of the adult bikes then Vincent began to loosen the nut enough to increase the seat height.  A few minutes later they had the seat adjusted to its maximum height.  Catherine selected another bike with a more petite height seat, pulling it from the rack. 

“Leave your bike in the rack and just sit on it so you get a feel for it.”  Vincent mounted the bike, surprised that it felt strange viewing the area around the bike from a different perspective. 

His features were slightly drawn as he looked down, eyes sweeping left and right; he quickly scanned the area around the rack.  Hurriedly, his left foot came off the pedal, tapping the floor briefly before coming to solidly rest on the stones.  “Just sitting seems slightly unbalanced.” 

“Normally a parent stands beside the child, helping to stabilize and balance the bike, and then they walk along while holding the bike.  I’m not sure I can adequately support you, so I was hoping that trying it this way would give you the beginning sense of balance that is needed.” 

They continued to chat as Vincent, once again, placed both feet on the pedals while working to maintain his balance.  He shifted his line of focus, judging distances as he surveyed the area.  Another ten minutes passed before he eased his feet down and slipped off the seat.  With an upward pressure, he lifted the bike from the rack and backed it out. 

“Have one pedal up with your foot on it and push off with the opposite foot, that way you can slip your foot onto the lower pedal after you get moving.”  From beside him, she demonstrated the motion, riding several feet ahead of him.  “Small gentle movements as far as steering are concerned.  Come on, give it a try,” she encouraged. 

Vincent pushed off, wobbling as he tried to steer a straight course.  After several awkward movements, he was able to coordinate the up-and-down motion of his legs and his steering became smoother.  He came precariously close to Catherine, causing her to shift right as she pumped down hard on the pedal, moving rapidly away from him.  Seeing how close he had come to her, he over compensated and careened violently in the opposite direction, ramming into one of the long tables.  The forward motion of the bike abruptly stopped and Vincent forcefully slid forward off the seat, his body hurdled abruptly up against the handle bars.  His loud whoosh of breath was audible as he gingerly eased his hand against his sensitive area of his groin. 

Catherine was aware of what happened and also knew he would be embarrassed.  She stepped away from her bike, dropped to her knees, and began fussing with her shoe laces, giving Vincent some seclusion.  Several moments passed, then she heard the movement of Vincent’s bike again.  Slowly, she stood, climbed onto her bike and, leisurely, followed behind the wobbling bicycle. 

He safely negotiated the junction between the two massive tables and rode back towards her.  Sensing that he might still need some private space, she didn’t speak as he rode past.  She quietly smiled, sending him her compassion and love, through their Bond, hoping it would ease not only his physical, but any personal discomfort. 

Catherine stopped between the next two sections of tables, balanced carefully with one hand against the table, as she continued to sit on the bike.  Fascinated by Vincent’s look of concentration as he rode toward her, she imagined how he would have looked as a young teen while learning a new task.  Twice more, he traversed the length of the course and on his third pass, Catherine joined him and together they circled the Hall. 

“You’re doing fine.  Go easy when you brake until you get the hang of it.  Your turning speed is good, slow enough to keep control, but fast enough that you don’t lose momentum.” 

“Surely, it becomes easier over time.  Like everything new, it seems I am concentrating on each movement, where the bike is in relationship to the tables, how much distance I have covered, if my body is truly upright and if my legs are moving properly.”  He half smiled and his voice lacked its usual smoothness as he focused on controlling his bike. 

“Let’s take a five minute break,” Catherine offered, as she gingerly slipped from her seat to stand balancing the bike between her legs.  “Your instincts are good, you have the basics down and all you do is just relax and become comfortable as it all comes together.  As an adult you have a greater sense of balance.  It’s just going to take more practice.  Give it a couple of more days before you share your expertise with the children.” 

Over the next hour they continued circulating around the Great Hall, weaving between the newly reorganized tables that contained partially completed bicycles.  Vincent’s face clearly indicated his surprise when Catherine rode pass him with her hands not on the bars, but resting calmly against her knee caps as she pedaled.  He envied the ease with which she rode, wondering if he would ever feel so casual and relaxed. 

“This has been such fun.  Perhaps we can work on my skills again tomorrow evening, if you are free?”  His features were relaxed and he offered a small, shy smile as he helped settle her bike into the rack. 

“I have an early evening meeting so it wouldn’t be possible until at least eight, if that fits your schedule?” 
 

He took her hand as they walked toward the Great Hall entrance.  “I’ll come for you at eight.” 

Over the next two weeks, they frequently spent their evenings in the Great Hall as Vincent honed his skills.  Twice, they had taken the bikes to an area where the tunnels were fairly level, the stones worn smooth by scurrying feet of the community citizens.  It was within these tunnels that Vincent encountered his first thrill of mounted speed.  Hair streaming, a surprised grin filling his face, he flew past Catherine, leaving her in a settling cloud of dust.  The joyful sound of Catherine’s glee-filled laughter echoed as she watched as his velocity increased, his bike beginning to blur in the distance.  She stepped from her bike, resting it against the stone wall and patiently waited for his return.  Her arms wrapped around herself, her heart filled with joy and happiness at being able to have this brief glimpse of Vincent as a carefree young man.  She memorized the glorious joy on his face as he streaked past her, aware that early adulthood had robbed him of many lighthearted years.  Father’s expectations of his son, however unintentional, had stolen a large portion of those carefree teen years, leaving behind a man who had missed many of the adolescent rites of passage.  He never spoke resentfully of those things he had not experienced, but instead, constantly spoke of all the vast knowledge that had been bestowed upon him. 

Moments before she saw him cresting the rise, she heard his laughter-filled shout.  He flew over the grade, gathering speed as he descended, his legs stretched wide off the pedals and arms extended, even with his shoulders, balanced perfectly as he careened toward her.  He brought the bike to a heart-stopping halt worthy of a BMX race winner. 

Their elated, ecstasy filled grins were mirror images as their laughter mingled; shimmering to surround them as it floated on the moving eddies to fill the tunnel with its magnificent sounds.  Spontaneously they fell into each others arms, hugging joyfully as their laughter continued to rise happily around them. 

“Oh, that was superb!  Never have I felt so light, so gloriously free.” 

“When you put out your arms…” 

“I know; I felt positively liberated, like I was flying.” 

They talked over each other, voices blending together as they continued to stand with their bodies pressed together.  His arms held her lightly as their animated conversation continued.  “I never thought I’d master riding.” 

“I knew you’d become proficient, you just had to practice.” 

His arm tightened, hugging her closer, their exuberance and joy over riding his normal restraint.  Her smile was brilliant as she returned his hug and pressed a gentle kiss to his chest.  Her cheek rested against his warmth, the solid thrum of his heart beat reassuringly against her ear. 

Reluctantly, they drew apart, mounted their bikes and rode toward the Great Hall.  Vincent parked their bikes, as he had begun to think of them, in a secluded spot away from those in the racks which were ready for sale.  The rack was now full; twenty-five shiny bikes were to be transported Above to bring joy to their new owners. 

*******

The library was filled as the citizenry gathered in response to Father’s call.  “Thank you all for coming.  I felt we needed another meeting to bring you up-to-date on our finances.  As you are aware from our previous meeting, we were near to operating in the red, but thanks to all of your efforts, we now are in the black. 

“Our emergency medical fund account has a balance of over one thousand dollars.  While it is a goodly amount, I would like to continue depositing funds into that account.  Our general operational funds, after the purchase of new pipes for our needed pre-winter repairs plus a few extra pipe sections purchased for emergencies, are still somewhat depleted.
 
“Originally, I had asked that we find employment for a three month period; I would like to ask you all to remain employed until Spring.  I would like to hear comments from those who have gained employment Above.”  Groans and whispered words rose, then they suddenly fell quiet. 

Edward, one of the woodworkers, stood.  “Jacob, would you explain why you wish us to continue our employment?  I, for one, feel I could make a better decision if you would fully explain your reasons for asking.  We all left Above for solid reasons.  We have been given homes here, and it is because of our homes we have gone back Above, to a world we hate and fear.”  Several consenting voices were added to Edward’s. 

“For the past three years, we have operated in a system of checks and balances that would shatter the heart of any worthwhile accountant.  Our Helpers have been asked to sustain us more and more.  We have heavily relied upon Dr. Alcott for our medical supplies, particularly when we have been hit by flu or other epidemic medical emergencies.  Plus, there were several accidents which also drained our medical reserves.  I am asking you to remain in your jobs Above until spring so that we may have a reserve of $10,000 over our normal operating expenses. 

“It’s a large sum, I realize, but we do need it.  We have all the expenses of operating a large mansion-like home, and we must feed and cloth a family of over one hundred.  Our food bills consume over $2,000 per month.  The cost of wax for our candles has increased two percent over last year.  Bedding and furniture are expensive items in our budget, and while we are fortunate to be able to make use of thrift shops, those items are still costly.  Teaching supplies for the children become more costly with each passing year.” 

Edward, who had remained standing during Father’s diatribe, shook his head.  “I, for one, never stopped to consider how expensive various items were nor did I honestly pay much attention to how they were funded.  I don’t like working Above, but I will continue, returning all of my paycheck, except for my travel and lunch costs, to our general fund.” 

Several other voices chimed in agreeing with Edward.  A vote was called for and the resolution passed. 

“Father, there is one problem that we haven’t addressed.  Those who are transporting themselves to their places of employment via our bicycles will need to seek other forms of transportation with the onset of winter.  We are inviting illness into our midst; as some of them travel as far as ten miles round trip.  Asking them to continue by this means during the harsh weather is courting disaster.” 

“Yes, you are correct, Vincent.  We’ll need to add in the costs of their transportation into our budget.  Is there anything else I have forgotten?” 

“What about winter clothing, coats?  Most of us no longer own winter coats since we came to live Below.” Echoing across the room, other voices joined Cullen’s, adding their concerns regarding the need for coats. 

Miriam stood, and upon seeing her, Father rapped his gavel to restore order.  “We currently have five men’s winter coats and three women’s.  These came from our Helper’s.  Those coats we do receive have always been kept for those who have continued their employment Above, after becoming a part of our community.  If each of you who are working Above will come to me, giving me your coat size – or I can measure you for size – I will send notes to our Helper’s asking for donation of coats. 

“I shall also need to know arm lengths so our knitters can create well-fitting sweaters.  Among our recent donations from the estate of Mrs. Walters was her immense collection of yarns and two manual knitting machines.  These items have already been put to use, and I’m delighted to say we have ten new adult sized sweaters waiting for distribution.  One of the knitting machines has been used exclusively to knit sweaters for the children.  We now have two new sweaters for each of our children.” 

The room erupted in joyful chatter, parents exchanging happy smiles in knowing their children would be well and truly warm this winter. 

“Our bicycle program has been extremely successful and it is hoped that we shall be able to go forward with this source of revenue.  Mr. Wilkerson is very willing to continue as our agent and will return ninety percent of the sales price to us.  The ten percent he keeps he uses toward the salaries of his staff who actually sell our bikes as well as to off-set his bookkeeping costs.  Are there members who would like to assume work in our bicycle production shop full-time?  Currently, the shop has many part-time workers and, if it is to continue, we need to develop a full-time staff. 

“Mouse and Vincent have been heading up this detail, but will need to be relieved of those duties, so please talk with them if you are interested in assuming those responsibilities.”  Father continued to reiterate the various jobs and skills required for the bicycle shop.  Indicating that his agenda was now complete, Father concluded the meeting and the community broke up into small groups.  Several of the ladies sought out Vincent, indicating their willingness to relieve William of his degreasing chores in the bike shop.  A group of the older boys stood talking with Cullen, asking to be taught woodworking. 

“Our family is pulling together nicely to help resolve our financial woes.  I’m relieved we won’t have to rely so heavily upon our Helpers over the next six months.”  Father and Mary sat sharing a pot of tea after the library had returned to normal.  As they talked, Mary made tiny additions to her shorthand notes of the meeting.  Glancing over at her neat strokes, Father smiled.  “Your shorthand continues to be as perfect as when you first moved Below.” 

“I’ve kept it up because it keeps my mind sharp and it would have gained me a better job if I ever had to return Above.”  Her frail body involuntarily shuddered; pulling her shoulders back she regained her composure.  Seeing her tremble, Father patted her hand, silently acknowledging her fear of ever having to return Above. 
 

*******

Their hands tightly grasped, Vincent and Catherine strolled leisurely toward the Great Hall, pausing to occasionally speak to friends.  Catherine loved these moments as they gave her further opportunities to learn about daily tunnel life.  And, secretly, it provided more ways for her to privately help make things easier for the tunnel citizenry.  Aside from the many known things she provided, she secretly worked through several other Helpers to secure additional items that improved the quality of their lives.  She had purchased several new bikes, then had “accidentally” run over them with her car, gently damaging them and conveniently arranged with a Helper to notify Jamie’s scavenger crew where to find them to re-cycle them Below. 

Catherine descended the steep steps leading to the Great Hall, her hand still reached out to reassuringly touch the stone wall.  She smiled when Vincent’s hand reached back grasping her fingers, adding his strength and support.  He tripped up and down the steps without fear, the howling winds and the sheer height never bothering him.  As she reached the bottom step, Vincent gently pulled her into his arms and she instantly snuggled against him.  “There are many others who are fearful of this place.  You aren’t alone.” 

“I’ve analyzed my fear, but can never decide if it is the wind or the steep height that bothers me.  We’ve made so many trips up and down, you’d think it would become easier, but its not.” 

“We all have fears, some are secret fears.  There is no shame in having fears as they often help keep us alive.” 

After he lifted the brace from its mountings, he pulled back the door enough for her to enter.  They lit candles and surveyed the Hall.  There were at least ten completed bikes leaning against the far tables as the bike rack was filled to capacity.  “You guys have certainly been busy.  Look at all those finished bikes!”  Her voice was filled with joy as she lightly caressed the bike nearest to her hand.  “Some dainty little girl is gonna love this one!”  The bike fenders were painted a soft sea foam green enhanced with tiny daisies and the handle bars had bright yellow grips complete with dangling fringe. 

Silently, they moved toward their bikes, mounted them and rode back to the heavy door.  Maneuvering through the door, Catherine rested her bike against the wall then took Vincent’s bike out while he held the door.  They walked their bikes down four steps into the tunnel entrance that would take them to the flat area where they could ride with ease. 

Catherine wore a serene smile as they rode, aware of the sense of freedom that emulated from Vincent.  He hummed a nameless tune, lost within some long ago childhood reminiscence.  It was as if he was connecting some distant memory of restrictions and blended those with this new freedom.  There was a certain boyishness about him that she had observed from the first successful ride that lifted the burdens of responsibility from his shoulders.  Joyous, carefree enthusiasm settled around his persona, clearly visible to Catherine’s loving gaze. 

“Why are you smiling?” he softly queried. 

“I can feel your happiness.  You look so carefree, as if your shoulders have been freed of all burdens.  There is so little you allow me to give you, but sharing this joy of bike riding is incredible.  I feel like I have somehow given you the greatest of gifts.” 

His shy hesitant smile fluttered briefly then became this immense smile that consumed his features.  His deep eyes were filled with laughter, ecstasy filling him as he gave voice to his joy.  The echo of his laughter simmered in the air, the sheer bliss of it wrapped around Catherine’s heart and she blinked rapidly as happy tears scalded her eyes. 

The intensity of their gaze filled with electricity as Catherine’s hand touched his chest, then quickly moved to tenderly caress his face.  They stood locked within the thrumming of their hearts, lost within the moment, unaware of their surrounding.  Catherine’s thumb brushed away the lone tear that cascaded down his cheek. He took a step closer, their bikes prohibiting their bodies from touching, and wrapped his arms tightly around her.  “To share this simple childhood delight with you is everything.”  Gravel filled his voice as he whispered her name then pressed his face against her neck.  His body trembled as he breathed in her fragrance, the light delicate perfume she wore and the deeper fresh scent of her body. 

Slowly, they broke apart, their gaze intense, as their breathing slowed.  “Shall we continue our ride,” he gently asked. 

They remounted their bikes, rode farther along the track until they were near the shallow grade.  Glancing at each other, they grinned and took off, pedaling rapidly.  Sailing up the grade, they continued toward the higher rise, claimed it with laughter before turning to fly back over the course.  Picking up speed, they each laughed, lifting their hands free of the handlebars; cruising fearless down the steep grade.  Their shouts and snickers rode the shimmering eddies.  Braking sharply, they came to an abrupt stop within a foot of a startled Pascal. 

The pipe master wore an incredulous look of disbelief.  “When did you learn to ride,” he demanded. “You never rode as a child, when did all this happen?”  He stopped wiping the dust from his claret red robe, looking first at Vincent and then at Catherine and back to Vincent.  His hands stilled, his face registering a plethora of reactions and, just as abruptly, he burst out laughing and began pounding Vincent’s shoulders. 

After long minutes he regained his composure, grinned wildly at them.  “Jacob doesn’t know, huh?  Bet not!  He’d probably have a cow, telling you all the dire things that could happen.”  His hand quickly covered his mouth and, just as quickly, he dropped it, laughter spilling forth once again. 
 

Vincent grinned at Pascal, then started to chuckle as he remembered similar teenage conversations they had shared regarding Father’s overwhelming need to protect Vincent from life. 

Catherine watched as the two men laughed, aware of all the memories they shared. She gloried in seeing a side of both men that she hadn’t witnessed before; children grown to full manhood, shared memories and sorrows bound them solidly, the profound knowledge, that through all of life’s treacherous paths, their friendship would endure. 

“Oh, my,” Vincent inhaled deeply, “I haven’t laughed like this since the last time we shared a twelve hour shift in the Pipe Chamber.  My sides hurt.”  He grinned at Pascal, and seeing that grin, set Pascal off again.  Just as quickly, Vincent began to laugh until they were each holding their stomachs, tears streaming down their faces as their now silent laughter continued.
 
Catherine made the mistake of looking directly at Vincent and then began to chuckle helplessly.  Seeing her, both men laughed more until all three of them were doubled over, grabbing their stomachs and begging each in ragged whispers, “Stop looking at me, don’t look at me or I’ll never stop!” 

The bikes preciously shifted as they laughed, then fell to the ground.  A cloud of dust became airborne, coating them as their hysteria continued, unabated.  One by one they slipped to the ground, shaking uncontrollably, and hands still clutching their stomachs.  Slowly, they became silent, but their grins never left their faces.
 
Vincent rose, dusting off his pants as he stood, then helped Catherine to stand and then he reached for Pascal.  His arms wrapped around them, and they stood smiling, each of them cementing a memory within their minds. 

“Where were you headed, Pascal?  We rarely see you this far Below unless there is a problem.  Is something wrong?” 

“Mouse mentioned he had seen a crack in one of the pipes on this level, so I was going to check it.  If there is a crack, then we will need to patch it as it muddles the tones, making communications more difficult.” 

“May Catherine and I walk along with you?” 

They left their bikes, walking the short distance into an adjacent tunnel passage where the pipe was located.  As they walked, Catherine observed the tunnel marking, providing clear indications as how to reach the home tunnels.  Various size dots done in florescent paint provided directions to reach safety.
 

Locating the pipe and finding the crack, Pascal withdrew chalk from his pocket, marking the section for the repair crew that would follow.  “I’d say it’s about a 40-50 minute job, wouldn’t you?” 

Hearing Vincent’s agreement, Pascal added a couple of numbers to the pipe, wrote a note on the paper he carried and then the trio headed back.  Collecting their bikes, Vincent asked Pascal to come along with them to the Great Hall. 

Reaching the Hall, they were delighted by Pascal’s reaction to all the completed bikes.  “I had no idea.  I knew you and Mouse were working here, but I didn’t realize the scope of this operation.” 

“Our production has sped up thanks to Catherine.  She has purchased new spokes so we no longer spend hours straightening bent spokes.  We now average about five completed bikes per day. 

As they walked, their conversation turned to those that might be willing to assume working in the bike shop.  Quickly, they reached the home tunnels and headed toward the library. 

Geoffrey sat in the chair opposite Father, who was intently studying the chess board.  Vincent smiled, Catherine grinned, and Pascal simply shook his head.  “He is ever eager, isn’t he?” 

“More of a masochist, I’d say.” Pascal quipped. 

“Stop that both you.  Can’t you see Geoffrey is about to capture his king,” Catherine whispered. 

Furtively, Geoffrey looked up, grinned, shrugged his shoulders, and patiently waited.  As soon as Father released his rook, Geoffrey’s hand shot out, moving his piece and capturing Father’s king.  “Gotcha!” he gleefully exclaimed.  “Thanks for the game, Father.  I gotta go now.  Sleep well.  ‘Night everyone.”  He took the stairs two at a time, quickly disappearing into the tunnel. 

Father looked dumbfounded; he was still rubbing his head in abject disbelief when he saw the trio standing.  Vincent walked over, dropping a kiss on Father’s cheek.  “Training a new chess master?” 

“Ah, well, Geoffrey is improving with each game.  Today, it only took him ninety minutes to beat me,” he laughed.  “I had him on the run there for awhile. 

“I was about to have some tea.  Would you care to join me?” 

“I’ll get the extra cups,” Pascal tossed over his shoulder as he moved to the far side of the library.  Not trusting his balancing skills, Pascal grabbed the tray and neatly arranged the cups and saucers. 

They sat drinking their tea as Pascal reported the fracture in the pipe and the need for a repair crew.  Father made notes, indicating he would get a crew to the location within the next two working days. 

“What have you children been doing this evening?” 

“I took Catherine to the Great Hall so that she might see all of our finished bicycles.  Then we walked along with Pascal to check out the break.”  Vincent’s hair fell forward, hiding the slight smile that tugged at his lips and glanced over at Pascal.  His co-conspirator briefly glanced at him, but quickly looked away least he begin to laugh. 

“Yes, we had a pleasant evening together.  It’s been awhile since I have been free to spend time with Vincent and Catherine.  It was most enjoyable.”  Pascal stood, extended his hand to Catherine, but rather than grasping it, she slipped her arm around his neck and pressed her cheek to his.  He never indicated he heard her whispered thank you, but he did grin mischievously.  After biding Vincent and Father good night, he made his way toward the Pipe Chamber. 

“Father, I need to escort Catherine home.  I will check in on you when I return.”  Catherine stepped into Father’s outstretched arms, kissed his cheek and they left the chamber. 

As they slowly ambled toward her apartment, they discussed their meeting with Pascal.  Vincent shared several stories of their boyhood, the trouble they had gotten into when Pascal and Devin took Vincent Above, and how Pascal had begun to number Father’s lectures much to Devin’s devilish delight.  They never lied about what they had done, believing in Father’s strict code of honor, and were always ready to accept their punishment.  Honor was foremost, but it never stopped the two scamps, Devin and Pascal, from speculating about which lecture they would receive.  Often, prior to marching into the library to confess their sins, they would loudly call out a number to indicate which lecture they expected. 

Catherine smirked, Vincent’s descriptions were so clear that she would literally envision the three of them.  They stood talking, each reluctant to end what had been a delightful evening.  “When do you plan to tell Father about learning to ride?” 

“I don’t know.  I haven’t decided.  I want it to be a surprise and not let it be something he hears from others.”  His look was intense as he struggled to conceive of a way to share his accomplishment.  “I don’t want him to blow it out of proportion, either.” 

“Surely he is beyond feeling that learning to ride is a danger to you.  It’s not as if you planned to go bike riding in the Park!” 

“With Father you never know, and he certainly never considers my age when it comes to his lectures.”  There was a hint of smile on Vincent’s face as he discussed the tunnel patriarch. 

*******

The next evening Catherine called before leaving work to order dinner, deciding it would be marvelous to have time away from the citizenry and be able to dine alone with Vincent.  She managed to get home, take a quick shower and re-dress before the food order arrived.  She grabbed a jacket then swept up the Styrofoam packages and headed Below. 

“Vincent?”  She whispered his name as she opened the hidden door in the storage area. 

“Yes, Catherine, I’m here.” 

“Could you take this for me?  Be careful, it’s hot.” 

Vincent accepted the large Styrofoam box, sat it down, then assisted Catherine down the ladder.  The scents coming from the box succeeded in making Vincent’s stomach growl in anticipation. 

“I thought it would be nice to have dinner away from the communal setting tonight.  We haven’t done that in awhile, so I called and ordered baked chicken, mac and cheese – a double order for you – and an assortment of veggies plus dessert.  I hope you’re hungry.” 

They hurried along toward the home tunnels, and, as they walked, they discussed their day.  Catherine chuckled, causing Vincent’s eyebrows to rise as she replied.  “If the teenagers could hear us, they’d say we sounded just like their parents discussing their day.  And we do!” 

They slipped past the communal dining room without being noticed and quickly covered the distance to Vincent’s chamber.  He removed his journal and a few papers from the desk as Catherine began to unpack their meal.  Using his arm, he swiped away any accumulation of dust from the table as Catherine began opening the cartons.  He retrieved two plates, water glasses, knifes and forks that he now kept in his small cabinet for just such occasions.  They settled to their meal as Vincent told her of the problems in the children’s literature class and of the latest gizmo Mouse had invented, which caused Father a massive headache.  “His concepts are genius, but executing them are logistical nightmares”. 

“It would be wonderful to be able to direct his genius.  He has such a gift, and with time at a technical institute, under proper supervision, he could invent things to improve the planet.” 

“Yes, he is a genius, but he would never survive in your world, with the strict rules of discipline and demands.  He would shatter and fall apart.”  Vincent sighed, knowing within his heart that Mouse was, in many ways, as restricted to tunnel life as was he. 

“Vincent, may I come in?”  Pascal’s voice was clearly audible as he stood back away from the entrance. 

“Of course, Pascal, please do come in.” 

“Hello, Catherine.  I wondered if you were going to the Great Hall again this evening, and if I wouldn’t be interrupting, I wanted to ask if I might accompany you.  I’ve been thinking about how long it’s been since I last rode a bike, and well, I’d like to try again.” 

Catherine smiled, nodding her head in agreement.  “I’d love it if you joined us.  It was so enjoyable last night and we’d be honored to ride with you. 

“I’ll just leave my purse and things here, if that is all right with you?”  She looked inquiringly at Vincent. 

Deep in their happy prattle they quickly covered the distance to the Great Hall.  They checked among the bikes in the rack, found one that was perfect for Pascal and left for the flat tunnel grounds.  Reaching the smooth surface, they mounted, and after several minutes of uncoordinated chaos, Pascal regained his balance and took off up the grade.  Caught up in the adventure, Pascal hooted and catcalled to Vincent as they rode, recalling boyhood adventures. 

Catherine stood resting at the foot of the grade when “the boys”, as she had mentally been calling them for the last hour, so wound up were they in recalling their childhood, came barreling down the slope.  Her mouth opened and she stared in disbelief as both Pascal and Vincent were straddled flat on their bellies on the bicycle seat, legs extended perfectly straight out behind them.  They crested the second rise, calling out encouragement to each other, as they made straight for Catherine. 

In a wild jumble of panic-filled movements, arm muscles flaying, “the boys” managed to right themselves and come to a stop approximately ten inches before they would have crashed into the tunnel entrance.  Somewhere between the rise and the incline, their adult mantles had been replaced by two mischievous, capricious boys who had once again recaptured their childhood personas.  They were laughingly pushing each other, their eyes filled with unrestricted giddy happiness, struggling to remain upright as they attempted to walk back to Catherine. 

Catherine tried to look dignified, but lost it completely when Vincent winked at Pascal, which set Pascal off into gales of hysterical laughter.  Catherine glowed in watching a new Vincent appear before her eyes, seeing him revert to a child as he joyously played with his life-long friend. Aware of their highly responsible duties within the community and the gravity with which they accepted those heavy burdens, Catherine committed these moments to memory, knowing she would cherish these lighthearted minutes forever.  She clearly understood now, as she watched, the look of joy Vincent wore, when she told him stories of her own childhood and how he, too, treasured those glimpses of her early days. 

Her happiness filled their Bond and her serenity touched Vincent as he rode past her.  Quick-silver threads of joy filled him, making him giddy, as her delight encompassed and consumed him.  He shook his head as her dizzy ecstasy filled his heart. 

The trio continued to ride, stories were shared, and the evening sped by as they relived childhood glories.  “Why are you smiling, Catherine?” Vincent asked as the trio stood together after returning their bikes to the Great Hall. 

“I’m just glad it’s Friday and I don’t have to worry about getting up for work tomorrow.  Do you realize it’s nearly midnight?  We have been laughing and playing for nearly three hours and it seemed like only minutes!”  Her face was radiant, her eyes shining with love and happiness as she looked at Vincent and Pascal.  They returned her joy as they linked arms and slowly made their way out of the Great Hall.  Reaching Vincent’s chamber, Pascal bid them goodnight and once again expressed his thanks for a wonderful evening. 

“I had no concept of the late hour.  We were having such fun and I so enjoyed remembering my childhood memories with Pascal.  Over time, I think we tend to forget all the carefree things we did until someone helps to trigger those memories.”  Vincent’s stance was relaxed, his shoulders eased as his posture softened. 

“It’s late.  I imagine you are tired after your long day and then playing so hard.”  His voice was soft and light; he reveled in the peace he felt.  “I could arrange for a guest chamber if you would care to stay Below tonight.”  Seeing her nod of acquiescence and feeling their Bond fill with elation, Vincent’s own heart thrummed loudly in response to Catherine’s joy. “Why don’t you sit and I’ll go see about a chamber for you.”  Three quick strides took him from the chamber and into the passageway. 

Several minutes passed before he returned with his arms full.  He carried an extra blanket and a set of bath towels.  From his bureau, he removed a cellophane wrapped tooth brush and Catherine’s gown and robe, which he had kept from when she had stayed Below to heal after her father’s passing.  He was unable to explain to himself why he was no longer embarrassed that she should know he had kept the tunnel clothing she had worn, instead of returning them to Mary to be re-cycled for others to use.  They were his Catherine’s clothing and no one else would ever wear them!  He closed the bureau drawer and, as he turned, his hair swung forward hiding his tiny smile.  “Come, I shall lead you to your chamber.” 

She retrieved her purse and jacket and took his hand.  As they walked the short distance to the guest chamber – one Mary habitually left vacant – Catherine spoke softly.  “Are you certain it is all right with you, my being here tonight?  I don’t wish my being here, so close, to cause any problems for you.” 

He stopped, brought her hand to his chest, placing it over his heart.  “There is only joy beating within my heart in having you here tonight.  Today has been a wondrous dream and having you sleep Below tonight would be the perfect ending to a perfect day.” 

Prior to reaching the guest chamber Vincent briefly stopped.  “The bathroom facilities are just here, in case you have forgotten.  I’ll just put your towels and brush inside.”  He disappeared for a moment then stepped back into the passage.  “I’ve left the candles burning for you.” 

Moving forward, they covered the short distance to the guest chamber, which was already glowing with the light of many candles.  “Oh, it’s changed since last time.” 

“Yes, we got some extra furniture so we added a small loveseat to this chamber.  It makes it homey, don’t you think?”  Catherine crossed to the sofa, sat down and bounced once, testing its comfort.  She patted the seat beside her and looked questioningly at Vincent.

Three long strides brought him beside her and he sat down.  “It is comfortable and slightly larger than your own sofa, I think.”  She reached down, taking his hand in her own, absently stroking it.  His heart rate jumped at her touch, as it always did, and he wondered if it was as loud as it seemed pounding in his ears. 

“Are you sleepy?”
 
“No, Catherine, I’m not.  Why?” 

“Well, it’s just that, while the last nights have been magnificent, and I wouldn’t have missed them for anything, there is something I have missed and that’s having you hold me, the feel of your arms.  We have this nice sofa and its toasty warm; I just thought it would be a wonderful way to end our evening.”  Her eyes searched his, telling him of the bliss she felt in his arms, and allowing him to see the depth of her feelings.  Her need to touch and be touched by him was not hidden, her love clearly revealed in her shining green eyes. 

He shifted slightly, bringing his arm up and around her shoulders as his hand settled possessively along her arm, he drew her into the lea of his shoulder.  She cuddled against him, bringing herself to rest more solidly against his muscular chest, and he heard her gentle sigh of contentment.  They softly spoke of their evening, the happiness they shared in spending time with Pascal.  After several minutes, Catherine turned in his arms, bringing herself to lie more completely across his chest, her knees facing the back of the sofa and her hip resting gently next to Vincent’s.  She brought her arms up to encircle his neck, and, again, she happily sighed.  “This is wonderful,” she breathed against his vest.  “I’m not too heavy, am I?” 

“You’re as light as a feather.”  He dropped his head to rest against her hair and barely whispered to himself, “A deliciously light feather,” as he placed a gentle kiss against her hair. 

Instantly she knew he hadn’t meant her to hear his words and she purposefully refused to allow herself to react.  She wanted nothing to disturb or upset this time together.  This was their special time, the two of them alone with no cares or interruptions; no rising sun to steal their special time; the calm distant tapping on the pipes was a lullaby that played to the melody of their love. 

They snuggled together, each lost within the special world their embraces created.  This tranquil bliss defied description or explanation, it simply was paradise as their two hearts joined beating in harmony and their souls rose to the heavens.  The knowledge that this woman longed to be in his arms freely spoke of her need for his touch and gloried in it, continued to surround Vincent’s aloneness.  Incredibly, like the magic of the tides, it wore away years of pain; his desperate but unspoken need for the warmth of human touch, settling tenderly around his heart and bringing him a soul filling peace.   

His long gentle sigh seemed to shimmer in the air, his graveled voice trembled then he whispered, “I have missed holding you, the lithe feel of your arms surrounding me.”  Imperceptibly, his arms tightened, drawing her closer as his need of her surfaced.  Longing filled him, the days since he had truly held her, rose to surround him, and for once, he ignored the voice that warned him, and he allowed his hips to slide forward bringing her body to rest more solidly against his. 

He heard her murmur “Perfect” as she lay firmly against his chest and felt her breasts slide across his chest as she settled deeper into his arms.  Within he warred with his intellect which told him he should leave, but his heart craved -- and desperately needed – to hold Catherine, to rejoice in her touch that soothed and fed his soul. 
 

Their moments Above were harried, always aware that another watcher might possibly be viewing them.  Here and now, they were hidden from prying eyes, sweetly alone, safe, and surrounded by the soft, friendly glow of candles that enriched these moments.  He took a deep breath, allowed his arms to tighten around Catherine and surrendered himself to the moment.  Tomorrow, he would think, but now there was just Catherine and he could hold her all night long. 

*******

Somewhere in the distance he heard the pipes announce the hour, but he was reluctant to yield to the capricious world in which he dwelt.  He and Catherine were walking in the sunshine, across fields with wild flowers and small furred animals.  The tapping became louder and longer; slowly his mind automatically translated the sounds into messages.  Slowly, his eyes opened and he found himself staring into fathomless depths of green.  He continued to stare when she kissed one lone finger of her right hand and then placed the finger against his full lower lip. His heart fluttered and then loudly pounded as she murmured, “Good morning.  I don’t know about you, but this was the best sleep I’ve ever had!” 

Even with her hair slightly mussed she was radiantly beautiful as she rubbed her face against his sweater.  He felt a rumbling deep within his chest and then the languid expelling of his breath. 

Her fingers caressed his neck beneath the cascade of saffron hair.  “Would anyone come looking if we stayed like this all day?  It would be a perfect if that were possible.” 

Nodding in agreement, he continued to gaze into her eyes, never wishing to leave their glorious depth.  His muscles quivered along the length of his body, rippling and stretching tautly, he stiffened slightly, then completely relaxed as his muscles went limp.  His face was inscrutable, he looked away and suddenly a slight smile tugged at the corners of his unique mouth.  “It’s just an involuntary muscular thing that happens when I awaken.  I’m sorry if it startled you.” 

“No, it was just different, something distinctively you.  Now that I know about it, I’ll be prepared for the next time.”  She smiled as she kissed his chest and snuggled closer. 

Her surety that sleeping within his arms was not a one time thing, but that it would happen again, as if it were as customary as the sun rising, amazed him.  The calm tenaciousness of her thoughts, that he was just a man, and that all that transpired between them was normal continued to be a cause of his prolonged late night thoughts.  His thoughts whirled as he realized how completely Catherine accepted everything about him as ordinary.  The strength emanating from her statement assaulted his inner conflict as it slowly nicked away another stone in his self-imposed defenses.  As a general marshaled his soldiers, Catherine’s interminable love outflanked him and her miraculous faith breeched his heart. 

The sudden gurgling of her stomach broke the silence.  “Oh, now, that’s certainly romantic!” she laughed, looking up at him with a wide smile. 

“Perhaps we should think of breakfast,” he replied in a light easy tone. 

*******

They joined Pascal in the communal dining hall and together shared one of William’s hearty breakfasts.  “I don’t know about you, but my stomach hurt this morning from laughing so much last night!”  Pascal glanced down at his stomach as he spoke, “I’ve got bruises, too, that I don’t know how I got!” 

“Perhaps it was that last acrobatic move that was the culprit,” Vincent offered.  “I, too, have some unusual aches this morning.”  His voice was light, holding a hint of laughter as he commiserated. 

Father approached and by silent consent the conversation concerning the previous night’s activities was dropped.  “Catherine, how good to see you.  I wasn’t aware you were going to be coming down so early today.  You do look lovely.  Is that a new outfit?  I don’t recall seeing it.  It’s very becoming.” 

“Thank you.  It’s something I’ve worn previously.  Perhaps we just didn’t see each other on the other occasion.  Vincent and I thought it would be nice to have long day together, so decided to get an early start.” 

“Father, if you and Pascal will excuse us?”  Standing, they prepared to leave. 

“Of course, go along now.  I’ll hope to see you later.” 

Upon reaching the passageway they paused, exchanging a look that spoke volumes.  “Well, technically, I didn’t lie.  He didn’t see me yesterday, and we do think a long day together would be nice, don’t we?” 

“Ever the astute lawyer,” he joked as he took her hand.  They strolled along the tunnels, stopping to chat with those making their way toward the dining room, and finally reached the cliff high above the Great Falls.  He retrieved two large pillows that had seen service on porch swings in their life Above.  Sitting, they nestled together, Catherine wrapped securely in his arms. 

“Has Father come down to the Great Hall since work on all the bicycles began?” 

“No, so far, he hasn’t.  He’s been quite overwhelmed with the dauntless task of managing our books.  He’s very meticulous when it comes to finances and his system would rival a CPA’s for details.” 

“Then perhaps an invitation to visit might be the simplest way to arrange for him to learn of your latest accomplishment?  It would be a very simple setting for a simple task, nothing that would raise his hackles or cause alarms to sound as to perils to your person. Perhaps it would even seem normal to him that, working in the bicycle shop, you had to ride in order to test the equipment.” 

He sat quietly, absorbing all that Catherine had said, weighing the pros and cons of how to break the news to his still overly- protective parent.  “Yes, perhaps it would be easiest to tell him within the confines of the work room.  Today would be a good day since production is closed on the weekend and we’d certainly be alone.  Pascal found us by accident, he most certainly won’t utter a word on the subject, but the flats are an area that is traveled by many, so others could discover our playground.” 

“It would surely be easier coming directly from you.  It has always seemed to me that he becomes upset when he feels left out of things.”

“Again, you are correct, Catherine.  He feels an enormous responsibility for our society, and as our leader, he likes to keep his fingers close to the community pulse.  His abiding love often obliterates all sense of proportion where I am concerned.  His greatest fear as a physician and a father is that I could be hurt and he couldn’t save me.” 

Catherine’s arms squeezed him tightly, acknowledging her understanding of Father’s fears for his safety and well-being.  Her complete acceptance that he was a man didn’t preclude her own fears regarding his unique physical make-up that made any illness possibly life-threatening. 

“The enjoyment we have had these past two weeks has been marvelous.  I feel like a small child with a naughty secret.  It’s just that, sometimes, Father can be so unpredictable in how he will react.” 

“He was violently opposed to our going to my cabin and yet his objections to our being Above on Samhain were mild in comparison when the two were the same subject – your being seen in public.  He can be confusing.” 

“He does find change difficult.  He sees Above as the place that ruined his life, branded him, drove him from medicine, and indirectly, it stole Margaret from him. 

“I feel you’re correct.  Later today, we will find Father and bring him to the bicycle shop, and I’ll show him I have learned to ride.  I’ll rest far easier with him knowing.”  His voice was calm and steady as he announced a decision that had plagued him was now settled. 

They continued to sit talking of other tunnel activities, the ongoing need for a secure source of income, and Catherine’s latest cases.  “Has Father ever discussed the possibilities of investing some of the community funds in the Stock Market?  Something safe and secure that would provide steady long-term dividends.  Peter has had the same broker for years, and he wouldn’t have kept him if he didn’t provide sound financial advice.  Perhaps you might suggest it the next time Peter is down.  Surely they could come up with a way to handle the tax situation.” 

“It would require months of endless thinking on Father’s part while weighing the pros and cons.  He is pragmatic, if nothing else.” 

“Aahh, the experienced voice of the pragmatist son, huh?  You too, do tend to over-think a lot of issues; it’s just not solely his domain.”  She grinned as she teased and was delighted to see the answering merriment in his eyes.  The light, gentle teasing between them was a new part of their relationship and one that each of them found pleasurable. 

*******

It was well past the noon hour when they returned from the Great Falls, and since they were hungry, they stopped in the kitchen.  Seeing two of his favorite people, William agreed to make a couple of sandwiches before he shut down the kitchen in preparation for the evening meal. 

“May I join you?” William questioned, as he sat two plates before them.  On the tray were three mugs and the aroma from the coffee pot he carried was mouth-watering 

“Of course, we’d love to chat with you.  These,” Catherine picked up her sandwich, “look delicious.  You make the best sandwiches; they are always unique and special.” 

“I’ve spent many a happy hour, munching away while sharing conversation with William.  Whatever we have, he turns it into a hearty and appetizing masterpiece.”  The sincerity of Vincent voice caused William to blush slightly and his skin took on a pink tint. 

Later, several of William’s assistants arrived, ready to begin preparing the evening meal and he waved them toward the kitchen.  Finishing his coffee, he stood, shook hands with Vincent, and wished Catherine well and left to join his staff. 

Vincent collected their dishes, rinsed them, smirking at the enormous sign over the sink reminding the citizenry that everyone must rinse their dishes before depositing them in William’s sink for washing.  He returned to Catherine and, together, they headed for the library.  As they started down the library steps, Catherine squeezed his hand, silently offering her support. 

Father eagerly agreed to tour the workshop, saying he had longed to see the operation, but the budgetary constraints had consumed all of his time.  Collecting his cane, the trio left the library and headed for the Great Hall. 

The trip took close to an hour as Father’s hip was troubling him, making his gait slow.  After lighting the candles, Vincent helped Father, offering his arm for support, as they began their tour.  Father turned in amazement at the changes within the Hall, as it now bore no resemblance to their celebratory Winterfest home.  “Once Kanin and his crew complete the new chambers, the Hall will be returned to its majestic grandeur and all this,” Vincent extended his arm to encompass the Hall, “will all be returned to normal. 

“We have used care in protecting the tapestries and have kept anything that is in the least greasy confined to the furthest wall.  I think you will be impressed with our end products, Father, as they show no evidence of ever having been damaged.”  They walked over to the work tables, which were scattered with multiple bicycle parts in various stages of repair.  As they moved deeper into the Hall, Vincent explained how Elizabeth’s students painted and embossed the bikes and, finally, they stopped in front of a rack of 25 shinny bikes. 

“Outstanding!  These were found in dumpsters and badly damaged?  What an amazing job of restoration all of you have done.”  Vincent noticed how Father trembled and how he seemed to be dragging his bad leg.  Shakily, Father’s hand skimmed over several bikes, and he beamed with joy at the workmanship of his family.  “Mr. Wilkerson must be overjoyed to have such an excellent product for sale in his shops.” 

Vincent glanced over at Catherine, and seeing her answering nod, he slipped away as she took over the conversation with Father.  “He has praised the quality of our workmanship, and it was only that his sales staff recognized new model styles so well, but otherwise, they were hard pressed to accept that these were used bikes.”  Catherine’s voice glowed with pride at the accomplishment of her tunnel family.  “He mentioned his used bike shop had an increase of twenty percent in sales since he started stocking tunnel bikes.” 

“There is certainly a variety of styles within the bike rack.”  Again, Father touched one of the bikes; his fingers quivered, then lingered to stroke the tassels flowing from a set of handle bar gripes.  “There are bikes for every age of rider, boys, girls, adults, and such a variety of colors, even those with training wheels.” 

“Father?”  The voice came from the back of the hall. 

“Yes, Vincent, what is it?” 

“Father?” 

Father turned, looking in the direction of the voice and stood with his mouth agape as Vincent peddled toward him.  Vincent continued, past Father, weaving with great expertise between the tables, toward the doors and then increased his speed as he sped back, popping a wheelie before he stopped beside his breathless audience. 

“When…when did you learn to ride?  How did this happen? Who dared to teach you to ride?” Realizing his mouth was open Father quickly closed his mouth. 

“I thought if I was going to repair bikes, I should know how to operate one.  And you know how the children, who are just learning to ride, always ask so many questions.  Well, frankly, I got tired of not being able to intelligently answer their queries.”  He was still seated on the bike, balanced on one foot.  His voice firm and his face inscrutable, only his deep eyes gave away his resolve that he would stand firm, and nothing Father could say would deny him the joy that riding provided. 

Aware that Catherine had stepped away to stand beside Vincent, Father recognized this for what it was:  their joining together in a united front, each ready to battle if he objected.  As an old campaigner, veteran of many battles both real and mental, Father recognized a solid wall of defense when presented to him. 

“Well, I can certainly understand your logic.  It’s impossible to understand the children’s problems when you’ve never experienced what they are describing.  When did all of this happen?” 

Before Vincent could answer, Catherine stepped forward, her shoulders squared, spine stiff, and her head high, “I taught him three weeks ago.”  Her stare spoke volumes, daring him to object, and Father knew that look had undoubtedly stood her in good stead in the court rooms as he saw this woman – Vincent’s woman – assume a tiger pose ready to defend him against all comers! 

“You learned in here with all the tables?  That certainly must have been a challenge.  I hope you didn’t take a tumble on these uneven stones.”  (‘I’m tired and frankly I didn’t want another long battle over something Vincent wished to do; something that was dangerous or that might cause him injury.  The conflict over the budget, our ongoing financial problems had worn down my reserve, and I simply wanted peace and harmony.  Yet there is a part of me that refuses to release Vincent to just do as he pleased without warning him of the danger.  I am fundamentally bound; it is my scared duty to protect this unique child who has been entrusted to my care.’) 

Vincent and Catherine stood watching him and, from their expressions, he was certain they were cognizant of his inter-conflict.  (“After all, Vincent is now thirty-five and he should be aware of the dangerous of falling.”)  His head began to ache and then shake, his shoulders trembled and he stood silently laughing. 

“Father, what’s wrong?  Are you ill?” 

It took several minutes for Father to compose himself and to reassume his dignified mantle.  Once more, he suddenly began to chuckle, and seeing the baffled faces that stared at him, Father began to laugh harder. 

“Come along, children.  Let us return to the library.  I still must complete our budgetary accounts.  I simply want my bed, I’m drained and I don’t want to argue with you.  It’s obvious that you will do as you wish so there is no need to express my safety concerns. 

“I’ve never liked arguing with you, Vincent, and our endless battles about your activities are something I find totally abhorrent.  Truly, I do understand your need to be the best teacher possible for our children and in your opinion, that includes teaching them to ride.  Come, leave us be away.” 

Vincent and Catherine stood, shocked and confused by Father’s contradictory statements.  Was he upset?  Or was he playing some mind game with them and only he knew the rules?  Vincent left his bike parked against the table, and taking Catherine’s hand, they pursued Father. 

The trip to the library was one of confused statements, Father alternated between short bursts of laughter and minute words of rage.  “Do you think we should send for Peter?  Possible he is suffering from some seizure disorder or maybe he’s had a stroke.” 

“I’d feel better if we sent for Peter.  Doesn’t this next passageway on the left lead to the Pipe Chamber?”  Vincent nodded and Catherine left him, going to find Pascal and have an urgent message sent to Peter to come Below immediately. 

It was more than an hour before Peter appeared and, during that time, Father sat at his desk, furiously working on the budget, drinking tea and alternating between bouts of laughter and sharp words of anger.  He was certainly not the Father Vincent had always known, this was some demented stranger wearing Father’s clothing. 

*******

Peter slowly came down the steps from Jacobs’s bed chamber and took a seat beside Catherine.  “Vincent, please.  It’s late and your pacing is wearing me out.  Come and sit.”  Peter’s relaxed smile eased the tension within the room.  Vincent settled into a chair. 

“No, I don’t think he’s had a stroke or a seizure.  Jacob is completely exhausted – both physically and mentally.  He has been battling with the finances for months now, staying here at his desk long after the community has been asleep seeking a solution to the pressing financial crisis.  He’s not a young man anymore and these prolonged hours are just more than he can handle.  Everyone comes to him with their problems, but to whom does he seek counsel for his problems?  No one! 

“His blood pressure is low, his pulse racing, and while we don’t have a scale handy, I’d swear he has lost a good twenty pounds since I last examined him.  I’ve ordered him to bed for at least forty-eight hours, complete bed rest, and I want all his meals delivered to him; he is to get up for the bathroom only.  Is that clearly understood?

“And you, Vincent, will take those damn accounting ledgers out of here, hide them, and he isn’t to touch them.”  Peter swore violently, shoving aside the books as he sat on the edge of the desk.  “He’s mentally exhausted from all the budget stress.  He’s in there laughing – at what I don’t know – and raging about the ‘short fall’ and how to resolve it. 

“I’ve half a mind to put him in the hospital chamber where his activities can be monitored and allow him no visitors.  If I leave him here, he will try to sneak back in here to work.”  Speaking outloud had cleared Peter’s thoughts and he mounted the library steps, stood at the pipe and tapped out two words:  STRETCHER/LIBRARY.  Instantly, an acknowledgement was heard. 

In less than five minutes, Kanin and Winslow appeared, anxiously looking at Peter, then at Vincent.  “We’re taking Jacob to the hospital chamber.” 

Shock clearly registered on their faces as Kanin and Winslow looked at Peter.  “Come along now.  Ignore his protests and once we get him there, I’m going to sedate him.” 

Vincent stood, but was restrained by Catherine’s hand.  They could hear the protests coming from Father’s bed chamber and several words that were not normally associated with his stately persona.  Over the sound of swearing suddenly Peter’s voice rose, echoing loudly.  “Jacob, shut up, do you hear me?  I said shut up!” 

Moments later Winslow led the way from the chamber and his audience could see him fighting a smirk that tugged at his mouth.  Kanin also struggled to retain his composure as they mounted the library steps.  Peter motioned to Vincent and Catherine to follow and together they all headed toward the hospital. 

*******

They missed dinner, and all the kitchen helpers had left when the ragtag group entered the community dining hall.  Jacob was sound asleep and Jamie was on duty in the hospital chamber.  Winslow and Kanin stepped into the kitchen, found the leftovers from the evening meal, set the water to heating for tea, and gathered together plates.  Finding a tray, they began to fill the plates, collected silverware and mugs, and finished heating the food. 

“He will sleep through the night and probably well into the morning.  I’d forgotten his fiery temper, and his vast collection of swear words rival any sailor.”  Peter’s smile was engaging as he took a sip of tea.  “I remember when we worked on the docks one summer while in medical school and Jacob swore with the best of them.  He took great delight in making me blush with his colorful phrases!” 

Vincent was intrigued at learning of a side of Father that he had never known.  Father could be furtive concerning his past, and like his marriage to Margaret, his working on the docks was something of which he had never spoken. 

“I’d appreciate your not mentioning that Jacob is in the hospital chamber.  I know much of the community heard the message on the pipes, but let’s try to keep this as low profile as possible.  It will get around, I know, but let’s just keep it low key.  No visitors. 

“Mary will need to be told and she will assume, I’m certain, much of his care.  I will allow only the two of you,” Peter looked directly at Vincent and Catherine, “as his visitors.  Everyone else is totally restricted from the hospital chamber and that includes Mouse and all his wild schemes.” 

As they ate their meal, they talked of how the community would function without Father’s steady hand.  Winslow volunteered to work alongside of Vincent on the budget and Catherine agreed that she would bring down a calculator, thus relieving them from manually calculating all the balances.  “Just having a calculator should ease some of the strain.” 

“We will need a council meeting to establish a work group for the budget - a budget committee.  It is abundantly clear that Father needs assistance, and we need to select members to share that burden, rather than having it continue as his alone.”  Although not technically a tunnel citizen, Peter’s warm voice was filled with practicality as well as concern for Jacob. 

“I’ll leave a note for Mary with instructions as I won’t be able to get down here tomorrow until mid- or late afternoon.  Jacob is going to be a bear to put it mildly, and a crafty one, to boot!  He will use any means to escape back to the library, his books and budgets.  If it comes to it, Vincent, you have my permission to tie him to the bed!” 

They continued to discuss their strategies, who would assume what duties and how to cover the many functions that had fallen under Father’s domain.  “By shifting a couple of things, I could free up a whole day, and I’d like to volunteer to help Father with the budget.  Math and calculations have always come easily to me and, I’d be proud to work along side Father to relieve him.” 

“Thank you, Winslow.  When the Council meeting is called, I’ll certainly stand with you to assume the accounting duties.  I’m sure we will have little, if any, opposition.”  Although he was concerned about Father’s condition, Vincent did as Father had instructed him, to step forward and assume the mantle of command. 

While they continued to talk, Catherine collected their dishes, slipped into the kitchen and quietly washed the dishes, restoring William’s kitchen to its pristine condition.  She slid in beside Vincent, and beneath the table, she squeezed his hand offering her comfort.  As they talked, Peter wrote out instructions for Mary and, shortly after eleven, the meeting broke up.  Kanin volunteered to walk Peter back to library and then escort him to the exit near where his car was parked.  Their good-byes echoed, and slowly, Winslow, Vincent and Catherine began their journey.  They dropped off Winslow at his chamber then continued on to the hospital chamber. 

While Vincent went in to check on Father, Catherine walked to Mary’s chamber, slipped in and laid Peter’s note on her desk and quietly left.  She talked with Jamie for a few minutes, then went in to see Father.  Vincent sat beside the bed, his hand gently stroking Father’s hand, his head bowed and she saw his lips silently moving in prayer.  She moved to stand behind him, filling their Bond with her loving support and comfort. 

As they left the hospital chamber, they both knew there was no question of Catherine’s returning Above tonight.  She would sleep Below, to be near Vincent during this time of upheaval. 

*******

As Peter had predicted, Father was indeed a bear when he discovered himself in the hospital chamber, wearing an open hospital gown, and none of his clothes or shoes were available to him.  He roared and swore, and with undaunted courage, Mary ignored his raving. Vincent heard all the noise, stepped into the chamber, took a seat and calmly stared until Father became quiet.  Without uttering a word, Vincent opened the book he carried and started to read.  The slow cadence of his voice continued, weaving a magically spell, as a weary and worn Father finally succumb to the soothing sound and drifted to sleep.  Vincent’s spirits lifted and a wry smile tickled the corners of his mouth.  (‘I remember Father when you used that same trick on me, oh, how I do remember!’)  He stood and quietly left the chamber. 

Later in the day, he again heard shouting coming from the hospital chamber, and he quickly strolled toward the sound.  Once more he sat staring as Father continued to spew forth his rage.  Vincent neither smiled, frowned nor laughed, he simple stared.  “Don’t think you can pull that on me.  I’m the master who taught you, remember that, you imp!”  Father yelled at him.  Again, Vincent ignored all of Father’s verbiage and the cobalt blue eyes continued to stare. 

Vincent was aware that Mary hovered near the entrance, but his eyes never moved.  The battle of wills continued onward with Father yelling and Vincent staring.  Peter appeared at the edge of the chamber, slipped pass Mary and entered.  He didn’t speak; he opened his medical bag, pulled out a vial and hypodermic, plunged the needle into the vial and slowly pulled back on the plunger. 

Stepping up to the bed, Peter flipped the blankets up and over Jacob’s face, swiped his exposed hip with alcohol, and plunged in the needle before his startled patient could react.  “Jacob, if you won’t shut up, I can make you shut up!  Now be a good little boy and say goodnight to Vincent.”  With that, Peter flipped the blanket down and strode from the room. 

(“Oh, Good Lord, I’ll never forget this sight!’)  Vincent’s head moved and his hair fell forward, a leer tugged at his mouth, and he quickly pulled down the corners of his mouth, raised his head and stared.  The look on Father’s face was priceless.  His mouth moved, but no words came out; his face was beat red, he shook with rage, and his hand shot out, snatching the bedside box of tissues and hurled them across the room and through the entrance way.  Next, a pillow sailed across the room, followed by a second one. 

As the second pillow hit the floor, Vincent stood, “Now that you have made yourself perfectly comfortable, Father, I’ll say goodnight.”  He stepped around the pillows and walked to the entrance, took Mary by the hand and drew her along with him.  They continued walking, as another diatribe spewed forth from the chamber.  Standing, leaning against the tunnel wall, Peter stood, his whole body shaking with laughter. 

Vincent, too, began to shake with silent laughter and even Mary smirked.  “I should really go see if he is all right,” Mary offered. 

“No, just leave him be.  That shot will begin to take effect, and in ten minutes, he is going to be snoring loudly.  I’ve only seen Jacob like this once before – during medical school – and again, it was when he had used up all his physical and mental reserves, after months of getting no more than two-three hours sleep per day.  And just like now, he was a bear, swearing and pitching a fit at his confinement.  If he won’t sleep, I can force him to rest.  And in resting, he will certainly provide some peace to our battered ears!” 

Taking Mary by the hand, “Come along.  We’ll go have some tea, and by the time we return, he will be soundly sleeping.  Vincent, stay close by, just in case, won’t you?”  Peter was aware that Vincent had not strayed far from the chamber, staying close in case he was needed.  Seeing Vincent nod, Peter tugged gently on Mary’s hand and together they walked away. 

Peter opted to have Jacob given several lighter doses of medication, which would keep him sleeping steadily for the next forty-eight hours.  After another one of his loud verbal harangues, Peter felt none of Jacob’s friends needed to be subjected to such language. Plus, he knew when he recovered Jacob would suffer from acute embarrassment at his rude and unmannerly behavior. 

Three days later, Father was allowed to naturally awaken from his induced sleep.  It was late in the afternoon when he opened his eyes to find Vincent and Catherine sitting beside his bed.  After a gentle hello and pressing a kiss to his cheek, Catherine left the chamber not wishing to embarrass Father in any way.  She returned several moments later, carrying a basin, cloth, and towel, and after handing those to Vincent, she left. 

Vincent dipped the cloth in water, wrung it out and handed it to Father.  Father washed the grit from his eyes and passed the cloth over his face and neck.  Just as he looked up, Catherine re-appeared, bearing a cup of tea, handed it to Father, accepted the cloth, and silently left the chamber. 

The picture of patience, Vincent waited as Father consumed his tea, while physically stretching the kinks from his body and took mental inventory.  

“Would you like to get up to use the bathroom?” 

“Yes.” 

Vincent excused himself and returned with a second gown to serve as a robe to cover Father’s exposed backside.  He helped swing his legs over the side of the bed and then assisted Father in slipping on the improvised robe.  From a drawer, he withdrew slippers and put them on Father’s feet, then helped him to stand.  Without speaking a word between them, Vincent assisted him to the bathroom, waited outside and then helped him back to bed. 

“Thank you for your assistance,” Father stiffly said.  “What day is it?” 

“It’s now Thursday, you have been sleeping for roughly seventy-two hours.  If you are hungry, I can bring you a tray.” 

Father’s face clearly registered his surprise.  He looked up just as Peter walked in.  With a simple nod of his head, Vincent stood and left the two physicians alone.

*******

Vincent and Catherine walked through the tunnels, killing time after they had asked William to have a tray brought to the hospital chamber.  From their previous conversations they agreed that Peter would need time alone with Father, to have an in-depth discussion of his physical condition.  They were aware that the sharing of the responsibilities would not be easy for Father to accept, and that as his contemporary, Peter was the best one to broach the subject as well as being more likely to come out the winner in this battle. 

“Come on, let’s go ride.  We haven’t ridden in nearly five days and it will do us good.”  Catherine tugged on his hand and they took the next junction that would take them to the Great Hall.  Collecting their bikes, they headed for the flat spaces and rode. 

Their spirits brightened as they burned off excess energy from being confined to the hospital area.  While they had been consumed with worries about Father, Mouse and the other bicycle workers had continued with their duties.  Ten more repaired and painted bikes had been completed, awaiting Cullen’s crew to transfer them Above. 

They had passed the chambers under construction by Kanin’s work gang, so they were aware of the ongoing progress.  Hopefully, in less than two weeks, the crews would be able to transfer the bicycle operation to the new chambers and then Cullen’s crew would restore the Great Hall. 

Winslow had the account books and was going over them, aided by the new calculator Catherine had brought down.  After spending a few minutes instructing him on its use, Catherine was delighted to see his fingers fly over the key pad. 

They discussed all these events as they rode, their voices growing lighter as they were able to shake the worries caused by Father’s collapse.  Work schedules got shifted and Father’s duties were picked up by many of the older members of the community, and the air was palpable with the resolve that they would continue to ease the burden of leadership from Father’s shoulders. 

“Hey!” 

They stopped, turned and saw the Pipe Master pedaling toward them.  “Wish I had known you were riding, I would have joined you earlier.  I have the students manning the pipes, as I needed to stretch my legs.  The bikes are certainly good for that.  How’s Father doing?” 

“Peter’s with him now and he is discussing Father’s new, lighter work duties.” 

“Oh, well, I’m glad I’m down here.  Earlier, I could hear him yelling and swearing.  Except for the voice, I was hard pressed to accept that those words were coming from his mouth!”  Both Vincent and Pascal grinned as they instantly remembered a lecture they had received at seventeen on swearing. 

“Over the years, he has steadily accepted more and more duties as members of our community have died.  He tried so hard to help update the pipe code books after my dad passed, and it was only after he created a mess, that he stated the work was beyond his skills.” 

“No, he doesn’t take failure easily.  Even though he has always been good at pipe code, the books are outside his purview.  You know what a disappointment it was when he returned the books to you.  I remember how dejected he looked.”  Vincent’s voice ended in an abrupt sad sigh. 

*******

Father was still confined to the hospital chamber and Peter was steadily winning the war of what he would be allowed to do upon his release.  Vincent visited often, but beneath the casual hospital conversations, he was aware that something was deeply troubling Father.  He tried with great diplomacy to provide every opportunity for Father to unburden himself, but to no avail.  The feeling of Father’s mental anxiety strongly surrounded the chamber, leaving Vincent mystified. 

After leaving the hospital, Vincent headed toward the library, seeking a book to occupy his mind.  Instead of a darkened chamber, the candles blazed and Winslow sat at Father’s desk, surrounded by stacks of papers.  Startled, he looked up and quietly returned Vincent’s greeting. 

“Good.  I could use your help.  Come look at this.”  Vincent took a seat, listening intently as Winslow went over his problems.  An hour passed, then two and the stacks of paper grew, as unique fingers danced over the calculator keys.  Twice, they rose to replace the nearly extinguished candles, and they continued to work into the night. 

They heard the community awaken as the volume of tapping on the pipes increased.  Vincent stood, stretching his cramped muscles, and moved to prepare a pot of tea.  Neither of them was willing to surrender to the mystery; each resolved to find the clue that would provide the answer.  They ignored the growling in their bellies and drank more tea, as they steadily ploughed through the stacks of paper. 

“Gads!  Holy Cow!  Would you look at this!” 

*******

The library was restored, and his desk top was bare, when Vincent and Catherine walked Father into his bastion of ordered chaos.  Vincent’s strong arm supported Father as they descended the steps, and Catherine held the chair steady as he wearily sank into it.  He sighed, as he settled into the chair.  “Tea would be nice, but I expect you two have other things to do.” 

“No, Father, we are here to help you get resettled and have nothing else planned except spending time with you.  I’ll brew some tea.” 

As Vincent went off to start the tea, Catherine took the seat opposite Father.  “I’m sure you’re happy to be out of the hospital and back in your own chamber.  Its funny how we miss the things we take for granted when we have been gone for a few days.”  Catherine chatted on, filling the silence, noting that Father glanced around the desk, furtively edging open drawers when he thought she wasn’t looking. 

They had been chatting for an hour or so when Winslow came lumbering down the steps, his arms filled with the account ledgers.  In seeing the ledgers, Father’s face grayed and he nervously tugged at the button on his long flowing vest.  “Let me take those, Winslow, and I’ll slip them into the drawer.”  He pulled open the drawer and waited, but the ledgers were not forthcoming. 

“Peter would have my hide if I returned these to you!  For months, every time I came to see you, you were buried in these ledgers.  It was like they were extensions of your hands!  I stopped to get some coffee from William and he said you were home. I only stopped to say hello. I’m headed to my chamber as I’m still posting to the accounts.” 

He bounded up the steps, turned and looked back at Father.  “You call me, Father, if you need anything; I’m not that far away.  See you later Vincent, Catherine.” 

Their conversation continued, but Vincent noticed that only he and Catherine were talking and Father was strangely withdrawn, almost morose.  “Perhaps you would like to lie down for a while before dinner.  After all, this is your first day and it was a long walk from the hospital chamber.” 

“Yes, thank you, I think I would.  If you will excuse me?”  He stood, slowly moving toward his sleeping chamber.  He leaned heavily on his cane as he walked and he appeared stooped, older than his years.  Seeing his hesitation, Vincent quickly rose, took his arm and assisted him to his chamber. 

Moving to the upper level of the library, Vincent and Catherine sat among the stacks, Vincent quietly in search of a specific book while Catherine idly flipped pages in a travel book.  “He seems withdrawn and is obviously distressed.  I’ve tried, but he won’t discuss what is bothering him; has he said anything to you?” 

“No.  When I’ve gone to the hospital chamber, he is silent, only answering when he must, when I ask how he is feeling.  At first, I thought it was me, but then Peter mentioned it when we were having dinner last night at my apartment.  Peter said he almost preferred the swearing to this silence.” 

“I don’t want to force his hand.  I would rather he volunteer to speak than having to drag it out of him.” 

“Do you know what’s troubling him?”  Catherine turned to look at Vincent, and from his eyes, she knew he was aware of what was troubling Father and that his own code of honor would not allow him to discuss it.  “Oh, OK, I’ll wait it out with you.”  He smiled in gratitude. 

An hour passed as Vincent continued his search for a book and Catherine continued to be an arm-chair traveler.  From their high perch, they saw Father return to the library and watched as he paced in front of his desk.  He paused to open the drawers of the huge desk, only to slam them loudly in finding all of them empty.  He muttered to himself and returned to pacing.  The eddies carried his voice up to them, “What ever am I going to do?” 

Purposefully, Vincent dropped several books.  Father peered up into the stacks as Vincent stooped to retrieve them and Catherine stood.  “I’m sorry if we startled you.  We were just on our way down.”  Collecting two books, Vincent took Catherine’s hand and they moved toward the spiral staircase. 

“How was your nap?  I hope you’re feeling more rested.  What about dinner?  Do you feel up to going to the dining hall or I could get a tray so you could eat here?” 

“I don’t want to be a bother to you, Vincent.” 

“Father, caring for you is never a bother.  I’ll just slip out and be back shortly and then we can all eat together.”  He quietly mounted the steps and stepped into the passageway. 

*******

Another three days passed, and while Father physically looked better, Vincent and Peter were concerned about his continuing ambiguous state, which bordered on depression.  Peter again tried to bring about a discussion without being baleful, but his patient continued to maintain nothing was wrong. 

Winslow arrived in the library late, and without thinking, he plopped into the desk chair and began to scribble a note.  It was the wrong move.  Father walked in and exploded in rage, accusing Winslow of usurping his duties, taking over as if he were suddenly in his dotage or a senile imbecile. His tirade continued as he vented all his inner wrath and anxiety upon Winslow. 

Father stopped to take a deep breath and Winslow stood up, towering over Father.  “Jacob, my parents brought me up to respect my elders.  I won’t dignify the filth you have hurled at me with an answer.  I respect you too much to even attempt to justify the insults you have uttered.  It is a sad commentary when an old friend can’t simply sit at your desk to write you a note!  Good night.”  He collected his papers and quietly left. 

Vincent had arrived at the end of Father’s frenzied impotent rage.  He allowed Winslow to pass without speaking, knowing they would meet later when they both were calmer.  Vincent’s boots struck the stairs with force, revealing his anger and frustration. 

From the seat he had taken at his desk, Father had the good grace to look embarrassed.  Suddenly, he slumped forward, covered his face and his shoulders shook and he whimpered, “What am I going to do, what?”  He sobbed and his hands pounded on the desk. 

Quietly, Vincent crossed the floor, knelt beside Father and gathered him into his arms, taking his full weight against his chest and gently rocking him.  He held Father, as the dam of his internal pain burst, knowing that Father needed to heal and that could only happen after cleansing.  He had kept too much locked inside, things that were tearing him apart. 

Vincent held him, gently stroking his back, but remained silent, allowing his physical presence to assuage Father’s pain.  After a time, his sobs grew less and his shaking ceased.  Shifting only slightly, Vincent withdrew a handkerchief from his hip pocket and pressed it into Father’s hand.  “Please, Father, say it out loud.  All the pain you have kept locked inside is poisoning you.  You must speak of what is distressing you, please.”  His voice was low, filled with compassion, as he sought to find the path to ease Father’s profound grief. 

Slowly, haltingly, the words came in a jumble of starts and stops.  Disjointed and non-coherent words tumbled out, starting and stopping, and slowly, the weak voice took on its former strength and resilience.  He straightened slightly, tears still streaming down his care worn face, “How will I ever tell the community?  How can I tell them they must stay Above longer, that we have not the funds I said we did?” 

“Father, I realize you are upset and what I am going to say will distress you further.  I want your promise that you will remain here, as I need to get Winslow.” 

“No, please.  I was unbelievably rude to him, accusing him falsely, when it was I who am guilty.  I have no excuse, no one to blame but myself, as I poured my venom upon him.” 

“Please, just wait.”  Vincent quickly left the library and returned minutes later, towing Winslow and the account ledgers in his wake. 

In seeing the gentle giant, Father’s face became red and his embarrassment was acute.  Winslow knew from Vincent’s brief words, as he was dragged down the passage, why he was here.  His empathetic understanding did not allow him to hold a grudge.  He simply opened the ledgers and quietly began to speak. 

“Your accounting methods were somewhat of mystery when I first took the books, but after a while, I began to understand the brilliance of your cross-postings and references.  But as I worked to bring the system into balance, I began to understand why you elected to use such an elaborate system.  I do think there are other methods which would prove just as effective, while being less time consuming.  Perhaps you will allow such a discussion after we are finished here.” 

Winslow’s demeanor and voice remained calm and steady as he slowly worked his way backward through the ledgers.  “I wasn’t sure of what I had discovered, so I asked Vincent to go over the accounts with me.  Together, we discovered four major errors, and we struggled for long hours to find where it all began.  We went back through nearly two years of records, checking and cross- checking your postings.” 

As he spoke, he flipped pages, pointing out several small errors that had been carried forward.  “The first major error occurred nearly two years ago, and subsequent balances reflected that error.”  He pointed at a figure that had been written in his own neat hand beside one Father had written.  He continued referencing the errors and miscalculations and then closed the books.  He took several sheets of accounting paper, unfolded them and slid them nearer to Father. 

“Using the corrected balance, I made this summary work sheet to calculate the actual balances.  As you can see,” his long finger pointed to one column, “this balance is considerably different than your previous total.  And these two are larger, while the last column has a negative balance.” 

Father continued to look bereft as he stared at the figures.  “How will I ever be able to explain to the community that I have mismanaged our finances and that they must continue working Above in jobs they hate and despise, not for six months longer but for a year!  How?” 

Winslow and Vincent exchanged a puzzled look.  Vincent suddenly shook his head.  “Father, how long has it been since you allowed Dr. Wilson to examine your eyes?” 

“I think it was just last year, I believe.  Why?” 

“Would you read these figures to me, please?” 

Father read the requested figures and as he finished, both Winslow and Vincent were beginning to chuckle.  “Oh, Father, I think it has surely been longer than a year since your last examination.  The correct figures are as follows.”  He quietly read the balances as Father stared at him in awe struck silence. 

“Are you saying all my balances were wrong because of my vision and that we don’t have a deficit shortfall?” 

Winslow smiled, took a pad of paper and wrote in large figures, the current account balances.  Father took the paper and stared.  “Then we aren’t in the red and the community doesn’t need to continue to work Above until Spring?” 

“No, they need not continue working Above until Spring. I think they can stop in December.  We actually had sufficient funds to purchase the pipes and not touch the reserve emergency fund.  It was only a clerical error on your part when you transposed a set of figures and missed one figure completely.  You were off by several thousands of dollars in the emergency fund as well as the maintenance fund.  It will be quite simple to transfer some of the excess funds back into the emergency fund, which actually had a negative balance.” 

“If you will allow me, I can show you an accounting system that maintains all the factual knowledge of your system, but without the continuous cross-posting.”  Winslow sweetly smiled as he watched the haggard persona slip from Father’s shoulders. 

“You wish to help me after all the horrific things I said to you; the contemptuous way I abused your kindness?  I’m totally ashamed of myself, and must beg your forgiveness, although I certainly don’t deserve it, I am humbly asking you to forgive me.” 

Winslow walked around the desk, bent and slipped his arms around Father, drawing him upward and gently hugged him.  “Friends understand when pain causes harsh words to be spoken, and to know they aren’t meant; it is simply the pain talking.”  The two men stood hugging each other as peace descended upon them. 

Minutes later, Vincent left the library, and as he glanced back, he saw two heads bent over the ledgers as Winslow began to outline his new accounting procedures. 

*******

Vincent knew that, in his own way, Father would make amends to Peter and Mary for his behavior while in the hospital chamber.  And he knew that in his own way, Peter would eventually tease Father about his swearing, until it became another running joke between them.  He made an appointment for Father with Dr. Wilson to have his eyes examined and he would, himself, accompany him on the long walk to Dr. Wilson’s office.  Father did like to plead forgetfulness when it came to keeping his vision and dental appointments. 

Winslow joined Pascal, Catherine and Vincent in riding their bikes one evening a week.  Catherine looked forward to this time as she was allowed further visions of what life in the tunnels had been like for Vincent, surrounded by his best friends.  She laughed as the three adult men became carefree youngsters as they rode together, ever fearless and eager for new adventures aboard their trusty Schwinn’s!

 The End

 
*Schwinn was for years the premiere bicycle manufacturer in the U.S.  They were highly coveted by children who dreamed of owning their first bike.