FRIENDS, IN DEED

by Karen Morgia


She was fourteen years old, but she had been running from the pain for what seemed like most of her life. The bruises had long since healed…the physical ones. The mental bruises would never heal…of that she was certain. It had taken her so long to get up the courage to leave in the first place…why hadn’t she been able to leave before.

 

…I know why, she thought. ‘Cuz I’m a coward…

No, she wasn’t a coward, just a very young girl who was afraid of him…her own father. If the truth be told, he wasn’t really her father…he was her stepfather…but he was the only father she had ever known.

He’d begun coming into her room at night when she was eight; up until then she had loved him as any little girl loves her father. But when the nightly ‘visits’ continued, her love soon shriveled and died. Now all she felt was hate; hate and self-loathing that perhaps it was something she had done…that somehow it was something she deserved. Her memories of the way life used to be: school, parties, boyfriends were long forgotten, as if they had happened in another lifetime to someone else.

 

…No! Don’t think about it…

She sat on the bench by the lake watching a family of ducks swim by. The moonlight shone down illuminating each ripple across its surface. It was so peaceful at night, sometimes she forgot that she was living in the center of one of the largest cities in the world. A city filled with millions of people…and not one of them cared if she lived or died.

She often came here at night when the dreams invaded her sleep. She would see his face as he came toward her and she would wake screaming; her heart pounding, afraid that he had found her and would drag her back to the living nightmare her existence had been. Then she would remember where she was and how far away he was and she would relax a little, but she would be unable to return to sleep. On such nights she would rise, get dressed, and go for a walk in the park often ending up on the bench beside the lake.

Money to pay for anything was always a problem, but she refused to sell herself on the streets; she still had some pride. There were times when just in order to survive she might ‘borrow’ things she needed from a Salvation Army store or a Goodwill. She only took what she really needed, usually clothes; it was very cold at night.

Her days were spent foraging in garbage cans for what edible food she could find. She soon learned, however, that the best places to look were in the cans behind the fancy restaurants. Rich people tend to waste a lot of food. On the days when pickin’s were lean, you might find her haunting one of the soup kitchens set up for indigents.

Often during the day in order to keep warm, she might frequent the public library. You could sit off in a corner somewhere for hours just reading and staying warm. Her favorite reading material of late, had been books of adventure and fantasy; anything to take her mind away to other lands and better times. Her absolute favorites were fantasies inhabited by strong-willed warrior women; women who could take care of themselves; who could function on a level equal to any man.

Sometimes you might find her peeking through the windows of a Tae Kwan Do academy or a Karate school. Later in the park alone, she would practice what she had seen. She was proud of her limited ability and felt as if she could protect herself if the need ever arose. There came a night when the need did arise, and nothing she had done or practiced was able to help her.

It was one of the many nights when ‘he’ came back to haunt her dreams…she went to the park. She was heading toward her usual bench by the lake, but to get there the paved walk she followed led through an underpass. She had almost made it though to the other side when the man came out of the shadows. She was only fourteen and he was very big.

Luckily, she was too scared to fight him. If she had, he might have killed her, as it was she was left bruised and bloodied but alive. She pulled her torn clothes together as best she could, picked herself up and left the shadows of the underpass. She had been through so much in her young life this was almost the breaking point. For a while her brain was simply on ‘HOLD’ and she wandered aimlessly…not hearing, not seeing, not caring. This time of night there was no one in the park to see her, no one to help her, and she wandered almost unseen.

There was one person in the park who followed her silently. Someone who wandered through the park most nights, hiding in the shadows. Someone who had come upon the scene of her attack after-the-fact; who had seen her emerge from the underpass. Someone who had been drawn not by her screams and cries for help, for he had not been near enough to hear them, but by the intense emotions he had sensed released by this most violent of acts.

Vincent kept to the shadows and watched as the young girl stumbled her way through the park. It was too dangerous to make his presence known but he could follow and insure that she made it to her home. He had often noticed her sitting on the bench by the lake on his nightly forays Above.

As she came to the hill above the drainage tunnel that led Below, she lost her footing and tumbled down to the bottom. She just lay there, her body racked by sobs, but there were no tears flowing from her eyes. Her tears had dried up long ago. Two years on her own in the City should have taught her…trust no one. Well, she was finally learning her lessons.

"Are you all right?" a soft voice asked from out of nowhere.

She jumped, startled at the sound of a male voice so near. She sat up and looked all around but there was no one to be seen.

"Who are you?" she asked, a blanket of panic wrapping itself around her heart. She couldn’t take anymore.

 

…Please, God! No more!…

"Leave me be!" she shouted, terrified. It was difficult trying to hide her terror of the unseen intruder.

Again the soft masculine voice spoke. "I won’t harm you." This time she was able to trace the sound to the clump of bushes on the hill over the tunnel entrance.

"Leave me alone!!" she yelled.

"All right, I’ll leave, but my offer of aid stands. If you should ever need help," the voice said softly, "come to this tunnel. Inside there is an iron grating. Strike the grating hard three times and then leave the tunnel. Someone will come who will help."

"Why should I believe you? Why are you doing this?" her voice still shook from fear but there was a quality in the man’s voice which calmed her.

"Where are you?" This time there was not answer. "Who are you?" Again no answer. She pulled herself resolutely to her feet and made her way above the drainage tunnel. There was no one there. She turned around, looking in all directions, trying to peer into the shadows. There was no one.

Vincent moved away from the tunnel and hid in the shadows of the trees as the girl below began to rise. He could not take the chance that she might see him but he would remain near.

Vincent followed her, always keeping to the shadows, until he saw her enter the basement of an abandoned building through a broken window. Not long after, he saw light from a lone candle shining through the window. At least, for now, she was safe.

 

*

"Father?" Vincent’s voice sounded tense as if there were a great weight praying on his mind. "Father?" As Vincent glanced about the chamber there was no answering response. Vincent turned and headed for his own chamber, worry for the young injured girl plaguing him.

 

*

Two evenings later, Vincent was again winding his way through the shadows of the park on one of his nightly visits Above. The moon, now full and bright, illuminated everything, luckily creating many shadows in which to hide. As he neared the lake Vincent could make out a small figure huddled on a bench.

As he drew hear, Vincent could hear the sound of crying. It was the same young girl he had tried to help two nights previous, and as before, though she was crying as if her heart would break, there were no tears.

"Is there no way I can help you?" he asked, safely hidden in the shadows of an old oak tree behind her.

The voice startled her, but she recognized the same velvety tones which had spoken to her two nights hence, now she felt no fear of him. During the last two days she had spent much time thinking about the voice which had offered her aid.

"No. There is nothing anyone can do." She sat against the back of the bench, closed her eyes, and sighed deeply.

"There must be some way I can help you," Vincent stated.

He thought for a moment. …Yes, that just might work… "I have a friend who needs some help in his shop. Would you be interested in a job?"

The young girl sat straight up and moved to turn around to look at the person speaking behind her.

"No! Don’t turn around!"

She stopped and turned back to face the lake. "All right, and to answer your question…yes, I could use a job. But I won’t do anything kinky and I won’t work the streets." She was very adamant about that.

"It is not that kind of work. My friend’s name is Wayne Barlow and he owns a bookstore. Are you interested?" he continued.

The girl immediately realized that this mysterious person was indeed trying to help. "Yes. I am interested," she answered hurriedly, afraid he might change his mind.

"All right, then in the morning, here is what you do…," Vincent gave her the address of "Barlow’s Books", the directions on how to find the shop, and what to say when she arrived.

In the morning she followed the directions she had been given and entered the door of an old brownstone building. As the door opened a small bell attached to the top of the door sill, tinkled cheerily, announcing the presence of a customer to the shop owner.

"I’ll be right with you," said a thin reedy voice from the back of the shop.

As she waited, she looked around. Wooden shelves lined the walls on both sides of the small store and ran clear to the ceiling. On either wall there was a ladder with wheels leaning against the shelves and attached to the top of the shelves with rollers. This allowed the ladders to be rolled along in order to reach the books on the upper shelves. There was a small display area in the front window containing many different types of books: some best sellers; a few old, well-cared for leather-bound volumes; a few children’s books; and even some cookbooks, all lovingly displayed. Just inside the door to the left there was a display table set up for the current No. 1 best seller. Down the center of the shop were two other large bookcases with aisles spaced just far enough apart for one person to turn around, as they browsed through the books.

Toward the back of the shop was another table laden with all sorts of volumes with numerous titles, all marked down for quick sale and at the very back was the owner’s office. She stood waiting patiently and soon down the center aisle came a strange sound…shuffle, tap; shuffle, tap...as a small, white-haired old gentleman leaning heavily on a cane walked slowly toward her.

"May I help you find something special, young lady?"

She was very nervous but the mysterious voice had said that she could trust this person. "If you’re Mr. Barlow…Vincent sent me," was all she said. She nervously scuffed the toe of one tattered sneaker across the floor; her hands were clasped tightly together in front of her, knuckles white.

"Did he now?" came the reply. "And just why did he do that?"

"He said you needed help in the shop," she answered, slowly.

"Oh, he did, did he? Well, it just might be that I do." He smiled at her obvious discomfort. He knew that Vincent wouldn’t have sent anyone who couldn’t be trusted…and Vincent always knew who could be trusted.

"Look mister," she began defensively. She stood feet splayed apart, hands on hips, her eyes flashing trying to look very grown-up and sure of herself. She felt very insecure, however. She didn’t appreciate being the brunt of someone’s joke and she was becoming angry. This mysterious ‘Vincent’ person must be having a great laugh at her expense and she didn’t like it… not one bit. "I don’t know who this ‘Vincent’ person is, but if you can’t use my help, just tell me and I’ll split. I got better things to do than to stand around here all day."

"Now, now, young lady," he smiled, "you must excuse the perfidy of an old man." He watched her intently as she fought for control of her anger.

"Look, mister…," she said, a little more in control.

"Barlow. My name is Wayne Barlow and I own this shop." He swept his arm to his right encompassing the bookstore.

"Okay! Mister Barlow! This ‘Vincent’ person sent me to help you in your shop. Do I get the job or not?" She’d finally mastered her anger but was still annoyed.

"My dear, if Vincent sent you, of course you have the job. I really do need someone’s help. I’m not as spry as I once was, you know?" He smiled broadly at her, his eyes twinkling with suppressed amusement.

Seeing the smile shining in his eyes, she too relaxed and smiled. He really was a good-natured old gentleman…he just enjoyed teasing those of the younger generation.

Still smiling kindly, he became serious. "Do you have a place to stay, my dear?"

She grew defensive again, the smile immediately fading from her face. "Why?" she asked, apprehensively.

"Now, there’s nothing to be afraid of, dear. I live upstairs, you see, and there is another set of rooms vacant. I was wondering if you would like to move in there. It’s dry, clean, and warm and you wouldn’t have to walk out on those dangerous streets after we close. It would be much safer for you. Also, it would be nice to have someone around after hours that I could talk too and to keep an ear open for the shop. You can share my kitchen or we can share cooking duties. What do you say?"

His arguments did seem to make sense to her and it wasn’t as if she were really attached to that basement. It might be nice to sleep in a bed for a change instead of a pile of rags and old blankets spread on a cement floor; to eat decently for a change. It had been a long time since she had eaten a decent meal. She thought it over very carefully. Against all reason, she trusted the mysterious voice and her first impression of this Mr. Barlow was favorable…although he did seem a bit eccentric. She nodded her head. "That does sound like a good idea," she agreed. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him. "How do you know that you can trust me?"

"Vincent sent you, dear," was his only reply as he turned to hobble toward the stairway in back of the shop.

"Bit I don’t know this ‘Vincent’ person," she protested. "I was in the park and this voice from the shadows offered to help."

He turned around to face her. "That sounds like Vincent," he stated, smiling. "Perhaps one day you will meet him. Now then…why don’t you go get your things and you can settle in upstairs today and then start work bright and early tomorrow. How does that sound?" he asked.

 

*

Finally, a place of her own. She’d been working for Mr. Barlow for six months now. What with nice surroundings, pleasant company, and three squares a day she no longer looked as if she would fade away to nothing. The dark circles under her now sparkling blue eyes were gone, her skin glowed healthy and pink. Her hair once thin and stringy was now clean, shiny and full of bounce.

One of her many duties helping in the store was to deliver special orders. One day, Mr. Barlow asked her to deliver a book that had been specially ordered by a regular customer...an elderly lady who lived some blocks away. Her orders for volumes were usually phoned in as she was unable to come to the store personally. Mrs. Davis was an old and respected customer, so Mr. Barlow would often provide this special service for certain very special customers.

"Now, remember, she’s a little hard of hearing so you may have to speak loudly. You’ll like her, though, she’s done business with me for nigh’ on thirty years."

She smiled at the old gentleman for whom she had developed a real affection. "Don’t worry, Pop, I’ll remember." She really liked old Mr. Barlow; he’d become almost like a grandfather to her. "You be okay while I’m gone?" she asked, concerned. Mr. Barlow hadn’t been feeling well the last few days and she was worried about him.

"Don’t you go fussin’ over me. I’ll be just fine," he said as he handed her the package for Mrs. Davis. "You take your time. I hear there’s a fair in the park today. Lots of people in costume, music, food. Why don’t you come back through the park and stop and have a little fun. You’ve been working too hard. Here," he opened the register and handed her a few dollars, "you go have a nice time and I’ll see you for dinner. Don’t forget, it’s your turn to cook dinner." He chuckled at her reaction to that statement.

"Aww, Pop! You know I hate to cook."

The look on her face was so hilarious he couldn’t help but laugh. "Go on with you," and he shooed her out the door.

 

*

She delivered the package to Mrs. Davis and was invited for a cup of tea. Mrs. Davis was a sweet old lay who seemed a little lonely so she accepted the invitation.

Afterward, on her way back to the store, she decided to take Mr. Barlow’s suggestion and visit the fair. He had been right about the costumes. Everybody looked as if they had just stepped out of a book about Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.

As she wound her way through the crowd and in between the many food and craft booths, the sounds of the festivities were punctuated by cheers and clapping. Ever curious, she followed the sounds until she came to an open area on the perimeter of the fair. She tried to move her way through the crowd as politely as possible to get a better look; to see what was causing all the fuss. Once in front she saw six men dressed in colorful jerkins and tights taking aim at hay bale targets. She had read Robin Hood long ago and realized that what she was witnessing was an archery competition. These men were not using the long bow of Robin Hood fame, however, they were holding something rather weird looking. They held a rifle shaped stock to their shoulders but there was a small bow across the front, parallel to the ground. She knew from pictures that long bows were held vertically at arm’s length.

Not taking her eyes from the archers, she gently nudged the gentleman next to her, "Hey, what are those things they’re holding?"

The man looked down at her in irritation, perturbed at being interrupted during the match. "Those are crossbows," he answered brusquely and turned away to once again watch the competition.

She watched closely; as each archer loosed his arrow, he would back away from the line of fire to allow the next archer to shoot. Backing up he would place the front of his crossbow on the ground and place a foot into what resembled the stirrup on a saddle. Bracing the end of the crossbow against his chest he would reach forward, grasping the bowstring with three fingers on each hand…his fingers protected with leather pads…and slowly pull the string toward him until it locked into place. Then raising the crossbow he would retrieve a miniature arrow from a small quiver hanging from his belt and place it in a groove that ran along the top of the crossbow. He was now ready to take aim once again.

She noticed as he armed his bow that the arrows were different from regular arrows. They had feathers on the tail as other arrows, but there the similarity ended. These arrows were only about a foot in length and rather than being long and thin, they were short and looked fat at either end. The top was pointed and steel-capped but without barbs.

As she watched, the young archer on the end drew her eye. He was dressed much as the other contestants but there seemed to be something different. Then as he tookm, she realized what it was…unlike the other archers who were using what were obviously modern weapons…this young archer was using what appeared to be an ancient weapon; one made of wood rather than fiberglass or aluminum. She stepped as close as possible for a better look.

It wasn’t an ancient weapon, but it did seem to be hand-made. It didn’t seem as long as the other bows and there was another curiosity…his small arrows had no feathers. His small arrows had grooves carved along the back. That in itself was amazing because she had always thought all arrows needed feathers to fly true and straight, yet this young archer never missed a bullseye.

As he finished his round at the target and the next group of archers stepped forward, she decided she wanted a closer look at the strange bow. The young archer was more than happy to answer any questions from so enthusiastic an observer and he was soon expounding the virtues of the crossbow over the longbow as well as explaining the construction process to her. She was so enthralled by his description that she decided that she would endeavor to try to make one herself and asked his assistance. Unfortunately, the young man was from out of state and had only come to the City for the fair. The young girl seemed so enthusiastic, however, he decided on the spur of the moment that such enthusiasm must not die just because the opportunity was not there to nurture it. He asked her to wait and went to the ready tent where he kept his things. When he returned he was carrying a rectangular-shaped canvas bag. He kneeled down and almost reverently opened the bag, reached inside and withdrew a smaller-sized version of his own crossbow.

"This was to have been my brother’s," he said sadly. For a moment his eyes gazed off and a pained expression flashed across his face. He shook his head as if to clear away the painful memories, but when he stood and looked at the rapt expression on the young girl’s face, he smiled.

"Here!" he said as he held out the precious weapon.

She looked up into his eyes perplexed. "What?" she asked incredulous.

"Here. Take it. I’m sure Christopher wouldn’t mind." Again the pained look flashed across his face and was as quickly gone. "I want you to have it," he stated in a very matter-of-fact voice. "Please, take it. It’s much too small for me, and it should fit you quite comfortably. Look, I even have a few bolts that will fit it. Take it, please!" He dug into the bag and retrieved six scaled-down bolts and almost pushed them and the bow into her arms.

At first she didn’t know what to say. She just stood there, eyes wide, mouth open, completely flabbergasted at the turn of events. Here she only wanted information and now she was having this marvelous instrument thrust upon her. She looked at the bow now resting in her arms; looked up at the young archer; looked down at the bow again; closed her mouth and gulped. "Thank you!" was all she was able to manage in her shock. Before she was able to say anything else the young archer turned on his heels and passed into the crowd. She regained her composure long enough to realized that this was a gift she really couldn’t accept, but when she looked up to return the bow…he was gone. She searched through the crowd for quite some time trying to find him, but he had vanished completely.

She stood at the perimeter of the fair looking all around her; her brow furrowed in perplexed thought. Shrugging her shoulders, she carefully cradled the crossbow in her arms and headed back to Mr. Barlow’s bookstore and home.

 

***

Over the next few weeks she would often go down to the basement of the bookstore after the shop was closed for the day and practice with the crossbow. There were some empty cardboard boxes down there that she stuffed full of crumpled-up old newspapers and rags to use as targets. She might never be as good as the young archer, but she was soon hitting almost everything she aimed at.

Mr. Barlow, who had grown up on a farm before moving to the City as a young man, showed her how to whittle and she was soon able to increase her collection of bolts. She spent as much free time as she could at the library learning about crossbows: their history, their construction, and the art of archery. She was fascinated by all the information she found.

Mr. Barlow was amused by her fascination and he didn’t object to her turning his basement into a miniature archery range; but one night her amateur skill came in handy.

She had just locked the front door of the store; Mr. Barlow was checking the register for the day’s receipts and she was heading toward the back to make sure the back door was secure when…

"That’s all right, dear. I’m almost finished here, you go ahead to your practice. I’ll lock up the back."

"Yes, sir. I won’t be long," she said, smiling as she headed for the basement stairs.

Not long into her practice, however, she heard strange sounds coming from above…loud voices, heavy footsteps, the sound of something crashing to the floor.

She quickly grabbed a handful of bolts and placed them in the quiver hanging from her belt. Moving quickly, she climbed the stairs as quietly as possible. As she neared the top of the stairs the voices became more distinct.

"I don’t care, old man. I want what you got in that safe." The voice was definitely not friendly. "Come on, ya old fart, just give us the cash and I won’t let Joey bust nuthin’ else."

She now realized that there were at least two people menacing Mr. Barlow and she wasn’t going to let anyone hurt him.

The stairway was in the back of the store next to the back door. One flight of steps down to the basement; one flight of steps to the upstairs.

She peeked over the last few stairs at what was going on in the shop but could see little.

"Come on, old man. My patience is runnin’ thin. Open this thing up…now!"

The voices were coming from the office. She crept slowly from her hiding place and peeked around the corner into the office. The sight that met her eyes was not favorable.

Pop Barlow was trying to rise from the floor where he must have been knocked by one of the men. His cane had slid across the floor as he fell. She noticed a puddle spreading across the floor and realized that the crash she heard must have been someone throwing down the water cooler that stood in the corner.

"Come now, young man. You don’t really want to do this, do you? It’s only going to cause you a great deal of trouble, you know." Mr. Barlow, reaching for his cane, tried to reason with them but to no avail. The taller of the two men stepped near Pop and backhanded him, once again knocking him to the floor, but in the process, kicking the unnoticed cane within Pop’s reach. The other man was giggling and brandishing a wicked looking knife.

That was all it took to put her into action. She took a bolt from her belt and calmly armed her crossbow. She had cocked it before climbing the stairs so she was now ready to do battle. All the fantasy stories she had read about warrior women and integrity and honor flooded her memory.

"I’m going to count to five and if your friend doesn’t drop that knife and if you don’t move away from Mr. Barlow, one of you is going to regret it." She tried to make her voice sound more in control than she felt.

‘Giggles’ turned around and rushed toward her. Taking careful but quick aim, she fired and hit him in the upper leg. He immediately let out a scream of pain and crashed to the floor dropping the knife. She recocked her bow as quickly as she could in the confusion and armed it with another bolt.

"Hold it right there!" she shouted. The other man had started to move toward her, but Pop gave her the few extra seconds she needed to re-arm by hooking the man’s ankle with his cane. Feeling his leg grabbed, the robber turned and kicked at Pop who was still laying helplessly on the floor. As he drew his foot back for another kick, she yelled. "Don’t!" and fired, hitting him in the shoulder.

The men now realized that they had gotten into more than they bargained for…this was supposed to have been a real easy mark…an old man and a young girl. They hadn’t counted on the young girl having such sharp teeth. The man, grimacing in pain, withdrew the bolt from his shoulder and threw it at her. He then bolted for the door, grabbing ‘Giggles’ by the arm as he passed.

She had to let them go, she would not be able to hold them for the police all by herself. She knew their faces, though. Besides, Pop was hurt and needed medical attention.

The next day the story of the young female archer thwarting a robbery was front page news; complete with a picture of the young heroine and her ‘trusty bow’ taken in Mr. Barlow’s hospital room. The papers played it up like they normally do anything remotely sensational, but after a couple of days things died down and business at the small bookstore returned to a semblance of normality.

Unfortunately, while Pop Barlow was in the hospital for observation, the doctors insisted on taking some additional tests. They found why Pop had not been feeling well the past few weeks. Pop had a dangerous heart condition and the strain and excitement of the attempted robbery had only aggravated his condition.

One evening a few days later, as she was closing the store to visit Pop Barlow in the hospital, there was an insistent knocking at the front door. As was their custom when locking up, she had pulled the blinds in the front windows so passers-by couldn’t look into the shop. Since the robbery attempt, however, she had gotten doubly cautious, so instead of opening the blinds, she peeked through them instead.

The sight that met her eyes took her breath away. Her heart started pounding, she couldn’t breathe, and a lump formed in the pit of her stomach. She knew that face…a face she had hoped never to see again…but it still invaded her dreams occasionally, even after all this time. Her stepfather…he pounded on the door again, but she stepped back from the window, her eyes wide with fear, her hand to her heart in a futile attempt to calm its frantic beating. How had he found her? How? Then she remembered the picture that had appeared in the newspaper.

Slowly, so as not to alert the hated figure outside to her presence, she made her way to the back of the shop and out the back door, carefully locking it after herself. She had to get to Pop, he would know what to do. She ducked through the alley to the next block and ran down the steps of the nearest subway entrance.

 

*

When she arrived at the hospital the news on Pop’s condition was not at all good. The nurse told her that he had a ‘bad day’, whatever that meant; but the doctors had left instructions that she was to be allowed a brief visit.

Pop was resting when she entered his room but she could tell that he was very ill. He tried to smile encouragingly at her, but it only succeeded in coming out as a grimace.

"Pop, I’m scared," she said, dragging a chair over to his bed to sit beside him. She frantically picked up his hand lying weakly on the bed and held it for comfort. "He’s here!"

"Who’s here, dear?" His voice was weak and she had to lean close to hear him.

"My stepfather!" She was shaking so badly, and was so terrified that she almost yelled the words, then remembered where she was and whispered again, "my stepfather. He was just at the store as I was closing. I saw him, but he didn’t see me. Pop, what am I going to do?"

Pop Barlow closed his eyes as she talked and for a moment she thought he might have fallen asleep. Then his eyes opened again and he focused on the face of the young girl who had come to mean so much to him.

"Dear," he started, still very weak, "I’m afraid I may never leave this bed."

"No! You’ll be fine, and you’ll come home, and I’ll take care of you just like I’ve been doing," she protested.

"No, dear. We must be realistic about this. I’m a tired, sick, old man." He stopped speaking for an instant to catch his breath; he was very weak. "Do you remember the voice you told me about when you first came to me?" he asked, quietly.

She thought for a moment and then remembered the soft velvet voice speaking from the bushes, and nodded. "Yes, Vincent," she answered.

"I know you’re frightened, dear, and what I tell you now, you might not want to do, but you must." He paused again, eyes closed. The expression on his face was one of pain, but he continued, "I don’t think Father would mind if I speak to you of them. Vincent has been watching out for you ever since he first found you in the park and I’ve kept him informed of your achievements." Pop went on to explain to her that he was a Helper and what that meant. He explained a little about the tunnel society, what they stood for, and how and where they lived.

"That’s why that ‘Vincent’ person told me to go to the drainage tunnel, isn’t it?" she asked at last.

"Yes, it is. Now, please understand, you must never say anything to anyone about what I have just told you, never…because, now I’m afraid you are going to need their help." Once more a grimace passed across the face of the kind old man.

She was growing very worried about Pop, something was very wrong. "Please, Pop! Let me get the nurse." She made as if to rise from the chair but he grabbed her with surprising strength.

"Promise me," he said through clenched teeth, "that if anything happens to me, you will seek them out. At least down in the tunnels you will be safe…promise me!"

I promise!" she answered, hurriedly, hoping he would relax and rest. The pressure on her arm relaxed as his hand dropped once more to his side.

Immediately, the alarms on his monitors started buzzing and in less than two heartbeats the room was flooded with nurses and doctors all rushing around. A nurse quickly ushered her out the door and into the hall as an orderly wheeled in some weird-looking equipment, then the nurse turned back to help.

She watched through the window of the room for a few seconds and then realized that there was nothing she could do for Pop just by standing there, so she slowly walked down the hallway to the waiting room. She had been waiting for almost half an hour when she noticed Pop’s doctor leaving the room and the orderlies removing the emergency equipment. Pop’s doctor did not look hopeful.

"I’m very sorry, Miss…" was all she allowed the doctor to say before she turned and started down the hall. She couldn’t let him see her cry. She had seen the expression on his face as he walked down the hall and she knew that Pop was gone. Tears were flowing freely down her face as she walked from the hospital…real tears.

 

*

The subway ride back to the store seemed to take forever. She was in such a state of shock, it was a miracle that she got off at her correct stop. She walked in a daze to the store, unlocked and entered through the front door. She was so preoccupied that she didn’t notice the dark figure watching from across the street.

She hadn’t entirely believed everything Pop told her. He was an old man after all; but after closing and locking the front door ‘he’ was there again…knocking for admittance.

"Baby? Come on, baby! I saw ya go in. I know you’re there. Let me in. It’s Poppa. Let me in, baby," he called.

At the sound of his voice, it was as if the past few years had never happened. She couldn’t take it any longer; she had to get away from him once and for all…somewhere where he could never find her.

She ran upstairs to her rooms and threw a few things into her carryall. She started to leave the room, when she turned back and carefully picked up her crossbow and stuffed the quiver and all the bolts in her bag. For a moment a fleeting vision came to mind: using the crossbow on her stepfather, but just as quickly, it vanished. As she came downstairs the man at the door was no longer trying to coax her into opening the door. He was pounding loudly for admission. She had to leave quickly. If the glass in the door window broke he would be in instantly. She snuck out the back door again, but not before tripping the silent burglar alarm.

 

…Let’s see ya talk yourself out of that one, she thought

As she closed the back door, she heard the sound of glass breaking. He had stopped waiting and busted the window to get into the store. Smiling, she headed toward the park as fast as she could run.

 

*

 

…Gosh, I think this is the right one. It looks like the same tunnel. Damn!! They all look so much alike…

She’d run all the way to the park hoping all the while that she could remember exactly where the voice had told her to go.

She didn’t realize, though, that she has been followed the moment she entered the park… by Vincent. It wouldn’t have made any difference which drainage tunnel she entered. Vincent would be at whichever one she chose.

She gathered her determination, entered the tunnel and give the signal the voice had instructed her to use all those months ago. Then, as instructed, she left the tunnel and sat down near the entrance to wait. She didn’t have a long wait.

The sentries are, for the most part, very conscientious and none of them take their duties lightly. Her signal was acknowledged almost at once. Vincent had given instructions all those months ago concerning the young girl. So when the message was received, a sentry was to assist her.

The sentries took turns being relieved from their posts for the evening meal. So as not to leave a post unguarded, the older boys took turns relieving the adult sentries. Tonight, this particular sentry post was being manned by one of these substitutes. A young boy who was always getting into mischief, but who nonetheless took his duty very seriously. This young sentry’s name was Mouse.

Mouse had never quite outgrown his shyness toward other people. He preferred to stay pretty much to himself, so he enjoyed the time alone on sentry duty. Unless, of course, there was a project he was working on…then he didn’t like being interrupted at all. All-in-all, he liked sentry duty because of the silence; he could think and plan new projects. Tonight the silence was shattered when someone started banging on the gate right next to his post.

 

…Noises! Always noises!…

Mouse started muttering to himself as he opened the hidden gate and moved cautiously toward the tunnel opening. As he neared the entrance, Mouse carefully looked all around. Moving ever closer to the tunnel opening he kept to the shadows as much as possible. He could see no one other than a young girl sitting forlornly on the slope next to the entrance. Her knees drawn up under her chin; her arms wrapped around her legs; she looked so lonely. She was resting her chin on her knees and in the faint light of a nearby street lamp, it looked to Mouse as if she were crying. At her feet lay a bag half forgotten in her grief. Leaning against the bag was what looked like a crossbow.

 

…Not possible…, Mouse thought. Mouse knew about crossbows…crossbows were neat. Vincent had taught them about England, and knights, and weapons…crossbows and spears. His palms itched to touch it; no…duty first. Vincent had said she must be helped.

As Mouse stepped from the shadows of the tunnel he heard a sound coming from above the entrance. "Mouse. Wait." It was Vincent…something was not right. Mouse slipped back into the shadows of the tunnel and watched as a dark figure separated itself from the shadows of a tree trunk and crept silently up behind the crying girl.

"Thought ya could get away from me, did ya? I saw ya trying to slip out the back door without me knowin’. Well, you’ll never get away from me, young miss! Never!"

At the sound of her hated stepfather’s voice, her tears ceased instantly and she made a grab for the crossbow lying just inches away, but he was too fast. He grabbed a handful of hair and dragged her, struggling, to her feet. Roughly turning her around to face him, he backhanded her. "Thought you could run away again, did ya?" He hit her again, knocking her to the ground. "You little bitch!" He bent down, grabbed another handful of hair and yanked her back to her feet.

Mouse, hiding in the shadows gripped his staff with a white knuckled fist. He could hear Vincent begin to growl above him in the bushes.

"Mouse," Vincent’s voice was barely under control. "I’m going to distract that man. When he releases the girl, you get her into the tunnel…fast…and don’t look back." As Vincent spoke, Mouse could hear his voice change and knew that the Beast was near.

Vincent moved off, silently through the shadows. Once hidden in the shadows on the other side of the struggling pair…there was a loud roar. The man released his grip and turned toward the sound. Mouse ran from his hiding place and grabbed the girl’s hand as she began to sink to the ground. "Come!" was all he had time to say before the man turned back around. "Hey!" the man shouted, but his yell was followed by another roar, this one much closer. Again he turned, and the nearly hysterical girl only stared at Mouse. "Come!!" he pleaded again, and pulled her hand to follow him.

Mouse and the girl stumbled toward the tunnel; she tried to turn back long enough to make a grab for her bow and bag, but Mouse pulled her along. Soon they were safe, hidden in the far shadows of the drainage tunnel; the girl’s only possessions lying abandoned in the dirt.

When her stepfather turned back around, she was gone. He hadn’t seen which direction she had run, but he knew that she couldn’t have gotten far; that dark opening in the hill looked like a good hidey hole.

"Where are you, you little bitch?" The venom contained in that voice caused her to gasp and that simple sound was heard. "Trying to hide from me, are ya? Well, when I get you home, you’ll learn never to run from me." He started toward the tunnel.

Before getting even two paces, a huge dark shape…all claws and fangs…leapt from the shadows above the tunnel. The Beast was fully in control of Vincent now…his home and friends were in danger. The only thing that mattered was to protect them.

Mouse jerked the girl’s hand madly and they moved away from the entrance. Vincent had moved fast enough that the girl would not have been able to get a good look at the attacker and Mouse made certain that she would not see the aftermath of the attack. The sounds of the attack…the growls and roars and screams…were enough to chill anyone’s blood.

"Come," Mouse said, smiling shyly. He led the stunned girl through the hidden entrance into the tunnels Below. As the sliding door closed behind then, the sounds of the struggle outside ceased abruptly.

 

*

She sat in an old stuffed, threadbare chair. There were candles everywhere bringing a soft golden light to the harsh outlines of the cave walls. There was a constant insistent clanging noise that was fast giving her a headache.

The gray-haired man at the desk hadn’t spoken more than two words to her since the strange boy had brought her here over an hour ago.

Suddenly, she heard footsteps behind her and turned. Standing in the doorway of the cave…no, they called it a chamber…was a figure straight out of a fairy tale.

From where she was sitting he looked huge. He wore a long black patchwork cape and as she watched, he pushed back the hood that hid his face. He looked down at her and her mouth dropped open in amazement.

"Vincent! I’m glad you’re home safe. Was there any trouble? Mouse came bounding in here as if the Devil himself was after him," Father chuckled at the memory.

"Yes, Father, there was some trouble but it has been taken care of." As he spoke, Vincent’s gaze returned to the young girl. She was sitting in the large chair as tense as a little rabbit wanting to run for cover. Vincent’s feelings of what had transpired at the tunnel entrance were evident; his sky blue eyes were shadowed with pain at the memory. Why must violence be the price that must always be paid for the safety of the tunnels?

"Vincent? Are you all right?" Father asked, concerned. The expression on Vincent’s face was one he had seen many times before…the face of a man in mental torment. It was always this way after the ‘Beast’ appeared.

"Vincent, you know…"

"Father now is not the time." Vincent nodded his head in the direction of the silent young stranger who was trying so hard to appear very small in a very large chair.

"My goodness," Father exclaimed. "I forgot all about her."

Father rose from his chair and taking his cane from its corner, limped cautiously toward the young girl.

Seeing the gray-haired man…What had they called him?…Father?…walking with a cane just like Pop, brought all that had happened that day come rushing back to her. Father’s hobbling figure brought to mind the first time she had seen Pop…shuffling down through the stacks of books at his store. She hadn’t noticed before, this chamber was full of books, too…stacks and stacks of them. The similarities were just too much for her to handle. As Father placed a hand gently on her shoulder, the simple gesture of compassion broke through her facade of strength and the sobs torn from that small frame were heartrending. She cried as if her heart was broken, for it was. The only person who had ever really cared about her was dead; she was in a strange place surrounded by strange and frightening people; and she had no idea what was to become of her.

Vincent was able to sense something of what she was feeling…fear, despair, loneliness, a complete loss of hope. All of these would, in time, fade; but he thought he might be able to facilitate the process just a little.

When Vincent had been able to reassert himself over his dark side, he had noticed some items lying in a heap at the bottom of the slope leading to the tunnel. One item in particular drew his attention, an item most unusual in a modern world; yet, when he picked it up to examine it the impressions he got were of honor, integrity, a fierce loyalty, and yet, a very great loneliness. These were all qualities with which Vincent was very well aware. He picked up the lost possessions determined to return them to their rightful owner.

Vincent silently stepped down the few stairs to the floor of Father’s chamber. His many years of haunting the shadows Above had taught him to step quietly and when he came around the side of the chair in which she was sitting, he startled her.

"You have no reason to fear," he said, his voice soft and gentle. "No one here will harm you."

Father stepped next to his son and placed a hand on his arm, not for support but to show the frightened girl the oneness of their words. "My dear, I am sorry if you have been frightened by all of this. No one intended to alarm you, only to assist you. Vincent rather considers himself your guardian, you see." Father smiled at his son, trying to ease the tension of the situation.

"Father!" An anxious voice interrupted Father’s explanation. He looked toward the entrance of his chamber as a small rather attractive, motherly woman came striding through; her hands on her hips, a grim expression on her face.

"Why didn’t anyone let me know that we had a new arrival? I had to overhear Mouse telling Winslow." Mary looked angrily at Father and Vincent. She stalked down the steps and over to the now astonished young girl. "Oh, you poor little thing; you’ve been hurt." She placed a soothing hand on the girl’s forehead and push aside her bangs for a better look at her bruised face. "Who did this to you?" Mary rounded on Father once again, "Jacob, how could you have let this young child sit here like this. You should be ashamed. She’s probably frightened half out of her wits, not to mention tired and hungry. Just like men…!" When it came to the health and welfare of any child, Mary was a veritable tyrant.

Mary took the shaking young girl’s cold hand in her own warm friendly one and assisted her out of the chair. "You just come with me, dear. We’ll find you a nice homey chamber and get you settled in and then we’ll get you something to eat. You must be famished." Mary placed an arm protectively around the girl’s shoulders, as if daring Father or Vincent to gainsay her. As they started to leave the chamber…

"Mary, one moment please," Vincent interrupted. "I found these things outside the tunnel entrance, I believe they belong to the young lady. These are yours, aren’t they?" he asked, holding out the bag in one hand and the crossbow in the other.

The person standing before her, had only a little while ago been like a wild animal and now he was holding her most prized possessions and calmly speaking to her. This strange featured individual spoke with the same soft velvety voice that had offered aid so long ago. The voice and the visage were so irreconcilable that her mind simply could not comprehend it. She fainted, but before she could slip to the floor, Vincent dropped the bag and looped an arm around her. Holding her gently in one arm, Vincent quickly passed the crossbow to Mary and swung the now unconscious young girl up into his arms.

"What chamber, Mary?" he asked, calmly.

"Take her to the empty one at the end of my tunnel, Vincent. We can always change later if she doesn’t like it."

Vincent led the way from Father’s chamber, followed by Mary carrying the crossbow and the bag, Father coming behind at his own pace.

Nearing the chamber indicated, Mary entered first and lit a candle setting on the table beside the bed. Vincent entered carrying the girl but Father simply waited not speaking.

"Just lay her on the bed, Vincent, and then you two scram. I’ll take care of this poor little thing." Mary laid the bag on the foot of the bed as she walked across the chamber to the dresser. She propped the crossbow against the wall and then, from the pitcher setting on the dresser, poured some water into a bowl. Taking a cloth from a drawer, she carried the bowl to the bed. She set the bowl of water carefully on the small bedside table and looked up to find the two men still standing there watching her. "Go on with you! Shoo!"

Mary sat down on the side of the bed and with a cool cloth, gently bathed the girl’s battered face. "You poor little thing," she whispered. "It’s just been too much for you, hasn’t it?"

 

***

She opened her eyes slowly. There was a lit candle on the table beside her bed. She was warm, comfortable, and her face didn’t hurt too badly. She touched her split lip gingerly…still very tender. She was so comfortable, though, she didn’t want to get up.

She turned her head and looked around. The candle cast strange shapes on the chamber walls but now she wasn’t quite so afraid. She vaguely remembered a soothing hand on her face and a gentle voice telling her everything would be all right. Sitting up, she suddenly realized she wasn’t dressed. She was no longer wearing her sweatshirt and Levis. She was clad in a soft, long-sleeved flannel nightgown. On the foot of the bed lay not her own clothes, but a collection of patchwork garments much like what ‘Father’ and ‘Vincent’ had worn. She threw back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed.

"Good. I’m glad you’re awake, child." The same motherly woman who had come to her rescue before, entered the room bearing a tray. "How are you feeling today?" she asked in a cheerful voice.

"Fine, thank you," came her tentative response.

"I thought you might be hungry after yesterday, so I took the liberty of bringing some bread and jam. William baked the bread fresh this morning. You’ll like William he’s such a jolly man. The jam came from one of our Helpers Above; it is really very delicious. I also brought you a nice hot cup of herb tea; that was Vincent’s contribution. The tea is mixed specially for him by an old gentleman in Chinatown." Mary set the tray on the top of the dresser.

"You’re Mary?" she asked, bashfully.

"Yes, dear. Why don’t you get up and get dressed now. Then after you eat, I can take you to meet the other children." Mary was simply bubbling over with good cheer this morning.

"I’m not a child," she declared, vehemently.

"Of course, dear," Mary agreed, patronizingly. …She’s trying so hard to be brave…, Mary thought.

"You go ahead and get dressed and eat, dear, and I’ll be back in a little while to get you."

She watched as Mary left the chamber and then hopped down off the bed. Shivering, she held up the clothes lying on the end of the bed…lots of wool and knits…understandable, it was chilly down here. As she dressed, she examined her new surroundings; across the room there was something hanging on the wall.

 

…How in the world did they hang it on a rock wall?…, she wondered.

Pulling on a pair of corduroy trousers, she hopped across the floor for a better look. In the dim candlelight from across the room, she couldn’t tell what it was, but now up close, she saw that it was a prayer someone had stitched and framed. It read:

"God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And the wisdom to know the difference."

She unconsciously picked up a piece of bread and jam as she stood reading the prayer over and over. She bit into the bread, munching distractedly. She stood quietly contemplating what the prayer said and, not realizing what she was doing, finished off the food and tea. Her reverie was disturbed when Mary re-entered the chamber.

"Good, I’m glad to see you have such a good appetite." Mary walked over and picked up the now empty tray. "Before we go meet the other children…Father would like to see you. Come along, dear." She turned and left the chamber.

 

…Well, I might as well get this over… She silently followed Mary down the tunnel, the words of the prayer running over and over through her mind.

 

*

"Vincent, you never answered me last night…is everything all right?" Father was concerned about his son. "What happened last night?"

Vincent was sitting in the same chair the young girl had been sitting in the night before, only now it didn’t look so huge. Vincent’s massive frame fit it perfectly. He looked at Father, pain in his gaze. "The Beast, Father." Those words told Father everything he needed to know.

"Is he dead?" Father asked, absentmindedly running a hand through his steel gray hair.

"No," Vincent replied, "but he was badly hurt. I was distracted somehow and he was able to run off. I couldn’t follow him."

"Who ran off?" Mary asked as she entered the chamber, the young girl following close on her heels.

"The man who attacked our new friend, here," Father answered gesturing toward the girl standing behind Mary. "Did you sleep well, child?"

"Yes, thank you." Even though speaking to Father, she had eyes only for Vincent.

Vincent sensed her watching him. He slowly rose from the chair and turned to face her. He had never gotten used to the scrutiny of new residents. Some accepted him immediately; for others, the acceptance only came with time.

After a few moments, she asked, "You’re Vincent, aren’t you?"

He quietly nodded, never taking his eyes from her face.

She looked nervously down at the floor, then raised her eyes to meet his gaze once more. "I recognize your voice. It was you hiding in the bushes all the time, wasn’t it?" He nodded silently. "I’m sorry about my behavior last night. What with Pop Barlow dying and that man finding me…", she stopped and shrugged her shoulders. As she started to step down the stairs, Father interrupted her.

"Wayne Barlow is dead?" he asked, shocked.

"Yes," she admitted sadly. Having to say it aloud somehow made the fact more real for her and tears began to appear in her sad eyes once more. "He died last night in the hospital. The Doc said his heart was bad. He’d been in the hospital since the hold-up. You knew about the hold-up, didn’t you?"

Father, ignoring her question, glanced at Mary who nodded and left the chamber abruptly. The tunnel entrance in the basement of Barlow’s Books would have to be closed now. Mary would make the appropriate notifications and arrangements.

Father’s attention returned to the girl’s question. "Yes, we heard about it. One of our Helpers informed us."

"Pop mentioned that word ‘helper’. He said he was a Helper. Does that mean all that stuff he told me is true? Well, it’s got to be true," she looked around the chamber, "I’m here." Her expression grew very thoughtful. "What happens to me now? I can’t go back up there." She looked hopefully toward Vincent, "You offered to help me before…does that offer still hold?"

Vincent nodded and answered, "Of course it does. You may stay here as long as you wish."

"Can I keep my bow?" she asked.

Father chuckled, "As long as you keep it away from the younger children."

"Ya. Mary said somethin’ about other kids, too. You got more kids down here?" she asked, puzzled.

"As a matter of fact, we have quite a few children with us at the present time," Father answered. Glancing at Vincent, he asked, "How many children are there now, Vincent?"

"There are eight teenagers, three younger children that were found abandoned in the park, four Helpers’ children, and Sam’s new baby…that makes sixteen, Father."

"Are there any other girls?" she asked, hesitantly.

Father and Vincent looked at each other smiling and Father chuckled. "Yes, dear, there are some girls. Let me see…there’s Brooke, Tracy, Laura, and…Vincent, who else?"

"There’s Samantha, Father, she’s nine, and little Carey is six."

"Yes, that’s right. I have such a hard time keeping track of all of them. That reminds me, Vincent, isn’t it just about time for your class?" Father asked, arching one eyebrow.

"Why don’t you go along with Vincent, dear. You can sit in on his class for a while. It will give you a chance to meet the other children," Father suggested.

 

…Class?… , she thought. "Yeah…okay…sure." …They go to school down here?…

Vincent started up the stairs she had just descended. He turned to wait for her to join him. "You will be welcome in any of our classes once you are settled in," he invited.

As they were just passing through the chamber doorway, Father called them back. "One moment, please, Vincent. Dear, it just occurred to me that we don’t know your name," he admitted.

"Didn’t Pop tell ya?" she asked, astonished. "He said you’d all been keeping an eye on me."

"We have been, but Wayne didn’t tell us your name. I can only assume that he felt it safer to keep you anonymous. He kept your name a secret even from us."

She stood silently remembering the kind old man who had befriended and cared for her. She looked from one to the other of these two people who offered safety and friendship, and decided that perhaps there was a chance for a better life awaiting her…here, below the City that had abused and abandoned her. She made her decision…

"My name is Jamie."

She turned and followed Vincent into a new life.

-THE END-

 

 


Written April 1990. Submitted/accepted by Chamber Cameos. Published in Vol 1, Issue 2 (June 1990).