The Path To Love

A Round Robin for WFOL 2015
by ChicagoTunnelKid, Cindy Rae, and JoAnn Baca


When you find your path, you will also find your love story. ~ Deepak Chopra

~~~~~~~~~

 

Jamie sat on the ledge by the Mirror Pool. She thought of it as her “thinking place.” She spent a lot of time there of late, but thinking had yet to settle the restlessness she felt. She threw a pebble into the pool, listened to the “plop” it made, and watched the ripples fan out. One pebble after another, she sat mesmerized by the sounds and the motion. But this wasn't getting her anywhere. She sighed and threw the handful of pebbles she had into the pool all at once, and watched the multiple ripples radiate outward. Decisions are much like that, she thought. She stood up and began the trip to the sentry post for her evening shift.

***

Catherine was late getting down to see Vincent. Work, as usual, had kept her longer than she had wished. She refused to give up seeing Vincent, knowing it would make for a late evening. Nothing was more important to her than her time with Vincent. Lost in thoughts of him, she was startled by Jamie's greeting.

"Oh, hello, Jamie!"

"Off to see Vincent? Weren't you two supposed to hear the concert tonight?"

"Yes, unfortunately I wasn't able to get off work in time to make it. I hope Vincent went and listened without me."

"I don't think so, Catherine. He didn't want to miss you if you were to come down later, and then Father corralled him in a game of chess instead."

Catherine sighed. "I'm sorry he missed the program. I know it was to have some of his favorites. I'll have to see how I can make it up to him!" She smiled, imagining the ways that might be.

Jamie caught the softened glow of Catherine's eyes and wondered what put it there. Relationships were a mystery to Jamie, and listening to teenagers Up Top didn't shed much light on the matter. Yet, she couldn't deny there was something between Vincent and Catherine. A person could tell just by looking at them they were in love.

"I should get going, Jamie. I've kept Vincent waiting so long already."

"Sure, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hold you up. Maybe some other time we can, uh, talk.”

Catherine strode off, her pace quicker than before. She missed Jamie's wistful look as her eyes followed Catherine.

***

"You talked with Jamie?" Vincent inquired. "How did she seem?"

Catherine's brow arched at the question. "Just fine, why?"

"Something of late seems to be working on Jamie. I have not seen her so restless, so discontent. She has spoken to no one; she grapples with it alone."

"And that worries you."

"Yes. Too often left alone, worries grow to fearsome proportions, especially in young minds."

"Have you asked her what's troubling her?"

"Every time I try, she evades," he admitted.

"Perhaps I can try.” Catherine wrapped her arms around Vincent in reassurance. "Maybe it's a female thing."

"Perhaps," Vincent agreed. "Now, what about putting our concerns aside and letting Shakespeare transport us to other realms!"

"If it means you reading to me, Vincent, I willingly go where Shakespeare leads us!"

***

It was indeed late by the time Catherine left. She remembered her promise to Vincent about talking with Jamie but thought better of it now, thinking it could be left to another day. Jamie, however, had other thoughts on the matter as she called out to Catherine in passing.

"Catherine! Have you got a minute?” Jamie popped out from behind her sentry post, and stood before Catherine. She looked so expectant and hopeful that Catherine couldn’t bring herself to make a quick exit. Instead, she managed to stifle a yawn and even smiled a bit, hoping the effect was enough to hide how tired she was. Glancing at her watch, she replied, "Perhaps a few. What is it, Jamie?"

"I was wondering something. I mean … if you had time, I was wanting to know, um, that is, whether you have ever, well, I mean how did you know?" Jamie stared hard at the tunnel floor, suddenly wishing it could open and swallow her whole.

Catherine stood baffled. "How did I know what?"

Jamie stood shifting her weight from side to side. Her mouth opened, yet nothing came out. Silence stretched time until she shrugged. "Never mind. It's late, you should be getting home."

As confused as she was, Catherine sensed this was something serious to Jamie.

“You’re on sentry duty, so perhaps we should meet sometime when you are free and it isn’t so late for me. How about if I come back tomorrow evening? You could meet me at my threshold about seven-thirty, and we could go from there."

Jamie noticeably relaxed. "That would be great, Catherine! Thanks. See you then."

Catherine smiled and started off. Vincent was correct, she thought. Something was up with Jamie. What, she had no idea. Tomorrow may be the opportunity to find out.

"Catherine!" Jamie called as she caught up with her.

"Yes?"

"Would you mind, um, that is, could I come to your apartment instead of meeting down here?" She glanced down as she sought a good-sounding reason for her request. "I could use a break, get Above for a change."

Now she knew something was up. Jamie usually only went Above for a very compelling purpose. "Of course. I'll expect you at seven-thirty." Catherine smiled as she noted Jamie's relief.

***

The fates cooperated, as Catherine actually got to leave work at a decent hour. She stopped on the way home to pick up some dinner and even had time to straighten up before Jamie was due.  On the rare free moment she had at work, she considered what could be on Jamie's mind. Her only hypothesis so far was that perhaps Jamie was thinking of moving Above, and yet Catherine really couldn't see Jamie happy Above.

A soft knock interrupted her thoughts. She opened the door to Jamie, and the look in her eyes melted Catherine's heart. She seemed so nervous and miserable at the same time.

"Have a seat, Jamie. Can I bring you something to drink?"

"Water is fine." Jamie settled into the couch, wishing it could swallow her up. What am I thinking, coming here? She will think I’m just a silly teenaged girl. She sighed. Perhaps she should leave. But at that thought, Catherine showed up with the water. She sat across from Jamie.

"Here we are, Jamie. What's on your mind?" Catherine had learned that sometimes silence was the best investigative tool with a witness. That meant, however, that the wait could seem interminable.

Jamie began to fidget, playing with her fingers. She glanced up at Catherine, then back down to her lap. This cycle repeated until finally taking a deep breath, Jamie began.

"I want to be in love like you and Vincent."

This proclamation filled the space between them like a huge elephant balancing on a very small platform. This was never among Catherine's expectations. Catherine nodded slowly. Jamie continued.

"I watch you two together, how much in love you are and how real it seems, and I want that for me. I just don't know how to get it. I mean, how do you go about finding that person? How did you decide it was Vincent for you? You could have practically anyone in NYC, and yet you went Below to find love. Should I come Above? Really, the pickings are pretty slim Below. Besides, I might like living Above. How am I supposed to know? Father keeps extolling the virtues of Below while warning us of the dangers Above. But I want ...."

Catherine reached across to still Jamie's fidgety hands and to garner her attention.  She smiled at Jamie and admitted, "It's been a long time since I was your age, wondering about these questions. And yet, not so long ago I considered what my life would be like now if I had not met Vincent. What if someone else had found me in the park and got me to a hospital? The thought filled me with such a sense of emptiness and waste that I could only be thankful that I had found Vincent, and that he found me. Feeling aimless and empty is not a pleasant state to be in, is it?"

Jamie shook her head. When she looked up at Catherine, one small tear was falling down a cheek.

"When did all these thoughts first rise up for you? How long have you kept this bottled up?"

Again, a period of silence before Jamie had her emotions under control enough to answer.

"I guess it really hit me last Winterfest, watching you and Vincent dance, looking at each other with such love. I felt a clench in my heart, thinking that I would never be able to have that. Who would want to love me that way? I’ve been passed around and passed over my whole life. Maybe I’m asking too much to have a love like yours and Vincent’s. Anyway, it seemed that after Winterfest, whenever I looked at you both together, that feeling came over me."

Another period of silence as Jamie stared at her lap. Catherine gave Jamie’s hands an extra squeeze in support.

She finally looked up at Catherine and asked, "How did you know that Vincent was the one for you?"

Now it was Catherine's turn for silence as she marshaled her thoughts, her recollections of a rather turbulent time coming to that conclusion for herself. She released Jamie’s hands and sat back on the couch.

"I knew during those ten days he took care of me that I had never met a man like him before, and I don't mean his physical looks, but his compassion and acceptance of others, his caring for the betterment of all around him, his support of me to be my best. In all my experience, in all my travels, nowhere had I ever met someone like him."

"Are those the things you were looking for in someone to love?"

Catherine smiled. ”Actually, no. I hadn't realized yet how important those qualities were. Nor was I exactly a model of those virtues myself. Vincent saw those possibilities in me before I ever did, and he had faith that I would find my way, whether that path would ever include him or not. Vincent's love is truly unselfish, a rare commodity Above."

Catherine's words held Jamie spellbound as she imagined someone loving her that way.

"It took a while, as you might imagine, for me to accept that I loved Vincent. The love was there; I just had to see for myself. The first time it began to sink in was at the cave-in, when we almost lost both Vincent and Father. The thought of losing him was almost more than I could bear. I knew then that I loved him."

Catherine looked at her young friend. "Jamie, even knowing I loved him, I still had to think long and hard about how my life and Vincent's could ever work out for the two of us to be in a relationship. And we are still working out what that relationship will be. Vincent said once that we must go with courage and care, and I think that's pretty good advice for all couples."

"But how do you find it to start thinking about it? I mean, whether it's right for you or not?" She sighed. "What if I walk right past the guy meant for me?"

"Jamie, I'm not sure you can go looking for love. I think maybe it's better to concentrate on becoming the best 'you' you can be, and be open to others along the way. Let love find you."

"At least you had access to all sorts of men Above."

"And yet I fell in love with someone from Below. From my experience with your world, the men there have better hearts than those Above. While the world Above disappointed them in some way, people who go Below develop a caring and loving heart for their new family. I met and dated all sorts of men Above. None of them had the character that you have, that others have, Below. And I don't count out all men Above, by any means. Just that you might be more comfortable with someone who understands your world."

"So you think I should stick to my own kind?"

"No, Jamie, I'm just saying don't disregard those Below in favor of those Above. In my case, at least, those Below had much more to speak for them than those Above. Plus, if you do find someone Above, are you prepared to make your home here?"

Jamie hung her head. "I don't think so."

Catherine smiled. "Don't count that out just yet. That's part of staying open to possibilities and people. When you truly love someone, many things become possible that you never expected."

"How will I know?"

Jamie looked at Catherine so beseechingly; it tore at Catherine's heart.

"I wish I could give you a clear cut answer, Jamie, but I can't. It's different for every person. To make matters more complicated, I think your heart can know before your mind catches up to the idea! But perhaps that is for the best, because you must really consider what is happening to you, what it is you want from life and from another person sharing that life, so when your mind comes to the same conclusion that your heart has made, you are ready for the commitment to the other person."

"So I get to feel this way until I meet the person meant for me? I'm not sure I can take these feelings indefinitely," Jamie's shoulders fell, and she seemed to close in on herself.

"How you feel is up to you, Jamie. You could decide to focus on yourself, becoming that person you were meant to be, and look at everyone around you with fresh eyes, open to seeing them at their best and supporting their efforts to become who they were meant to be. Then one day, you may look at someone you've seen a million times before; and suddenly that person will look very different to you, and your journey to love will begin.

“The only other thing I can tell you, Jamie, is to have faith that it will happen, that as you become the person you were meant to be for that other person, that other person is becoming the person meant to be for you. And when you are both ready, that is when it will happen."

Jamie's steady gaze on Catherine was beginning to make Catherine wonder if her words were no help to the troubled young girl. Still, she met the girl's gaze.

"Thanks, Catherine. You've given me a lot to think about. I appreciate that you really listened to me and didn't blow me off like a kid who was too young to talk about this kind of stuff."

"I hope I was able to help you, Jamie. I'm always here to talk to whenever you need it. I'm flattered that you came to me for advice."

"It's getting late, so I should be heading back."

Jamie and Catherine stood up, and Jamie hugged Catherine. Jamie left with a wan smile and Catherine shut the door. She stood facing the closed door, wondering if she had helped Jamie or just made matters worse for her. She had never had this talk with her own mother. She wondered what her mother would have said to her, what she would think of Vincent. She smiled to herself, knowing in her heart that her mother was happy for her to have found such a love as her mother had for her father.

A light tapping on the window beckoned Catherine to the balcony. She flew into his arms and hugged him especially hard. "Vincent, I love you so much," she said, held fast in his arms.

"And I love you, Catherine." He held his most beloved person with reverence and gladness. Eventually, he pulled back enough to ask, "Was that Jamie who just left?"

"Yes. We just had a woman-to-woman talk about love. Vincent, it's so hard to know what to say to help someone about something so important as love."

"I'm sure you said what was in your own heart, and it spoke to Jamie's." Vincent grinned ever so slightly.

"What?" Catherine asked, curious about that grin.

"Jamie's not the only one curious about love these days."

"Really? Who else is pondering such questions?"

Vincent tilted his head and looked at Catherine with his blue eyes shining. "Mouse!"

~~~~~

Therefore the path to love isn’t a choice, for all of us must find out who we are. ~Deepak Chopra

~~~~~~

 

Jamie's Mirror Pool with a stack of pebbles was Mouse's army surplus field radio with half a dozen stripped wires.  He’d drawn the schematics on a chalk board, and was meticulously checking each contact for corrosion/refitting.

For a boy who had originally come to the tunnels with no language, he was hours deep into a chore that repaired a "language box."

Jamie had been distracted, lately.  Moody and introspective, even though words like “introspective” were far from Mouse's vocabulary.  Like many things, he understood the reality, even if he didn't have a word to name it.

Jamie wanted to be by herself, lately.  Mouse, who often worked and wandered alone, could relate.  Yet this was different, somehow.

Jamie wants alone.  Jamie wants Catherine.  Jamie wants alone, again.  What's this?  Rust.  Just a little bit.  Not good. Water inside the case, maybe.  Maybe not.  Just a little.  What does Jamie want?

He didn't know the answer to that.  Back to the radio.

The contacts were heavily corroded.  Someone had left the batteries in too long, and the acid had leached into the back of the box.  Stupid.  You couldn't do that.  Power had to flow, and it couldn't, if it was being blocked by rust and build-up.  Someone who'd had this had not known how to take good care of it.  Stupid.

He knew how to take care of things.  And what he didn’t know, he could learn.  He could take care of Jamie, for instance, if she’d only let him.  Or at least help her with whatever was wrong.  There was no doubt in his mind, about that.

Mouse's mind was an intricate place that often "thought" not in language so much as instinct.  Instincts like "eat," "go," "find," "get," "fix," were still endemic to his brain.  His conclusions were very direct ones, therefore.  Either a thing needed repair or it didn’t.  Either a thing could be invented to do something or it couldn’t.

Or it couldn’t, yet.

Words, when he attempted to use them, often jumbled in a mind which, while seeming to think too slowly, actually did the opposite.  Sorting language wasn't difficult for him because he thought too slowly, but because he thought too quickly, and about too much.

Repairing things was a way to quiet the flow of instincts now mixed with words in his head.  He often spoke unclearly.  He rarely thought that way.  And his thinking was often far more complex than those around him gave him credit for.

Except Vincent.

Whether it was because of his strong sense of empathy, or the nature of their relationship, Vincent always seemed to understand when Mouse was struggling with something inside.

Sometimes, for reasons Mouse could not discern, Vincent even seemed to know what the “something” was, with very little help from Mouse, verbally.  Okay, good.  Okay, fine.

The wires needed to be re-stripped down to the copper, then re-bolted inside the frame.  The old ones had grown brittle, and were touching only lightly.  If you touched a thing too lightly, the signal could not go through.

Simple.

Was that what this disquiet was?  Was he "touching too lightly”?  Failing to make contact?  It felt like that.  It felt just like that, inside.  Like there were deeper things waiting for him, things he wanted, and things he feared he might never have.

Vincent knew what it was to feel that way.  Vincent understood.

Jamie had wanted to be alone, more often than not.  Her pensive mood might be lost on Zach, who didn't much care, or Brooke, who was caught up in pining for Michael, but it was not lost on him.

They had been friends for forever, from since his beginning, here.  He wanted her to be happy.

Friends almost since the first week Vincent had brought him into the tunnel community, the first time he'd felt hands on him that didn't hurt, and heard voices that didn't shout.

He'd wanted her to be happy since almost the first day they’d met.

Near his age, and fiercely independent, Jamie was a kindred spirit to the small, lost boy who'd known too little kindness, and no love.

She was bold, and brave, and beautiful.  She'd sat near him when Vincent had taught him to eat food off a plate, using utensils, shyly smiling at him as the two of them stabbed canned peaches with a fork.  Better that way.  Better than better.  The juice wasn't so sticky on your hands afterward.  You could pick up a pair of pliers, afterward, without needing to wash.  Very well.  A fork it was, then.

After all, a fork was a tool, and he was good with those.  Very good.  She liked it when he was.  He liked it that she liked it.  Very good. Very fine.

She was bold, and brave, and beautiful.  Simple words he always thought when he thought of her, even if he never said them.  She was fierce, in her loveliness.  When Father told her she shouldn't be some of those things, she didn't listen.  Like Mouse.

She climbed and dove and went and practiced a thing until she excelled at it.  She had a warrior's heart inside her female chest, a chest he noticed was still changing.

He had an inventor's heart, in his.  Make a thing.  Make a thing better.  Make a thing work.

Fix a thing, if it was broken.

He wished he could make something for her that would make her happy again, but he had no idea what.  It had been simpler, when they were younger.

When she'd showed him a picture of a crossbow and told him she wanted to make one, he'd helped her do it.  That had been years ago.  She'd saved Vincent's life with it, once.  Of course she had.  Brave Jamie.  She'd needed a thing, and he'd helped her make one.  Of course he had.  It made her happy.  It made him happy.

Simple.

She was working with a regular bow, now.  A regular bow wasn't so much a machine.  He shrugged at that.  If she wanted his help, she'd ask for it.

And what would he ask for?

At the moment, the answer to that was inside his tool box.  A Phillips head screwdriver.  His tiniest one, part of a set Catherine had gifted him for Winterfest.

He loved tools.  Tools fixed things.  Tools helped your hands manipulate the intricate thing that was the inside of a machine, and make it work, make it good again.  Better than good.  Better than better.

The tiny screw worked backward, and let go of a piece of corroded wire.  The radio was a good one, or had been, in its day.  Not the simple transistor radios that couldn't find a signal down here, but a much more rugged one, one meant to work inside a cave, with a little help. One discarded in the dumpster behind a military supply store.  Army surplus.  One of Mouse's favorite haunts.

With the right batteries, perhaps Father could listen to a ball game on it, or Vincent could listen to music.  He was not sure what Jamie would listen to, if he gifted it to her.  Like him, she often seemed to have little use for words, or sound.

Unapologetically independent, she'd never seemed to need anyone.

AM, FM, what's the difference?  Noise is noise.  Tuner's wiggly. Fix it. Wires need stripped.  Pliers.  Tuner's still wiggly.  Needs another turn.  Turn.  Jamie turning away.  Turning toward something else.

Then a different set of words crashed in.

Vincent?  What's it like, to have a love?

The memory intruded on the work, but he let it flow, as did the recollection of Vincent's reply.

People have been searching for the words for centuries.  I think for each person it must be something very different. For me, it was the beginning of a new life.  And the end of my aloneness.

Jamie was looking for that, too, now.  Though Mouse couldn't put the feeling into words very easily, he understood it.

Jamie, like Vincent had been before Catherine, was pensive and moody and full of disquiet.  She was looking to end her aloneness.  The feelings came off her in waves, and the boy in him understood what those feelings were, even if he didn't share them.  How could she be alone, down here?  Weren't there people everywhere? Too many, sometimes?  Wasn't Vincent here for her?

Wasn't he?

The boy he was leaving behind as he inched his way toward manhood was confused.

Stupid Jamie.  How could you end your aloneness when you were always wanting to go off and sit, alone?

People were not very smart sometimes.  Especially girls.

Mouse set the screwdriver down a moment, working out a cramp in his hand as he thought about her.  He got hand cramps sometimes, when he worked.  He held the handle of the screwdriver too tightly when he turned.

Holding things too tightly was bad, sometimes.  So was not holding them tightly enough.

But he'd thought Jamie and he were just right.  Not too tight, not too loose.  They had "worked" for a long time.

Why then, did it feel like she was slipping away?  Like for as long as he'd known her and as close as they'd been, he'd not held her tightly enough to him to get her to stay?

Why was something in her broken?  Why was something in him?  Was he broken?  It felt that way, right now, and for the first time, between them.  Not because he was odd; he’d always been that way with her, and that had never bothered her.  She’d always been accepting of who he was.

Was she, still?

It felt like something wasn't working right, like the connection between them had gone to static.  Like the post and wire contact was no longer making the link it should.

Don't leave me.  Don't leave me behind.  You'd be lost without Mouse.

The radio had two antennas.  A metal one, which telescoped upward, and a long wire one which sat folded in a figure eight, tucked in a canvas side pouch.  He would have to check the antenna’s connection.

If it was solid, perhaps he could set the radio up in the music chamber, hook it to the grate overhead, and pull down a decent station.

Perhaps Vincent and Catherine would dance in there, then, the way they had done at Winterfest.

He feared he never would.  Not with Jamie, or anyone else.

There was a time when that would not have bothered him.  There was a time when he would not have thought of that at all.

For the first time, he despaired a little at the thought he would never dance with her.

What's it like, Vincent?  To have a love?

He despaired a little about that, too.  Not that he would never know it.  But that he already did, and it was not a pleasant thing, when you knew it wasn't returned.

The long wire antenna looked solid.  So did the heavy cord and prongs that would allow it to be plugged into a socket if he could borrow (not steal, borrow!) access to power to test out his repairs.  Bring a cord down.  Plug a thing into a thing.  See if he could hear anything through the speaker besides static.

But many of the contacts were still corroded, and would need cleaning.

He was a way from testing it out yet.

He wondered why he was working on something she'd have no use for, yet thinking about her. He wondered why he wondered.

Vincent, ever his friend, seemed sanguine on the subject.  Mouse had not asked specifically about Jamie, but he wasn't sure if he had to.  He'd asked Vincent about feelings of love, and how to deal with those: both their presence, and their lack.

You cannot make someone love you, Mouse.  Either the feeling is there, or it isn't.  All you can do is be the person you are, make that the best person you can.  From there, love will come for you, when it will.  I know that's hard for you.  It's not like a machine you can fix, or a thing you can invent. But it is something that's there, I promise.  Think of yourself as your own best invention.  Do all you can to be worthy of someone’s trust, for it is their heart they will trust you with.  You have to be patient, sometimes.  Believe me, I know a thing or two about that.

His huge friend had clasped his shoulder in sympathy at the words.  Yes, Vincent knew a good deal about being patient, about waiting for the right love to come along.  He adored Catherine, and she him.  It looked so easy, when you watched them do it.

Vincent's advice on matters of the heart was both comforting and not.  Patience was fine.  Patience was good.  And Mouse had enough of that to repair almost anything, and invent more besides.  The mind which leapt from one topic to the next wasn't an impatient one, it was an active one.

But what if "patience" wasn't called for?  And why did he feel so impatient that it was?

He wondered why he wished it was Winterfest, and if when it was, if he would work up the courage to ask Jamie to dance with him.

He knew he wouldn't.  He was Mouse.  Mouse fixed things and invented things, and irritated Father and kept a pet raccoon and got into trouble.  Mouse didn't understand all the words, all the time.

But that didn't mean he didn't understand all the feelings.

Battery contact’s corroded.  Wire's almost too short to reach the post, but there's enough.  Where will she go?  Will I be able to follow?  Not Up Top.  Please, not there.  So hard to go there.  Might get caught.  But ... Jamie.

His brow furrowed as he worked, all the thoughts crashing in at once on him as they almost always did, unsorted, all demanding his attention.

He was only one Mouse.  For all the fire in his brain, he could only do one thing at a time.  Just like everybody else.

Unable to solve the things he couldn't, he picked the screwdriver back up, determined to repair the things he could.

He was a long way from done.

Yet he felt like he was running out of pebbles to throw into the pool.

~~~~~

The path to love, however, is never about externals. ~Deepak Chopra

~~~~~

Weeks passed, as did furtive glances from Mouse in Jamie’s direction. He didn’t know what to do to help his friend … his best friend.

Recently, he’d realized that, although Vincent was still his good and true friend, Jamie was … something more. She held a place in his deepest heart which not even the man who had rescued him from the cold and dark and hungry places could plumb.

He was past being confused by her and angry with her. Now he only wanted to help her. But Vincent said he couldn’t fix her, not like machines. More moving parts in a person. No tools existed to tinker them back into place. Except his heart.

He’d been the best person he could be lately. No more taking, not even stuff he needed which was sitting right out in the open Up Top. Nope. Tried to fix everything quicker than quick. Didn’t run off to do stuff he wanted to do if other stuff needed doing. Kept an eye on Arthur. Well, tried to. Well, kept him out of Father’s way. Just as good.

Did this, and was happy. Surprised himself. Was patient, too. With Jamie. With whatever was happening inside her that had confused him and made him mad at first. She was a warrior still. She was bold still. She was brave still. And more beautiful. More every day. So beautiful, it hurt his heart a little.
She was … his Jamie. It felt right to say it inside his head. He wanted to say it outside it too. To her. To everyone.

After the monthly concert by the Tunnel chamber orchestra, Jamie was in a dark mood. The music had done nothing to lighten her spirits, especially since she had been sitting behind Vincent and Catherine, and she had been unable to keep from noticing all the small, intimate gestures that passed between them: Catherine snuggling closer during a passionately played interlude, Vincent’s fingers tightening around Catherine’s shoulders during a favorite piece, his head tilting to rest lightly against hers as the strings faded away to airy nothing. It was enough to drive her batty! Will that ever be me? Do I even want a guy to be all mushy like that over me? But I want to be loved!

She had approached her dilemma like a battle plan. Over the past weeks, she had watched the others Below with a sharp, assessing eye. Each single man of any age was given an evaluative stare and speculative consideration – some for long periods, some for short. Ultimately, she had dismissed one after another.

In her foul frame of mind, she nearly barreled into Mouse … who had seemed to be underfoot even more than normal lately. Looking up, Jamie uttered a perfunctory, “Sorry.” She would have moved on, but something in his face … some happy, hopeful something … seized at her heart. She stopped.


 
Mouse was holding something behind his back. When he saw he had her attention, he hauled it around and presented it to her with a flourish: a radio. “For you!”

Jamie gave him a half-hearted smile. Without much enthusiasm, she politely replied, “Thank you.” She immediately regretted her lack of enthusiasm when she saw his face fall. Trying to recover, she added, “I mean it. It’s really nice. I’ve … I’ve needed one.”

A tremulous smile reappeared on the young man’s lips. “Wanted to do a nice thing. Jamie’s sad. Too sad, for too long.”

Surprised that he’d noticed, she gave him a real smile this time.

Later, as she sat through sentry duty, she let the names of all the single men Below roll through her head once more. The uphill struggle of determining who had the compassion and acceptance of others that Catherine had spoken of was daunting. Who Below was most caring for the betterment of all around him? And especially, who would give her his support while she tried to be her best self?

She thought of the gift she’d deposited in her chamber before her shift began. She had only one true male friend among all those Below. Sure, she had mentors, like Vincent, like Father. But the person with the most loving heart, the one who did things for her – like give her that radio just because – well, that was the same person who had been her best friend since forever: Mouse.

A nearby torch flared, or was it a light bulb going off in her mind? Jamie stood suddenly, her heart thumping in her chest like she’d just run from the Hub to her post.

Mouse ... Mouse?

Mouse.

As she approached the deep chamber Mouse had claimed for his own years ago, Jamie could hear the chittering of a very talkative raccoon. Mouse’s scolding reply made her smile: “Got to be better, Arthur. Best raccoon you can be.”

“Mouse, can I come in?” She was nervous, and the politeness was a way of trying to tame it with ceremony.

She heard scuffling, and Mouse appeared in the entryway.

His brow was furrowed with concern. “Asking? Why?”

“I’m trying to be … the best raccoon I can be,” she replied with an attempt at a joke.

Mouse looked at Arthur, then back to her. “Arthur’s better at it than you. But he can’t be Jamie. You’re the best Jamie.” He hesitated for a moment then gave her an awkward hug. “Best ever. Always.”

Jamie found herself blushing at the compliment. “I’ve been thinking about Winterfest,” she began. She lifted the radio she was carrying. “Pascal had the right batteries.” She turned the radio on and tuned it to an “easy listening” music station. Hesitant, wondering if she was out of her mind to be asking, nevertheless she plunged ahead. “Dance with me?”

Mouse dropped the pliers he been using on a recalcitrant screw. They landed with a clatter both of them ignored, although Arthur chittered loudly about the noise. A shy smile softened Mouse’s face. “Yes, please.”

In all her life, Jamie never remembered hearing those words come out of Mouse’s mouth. Then she was enfolded in his arms and twirled gently around the crowded chamber.

Deftly, Mouse avoided protruding machines and piles of rusted equipment. “Jamie sad. Mad. Jamie wants. Mouse wants,” he advised her as they circumnavigated his chamber.

She didn’t reply at once. With Mouse’s words, she realized that she wasn’t sad or mad anymore … at least, not here, in his arms. This felt right … like home. And the last words he’d spoken really were important. They were the ones that needed answering. But this was such a new experience, Jamie wasn’t sure if she could trust herself, her feelings … even his.

“Do you, Mouse? Do you? I mean … what … exactly … do you .…”

He anticipated her, as he so often did. She knew his mind was a wonder, even though his words often had a hard time catching up to his thoughts.

“Want?” he finished for her, then answered matter-of-factly, “A love. Not like Vincent’s. Like mine. With you.”

“But what does that mean to you? ‘Cause I’m not sure what it means to me.” She had to be honest, and mostly she had to know exactly what was behind his words.

Surprise stilled him. “Jamie doesn’t love Mouse?” They stood, arms still around each other, as a tear welled in his eye and fell down his cheek, one he was far too slow to call back. “Not what you want? Don’t make you happy?” Crestfallen, another tear escape his eye.

“No, Mouse, I do love you! Today I realized it for sure. But you’ve loved me as a friend for so long. Is that … enough?”

Mouse frowned then grumbled, “Been waiting for you to figure this out, Jamie.”

His impatience with her would have been funny if the conversation weren’t so serious.

“Know you’re smart. Thought you’d see it before now. See me. Understand.”

Her confusion tongue-tied her.

Mouse shook his head sadly. “Jamie doesn’t know? Loved me since we were small. Friends. Always. Still. But older now. Need older love.” He shook his head, frustrated with finding the words. And it was so important now to have the right ones. He tried again. “Want you here, with me and Arthur. Eat together. Sleep here too. Be together.”

She nodded uncertainly, a look in her eye indicating she hadn’t heard the right words yet.

“Love you. Love us. Want to make you happy. Want you to make me happy. Nobody else will do. Ever.”

Words weren’t doing it. She still hung back. Exasperated with himself, he finally removed his arms from around her. His hands came up to take Jamie’s face between them, and he leaned forward.

The kiss he placed against her unresisting mouth was sweet and tender and every bit as wonderful as any kiss anybody had ever given anybody else in the history of the world, Above or Below, Jamie felt sure.
When they parted, Jamie’s smile filled Mouse’s heart. Finally, she understood.

“OK, good,” she whispered on an expelled sigh. “Let’s dance again.”

Closely held in each other’s arms once more, they danced.

The reception on the radio was spotty. It cut out more than it played. The couple dancing didn’t mind … or notice. They swayed with inexpert steps, growing with confidence as one song melted into another, and even when there was no music at all.

More than friends, discovering the way together, they were on the path now … the path to love.



The ultimate promise on the path to love is that you will walk in the light of a truth extending beyond any truth your mind presently knows. ~Deepak Chopra

 

Return to the Round Robin Challenge Index

WFOL logo, return to the Great Hall