LOVE IS FOREVER

 

Vincent's steps were quick and sure as he moved effortlessly through the narrow passage. His annual trip to the Crystal Cavern was something he always looked forward to, and the magical qualities of the cavern never disappointed him.

Every year, he promised himself Catherine would accompany him, and every year, something happened to prevent her going. This trip was no exception, but it didn't keep him from hoping and planning for next year.

The purpose behind his periodic visits to the cavern was two-fold; most important was the simple pleasure he derived from being there. The cavern never failed to take him back to that magical time in his childhood when he believed fervently in fairies, wizards and enchantments. For a few hours, he was a boy again, full of all the dreams and hopes of youth.

Much more pragmatic was the second reason. Perfectly formed, clear quartz crystals were things of value in the world Above, and the money they brought could buy food, medicines, bandages - things not easily provided by their Helpers.

Of those who lived Below, a few believed Vincent had done enough simply by bringing Catherine to them. When meat was scarce last winter, it was Catherine who bought an entire side of beef, enough to last, with William's frugal management, for several weeks. During a recent outbreak of strep throat, it was Catherine who had provided the money to buy enough antibiotics to treat the illness.

Vincent knew Catherine never begrudged a penny, and he knew she could easily afford it, but he believed some were too willing to rely on her generosity, forgetting that independence and resourcefulness had been vital elements in the formation of their society. He didn't want his world to become too dependent on any one source, even a source as steadfast and reliable as Catherine, so he made this yearly journey to think, to dream, and to gather crystals.

His pouch was full now, and he was more than halfway home, eager, after his small retreat, to see his friends, his family, his children, and especially Catherine.

At a fork in the passage, he paused. If someone had been with him, he would have taken the right branch without hesitation. That path was smooth and easily followed, with no hidden dangers. But because he was alone, he wavered; the safe path was also longer, meandering along for miles, full of twists and turns.

Not even a path at all, the other passage led to a mammoth cavern edging a lower portion of the Abyss. To cross it, a traveller had to edge along the cavern wall, choosing hand- and foot-holds carefully. As far as Vincent knew, he was the only one who had ever attempted it, and Catherine and Father would cringe if they knew how frequently he used the shortcut. Crossing the cavern would take no more than half-an-hour, while the long way would take more than four hours.

Vincent's hesitation was no more than momentary before he turned down the shorter path; he wanted to be home.

A few minutes later he edged out over a sheer, thirty-foot drop and began the long traverse across the immense cavern. He was halfway up the rough cavern wall, using cracks, crevices and small projections as finger- and toe-holds. It was not a feat to be attempted by any but the experienced, well-equipped rock climber; however, Vincent had implicit faith in his own physical abilities. He'd been crossing this wall since he was seventeen, long before he knew of the Crystal Cavern's existence.

Of course, the easy way seemed to be climbing down to the cavern floor, walking to the other side, and climbing to the ledge - but the climb down was more arduous than it appeared. Besides, Vincent took a guilty pride in his strength and agility; In moments of stern self-appraisal, he sometimes thought he made the traverse just to prove he still could.

His left hand found a new finger-tip hold and he was edging his left foot along, seeking something to brace it against, when the small projection under his right boot crumbled. Abruptly, he dropped, swinging to his left; his right hand lost its grip. Supported only by the fingers of his left hand, he hung precariously, feeling the wind from the Abyss whip and tug at his cloak as he groped for new support. Without warning, the tiny lip from which he hung sheared away from the wall.

He fell.

 

* * * * *

 

Far above, in a courtroom in the Criminal Justice Building in Manhattan, a woman jerked to sudden, bewildered alertness, earning a disapproving glance from the judge. In a rock-hewn chamber below Central Park, a little girl began to cry.

 

* * * * *

 

Charles was curled quite comfortably in the loft of Grandfather's study, reading. The other kids his age were probably playing somewhere, maybe even Above in the park, but he was happy here, in his cozy nest of old cushions and quilts. He turned pages quietly, and below him, he could hear Grandfather doing the same thing. As his attention strayed from his story, he thought, with a small grin, that Grandfather had probably forgotten he was here.

Footsteps crunched in the passage down below and Charles rolled toward the edge to see who it was. Coming lightly down the steps to the main level, his mother went straight to Grandfather, where she bent and kissed the old man's cheek.

"Hello, Father," she said cheerfully. "Is Vincent back yet?"

"Good afternoon, Catherine. No, we've neither seen nor heard from him, but that's not unusual. I don't expect him until later." With a sweep of his hand, he offered a chair. "Do you have time for a visit?"

"A few minutes," she answered, taking the proffered seat. "How have you been, Father? Vincent tells me your hip's better this winter."

"It is," he replied. "The new medication Peter brings me is quite effective." He peered at her over his glasses. "You look tired."

She smiled. "I'm not, really, although I embarrassed myself in court this afternoon. I nearly fell asleep, I think, and woke myself up with a jerk because of one of those half-dreams where you feel like you're falling." She laughed. "Funny thing is, even though the defense attorney's closing argument was long-winded and boring, I thought I was paying close attention to it. No one was more startled than me when I jumped."

Grandfather chuckled, and in the loft, Charles did the same. His mother looked up. "Hello."

"Hello, Mother," he answered.

"Are you ready to go home?"

"Aren't we going to wait for Father?"

She shook her head. "If no one's heard from him, he must still be below the pipes and even I know that's a two-hour walk from here. We'll wait for him at home."

"Okay," Charles agreed. Gathering up the cushions and quilts, he made a hasty, semi-neat pile where Grandfather wouldn't trip over them if he needed a book from this level and trotted quickly down the wrought-iron spiral stair.

"Goodnight, Grandfather," he said, with a quick kiss and hug. "See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight, young Charles," his grandfather answered.

Charles needn't have hurried; it was nearly forty-five minutes before they were on their way home. First Mother spent twenty minutes in the nursery chatting with Mary and Eric; Jacob couldn't be located and they had to put out a message on the pipes to find him. Eventually he turned up in Carl's chamber, listening to the old man tell stories. Finally, Mother made a short side-trip to the pipe chamber to see if there had been any word yet from his father.

Pascal, the pipe-master, had smiled regretfully when he told her there hadn't been. "I expect to hear from him any time, though," he'd added. "Paul's the sentry at the junction near your house tonight. Shall I have him let you know when we hear?"

Mother had shaken her head, smiling. "It's not necessary, Pascal, but thank you anyway. Vincent will be home when he gets there, and we can wait, can't we, kids?"

The three boys had chorused reluctant agreement. Vicky, who, according to Mary, had been crying off and on all afternoon, snuffled around the thumb in her mouth and clung more tightly to Mother's neck. "Daddy gone," she'd declared firmly, resorting to baby talk as she sometimes did.

"Yes, sweetheart, but he's coming home soon," Mother had soothed her.

"Daddy gone," she'd insisted, and refused to say more.

Now they were nearly home, and Evan, who was only four, had started to whine.

"I know you're tired, honey, but we're almost home," Mother said. "I think you can make it."

"Can't," he insisted. "Carry me."

"I can't. I'm carrying Vicky, and I can't carry both of you."

"Daddy does," Evan said stubbornly.

"I'm not Daddy," Mother replied. "I'm not as strong as he is."

"Carry me," Evan demanded again, tears threatening.

Charles could see that his mother was on the verge of losing her temper. "I'll carry you, Evan," he offered quickly.

Mother sighed. "It isn't that far, Charles. You know he's big enough to walk."

"I know. I'll carry him anyway."

"All right," Mother relented. "If you're sure he's not too heavy."

"I can do it. I'm strong." He was ten now, and tall for his age. His strength was a legacy from his father, and he scooped his littlest brother up easily.

When they reached the house, Mother let Jacob trigger the heavy cement door and they all filed inside, taking the easy way through the basement and up to the kitchen.

After dinner, Mother bathed the little ones and put them to bed in the nursery while Jacob and Charles played Authors. Jacob's bedtime came a half-hour later and when Mother came down from tucking him in, she went straight to her desk. If Father was here now, he and Charles would play chess, or read together, or just talk, but he wasn't, and Mother was busy, so Charles picked up his book.

When Mother said "bedtime," he tucked the book under his arm, marking his place with a finger.

"Father's not home yet," he observed.

"Not yet," Mother agreed. "Go to bed, Charles, and he'll be here when you wake up."

He came close for a hug and kiss. "Goodnight, Mother," he whispered.

"Goodnight, Charles," she answered. "I'll be up later to tuck you in."

 

* * * * *

 

In the huge, wind-swept cavern far below the inhabited tunnels, Vincent began to stir, blinking hazily. His head ached and he had trouble focusing his eyes in the dim light. He lay still, trying to remember what had happened, and slowly details came back to him. He recalled the sickening lurch as the rock face had given way, and remembered reaching, trying to catch hold of something as he fell. Something had brushed his side, turning him in the air, and he didn't have time to reorient himself to land on his feet before he struck the ground.

Still lying quietly, he tried to gauge the extent of his injuries. His head seemed to be the worst; a fiercely pounding headache, blurred vision, and drowsiness almost certainly meant concussion. His right ribs hurt from just below his arm all the way down. Some were probably only bruised, but a few were surely broken. Every breath stabbed and he hoped none of the ribs would shift and puncture a lung.

Swollen tight inside his boot, his right ankle throbbed, and his right knee screamed with pain every time he tried to move it. Three claws on his left hand were peeled back to the quick and there were not many parts of his body that did not sting from cuts and scrapes, or ache with bruises where he had impacted rock.

Reaching across to support his broken ribs, he rolled to his side and carefully worked himself into a sitting position. His head reeled from the movement and he bent forward until the dizziness passed.

No one was likely to find him here. It was too far from the path Vincent was supposed to have taken, and the wind from the Abyss would drown any shouts for help, supposing he could shout at all. Vincent doubted if even Mouse knew of this chamber's existence.

So. Rescue was unlikely.

He shifted and his elbow encountered something bulky pressed against his side. His mind identified it as his travel-sack, and he remembered opening it and thinking, with a chuckle, that William had packed enough food for a week.

Explorers of the unmapped regions often joked about the quantities of food William sent with them, but William continued to provide it, "just in case." Now, William's caution increased Vincent's chances for survival.

All he needed was water, and Vincent knew, from his youthful explorations, that a small spring existed in a crevice not far from where he lay. Movement meant pain, however, and he wasn't thirsty enough to try for the spring just yet.

Stifling a cry, he eased himself back to the cavern floor and waited for the waves of pain to subside. When they did, he closed his eyes and reached for Catherine.

She was sleeping, dreaming peacefully. Not worried yet. Good. She would need this final night's rest in the days to follow. "I love you, Catherine," he murmured. The softly spoken words were carried away, unheard, by the wind.

 

* * * * *

Two days later, on Saturday, Charles was again in his favorite spot in Grandfather's loft, but this time he wasn't reading. He lay on his back, staring at the rough-hewn ceiling.Yesterday morning had arrived without Father. Mother had come Below to talk with Grandfather before she went to work, and Charles and Jacob had gone to school as usual.

By the time Charles came down after school, Pascal had put out an emergency all-quiet on the pipes and a search party, led by Mouse, had already left for the Crystal Cavern. Mother arrived less than an hour later and had gone straight to Grandfather.

For the first time since Vicky was born, Mother spent the night in the tunnels, sleeping alone in the big bed beneath the stained glass window. Today, the pipes were still silent; the search party wasn't due back until late tonight, or early tomorrow morning.

Charles fingered his book but didn't pick it up. Grandfather must be having trouble keeping his mind on reading this morning, too, because Charles hadn't heard him turn a page in a long time. He was listening for Grandfather when he heard someone come in.

"Hello, Father." Mother's voice. She sounded listless.

"Good morning, Catherine. Sit down."

Charles heard the creak of a chair.

"How have you been, Catherine?" Grandfather asked after a minute.

Charles knew eavesdropping was wrong, but he was scared. He quelled his conscience and listened.

"I... don't know," Mother said slowly. "I tried to read, I tried to visit with Mary and Sarah..."

"I know. Catherine, what do you feel?"

"From Vincent?"

"Yes. Is he...?"

Charles held his breath. He'd heard all the stories about the connection between his parents, and while he didn't know how it worked, he believed in it. Surely his mother would know if his father was all right.

He heard Mother sigh. "Father, I don't know what to tell you. My heart tells me he's alive, that I'd know if he wasn't, but my mind..." There was a very long pause, punctuated only by the popping and sizzling of a sputtering candle flame. "Oh, Father," Mother whispered at last, "do I believe he's alive just because I can't bear to think anything else?"

Charles heard the creak of Grandfather's chair and the tap of his cane, followed by the shushing noises Grandfather always made when he comforted a crying child. Suddenly he was cold, and pulled the corner of a quilt over his shoulders.

"It's too soon to think that way," Grandfather said. "Vincent is strong and capable. For him, the danger is Above, not Below."

Mother sniffled a little and Charles imagined her wiping at her eyes with her fingers. "Do you remember when you and Vincent were trapped in the Maze, Father?" she asked softly.

"I remember," he confirmed. "But you felt that, Catherine. You knew."

"I knew when it happened," she agreed sadly. "But later... I couldn't feel anything but my own fear. Remember what I told you Thursday when I came to pick up the children?"

Grandfather must have shaken his head, because she went on.

"About the half-dream I had, of falling?"

Grandfather made a noise of assent.

"What if it wasn't a dream, Father? What if he fell? Last night, I kept reliving that moment, over and over. I'm afraid he's lying hurt somewhere, and there's nothing I can do to help him. Nothing."

"That's not true, Catherine," Grandfather said kindly. "There is something you can do."

Charles heard the rustle of fabric as either Grandfather or Mother moved.

"You can be strong," Grandfather went on. "You can be strong for your children and for yourself, so wherever he is, Vincent will know you're all right, and won't expend precious energy worrying about you."

"You're right, of course, Father," Mother said softly. "I can do that." Charles could almost see her squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin the way she did when she was determined.

 

* * * * *

 

A week passed, a week so heavy and slow that each minute seemed an hour long; each day lasted a month. The search party returned, reporting no sign of Vincent along the route to the Crystal Cavern. New parties were formed and dispatched to search detours and side passages, but these were many; searching all of them could take months.

Mother didn't go to work, but that was the only outward change Charles could see. He and Jacob continued to attend school, and after that first night, all of them slept in their own beds, even Mother. In fact, if Charles hadn't overheard that one desperate conversation in Grandfather's study, he never would have known Mother was worried. She smiled and read stories and soothed scraped knees with her usual cheerful poise, and the little kids didn't seem to notice anything wrong.

Charles made himself a part of the conspiracy to keep them unaware, but he did find a private moment with his little sister one day. "Tinkerbell, where's Father?"

"Daddy's gone," she'd answered unresponsively.

"I know he's not here, but where is he? Is he okay?"

"He's gone," she'd repeated stubbornly. "Daddy's not here," she said, pointing to her forehead. "He's gone."

Charles had sighed and tried to remember she was only three and a half. "You can't feel him in your head?"

"No." Turning away from him, she'd refused to elaborate.

Charles suspected he wasn't the only one who had questioned Vicky, but her inability to feel their father wasn't conclusive. He could be blocking her out deliberately, or he could be unconscious. Charles didn't want to think about the third possibility.

Charles no longer measured time by traditional means. Time for him was now divided into segments separated by events. The last night Father was home; the night he didn't come; the night the searchers returned.

One night he woke suddenly to the sound of voices. Lying stiffly, he strained to hear... and heard his mother's soft laugh, followed by what was unmistakably a man's voice. Spontaneously, he flew out of bed and down the stairs...

And straight into Joe Maxwell's arms.

"Easy, Charles," Uncle Joe said. "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry," Charles stammered, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I thought..."

Uncle Joe glanced past him, to Mother. "I'm sorry, Charles, it's only me. I came by to see how you were doing."

"We're okay, I guess," Charles said unsteadily, fighting disappointment. Mother put a hand on his shoulder.

"We're better than okay." Kissing his forehead, she said, "Charles, I want you to say goodnight and get back to bed. It's late."

"Goodnight, Uncle Joe. 'Night, Mother."

"Goodnight, Charles," Uncle Joe said.

Charles started up the stairs, but stopped when he knew they could no longer see him.

"All right," Uncle Joe said to Mother. "You take as much time as you need, Cathy, and let me know the minute you hear..."

"I will, Joe," Mother answered. Their voices faded as they went down to the first floor, and Charles followed silently on bare feet.

"Call if you need anything, okay, kiddo?"

"I will," Mother said again. "I promise."

From the shadows at the top of the stairs, Charles could see Uncle Joe lean down and kiss his mother's cheek.

"Everything's going to be okay, Cathy," Uncle Joe said. "I know it is."

Charles couldn't see Mother's face, but he knew she'd be wearing that crooked half-smile that said she wanted to believe. "I know, Joe," she said, kissing him back. "Thanks for coming by."

"Any time, Cathy. Goodnight."

"'Night, Joe."

Under cover of rattling locks, Charles stole quietly back to bed. It was a very long time before he slept again.

 

* * * * *

 

Time continued its slow march and even the little ones began to question their father's absence. Mother and Mary soothed their questions with calm assurances, but Charles wondered how much longer they could do so.

Jenny Aronson came to supper one night, and Mother seemed glad to sit back and let Aunt Jenny take on the responsibility of being cheerful. After dinner, it was Aunt Jenny who supervised baths and pajamas and helped Mother tuck everyone in.

Charles waited until he was sure that Jacob, in the room next to his, was asleep before creeping back down the stairs as he did so frequently on these nights when he couldn't sleep. Mother and Aunt Jenny were in the study, talking.

"Could I go down and fix you a snack, Cathy?" he heard Aunt Jenny say. "You didn't have much dinner."

"Not hungry, I guess," Mother answered. "I don't want anything."

Through the open doorway, Charles saw Aunt Jenny take both of Mother's hands in hers. "You don't look good, Cath. I'll bet you've lost ten pounds over the last two weeks. I wish you'd eat something."

"I can't, Jenny."

Aunt Jenny sighed. "Okay, but promise you'll try to eat some breakfast in the morning."

"I'll try."

"Promise?"

Mother actually laughed. "Promise."

"Other than not eating, how are you holding up?" Aunt Jenny asked.

"Okay, I guess," Mother answered. "I'm thinking of calling Joe, telling him I'll be back to work on Monday."

"Don't you think that's pushing it?"

"It's more than two weeks, Jen. I have to do something..."

"I know, but it's so soon."

"All I do, all day long, is wait. Waiting's the hardest job in the world, Jenny, and I can't do it anymore. Work will keep my mind off things that don't bear thinking about..."

There was a silence that grew louder and louder in Charles's ears.

"I dreamed about him last night," Aunt Jenny said at last.

"Vincent?" His mother sounded wistful.

"Yes. We were back in our room in Gilbert Hall."

"Good old Radcliffe," Mother murmured. Charles knew that was where she and Aunt Jenny had gone to college.

"Yes," Aunt Jenny said. "With the light shining from the Quad, and that stupid poster you had over your desk."

"I liked that poster," Mother protested faintly.

"Glad somebody did," Aunt Jenny muttered darkly. Charles guessed she was trying to coax a smile from Mother. It didn't work.

"Your dream, Jen."

"We were in bed asleep. Vincent came in and stood by my bed. When I asked him what was wrong, he didn't answer; he just looked at me. After a moment he turned his head and looked at you, but you were still asleep. He looked back at me, smiled and left."

"What do you think it means?"

"It was just a dream, Cathy."

"I've learned not to discount your dreams, Jen."

Aunt Jenny sighed. "I don't know, Cath. Maybe he was trying to let me know he's okay. Maybe he was asking me to help you. Maybe... I don't know."

"How did he look?"

"It was just a dream, Cath," Aunt Jenny said again.

"I know. But how did he look?"

"Thin. Tired. Sad. A lot like you, actually. He limped when he walked and moved stiffly, like he hurt."

There was a long pause. "You know, I dream about him, too," Mother said finally. "Almost every night. I dream I'm waking up, and he's there, or I hear a noise and it's him, coming up the hidden stair, or a runner comes with a message that he's been found..."

Charles didn't wait to hear more. Slipping back up to his bed, he huddled under the covers, tight with misery. Listening to his mother and Aunt Jenny made him think of his own dreams... dreams he didn't want to remember. Every night since he'd listened to Mother and Grandfather talking, he'd had dark dreams he kept secret.

In the dreams, mists swirled eerily around him, noises echoing faintly in a strange place he never recognized. Sometimes he could see his father; other times, he could only hear him calling. Charles would try to reach him, to help him, but when he ran, his feet felt mired; when he stretched out a hand, his father was always just beyond his reach. The mists would deepen, separating them, and Charles would wake with a start, trembling and soaked with perspiration. The dreams made him afraid to sleep.

He was still awake when his mother came up to check on him and Jacob before she went to bed. Closing his eyes, he pretended sleep, but he could smell her perfume when she bent over him, straightening his blankets.

"Goodnight," he heard her whisper, and he felt the faintest brush of her lips against his temple. It was a long time before he was able to fall asleep.

The next night, he lay in bed for a very long time before succumbing to the urge to slip downstairs. Settling into his

usual place on the bottom step, he leaned forward to peer through the open study door.

Mother was in his father's desk chair, her legs tucked underneath her. Head bowed, she was alternately fingering and smoothing something in her lap. After a moment, she lifted the article to her face, holding it against her cheek, and Charles recognized it as the shirt his father had been wearing the night before he left. He frowned, trying to imagine what she was doing with it, when memory touched him.

He was no more than five, curled in a dark, cramped spot with a rough, nubby ball of fabric in his lap. Burying his face in the cloth, he breathed deeply, inhaling the scent...

"Charles?" His father's voice, deep and compassionate. The closet door opened, revealing his hiding place. "There you are."

Father didn't try to coax him out. Instead, he sat down on the floor outside. "What are you doing in there?"

After a moment's thought, Charles offered the gray tweed bundle. "Smell," he said.

His father did, and smiled, just a little. "I know, Charles. I miss her, too."

Charles buried his face in his mother's jacket again. She had been gone for a long time, and breathing in her warm, familiar scent was almost as good as having her there. That was why he had run away, all the way from Father's chamber Below. That was why he was hiding in the closet. To find Mother.

"She'll be home tomorrow," Father said gently. "You may take the jacket with you, if you wish."

As quickly as the memory came, it faded, and Charles saw his mother turn her face into the soft fabric of the shirt, saw her kiss it. She began rocking herself slowly, and after a moment, he realized she was crying. He was enough his father's son to want to go and comfort her, and he started to his feet before he reconsidered. If he went to her, she would think she had to be brave and strong for him. And with a sudden insight, he realized that she needed to be able to release the fear and despair she'd been suppressing for so long.

Pressing his cheek against the edge of the doorframe, he watched her. He had never seen his mother cry like this, with her mouth twisted down and her breath coming in ragged sobs. It scared him worse than anything else had, and, sinking back on the cold stairs, he hugged his knees and cried silent tears of his own.

 

* * * * *

 

"Charles? Charles, wake up!"

Someone was shaking him gently. Opening his eyes, he saw Miranda, the girl who lived with them while she went to college, crouched down in front of him. He'd fallen asleep on the stairs. Behind her was his mother, his father's shirt folded over her arm. Her eyes were puffy, and she looked worried.

"Charles, what are you doing on the stairs?" she asked gently.

He looked from the shirt to her face and back again. "I didn't want you to be alone."

He saw the quick flash of surprise in her eyes. "You can go on up, Miranda," she said after a pause. "I'll take care of him."

"Are you sure, Catherine?" Like almost everyone else in recent days, Miranda sounded anxious whenever she talked to Mother.

"I'm sure," Mother answered. "Goodnight."

With a quick pat on Charles's shoulder, Miranda hurried up to her room, and he could hear the muffled click as she closed her door. Mother offered a hand, Charles took it, and they went upstairs together.

When he came out of the bathroom, Mother had smoothed and straightened his rumpled sheets and was sitting on the edge of his bed, waiting.

"You see a lot more than I thought, don't you, Charles?" she asked after he was safely tucked in.

He nodded and she pressed her lips together and tried to smile. "These past weeks must have been difficult for you," she said. "I'm sorry I didn't realize." She was silent a moment. "Is there anything you'd like to ask?"

Charles reached out, touching the sleeve of his father's shirt, still folded over her arm, and thought of all the hard questions. He knew she wouldn't lie to him. "Is he coming home?"

"I don't know, Charles." Her voice was sad, and very gentle.

He took a deep breath, bracing himself for the next question. "Is he dead?"

She stared across the room, her eyes unfocused, glazed with unshed tears. For a moment, Charles thought she wasn't going to answer. "I don't know that, either." Her voice faltered. "I don't think so, though. I think I would know if he were..."

"What will we do if he never comes back?" he whispered, afraid of what might happen if he spoke the words aloud.

She looked at him directly for the first time since coming to his room. "We'll go on. Just as he'd want us to. Just as he'd expect us to." She smiled sadly, her lips pressed together as if she were trying not to cry. "'We will...find strength in what remains behind... In the faith that looks through death...'"

"Is that why you're going back to work?"

He expected her to ask how he knew what she was planning, but instead, she smiled the sad smile again. "Yes, partly."

"And that's why Jacob and I keep going to school."

She nodded. "Life doesn't end just because someone you love goes away."

"Your mother died when you were a little girl, didn't she?"

Mother nodded. "I was ten, just like you are."

"Was it hard?"

"Very hard."

"What was it like?"

"Sad. I missed her terribly, and I cried. My father would let me sit in his lap; I'd cry and he'd hold me. After a while, it didn't hurt so much. I still miss her now, sometimes, but I can remember she's in a better place." She touched his face. "Do you think you can go to sleep now, sweetheart?"

"I guess so," he answered. Involuntarily, his eyes flicked to the shirt she held; smiling, she tucked it in beside him.After she went out, Charles pulled the shirt to his face and inhaled. Even after nearly three weeks, it still smelled like his father, a safe, strong, warm kind of smell. It smelled a little like his mother, too, and, comforted by this tangible reminder of his parents' love for him and for each other, he slept deeply and dreamlessly for the first time in almost three weeks.

 

* * * * *

 

Vincent stood at the base of the cavern wall, looking up. The ledge leading to the tunnels was directly above him; all he had to do was reach it. Grimly, hoping he had the strength, hoping enough healing had taken place, he reached up and began to climb.

Progress was slow. He was afraid to put too much weight on his battered right knee and ankle, and even more fearful of placing too great a strain on his partly healed ribs. Forced to do most of the work, his left leg and arm tired quickly, and he had to stop frequently to rest, soaked with sweat, clinging precariously to whatever small hand- or foot-holds were offered.He had nearly reached his goal when his left foot slipped from the small knob of stone he'd braced it against. In a grim replay of his original fall, he dropped, his full weight ripping at his hands, threatening to tear them loose. Something in his right side gave way and he gasped with pain. His flailing right boot met a small lip of stone and he forced his unwilling knee to support him for a second while he renewed his tenuous finger-grip on the stone above him.

Pressing his entire, aching body against the stone, he moved his left foot back and forth, seeking a hold. The strain on his ribs and knee made him feel sick. It would be so easy to just let go... but if he did, he knew he'd never have the strength to make the climb again. He'd die down there, and they'd never find him.

Catherine. He couldn't find a foot-hold and his fingers, slick with perspiration, were slipping. Catherine. I'm so sorry. I tried...

 

* * * * *

 

"Where shall I put these, Father?" Catherine asked, her arms laden with books.

He looked up. "Which ones are they?"

"Twain, mostly. Some Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Irving's Rip Van Winkle."

Father ran a hand through his hair. "I suppose you can put them on that shelf over there," he said. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate your help, Catherine," he added. "This project is long overdue."

"I don't mind, Father. Staying busy keeps me from thinking too much." She began to shelve the books and Father went back to slowly sorting through another stack on his desk.

Something fell with a thump.

"Vincent!"

Catherine's sudden, strangled cry brought Father to her side instantly. Ignoring the tangle of books at her feet, he gripped her shoulders. Ashen, she looked at him with sightless eyes. Shaking her gently, he asked, "Catherine, what is it?"

Slowly her eyes focused; she began to tremble. "Vincent," she said, her voice edged with barely contained panic. "It's Vincent."

"You felt him?"

"Gone. He's... gone." Helplessly, she began to cry.

 

* * * * *

 

"Daddy."

Charles looked up quickly at the sound of his little sister's voice; she appeared to be listening to something he couldn't hear.

"Daddy." She said it again.

Tossing his book aside, Charles crossed Mary's chamber to kneel beside his sister. "What about Daddy? Can you feel him, Tink?" he pressed.

"Daddy?" She didn't seem to hear Charles speaking. "Daddy? No, Daddy, don't!"

She screamed.

 

* * * * *

 

Several hours later, Charles leaned despondently against the wall of the pipe chamber, wishing he was somewhere else. There were another forty-five minutes before his shift was over, however, and he couldn't leave the pipe chamber until then.

The all-quiet on the pipes had been rescinded days ago, but Pascal still maintained what he called a slow-down to reduce traffic and make any emergency messages easily heard. After this morning, Charles had stopped expecting emergency messages.

He swallowed hard and looked across the chamber to where Pascal and his assistant, Zach, talked together, free to do so in this time when traffic on the pipe system was so light. In a slow-down, the pipes could be used only for important messages and only when no other reasonable method of communication was available.

Charles's friend Jonathan lounged beside him, bored. A pretty blond girl sat apart from them, reading, and Jonathan flicked a pebble in her direction.

"Don't," she said without looking up. She was two years older than Charles and Jonathan, and had been ignoring them all afternoon.

"Stuck up," Jonathan said, and flicked another pebble.

"Stop it, Jon," she said again. Her blue eyes flickered ominously.

Grinning, Jonathan picked up another stone.

"If you don't have anything better to do than torment Caty, I'll find you something." The new voice came from the tangle of pipes overhead and both boys looked up guiltily. Zach looked stern and neither boy felt like crossing him.

"Sorry," Jonathan mumbled.

Zach was about to say something else when the staccato sound of a message reverberated behind him. Everyone froze as Zach whirled and tried to find the pipe that had sounded. A second later Pascal was there, shouldering him aside.

Charles's heart raced, blood pounding in his ears as Pascal answered the message with a few quick taps. After a few seconds, the pipe rang out again with a long message. Charles didn't know enough code to understand the whole thing, but he had grasped the most important parts... 'Vincent found... alive...'

The message ended at last and Pascal became a whirlwind of efficient motion, beating out messages rapidly and giving Zach hurried instructions as he did so.

The pipe chamber began to fill with people anxious for confirmation of the joyous news, and Charles slipped out unnoticed. Determined, he trotted toward a junction where five passages came together. Already people were gathering, exchanging brisk suggestions as they equipped themselves with the supplies that had been waiting there for almost three weeks. Ropes, blankets, emergency medical supplies and lanterns were passed out. William bustled up at the last minute, a cloth-wrapped jar in his hand.

"Beef broth," he said. "He'll need nourishment."

One of the men took the jar, stowing it carefully in his rucksack. Charles lingered in the shadows, hoping to remain unnoticed.

"Are we ready?" Jamie looked around and the others nodded. Jamie had been coordinating the ongoing search, which was the only reason she wasn't already out searching herself.

As the group set off, Charles slipped out to join them. He saw Nick give him a sideways glance, but it was Timothy who questioned his presence.

"Jamie." Timothy touched her arm and nodded in Charles's direction. "We don't know what we're going to find. Should he...?" He let the question drift away.

Jamie gave Charles a sharp look and kept walking. "Who has a better right?"

"He's just a kid. From Geoffrey's message, we have a long way to go."

Jamie turned, walking backwards. "Can you keep up, Charles?" she asked bluntly.

"Yes," he answered quickly.

"Okay," she warned. "We won't wait for you."

Timothy shrugged and Charles lengthened his stride, determined not to hold them back. Information from Geoffrey's message had been sketchy, giving only the most vital information, but his father was alive, and that was enough for Charles.

Two hours later, his legs were tired and he had to force himself to maintain the steady pace Jamie set. Miles of winding tunnel lay behind them and even the adults had stopped talking, conserving strength for walking.

Down here the tunnels were dark, with only the hand-carried lanterns providing a bobbing, swaying light. Charles stumbled, catching himself quickly and breaking into a trot to keep up.

"Should be pretty close," Jamie commented.

Charles worked his way up beside her, straining his eyes to see beyond the glow of the lanterns. A strange feeling was growing in him, one he'd never felt before. It tugged at him and he began to trot again, pulling a few feet ahead of the rest of his party. His feet moved faster and faster, and by the time he rounded the next bend, he was running.

At the end of the passage in front of him was the glow of a lantern. Outlined in its light, he could see shapes - a tall, stooped figure leaning on two smaller ones for support.

As he neared, the tall middle form detached itself from the others and Charles hurled himself at it. His father grunted and staggered a little under the impact.

Charles was sobbing, his arms tight around his father's waist and he felt his father's hand on his head. "It's all right, my son," he heard his father say.

The others caught up and Jamie took charge, making Vincent sit and drink some of William's good broth before they went on. Between sips, Vincent told of his fall and his slow recovery. "This morning, when I climbed out..." He shook his head slowly. "For a desperate moment, I was certain I would fall again..." Charles moved closer, needing to feel his father near.

When the soup was gone, they resumed the trip home. Reluctantly, Charles relinquished his place at his father's side so that Nick and Timothy could help him walk.

Leaning on them heavily, limping badly, Vincent's progress was slow. Charles walked behind, unwilling to take his eyes away, while Geoffrey walked beside him, reaching across now and then to touch Charles's shoulder and offer an encouraging grin.After fifteen minutes of walking, Vincent was breathing hard, as if he'd run a long way. Jamie called a rest stop, and Nick helped him sit down.

"Are you okay, Vincent?" Jamie asked. "We have the stretcher..." she indicated the collapsible canvas stretc Ý Owen carried over his shoulder.

"No," Father said firmly. "I can walk."

"Okay," Jamie said unwillingly. "We'll just rest a minute, then."

Charles hovered anxiously and was relieved when his father looked up at him with a glimmer of a smile. "Someone's coming, Charles," he said, tipping his head in the direction they were going. "Why don't you go to meet them?"

Charles didn't want to lose sight of his father, but he wouldn't dream of disobeying, so he picked up a lantern and set off. He hadn't gone far when he saw the glow of lanterns coming toward him.

His mother was part of this group, her face at once joyful and apprehensive; Charles knew just how she felt.

"Charles?" she said anxiously. "Is he...?"

"He's okay," he said, falling into step beside her. "He can walk, but he's hurt, so he goes really slow."

His mother walked faster and Charles hurried to keep up. As they approached his father, Mother began to run. Then she and Vincent were in each other's arms, hugging and kissing, completely oblivious to those watching.

His father whispered something low in her ear and she laughed, dashing tears from her cheek.

When they set off again, it was his mother, not Timothy, who bore his father's weight on one side, and Vincent's step was less labored. Charles was sure they had both forgotten he was there, but he didn't care. His father was safe; their family was complete again.

 

THE END