FAR FROM HOME

JoAnn Baca


Catherine heard the muffled sobs coming from a side corridor about half-way between her basement entrance to the tunnels and the main cluster of living chambers. It was unusual to run into anyone on casual business this far from the hub, but the sounds were unmistakably human. Cautiously, she stepped through a low archway and headed in the direction of the sobbing. The murky darkness and uneven terrain made for slow going. A dozen yards into her detour she almost stumbled upon a crumpled form lying in the center of the gloom-filled tunnel. Choked whimpers were emanating from a very dirty, very skinny child. Catherine bent and gently touched the child's shoulder, simultaneously murmuring, "It's all right. You're safe now."

The child stiffened suddenly in surprise and jerked away from her outstretched hand. Startled out of crying for the moment, she stared at Catherine. Her dark brown hair hung in plump ringlets around a solemn little face. She reminded Catherine of a pouting cherub from a Renaissance painting - Although none of those cherubs had dirt-smudged faces, she thought with a smile.

Catherine made no further move toward the girl, who looked no more than three years old. She only returned the child's gaze with a friendly one of her own. Slowly, the small girl relaxed, apparently determining that Catherine looked trustworthy. The youngster rose to her knees, sat back on her haunches, and with two grubby fists, proceeded to knuckle away the tears which had begun welling again. Catherine gave her a quick visual once-over to ascertain she had no physical injuries. The child appeared to be perfectly healthy -- and perfectly miserable.

Catherine ventured a question, hoping to establish how the little girl had come to be in this uninhabited section of the tunnels. "What's your name, little one?"

A tiny voice sobbed out, " 'Rissa."

"And how did you get down here, 'Rissa?" Catherine pitched her voice low, trying to calm the anxious girl.

The child was crying in earnest now, her little body shivering in fright and distress. "Wif... my Mo..." She hiccupped, then continued, "...my Mommy."

Catherine wished she could gather the trembling youngster against her breast and soothe her fears, but she knew that any move toward her might be interpreted as a threat right now. "Don't cry, sweetheart. I'm going to help you find your Mommy, OK?"

A hesitant, hopeful nod was followed by a whispered, " 'K."

'Rissa seemed to be able to communicate well enough, so Catherine asked her, "Do you know where your Mommy is now?"

"Lost." Well, that's true enough, Catherine thought wryly. The tot was not going to make this easy for her.

She tried another angle. "What's your Mommy's name, 'Rissa?"

She was not at all surprised to hear the response. "Mommy."

Come on, Chandler, she reprimanded herself. A bright attorney like you ought to be able to finagle some useful answers out of this difficult witness! "How about anyone else? Are there any names you can remember?"

The child sank into thought, her crying subsiding, then offered, "S'manfa...'n' Eric."

Eureka! "You know Samantha and Eric?" Catherine was relieved, but asked to be sure.

The little girl nodded. "My fwends," she announced proudly, hiccupping again after her recent bout of tears.

'Rissa didn't look familiar to her, but it was possible she was a new arrival or a Helper's child who had wandered off into the outer tunnels. Assuredly she was being searched for by some very anxious and worried people. "Do you and your Mommy live...in the tunnels?"

The girl nodded vigorously. "Uh huh." The log jam was breaking as the child warmed to her task of imparting information.

Catherine knew enough now to reunite the child with her parent, but couldn't help asking, "How did you get so far from where your Mommy is, 'Rissa?"

" Woke up...had to go baffwoom. Found it all by mysewf!" She flashed a proud grin at Catherine. Then her expression grew cloudy once more. "Couldn't find my Mommy. It was dark. Got sca-owed. I walked and walked and walked. Wanna go ho..home!" Her lower lip trembled violently, and tears formed again at the corners of her eyes and spilled copiously down her grimy cheeks. Catherine tenderly brushed them away.

"Don't worry, 'Rissa, I know how to get you back to where Samantha, Eric and your Mommy are. If you stop crying, I'll show you a special secret. Do you like secrets?"

Another nod, and the tears dwindled.

With a conspiratorial whisper, Catherine informed her, "This is a grown-up secret. But I'm going to share it with you because you are such a big brave girl. Will you come here?" She held out her hand to the girl.

The child moved closer to Catherine, then shyly grasped her hand. Catherine squeezed the girl's fingers in response and smiled warmly at her, then turned to face the tunnel wall. She pointed with her free hand as she said, "See these pipes? They run across all the walls down here. If..." She smiled down at the child, then continued, "...if your Mommy ever gets lost again, here's what to do -- pick up a rock or take off your shoe and bang on the pipes, like this." Catherine demonstrated with a rock, producing a satisfactory clanging noise which delighted the little girl. She handed the rock to the child. "Now you try."

'Rissa banged happily away on the pipe for a short while, until a responding clanging could be heard. "Do you hear that? Someone knows we're here now. See how easy that is? So you never have to worry about getting lost again. Just remember to bang on a pipe, OK?"

A sober nod showed her the little one understood.

"I'm going to send a message now, using a special way of banging on the pipes, so Samantha and Eric and your Mommy will know we're on our way back to them." She tapped out: Catherine - found - girl; meet - Vincent - chamber.

Tossing the rock back to the tunnel floor, she dusted off her hand on her jeans. "OK, 'Rissa. Now let's get you back to your Mommy." She scooped up the tiny child, who wrapped her arms tightly around Catherine's neck and laid her head against her shoulder in utter exhaustion.

Catherine rocked her body as she rubbed the girl's back, crooning to her as she did, "You're a brave little one. Rest now." Soon the regular breathing under her ear let Catherine know that she had soothed the child into a doze. Hopefully, when she next awoke, she'd be in her mother's arms.

Humming her own Mother's lullaby, Catherine walked as quickly as she dared with her precious burden, long habit guiding her footsteps on the journey.

Some time later, she approached Vincent's chamber through a small crowd of relieved looking tunnel dwellers. As she suspected, the search had been frantic and frustrating, and everyone wanted to assure themselves that all was well before resuming their daily duties. The friendly gauntlet she ran included a worried Mary, who inspected the sleeping child with deft hands, then broke into a grateful smile. Mouse came up to her next, anxiously hopping from foot to foot; he peered at the toddler, then whispered, "OK, good!" Rebecca, Olivia, William and several others welcomed Catherine with murmured greetings, a squeeze of her free shoulder, or a warm pat on the back.

When she turned into the entry to Vincent's chamber, Father, Vincent and a nearly hysterical young woman Catherine had never met rose from their seats and rushed to her. As if afraid to ask, the tearful woman moaned, "Is she...is she OK?" She looked younger than Brooke and twice as slender, and she had enormous brown eyes which begged for reassurance. Catherine saw a grown-up version of young 'Rissa, tumbled brown curls and all. Vincent introduced them quietly. "Catherine, this is Mara. She's only been with us a few days."

Catherine nodded to Mara, hastening to console her. "She seems to be fine, just very tired."

As Catherine began to shift the child into her mother's outstretched arms, the girl awoke. Seeing Mara's tear-streaked face, she squealed, "Mommy!" and launched herself from Catherine's embrace, her new friend forgotten in the excitement of seeing her mother again. Mara only just caught the wriggling armful, then hugged her fiercely as the child placed sloppy wet kisses on her mother's neck.

Catherine gingerly rubbed her hip where the child's foot had planted to push off. For a tiny thing, she had packed quite a kick; she was sure to have a bruise there, but she really didn't mind. Just watching the reunion before her was payment enough for any minor dents in her fender. Brushing the child's hair softly with her hand, she spoke to the young mother. "You have a very brave little girl. She just has a bad sense of direction. She says she got lost coming back from the 'baffwoom'!"

Father grasped Catherine's hand and muttered a quick, "Bless you," before he shooed his young charges out of the chamber, solicitously advising Mara that, although the first order of business, if she thought it wise, might be a bowl of William's chicken soup before Marissa was put to bed, a lesson on the pipes when both were rested would not be amiss. Their voices faded as they walked further down the corridor, and soon there was no sound but the distant ping of pipes and the low rumbling of a subway train. Catherine turned to Vincent and remarked, "I really know how to make an entrance, don't I!"

Vincent smiled at her self-deprecation, but gently contradicted her. "You are a hero, Catherine."

She snorted at his description. "Nonsense. I just did what anyone else would have in the same situation. It was pure luck that I stumbled upon her on my way here." She crossed to his bed and made herself comfortable on it, sitting cross-legged after she had pulled her shoes off.

Vincent persisted. "Catherine, you have done so much -- and not just for little Marissa, but for everyone Below."

Blushing under his earnest gaze, she protested, "I love everyone here. They're my family. Of course I do what I can."

He shook his head, unwilling to let her dismiss the importance of her contributions so easily. "It's more than that, Catherine. I know you give what you can of material things, as all our Helpers do. But you also give so much of yourself. You always make time for the children - to talk with them, encourage them, listen to them. Whenever a crisis occurs Below, you are here for us - and you've put yourself in peril many times for one of ours." Shaking his head again, this time in amusement, he said, "Even if it's only William needing more hands to help chop onions...." He paused for a moment, as if unsure whether to continue, then his voice dropped to a husky murmur as he added, "You let me...unburden myself to you...and you give me so much...happiness. Yet you ask nothing for yourself in return."

Smiling tenderly at his fervent admission, she replied, "I'm not entirely selfless, Vincent...especially when it comes to you." She shifted on the bed and patted the patched comforter beside her, urging him to sit. After he had, she took his nearer hand and clasped it between both of hers. So you can't escape, my love, she thought to herself. Catherine took a deep breath and began to speak in earnest.

" I realized something today after finding 'Rissa so far from the home tunnels...crying, lost, sad. As I carried her here, I thought of how like her I am. My feet are more leaden the farther I get from this chamber. My heart gets heavier too. I miss you terribly whenever I'm not with you -- I ache to my soul. And it's gotten worse the longer I've known you."

She noted his tension, the unnatural stillness that had settled over him at her words. In a voice thick with emotion, she added, "There's no cure for this, Vincent, no cure but one that I know of. I want to come home."

His intense stare was hooded, it gave away nothing. Catherine grew desperate. How could she make him understand? How could she convince him how sure she was about this decision?

She could feel her chin tremble but was powerless to stop it - her feelings were getting too strong to suppress. "I know I tried...and failed...before, but I came Below that time for the wrong reasons. I was confused, grieving -- I wasn't ready to step into my future. And I know I...disappointed you when I left." She squeezed his hand, then lifted it to her face and brushed her cheek tenderly against the downy fur. "But I never lost sight of our dream -- it's all that's kept me going some days."

Raising her face to his, she willed him to hear her with his heart. "I've been restless Above for months now, and today I finally understand why. I feel like I did after the attack -- after I met you. I went Above then and I changed my life completely. I know now that I was only..." she struggled for a description, "...forming my chrysalis. The life I've been leading has been shaping me for something else -- for my true destiny. I need to change again -- to become..." she smiled in embarrassment, then shrugged and continued her strained metaphor, "...the butterfly I was meant to be. But I can only do that with your help."

He sat as still as a statue, his hand resting in hers. His face was a mask. He was not encouraging her to go on, but merely waiting for her to finish, she was somehow sure. Tendrils of hopelessness began to weave their insidious coils around her heart, squeezing the lifeblood from her dreams. What would she do if he would not be moved? Doggedly, she continued.

"We're both miserable now, even though we don't speak of it. You won't ask, so I have to say it. I want to move Below, Vincent, so we can be together -- truly together. Nothing less is acceptable, not any longer. This is our destiny. We must embrace it!" Her voice had risen slightly with the tension of her emotional state. Now she took a deep breath and forced herself to speak calmly. "For too long we've left this...situation...unaddressed, and our...inability to move forward will begin to corrode our lives if we don't get beyond it. As you once said, we must go with courage and with care. You were right - and it's about time we did that. Please, Vincent...please. There is no other choice for us now. If we don't move toward love...."

As Catherine was speaking, a tiny blur rushed into the room and threw itself onto her lap. Surprised and delighted to see 'Rissa again so soon, Catherine slid off the bed to kneel beside her, hugging her warmly and giving her a sound kiss on the cheek. "Well, little one! Did you find your way here all by yourself?"

"Mommy hepped. Wanna say night-night." Little arms wrapped themselves around Catherine's neck and held her tightly for a moment.

Catherine stroked 'Rissa's riot of ringlets in response. "Good night, sweetheart. Have happy dreams."

Innocent eyes pleaded with her. "Will you be here when I wake up?"

Catherine was unsure of how to reply. How does someone explain such a complex situation to a child? As she struggled to answer, Vincent provided her response.

"She'll be here, Marissa. Whenever you want to see her...she'll be here."

Over the top of the little girl's head, Catherine gazed into the serene blue eyes of the man she loved and knew that she finally had...come home.