Let It Be Me by Ann R. Brown. Graphic shaows a candle burning, sending up a long-stemmed rose made of smoke.

 

 

Vincent arranged a chessboard on an octagonal table while Father settled himself in a wingchair and rubbed his hands together with anticipation.
        
“I'm feeling confident. The match will be over in six moves.”
        
“I hope so, because I have plans.”
        
The two were concentrating so intently on their beginning moves that when Catherine appeared, carrying a wicker basket, only Vincent looked up to see her framed in the archway, beautiful and smiling. She put a hand on his suede-covered shoulder and leaned closer. The sleeve of her white summer dress brushed his face. He closed his eyes for a second to inhale the light scent of her perfume.
        
“Who's winning?” she asked.
        
“It's hard to say at this point,” he answered, and drew her hand to his lips.
        
“Well, I'm betting on you.”
        
Only half joking, Father protested. “Is that so!”
        
She chuckled. “Sorry, but you always lose when Vincent opens with the Queen's Indian Defense.”
        
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, wondering if that could possibly be true.
        
To Vincent, she said, “I brought a blanket, pastrami on rye from Zabars, and a bottle of Domaine de Nizas Coteaux au Languedoc. Ready for the waterfall?”
      
“Oh, yes,” he breathed. He especially liked the mental image of the two of them on one blanket. As she turned, her gauzy white skirt swirled around her bare legs. It affected him almost too much.
                                                             
Pulling a newspaper out of the basket, she added, “Father, this New York Times is for you. I know you're curious about that Pakistani woman who's being hunted ...” Her explanation was interrupted by a delighted squeal as Mary clattered down the spiral staircase, gasping and waving a letter.
        
“Oh! Look what I got! I can't believe it!” Mary fanned herself with the envelope, panting. “After all these years!”
        
Vincent smiled. “Don't keep us in suspense.”
        
“A letter from my college sweetheart, Quincy Randall. It was forwarded a dozen times and finally reached me here. He was a dreamboat, with wavy black hair. I was crazy about him, just crazy. And he remembers me! He wants to see me! Catherine, look at what he wrote!”
        
“Wow. This is hot stuff. No wonder you were fanning yourself. This may be the start of something big. Well done, Mary.”
        
“Now just wait, let's not be hasty,” Father objected. He didn't approve of abrupt changes that disarranged his orderly routine. Everyone in the tunnels had a place and a duty to fulfill, and Mary's place was at his right hand.
        
Mary rarely contradicted Father, but his remark couldn't go unchallenged. “Wait? Till when? Until the poodle skirt I wore in college comes back in fashion?”
        
“I can't say I appreciate that remark.” He was so accustomed to deference from Mary that her sudden rebellion shocked him.
        
To Catherine, she said, “Quincy was a business major. I knew he'd succeed, but this is beyond anything.”
        
“That's the stuff, Mary. Go for it,” Catherine urged her.
        
The situation was getting out of hand. “Remember, you haven't seen this fellow in a great many years. People change out of all recognition.”
        
Like a pin in a balloon, Father's warning deflated Mary's glee. She sat down heavily on a wooden stool and stared at the floor. “I suppose you might be right.”
        
“Of course I am, I always am,” he assured her, and wagged a cautionary finger. “You can't go gadding about as if you were still twenty years old.”
        
Catherine was annoyed and spoke up in Mary's defense. “You're entitled to a night out.”
        
“It's no good,” said Mary, dully. “I was his mermaid. Look at me now. I'm a manatee.” She pulled on a strand of her straggly hair and tugged at the cuff of her shapeless dress.
        
Vincent came around the table and patted her arm. “Never mind. We love you just as you are.”
        
By this time, Catherine was really aggravated. “Vincent, that's not helpful. He says he'll meet you in the Tavern on the Green on June 30. That gives us two weeks.”
        
Mary looked up hopefully, then slumped again. “You saw the letter. Quincy's the ambassador in Paris. What can two weeks do for me?”
        
“Put yourself in my hands and find out. It'll be a wild ride.”
        
Mary was pulled in two directions. On one hand, Father was frowning like a thundercloud. On the other hand, there was Quincy Randall.
        
“I shouldn't ... I mustn't ... no ... maybe.”
        
Catherine took that for a 'Yes' and hustled Mary out into the corridor, leaving the two men dumbfounded.
        
Father propped his fists on his hips. “Mooning over a former boyfriend at her time of life. She's sure to regret it.”
        
Vincent was equally cast down. That quick kiss had raised his hopes sky–high. Now it felt as though his parachute had failed to open. “She forgot her basket. I was looking forward to that picnic.”
        
“She very nearly shouted at me. And Catherine encouraged her foolishness. Well, forget them, we'll have our own picnic right here. Move the chessboard, bring out the sandwiches, and open the wine.”
        
“All right,” said Vincent with a sigh. He pulled out a corner of the blanket and stuffed it back in. “But it won't be the same.”

        
Attached to a gym that Catherine frequented was a shop that sold workout clothing. Mary was bashful about coming out of the dressing room wearing a tracksuit, but Catherine insisted that the bedraggled dress and crocheted poncho had to go. After a strenuous hour on bikes and treadmills, Mary agreed with her. They talked it over as they treated themselves to smoothies at the juice bar.
        
“How do you like the outside world so far?” Catherine teased her.
        
The papaya smoothie was delicious, and the sweatpants felt so daring. “It's thrilling – the honking horns, the lights, the shops. It's been thirty years since I rode in a taxi. But I suppose I should be getting back. I'm afraid I was rude to Father. And I have to count the boxes of macaroni in the storeroom.”
        
“Are you kidding? A little opposition is good for him. Keeps him from believing he's infallible. Let somebody else count the macaroni for a change. We have only fourteen days to get you primed for adventure.”
        
“It's awfully good of you to take such trouble. In actual fact, though, I'm too old and stodgy to think of adventures.”
        
“I'm going to speak frankly. After years of routine, a door has opened for you, and, in my opinion, it would be cowardly to close it without peeking at what's beyond. I respect Father, and I'm fond of him, but he doesn't appreciate you. Honestly, you've settled into the role of his sidekick. Like Tonto, if Tonto could type. And it isn't good for Father, either, to carry on for years not only unopposed but almost un–criticized. When you contradicted him he sputtered like a Model-T Ford.”
        
“You make me laugh, Catherine.”
        
“Laughing is good for women. Keeps us supple.”
        
Their next stop was Vassily's on Fifth Avenue. The lobby was Art Deco zigzags, silver and white. The receptionist might have stepped from a painting by Tamara Lempika. Mary's disquiet wasn't eased when Vassily himself tripped out to greet Catherine and kiss her hand.
        
He was small and dapper, with an upturned mustache. His accent was middle–European. “Fraulein Chandler! Gracious lady! How long has it been since you honored me with a visit? Your absence has desolated me.”
        
Catherine just smiled. She was one of only three people who knew that Vasily had immigrated to New York City from Rabbit Hash, Tennessee, and that his birth name was Billy Ray Earl. “I have a special client for you, Vassily. I wouldn't trust her hair to any hands but yours. She's from out of town and a little shy.”
        
To Mary, he bowed and said, “Put your faith in me, dear Madam. These hands will do their best. And Vassily's best cannot be bettered.”
        
She cast a desperate look at Catherine as Vassily led her through a silver and white door and indicated a swivel chair. Waving aside his glamorous stylists, he himself unpinned Mary's bun, releasing a torrent of graying hair. After treating her to a luxurious jasmine shampoo, he combed it out. The strands hung halfway down her back.
        
“I'm not very stylish, Mr. Vassily,” she confessed. “I haven't bothered with myself for years. I was always busy, and my appearance didn't matter.”
        
“Dear Madam, your hair is divine. No chemicals or dyes, no sun damage. A rinse to bring out the highlights, a wave of Vassily's magic scissors, and you will leave my salon looking like a Czarina.”
        
An hour passed while Catherine flipped through all the Vogue magazines in the lobby and wondered what was going on within. At last the inner door swung open, and Mary emerged alongside the triumphant Vassily.    
        
Catherine cried out and stood up to greet her. “Is it really you?” The untidy gray mop had been replaced by a sleek, golden–brown bob that framed Mary's hopeful face.

“Do I look all right?”
        
“You're a new woman. Vassily, you've outdone yourself.”
        
He kissed his fingers to both women. “She was a Czarina in disguise, and I merely lifted her disguise.”
        
As Catherine signaled for a taxi, she said to Mary, “You're halfway out of the cocoon. Your butterfly wings are showing.”
        
Mary touched her hair cautiously. “I'm certainly less of a caterpillar than I was.”

        
It was seven-thirty when the taxi dropped them at Central Park. Chatting and laughing, they ambled toward a tunnel entrance hidden behind a thorny hedge. To their consternation, the iron gate stood open. Just inside, Pascal bent over a huddled form, a bundle in black.
        
He whispered, “She was right against the gate. I stepped out to check the weather and tripped over her. Come inside, both of you, quickly.”
        
The wail of sirens gave Catherine a clue. “Is she on the run?”
        
The bundle shifted, revealing a black headscarf and the oval of a woman's face, mad with fear.
        
“Go on. Tell your police. I won't live a week, but I'm sick of hiding.” In spite of her terror, her voice rang with defiance.
        
Pascal was not an impulsive man, but something made him say, “Come with me. Tell your story to my friends and we'll help you. Can you trust me for that?”

The woman hesitated, then said, “I trust no one. Still, I will speak to your friends. Even more than hiding, I'm sick of being afraid.” She rose, and they saw that she was wearing the national dress of Pakistan, a long embroidered tunic and baggy trousers.

Father was on his dignity as he stood up from behind a trestle table in the dining hall to greet Pascal, Catherine, and the trespasser. Mary waited outside in the corridor, afraid of Father's reaction to her makeover. But he wasn't thinking of Mary.
        
“Pascal, we received your message on the pipes calling for an emergency meeting. I must say I'm appalled by your actions. This intrusion is entirely against our rules. Young woman, who are you, and why are you here?”

Just then, half a dozen youngsters wearing garments patched with leather and knitted fringe charged out of the adjoining kitchen. The woman watched, frowning, as they raced from table to table gathering up plates, cutlery, and bottles of salsa, for Friday was fish taco night. Taller kids climbed on stepladders to extinguish candles that burned in iron chandeliers and wall–sconces. For his part, Vincent lifted benches so the crew could mop under the tables. His appearance didn't faze the woman. She'd seen worse.
        
Her accent was soft, her tone implacable.
        
“I am Raaida Jalil. My picture is in the newspapers. If you've read the articles, you know that fundamentalists in Pakistan put a bounty on my head because I founded a school for girls. I escaped into India and eventually made it to the United States. The Pakistani government is in league with your immigration authorities to fly me back to Karachi. I'll descend the metal steps from the plane and be dead before I cross the tarmac.”
        
Said Vincent, as he wiped his hands, “You speak English very well.”
        
“My father taught English before he was gunned down.”
        
“Clearly she has no legal right to be in this country,” said Father, sternly.
        
Pascal moved closer to Raaida, as if to defend her rights by force. “We must offer her refuge. There's no question about it.”
        
“You're hiding from the law. You ought to turn yourself in and apply for asylum legally.”
        
“Why not save time and shoot me now?”
        
“Have you no kinsmen in this country?”
        
“Not one person on this earth,” she answered, sullenly. “No friends and no kin.”
        
Pascal's face went white and then red. “You're in trouble – that makes us kin. What are we for, Father, if not to help the tired, the poor, the hungry, the wretched refuse – sorry, Raaida – if not to lift our lamp beside the golden door.”
        
Giggling and gossiping, the youngsters slapped damp cloths across the tables and mopped around everyone's feet.   
        
“That's enough, children. We're dealing with adult matters here. Pascal, your Statue of Liberty oratory is poetic, but irrelevant. I say it isn't safe for her to stay here, and I have the final word.” Father crossed his arms, adding, “Unless I'm no longer in charge here.”
        
Pascal poked Father's vest with his finger. “You put yourself in charge, there was never an election. I suppose you're afraid of democracy.”
        
“If the police track her here, the community will be destroyed.”
        
“If we drive her out to die, the community deserves to be destroyed, or at least leveled. Rebuild it from the ground up with better leadership.”
        
“Everyone is hammering me, hammering, hammering.”
        
Vincent tried to cool down the temperature of the quarrel. “She's not the first refugee we've taken in. We're all exiles here.”
        
Raaida shot him a grateful look as Catherine offered a compromise. “Everyone who applies to join the community spends six months as a probationer. Accept her provisionally, why don't you?”
        
“Spoken like a lawyer,” Father complained.
        
“I second that motion,” said Vincent.
        
Father flung up his arms. “I don't like it, I don't approve, but no one listens to me any longer. Pascal, she's your responsibility.”
        
“Good! I accept!”
        
Raaida did not unbend. “I do not accept charity. I will stay here, but only for a short while. And I'll work for my keep.”  
        
 Said Pascal, “I'll show you the four levels – this kitchen is on the first level, for ventilation – and introduce you around. But most importantly, you need to learn the pipe code.”
        
The short, balding man and the woman in black walked out side by side, leaving Father fuming. First Mary had gone modern and now Pascal was rebelling, too.
        
“I've been hounded into a wrong decision. This will lead to disaster, I know it will. Did you hear how Pascal spoke to me? Am I a dictator? A tyrant? Is that what my own people think of me?”
        
“Compromise is a good thing,” said Vincent, and went around the table to stand beside Catherine. She gave him a brief kiss, and in response, he tapped his chest.
        
“Where is Mary? She's supposed to do the scheduling. Kitchen duty, sentries, child care. Where did she go?”
        
“Here I am, Father.” Mary took a deep breath and pushed a tapestry aside.
        
Vincent reacted first. “You look wonderful. I should say, even more wonderful.”
        
She hugged him, then patted her hair and turned hopefully to Father. “Do you like the new me?”
        
He was pouting. “You look young and dashing. But I like things to stay the same. Why do you want to change?”
        
Tears stung her eyes. “Because I want more out of life than counting macaroni.”

        
A week passed swiftly. A heavy caseload kept Catherine in the DA's office all day. Her free time was spent rushing around shoe stores with Mary, who was appalled by the prices.
        
She hissed, “These shoes are ninety-nine dollars. It's outrageous. My moccasins have months of wear left in them.”
        
“Have you seen anyone on the street wearing moccasins?”
        
“If the women of New York City realized how comfortable they are, they'd be wearing them all day instead of those spike-heeled contraptions.”
        
“You're a free agent,” Catherine retorted. “I can only make suggestions. But those moccasins give me a physical pain when I see them on your feet, and I want you to trash them.”
        
Reluctantly, she agreed. “All right, if you say so.”
        
“You won't be sorry, I promise you. Now, on to Elizabeth Arden. Unless you object. If you do, tell me to butt out and I'll quit harassing you.”
        
Mary bit her lip in thought. “I don't want you to butt out. I'll never do this on my own. Harass me all you like.”
        
“That's the spirit. Elizabeth Arden or bust.”
        
One momentous afternoon, while Catherine was at work, Mary found the courage to emerge from the Tunnels on her own. She entered a deli and ordered a Reuben and a cream soda, then rode the subway by herself to visit Victoria's Secret. That evening, Catherine met her Below to review her purchases.
        
Mary begged Vincent to wait outside in the hallway while she and Catherine went into her little chamber, which was whitewashed and immaculately clean. Across her iron-framed, single bed blazed a constellation of crimson, hot pink, and jade.
        
“My, oh my,” breathed Catherine. Or as my dad would say, hubba hubba.”
        
“I couldn't decide between red and pink so I got them both.” Mary was almost babbling. “My hair was redder in the old days and I often wore green, so that's why I got the jade. I'm a silly old fool, but aren't they pretty.”
        
“They're gorgeous. And I'm so pleased you braved the subway on your own. The whole city is open to you now. But if you'll take my advice, that Reuben ought to be your last indulgence for a while. Stick with lettuce and tomato salad and cottage cheese until the deal is signed.”
        
“It's a high price to pay for beauty.”
        
“I know it is. I haven't had a Reuben in ten years.”
        
“Tell me, am I too old to wear these lacy things?”
        
Catherine held up a wisp of silk. “When Quincy sees this, he'll fall over sideways barking like a dog.”
        
Mary had to laugh. “You're good for my confidence, Catherine. I can never thank you enough for all you've done.”
        
“You don't need to thank me. I'm having as much fun as you are.”
        
“Has it cost you a great deal of money? I want to pay you back somehow.”
        
Waving a hand, she answered, “Disney is constructing a park in Paris. When it's up and running, I'll snag a seat on the Concorde and you can treat me to the roller coaster.”
        
When Catherine emerged, Vincent confessed to curiosity about Mary's secret purchases.
        
“What did she buy?”
        
“Two hundred dollars worth of hubba hubba.”
        
Around the corner, they ran into Pascal, who was looking hunted.
        
“Hey, Catherine. Have you ever visited Boston?”
        
“Sure, my mom was born there, and I have a cousin at MIT. Why?”
        
“Just wondering.”
        
“How's Raaida fitting in?”
        
 With a sigh, he admitted, “Not so well. Her dietary rules forbid pork, and William's all cross about it, because, as you know, his specialty is–”
        
“Homemade pork sausages with sauerkraut.”
        
“And Kipper wants a dog, but according to Raaida's world view, dogs are unclean. So they're quarreling about that. She doesn't mean to be awkward.”
        
Catherine quirked an eyebrow. “She doesn't?”
        
Said Vincent, “You have to admit, Pascal, that she isn't very sociable or accommodating.”
        
“I expected better than that from you, Vincent. She's not awkward, she's set apart. The rest of us chose this life, but it was forced on her. Raaida is here because the alternative is a hail of bullets. In every possible way, she's a displaced person, and I don't know how to help her.”
        
“You know, Isaac Stubbs is a Muslim.”
        
Pascal stopped short. “Are you serious?”
        
“He converted years ago. Maybe he'd be willing to talk with her.”
        
Pascal was so delighted that he shook Vincent's hand again and again. “What a great idea. Thanks, Vincent, thanks!” He took off running, his muffler flying behind him.
        
To herself, Catherine murmured, “Pascal is hoping for too much. In order to survive, she's had to murder her own heart every day. She has nothing to give him.”
        
Vincent had a faraway look, as if he were reliving the past. “I made do without hope for many years. And all the time, you were in the same world with me. The same city. There's a miracle around every corner.”
        
        
Mary spent an hour every day on a stationary bike installed in a storeroom. It was there that Father found her, pedaling like mad and listening to a cassette tape of Teach Yourself French.
        
Parlez-vous anglais? 
        
“Parlez-vous anglais? she repeated.
        
He had to admit that she looked sharp in the red and gray tracksuit. And the new haircut made her look twenty years younger. Still, he didn't approve.
        
“Do you like that bicycle thing?”
        
“It's okay, except I'm so hungry I'm about ready to pass out. Jamie and Rebecca ride it, too.”
        
“Will you type a letter for me?”
        
“Can't. Catherine's taking me to Bloomingdales.”    
        
Je ne parle pas très bien français.
        
“Je ne parle pas très bien français.”
        
“Can't you turn that thing off?”
        
“No, I'm practicing.”
        
“Every time Catherine takes you Above, you come back changed. French lessons! Shoes! Makeup! In fact, I believe you're wearing lip rouge.”
        
“Nowadays they call it lipstick. The color is Tahitian Peach.”
        
“Are you really going away?”
        
She took a gulp of bottled water. “I don't know. College was a long time ago. When Quincy sees me again, he may be disappointed.”
        
“No chance of that. I hope after your grand night out that you'll decide to stay with us. With me. I'l– I'll miss you if you go. Nothing will be the same.”
        
Her face softened and she stopped pedaling. “Really?”
        
“I'd miss you dreadfully. You're not optional, Mary dear. I can't get along without you.”
        
“Well, that changes everything, Jacob.” Impulsively she reached out and touched his cheek.
        
“Scheduling is such a bore. And who'll type up the minutes of the Council meetings while you're off chasing dreamboats?”
        
Her eyes went steely as she jerked her hand away. She began to pedal maniacally. Through clenched teeth she said, “I'll send you a postcard of the Eiffel Tower.”

        
It was a perfect summer night, and clear, for once. From her terrace, Catherine and Vincent pretended to count the stars.
        
“I'm up to thirty million,” she said, pointing to the sky.
        
“You win.”
        
He slipped an arm around her waist. Her orange sundress played havoc with his nervous system. The spaghetti straps gave him ideas he feared were wicked. Ideas about sliding the straps off her shoulders, and unzipping the back, and allowing the dress to puddle like a melting dreamsicle at her feet. The image was so vivid he had to remind himself to breathe.
        
Into her soft hair, he whispered, “I still think about that picnic.”
        
“Well, Zabars is still there, and the waterfall is still there. We can't make plans, though, until after Mary's big date. What's happening Below? Is Father bearing up?”
        
“He doesn't know what to do. He's going to pieces. For so many years, Mary has been his right-hand man.”
        
“That's his problem right there. She's not a man.”
        
“She was invisible and now she isn't, and he's all mixed up.”
        
“You don't think it's wrong of me to help her, even if it means a parting of the ways?”
        
“No, but I feel sorry for Father.”
        
“You may not believe me, but so do I. He doesn't realize what he's losing.”
        
 Catherine disappeared into the apartment and came back with a little telescope. “How's our undocumented immigrant?”
        
“She's teaching kindergarten, but outside the classroom she keeps to herself.”
        
While Vincent adjusted the eyepiece, she leaned on the balustrade and gazed out at the city, ablaze with lights.
        
“It's not hard to understand. She has nothing in common with anyone here.” She hesitated, then added, “I expect you feel for her as much as anyone can. You've been that isolated yourself, at times.”
        
He shook his head, no. “Because of you, I live in glory, and I'm thankful for every trouble and difficulty that put me on the path to finding you.”
        
“Well, Vincent, let me just say to you what my dad used to say to me when I was three or four years old. I wouldn't take a million bucks for you.” She slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him warmly. When he recovered, he tapped his chest.
        
“Why do you do that?” she wondered.
        
“I'm saving it.”
        
“What do you mean?”
        
“I'm keeping that kiss. I've kept them all. Every kiss, every touch, every memory. Death will break her claws on some I keep.”
        
“Ah, good old Carl Sandburg.”
        
“You know that poem?”
        
She laughed at his astonishment. “He's my main man, and that one circulates through my bloodstream like corpuscles. Listen.

         Yellow dust on a bumble
                  bee's wing,
         Grey lights in a woman's
                  asking eyes,
         Red ruins in the changing
                  sunset embers;
         I take you and pile high
                  the memories.
         Death will break her claws
                  on some I keep.”
        
He could hardly hold himself together. “The feelings I have for you are so strong I don't know what to do with them all.”
        
“Roll and leap and dive in them like a dolphin in the ocean. Nobody was ever harmed by too much happiness.”
        
“I'll try to remember that.” To keep from crying, he aimed the telescope at the Milky Way. “I just found another star. That's thirty million and one. Do I win?”
        
“Maybe just this once,” she laughed.

        
A circle of small children wriggled on their floor mats and watched Pascal as he demonstrated the basics of pipe code with a hammer and a length of copper tubing. Under his handwoven jacket he wore a t-shirt in Raaida's honor that read, 'We all came here on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now.'  
        
“Your turn to practice. Three clangs on a pipe means 'Help me' and a quick rattle means 'I'm lost.' See if you can do it.”
        
The kindergarten class loved that idea, and pounded enthusiastically on the stone floor with their lunchboxes. The noise was deafening.
        
Over the racket, Pascal shouted, “That's all for today. See you on Thursday.”
        
The children scrambled for the exit, calling, “Thanks, Pascal. Bye, Miss Raaida.”
        
The sudden silence was a relief. Pascal wiped the blackboard while Raaida rolled up the floormats and swept the room. He hesitated, then found the courage to speak up. “You're not happy here. Did Isaac help at all?”
        
Still holding the dustpan, she sat down on a wooden toy chest. As usual, her expression was bitter and sullen. “He did his best, but all of you are reading me wrong. I don't yearn to return to Pakistan. It's a war zone. I've squabbled with William and Kipper, but that's just life. I can deal with the peculiar plumbing and the lack of sunlight. The trouble is, I have nothing to do.”
        
“I don't understand.”
          
“Look, what I liked best about the school I founded was actually founding it. Mastering the obstacles to get it going. Installing electricity, wrangling permits, scrounging furniture, finding books, scraping up funding, hiring teachers, overcoming the objections of parents and clerics. My name, Raaida, actually means 'Leader.' I had authority then. Here I have none. I'm just a teacher, which is a good thing, but not what I was made for.”
        
Pascal thrust his fists deep into his pockets to hide their trembling. “Think about this. I've been considering branching out. Starting a new tunnel community in Boston. I've already spoken to a few people who are interested in coming with me. If you'd like to be part of it, I'm sure you'd find plenty of obstacles to keep you busy and happy.”
        
Immediately she sat up straight. “Are there exiles in this place called Boston?”
        
“From every nation on the globe,” he said, and gave the classroom globe a spin.
        
“Would your Father let you go?”
        
Pascal smiled faintly. “Parents build a nest and youngsters fly off. It's the way of the world.”
        
She tapped her lip, thinking hard. “There are many factors to consider. You know I am a Muslim.”
        
“I gathered that.”
        
“Have you an official religion in these tunnels?”
        
“We have a spiritual practice. We call it the Upward Path.”
        
“Tell me about it, if you will,” she urged him, and made room for him on the toy chest.
        
He searched for a way to explain. “It's simple in theory. More difficult to live it day by day. The basic belief is, he's ain't heavy, he's my brother. While we have it, we have it together – when it's gone, we'll go without it together. In short, we try to live as though there is not a circle that includes us and another circle that contains them, but only one circle that holds us all. I make mistakes every day, but the practice keeps me striving.”
        
“Toward the goal of ... ?”
        
“Becoming a better man. More mindful, more insightful and compassionate. Of course, I haven't reached that point yet.”
        
A rare smile illuminated her face, and Pascal realized, with a catch at his heart, how very beautiful she was, with perfect olive skin and clear-cut features. Her big dark eyes seemed to take him in whole, at the very deepest level, and accept him.
        
What Raaida took in was Pascal's kind and thoughtful nature. She hadn't known much kindness in her life, and it moved her profoundly. His face was so honest. Almost against her will, she trusted him. Her smile flashed up again as she said, “I suppose, at dustpan level, people are all about the same.”

        
Vincent caught up with Jamie and Rebecca in a craft workroom furnished with looms and hung with stained glass lampshades. The two women were boxing up candlemaking supplies.
        
He said, “I heard a rumor and now I see it's true.”
        
Rebecca's mop of butter-colored curls was a wild tangle. Her apron was smeared with dust. She looked radiantly happy, though, as she ordered Jamie around.
        
“Beeswax and molds in that box, dyes and pouring pots in the other.”
        
Jamie held up a handful of strings. “Do you want these?”
        
“Yes! They're wicks! In the blue box over there next to the fragrances.”
        
He was ready to be of use. “Anything I can do?”
        
“I think we've got it covered,” said Jamie, cheerfully. “There's a shop in Faneuil Hall that sells handmade candles, and Rebecca's going to teach a class there when we get set up. I'll look for work as a bike messenger. Because we'll need funding and we refuse to impose on Catherine. So we'll be spending more time Above than we ever did here. At least that's the plan.”
        
“You'll be roughing it for quite a while.”
        
“That's part of the fun,” said Jamie. “I'll bet when Father thinks back to the early years when he was a trailblazer and a pioneer, all the hardships he went through seem like a great adventure.”
        
“You think of him as a trailblazer?”
        
“Sure! He planted his flag and claimed these tunnels as a new territory, a new world. I've lived here since I learned how to draw around my hand to make a turkey. I'm ready to be a pioneer myself.”
        
Vincent turned to Rebecca. “Is that why you're going? To be a pioneer?”
        
She looked down and blushed a little. “Truthfully, I'd like to meet some new guys, Irish guys. I've heard that half the Irish immigrants living in Boston jumped ship and are there illegally. That's an exaggeration. But there may be a handful of stowaways who want to take refuge with us. When I hear Irishmen talk and joke, well, it gives me happy feelings all over my body, if it's all right to say that.”
        
He had to laugh. “Not long ago I told Catherine that there's a miracle around every corner. Maybe your Liam is already there, playing the bodhran and dreaming of a yellow-haired candle maker.”
        
Both women hugged Vincent, one on each side.
        
Said Jamie, “You're the best.”
        
“We'll miss you though,” he reminded them. “It will be lonesome around here without you. And you know that Father isn't taking it very well.”
        
Said Jamie, “We'll communicate and we'll visit. It's just time for us to push off from shore and set sail for a new world.”
        
          
Father trudged into Vincent's chamber and sat down beside him on a daybed. Vincent was humming to himself as he slipped bookmarks into a volume of Carl Sandburg.
        
“So this is Mary's big night?” he commented.
        
“Almost time,” Father mourned. “The Tavern on the Green is a ten minute walk, but she'll want to be early. I don't expect she'll ever come back, even to pick up her things. Why should she? I'm not an ambassador with wavy black hair. She wants to forget the last thirty years. I'm a reminder of the bad old days when she lived underground and ate macaroni. Soon she'll be eating lambs' feet stuffed with snails.”
        
Vincent hid a smile. “I'm not sure you're right about that.”
        
“The French don't eat normal food. They eat French food.”
        
He pulled a bottle of brandy from a brown paper bag. “It's medicinal,” he explained, then poured two slugs and drank them both.
        
Vincent was searching for a poem he could copy and frame as a gift for Catherine. Father's woes had only half his attention.
        
“I love that woman. She's everything in the world to me. Sometimes it's all I can do not to tell her so. This disaster is like ... dominoes. First Mary turns her back on me and now Pascal is leaving to start a commune in Boston, of all places, along with Jamie, Rebecca, Isaac Stubbs, and that Raaida person. After all I've done for them, everyone's deserting me.”
        
“That's far from everyone.”
        
Father, though, was awash in self-pity. “I hope William doesn't decamp, too. Nobody else makes my oatmeal the way I like it, with brown sugar and raisins and a slosh of evaporated milk. He'll probably go with the others. Loyalty means nothing these days. Who'll deliver messages if Jamie isn't here to zip around on her ten-speed? Who'll make the candles for Winterfest this year? Might as well cancel it. No point in celebrating alone. You know that Catherine is going with them.”
        
Vincent sat very still while panic exploded in his chest. The book slipped from his hands.
        
At last he managed to say, “That can't be true.”
        
“Why not? She very nearly moved to Providence, did she not? I saw her in the schoolroom with Raaida, poring over maps of the Boston subway system. Her cousin will be the crew's second Helper. She'll be the first.”
        
He breathed very evenly to keep from panicking. Father had to be mistaken. If it were true, there was nothing in him that could bear it.
        
“Catherine wouldn't do such a thing. I don't believe it.”
        
“Believe it. You and I have been used up and thrown away like a couple of empty tin cans. Tea bags. Old socks. I could have made that woman so happy, and now it's too late. Here, you need this.”
        
Vincent swallowed the brandy in one gulp as Father fooled with a portable phonograph and a pile of records.
        
“Probably once she's on the road, she means to write you a nice goodbye letter with X O X O on the bottom. And that will be the end.”
        
“Don't say that. Don't even think it.”
        
“She'll be so busy in court, she'll forget she was ever here.”
        
He fought to remain calm. “See, there you're wrong. I don't think she's licensed to practice law in Massachusetts.”
        
Father knew better. “There are ways around that. She'll have a new life and you'll be part of her past. Same for Mary. I'll be somebody that she used to know, the old fogy who wore fingerless gloves.” He picked up a record, adding, “I remember this one. Makes me quite sentimental for the dear dead days beyond recall.”
        
They sat shoulder to shoulder on the daybed, swaying in unison and singing along with the music. Vincent's rumbling bass drowned out Father's quavering tenor.

         “I bless the day I found you
         I want to stay around you
         And so I beg you,
         Let it be me.
         Each time we meet, love
         I find complete love
         Without your sweet love
         What would life be.
         So never leave me lonely
         Tell me you love me only
         And that you'll always
         Let it be me.”
        
As soon as the song ended, Father groused, “This insurrection on Mary's part is all Catherine's fault. I've seen the two of them giggling together, leaving me out.”
        
Weakly, Vincent protested, “It's not the French Revolution. No guillotine.”
        
“No, but it is the overthrow of the old regime. I'm losing people I love, and it affects me very badly, and she doesn't care.”
        
“She sympathizes with your predicament, but she also sensed that Mary was unhappy.”
        
“Mary didn't know she was unhappy until Catherine pointed it out.” Father heaved himself up and stomped out the door. “I'm going to wish her well. Don't pay any attention to my ramblings. I'm just being a pill. Catherine won't go and leave you. As for Mary, I do hope she's happy. But not with Quincy Bloody Randall.”
        
Left alone, Vincent stalked his chamber restlessly as trust and fear fought it out in his soul. Father's assertions had shattered him, and the last-minute retraction meant little. Although he battled heroically to keep faith in the bond they shared, old anxieties resurfaced and shook him to the core. Again and again he told himself that she had said nothing about quitting her job ... She wouldn't leave New York unless ... He had perfect faith in Catherine, but ...
        
He put a hand to his forehead. More than once he had lost his grip on reality when he was forced to visualize a future without Catherine. He had to keep himself steady and sane. Half aloud, he murmured, “I believe in you. You aren't moving away. You didn't move to Providence, and you won't move to Boston. Tomorrow, after I've spoken to you, we'll laugh at these ridiculous fears. I'm not going to worry about this at all.”
        
Something broke inside him and he uttered a sound that was almost a sob. He leaned his arms against the wall and hid his face as he began to pray to every god who ever had existence. “Is anyone there? Does anyone hear me? Krishna. Jesus. Buddha. Pele. Osiris. Odin. Ayida-Weddo. I was hers from the first. Within days of our meeting, she became the core of my life. Her name shapes every breath I take. It's 'Catherine' when I breathe in and 'Catherine' when I breathe out. For thousands of years human beings have sent up desperate prayers to you, but hardly any prayers more desperate than mine. Don't ask me to carry on without her. It can't be done. One mercy I ask of you, only one. Let it be me.”  

        
Father trudged along a granite passage that led to an exit hidden between the Central Park Zoo and a softball field. Haloed by an outside streetlight, Mary stood at the exit gate, one hand touching the latch. In the faint glow her hair was golden-bronze. As he drew nearer, he could see that she was wearing a jacket and skirt of soft green tweed. Her cream silk blouse was set off by a jeweled butterfly pendant.
        
In spite of Catherine's reassurances and her own epic endeavors over the past two weeks, Mary still had doubts. “How do I look?”
        
There was a lump in his throat that made it hard to speak. “Like a lovely mermaid. Tahitian Peach?”
        
“Coral Fire. It's this season's color according to Estée Lauder. Catherine loaned me the butterfly to remind me I'm no longer a caterpillar.”
        
He took her free hand between both his own. “You never were. Quincy is a fool if he doesn't snap you up, and not for your beautiful face alone. You're hardworking, intelligent, and loyal.”
        
She was moved by his comments and took refuge in a mild joke to avoid smearing her mascara. “Like a collie.”
        
“No! That's not what I meant! I'm trying to say you're a perfect woman!”    
        
“I know. I'm teasing you. Bless you for the kind words; they mean a lot. It's almost eight, I have to go. Quincy will be there by now.”
        
“Good ... good luck to you, Mary dear. My darling friend. If I don't see you again, well ... we had a long run, didn't we. Even during the hardest times we always could talk and find a way through. Through fire and flood you were always by my side. Don't worry about the community here. We have your inspiration to keep us going. You've earned this happiness. They'll love you in Paris.”
        
“Thank you, Jacob. I must run. Goodbye.”
        
He watched her until she disappeared into the night. Then, with a groan, he closed the gate and turned away. A few yards from the exit, someone had dumped a pile of wooden benches. He turned one right side up and took a seat, then leaned back against the granite wall. He couldn't face the questions of his friends, not at the moment, when the loss was so raw. Quiet and solitude were all he wanted. It was soothing to sit in the dark and think of the days gone by, when he and Mary had both been young, and the Tunnels were uncharted territory, and life below ground was a bold adventure.
        
His eyes closed as he drifted into a dream-memory. He was stroking a cat named Sparks, the only thing that Paracelsus ever loved. Without warning he was startled awake by the clatter of running feet pounding the granite floor. It was Mary, careening down the passageway. Her eyes were wild and she was gasping for breath.
        
“Save me! Don't let him get me! He's bald, with a comb-over from back to front! He owns the Ambassador Topless Lounge in Paris, Texas! Where can I hide?”
        
After a stunned second, he stood up and opened his arms wide. “Hide here.”
        
 She didn't hesitate, but rushed headlong into his embrace. They held each other fiercely and then began kissing like mad.
        
Between kisses, he managed to say, “Mary, you have nearly finished me.  When you came fluttering into my chamber, waving Quincy Randall's letter, the world tilted sideways.”
        
She held him even tighter. “What about me? All these years I've been just a pal to you. A sidekick, like Cheetah the chimp, if Cheetah could type.”
        
“Never that. You've always been precious to me.”
        
“Ha! I could have gotten rabies or joined a convent, you wouldn't have cared.”
        
“All my fault, all of it. I was deaf and blind to the greatest blessing of my life. I've changed. You changed me. You changed this stubborn man. Don't leave me any more.”
        
“Never any more. Quincy Randall can go back to Texas and date his strippers. Blaze, Fantasy, the twins Velvet and Vixen, and Mustang Sally. He gave me a flyer. That's when I ran out of the restaurant like I was possessed, and I'm scared to death he's still looking for me. Jacob, let's get away from the gate.”
        
His face beamed with love and laughter. “He won't find you in my chamber. You're my girl and I want you in my bed.”
        
Suddenly shy, Mary asked, “You do? Really?”
        
Crushing her closer, he said, “More than anything.”
        
“Good, because I'm so hungry for you I can't diet any more. Is that naughty of me?”
        
“My darling girl. We have a lot of time to make up for, and I want to start by showing you the Queen's Indian Defense.”
        
“Isn't that chess?”
        
“Not the way we'll play it. For us it means up, down, back to front, in and out, and side to side.”
        
Against his lips she whispered, “In that case, I'm glad I'm wearing the jade.”

        
Vincent was not in his chamber. No one knew where he was. Catherine rapped his name on the pipes, but received no response. She checked the music room and then the kitchen, where she found William leaning over a sink, scouring pans with steel wool. If she hadn't known it was Friday, the lingering smell of fish and coleslaw would have told her so.  Year round, William served the same meals he had eaten as a German-American kid in Texas: fish tacos, three-alarm chili, cabbage rolls, enchiladas, chicken and dumplings, bean burritos, and sausages with sauerkraut. Like Father, he found comfort in routine.
        
“Haven't seen Vincent,” growled William. His face was red with heat and exertion. “He was supposed to supervise the kids this evening, and he didn't show up. I bet he's talking world politics with that Raaida and forgot us. I'll be just as glad when she moves to Boston. She flat-out refuses to eat my pork sausages, can you believe that?'
        
“Your kosher butcher friend Sol won't eat them either, and for a similar reason.”
        
“That's different!”
        
“Not really.”
        
“Well anyway, I had to supervise the kids myself tonight, and when you find Vincent, tell him he's in the doghouse.”
        
“I will.” Impulsively she kissed his bristly cheek. “You're a good guy, William. And your cabbage rolls are the best.”
        
“Hmmmph!” He snorted, but he was tickled pink.
        
She descended a flight of steps to the fourth and deepest level. Passing the Meditation Room, she caught a glimpse of Vincent placing a lighted candle on a long stone ledge. When he resumed his seat, she slipped into the pew beside him and looked around curiously, for this room was new to her. On the eastern wall, memorial plaques recorded the names of Tunnel dwellers who had passed on since the founding. On the western wall, a Jewish prayer was inscribed.
        
LORD OF THE UNIVERSE, I FORGIVE ALL WHO HAVE MADE ME ANGRY, AND HARMED ME, WHETHER THEY HURT MY BODY, MY HONOR, OR MY PROPERTY, WHETHER WITTINGLY OR UNWITTINGLY, WHETHER IN  DEED OR IN THOUGHT. MAY NO ONE BE PUNISHED FOR MY SAIKE OR BECAUSE OF ME.
        
They sat in silence for quite a while, in an atmosphere of prayer and peace. At last, Catherine said, “Father and Mary are still in his chamber, making up for thirty lonesome years.”
        
“Ah.” His profile was stern and sad.
        
After another pause, she said, “You're being silent about something, and I know what it is. There's a rumor that I'm dumping New York for Boston. It's true, I am going, for the weekend. I'm taking Pascal to meet my cousin Ned, who's a spelunker. They're going to explore the abandoned subway tunnels there and map likely corners and passages. They'll scope out sources of water and heat and so on. But you believed I was relocating, didn't you.”
        
His voice was hoarse. “I never thought that.”
        
“You did. You have no faith in me.”
        
“It was never you I doubted, but only myself.”
        
“What's the difference? It makes me so sad.”
        
“I'm tormented by questions without answers.” Wearily, Vincent rubbed his face. “You have options, Catherine. An infinite number of paths to choose. And you have the right to seek a wider life.”
        
“You mean that if it was always my dream to play steel guitar in a reggae band, I should head for Jamaica now.”
        
He was aggravated and beat the palm of his hand on the pew. “I'm serious.”
        
“You insist on making yourself miserable when it isn't necessary. Listen, now. It's true that I have the money and the education and the drive to make a good life for myself anywhere in the world. Washington, DC. London. Even Melbourne, Australia. Hey, I like koalas; it's a possibility. I stand at the crossroads and see all those paths, and I choose you. Freely, without any coercion, I choose the path that leads to you.”
        
Tears ran down his face. “Why?”
        
She closed her fingers over his. “Think about the trials and tribulations we've endured. We've suffered enough griefs and dangers and misunderstandings to break up a dozen couples. The odds against us are overwhelming. And yet we've come through them all with our flag still flying. We've beaten the odds. There's a reason for that, and I sense it in this Meditation Room. The universe is on our side. We're meant to be together, to accomplish something amazing. We don't know what it is yet, but I know it's essential, because of the help we've been given. The same road that led me to you will lead us to wonders if we keep faith with one another. Answers can wait. We'll live the questions until one day we find ourselves living the answers.”
        
A deep inhalation lifted a weight from his chest. At that moment, he put aside his own self-doubts for good and all. He drew her up to stand beside him. “One day when we're old we'll come back to this place and thank every deity who may ever have existed, and tell them it was worth it, and that we'd do it all again.”
        
One last time, Catherine looked around, touched by the memorial plaques with their messages of love and heartbreak.
                   
         Fr. Joe Feeney, 1970, Our pal              For Etta, my Mother, Love Pascal
         Katy, 1977-79. Sweet of heart             Sparks, the best cat ever
         LaRue, 1910-1981. We'll remember.     Our precious baby. Our Christmas angel.
        
“I feel this is a holy place.”
        
“If a place can be made holy by prayers and remembrance, it is. Oh, Catherine, what you've done for me, what you've given me, there are no words to tell you.”
        
Her face shone with pure faith and confidence. “You're my man, the only man there is. Someday we'll come back here with a few friends and declare ourselves married.” She added a candle to the row of wavering lights, then leaned closer and kissed him with her whole strength. Tapping her chest, she said, “I'm keeping that one.”
        
He was so broken with joy that he could hardly speak. “I take you and pile high the memories.” They stood close together in the dimness of the corridor. From somewhere, he found the courage to ask, “Will you love with me?”
        
“Yes. Yes. I will. Yes, I will. In fact, it's a perfect summer night for a ramble in the Park. Want to make some splendor in the grass?”
        
He managed to say, “Another night. Since we first met I've chained myself back, in fear of making a wrong move. Now the chains are broken and I can't wait any longer. I'm perishing for you.”
        
She slipped her arm around his waist as they walked toward the staircase. “All right, your chamber is closer. Listen, Vincent. I want you to love me until we're both unconscious. Give me everything you've got. Don't hold anything back.”
        
“Take it all. Everything of myself that can be given.”
        
Caressing his leather sleeve, she said, “This morning we had no idea the day would end like this, with me in your bed, learning your body while you learn mine.”
        
Halfway up the steps he paused and threw his head back. “I dreamed of finding someone beautiful and fearless, gallant and warmhearted, but then I grew wiser, and gave up dreaming. Love was for others, never for me. You showed me I was wrong. The universe is on my side. There's a miracle around every corner.”

 

 

**********

Ann Brown is the creator of Sleepless in Providence, a hard-copy zine unique among our fandom's collection, a story told in art and letters – real letters – the reader removes from the envelopes, opens, reads, weeps over (and never forgets). Her hand-stamped novella, Against All Odds, is another singular creation. She edited anthology zines, brought together outstanding authors and artists, authored at least eight zines herself and had stories in twenty more. A selection of her work is online and more is available from the Crystal Rose Lending Library.
     

contact the author: ReunionAuthors(at)gmail(dot)com

    

Return to the Reunion Stories Index