CHAPTER FOUR


She woke to the swiftly fading memory of sweet dreams of Vincent. She stretched languorously and then relaxed into her warm nest of quilts, thinking of him. It was silly, a sober part of her warned, to feel this way. All he'd done was walk with her. All he'd done was kiss her cheek. But a younger, bubbly, schoolgirl side ignored the warning. He'd kissed her. He'd held her hand. He still wanted to be with her.

The sound of Nicholas sliding from his bed brought her out of drifting reverie and she sat up. "Good morning," she greeted as he pushed his way past the curtain.

"G'morning," he mumbled. "Where's Samantha?"

"Samantha went to her own chamber a long time ago," Catherine answered him, pushing her feet out and groping for her slippers. "You see? You didn't even miss me."

"I did," he maintained stoutly. "I missed you very much. I missed my daddy, too."

"Well, you may have," she conceded, "but it didn't hurt you to stay with Samantha. She said you went right to sleep for her."

"I did," Nicholas said, his expression momentarily angelic. "I was good."

"I'm glad to hear it," Catherine answered. "I wish you would go to sleep that quickly for me."

"Sometimes I do," he defended himself, rummaging in a drawer.

"Sometimes," she admitted. "And sometimes you pop up and down like a jack-in-the-box." She raised her voice in falsetto imitation. "'I need a drink of water,' 'I need to go to the bathroom,' 'I want another story,' 'Please rub my back.'"

Nicholas giggled and laid a pair of patched corduroy trousers and a fringed sweater on her bed. "Can I wear these?"

Catherine eyed the clothing for size. "If you like," she said. "The sweater looks a little big."

Nicholas looked at it, too. "It looks like my daddy's," he confided. "He has one with strings like this."

Catherine gave the sweater a second look; it did bear a passing resemblance to the one Vincent had worn yesterday. "All right," she told him. "I'll help you put it on."

Once dressed, they went to breakfast. Afterwards, Catherine sought out Mary. "You said you would find me something to do."

"I know I did," Mary said, "but I can't seem to think of anything."

Catherine let her breath out slowly. "Mary. You can't tell me a hundred people live down here, eat down here, work and have school, and there's nothing to do. What about the laundry?"

Mary looked faintly shocked. "I can't ask you to do the community's laundry, Catherine."

"Why not? I'm one of the community now, aren't I?"

"Well, yes, but..."

"Please, Mary. I told you yesterday. I need to be useful. Vincent told me he doesn't wash his own clothes, and I'll bet Father doesn't wash his, either."

"Well, no," Mary admitted.

"I can do that, Mary. Or I can wash dishes in the kitchen."

"No, the children do that," Mary said.

In the end, she went to work sweeping the long corridor that ran the length of the inhabited chambers.

"It seems odd, I know," Mary apologized, showing her where to find a sturdy broom. "Living as we do with rock walls and earthen floors. But the sentries bring loose dirt back from the upper tunnels and the constant traffic loosens bits of rock and soil. It ends up tracked into people's chambers and gets on the carpets. It's easier, in the long run, to simply sweep this passage once or twice a week, and no one's had time to do it recently."

"I'm glad to do it," Catherine assured her. "Nicky, you can play over there with your truck."

"If you like, I could see if Natalie will watch him," Mary offered. "I heard he and Brian played together yesterday."

"They did," Catherine admitted. She glanced at Nicholas uncertainly.

Nicholas himself settled her doubts. "I want to go play with Brian," he said firmly, and slipped his hand into Mary's. "Come and get me when you're done, Mommy."

"All right," she agreed, leaning on her broom. "I will."

After he and Mary passed out of sight, she attacked the passage floor with a vengeance. As Mary had warned, there was a great deal of loose grit and even some small stones. She left a trail of tidy mounds of debris as she made her way along the passage. After a while, she straightened, arching against the dull ache creeping up her spine.

"How about a cup of tea?" a voice asked behind her, and she whirled to find Father leaning on his cane.

"No," she said, guiltily. "I'm not finished here..."

"The dirt will wait, Catherine," he said, stumping forward. "Come in for a few moments. A break will do you good."

It was the stiffness in her back that decided her. "Well, all right," she agreed, propping the broom against the tunnel wall. "But just for a few minutes."

"I confess I was a bit surprised to find you out there," Father said a few moments later, and she peered at him through the steam rising from the delicate porcelain cup in her hands. "Mary told me you asked for work, but I expected her to find something more suitable for you."

"I don't mind sweeping, Father," she insisted. "It's something that needs to be done. I can do it."

"That's true, of course," he conceded. "But that sort of menial work is usually done by the older children."

She frowned. "That doesn't seem fair."

"On the contrary. They all know that eventually, they'll grow up and won't have to do that sort of thing any longer. They'll have earned larger tasks, and greater responsibilities."

Catherine sipped her tea while she mulled that one over. "I guess it makes sense," she conceded finally. "But the sweeping still needs to be done. I don't understand why you object to me doing it."

"Oh, I'm not objecting," he said. "I'm sure you are perfectly capable of sweeping the passage. But you have other talents, Catherine. I'm surprised Mary didn't make use of them."

"To be honest, I think the sweeping was all she could think of," Catherine said. "And I was pretty adamant about working."

"Yes, so I understand," Father said, his voice thoughtful. "As a matter of fact, I've been pondering since yesterday on how to put you to best use."

Catherine smiled. "Not much use for an out-of-practice attorney down here, Father. Nor a video store clerk. As a matter of fact, you don't have much use for anything I know how to do."

Father rubbed his palms together briskly. "Well, Catherine, I don't believe that's quite true."

She paused in mid-sip. "Excuse me?"

"I said, I don't believe that's true. You have a great body of knowledge that I'd like to tap."

She set her cup carefully on the edge of his desk. "Like what?"

"I've been thinking," he said. "Of the young people we send into the world above."

Catherine nodded. She knew that perhaps as many as half the community's young people chose to try their luck up top when they grew up.

"We teach them many things," Father went on. "Math and science and history. We introduce them to poetry, and great literature, and foster an appreciation for fine music. And yet there are many things our young people don't know when they get up there. Situations they don't know how to handle."

"For instance?"

"Oh, something as simple as receiving a ticket for jaywalking, for instance," Father said.

Catherine couldn't help a small, incredulous laugh. "You want me to teach them what they need to know in case they're ever arrested?"

Father harrumphed gently. "Well, I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms, but yes, I suppose so." He met her gaze grimly. "After all, it happens."

She remembered, and felt her cheeks coloring. "Yes, of course," she agreed. "But I can teach them that in an afternoon. 'One phone call, get an attorney.'"

"I believe there's a great deal more to it than that," Father argued. "Besides, you can teach them other things they need to know. How to register to vote, for example. What their legal obligations are when they find employment, how to start or purchase a business, how to buy a house or rent an apartment."

"Well..." The wheels in her mind were turning busily as the chain of thought Father had begun sparked dozens of other possibilities. "I suppose I could do that."

"I knew you could," Father practically crowed. "The older children have a free hour from two to three each afternoon. I'll have them sent to your chamber. Is tomorrow too soon?"

"Tomorrow?" Catherine swallowed hard, and considered. She'd need to work up some sort of curriculum, but it didn't need to be hard and fast. She was sure if she could make the first class interesting enough, the kids themselves would ask questions which would lead to other avenues of exploration. Father was right; she had a wealth of information she could share.

"Tomorrow will be fine," she said firmly, and got to her feet. "Thank you for the tea, Father. Now I need to finish the passage."

After she swept the tunnel, she spent time in the kitchen, where William didn't hesitate to hand her a knife and point her at a twenty pound sack of potatoes.

"Peeled?" she guessed.

"And diced for stew," he answered. "I don't know what happened to Samantha this morning."

Catherine didn't know, either, but it didn't matter. She dove into the potatoes, peeling patiently. She owed Samantha for watching Nicholas anyway. And William at least was not shy about putting her to work.

It was lunchtime before William glanced at her mound of peeled potatoes and pronounced them enough. She set them to soak in cold water and went in search of Nicholas.

She found him in the dining chamber, happily ensconced between Brian and Vincent. Natalie was nowhere in sight.

"She needed to pick up some thread for Ruth's weaving from a helper," Vincent explained, offering her a seat. "She brought the boys to me."

"You've had them all morning?" Catherine asked, glancing at Nicholas, who had yet to acknowledge her presence.

"Only the past hour or so. They've played quietly while I read a chapter of Great Expectations to my literature class."

His glance said he expected her to smile at the book's title, and she did. "Not the last chapter, I hope," she said softly.

"No." He hesitated, then plunged forward. "If you like, I could bring it tonight. We could go somewhere and read..."

"I'd like that."

His relief - and his pleasure - was almost palpable. "I'll arrange for someone to sit with Nicholas. After he's gone to bed."

"You'll come before that, though, won't you? He'll be disappointed if you don't."

His nod was brief, but she thought he was pleased. "Then I will come."

Vincent had promised Kanin to help with a current project, so he left Nicholas and Brian in Catherine's care after lunch. She took them with her to Father's chamber, where she perused his extensive library, finding several volumes on the structure of government, constitutional law, and even a battered tome on civil procedures. All were terribly outdated, but would certainly serve to jog her memory and act as primers.

By the time she finished, the two boys were bursting with energy so she gave up all thought of giving them a nap. Instead, following directions from Zach, whom she'd encountered outside the Pipe Chamber, she found a little-used passage with a wide, smooth floor and turned the boys loose to run and shout while she settled in a corner with her books and a pad of paper, taking notes.

Natalie came, after a while, and took the boys to Grandma Ruth's chamber for cookies and milk while Catherine retreated to her own chamber to sketch out a lesson plan for the following day. She had just set the books and papers aside when Nicholas burst into the chamber. Vincent was outside, he informed her, waiting to escort them to dinner.

With a guilty start she remembered she'd never gone back to dice the peeled potatoes, but William smiled as he ladled some of the savory stew into a bowl for her. "I caught Geoffrey," he confided, "and put him to work."

Dinner conversation consisted largely of Nicholas relating the afternoon's events to Vincent, who had apparently picked him up from Natalie only moments before coming by Catherine's chamber. After the meal, they cooperated in Nicholas's night time ritual, both kissing him goodnight and tucking him in. Tonight's babysitting recruit was Kipper, who brought a cardboard box of wires, batteries, and an array of tiny light bulbs.

"My science project," he explained in answer to Catherine's doubtful look. "I promise I won't electrocute myself while you're gone."

His cheeriness was contagious and she was still smiling when she followed Vincent out of the chamber and slipped her hand into his. He guided her through a maze of narrow, twisting passages that terminated near a place she recognized. The Mirror Pool.

He led her to the water's edge and spread his cloak for her to sit, waiting until she was comfortable before lowering himself beside her.

"I brought the book," he said, and showed her the familiar volume in his hand.

She stared. "That's mine."

He stirred uneasily and glanced at the book, as if he'd forgotten its origins.

"You gave it to me," she persisted. "It was in my apartment."

"On your bedside table," he agreed after the briefest of pauses.

"You went there," she guessed. "You took it."

He bent his head and refused to meet her questing gaze. "I wanted it. It was something that was yours. I believed it meant something to you."

"It did. It does." She put her hand out and touched the familiar smooth binding, then slid her hand up and over his. "It's all right, Vincent. I don't mind that you have it. I'm just curious, I suppose. That you went up there, went into my apartment." She smiled. "You were always shy about entering my apartment."

"Terrified of entering your apartment," he confessed.

"Yes," she remembered. "One of us had to be sick, or hurt."

"Or missing."

Her fingers tightened over his. "I'm sorry."

"I went there," he said, his voice distant, "because it was filled with memories of you."

"I'm surprised it's still there," she said. "Intact." She remembered the familiar rooms, the comfort of beloved possessions, and wished, momentarily, that she could go there.

"It's not. Not anymore."

Even though she'd expected it, it was a wounding blow. "Where are my things?" she asked, her voice small in the stillness.

"In storage, I believe. Peter and your friend Jenny arranged it."

She hoped her shrug looked lighter than it felt. "Well, I haven't any use for those things down here, anyway."

"We can get them for you, Catherine. Anything you like. Peter has the key."

Wistfully she thought about objects with sentimental meaning, like family photo albums and small gifts from her father. "Maybe I'll ask him to do that," she decided. "Next time he comes. Did he get the book for you?"

Vincent shook his head. "No. When I learned your things were to be taken away... I went back, one last time. I didn't think you would mind if I brought away this one thing."

"I'm glad you have it," she said honestly. "It was yours to begin with, anyway."

"Yes," he agreed. His thoughts seemed to be turned inward. "It was your balcony I missed most of all." He looked at her. "I used to visit it," he said. "When you were gone."

She imagined him sitting there in the dark, cold and lonely and aching inside, and reached to touch his arm.

"I would sit there for hours. Sometimes I walked in the park, taking paths we once walked together. Night after night."

"Even after you'd given up looking for me?" She smiled faintly at his look of shock. "Father told me. It's all right, Vincent. I understand."

"I never gave up hoping you would return," he said. "I only gave up the hope of finding you, and bringing you home myself." His voice dropped. "I was afraid I would forget you. After the first year, after it became apparent we wouldn't find you... minutes went by... hours, sometimes... when I didn't think of you. Time when I could be absorbed in teaching a class, reading a poem, talking to Father. And then I would remember, like a shock. It frightened me. That I could forget you, even for a moment. That all we'd been to each other could be lost."

A surge of tenderness rushed through her; his misery was palpable and he so clearly expected her to react badly. "'But how could I forget thee,'" she quoted softly. "'Through what power? Even for the least division of an hour.' You see, Vincent? It happened to Wordsworth, too. It's nature's way of helping us heal, I think."

"Did it happen to you?" he asked, studying her intently. "Did you sometimes forget me?"

She hesitated. "No," she said at last. "I didn't." He stiffened, and she hastened to elucidate. "How could I? With Nicky looking at me every day with your eyes?"

After a moment he relaxed and looked away. Catherine settled back onto his cloak and tucked her knees up under her chin. "I knew what my situation was. I used to wonder, though, sometimes, what you thought."

The pause that followed lasted so long that she wondered if he was going to speak at all. Then, with a sudden shifting of weight, he did. "I wondered. I knew, in the beginning, that you had been taken forcibly. But later, I began to doubt. Myself. You. Us. Once... perhaps more than once... I even wondered if you might have been rescued, somehow. That you were safe, but that it had become too much for you... if you hadn't had the strength to come and tell me."

"And I'd left you?"

He made a tiny affirmative move of his head.

"Oh, Vincent."

She slipped into his arms then, and rested her head on his shoulder in the old way. "It was easier for me, I suppose. Because I knew where I was, knew I was all right. Pretty much all right," she amended. "And I knew you were probably okay, too. Hurting, but safe. You couldn't know that about me."

"It was easier to imagine that - that you'd been unable to go on... than to picture the alternative." He shuddered and held her tighter. "You're safe, though. And you're here, now. That's all that matters."

"Even," she asked in a voice that seemed terribly small, "if we never reach the place we were? If we can never be like that again?"

"Even then," he affirmed softly, into her hair. "Even then."

They never did read Dickens that night. After a while, Vincent rose to his feet and offered a hand to help her up. They walked back in silence. Catherine wondered, after the things they'd talked about, if Vincent would repeat his tentative kiss of the night before. If anything, he seemed less certain of himself tonight. She braced herself for disappointment as he paused in front of her doorway and turned to face her.

"We have talked about many things," he said softly.

"Things that needed to be said, Vincent," she reminded him.

"Yes," he agreed. He gazed at her, his expression thoughtful.

"What is it?"

"I was thinking about something you said earlier."

"What?" she whispered, suddenly breathless.

"That we might not be able to come together again the way we once did - that we might not find the true meeting of hearts and minds we once shared."

"I remember."

He leaned toward her.

Catherine closed her eyes, savoring the touch of his lips on her cheek, the faint prickle of whiskers on her skin. He lingered there a moment after the kiss, holding his cheek carefully against hers. When he drew back, he was smiling. "I was thinking that perhaps in this, Catherine, you are wrong."


Continued in Chapter 5