COURAGE

 

The sound of children's voices, raised in dissension, echoed through a normally peaceful section of tunnels.

"Aw, she's too little," Martin said, derisively.

Vicky drew herself up to her full height and looked him straight in the chin. "I am not," she denied hotly. "I'm eight!"

"Nathaniel's eight," Jacob pointed out reasonably. Casually leaning against a wall, he never looked up from his yo-yo. "So's Evan." Always the peacemaker, Jacob would never come right out and stick up for his sister, not in something like this, but Vicky was still grateful for his comment.

"Nathaniel's eight and a half," Martin countered, as if five months advantage in age made a difference. "And Evan's almost nine. Besides, Vicky's a girl."

"Amanda and Melissa are girls," Jacob said, his voice still calm.

"Yeah, but 'Manda's eleven and Missy's ten," Andrew said from his customary position at Martin's elbow.

Help came from an unexpected quarter. "Vicky's almost big as me, and she can run pretty fast." Vicky threw Evan a quick look of appreciation.

"You watch it, squirt, or we won't let you come, either," Martin threatened. For a moment, Evan appeared ready to take up the challenge; reconsidering, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged.

Vicky felt a sudden, rebellious urge to cry. It wasn't fair! Evan had been accepted into the group when he turned eight, and Nathaniel, too. She'd been sure that passing that magical birthday, something that had happened only yesterday, would be enough to admit her to the select group, and here they were, telling her no!

Gritting her teeth, she fought back the tears. If she cried, they would laugh at her and she'd never get in! Besides, Daddy might come, drawn by their connection.... Well, no, he wouldn't. Before, he had always come when she cried, because he always knew when she was hurt, or upset... but lately he had stopped coming.

Despite the fact that Vicky's feet dangled near her mother's ankles and her head came past her chin, Mommy had finally taken Vicky into her lap, and explained, very gently, that she shouldn't think Daddy didn't love her, or didn't care when something was wrong. It was only that her parents thought she was old enough to start trying to work out her troubles for herself. Naturally, if Vicky couldn't find her own answer for something that came up, her parents would always be there.So while part of her longed to rush to her father and hurl herself into his lap to sob out the unfairness of life, pride in her parents' newly voiced confidence kept her there, facing the older kids defiantly.

It was mostly Martin and Andrew anyway, she thought. Her brothers didn't care, and neither did the other girls, just Martin and Andrew.

"I'm big enough, and I'm eight now," she said again.

"Well, she is eight," Martin said slowly, looking around at the others. Vicky held her breath.

"What?" Andrew was indignant at his friend's sudden shift.

"Yeah," Martin continued, looking right at her. "You can play with us, but first you have to pass a test."

If Vicky had not been so elated, she would have sensed Martin was up to no good.

"What kind of test?" Jacob's was the voice of caution.

"Nothing dangerous," Martin said, too smoothly. "She just has to prove she's not afraid of the dark."

"I'm not!" Vicky asserted quickly, with a fleeting glance at Evan to be sure he wouldn't betray her secret.

She had always been afraid of the dark, and Evan, who had shared a room with her until three years ago, had always been there to reassure her after their light was turned out. When he'd moved to his own room upstairs with the other boys, she had suffered through several fearful nights. Daddy had come in repeatedly to ask what was wrong, but knowing he thought she was brave, Vicky couldn't quite muster the courage to tell him she was scared of shadows.

Finally she had gone to Mommy, in the bold light of day, to make her confession. To her surprise, Mommy had made her own confession - that she, too, had been scared of the dark when she was a little girl. Knowing her mother understood her fear made Vicky feel less alone.

Going to the dressing table, her mother had pulled out a drawer, taking out a small box and opening it. Inside lay a gold heart locket on a chain. "It belonged to my grandmother," Mommy had said. "When you're afraid, just hold it and remember I'm thinking about you and I love you."

"Daddy, too?"

"Daddy, too."

Vicky had fingered the locket on its delicate chain, admiring the glint of late afternoon sunshine on the rich metal. "Did your mother give you something when you were afraid?" she had asked.

"Yes, but not this. She gave me an ivory rose."

Vicky had looked up with sudden intuition. "Daddy's rose?"

Her mother had smiled and hugged her. "Yes, it's your father's rose now, so I can't give it to you as my mother gave it to me."

"That's okay," Vicky had replied comfortably. "Daddy's rose is pretty, but I like this better."

Now she touched her chest reflexively. The locket was there, under her sweater, giving her courage.

"I'm not afraid of the dark," she said again, lifting her chin.

"How are we going to do this?" Jacob asked. He was a conciliator by nature, and would go along with majority rule as long as it didn't violate his strict sense of right and wrong.

"We'll take her to a dark place where she has to stay 'til we come back to get her," Martin said.

"How long?" Jacob pressed.

"Three hours," Martin said immediately.

A quick flurry of disagreement rose from the other children. "Okay, that's too long," Martin conceded. "How about an hour?"

Looking around at the other faces, Jacob asked, "Does that sound all right?"

There were cautious nods all around.

"Is that okay with you, Tink?" Jacob looked at her kindly and Vicky sensed this was serious enough that if she backed out, he'd be on her side. Still, if she wanted to be accepted, this was something she had to do.

"It's okay," she said, grateful that the hard knot in her throat didn't betray her by making her voice tremble.

Because they were older and allowed more leeway in their exploring, the other kids knew more sections of tunnel than Vicky did, and took her to a place she'd never been.

"There's a place to sit right over there," Martin said, pointing to a waist-high ledge. Hoisting herself up onto it, Vicky turned to sit cross-legged while the bigger children looked at her uncertainly.

"We're going now," Martin said at last. "You stay here until we come for you."

"Okay," Vicky agreed. "I'll be right here." She touched her locket and smiled.

Following Martin's lead, the children straggled off. Evan gave her a cocky grin and both Amanda and Nathaniel offered quick, quiet words of encouragement before they left. Jacob lingered for a few seconds.

"I'll leave a lantern around the second bend," he whispered. "Just in case."

"Okay," she whispered back.

He grinned. "You're tough, Tinkerbell. See ya!" He hurried to catch up with the others and the light of his lantern dimmed quickly.

Vicky reached inside her sweater and pulled the locket out, holding it tightly. "I can be brave, Mom," she whispered. "I know there's nothing here to hurt me." Eyes wide, she strained to see through the darkness, but its velvety blackness engulfed her. She didn't think she'd ever been anyplace quite so black, and while she was a little scared, she knew it was a feeling she had to overcome, or Daddy would come and ruin everything. "I'm not going to be scared," she said aloud. "Mommy's thinking of me, and loves me and Daddy does, too, and I'm not scared."

Saying the words aloud helped and grimly she set herself to endure the next hour.

 

* * * * *

 

"We didn't need to leave the lantern," Andrew said scornfully as the seven older children made their way back toward the living areas.

"Yes, we did," Jacob replied evenly. "Just in case."

"We're going back for her. In an hour," Amanda said, touching Jacob's arm lightly.

He smiled. "I know. It's just in case, and it's too far for her to see the light, so it doesn't ruin the test."

"She might go sit by the light and only go back to the ledge when she hears us coming," Martin said suddenly. "That would ruin the test."

"So go back and sit by the lantern, then, and guard it," Jacob said. "But the lantern stays."

"I don't know why we don't wait there, anyway," Evan said practically. "By the time we get home it'll be time to turn around and go back."

"That's true," Melissa said, and stopped. "Martin, were you going to leave her there longer than an hour?"

His guilty expression gave him away and she punched him, hard, on the arm. "You slug."

"Don't worry about it, Missy," Jacob said tranquilly. "We'll go back after an hour no matter what Martin does." His tone was gentle, devoid of accusation, and allowed Martin to retreat while saving f 1 course we'll go back. We're just going home to get some food, and then we'll go for a picnic to celebrate!"

The idea met with instant approval and the children redoubled their pace, heading for the kitchen.

"Hi, William," they chorused as they entered the big, warm chamber that always smelled of good things to eat.

"Well, hello there, young ones," William beamed. "I was just about to send out a message for you."

"Really? Why?" The children gathered around, knowing William had something special for them.

He didn't disappoint. "One of our helpers sent down a whole crate full of things we don't normally have down here," he said, teasing them. "And guess what some of those things were?"

"We don't know! What?" they chorused eagerly.

"The makings for taffy! And it's just now ready to pull!"

Chattering happily, they buttered their hands and reached for the warm, sticky candy, forgetting all thoughts of Vicky and the dark.

 

* * * * *

 

Vicky waited uncomfortably on her ledge, tense with listening and watching. Surely it's been an hour! she thought. Any minute I'll see the light and hear them coming. Any minute.The stone ledge was hard and lumpy and she shifted uneasily. Too bad it isn't Evan sitting here, she thought. Vicky knew something no one else did; Evan could see in the dark. I wish I could, she thought, suppressing a shiver.

I'm trying really hard not to be scared, Mommy, but it's so dark!

More time went by; now she was positive an hour had passed. Remembering her new wristwatch, a gift from her mother to commemorate her eighth birthday, she started to lift her arm before realizing she wouldn't be able to see it. As she lowered her hand to her lap, she wondered if any of the others had a way to tell time.

Evan and Jacob both owned watches, but neither usually wore them Below. Because they were of both Above and Below, they had things that the tunnel kids didn't have, and their father didn't like them to flaunt their possessions. In fact, Vicky thought she was the only one who knew just how uncomfortable his children's material possessions made him. The funny part was, they had hardly anything compared to their friends Above.

Vicky sighed and slipped down from the ledge. Absolutely certain her hour was up, she decided to wait a few more minutes to be on the safe side.

Legs numb from sitting nearly motionless for so long, she staggered when her feet hit the floor. Sharp pricks of discomfort needled her feet as life came back to them. Limping back and forth, she trailed her fingers against the rough tunnel wall.

Now, she thought irritably, I know it's more than an hour. Probably more like an hour and a half. I'm going! She took two steps, and stopped. Am I going the right way? Suddenly, she wasn't at all sure of her direction.

Well, think about it, she urged herself. Jacob said he'd leave the lantern around the second bend. Just go, and if there's no lantern, you've gone the wrong way and you'll have to turn around. No problem. Easy! Quoting her friend Mouse made her feel better and she set off, moving slowly through the inky darkness. It never occurred to her to wonder if Jacob really left the light. If he said he would, he did. You could depend on Jacob.

As she rounded the first curve of the tunnel, she saw a faint glow ahead and knew she was going the right way. Her pace quickened and in moments she was standing in the comforting golden light of the lantern. A glance at her watch confirmed what she already knew - much more than an hour had passed.

"Those creeps," she said aloud, indignantly. "They forgot me!" She briefly entertained the idea that they might have forgotten deliberately, and quickly dismissed it. Martin and maybe Andrew might do that, but her brothers wouldn't, and neither would Amanda or Melissa or even Nathaniel. Something exciting must be happening and they had simply forgotten her.

I'll show them, she thought. I'll get back all by myself. They probably think I can't find my way.

Even though she was in a part of the tunnels she'd never visited before and the turns and forks on the way had been many, she didn't doubt her ability to find her way home. After all, she had something nobody else did... her empathic link with her father. The connection was directional and she thought if she could center in on it, she could find her way home. Concentrating, she started toward him.

At the first fork in the tunnels, she felt the initial stirring of consternation. She could turn either right or left here, but the trouble was, Daddy was more or less straight ahead. Uncertainly, she wandered a few steps down the right fork of the passage before turning back. Wasn't her father a little to the left? It was hard to be sure, and her brow puckered with the need to make a decision.

She felt a slight stirring in her connection with her father, almost like a question. Uh-oh, she thought warily. He feels me being worried. Taking a few deep breaths, she concentrated on feeling serene and after a moment the questioning feeling disappeared. She didn't want him coming to rescue her because the other children would know she had called him. Besides, she had the vague notion that he wouldn't much like the idea of the dark test.

With another glance down the right-hand passage, she resolutely took the left, stepping briskly along. There were many forks and intersections. Some of the choices were easy - turn towards Daddy - but many meant choosing right or left when she wanted to go straight. She had walked a long way and her legs were giving out when she finally faced the truth - she was lost!

Wearily, she sank down at the base of the tunnel wall and leaned back, setting her lantern beside her. There were no pipes in any of the passages she'd been through, so no way to send a dignified message for help. She was going to have to call for Daddy, and she'd never live down the humiliation, never. The mere idea was enough to drive her to her feet again.

Just a little farther. Maybe she'd come across a passage she knew and everything would be all right. Just a little farther. Picking up her lantern, she trudged on.

 

* * * * *

 

Licking sticky fingers happily, Jacob and the others strolled in the general direction of Father's chamber. Sated with candy, they were in the mood for stories, and the aging patriarch of the tunnels could usually be persuaded to provide them. As they rounded a corner, they met Vincent, who was coming the other way.

"Hi, Vincent!" "Hi, Dad," the children greeted casually.

"Hello, children," he answered, stepping back to let them pass. His eyes moved over the group and he paused. "Jacob, where's Victoria?"

Jacob and Evan exchanged sudden, panicky looks. "Vicky!"

As one, all seven children turned to look down the long passage behind them.

"Where is she?" Vincent asked again, responding to their

anxiety. "Jacob?"

With a sideways glance at the others, Jacob realized he would have to speak. "She's down in the South Quarter," he said hesitantly.

"Alone?"

The children nodded miserably.

"Why?"

Haltingly, Jacob explained. Vincent's expression did not change, but his eyes communicated his displeasure quite clearly.

"I guess we sort of forgot her," Jacob ended lamely.

"You know Victoria is not familiar with those tunnels," Vincent's voice was soft, and all the more terrifying for it. "She could easily become lost, and there are dangerous areas if she goes far enough."

"We left a lantern." Jacob's voice was so small as to be almost inaudible.

"Yes, you left a lantern." Vincent stopped for a deep, steadying breath. "You left a lantern. Without a light, Victoria would never try to find her way back alone. Without a light, she would stay where she was."

Uneasy glances were exchanged among the seven. They'd thought the presence of the lantern would be a mitigating factor; it hadn't occurred to them that, without a light, Vicky wouldn't wander.

"We thought we were helping," Evan said miserably.

"Yes, I'm sure you did." Vincent seemed large and terrible just now. "I will go after her. When I return, I want to see all of you in my chamber."

"Yes, Vincent," "Yes, Dad," they answered, subdued.

Vincent dismissed them with a curt nod before striding down the passage leading toward the honeycomb of tunnels known as the South Quarter. As he walked, he reached out through his empathic connections, seeking his daughter. He found her immediately, feeling a little anxious, but not frightened. He remembered an earlier tickle of uneasiness, but she had quickly suppressed it and he hadn't thought to worry. At her age, too many things distressed Vicky to some degree and it was habit for him to sift out the important feelings and disregard the others.The key would be to rescue Vicky while allowing her to preserve her dignity. From his own boyhood experience, he knew how difficult it was for a younger child to be accepted into a group of older children, even those only a few months older, and he knew parental interference wouldn't help. He mulled the problem as he moved rapidly toward her.

 

* * * * *

 

Tired, not as alert as she should have been, Vicky rounded a corner and was shocked by a sudden blast of icy wind that ripped the lantern from her fingers and sent it smashing against the wall. She froze in place, absolutely certain that in the split-second before the lantern had struck and gone out, she had seen, right at her feet, the yawning blackness of a crevasse in the tunnel floor.

Daddy! her mind shrieked in panic. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! She was too terror-stricken to feel his answering wave of fear. The wind that had swept the lantern from her grasp buffeted her, disorienting her. Had she turned, or was she still facing the terrible gap in the tunnel floor? She wasn't sure.

It was black, so black. The wind whipped at her hair, tugged at her clothes, threatened to pull her into that gaping blacker-than-blackness that lurked, unseen, at her feet. Opening her mouth, she screamed.

 

* * * * *

 

Vincent responded to Vicky's panic instantly, voicing a strangled half-roar, half-cry as he leaped forward and began to run.

 

* * * * *

 

Vicky had no sensation of passing time. It seemed she had been standing on the lip of a bottomless pit forever, shaking with terror, her throat raw from screaming, the sound drowned in the roar of the terrible wind. She paused for breath and for the first time, felt the wonderful, comforting feeling of Daddy, getting closer fast!

This knowledge gave her the strength to stifle the next scream. Concentrating, she forced her lungs to take one deep breath, followed by another. With one hand, she groped for her locket and clutched it.

With the ebbing of panic, reason returned. The wind still rushed around her and the blackness was still too dense to penetrate, but they no longer reduced her to quivering fear.

Cautiously, she edged out with one foot, feeling for the lip of the chasm. When she finally found it, she crouched, outlining it with one hand. Once she was sure where the danger lay, she gathered her courage and stepped out in the opposite direction.She moved slowly, fingers maintaining contact with the wall; the noise of the wind dulled as she left it behind. The tunnel was still dark, but her inability to see didn't frighten her anymore.

It was always the shadows that were scary, anyway, she rationalized. Here, it's too dark for shadows. It's too dark for anything. Suddenly she stopped. "Daddy?"

"I'm here." From his voice, he was only a few feet away.

"I can't see. My lantern broke."

"Is that what frightened you?" he asked gently, coming closer. His clothes rustled as he knelt down before her.

"Oh, Daddy," she sighed, and went into his strong, safe arms. "I'm so glad you're here." Her head against his shoulder, Vicky tried to sort it out in her mind. "It was the wind, really, that scared me," she explained. "It pulled the lantern out of my hand, and I was afraid I'd fall into the Abyss."

"You didn't, though. You kept your head and were making your way back, all by yourself."

She considered that. "I was scared, though."

"Victoria, do you know what courage is?"

"It's when somebody's brave."

"And what is that?"

She thought. "I guess it's when you do something dangerous and you aren't scared."

"No. True courage is when you're scared, as scared as you've ever been."

"Scared right down to your toes?" she asked solemnly.

He made a soft sound of amusement. "Yes. Right down to your toes. And you go on to do what has to be done."

She absorbed that quietly. "I did that, didn't I?"

He stood and reached for her hand. "Yes, Tinkerbell. You did that."

 

THE END