WHAT FALLS AWAY IS ALWAYS

*June - September 2013*

 

The bitterest thing in our today's sorrows is the memory of our yesterday's joy.

- Gibran

 

It was springtime, a day made to enjoy the outdoors, but Carey Wells had no interest in going outside. He lay on the bed, one arm flung across his face, shielding his eyes from the bright sunlight that slanted in the window.

Two days ago, he'd returned from a brief trip to Illinois, where he'd grown up. There, Carey had visited his mother's grave for the first time. Dutifully, he'd knelt beside the newly sodded mound, touching the fresh granite headstone, but there was no sense of his mother there. His goodbye had been said the day she died, when he'd kissed her cold cheek. She existed only in the memories he carried with him, not here in the warm Illinois earth she'd loved so much.

Catherine Chandler had accompanied him on this trip, and after visiting the cemetery, they had driven to the office of an attorney where they had an appointment with Henry Schrock to formalize a verbal agreement; Henry was to lease the farm land that was now Carey's.

"I don't believe this," Henry muttered as he signed the contract. "That land's been in the Schrock family for four generations. I shouldn't have to sign any papers!"

"Mr. Schrock, we've gone over this," the Illinois attorney said patiently. "Your brother owned that land. He chose to leave it to his wife; she willed it to her son. It belongs to him now."

Carey shrank from the slow, contemptuous look Henry gave him."He's not a Schrock, no matter what his name is. Everyone knows his father is that no-good farmhand Talley."

Carey's chin lifted. He'd always found Henry Schrock intimidating, but felt the need to defend his absent parent. He took vague satisfaction in the fact that his voice only quivered a little. "My father's name is Devin Wells. He only used the name Gilbert Talley while he was here."

Henry's expression was condescending. "If he used a false name, he was up to no good," he said.

"I'm acquainted with Carey's father," Catherine interrupted. "He and my husband were raised as brothers. He's done nothing wrong."

Henry met her unyielding gaze and faltered. "Is that all?" he demanded of the lawyer.

"No," the attorney replied. "Ms. Chandler tells me she plans to seek legal custody of the minor child Carey Schrock, who is also known as Carey Wells. Have you any objection to that?"

Henry straightened. Beside him, his wife Emily fluttered nervously. "Oh, Carey, won't you come live with us? Your mother..."

Her husband cut her off brusquely. "I won't have it said that I've neglected my duty. The boy has a home with us if he needs it."

"But he doesn't need it, Mr. Schrock." Catherine's voice was cool, determined. "A child's life should not be determined by duty."

"He's sixteen," the attorney interjected. "I'm sure the court will allow him to choose where he lives. A custody hearing would be a mere formality, but since you're the boy's uncle, the court may want your opinion. Ms. Chandler simply requests that you sign an affidavit stating you have no objection to allowing your nephew to live with her family in New York."

"The boy's no kin of mine," Henry said spitefully. "My brother Dale died a good two years before he was born. His mama..."

Carey cringed inside; Henry's every word felt like a blow.

"What his mother did or didn't do is no concern of yours, Mr. Schrock," Catherine interrupted forcefully. "Will you sign the affidavit?"

He glared at her. "I'll sign," he muttered. Reaching for a pen, he scrawled his name on the paper the attorney proffered before storming out.

Emily was still fussing. "Oh, Carey, we'll miss you," she said, reaching to hug him. He submitted to her embrace stolidly.

"Thanks, Aunt Emily," he said. "I'll miss you. I'll write."

"It's probably better this way," she continued. "You know, it always fretted Henry that your mama and your daddy never married..."

"I know." Carey cut her off. He knew she meant no harm, but he didn't want to hear it. "Go on, now," he continued, more gently. "He'll be mad if he has to wait."

"Oh, you're right, Carey," she agreed, hugging him again.

He knew Catherine must have heard every word but when he turned, she and the attorney were bent over some papers. Afterward, she never mentioned the distasteful encounter, but Carey couldn't forget it. Even now, back in New York, his uncle's spite haunted him.

"Are you okay? You're very quiet." His cousin Evan spoke from the doorway, bringing him back to the present.

"I'm okay," he answered slowly. "Just thinking."

"About your mom?" Evan came in and sat on the other twin bed.

"Sort of." It was a non-answer, designed simply to stop the questions.

"You miss her," Evan observed.

Carey didn't reply.

"You want me to go away?" Evan made the offer gently and after a moment, Carey heard him move toward the door.

"I'm a bastard," he said finally, flinging it out as a challenge. His voice was harsh and angry.

Evan's answer was unexpectedly calm. "So are a lot of people. So what?"

"Doesn't that bother you? Offend you?" He knew he was goading, pushing, but didn't care.

For a moment he thought Evan was going to laugh. "Carey, it isn't a big deal."

"It is to my uncle," Carey muttered, rolling onto his stomach. He could feel Evan looking at him.

"Come on downstairs a minute," Evan said after a moment. "I want to show you something."

Carey didn't move.

"Please, Carey. I think it's important."

Carey let another minute pass before he rolled off the bed. "What?" he asked crossly.

"Downstairs," Evan repeated, leading the way. In the study, he knelt by Catherine's desk and pulled open a drawer.

"Should you be doing that?" Carey asked anxiously. He'd been here long enough to witness a couple of confrontations between Evan and his mother and worried that this invasion might trigger another one.

"It's okay," Evan muttered, thumbing through the files the drawer contained. "As long as I put everything back. Here." He found what he was looking for and pulled it out.

Carey took the single sheet and turned it right side up. It looked like a legal document of some sort; closer examination showed it to be a birth certificate. "What...?"

"Just read it," Evan urged patiently.

With a sigh, Carey began. The certificate described a male child, born October 11, 1996 at 4:27 in the afternoon. Evan Joseph Chandler. Carey looked up. "This is you," he said in bewildered surprise.

"Yeah, I know. Read it." Evan was insistent, so with a shrug, Carey went on.

"Why were you born in a hospital?" he murmured curiously. "I thought Jacob said all of you were born Below."

"Everybody but me," Evan said. "I came too fast, and there wasn't time for my mom to get to the tunnels. My father says the precipitous way I entered the world should have told him how much trouble I was going to be later on." He grinned, obviously unperturbed.

Carey skimmed over the terse information regarding Evan's mother, still wondering why Evan was having him look at this, when his breath caught.

"What...? This... Evan, doesn't your mother know who your father is?" Astonishment made it difficult to speak.

"Don't be stupid," Evan answered. "Of course she does."

"But it says 'father unknown,' right here. Look." He held out the document. Evan ignored it.

"I know what it says. That's why I showed it to you. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Technically speaking, I'm a bastard, too. I just wanted you to know you're in good company. Around here, the only person who's not a bastard is my mom."

"But your parents..."

"They're not married, not in the real world," Evan explained. "Only in Dad's world."

"And it doesn't matter to you?"

"Why should it? What difference does it make? I'm still me. Mom's still my mother and Dad's my father. It doesn't change anything."

"You really mean that, don't you?"

"Of course I mean it." Evan reached for his birth certificate, replacing it and shoving the file drawer closed. His matter-of-fact attitude did much to dispel Carey's gloom. "You know what I was thinking?" Evan went on, blithely.

"What?"

"That it would be neat if you moved in with me. Vicky and I used to share a room when we were little, and it was fun."

The abrupt change of the conversation's direction took Carey by surprise and for a moment, all he could do was stare dumbly.

"Hey," Evan said, sounding suddenly uneasy, "if you don't like the idea, just say so."

"No," Carey murmured. "I just never thought about..."

"It'd be fun," Evan coaxed. "If we share a room, we can lie awake and talk about stuff... If you stay in Charles's room, you'll have to share with him when he comes home. That's no fun."

Carey hadn't met Charles yet. "Why not?" he asked cautiously.

"Because he's so much older - he's twenty-two, you know. And he's so responsible." Evan made it sound like a fault.

Carey pondered. In the few weeks they'd known each other, Evan had become like the brother he'd always wanted. He could be moody, but he could also be compassionate, like this afternoon. Carey genuinely liked him. They had fun together. He nodded slowly. "I guess we could try it."

Evan grinned. "Great! I'll talk to Mom."

Catherine had reservations. "I was thinking about putting Carey in Charles's room and letting Charles stay with Jacob when he's home," she protested. "Charles isn't here that much, anyway."

"It's not the same," Evan argued. He could be persuasive when he wished and today he was especially effective. "Come on, Mom. Let us try it, at least."

"All right," she said slowly, allowing herself to be convinced. "But why don't you move into Charles's room, instead? It's twice the size of yours."

"I don't want to," Evan said stubbornly. "I like my room."

"But it's so small..."

"It's big enough. You'll see."

The two boys spent the next Saturday morning moving furniture and rearranging things. Evan's room had originally been intended as a storage room but had been comfortable for him. After the morning's work, the small space was occupied by twin beds shoved against opposite walls and separated by a student desk. A chest of drawers stood at the foot of one bed and a small bookcase was wedged at the foot of the other. Grinning, the boys surveyed the crowded room in satisfaction.

"We did it," Carey said. Up until a few minutes ago, he hadn't been sure it would all fit.

"Get your stuff," Evan instructed. "I'll make room in the closet."

Accordingly, Carey went across the hall to Charles's room and began ferrying his personal possessions to his new quarters, dumping them unceremoniously on the bed. It took another half-hour to put away his clothes and find shelf space for his books. Two framed photographs, one of Carey with his father, another of his mother, went on the wall above his bed and a stained, battered shoebox went in the bottom drawer of the chest. "Finished," he announced.

"About time." Evan, whose idea of putting things away was to kick them under the bed, grumbled good-naturedly.

"Hello, boys." Catherine stood in the doorway.

"We did it," Evan said triumphantly.

"I see." She shook her head doubtfully. "You're going to be very cramped in here."

"We know. We like it this way," Evan explained patiently. "The trouble with you, Mom, is that you have no sense of adventure."

"Oh, is that it?" She smiled and seemed about to say more when Vincent loomed out of the shadows behind her.

The two weeks since Carey first met Vincent had not been enough to still the compulsion to stare, and he tore his gaze away with an effort. Carey found Vincent intimidating; he always seemed so sure of himself, so serene. It made Carey feel faintly inadequate, as if he couldn't quite measure up.

Vincent didn't seem to notice his discomfort. "You've finished," he observed. "It seems crowded."

"They like it that way," Catherine informed him drolly. "I've been told I have no sense of adventure."

The look Vincent turned on her was full of tender amusement. "Haven't you?" he inquired. "I hadn't noticed." Watching them, Carey was certain that their entire life together had been an adventure. He couldn't imagine it being any other way.

"This reminds me of when Devin and I were boys," Vincent continued, surveying the room thoughtfully. "I'm sure our chamber looked this way at times."

"You shared a room with my father?" Carey asked eagerly, forgetting to be self-conscious.

"For many years," Vincent said agreeably. "I still have some of the things Devin left behind. I'll get them out for you when you come Below."

Carey hadn't visited Vincent's world yet. Evan had promised to take him this afternoon, though, and Carey was eagerly anticipating the trip. "I'd like that," he told Vincent shyly. "My father never tells stories about when he was a little boy."

"Vincent has lots of stories," Catherine said with a smile. "I'm sure it wouldn't take much persuading for him to tell them. I can't stay to listen, though."

"Let me guess. You have to work." Evan's inflection was matter-of-fact; on another day, it might have been laced with bitterness.

"Guess again. By some miracle which I do not intend to question, my weekend is clear. Since my entire family is planning to be in the tunnels, I thought I'd join you. I promised to visit Mary this afternoon."

"Oh. I guess we'll see you down there, then."

* * * *Carey's first sight of his grandfather's world filled him with wonder. He could never have imagined such a place existing anywhere, least of all beneath the teeming City of New York. Everyone he met greeted him warmly. Some mentioned his father; more spoke of his grandfather.

"I wish I'd known him," he said wistfully when they reached Father's Chamber; many of Father's things were still there.

"Too bad you didn't," Evan commiserated. "You're his real grandson. I'll bet he'd have liked you." He grinned. "And he wouldn't have cared that you're a bastard."

Carey smiled. Uncle Henry's views didn't sting so much any more.

"Look," Evan said, turning to a nearby shelf. "These are the ledgers Grandfather kept. They can be fun to look at." He pulled out a large, dusty, leatherbound book and opened it to one of the first pages. "See, Grandfather wrote his name here, and here's my father," he said, pointing. "And see, here's my mother, and all of us kids."

Carey leaned over the register, examining the names and dates. "Who's Rose?" he asked.

"Who? Oh, she was Jacob's sister. My sister, too, I guess, but she was Jacob's twin. She died right after she was born."

"That's sad," Carey said.

Evan shrugged. "I guess. I wasn't there." He pointed to another name. "Here's your father. Devin, born to Grace. And Jacob Wells." The last had clearly been written at a different time; the ink didn't quite match. Room had been left below Devin's name for his offspring, but the space was still blank. "Someone should write you in here, Carey," Evan said. "Got a pen?"

The idea of writing in the obviously revered ledger filled Carey with horror. He was saved from answering when someone behind him spoke.

"Evan's right," Vincent said, coming forward. "Your name should be here, Carey. And your mother's too. Would you like to write it?"

Overwhelmed, Carey shook his head.

"Evan?"

"Not me. You know my writing's awful."

"I'll do it." Opening a drawer of the desk, Vincent withdrew a fat, old-fashioned fountain pen. "This was your grandfather's pen, Carey," he said, sitting down and spreading the ledger before him. "He always used it to record in the ledger because he liked the way it looked. So do I."

Vincent finished the new inscription and pushed the ledger around so Carey could read it easily.

A warm glow started somewhere in the vicinity of Carey's heart. "Thank you," he whispered.

"You're welcome," Vincent said, standing. "I believe your mother's waiting to go to dinner," he said to Evan. "Will you and Carey join us?"

"Sure. I already heard William and Jacob made spaghetti. Come on, Carey."

"The children are planning a poetry recital this evening," Vincent said as they walked toward the dining chamber. "Are you able to stay?"

Evan cast an inquiring glance at Carey, who shrugged. Everything down here was interesting to him. "Sure," Evan answered. "Can I recite something?"

"So long as it isn't *Casey at the Bat*," Vincent agreed equably. "For a very long time, it was the only poem Evan would confess to knowing," he told Carey. "He presented it at every gathering. I'm afraid if he tried to recite it now it would cause an uprising."

Carey laughed.

After dinner, they trooped back to Father's Chamber. "The only one big enough to hold any kind of a gathering," Evan explained. "Except the Great Hall. It's big enough for everybody, but it's down a couple of levels and past the Chamber of the Winds, so we don't use it much except for Winterfest."

"What's Winterfest?"

Evan launched into an intriguing explanation that lasted long enough for the room to fill up with people. Vicky and a boy she introduced as Nathaniel joined Evan and Carey on the floor, and Carey looked around for other familiar faces. Catherine was across the chamber; Vincent stood beside her and amazed Carey with the way he brought the entire room to order without raising his voice.

"If everyone's here, perhaps we should begin," Vincent said quietly. "Ellen, did you wish to start?"

A little girl who couldn't have been more than six years old scrambled to her feet. "My poem is called *Whispers*," she announced in a piping voice, and began to recite. Her delivery was sing-song and she stumbled over the words once or twice, but Carey noticed that even though some of the adults smiled indulgently, no one, not even the other children, grimaced or giggled.

Not all of the children had pieces prepared, Evan informed Carey in a whispered aside. Allowing every child to recite even a short poem would have taken all night; as it was, the recital took more than two hours. Near the end, Evan stood up and delivered a capable rendition of Mark Antony's eulogy from Shakespeare's *Julius Caesar* and sat down to appreciative applause.

"That was good!" Carey whispered.

Evan grinned in pleasure. "Want to do one?" he offered.

Carey's answer was prompt and vehement. "Not me. I'm not good at poetry."

Evan shrugged. "Oh, well. Around here, you'll learn."

When the last child finished, nobody moved. The children especially seemed to be expecting something.

"Is that everyone?" Vincent asked the room at large.

"No!" A chorus of young voices swelled back at him.

"No? Who else?"

There were delighted giggles mixed in with the children's prompt reply. "You, Vincent."

Carey could tell that Vincent wasn't really surprised by the demand even before Vicky leaned over to whisper, "He always does this. Grandfather used to do it, too, with stories. We knew he'd tell one, but he liked us to plead."

Apparently the pleading was done, because Vincent leaned forward in his chair. "All right, if you insist," he said thoughtfully. "I'd like to read something for Carey."

Evan poked him with an elbow. Carey automatically moved his arm to protect his ribs and ignored him.

Vincent picked up a volume that lay ready on the table beside him and opened it.

* * * *"'I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

* * * *We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow...'"

* * * *Carey listened, rapt, and filled with awe that Vincent somehow understood his deepest feelings. He wanted to reach out and grasp this poem that seemed so perfect, and yet just beyond his comprehension.

* * * *"'...What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.'"

* * * *"I learn by going where I have to go," Carey repeated under his breath, and vowed to read the poem himself, later. Vincent would tell him where to find it.

Vincent closed the book and looked at the children expectantly. "Is that all?" he asked.

"No!" they chorused, on cue. "You have to do Catherine's poem," one of the little ones reminded him. Vincent glanced at Catherine as if surprised to find her seated beside him.

"So I do," he agreed solemnly. "Will someone bring me the book?"

The children were prepared and a volume was passed quickly from hand to hand. When it reached Vincent, he opened it carefully, finding his place as an expectant hush fell.

* * * *"'Catherine said "I think I'll bake

A most delicious chocolate cake."

She took some mud and mixed it up

While adding water from a cup.

And then some weeds and nuts and bark

And special gravel from the park

A thistle and a dash of sand.

She beat out all the lumps by hand.

And on the top she wrote "To You"

The way she says the bakers do

And then she signed it "Fondly C."

And gave the whole of it to me.

I thanked her but I wouldn't dream

Of eating cake without ice cream.'"

* * * *Vincent read the poem as earnestly as if he were reciting Shakespeare. When he finished, he looked over his delighted audience, most of whom were rolling on the floor in barely contained glee, before turning to look at Catherine.

"I'm afraid I may have hurt Catherine's feelings with that poem," he announced to the giggling children, though it was evident to all that Catherine had enjoyed it. "Would anyone mind one more poem?"

No one did. Vincent waited for the children to regain their composure. He didn't need a book this time; his gaze was fixed on Catherine. When he spoke, his voice brought life to the static words, and Carey leaned forward, spellbound.

* * * *"'somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

any experience, your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me

or which i cannot touch because they are too near

* * * *your slightest look easily will unclose me

though i have closed myself as fingers

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose...'"

* * * *When Vincent's voice died away in the dim chamber no one moved. Even Evan, who always had what Carey's mother had called a "smart mouth," was quiet. Vincent was still looking at Catherine, who reached out to touch his hand; Carey saw her lips move in a silent "thank you" before the moment evaporated.

* * * *Carey thought he had a better understanding of everyone after that. He visited the world his grandfather had built whenever he could; when Evan wouldn't take him, which was frequently, Vicky or Jacob could be relied on to guide him.

He and Evan learned to work around each other in their newly devised living quarters, and as days passed, he felt less like a visitor and more at home. Evan convinced him to try out for his summer league baseball team, Vicky tormented him as she did her brothers, and Catherine gave him chores to do, all of which he embraced gladly.

His father's continued absence nudged at him only occasionally, until he came home one afternoon in late June to find a package waiting for him on the hall table.

It was wrapped in thick brown paper, adorned with colorful stamps, covered with customs and postal imprints, and carried a bright yellow forwarding sticker. It was addressed in his father's handwriting.

Carey stared at it. Finally he put out a tentative hand, touching the soiled paper lightly.

"Looks like it was mailed from Pakistan," Jacob said. "Here's some scissors to cut the tape. Or would you rather take it up to your room?"

"No, that's okay," Carey heard himself say. "I'll open it now."

The heavy pasteboard box contained two smaller packages, each wrapped in colored tissue paper and tied with bright ribbon. Carey pulled the ribbon on the larger of the two packages. Inside was an oddly proportioned wooden doll about eight inches high. Its legs were absurdly short compared to its long, blocky torso, and its thick, long neck was topped by a large head. Arms were merely suggested by lines carved into the doll's body.

"Neat," said Evan, looking over his shoulder. "What is it?"

"I don't know yet," Carey answered, pulling out some folded sheets of paper that accompanied the doll.

* * * *Dear Carey,

For the past three months, I've been living on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with a remote tribe called the Kalash. The doll is a scale replica of a graveyard effigy; I got one of my friends here to carve it for you.

I wish you could see this place. The people are very friendly. I've been earning my keep herding goats, believe it or not. There's something strangely peaceful about watching animals graze, but don't tell your mother... she'll have me out in the field guarding the stock.

There's a present in here for her; tell her that among the Kalash, these strings of red beads are signs of wealth. A rich woman might have a hundred strands...

* * * *Sudden tears blurred the rest of the letter. His father was a wanderer; Carey had grown up with that, safe in the knowledge that Devin always came home eventually. In a way, Carey had travelled the world by way of Devin's letters, gifts and stories. Now his newfound serenity was shattered by the brutal reminder that his father was still blissfully unaware of his mother's death, or even that Carey was living in New York now. The package had been sent to the farm in Illinois.

"Is he coming for a visit?" Evan inquired.

Blinking, Carey looked at the letter. "Uh, no," he said, scanning quickly. "Just that he expects to move on soon, and will mail the package when he does."

"That means he's probably not in Pakistan anymore," Jacob observed quietly. "Too bad."

"Yeah," Carey agreed, too easily. "If he'd stay in one place, maybe some of our letters would catch up with him."

"That's not Uncle Devin's style," Evan said admiringly. "He likes to keep moving."

"Yeah," said Carey. "I know."

* * * *

* * * * *

* * * *Devin Wells stepped from the unnatural chill of the international terminal at JFK Airport into the bright shimmer of mid-September heat, hailing a cab with a practiced wave of his hand. "Central Park West," he instructed the driver. When they neared his destination, he leaned forward to deliver additional directions, and presently the cab pulled up in front of an impressive brownstone. "Thanks," Devin said, slipping a bill through the driver's window.

At the door, he punched the bell rapidly a few times. When he was sure no one was going to answer it, he reached in his pocket for a key. "Anybody home?" he shouted when he was inside. He would have been surprised to receive a reply; he hadn't expected to find anyone home on a weekday afternoon. Stashing his gear in a corner of the small, square entry, he headed directly for the basement and the tunnel entrance he knew was hidden there.

He recognized his name on the pipes long before he reached the central chambers of the world where he'd grown up; Vincent waited for him in the doorway to Father's Chamber and Devin threw his arms around him in enthusiastic greeting.

Vincent's response was welcoming but when he stepped back from the embrace, his eyes were somber.

"What is it, Vincent? Is Chandler okay? The kids?"

"Catherine and the children are fine." Vincent hesitated. Incredibly, he seemed to be searching for words. "You've been gone a long time, Devin," he said finally. "Perhaps you'd better come in and sit down."

Devin obeyed blindly, waiting for what he knew was some sort of bad news. Vincent's next words shocked him.

"We've had news from Illinois. I'm sorry, but Rebecca is dead."

"What?" Devin felt as if he'd been hit in the stomach; for a moment he couldn't breathe. "When? How?"

"In April. There was a traffic accident."

"No." His protest was instinctive, but the expression in Vincent's eyes left no room for doubt. Devin leaped to his feet, needing action. "I'll bet that bastard Henry has my boy... I've got to get there..."

Vincent caught his arm. "Devin, he's here."

"What?" Devin only barely restrained the urge to wrench his arm from his brother's grasp.

"Carey. He's here with us."

Devin yielded to impulse, jerking his arm out of Vincent's hold and backing away. Too many incredible things were happening and he was having trouble grasping it all.

"You left a letter, addressed to Catherine. He brought it himself."

Devin spun around, pushing a table roughly aside when he knocked into it. "Where is he?"

"He's with Evan. Playing baseball, I believe. They should be home soon."

"I have to go... I have to find him..." Reality was sinking in fast now, robbing him of strength. Through his agitation, Devin felt Vincent's hand on his shoulder once again.

"Perhaps you should sit for a moment, Devin."

He shook the hand off roughly. "Later, Vincent."

* * * *

* * * * *

* * * *"He's yours, Paul, he's yours! No stick!" Carey shouted, pounding the palm of his glove as he sank into an infielder's crouch and waited for the pitch. The batter swung, sending a sharp grounder toward the hole between shortstop and third. Carey lunged to his right and felt a satisfying smack as the ball hit the webbing of his glove. Spinning, he fired the ball to first for the third out.

"Good play, Wells," the coach said as Carey trotted into the dugout. "All right now," he shouted to the team. "We're one run down; it's the bottom of the seventh. If we don't score, the game's over! Chandler, you're up!"

"Yeah, coach, I know," Evan said, grinning. As the first batter this inning, he picked up his bat and went back onto the field.

Lacing his fingers through the chain link barrier, Carey watched, hoping things would be decided before he came to bat. Evan was a good hitter and rapped the ball into left field for a double. Good. Evan batted fourth in the order; Carey batted ninth and last. Surely the four batters in between them could score two runs to win the game!

With rising dismay, Carey watched Dean hit a line drive to the shortstop and Paul, the pitcher, pop out to second. Two outs, and Evan still stood on second base, shouting encouragement. The next batter singled, and the following one walked to load the bases.

"Final game of the year, bottom of the last, two outs, tying run on third, Wells," the coach said, handing him a bat. "No pressure."

Carey managed a grin in return. "No pressure," he agreed, and wished the coach would pull him for a pinch-hitter. He wouldn't, though, because the guys left on the bench couldn't hit much better than Carey, and if Evan scored and the game went into extra innings, the team needed Carey at shortstop. He might not be able to hit worth a darn, but all those boyhood hours spent throwing a ball against the side of the barn and fielding the wild rebounds had given him a sure glove.

Gripping his bat, he stepped nervously into the batter's box. The first pitch was a good one but he didn't feel settled, so he let it go by.

"Strike one!"

The next two pitches were high, for balls; Carey swung at the next one but only succeeded in fouling it back. The catcher made a dive, but couldn't reach the ball for the third out. While he waited for the catcher to get set again, Carey let his gaze wander.

And stared, transfixed. His father stood on the other side of the fence, watching him. Dimly, he heard Evan howling from third base. "Back out of the box! Back out of the box!"

Startled, Carey stepped backwards.

"Time!" yelled the umpire. "Batter, are you okay?"

Carey shifted his gaze to the umpire. "Huh? Oh, yeah, I'm okay. Just... something in my eye." He wiped at the sudden moisture and looked again for his father, afraid he might have suddenly vanished. He was still there, and as Carey watched, he smiled and gave an encouraging 'thumbs up.'

Time had slowed, distorting his sense of reality, but finally Carey remembered he was playing baseball. Taking a determined breath, he renewed his grip on the bat and stepped back into the box.

The pitch was waist high, over the outside of the plate, and Carey swung, hitting a looping line drive over the second baseman's head.

Legs pumping, breath coming in short gasps, he sprinted for first. Safely there, he spun around in time to see the runner from second cross the plate to score the winning run.

"Ball game, gentlemen!" the umpire called. The game was over. They had won.

"Helluva hit, Carey! Way to go!" In seconds he was surrounded by shouting, enthusiastic teammates, but Carey was oblivious, pushing past them, his eyes searching the spectators anxiously. He shoved his way through the crowded dugout, emerging to find his father waiting on the other side. For a moment they simply looked at each other.

"Nice hit, son," Devin said finally, awkwardly. His voice broke the surreal daze that had gripped Carey ever since he'd looked up to see his father standing at the fence.

"Oh, Dad." Not caring who saw, he went into his father's fierce embrace. When he backed away, there were tears in his eyes.

"Do you know about Mom...?"

"Yes, I just found out," Devin answered. "Vincent told me. I'm sorry I wasn't here when you needed me, Carey."

Carey knew his father was never comfortable with intimate moments, but it still surprised him when Devin looked past him with an easy grin.

"Hey, Evan. Nice catch you made in left field that last inning."

"Hi, Uncle Devin. Thanks." Evan put out his hand and Devin shook it heartily. Carey experienced a moment's shock before he remembered that naturally they knew each other.

"Is your mother here, Evan?"

"No, but I think Vicky is," Evan answered, turning to survey the rapidly dwindling spectators. With the advantage of his superior height he spotted her easily and waved her over.

"Hi, Uncle Devin," she said, throwing her arms around him with enthusiasm. "I saw you from the stands. Wasn't Carey great?"

"He sure was," Devin agreed, and Carey glowed under the praise.

There was still no one home when they reached the townhouse. Carey shouldered Devin's duffle bag and led the way upstairs. "You can sleep in Charles's room," he said. "He won't care."

Devin's grin was one of casual amusement. "No, he never does," he agreed. "Where do you sleep?"

Carey made a brief gesture with his hand. "In Evan's room."

Devin gave him a look of incredulity. "I've seen Evan's room," he said. "It's not possible to fit another person in there."

"Sure it is," Carey grinned. "Look."

Devin could tell at a glance which bed was Carey's - it was made. The rest of the room was simply chaos.

"It's Evan's room, all right," Devin conceded, pulling the door shut. "You guys must be in each other's way all the time."

Carey shrugged. "Yeah, sometimes. We like it."

A few minutes later they trooped down to the study. Vincent was there, though none of them had heard him come in. "I see you found them," he observed to Devin. "Did you play well?" he asked the boys.

"We won, Dad!" Evan said eagerly. "It was great! Bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, two out, and Carey lines one to center field to win the game!"

Carey knew Vincent understood most, if not all, of Evan's highly descriptive narrative, despite the terminology. Vincent nodded sagely. "That's very commendable, Carey. You must be pleased."

"I am," Carey agreed promptly. "The best part is my dad was there to see it."

"Both our boys played well, Vincent," his father interjected proudly. "At least in the inning I watched." He reached into his pocket. "I brought you something," he said and proffered a small bottle that had once held an airline portion of gin. Vincent received it gravely.

"From the banks of the Ganges," Devin explained. "For your collection."

Vincent held the bottle up, examining the fine brown silt that filled the little bottle. Carey had seen the row of similar bottles lining the mantel in Vincent's chamber Below and knew that each held sand or dust from a different part of the world. Each bottle had its own story, including the one that had started the collection. That one contained sand from the California shore of the Pacific Ocean.

"Thank you, Devin." Vincent set the small bottle on his desk. "You must have stories to tell."

Thus encouraged, Carey's father perched on the arm of a chair. Carey moved close.

"I'll start with the Kalash," Devin said. "They live in these remote villages..."

An hour later Jacob had joined the group and the teenagers were poring over maps spread on the floor, finding the places Devin had mentioned. It was a few minutes before Carey noticed that his father had moved to one of the windows and was looking out through a narrow gap in the closed drape, fingering an edge of the curtain absently. Carey started to get up, but hesitated when the doorbell buzzed twice quickly. Downstairs, the front door opened. A moment later there were quick footsteps on the stairs and Catherine came in breathlessly.

"Hi, guys," she greeted. "Did you win?"

"Yeah," Evan answered, turning from the map. "Carey..." He stopped in mid-sentence. Carey saw Catherine looking past them, her face suddenly blank, forbidding.

"Hello, Devin," she said deliberately. "I see you finally found your way back."

"Hey, Chandler." Devin tried to smile but his voice sounded dull.

"Are you here to play weekend father?" she continued. "Drop in on the kid from time to time, see how he's doing?"

"Aunt Cathy," Carey began, unhappily, but Vincent was ahead of him.

"Catherine, please," he said quietly.

"Don't defend him, Vincent," she retorted hotly, eyes flashing. Carey took an involuntary step back; he'd never seen her display anger toward Vincent before.

"Go ahead, Vincent, let her talk," Devin said from the window. "I deserve it."

"Devin, no," Vincent said, half-turning. "I feel your pain..."

"His pain!" Catherine interrupted savagely. "What about Carey's pain? Where was Devin four months ago, when Rebecca died and their son needed him? Nobody knew!"

"Aunt Cathy..." Carey tried again to defuse her fury.

She looked at him blankly for an instant before realization replaced wrath. "Carey, I'm sorry."

Carey could almost see the effort as she slowly regained control.

She turned formally toward Devin. "I apologize."

The silence that followed was strained; no one seemed to know what to do. At last Jacob cleared his throat. "I should check on dinner."

"Yes," Catherine responded mechanically. "And I should change before we eat..."

Vincent looked as if he would like to follow Catherine out of the room, but after a moment's hesitation, he moved instead to Devin's side. "She didn't mean it, Devin..."

"Oh, yes, she did, Vincent," Devin said. "What's worse, she's right."

Carey stood by uncertainly, wanting to help but not knowing how when Jacob called up the stairs. "Hey! Somebody come set the table!"

"Whose turn is it?" Evan wondered aloud.

"Mine," Carey answered. Hesitating, he looked to his father, but Devin was staring out the window again. Carey wondered if he should do something, but Vincent was already there, speaking in a soft undertone. From his own experience, Carey knew how much compassion Vincent could offer, and after all, they were brothers...

Evan touched his elbow gently. "He'll be okay," he advised. "Come on downstairs. I'll help you."

* * * *Despite Catherine's apology, dinner was a cool, formal affair. Later, Evan and Carey were preparing for bed when someone tapped on the door.

"Come in," Carey called, expecting his father. Aunt Cathy pushed the door wide.

"Evan, would you excuse us for a few minutes?" she asked. "I'd like to talk with Carey."

"Sure." With a backwards look of compassion, Evan left the room, closing the door behind him.

Carey cleared a chair of the junk Evan had piled on it. "Here," he offered.

"Thank you." She sat carefully and seemed more interested in examining the chaos that reigned in Evan's half of the room than in talking. Carey waited patiently and at last she sighed.

"I owe you an apology, Carey." A shake of her head stifled his instinctive protest. "Please. Let me finish. I made you uncomfortable this evening. I'm sorry. You had every right to expect your father to be greeted cordially."

"I was just sort of surprised," Carey answered diplomatically. "You were so angry..."

"Yes. In a way, I still am." She tilted her head, looking at him. "You aren't angry, though, are you, Carey?"

Startled, he stared at her. "At Dad? No."

"Yet you'd have every right to be. He wasn't there when you needed him..."

"He would have been, if he'd known," Carey said loyally.

"But he didn't know, and there was no way to tell him."

"Right."

He recognized confusion in her gaze. "And you find no cause for anger in that."

"No. Being mad at my dad for being gone would be like..." he groped for a suitable example, using the first one that came to mind. "...you being angry at Vincent because he can't go places and do things."

He could see he had startled her. "I could never be angry with Vincent over something he can't change," she said defensively.

"Of course not," he agreed. "But don't you see? That's the way it is with my father. He can't help being the way he is. He needs to go places and do things. He can't change. I know he can't. I've seen him try."

She shook her head slowly. "And I believe, just as strongly, that people can change if they want to badly enough."

Carey lifted his hands, palms up, in a carefully neutral gesture. "I guess I don't see it the way you do."

"No, I guess you don't." Smiling, she rose and came forward to kiss him goodnight. "But I am sorry."

"Aunt Cathy, what do you think my father should do now?" Carey asked as she reached to open the door. She paused, turning back to look at him.

"I'm not sure," she began carefully. "But I can't help thinking it's high time Devin began to assume some responsibility."

* * * *"I've been thinking about the farm," Devin said at dinner three nights later.

"The farm's okay, Dad," Carey assured him. "Aunt Cathy took care of it. Uncle Henry is leasing the land and Mr. and Mrs. Gregory are keeping an eye on the house."

Something in his father's face had darkened at mention of Catherine, and it had gotten worse when Carey had mentioned Henry but his voice betrayed no agitation. "I know, Carey. And I do appreciate all your Aunt Cathy's efforts in your behalf." This was said with a small nod to Catherine. "But ultimately you're my responsibility, son. I think I should take a look."

"Sure, Dad," Carey agreed, looking down at his plate. He had suddenly lost his appetite. His father had been here such a short time...

"Here," Devin said, tossing an envelope casually onto the table. Carey reached for it cautiously.

"Airline tickets," his father explained. "To St. Louis."

"Two of them?"

"One for you, one for me," Devin said. "We can rent a car and drive from there. What do you think?"

Carey couldn't contain his elation. "I think it's great! When do we leave?"

"Next week. I thought that would give you time to go through your things, decide what you're going to take."

"It won't take that long for me to pack, Dad," Carey chided good-naturedly. "But how long will I be gone? What about school?"

"Yes, what about school?" Catherine asked coolly. "Carey's a junior in high school now. How many classes will he miss?"

Devin glared, just a little defiantly, across the table. "I've taken care of that. Don't worry."

Whatever Catherine would have liked to say in reply was lost when Vincent placed a hand on her arm. "I think a trip to Illinois would be beneficial to you both, Devin," he said.

Devin gazed across the table and managed a faint smile. "Thank you, Vincent. I appreciate the support."

* * * *It was Saturday afternoon when the subject of school came up again. Carey was working in the study when his father came in.

"What are you doing?"

"It's a history paper," Carey explained. "I have to write at least three thousand words on the causes and effects of the Persian Gulf War."

"Oh. When is it due?"

"Not for a couple of weeks," Carey answered. "But I want to get it done before we leave so I don't have to worry about it."

His father was strangely silent.

"Dad? What is it?"

Devin sat down beside him. "I guess I didn't make myself clear the other night. Carey, you're not just going with me while I check out the farm and say goodbye to your mother... I want you to be with me from now on."

Carey could only manage wide-eyed incredulity. "You mean travel with you? Everywhere?"

His father nodded.

Carey felt a rush of jubilant elation. His father wanted him. He wasn't going to leave him behind again. There would be new places, new things to see... new people. His father wanted him. Still...

"What about school?" he asked faintly.

Devin grinned. "I told you I had it all taken care of," he said eagerly. "I've been in touch with a correspondence high school. They'll send you the lessons through the mail; you'll complete them and send them back. It's an accredited course. You could even go to college after you graduate, if you want."

"And what kind of life is that for a teenage boy?"

Carey and Devin pivoted to face Catherine. Neither had heard her come in, but she stood behind them now, her expression fierce.

"It's the life I lived," Devin answered sharply. "Except for the school. And for me, there were days I didn't know where my next meal was coming from."

"And you want that for Carey."

"Don't be ridiculous, Chandler. I know what I'm doing. I've been living this life for more than forty years. I can take care of my son."

"I don't think you can, Devin. If you gave Carey's needs the importance they deserve, you'd see that this is wrong for him."

"Why? We'll be together. He'll see parts of the world tourists never even suspect exist. He'll do things other kids only dream about."

"He's had enough change over the past few months. He needs stability."

"He needs me!" Devin retorted.

"Then stop globe-trotting and settle down! You're nearly sixty years old, Devin. It's time you grew up."

"I like my life. If I settled down, I'd be miserable. Don't you think Carey would see that? Don't you think it would affect him?"

"I don't think you care how it would affect him. I think you care about making sure you don't have to give anything up."

"You're saying I'm selfish," Devin snapped.

"Yes," Catherine hurled back. Their voices had risen steadily and by now they were nearly shouting at each other.

"He's my son, Chandler. You can't change that. And he's coming with me!" Devin reached for Carey's arm.

"I'm his legal guardian," Catherine countered furiously.

"I'm his father. No court in the land is going to give you custody of my son."

"Stop it!" Carey shouted. "Both of you! Just stop it!"

Before either of them could react, he had twisted free of his father's possessive grip, brushed past Catherine, and rushed out of the room. Scarcely able to see for the angry tears in his eyes, he stumbled down the stairs and out the front door, slamming it behind him. Blindly he ran, with no thought to path or destination.

When he finally stumbled to a stop he was trembling, shocked by his own outburst. He hadn't meant to shout, hadn't meant to run away so abruptly, but they had been fighting over him as if he had no feelings of his own, as if he were an object, or a prize.

When he caught his breath, he looked around, startled to find himself in his favorite part of the city - Central Park. His subconscious must have brought him here.

The slope below him was teeming with people enjoying one of the last days of pleasant autumn sunshine: families picnicking, lovers strolling hand-in-hand, a group of kids his own age playing touch football. Farther away, a group of younger children were kicking at a battered soccer ball and Carey had to smile at their joyful enthusiasm.

His own childhood had been a solitary one. There had been no children his age on any of the nearby farms, and even after he'd started school, there'd always been a bus to catch, chores to do at home. Of course he'd had his mother, and his father whenever Devin had shown up for one of his unexpected visits, but Carey had never realized that his was a lonely childhood until recently. Sinking down onto the grass, Carey closed his eyes, shutting out everything but his agitated thoughts.

When he opened them again, it was to darkness. Heart suddenly racing, he rolled to a nervous crouch, adrenaline pumping. He couldn't believe he'd fallen asleep in the park.

He listened carefully, straining to see through the shadows. At last, satisfied no one was near him, Carey rose, stretching stiffly, and considered his options. Going home meant crossing more of the Park than he felt comfortable with, but there was a tunnel entrance near here, if he could only find it. From there he could make his way home below ground.

The drainage pipe was easier to locate than he'd expected and he entered it gratefully. Evan had shown him how to bang on the pipe for an escort, and also how to trigger the heavy sliding door. Carey eyed the pipe thoughtfully for a moment before turning away to pull aside a grill and tug on the lever behind it. He entered the tunnel warily, making sure the sliding door closed securely before starting down the passage.

He hadn't gone far when someone stepped into the tunnel before him, blocking his path. It was a paralyzing instant before he recognized the powerful figure.

"I'm sorry if I frightened you," Vincent said, moving slowly toward him.

Carey shook his head. "Startled me, that's all," he said. "How did you know I was here?"

"One of the sentries saw you. Catherine and Devin are concerned about you."

"I didn't mean to scare anybody. I fell asleep in the park."

Vincent nodded sagely and turned to tap a message on a nearby pipe. "Zach will let them know you are safe," he said when he finished. "Come."

Carey followed Vincent through unfamiliar passages, hurrying sometimes to keep up with that long, graceful stride. At last Vincent emerged into a vast chamber and stepped out onto a narrow suspended bridge. Carey followed cautiously, but the bridge held their combined weight easily. He stopped in surprise, though, when the high sound of a child's laughter came and disappeared in the space of a single step. "What was that?"

Vincent's smile was gentle. "A voice from the world Above," he explained. "This is the Whispering Gallery. Haven't you been here before?"

Wordlessly, Carey shook his head. Men's voices, arguing this afternoon's Mets game were reaching him now. "Evan's the only one who takes me exploring, and he doesn't come down here much," he said finally.

Vincent sighed. "No. He does not find contentment here. His place is in his mother's world." He gestured. "Come. Sit down."

Carey followed Vincent's example, easing himself down and letting his feet dangle over the impressive drop. The bridge swayed with the movement and he took a secure hold of one of the stanchions that held the rope handrail.

"It isn't that Evan doesn't like your world," he rushed to assure Vincent. "He knows the stories and the places. It's just..."

"That its horizons are too limited for him," Vincent finished. "I know. He is very like your father in that."

"He'd probably jump at the chance to go with my dad," Carey said sadly.

Vincent nodded. "I'm certain of it. But you don't feel the same way."

Carey looked out over the Gallery and thought he must be getting used to the height; it didn't seem so fearsome now. "You know," he said slowly, "when my dad first talked about me going with him, all I could think is how great it was that he wanted me with him."

"He does want you, Carey," Vincent assured him quietly. "He loves you very much."

"Yes. I know. Aunt Cathy's really mad at him, though."

"Catherine and Devin are both strong-willed," Vincent said tranquilly. "They disagree on many issues. But they are fond of one another."

"They were fighting over me like I wasn't even there." Carey allowed a trace of the bitterness he felt to creep into his voice. "Nobody even asked me what I want to do."

Vincent looked at him serenely. "What is it that you wish to do, Carey?"

Cornered, Carey looked at his hands. "I love my dad, Vincent. And at first, the idea of going with him was great. But in the park I started thinking about how it would be. I'd always be the new kid; I'd never have time to make friends, real friends. I'd just get used to a place and we'd leave."

"And that would be difficult for you."

Carey nodded miserably. "I don't think I could do it."

"You can do anything life requires of you, Carey. Never doubt your strength."

His words left Carey feeling lost and desolate. "Then you think I should go?"

"Only if it is what you want."

"I don't know what I want!"

Vincent responded to Carey's small outburst gravely. "Yes, you do."

Carey resumed his study of the far wall of the Whispering Gallery. Vincent waited beside him, a patient, unwavering anchor for Carey's roiling emotions. "I guess I'm like a tree," Carey said finally, his face turned away. "I need a place where I can put down roots. Someplace where I belong."

"You like it here."

Carey nodded forlornly.

"Then stay with us."

Carey bent his head. "I'm not sure Aunt Cathy still wants me," he whispered.

Vincent shifted, turning to face him. "Carey, that isn't true. Catherine loves you very much. She would like nothing more than for you to remain part of our family."

"That's not what she said."

"Perhaps you misunderstood her," Vincent said gently. "What were her words?"

"That my dad should start taking responsibility for me. That he was selfish not to think of me first. I think she wants him to take me back to Illinois to live on the farm."

Vincent hesitated; Carey could feel him choosing his words. "Catherine and Devin have always judged each other harshly," he said slowly. "In a way, I think Catherine has taken your grandfather's place as Devin's conscience. She sees him as rash and irresponsible; he sees her as sitting in judgement of him.

"Catherine is like you, Carey; she is meant to put down roots, and she can't see that your father is different, that he was born to be a wanderer.

"But, Carey, I know her heart. What she says to your father is spoken out of concern for you. She doesn't see that by wanting you with him, he is reaching out to embrace responsibility the best way he can."

Carey waited, scarcely daring to breathe.

"Please believe me; you are welcome in our home for as long as you wish to stay."

Carey bent his head. "I do. I do want to stay. You're my family now and I love you all. I don't want to leave."

"Then you won't."

"But what about my dad?"

"Devin loves you, Carey. He will make the choice that is best for you, I promise. I'll speak with him, if you like."

Carey's heart lifted. "Would you, Vincent? Can you make sure he understands...?"

Standing, Vincent offered his hand. "I'll talk with him tonight."

* * * *Ten days later, in Chicago's O'Hare airport, Carey hugged his father fiercely. "'Bye, Dad," he whispered, his voice husky. Partings were always difficult. "Be safe."

He and Devin had spent the past four days in Illinois, staying in the farmhouse while Devin closed out this part of his life, looking over the lease of the Schrock farmland, signing papers affirming Catherine's guardianship of Carey, and visiting the cemetery where Rebecca Schrock was buried.

"Last call for Flight 387, now boarding to Tokyo." The airport's tinny intercom system crackled with a final warning.

"You'd better go," Carey said.

"You'll be okay?" Devin tried not to sound anxious.

Carey grinned. "Sure, I will. I have my ticket right here." He patted his pocket. "My flight's in forty-five minutes, I know where the gate is, and Aunt Cathy said someone would meet me at the airport. No sweat."

"Okay." Devin cuffed Carey affectionately on the side of the head, ruffling his hair. "I'll miss you, son."

"I'll miss you, too, Dad. But you'll be there in December, right?"

"Your first Winterfest? I wouldn't miss it. And I'll send you a postcard as soon as I know where I am."

"And you'll check for mail at the American Express office in Tokyo, right?"

"Right." Devin looked suddenly pensive. "Take care of yourself, Carey."

"I will, Dad. You too. Be safe."

Carey lingered near the windows, watching until Devin's plane pulled away from the gate. When the intercom announced his own flight to New York, he turned away reluctantly, glancing back once before hurrying down the concourse.

His father might be gone for now, but Carey had always known he couldn't hold him, except in his heart; and he'd be back.

The End