Don’t Be Afraid…
Catherine yawned and stretched then rolled over and looked at the clock. It was a little after 9AM. She mentally went over her schedule for the day as she began her morning routine.
There’s the settlement conference at three, so I should probably grab some lunch somewhere before I go to the office, she thought as she looked through the clothes in her closet. As long as I’m there by one I can still go over the papers to be sure I know what we’re doing.
She pulled a pair of black wool slacks and black and white plaid jacket out of the closet and hung them on the front of the closet door. As she passed her bureau she opened a drawer and took out black panties and bra, and a black cashmere sweater out of another. Those items went to the top of the bureau before she headed to the shower.
It was after 10AM by the time she put on her orange coat and headed out the door.
Down on the street she hailed and cab and gave the driver the address of the boutique where she was having the dress for Tom’s reception altered. They wanted one more fitting. From the boutique she walked a block to a restaurant for an early lunch.
She climbed out of the cab in front of the building where Chandler and Coolidge was and looked around as she strode purposefully across the sidewalk and inside. In the elevator she checked her watch.
Not too bad, she thought, it’s only a little after noon; I have plenty of time to make sure I’m up to speed on the settlement.
The elevator opened and she stepped out into the lobby of Chandler and Coolidge.
“Morning!” she called out as she breezed through the reception area.
“Not anymore...” the receptionist called back.
She laughed. It was good to be the boss’s daughter. “Picky, picky...”
Catherine turned into a hall lined with office doors, smiling and nodding and trading comments with coworkers as she passed.
“Great look,” said a female colleague.
“Thanks,” Catherine called back to her.
“Cathy, please don't forget the settlement conference at three,” called the other lawyer who was working on the settlement with her.
“I'll be there,” she assured him with a smile.
At the end of the hall she continued through her father’s private reception area.
“Hi Joan,” she called as she walked through.
“Hi,” Joan called back.
Catherine walked into her father’s office to find him on the phone. He waved her to a chair.
“Catherine,” he acknowledged, before going back to the call.
“Hi Dad.” She moved to the chair taking off her coat as she did.
“Hal, let me call you back,” said her father before he hung up and turned to his daughter.
“Hal Sherwood’s coming up from Atlanta tonight,” he told her. “Will you have dinner with us?” he added hopefully.
She shook her head. “I can't, Tom’s having a party for the architects of the new project. Another excuse to wine and dine the planning commission.”
“I used to be invited to these functions,” he joked with her. “I should’ve thought twice before I handed you over to our best client.”
“You make it sound like a horse trade,” she joked back.
“Uhhhh…you could do a lot worse than Tom Gunther,” Charles suggested.
“And have,” she added. They both laughed.
“Well, how about dinner tomorrow night?” he suggested.
“Let me get to my desk, check my calendar,” she said as she rose and began to gather her things.
She walked around the desk and kissed him.
“You just getting in?” he asked, just noticing her coat.
“Had a late night, had some errands to run today,” she said with an apologetic shrug. “Sue me…”
“It's a little late for that. I should’ve sued you when you were five.” His voice took on a more concerned tone. “What’s up with you? You don't enjoy the work? You don’t find it stimulating?”
“When I think of corporate law, stimulating is not a word that immediately pops into mind,” she said hoping not to hurt his feelings.
“But when you put your mind to it, you’re a fine corporate lawyer,” he said.
“No Dad, I’m the daughter of a fine corporate lawyer,” she said ironically as she left the office and headed for her own.
The afternoon went quickly. By three she was as familiar with the settlement as she’d ever be, and the conference went very well. Everyone left the conference room in a good state of mind and Rob, the other lawyer working with her, congratulated her.
“I don’t know how you do it, Cathy,” he said as they walked down the hall toward their offices, “but you do seem to have a knack for making all the parties involved happy.”
She shrugged. “I try to put myself in their shoes and figure out what might be acceptable to everyone,” she said as she opened her office door. “Luckily, this time, I didn’t have to pull out plan B, C or D. They accepted the first one.”
He looked at his watch and swore mildly under his breath.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s my daughter’s birthday and I’m going to be late for dinner… again. I still have to write the changes into the settlement agreement.”
“I’ll take care of it,” she assured him. “You go on. Your family is more important. I’ll make sure it’s on your secretary’s desk before I leave.” She remembered that even in the early days of the practice her dad had always put his family first.
“Thanks, Cathy,” he said gratefully. “I owe you.”
She waved him on and went into her office.
When she finished it was almost seven. She was supposed to be at Tom’s party at eight-thirty. She wished she could beg off, her feet hurt, and in spite of the few hours of extra sleep that morning the late night of the night before was catching up with her.
As she hurried into her building a short time later, the doorman greeted her and handed her a large box: her dress and wrap for the night.
In her apartment she quickly hung the dress and put the hooded cloak over the back of her vanity chair. She’d originally planned to wear something a bit springier, but it had been so cold and damp lately that she’d opted for velvet.
After a quick shower she did her hair and applied make up. She was ready in record time, but it would be almost nine before she got there, and Tom was not going to be happy. She sighed and left.
The party was in full swing when she arrived, and she hoped that Tom hadn’t missed her absence. But no such luck.
“You’re late,” he said almost as soon as she walked in the door.
“I’m sorry, we had a late afternoon conference and it ran over. I rewrote the agreement before I left. Rob had to get home to his daughter’s birthday party.”
“What’s the use of being the boss’s daughter if you still have to do all the grunt work?” he asked almost belligerently.
She ignored his comment and removed her cloak, folding it over her arm. He didn’t even give her a chance to drop it at the coat check before he was pulling her across the room to meet one of his clients.
She managed to escape a while later, with the excuse that she wanted to get a drink. She had her drink when she saw someone across the room that she knew.
She glanced across at Tom. He was talking to someone so she made her way to the table where her friend was seated.
It didn’t take long for Cathy to realize that her friend Eve was at least one drink past where she should have stopped. She was sad and the alcohol was just making her worse. She was telling Cathy the long, sad story of her divorce.
“He told me just to pretend like he was dead...” Eve said, teary eyed.
“I’m sorry Eve... Things’ll turn around,” Cathy told her. She wasn’t really sure what to say, she’d never loved anyone like that, and if this was what it did to you, she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
She turned her head as Tom came up from behind and put his hand on her shoulder.
“How you doing? You all right?” he asked, not quite sounding as concerned as he probably thought he did.
“Fine. Eve and I haven’t seen each other since college...” Cathy answered, trying not to be too obvious about shrugging off his hand.
“We were just catching up...” Eve said to Tom.
Tom looked at Eve. “Good...” He put his arm around Cathy. “I need to talk to you.”
Cathy rose and leaned toward Eve.
“Would you excuse us for a minute?”
Tom led her over to a quiet spot near the stairs. As soon as she looked up at him she knew he was irritated.
“What’s with you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Cathy, honestly confused.
“Well, you’ve been sitting over there listening to her blubber half the night,” he said in an angry tone.
“She’s going through a rough time. She and I used to be good friends...” she started to explain.
“I know her. She’s a lush. She was married to a lush. She’s a complete loser.”
His words and the tone he said them in shocked her.
“You're very compassionate,” she said sarcastically.
“Come on, stick with me, there’s someone I want you to meet.” His tone had changed.
“Oh Tom, I’m just not into it tonight, I’m sorry,” she began to apologize, but he cut her off.
“I thought I could count on you,” he shot back.
“You can.” She wondered why she was even listening to this.
“Maybe I expect too much.”
Cathy’s anger started to boil up beneath her calm surface.
“This is a party,” she said pointedly. “It’s not brain surgery.”
“I really don’t have time for this now,” he cut her off again.
“Frankly, I don’t like being told who I can talk to!”
“Then show better judgment!”
If she didn’t leave now, she was sure this would become a full blown argument. She’d rather leave than make a scene.
“Fine, I think I'll call it a night.” She took a step back.
“That’s not an option!” he told her with finality.
That did it. She wasn’t staying around to be treated like she was nothing more than part of the décor.
“Oh, it’s not?” She walked away and went back to the table where she’d left Eve. She picked up her purse and coat.
“Eve I’m sorry, I'm going to have to call you tomorrow.”
She turned and left the room, leaving a stunned Tom staring after her.
In the foyer she put the coat on. As she stepped out onto the sidewalk she looked around. There was no doorman so she stepped to the curb to flag down a taxi for herself.
The taxi kept on driving.
“Great,” she muttered as she pulled her velvet wrap more snugly around her shoulders.
She was startled when someone stepped out of the shadows.
“Say, you’re uh, you're not having very much luck. I’ll get one for you...I'm an expert,” he said with a smile as he stepped off the curb and raised his arm. “Yo! Taxi!”
The taxi drove on and he turned to her with a shrug and a smile.
Catherine was distracted by a van pulling out of the alley next to the building.
The door slid open just as the guy who was supposedly helping her get a cab grabbed her and shoved her toward the open door.
“Hey Carol, are you going home alone tonight?” he hissed in her ear.
Catherine was paralyzed with fear, her mind almost refusing to work, but she did recognize the fact that he’d called her by another woman’s name.
She tried to twist way, but arms reached out of the van, pulled her inside and threw her to the hard metal floor. The guy from the street jumped in behind her and the van sped off.
Catherine tried to squirm away from them, but there were two of them and she was easily overpowered.
They slammed her against the floor, the guy from the street was almost on top of her, and she didn’t dare think of what might be coming. She squealed and tried not to scream.
“Ssh, yeah that's a girl, that's a girl, ssh that's a girl,” he crooned. “You know what happens to little girls with big mouths... huh?”
Catherine’s mind was flying wildly and she didn’t want to look closely at any of the possibilities.
“You’re gonna find out,” said a second voice.
“Hey Carol, you've got to remember to keep your mouth shut from now on,” the guy from the street said threateningly.
He kept calling her by someone else’s name. If she could convince him that he had the wrong woman…
“My name isn't Carol,” she said in a weak voice.
“Shut up!” he shouted at her.
Someone was holding her legs and the guy from the street was almost sitting on her.
“You’re gonna remember every time you look in the mirror,” he said ominously.
He held a metal object in front of her face and a razor sharp blade suddenly shot straight out from the end.
Fear made Catherine fight.
“Help!” she yelled.
Her hands were grabbed and held as she continued to struggle.
The knife drew closer to her face.
The first cut on her left cheek felt like fire. The second crossed the first, the next ones came so quickly that she couldn’t even register where they were. She passed out from the pain and shock before he was finished.
Catherine woke from a nightmare. She had no idea where she was, it was so dark she couldn’t see anything. She was comfortable, except for the pain that throbbed in her face. She was in a bed, but she knew it wasn’t her own. And there were strange sounds. Tapping, like noisy radiators or bad plumbing and every once in a while what sounded like a train. She sniffed and it didn’t smell like anything she was familiar with: wood smoke, dust, and something she couldn’t identify. None of it was unpleasant, just unfamiliar.
She drifted back to sleep before she could make any sense of it.
The next time she woke, she had been dreaming again. She was grappling with the two men again.
“No! No!” she moaned.
“You’re safe. You’re safe, now,” a voice assured her, and strangely she believed him.
“Where am I?” she croaked, through a parched throat.
“No one will hurt you. You’re safe here,” the voice continued to assure her.
She hesitated a moment to concentrate on the voice. There was something about it. It was so kind and gentle that she believed what he said.
“H- hospital?” she stammered.
“No, but you’re going to be all right,” he said.
“Why aren’t I in a hospital?” she asked.
“There was no time, you were bleeding.”
“What did they do?” she asked as her hands went to the bandages that swathed her head. That was why it was so dark, her eyes were covered.
“My eyes!” she said, panicked.
“Your eyes were not hurt. We made sure,” he told her. “Rest now.”
Again, she believed him and drifted off to sleep.
The next time she woke she sensed someone in the room. When she moved the person spoke.
“I’m Mary,” a female voice explained. “I can help you to the toilet if you need it,” she offered. “And I’ll help you wash up if you want.”
Catherine nodded mutely and allowed the woman to help her to her feet. She gasped as she felt a stabbing pain in her side.
“You’ve got some badly bruised or possibly broken ribs,” Mary told her. “Just go slow and try not to twist around.”
Mary took her arm and helped her to a toilet. Catherine was embarrassed at the amount of help she needed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mary told her. “You lost a lot of blood and are weak from that, and you are on some pain medication.”
When Mary helped her back to the bed, Catherine was relieved to lay back against the soft cushions.
“I think I’ll pass on the washing up,” she told Mary, “at least for now.”
“I understand,” said Mary. She held a glass to Catherine’s lips. It smelled like apple juice. “You should drink this, it will help you regain your strength. If it seems to sit well, we’ll try some soup.”
Catherine took the glass, drank thirstily and handed it back.
“Thank you,” she said, as Mary straightened the covers. “Mary… what did they do to me?”
She waited as she heard the swishing of material; Mary was probably sitting down.
“From the looks of it, they beat you,” Mary told her. “There are quite a few bruises, but aside from the ribs, no broken bones. They did slash your face pretty badly. I counted about eight cuts and some of them were pretty deep, almost to the bone.”
Catherine groaned. And was quiet for a moment, then Mary spoke again.
“They didn’t rape you,” Mary told her. “I’m a nurse and a midwife and I examined you.”
“Thank you, Mary,” Catherine whispered. “Did you also bandage my face?”
“I bandaged you and wrapped your ribs, but we have a doctor who stitched the cuts.”
Catherine was so quiet that Mary thought she’d gone back to sleep and she left.
Catherine wasn’t asleep; her mind was going a mile a minute. She wondered how badly she’d been disfigured. She knew that she was more than just a pretty face, but she wasn’t sure if she could face the world with scars for the rest of her life.
When Catherine woke again, she had no idea how long it had been, but she could tell that someone was in the chamber. She knew it wasn’t the woman Mary, she’d smelled like lavender.
“Who’s here? Who are you?” she called out.
It was the man who’d been there the first time she’d woke. She recognized his voice.
She started to sit up.
“My father and I treated your injuries. You have broken ribs. You need to be still.”
She remembered Mary telling her about broken ribs.
“Where am I?” she pleaded.
“Where no one can hurt you.”
“My face hurts,” she almost whined. She knew she sounded like a petulant child, but she was miserable.
“Tell me your name,” Vincent said patiently, distracting her from the pain.
“Catherine.” As soon as it was out of her mouth she wondered. She always introduced herself as Cathy, except to clients.
“Catherine,” he repeated softly and something about the way he said her name made her glad she’s used the more formal version. “Try to rest. If you need anything I’ll be close by… Don’t be afraid. Please, don’t be afraid.”
He really seemed to be concerned about her fear.
“I’ll try,” she said before she drifted off to sleep again.
Mary was at her side when she woke the next time. She helped her to the toilet again and this time Catherine had felt strong enough to wash up a bit.
“It’s a little chilly in here,” Catherine commented as Mary helped her into a clean gown.
“I’ll see if I can make it warmer,” Mary told her as she helped her back to the bed. “Are you hungry?”
“Famished,” Catherine told her, realizing for the first time that she was hungry. “How long have I been here?”
“Going on five days,” Mary told her. “You slept for almost two before you woke up.” She tucked the blankets around Catherine. “It’s no wonder that you are hungry, all you’ve had has been juice and water. I’ll send Vincent back with some soup.”
The room started to warm up as Catherine relaxed against the pillows. She tried to separate the sounds around her. The tapping was constant, and she’d noticed patterns. The Morse Code from Girl Scouts was coming back and every once in a while she would pick out a sequence that sounded familiar, but then it would change.
She felt like she’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole.
She was lost in thought when Vincent arrived.
“Mary said you were hungry. She sent me with soup,” he said as he settled himself on the side of the bed next to her legs.
He fed her s spoonful.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
It was thick and savory, more like stew than soup.
“It’s good soup,” she said.
Vincent gave her another spoonful.
“Vincent, tell me … where are we?” she asked. Her brain was tired from trying to figure it out.
Just then a train rumbled nearby.
“Somewhere there’s an elevated train...” she speculated. “Brooklyn? Queens?”
“No, not Brooklyn or Queens.” She heard hesitation in his voice.
Catherine fought back panic. “Am I still in New York? Vincent, please tell me! Where are we?”
“I have to keep it as a secret,” he told her reluctantly.
“Because, a lot of good people depend on this place for safety.”
Catherine thought about that for a moment.
“I’ll keep your secret,” she promised. “And that tapping. It never stops.”
“It’s people talking to each other, tapping on the master pipes.”
“You mean messages?” That explained the familiar patterns.
“Vincent please, tell me,” she pleaded.
After some hesitation he began to speak slowly, as if choosing his words carefully.
“We’re below the city; below the subways. There’s a whole world of tunnels and chambers that most people don’t even know exists. There are no maps to where we are. It’s a forgotten place… But it’s warm and it’s safe and we have all the room we need; so we live here, and we try to live as well as we can, and we try to take care of each other. It’s our city, down here...”
“What are you doing down here? Why are you here?” she asked.
She heard Vincent take a deep breath, and wondered.
“I was a baby; abandoned, left to die. Someone found me and brought me here, to the man who became my father. He took me, he raised me. He taught me everything. He named me Vincent... That’s where I was found, near the hospital, St. Vincent’s.”
“I - I don’t know what to believe...”
“It’s all true.”
He held another spoonful of soup to her lips and she reached out to touch his hand. She encountered what felt like soft hair before they both snatched their hands back. She began to wonder… was he wearing fur?
Her periods of sleep shortened and became more normal as she healed. As she was awake longer Vincent spent more time with her. He read to her and they talked and found that they had a lot in common; they liked the same books and music, although Vincent admitted that he hadn’t seen many movies.
Mary came in several times a day to help her out of bed. She would sit in a large, thronelike chair while Mary bustled around the room. She willingly answered most of Catherine’s questions.
“Vincent told me a little about this place,” Catherine said to Mary. “He said that it must be kept a secret because a lot of good people are here, but I can’t figure out why people would choose to live here when there are so many other options.”
“For most of us, there are no other options,” Mary told her. “There was nothing left Above for them so they found their way to us. Some were born here and chose not to leave. Some have come, stayed a while then moved on.”
“What about you?” Catherine asked. “Why are you here?”
Catherine noticed that Mary grew quiet. Then she heard the other chair scrape as the woman sat down.
“I lost my family,” she said simply, “my boy and my husband. There was a fire. We hadn’t been in the city long and I didn’t know anyone. Sarah found me and she brought me Below. She saved my life. They gave me sanctuary and time to heal. To lose a child, is to lose everything, but here I found family again, I found a home and meaning again. I take care of the children. I love them, I teach them.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Catherine, unable to think anything else to say. “I can’t imagine going through anything like that. I lost my mother when I was little, but I still had my dad and a home.”
“It was a long time ago, my dear,” Mary said. “One never really gets over something like that, but life goes on and the hurt gets easier to bear over time.”
They were both quiet for a few minutes, then Catherine heard Mary moving around again. “All right now, I think it’s time you got back to bed. We don’t want to put too much strain on those ribs.”
She helped Catherine stand then led her back to the bed.
Catherine didn’t go back to sleep right away, she pondered what Mary had told her. At first she had the idea that there were only a few people here, or maybe a dozen at most, but Vincent had said that a lot of people depended on the secret being kept. She wondered how many constituted ‘a lot.’ Mary said she took care of the children... Plural. Catherine had heard one child a few times talking to Vincent, but there must be more.
Just how many people could stay hidden and secret below the city? She asked herself. I wonder if Vincent would tell me if I asked him.
Vincent was reading to her when she interrupted him.
“What time is it?” she asked suddenly.
“A little after ten,” he told her.
“AM or PM?” she knew she was being rude but she felt irritable and was finding it hard to control that irritation.
“It’s morning, Catherine,” he supplied, calmly.
“I’m sorry, but I’m so used to having a schedule that I’m expected to keep, even if I don’t always, and this not knowing, not being able to see a clock is driving me nuts! How long have I been here?”
“I found you and brought you here on April 12th. It’s now the 21st, so you’ve been here nine days.”
She groaned and rolled her head on the back of her chair.
“Nine days! My father is going to be beside himself. How am I ever going to explain this to him?”
“I’m sure that you’ll find a way,” he assured her. “You noticed the messages on the pipes before. We let everyone know the time that way too. We have sentry posts in all the main tunnels near entrances to our world. They are numbered and there is a clock in sentry post one. Every hour on the hour, and again on the half hour the sentry in sentry post one will tap out a message on the pipes. He gives his post number, his status, usually ‘all’s well’ and the time. We use the twenty four hour clock, so the typical message would be ‘Sentry post one, all’s well’ sixteen hundred hours, or sixteen thirty hours.’ Then each post, in turn, will respond with the same thing. You can usually pick it out, because you hear almost the same thing being repeated several times.”
“I’ve noticed what sounds like Morse code, but not quite,” she said.
“We’ve adapted it to suit our needs. We abbreviate words, and skip non-essential words.”
“So, I should be able to figure it out if I listen closely?”
“If you know Morse code.”
“I learned it in Girl Scouts.” She tapped out her name on the table where her hand rested. “I think I remember most of it.”
“One way we’ve shortened it is to use only initials for some people’s names. I’m the only person Below whose name starts with a V, so I just sign my messages that way, although anyone sending a message to me may use my whole name. We have William, our cook and a child by the same name, so William the elder uses W, but the other one, who is just a child, uses Will. Our protocol is to begin a message with the name of the person it’s going to, then the message, followed by the sender’s name. Most messages within the hub are just person to person, but if they need to go further, then they are relayed through the pipe chamber by Pascal.”
“From the sound of the pipes, the messages are almost constant. There must be a lot of people here.”
“Some of it is messages being relayed, but there are about sixty to seventy of us in this area, and then maybe another twenty or thirty, in the outer areas.”
Catherine was stunned at the numbers. “That many?” she gasped.
“That only scratches the surface of the number of homeless in the city,” Vincent told her. “Every winter we take in a few more, and then there are always some who are only with us
temporarily until they get over a rough spot.”
“How do you ever provide for that many people?” she asked.
“We have people who go above and glean whatever they can from the environment. Restaurants and markets throw out a lot that is still good just not perfect enough sell. We have Helpers who provide things that we can’t get anywhere else. We manage.” Vincent looked at the way Catherine leaned her head on the back of the chair and how her hand absently stroked her sore ribs. “I think it’s time you took a little nap before lunch,” he suggested.
“I think I could sleep,” she agreed.
Vincent helped her to her feet and she noticed that he was wearing gloves.
Well, it is a bit nippy in here, she told herself as he tucked her in.
“I’ll be back later with some lunch,” he promised.
Catherine woke the next morning in a foul mood. She didn’t say much to Mary when she came in with her breakfast. Mary seemed to sense her mood and left her to her own devices when she was done with breakfast.
What I would give for a cup of coffee! She said to herself, as she stood and started to walk across the room. She ran into what felt like a padded bench, was that there yesterday? Then she almost knocked over a small table.
She stopped in exasperation, not sure which way to turn.
She suddenly felt eyes on her, she knew someone was in the room watching her.
“I know you’re there. You can come in,” she called out.
“I’ll read to you,” Vincent offered. She could hear the compassion in his voice, or was it pity?
“It won’t help,” she retorted.
“It might. We can finish ‘Great Expectations.’ Do you remember how it ends?”
“Vincent, I’m frightened. I’m worried,” she said, finally voicing her concerns.
“I know. I can feel it. You’re getting your strength back.” She could hear him moving around. “I’ll get you some tea, the herb tea you liked.”
“Okay.” She didn’t really want any tea, but these people seemed to think that it would cure all ills.
She listened as he walked away and when she could no longer hear his footsteps she started feeling over her head for the end of the bandage. Mary had changed the dressings several times but she’d always done it in a dimly lit room, but even then the light had hurt her eyes, which were covered again before she got a chance to see anything.
She found the end of the bandage and started unwinding it. When she was finished even the dim light was blinding, but her eyes adjusted quickly and she started looking for a mirror. She noticed something shiny on a shelf and reached for it. It looked like an old headlight reflector, the curved surface would distort the reflection, but at least she’d have some idea of the kind of damage that had been done.
She held it so that she could see her face, she took in the slashes that crossed her cheeks and forehead. It was shocking to look at and hard to realize that it was her face. It brought back all the memories of that horrible night.
“Oh, God..! No..!” she cried out.
She didn’t hear Vincent come into the room and approach her.
She was concentrating so hard on her face that his voice startled her. Without thinking she let out a shriek, turned and threw the reflector at him. She was shocked and mortified when she actually hit him. The reflector bounced off his forehead leaving a small cut.
She could see the hurt in his eyes before he turned and left the room.
Oh, my God. What have I done? She berated herself. Her tears began to fall and even she wasn’t sure what she was crying about, her face, or what she’d done to Vincent. She closed her eyes and his face was immediately before her again. The hurt in his blue eyes broke her heart, but his differences finally registered, and she realized why he was living Below.
She sat on the padded bench as her tears continued.
She didn’t know how long she sat like that, but she was only mildly startled when she heard his voice again.
“I've never regretted what I am...until now...” he began.
She looked up at him. What she saw was incredible. He was powerfully built, and the hair, claws, teeth and catlike visage would have been terrifying if it hadn’t been for the compassion and embarrassment in his eyes. He’d pulled the hood of his cloak forward, trying to hide his face from her.
“How? How did this happen to you?” she asked wonderingly.
“I don’t know how. I have ideas,” he admitted. “I’ll never know. I was born. And I survived."
Catherine didn’t know what to say, she could only shake her head.
Vincent stepped a little closer.
“It's time for you to go back,” he said.
“Tell me it’s a nightmare. That it didn’t happen, that it can’t be,” she demanded, breaking down again.
He squatted down in front of her.
“It’s not a nightmare. It happened and you’re alive, Catherine… you survived. And what you endured will make you stronger and better.” She could tell that he really believed that, but she had her doubts.
“I don’t have your strength,” she argued. “I don’t know how to do it.”
He looked down at her and she felt as if he was looking into her soul.
“You have the strength Catherine, you do. I know you.”
She stared at him. She was touched by his kindness. She reached out and pushed the hood of his cloak back. At first he couldn’t even meet her eyes, but when he finally did she smiled at him. He really did have beautiful eyes, so expressive.
Vincent stood and let the clothing he carried drop to the bench beside her. Mary had done her best to repair the dress and to clean the blood from the velvet. At least it was wearable and would cover her so she could get home.
“It’s time,” he said, before he turned to leave.
Catherine seriously doubted if she could face the world as she was. Vincent might think he knew her, but she wondered.
Vincent returned a few minutes after she finished dressing.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“As I will ever be,” she told him.
She followed him out of the room, she’d heard Mary refer to it as a chamber, and now she understood why. They walked in silence for a few minutes.
“Is it far?” she asked.
“Not far,” he told her.
She noticed other natural caves or chambers like Vincent’s as they walked. When they got into some manmade tunnels she saw people camping. Many of them smiled and nodded to them as they passed.
“There are so many,” she marveled as they passed what appeared to be a small family cooking a meal over an open fire.
“They aren’t all permanent residents Below,” Vincent pointed out. “This part of the tunnels is almost deserted in the summer unless it’s raining or extremely hot. Most of the permanent residents live at the lower levels, away from the possibility of running into the city maintenance crews.”
They walked a little further and turned off the wide main tunnel into a smaller side tunnel. They walked on top of large pipes for quite a distance before Vincent jumped over a gap to another pipe.
Catherine looked at the gap with anxiety. She’d taken her shoes off when they’d first stepped onto the pipes, but she wasn’t sure she could do this.
“Wait!” she called after him.
Vincent turned back to her and reached out.
“You can do it. Give me your hand,” he encouraged her as he leaned toward her with his hand outstretched.
She leaned forward, put her hand in his. The gap didn’t seem quite so wide, suddenly. She jumped it easily.
They passed through a large chamber that had many levels above and below them and Catherine swore that they had gone back to a deeper level, because the stonework looked much older than the tunnels were she’d seen all the people. There had been natural light there, but now the only light was torches, candles and oil lamps.
They came to a spiral staircase that seemed to go up forever. She was holding her ribs by the time they reached the top.
“I thought you said it wasn’t far,” she remarked when they finally reached level ground again.
“I guess I wasn’t considering your injuries when I chose the route,” he admitted. “I wanted to show you a little of our world.”
They finally came to a tunnel that seemed less traveled than the others. It led to one with brick walls.
They arrived at a break in the wall. There were bricks stacked neatly to one side. Catherine looked through to see a shaft of bright light shining down from the ceiling.
“This is where you go out,” Vincent said, pointing at the hole in the wall.
Catherine looked around. “Where are we?”
“The basement of your apartment building.”
“We are?” It was hard to believe that a connection between his world and hers was so close to where she lived.
Vincent nodded and smiled slightly.
Catherine was suddenly almost overcome by a flood of emotions. This man had saved her life, he’d taken care of her, and now she was going to have to leave him, and possibly, actually likely, never see him again. She didn’t know how to express her gratitude or her sadness at having to say goodbye. She blinked back tears.
He didn’t answer her, he seemed to be as affected as she was.
“Your secret is safe with me. I would never betray your trust,” she assured him.
“I know. I knew that from the beginning, when you trusted me.”
She didn’t know what to say, so she reached out and touched him. She put her hand on his chest and her head on his shoulder in an awkward hug.
“What can I say to you?” Her voice was muffled.
She felt his arm go around her and his hand settle on the small of her back as he pulled her a little closer.
They stood like that for only seconds before they were startled by the sound of footsteps and voices coming from somewhere above them. Catherine leaned forward to see where the sound was coming from, and when she turned back, Vincent was gone.
“Vincent!” she called out.
She didn’t understand the sadness she was feeling. There were so many things she wanted to say to him, but even if he’d stayed she wasn’t sure that she would have known how to say them.
She pulled her hood up, making sure it was far enough forward to shadow her face. She walked through the shaft of light to the ladder on the other side on autopilot.
She climbed it and found a door at the top. She pushed it open and recognized the basement of her building. She was only a few steps away from her storage closet.
When she’d first moved into the building she had a bad habit of leaving her keys, or outright losing them, so she’d started leaving an extra set in her storage unit.
She climbed through the door and made sure it was securely closed before she made her way to her storage unit. She worked the combination on the lock and opened the door. The extra set of keys was hanging on a nail on the inside of the door.
She was grateful that she wouldn’t have to face anyone right away.
Once she was back in her apartment she gratefully sunk down on the sofa.
The previous ten days had been surreal, if it wasn’t for the cuts on her face and the lingering ache in her side, she would almost say they’d been like a fairy tale. But all stories must end, and she knew that the peace would be over as soon as she called her dad. He and Tom would descend upon her, so before she made that call she knew she had to come up with a believable story that would in no way point anyone in the direction of the world that existed below the city. She owed them that much and she’d promised Vincent.