By Thomas Mc
The middle aged woman didn't notice him at first. She was enjoying wandering through the park, taking in the beauty of the gently falling snow that had covered everything in a sparkling blanket of white. She had initially come up to do a little scrounging for anything that might be useful to her small community but had become distracted by the vista of Central Park in winter.
The people of her community could best be referred to as the forgotten people. They were the ones who had fallen through the cracks in society. Many of them were simply lost or damaged souls who had found common comfort in each other. They had originally taken refuge in the storm drains and steam tunnels under the city but over time they had found a whole network of old forgotten tunnels and chambers far beneath the subways and steam tunnels. They had finally settled in these deep chambers and they had survived. By sharing their sorrows and troubles with each other they had made it more bearable. For two years now, with the help of a few kind souls living above in the city, the fragile community had managed to endure. Grace was one of the damaged souls who lived in the deep chambers. A kind, gentle woman in her late thirties she had endured a few too many tragedies and had retreated from the world. She had lived there since the groups of strangers first began to coalesce into a community almost three and a half years ago. The companionship of the others had done much to help restore her spirit. She had even become highly respected for her kind gentle nature. Many of the newer people had been found and brought to the tunnels by her. Although she would occasionally venture to the surface world, she was still too hurt, deep in her soul, to rejoin the city above.
Sitting on the park bench in the cold winter air the man barely moved, not even aware of his surroundings. He was half expecting to be arrested at any minute for the crime of being honest and outspoken. Everything that that had once been his was gone, taken away by men who destroyed other innocent people for political gain.
He sat there still as death, looking at the letter and the picture he held in his hands, tears freezing on his cheeks. He had thought that his position, his reputation, and the truth of his words would protect him. His lawyer had tried to help him against the McCarthy witch trials. But in the end it had been for naught. They had stripped him of his position and his reputation. They had branded him a commie. Then, when he spoke out against them in public, they had taken away his freedom of speech by threatening him with the secrecy oath. His landlord had evicted him because he 'didn't want no Commie living in his place. So 'they' had even caused him to be driven from his home. Then when he thought they could do no more to him they had exerted their lies and caused him to lose his new bride of less than a year and a half. That was six months ago and the pain was as raw as the day he got the letter. His vision had become so blurred that he could no longer read the words in the short letter sent to him by his ex-wife but he knew it now by heart. Her father, a very wealthy man, had forced her to go to Paris where he had gotten their marriage annulled. The letter had shown up three weeks after she had disappeared. From the very top of the mountain of his accomplishments, he had fallen to the deepest depths of despair. There was nothing left of him now but the empty shell of what might have been. Now he was just another lost soul.
Grace was alerted by the sound of a soft sigh from behind her. When she turned around she noticed the lone figure seated on the frozen park bench. He was sitting so still that she had not noticed him before. She walked around to the front of the bench and looked down at the man sitting there. He didn't even seem to notice her presence. His face was young but deeply careworn. His head was bowed and he seemed to be looking at the two items in his hands. In one hand he held what looked like a wedding picture. In the other hand was a letter written in a very neat hand. They both appeared to be well handled and spotted with tears or snow, she couldn't be sure which. Then she kneeled down and looked into his eyes. Those eyes were bottomless pits of misery burned into his face. He seemed to be staring into emptiness. Here was a soul so deeply wounded that it wrung her heart to see it.
Slowly, gently she reached out and touched his shoulder. At first he didn't react, then very slowly he raised his head, his blurred eyes seeming to look through her as though she wasn't there. With her other hand she took his wrist. She said only three words. "Come with me," as she gently pulled him up. The young man stood and followed her like a zombie with no will of its own.
Grace led him into a storm drain runoff pipe. After several minutes of walking, the circular drainage pipes gave way to rectangular steam tunnels lined with pipes and cables. She led him through a door and down a long flight of spiral stairs. At the bottom of the stairs she led him into a maze of rough hewn tunnels and chambers cut into the bedrock. Finally they stopped in a small chamber that was furnished with bits and pieces of mismatched furniture. As she set him down on a rickety old chair he began to shiver, his clothes damp from melting snow. She turned to a storage cabinet made from several old apple crates and pulled out two very worn and patched blankets and wrapped them around him.
She told him simply, "I'll be right back," as she walked out of the room. In the background he slowly became aware of a banging noise like the sound of rock hitting metal in an uneven pattern that sounded vaguely familiar, then the sound ceased. A few minutes later she came back in carrying a battered old tin cup which she handed to him saying, "Drink this." Inside the cup was steaming hot tea, with sugar and cream, which he drank almost without conscious volition.
She pulled a box over and sat on it facing him, laying a hand on his knee. She then smiled at him with a sweet-sad smile that pulled at him from somewhere deep inside. "My name is Grace. I live down here with a few others. If you need help or a place to sleep, you're welcome to stay here with us for as long as you need." Then she just sat there giving him plenty of time to respond.
Her gentle kindness, non-judgmental attitude and the understanding sympathy in her eyes, slowly drew him out of his shell. He looked into her sad eyes and felt compelled to return her patience. "My name is Jacob . . . . Wells." He handed the empty cup back to her. "Uh Thank you for your kindness."
"Do you need a place to stay?" she asked.
Jacob bowed his head. "Yes," he hesitated, "I I'm afraid I have . . . . . no place else to go."
Grace pointed to the makeshift bed in the corner of the small chamber. "Why don't you lay down over there and get some rest."
Jacob looked up at her. "I don't want to put you out."
She smiled back. "Nonsense. We share everything down here. You're welcome to sleep here for now. I'm going to go see about arranging for a place of your own while you rest."
With that she swept out of the room, dropping the tattered tapestry into place across the door behind her. Jacob sat there for several minutes sipping his tea and gazing at the tapestry covering the doorway. The tapestry was so faded and patched that he could no longer make out the original pattern. As he looked around the room he saw that everything in it appeared to be old discards that showed signs of multiple repairs. The chair he was sitting in had four completely unmatched legs. There was a desk made of two pairs of crates with a board laid across between them. There was a bookshelf made of boards supported by mismatched bricks. On the bookshelf were about two dozen old beat-up books. The bed was a slab of foam rubber laid over old beat-up box springs. The sheets were faded and patched but they were clean. Despite the shabby condition of everything in the room, the room itself was as neat as a pin. There wasn't a speck of dust anywhere in the room. The most remarkable thing was that all the light in the room was supplied by a dozen candles scattered about the room. The dancing light of the candles gave the room an almost magical fairytale appearance.
Jacob finally gave in to his exhaustion and lay down in the bed. For a long time he just lay there looking at the picture and the letter and mourning the loss of everything that had ever meant anything to him. Finally sleep overtook him.
When Grace got back to the chamber she found Jacob dead to the world. In his hands he still held the photo and the letter. Grace gently took them from his hands. As she looked at them both a single tear formed in her eyes. She set them on the crate that served as a nightstand. Next she removed his jacket and something fell out of his pocket. It was some kind of security badge. This too she set on the crate. His jacket she carefully folded and placed on the desk. Finally she took the two blankets and placed them over him. As she watched him, even in sleep, she could see the sorrow and loss deeply etched on his face. Grace's heart went out to this poor lost soul, for she saw in him a kindred spirit. She understood the depths of his loss because it matched the depths of loss within her own soul. In his face she also saw a gentle nobility of spirit that she felt she needed to bring out. She smoothed back the unruly brown hair and patted the blankets into place then she left the room.
The first place she went was to John's chamber. John had first come to the community a little over two years ago. With him had come his new wife, Anna. All she knew was that John said he was fleeing persecution because he had spoken out against the government and for Socialist reforms. He had a very charismatic personality and he was a fantastic organizer. In a very short time he had pulled the whole community together and organized it under his leadership. He had also developed a set of simple codes that could be used to send messages over the old pipe system buried deep beneath the city.
When she reached his chamber the tapestry was pulled down over the doorway. In this community a tapestry over the doorway was as effective as a do not disturb sign over a locked door. Grace decided to go to the chamber that had been turned into a communal dining area. William brought her a small bowl of soup. William was only thirteen years old and had only been down here for a couple of months but his artistry in the kitchen had made him the de-facto community cook. He had taken over for the original cook, Old Jackson, who was the oldest person down here. John said he was probably a fossil that refused to stop moving. She didn't know William's story but she supposed that like everyone else down here he was a lost soul with nowhere else to go. One thing she did know was that William had a kind and understanding heart, and a mercurial disposition. His bright red hair and dancing eyes gave him a very mischievous appearance.
William sat down next to Grace. "So, how is the new boarder doing?" William's jolly demeanor was one of the few things that could usually cheer her up and his cooking could cheer up even the Grinch.
"He's kinda low right now, but I think he will be okay." Her mind seemed to be somewhere else as she smiled back at William. "His name is Jacob and I think he may be staying with us for a while."
Old Jackson eased himself into the seat on her other side, looked closely at her as he patted her hand. "I think that will be a good thing," he smiled at her, "for both of you." William stood up and headed back into his kitchen. People would be showing up very soon for lunch and he wanted to be sure everything was ready. Jackson stayed and talked to her while she ate her soup.
About the time she had finished her soup, the rest of the community had started wandering in. Finally John arrived with Anna at his side and took his customary place at the head of the table. John had an air about him, almost like some king holding court. Even his customary chair bore a vague resemblance to a medieval throne. After lunch Grace talked to John about the new man. She asked John about getting the new man a chamber of his own. John said he would come by later to meet the newcomer and see what he could do. He always insisted on checking out any newcomer before letting them stay.
Later that afternoon John came by to meet Jacob. They both recognized each other right away.
John remembered Jacob Wells from his days at the University. It was during his first year there. All the campus was abuzz about the young man that had been accepted to one of the top medical schools in the country. Jacob the youngest man accepted in that schools history. John had run into Jacob several times and had developed a healthy respect for his drive and intelligence. That was the last he remembered seeing Jacob.
Jacob remembered John Pater as an acquaintance from his last year at the University. John had been a bit of a radical back then and had gotten involved with a campus socialist group. Jacob had thought that the socialist group was made up mostly of hopeless dreamers and college life outsiders. John, however, was more level headed and looked at it as a serious alternative to the highly competitive capitalist life style. The next year after Jacob left, John had risen to the leadership position within the socialists at the campus. Shortly after that, he had caused quite a stir on campus, then had disappeared along with his then girlfriend. That was a little over two years ago. There had been rumors that the Feds were after him as a subversive bud the details were obscure. Jacob suspected that John had fallen prey to the same witch-hunt mentality that had ruined his own life.
They both hit it off and John filled Jacob in on all the recent developments within the community. John had found tunnels while hiding from the Feds who had labeled him a commie subversive. Grace had stumbled into him and Anna and had brought them into the group of refugees she was living with. After becoming a member of the tunnel community he had begun to organize them into a society very much like the kind he had talked about while at the University. John had also developed a primitive communication system with the unused pipes that ran through the area and a modified form of Morse Code. Jacob was moved to a chamber that was very close to John's. With John's leadership, Jacob's intelligence and Grace's compassion, the three of them were able to inspire the community and improve the quality of life for everyone. As time went on, Jacob's medical knowledge made him the community doctor, which gained him a great deal of respect. The whole community prospered under their leadership.
* * * * *
Grace was ten years older than Jacob and was best described as uneducated. But she was kind and her presence went a long way to healing the emptiness and pain in his heart. It would be more accurate to say that they healed each other. Eventually they fell for each other and a year after she brought him in, she became pregnant. The pairing mores down below in the tunnel community were of the 'whatever works' type. Some suspected that Jacob was the father but no one cared that they continued to live in separate chambers or that they didn't get married or even openly acknowledge their relationship. As long as they both were happy with the arrangement, then everyone else was okay with it.
Jacob had gotten into the habit of going with Grace when she went for walks in the park. Now that her pregnancy was starting to show, he had become doubly careful to always stay nearby.
It was late evening of that summer as Grace and Jacob exited the run-off drain. They had been talking about the unborn child. "I think I would like Devin, after my grandfather, if it's a boy," Grace was saying. "If it's a girl I think "
That's when they heard the sound of a woman sobbing. As they moved towards the sound they found themselves approaching the very same park bench where Grace had found Jacob a year and a half ago and there was a woman sitting on the bench. The sound of crying had ceased but it was obvious by the hunch of the shoulders and the bowed head that she was very unhappy. As they approached her, she reached down to the bench next to her and picked something up. As she raised her hand they could see that it was a gun. They both stopped dead, uncertain what to do. The woman's hand stopped moving and began to waver. It looked like she was trying to decide what to do with the gun. Very slowly and quietly Jacob worked his way around towards the front side of the bench. The woman finally drew the gun up and held it flat against her chest for a long time.
The woman appeared to be about the same age as Jacob and despite her reddened eyes and blotchy cheeks, she was actually quite pretty. In her other hand she held what looked like a wedding ring that she continued to stare at. During this time Grace had been quietly approaching her from behind. She wasn't quite sure what she was going to do but she felt that she couldn't stand by and do nothing. After several seconds the young woman slowly laid the gun back down in the bench. Then she was holding the ring with both hands, turning it over and over. Suddenly she stood up and hurled the ring as hard as she could out into the lake. While the woman stood there for several seconds staring out over the lake, Grace reached down and grabbed the gun and stuck it in a pocket. After about a minute the young woman flopped back down on to the bench, placed her head in her hands and began weeping brokenheartedly.
Grace stepped around the bench as Jacob raced up to them. "There, there, honey, what's wrong?" Grace asked softly as she sat down on the bench where the gun had lain and put her arm around the young woman's shoulders.
The young woman looked up at Grace and then at Jacob. They were both shocked at the pain and emptiness reflected in those blue eyes. "He left me," she wailed. "After two years, he just threw me out because I lost my only child and I couldn't have any more children." The hopeless despair in the woman's voice brought a lump to Jacobs throat and tears to Grace's eyes. "He called me a worthless barren waste, handed me annulment papers and threw me out." She dropped her head to her hands and began sobbing anew.
Jacob dropped onto the bench on the other side of the sobbing woman and put his arm around her also. "The man is a fool!" he stated with some vehemence. "A man worthy of the name would never treat woman like that." Grace was surprised at the passion in Jacob's voice, but remembering what she had read in that letter the day she found him, she understood it. He knew how it felt to be abandoned by the one you loved.
Grace spoke. "What is your name, dear? Do you have any family, a friend, anyone we can contact for you?"
The young woman had stopped crying. "M My name is M Mary I have no one." She appeared ready to break into tears again but she got herself under control. "My dad died a year ago My mother died when I was fifteen I have no other relatives." She looked like she could break down again at any minute.
Grace gave her a long warm hug. "Well, Mary, why don't you come home with us?" With her free hand, Grace took one of Mary's hands. "Maybe after a hot meal and a good night's rest, you will find tomorrow to be a much brighter day."
Jacob had noticed that Mary was wearing a nurses' aide ID badge from St Vincent's Hospital. "We live with several friends who will love meeting you and I could use the aid of someone with some medical training." Jacob smiled at Mary. "Please come with us."
Mary finally ceded to their urging and started to follow them. Suddenly she stopped. "My gun."
"I have it right here." Grace pulled it out of a pocket of her coat holding it rather gingerly. "I was going to leave it at the police station tonight when no one there is looking. Is there something else you would rather do with it? We don't allow guns where we live."
Mary looked at the gun in Grace's hand. "I was going to throw it in the lake but you can do what you want with it. I don't really care." Then she continued walking with them.
Grace took the bullets out of the gun and threw them out into the lake, then put the gun back into her pocket. They all continued walking.
When they started into the run-off tunnel Mary looked at them dubiously. "Where are we going?"
Jacob replied. "Our community is made up of people that have no one else to turn to and no where else to go. We also have some lost souls who need a place to rebuild themselves. It is located in old unused tunnels below the city. It is a place of safety, a refuge where you can regain your spirit. We help and take care of each other. You will find many new friends down there ready to give you any help you may need."
Mary shrugged her shoulders and followed. She had nowhere else to go. As the drain pipes gave way to bricked tunnels Mary began to become more interested in where they were going. When they started down the great spiral staircase she began to wonder what kind of fantasy she had wandered into. Several times she heard a train pass overhead and realized they were far below the subway. The tunnel walls now appeared to be carved out of solid rock. Then she heard a banging noise coming from some pipes that ran along the tunnel walls.
Jacob smiled at Mary. "They know we're coming. We are to take you straight to the dining chamber. William is already warming up a bowl of soup for you. They've also started setting up a sleeping chamber for you." Jacob chuckled. "John is certainly efficient."
By the time they reached the dining chamber there were already several people there waiting to meet the new arrival. As soon as they sat down at the long table William appeared next to them and placed bowls of hot soup in front of each of the three of them. Mary was surprised at how tasty the soup was and at how friendly all the people were. By the time she had finished her meal she was feeling in much better spirits. John was there to check out the new arrival.
A young dark skinned husky boy, of around seven or eight, came up to them. "Hi, my name's Winslow. I'm supposed to show you to your room."
Mary smiled at him. "Thank you, Winslow."
After Mary left with Winslow, John turned to Jacob. "Jacob, are you sure about this woman? Sometimes I think Grace has made you too soft."
Jacob smiled. "You worry too much John. I trust Grace's judgment and Mary needs us now."
When Mary entered the chamber Winslow had led her to, it was unlike anything she could have expected. The chamber had no door. Instead there was an old tapestry draped across the opening. Grace explained that when the tapestry was across the doorway it was like a do not disturb sign on a locked door. No one would enter a chamber if the tapestry was down, except possibly in a grave emergency. Inside the room was a makeshift bed. And a battered chest of drawers. Draped across the bed were several pieces of patched clothing.
As she picked up a shirt, Grace spoke. "It's always a little cool down here and the humidity is a bit high so we usually dress in layers to keep comfortable. Winslow will meet you here tomorrow morning and he will help you until you know your way around. We'll see you at breakfast tomorrow morning. If you need anything just call out. I'm in the next chamber over and I'll be glad to give you any help tonight you may need. For now we'll get out of your way so you can get some sleep."
After they left Mary looked around her room 'Chamber' she corrected herself...Light in the chamber was provided by ten candles scattered around the walls. On the chest of drawers was a tall fat candle with fourteen small evenly spaced marks on the side. It looked like it was intended to burn for a long time. Next to the candle was a tattered old book. It was a collection of short stories by O'Henry. She put out all the candles but the tall one, crawled into the bed, and was soon fast asleep.
When Mary woke up she was disoriented by her strange surroundings. Then memory of the previous day came flooding in. That was assuming it was the previous day. The only indication she had of the passage of time was the tall candle on the chest of drawers. Or rather, it was tall, now it was much shorter. When she looked closer there were only five of the small marks left on it. She went over and pulled aside the drapery. Sitting on the floor against the other wall of the corridor, Winslow was fiddling with some kind of small wooden puzzle.
Winslow looked up at her. "Good mornin ma'am. I'm here to help you find your way around today. Would you like to get some breakfast?"
She said yes and so began her first day in this strange fairytale world.
* * * * *
Mary had been living in the tunnel community for two months now. This had become her home. Everyone here treated her with love and respect and Jacob had taken her on as a medical assistant. She had already had two offers of marriage. When she told them that she couldn't bear them children they both said that they knew that but they didn't care. She had turned them both down. No matter what they said, she could never tie a man down to her if she couldn't give him children. Several people had told her that she was being foolish but she wouldn't change her mind.
Grace had been visiting with Mary and they were talking about the upcoming birth and laughing about Jacob's sympathy pains. He had even exhibited signs of cravings. "He never lets me get too far away, like he's afraid I'll break if he's not there," Grace laughed.
Mary responded. "You'd think, being a doctor, that he would know that there's no reason to worry."
"Actually there is." Grace got suddenly very serious. "When my second child was born, there were some serious complications and I almost died. The doctor told me that having another child would probably kill me. Though we both wanted three children my husband and I settled for two. We were doing fine then about four years ago I got pregnant again." Grace had lowered her voice. "I didn't tell my husband about it. I got the name of a doctor that would do abortions from a friend. When I returned from getting the abortion my house was burned to the ground. Later that day I found out that my husband and both my children had died in that fire." The look in her eyes showed deep sorrow then changed to fierce determination. "No matter what happens, I'm going to have this baby for Jacob."
Mary took in this revelation with surprise and worry. "Are you sure about this?" Mary thought she understood what was driving Grace's choices and she couldn't really fault her. "What do you want from me?"
Grace replied. "I want you to make sure that my baby is born no matter what happens to me And if I don't survive, I want you to look after Jacob and my child. Take care of both of them for me. And you must never tell Jacob any of what I've just told you." Grace took Mary's hand, holding it very tightly and looked her straight in the eye with surprising intensity. "Mary, promise you'll do this for me."
Mary swallowed hard. "Okay, Grace I promise that I will look after both of them if you can't. And I promise to keep what you told me in strictest confidence."
Grace relaxed and smiled at her. "Thank you, Mary."
* * * * *
Eventually Jacob re-established contact with one friend from the city above. That was an upper classman who had mentored him during his years at medical school and had become a doctor with a thriving practice in the city above. That friend, Dr. Peter Alcott, became a useful contact for medical supplies for the tunnel community. He also helped Jacob turn one of the chambers into a serviceable infirmary.
The completed infirmary chamber was still brand new and Grace was its second official customer. The first customer had been a sprained ankle earlier that morning. Jacob thought it only fitting that its first day of operation should include the bringing of new life into the world. There was almost a spring in his step as he went about the business of preparing for the big event. He looked over at Mary who had turned out to be an excellent medical assistant. He just wished that Mary's mood was less somber. She had been with them three months and he had never seen her smile.
Another contraction hit. Jacob and Mary were both there with her. After it had passed Grace grabbed Mary's arm and pulled her close to whisper to her. "Remember your promise." Then she grabbed harder as the next contraction hit and Jacob told her to push. Grace knew that something wasn't right. It wasn't supposed to hurt this much when you got to the pushing part.
Jacob called out. "I can see its head. One more time and you should be done." Grace noticed there were echoes of joy in his voice as he spoke.
The next contraction came and she pushed with all her might. As the baby came out she could feel something tear deep inside her. Then she heard her newborn baby's cry and Jacob joyously announce, "It's a boy." She smiled, tears of joy in her eyes as she gazed over at the baby cradled in Jacob's arms.
A warm happy contentment spread through her aching body as she watched Jacob carefully checking the tiny infant over. She began to feel herself slipping away when she heard Mary's panicked voice. "Jacob, there's too much blood here." Those were the last words she heard as the blackness closed in around her.
* * * * *
When Grace died giving birth to Devin, Jacob was devastated. He took to wandering aimlessly in the lower tunnels, little caring where he went. It was three days after her death that Jacob was wandering blindly down a side tunnel and fell through a weak spot in the floor. He knew he had badly damaged his knee and could not make it back on his own and began calling for help. He had been there for several hours crying out in his pain and despair when Mary and John found him. It was another two hours before they could get him back to the infirmary. Although no bones were broken he had torn some ligaments and dislocated his knee. Though Peter came down and did his best for Jacob, it took a long time to heal and he knew that he would probably require a cane to get around for the rest of his life.
It was only John's friendship and the support of Mary that carried Jacob through that terrible time. Eventually between Mary's determination to draw him back to the living and the need to care for his new son, Jacob slowly came back out of his depression and again became a major player in the life of the community. Slowly, over the next year, the pain of his previous life and of Grace's death began to fade into the background.
As more children were born or rescued and brought into the community, Jacob discovered he had an affinity with the children. He was always available whenever a child needed him. Many of the orphans taken in by the community began to look upon him as a surrogate parent and had even started calling him Father. Soon all the children began calling him Father, even those children with fathers of their own.
Mary also became more involved with the children. Down here she had her position as Jacob's nurse, and she had the children. In many ways the children of the tunnels became her refuge. They softened the pain from the loss of her own child and subsequent barren state.
Through all of this Jacob and John became very close friends. Though they didn't always agree on how things should be done, they admired each other for their abilities and the community prospered.
Peter told him that the McCarthy trials had collapsed and it was possible for him to come back up and rebuild his life. But the world above had nothing left for him. Though the government had lost interest in him, he decided to stay below. Jacob had found himself a new family and a new home below in the tunnel community and that was where he intended to stay.