Peter's Story by Aliset: All the Hazards We Can Run

portrait by Linn

 

A friend is worth all the hazards we can run.
Edward Young

 

Peter glanced blearily at the clock. 2 a.m. Thud thud thud. Who would be pounding on his basement door at this hour? Reality set in, chasing the haze of sleep. His basement door, at this hour. The tunnels. Vincent.

Beside him in the bed, Nora spoke into her pillow. “Better get that, hon.  It's probably something Jacob needs.”

He smiled. Nora, his second wife, who had accepted the tunnels, made them part of her life with all the compassion of her generous nature. “I'll be back soon.”

Nora rolled to her side, the silver of her braided hair glowing in the moonlight. “Don't make promises you can't keep.” He bent down to kiss her and shrugged into his robe.

Peter ran down the steps of the old brownstone and tugged at the entrance to the basement.  In the shadows, lit only by a solitary bulb, stood Vincent. “I'm sorry to bother you so late,” Vincent said, “but there's an emergency below.”

“Someone's sick?” Peter asked, and began the turn up the stairs to retrieve his doctor's bag, all the while taking mental stock of what medicines he could lay hands without arousing suspicion.

Vincent's raspy voice stopped him. There was a ragged edge of fear in his tone, something that would have passed unnoticed by almost anyone else. “It's pneumonic plague, Peter. Father's confirmed it and there's already been a death below. A Russian sailor who took refuge with us.”

Panic stole his breath, then was quickly subdued. Plague. Dear God. “All right,” Peter said. “Let me get dressed and retrieve some supplies and leave a note for Nora that she's not to come below. You'll guide me? I don't remember the ways down as well as I used to.”

The quizzical glance in the blue eyes was enough to make Peter laugh. “Come now, Vincent,” he said lightly. “Do you know how long it’s been since I first journeyed below? Going on forty years.” He opened the basement door. “Give me five minutes.”

***

A month later, he returned Below, again at Vincent’s behest. “I’m worried about Father,” Vincent said without preamble. He was leaning up against the wall, and looked tired and worn, Peter noticed. This close to Winterfest, the air in the tunnels should have been one of joy and anticipation, instead of the sad mourning that pervaded the place.

“He’s not sick, is he?” Peter asked, though somehow, he didn’t think so. Jacob was – and always had been – tough as nails. Despite his hip injury, despite a cave-in, he always managed to survive, by dint of sheer stubbornness if nothing else.

Vincent shook his head. “No. But … he’s not eating or sleeping well and refuses to join the rest of the community in our Winterfest preparations.”

“And you’ve tried talking to him?”

“Yes,” Vincent said. “I’ve tried. Mary’s tried. Father insists he’s fine.” He flexed his hands against the rock, claws lightly scoring the stone, a gesture of agitation and worry. “I thought if you could talk to him, as another doctor…Ellie’s death hit him hard. And I cannot reach him.”

Peter clapped him on a broad shoulder, still astonished this man had once been the foundling kitten-child staring up at him from an improvised crib – an orange crate, hadn't it been? “Of course I’ll talk to him.”

***

He found Jacob sitting at his desk, the candles around him melted down to stubs. That alone was a cause for concern; Jacob never let the candles burn so low without replacing them. As he drew closer, he could see what had worried Vincent so – his old friend’s face was worn and grey and the stubborn spark that had sustained this world for so many years seemed utterly gone. For the first time in Peter’s recent memory, Jacob seemed … defeated. “Jacob?” Peter called.

“I’m here, Peter,” Jacob replied. “The sentries sent word you were coming. What brings you Below?”

“I thought we’d play some chess.”

Jacob’s gaze flitted to the ebony box that held his chessmen and back to Peter. “No. I don’t think…I’m not very good company right now.”

“Nonsense,” Peter said, and sat down in the large carved chair opposite the chessboard. “How much company do you need to be to lose at chess?” They had been playing chess together since medical school; the comment would normally have drawn a barbed, but amused, look over Jacob’s eyeglasses. Now, though…

“I’m sorry, Peter. This isn't a good time.”

“All right, then. We’ll just talk.”

Jacob’s mouth tightened. Before he could voice an objection, Peter poured a cup of tea and handed it across the table. “At least have some tea with me before you toss me out of your chamber.”

“Very well,” Jacob said. “Who sent for you?”

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Do I need a reason to be here?”

“You have a busy practice Above and you expect me to believe you came here for small talk and tea?”

“I was remembering what it was like at the beginning,” Peter answered, glancing around the comfortable chamber, seeing once again the rough pallets, the shipping boxes and crates used as furniture, rush-dips for candles and the bitter chill in the air, recalling too how tenuous things had been. We were so young then. “I had to ask Vincent to guide me down last month.  I’ve forgotten the way.”

“We do change them, now and then,” Jacob responded with a ghost of his old acerbity.

“I know,” Peter replied. “And yet it struck me just how long it had been since I first saw this world.”

A faint glimmer of amusement mingled with sadness touched the grey eyes. “The first time you came down here, you didn’t ‘see’ anything. We had you blindfolded.”

***

Jacob stared in shock at Grace. “You're pregnant? How ... why didn't you tell me earlier?”

Grace smiled, an expression which softened the lines of care and strain that had seemed permanently etched upon her face ever since Jacob had known her. “Well, I never had kids with my first husband, and when you and I ...” She touched his hand. “I didn't think it would be possible, Jacob. I'm forty-two, for crying out loud.”

She had pulled her loose mended sweater taut to show him the curve of her rounded belly and Jacob cursed himself for a fool. Grace's weight gain he had chalked up to the fact that they were all eating better for a change, but her glow, the joy in her eyes ... he should have known. “How far along are you?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Grace replied with her usual dryness. “My cycles have always been irregular. You were a doctor up there, weren't you?”

“Yes, but I was a research physician. I didn't have patients, unless they came in petri dishes.” He bit his lip, thinking, trying to remember his OB rotation from years before. A first pregnancy at Grace's age could be dangerous; there might be complications ...

Grace's measured voice broke into his thoughts. “Jacob. You're not ... mad about this, are you?”

He glanced at her. “Is that why you moved out of our chamber? Because ...”

She lifted her chin, unashamed – as another woman might have been – at being pregnant with a bastard child. His bastard. What have I done? “Because it was going to be impossible for us to be sharing a bed and you not knowing. Yes. You won't wed me, I know. And if you weren't going to accept this child ... I thought I could raise him on my own.”

“You ... you won't have to,” Jacob replied. “Grace, I'll marry you.”

“For the child?” she asked, hand resting on the swollen curve of her belly. “Only for the child? No, thanks.” Her eyes were dark, almost black, and frequently seemed hardened beyond her years, but now her gaze softened as she looked at him. “Jacob, that Margaret–” and he flinched; they had only spoken of Margaret once, when Grace had brought him to this place, and never since. “She's got a hold on you. No woman will ever fill it. You and I have been good for each other, but it's this baby I have to think of now.” She chuckled. “And really, Jacob, if you're worried about my reputation, it's a number of months too late for that. Besides, you think Rachel and Pascal worry about what we think? Or Deirdre and Solomon? Or Anna and John?”

“Anna and John are legally married,” Jacob said.

“Are they? I didn't know,” Grace countered. “But that's the point. I don't want you marrying me out of obligation. The way Rachel and Pascal are going, they'll have a baby eventually, and Deirdre and Solomon too, maybe. And no one will care about whether their children are legitimate or not.” Her dark hair, unraveled from its knot, flowed over her shoulder and almost against his will, Jacob remembered burying his face in its scent in the night. “Do you love me?” Grace asked. “Not the child. Me.”

Grace had always been uncompromising, demanding total truth from him. That had not been Margaret's way; a pretty, wealthy girl born into privilege he couldn't imagine even now, Margaret had preferred to close her eyes to the vast amounts of ugliness in the world. He opened his mouth to speak, but the few seconds of silence had told Grace all she needed to know.

“That's what I thought,” Grace said. “Some hearts are made for loving only once.”

“Grace, I–” Jacob began, but she cut him off.

“Will you examine me, Doctor?” Grace said, all business.

Jacob shook his head, accepting the withdrawal of her warmth as a consequence for what he'd done to her, to them. “No. It's been years since I delivered a baby, Grace. I'll find someone else.”

***

The issue of who that someone might be proved to be a challenging one. In his capacity as a research physician, Jacob had colleagues – other doctors, other scientists – but they had all either abandoned him after the hearings or could not be trusted to keep this world a secret. And there was also the matter of the deportation order hanging over his head ...

“Women give birth all the time,” John said over chess a week after Jacob's conversation with Grace. “You worry too much.”

Anna glanced up from her knitting, casting a sharp look at her husband.  “It's not as simple as that, John. Grace is older, she'll need some careful monitoring.” She paused. “I have to confess, Jacob, I'm surprised it's not you taking care of her.”

Jacob stared at her. “You knew?”

Anna smiled. “I'm not a fool, Jacob. I think it's wonderful; Grace has wanted a child for so long.”

Jacob shook his head, dismayed and guilty. He hadn't even known that much about Grace. “Well, I can't ... I was a research physician, Anna. My doctoring skills when it comes to labor and delivery are rusty.”

“And I never finished medical school,” John replied. “So who does that leave?”

A sudden heavy silence fell, as it tended to whenever John mentioned his abrupt dismissal from medical school---for no reason Jacob had ever been able to uncover but the bitter frayed edge of his words was guaranteed to bring a halt to any conversation

“Well, don't look at me,” Anna said after a pause, picking up a dropped stitch with one of her knitting needles, as if John hadn’t said a thing.  “I've delivered babies Above, yes, but I always referred patients who were Grace's age to a doctor.” Her gaze was serious. “Is there no one you could ask, Above?”

“Surely you're joking,” John retorted sharply. “Just ask someone ... there? They'd laugh at him first then arrest the lot of us for trespassing, or worse. Topsiders can't be trusted.”

We were topsiders once,” Anna responded. “You were in medical school together; you must have known someone who could be trusted, who would understand why we're here and keep our secret. Besides, we need a contact above who might be able to get us medicines from time to time. Grace's baby will be born soon, and there will be others. We could use another doctor.”

“That do-gooder in our classes,” John said suddenly. “You remember him?”

“Peter Alcott? He volunteered on the charity wards,” Jacob said, and remembered John's mysterious antagonism towards their former classmate. “It hardly makes him a do-gooder. He married before I ... came down here. I might still have the wedding invitation with his address.”

“Well, then,” Anna stated, “you must go and talk with him.”

***

Peter stared at the fire, the silence in his apartment the only reminder of his latest fight with Sylvia. He'd come home late to find the dinner long cold and his wife angry that he hadn't arrived earlier or called. He'd apologized and tried to explain the circumstances – an emergency cesarean, a mother and child who might have died---but the details hadn't mattered to Sylvia. She'd taken the car and stormed out, probably to her mother's, and Peter knew it would be a few days before he saw her again.

He poured a drink, and watched the flickering of the fire. There was a soft knocking at the door – Sylvia, he wondered? Peter rose to answer it and stopped, staring in astonishment at the older, worn man who stood there.

“My God. Jacob Wells?”

Jacob nodded. He was thinner, Peter noticed, and the lines on his face deeper and he seemed more pale than Peter remembered, as if he'd rarely seen the sun in the year since he'd disappeared.  “Yes, Peter, it's me. Do you mind ...?”

“Oh, of course,” Peter said, opening the door. “I'm sorry. You just surprised me.”

“I imagine I did,” Jacob answered, smiling. “Am I disturbing you?”

“No. My wife is ... away right now. Please, sit down. Can I get you a drink or something?”

“No, thank you,” Jacob replied. “I don't drink anymore.”

Peter stowed his coat, then sat down opposite the other man. “I heard about Margaret. I tried to find you after the hearings but ...”

“But I'd left no forwarding address,” Jacob finished. “I know. I'd lost everything and I ... didn't want to be found.”

“Well, regardless,” Peter said. “What was done to you was a terrible injustice.”

“Thank you,” Jacob replied, smiling. “But that's not why I came.”

“Why did you come?”

Jacob folded his hands. “It’s…complicated, Peter. After the hearings, I was brought to a secret place…a hidden community of people who try to take care of each other.” He shrugged, a rueful gesture. “You could call it a commune, I guess.”

Peter couldn't help the dry chuckle that emerged. “You were persecuted for being a communist and now you live in a commune?”

A faint wry smile crossed the other man's face. “The irony hasn't escaped me, I assure you. Nevertheless, there are certain ... resources we lack. One of the women in my community is pregnant and needs a doctor.”

“And you can't...?” Peter couldn't keep from asking.

“No,” Jacob responded. “My obstetrics experience is limited to our rotation in medical school and there are other issues...”

“Such as?”

“It's my child,” Jacob said finally.

Peter opened his mouth, then closed it on the questions that wanted to escape – where was this place? Was this all some sort of hoax? “Well, all right. Take me to her.”

Jacob put his hand in his pocket and withdrew a blindfold. “If you don't mind,” he explained. “Peter, there are many people down there who have no other place to go. If you would go, you must go blindfolded until we decide you can be trusted.”

Peter rose and picked up his doctor's bag, swallowing his apprehension. The Jacob Wells he'd known would never harm him, regardless of how mysterious this was. “Very well.”

***

“Jacob, why are we going to my basement?” Peter asked.

“There’s a whole network of tunnels below this city,” Jacob began. “There aren’t even accurate maps to most of them. Your basement sits near a tunnel entrance.” He folded the blindfold into halves, then thirds – a nervous, worried gesture. “You could never find your way back, Peter.  So please don’t try.”

The thought of being lost in pathways not seen for a century or more made Peter unaccountably afraid. “I won’t.” He bent his head to let the shorter man place the blindfold over his eyes and felt Jacob take his arm, guiding him.

His first impression was of a slanted, bending path and the coolness of sheltered rock and stone. There was a faint tapping coming from someplace and at first, Peter passed it off as random noise but as they continued to walk to---where?---he was able to pick out some patterns, similar to the Morse code of his Navy days. Communicating, he realized. They’re talking on the pipes. How many people live here?

“It’s not much further,” Jacob told him quietly.

“How did you find your way here?” Peter asked. “I’m guessing you didn’t have a tunnel entrance under your building.”

The hand on his arm tightened briefly. “No. Grace … the woman you’re here to examine. She found me. I was eating at a soup kitchen and I saved a man from choking. Grace was volunteering there in exchange for whatever food they had left over at the end of the day and she told me, ‘I know a place that needs a man like you.’” Jacob gave a short laugh. “I still don’t know what she saw in me. That meal was the first one I’d had in days. I’d lost everything – my home, my good name, my … Margaret.” A pause, then, “When she told me about this place, I thought she was making it up. Until I saw it.”

“Saw what?” His eyes watered briefly as the blindfold was removed.

“This.”

***

The room was large, cavernous, filled with packing crates, obviously used for seating, and candles that flickered dully in the dimness. Oil lanterns rested on makeshift shelves – talk about a fire hazard, Peter thought---and haphazard stacks of books seemed to fill every available surface. To the right, inexplicably, a wrought iron staircase descended from an upper level. People clustered in small groups and children – children – played on the rock floors. There was a bitter chill in the air, and Peter saw immediately the reason for the layered, patchwork clothing. “Jacob?” Peter asked. “What … where are we?”

“The library,” Jacob said succinctly. “Also our main meeting area.  It’s the warmest room we have right now, aside from the hospital chamber. There are other rooms and there’s a waterfall that–”

“He’ll give you the full tour, don’t worry,” a woman’s voice said dryly. Peter turned to see a tall woman, obviously pregnant, with dark curly hair tied back in a careless knot. “I’m Grace,” she said. “You must be Dr. Alcott.”

“Just Peter,” he replied, liking her. “This is remarkable what you’ve built here.”

Grace smiled. “There are times it’s more remarkable than others – I’d give a mint for a working radiator right now – but … thank you.”

“Don’t tell him too much, “ a thin cold voice said, a voice Peter found vaguely familiar. “He won’t be needed long.”

Peter turned and saw the speaker. “John Pater,” Peter said, mouth dry, remembering the rumors of why this man had been expelled from medical school. “What …?”

John smiled, though the expression didn’t set well on his narrow, closed features. “Surprised to see me? You shouldn’t be.”

“I gather you two know each other,” Grace said.

“Yes,” Peter answered, though in his own case, it was stretching the truth. No one really knew John Pater.

John’s dark eyes, utterly lacking in warmth, flickered over Grace. “Best get on with the examination, Grace. The sooner Dr. Alcott goes back Above, the better off we’ll all be.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “Thank goodness you’re not on the welcoming committee, John.” She gestured towards the corridor just beyond them. “Shall we, Peter?”

***

After Peter finished Grace's examination, she brought him tea as he completed his notes. It hadn't escaped his notice that he hadn't been left alone since coming down here ... coming Below as they called it; they were clearly cautious, and small wonder. “Am I all right?” Grace asked at length, and he forced away the sheer wonder of this place to focus on his patient.

“For a woman your age in your first pregnancy, I'd say you're doing quite well. You're about about six and a half to seven months along and your baby seems healthy. What's your diet like here?”

“It's ... whatever we can find or scavenge,” Grace replied, somewhat uncomfortably. “We get some surplus now and then but it's not always steady.”

Peter made a notation on a pad. “I'll bring down some vitamins you must take the next time I come, but for now, make sure you get plenty of rest and no heavy lifting.”

Grace smiled. “No worries there. Some days, I can't hardly keep my eyes open.” As he began to leave, she turned back to him. “I imagine Jacob will want to talk to you, but I wanted to thank you for coming. I know a lot who wouldn't have.”

“You're welcome,” Peter responded, seeing in her warmth all the reasons Jacob would have been attracted to her. That there was some inexplicable distance between Grace and Jacob now didn't escape him either. Jacob, you're a damned fool.

She nodded, and rose to exit the small rough chamber just as Jacob was entering it. He glanced at Grace, then at Peter. “Everything's all right?”

“Very much so,” Peter answered and watched as Grace left. “So,” he continued, “what’s the rest of this place look like?”

***

Over the next few weeks, Peter made the journey Below several times, both to keep an eye on Grace's advancing pregnancy as well as to bring down food and supplies from contacts he'd made while working on the charity wards. He learned soon that he wasn't the only helper – others had become friends of this world and gave what they could, when they could. It made for a challenging life – the tunnel-dwellers never knew from one month to the next if they'd have enough food or fuel – but they'd worked out a system to minimize the worst of the shortages and although life was a struggle, it was filled with a sense of community unlike any Peter had ever seen.

It was as Peter was running some errands after his visit to the tunnels that he encountered a very angry Sylvia. "Where have you been?" she demanded.

“At the hospital,” he said; he'd tried to time his visits to the tunnels at the same time as he did his charity work, in the hopes of keeping Sylvia from becoming suspicious. He could never explain the tunnels to Sylvia, not if the very idea of his work on the public wards caused her to descend into withering sarcasm at the best of times. Why did we ever get married?

Her lips thinned to a bloodless line. “I don't think so. Try again. I called your answering service, Peter. You told me this morning you were working St. Vincent's tonight. They haven't seen you since Thursday. Who is she?”

It struck him as absurd and vaguely surreal that Sylvia would believe an affair over the truth of where he'd been these last few evenings. “There isn't anyone else, Sylvia. There never has been.”

“Oh?” she challenged. “Then what's this? Who's Grace?” She held out a note crumpled in her left hand. Peter. Please come. I need you. Grace.

What could have happened? I just saw her this afternoon. Had she tried to contact me earlier, thinking I would go straight home? “Grace is ... one of my patients. I'm sorry, Sylvia. I must go now. We'll talk when I return.”

“Talk all you want. I won't be here.”

***

Hours later, when it was all over, when Grace's squalling infant boy had been born almost as his mother took her last breath, Peter sank down into a chair. “I'm so sorry, Jacob. There wasn't anything we could do.”

Jacob sighed. “I know. We did everything. It's just ... I can't believe it. How can Grace be gone?”

“It must have been a placental abruption,” Peter said. “If we ever get that sonogram the scientists keep talking about, we might be able to see them and treat women who have them better but ...” He scrubbed his face with his hands. “Your son is fine, though. We could have lost both of them.”

Jacob shuddered. “My fault. All mine.”

Peter shook his head. “No. Grace loved you and she wanted this child. What happened to her is no one's fault.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Anna has your boy. Do you have a name for him?”

“Grace wanted him called ... Devin.”

***

“And Grace wasn't the first patient you lost, was she?” Peter asked now.

“No,” Jacob said. “But Ellie ... she was so young. I let Grace down by not being the man I should have been, by not being a good father to our son. Ellie depended on me to make her well. How could I fail them both?”

Peter leaned forward. “Jacob, you didn't. Maybe you weren't the partner Grace needed – but even if you had been, Grace would still have died. And maybe you weren't the father Devin should have had, but you two have reconciled, haven't you? Didn't you tell me last week you'd had a letter from him?” When Jacob nodded, Peter plunged on, “And Ellie – Jacob, I heard about her memorial service. Don't you see how much you helped Eric begin to heal from his sister's death?”

Jacob leaned back in his chair and gazed at him, the grey eyes not quite so haunted. “Forty years, you've had the title of helper. I never thought you'd be helping me.”

Peter smiled. “It hasn't all been one-sided, Jacob. Without the tunnels, I'd never have met Nora, nor had my daughter.”

“True,” Jacob observed, and Peter was pleased to see him coming out of his withdrawal a little bit. “I can't imagine Sylvia would have appreciated this place.”

“No, indeed. She finally left me shortly after Vincent came here. I heard she married some podiatrist up in Massachusetts.” He shrugged. “We were never very good for each other. I hope she's happier now.”

Jacob acknowledged this with a nod. “How did you meet Nora? I've forgotten.”

“You, forget something? I'm shocked,” Peter responded, smiling. “It was ... Vincent's first Winterfest. He must have been – three or four, I think. It was also Nora's first Winterfest after Joel passed away. We danced the waltz that night and I was ... lost.”

“That's always been part of the magic of Winterfest,” Jacob observed. “The power of new beginnings. For something that began in such sorrow after John's expulsion ... it's become quite powerful. And healing.”

Peter didn't speak for a time, letting Jacob's own words sink in. “You're a sly one,” Jacob finally said.

“Guilty,” Peter answered, unrepentant. “But these people need you. This community has been through a lot recently – they need you to remind them that 'all winters end.'”

Jacob closed his eyes. “I have been wallowing,” he admitted. He opened the lacquer box of chessmen. “Now, you were saying something about beating me at chess?”

 

 

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