PRELUDE

Debbie Ristick

The slight creaking of the iron gate broke the stillness of the night, and Vincent looked around carefully before he stepped through the portal. Danger could present itself at any time - he knew this; he had lived with this knowledge all of his life. The journey he was about to make was necessary, yet his mind was filled with a sudden apprehension, expectation.

Stopping for a moment, he listened to the familiar sounds of the park and, sensing nothing but the quiet of the night, he breathed a sigh of resignation and exited the safety of the tunnels, prepared for whatever awaited him.

He was a creature of the night - at least that was the way he had always referred to himself. He spent his days in the candle light and shadows of the tunnels in which he lived, teaching the children, working on the projects and details of the world Below and, though he knew his adopted father did not approve, sometimes enjoying an evening stroll through the park. The darkness of night welcomed him, surrounded him; he delighted in the way he melted into it. Most times, he watched groups of heedless passers-by; the experience of being so close to these people both intrigued and frightened him. This excitement was what kept drawing him away from the protection of Below and into this world - a place he would never be able to see during the day. Wrapping the ebony cloak he wore closer around him, Vincent made his way past the Central Park access portal. For early spring, it was still more than just a little cold tonight, and he couldn't help thinking about the many poor souls who called this large park their home.

Were they getting by? Were they safe and warm?

Beginning his slow and careful walk through the park, he shook his head; he knew the answer to his questions already: they survived the best and only way they could. And with that, his thoughts returned to the nights of this past winter - of the people he had seen huddled together for warmth around burning garbage cans. This made him think of their helper, Mollie, and how she was doing in this weather. She was what brought him from the safety of his world tonight - though something else still nagged at his senses - and at least he would be able to offer her some assistance. Her apartment was small and the landlord cheap. During this past winter, the true nature of the man had been revealed. He had been like Dickens' Scrooge, uncaring, unconcerned; his only worry in life was not about how his tenants were doing, but whether their rent was being paid on time. Vincent knew that it had not been warm enough - especially during the night - for Mollie or any of the other residents in the small building where she lived. And he knew his task tonight would be more than just difficult, but he must try, once again, to talk her into finding another place to live.

Finding his way through the darkness of the park, he shifted the basket he carried from one hand to the other. It was a basket of necessities and gifts that had been put together by the residents of his community for the older woman. He wondered if it would do anything at all to cheer her up. She had gotten on in years, didn't hear very well any more, and was unable to easily maneuver the many twists and turns she would have to make to venture down into the inner chambers of their world. She had missed Winterfest for the first time this year. She had been a helper for so many years, and was someone who had seen them all through more trying times than he could remember.

Memories of Mollie made him smile: there were the lessons he'd shared with Devin, Winslow, Pascal and Mitch; the times she'd walked with him to the triple waterfalls and read to him of far-off places and wondrous things; her birthday gifts of cookies or cupcakes; Winterfests; these were all cherished moments in his life. She would always remain dear to him. And, he thought with a smile, she had been a godsend to Father, for no matter how hard the older man had tried, there were never enough books available in the library after Vincent had learned to read. Mollie had understood this too, and had made sure to always bring something new and different whenever she came to see them.

Making his way through the shadows that would lead him from the safety of the park, Vincent slowed, overwhelmed suddenly by spasms of fear - more fear than he could ever remember feeling. Then he was dizzy and short of breath; wave after wave of confusion assaulted him, and he felt weak. He stood for a moment, swaying sickly, trying to allow the symptoms to ease. He listened intently as his special senses filled him with a sudden anticipation; a voice called to him softly, encouraging him away from his destination, urging him on to points unknown through the fog that suddenly and mysteriously appeared around him. Uncertain, he didn't move, shaking his head instead as he concentrated on what the voice was trying to tell him. Finally, after several minutes, the voice was gone and the dizziness began to clear. He tensed with a sense of loss, the anticipation in him beginning to fade away as though it had never been.

Looking around, he sighed, seeing and hearing nothing - no hint of what his senses had been trying to tell him. After a moment, the lingering symptoms of sickness passed, as though they too had never happened at all. He breathed easier, with no further sign of dizziness, and shook his head, confused as to what had just happened to him, and filled with a bitter sense of disappointment and loss.

With a sigh, Vincent turned back to the path, continuing on to Mollie's small apartment, knowing he must pass this way again when it was time to return to the tunnels, and hoping this mystery could then be solved.

Candlelight from the kitchen window of her apartment welcomed him as he made his way down the alley to her building, and once there, Vincent climbed the backstairs three at a time. She had been watching for him, waiting patiently for his arrival. As she saw him, she stood to meet him at the door, knowing she would have to coax him in out of the early April chill as though he were still a child. "Come in, come in, young man," she insisted, ignoring his slight resistance and shutting out the chill of the night. "Why don't you read to me? I haven't heard a good story from you in quite some time. Why don't you keep an old woman company for a time; share a pot of tea while you're here." With a pleasant smile, Vincent nodded.

"I would like that," he replied. "Reading to you has always given me great pleasure, but I cannot stay too long. It is cold tonight, isn't it, Mollie. Are you all right?"

"Cold? Yes, I suppose it is, but I'm fine, just fine, child," she answered, looking over the basket. "Now I don't know what you've brought along with you but I don't need anything..."

"You know we're only trying to help you, Mollie," Vincent answered softly. "As you have helped us all through the years."

"Oh," she said with a nod. "I was only doing what I could. Now sit down here, son. I'll make the tea now."

"I'll be happy to sit with you, Mollie, but," he added gently, "you must promise to look through the basket and see what Father has sent along while we drink our tea. You wouldn't want to disappoint anyone."

"Ah," she said with a smile, "so today you're a diplomat, eh, Vincent?"

Shaking his head slightly, Vincent smiled. "If that is what I need to be. I can be nothing more than that, Mollie."

"You're wrong," the older woman said, shaking her head. "You know, you can be anything you like, do anything you like." Clicking at the look of disbelief on his face, she continued. "I also know you don't believe me," she added, understanding in her voice. "You believe your appearance keeps you from seeking anything better for your life. Well, my son," she said, pouring water into cups, "I want you to know that you're wrong about that. In fact, your appearance means absolutely nothing."

Watching as he lowered his head until his face was covered with a mass of unruly golden tresses, Mollie smiled tolerantly. "Now don't you go and misunderstand me, Vincent. I know and agree that you must be cautious, but I also know you are an intelligent, thoughtful person - you always think of others before yourself. You go out of your way to help those who cannot help themselves. You do much for those people and that place. Your words carry the truth. But, my child," she added, her face growing sad, "you deny yourself so much. Time after time it should be your turn, yet you take nothing, ask for nothing. And you deserve so much. You hold that place together - keep the dreams of so many together. You deserve so much....you deserve everything."

"What do you mean, Mollie?" Vincent asked, his emotions threatening to overcome him. "I have more than I had ever hoped for - more than I have the right to hope for."

"You only think that, my boy," she countered. "But," she added, "you need so much more. You need what every man needs, Vincent. You need love..."

"I have that," Vincent protested. "All of those living Below, Father..."

"You know that's not what I mean," she interrupted. "You need to be loved by someone; you need a woman's love."

"A woman's love..." Vincent said, startled by the comment. Turning away, he shook his head sadly. "Mollie, you know that is not possible for me. You know what happened before."

"Oh don't be silly," she said, patting a chair. "Sit down and make yourself at home while I finish making the tea. I'll explain what I mean. I'll explain everything..."

For the next hour, Vincent listened tolerantly, nervously, while Mollie spoke to him of all the possibilities awaiting him, and then, after much debate, and under his direct supervision, went through the basket Father had sent along.

When he stood to go, she walked him to the door and hugged him. With a sigh, she saw the sadness on his face.

"You must listen to me, Vincent. I'm not telling you these things to hurt you or to give you false hopes. There is someone for you, child. I know there is. There will be rough roads and trials to get through, but be patient. You don't even need to look; she will find you."

With a tolerant nod, Vincent gathered her close and hugged her. "Be well, Mollie. If you need anything, anything at all, please..."

"I know, my boy. I know what to do. Now go on. It's very late now and you should get home to safety. "

Turning away from her and her home, Vincent left, disappearing into the darkness once again. Making his way through the quiet of night, he slipped into the park, and without thought he found the path he had taken earlier this night. As he approached it, he breathed slowly, listening, and as the anticipation in him grew, the symptoms he had fought off earlier returned to him with vigor: dizziness, pain, fear, and confusion... "Help me."

Though not a sound had come from anywhere around him, Vincent 'heard' the voice, and sensed how weak it was. Whoever needed him was losing hope and this fact drew him, filling his heart with the determination to find whoever it was. Turning toward the bicycle path, he hurried, unsure of what to do, what he would find. What he saw a moment later stopped him dead in his tracks. Through the swirling fog he made out the prone form in the darkness - it was a woman. When he reached her and knelt by her side, she whimpered slightly, not quite realizing help was at hand, and moving in and out of consciousness.

Covering his face with his hood, Vincent reached out to her and gently rolled her over. He couldn't help his own reaction when he saw what had been done to her; shock and anger filled him and he scanned the park around them, looking to see if the person or persons who had done this to her were still close by. But the park was empty. The moon was half full, beaming a small amount of light on the ground around them in mysterious cobweb-like patterns. The blood oozing from countless wounds on her face was fresh; she couldn't have been here very long. And yet he also knew that if she didn't receive medical attention soon, she would die: it was up to him to offer help. Lifting her easily in his arms, he slowly put her over his shoulder and turned toward the tunnel entrance close by. He would take her to Father, ask him to take care of her wounds. After that, he knew he would face whatever consequences the older man would dictate. For now, Vincent knew, there was no time for argument - even Father would see that when presented with this patient. Moving quickly in the darkness, Vincent felt the warmth of the woman against him, felt the strength she called upon within herself to fight against what had been done to her...and he could feel her courage. This knowledge filled him with a sudden sense of peace, and of destiny. Mollie's words from earlier this evening came back to him: "You don't even have to look; she will find you..."