QUARANTINE

 

Vincent was especially gentle as he helped four-year-old Jacob undress for his bath, mindful that the child hadn't felt well for the past couple of days. Earlier, Jacob had complained that his head hurt, and he was running a mild fever. When he removed Jacob's shirt, Vincent saw a number of raised spots on Jacob's neck and torso, about the size and color of pencil erasers. Never having seen anything like them, Vincent called for Catherine, trying to keep the anxiety out of his voice.

Almost immediately, she appeared in the bathroom door, sixteen-month-old Vicky in her arms. "What is it?"

"Look at these."

Catherine put Vicky down and came into the bathroom to examine Jacob more closely. One look was all she needed. "Oh, no," she said. The look in her eyes said she considered this more nuisance than crisis. "He has chicken pox."

"What's a chicken pox?" Jacob wanted to know.

Catherine sighed. "It's a virus, Jacob. Most children get it when they're young. You'll start to feel better in a day or two."

Jacob's eyes were big. "I don't want a shot," he said fearfully.

His mother smiled. "Don't worry, you don't need a shot. You can take some more of the medicine Grandfather gave you for your headache and fever, but there's nothing else we can do for chicken pox except try to keep your spots from itching."

Jacob heaved a sigh of relief. Like most children, he would much rather be sick than have to get a shot.

"Are you certain it's chicken pox?" Vincent asked Catherine.

"I was thirteen when I had it," Catherine told him. "I remember it all too clearly. Not only did the pox itch like crazy, but I had to endure the indignity of having a 'baby disease' at what I thought was a very mature age. It was very embarrassing."

Vincent smiled as he turned back to Jacob.

Catherine went back into the bedroom just in time to save the contents of her dressing table drawer from destruction at the hands of Evan and Vicky. Prying perfume bottles and makeup tubes out of determined little fists, she set both children on the bed and sat down between them. Immediately, Vicky climbed into Catherine's lap. Evan scrambled over, anxious for his share of attention, and Catherine addressed him solemnly.

"Evan, I need a favor from you."

He sat up, his blue eyes bright with interest. Just past two, Evan was strong-willed and determined and it was always wise to enlist his cooperation, if possible, before making changes which would affect him. Fortunately, he already had a considerable vocabulary and understood most of what was said to him.

"Jacob doesn't feel well," Catherine went on. "Will you let him sleep in your bed tonight?"

Evan and Vicky shared the tiny nursery just off the second-floor master bedroom, while Jacob and Charles each had his own room on the third floor of the old brownstone.

Evan considered the question carefully, his head cocked a little to one side in a manner reminiscent of his father. "Evan sleep Mommy 'n Daddy?" he inquired, plopping himself down on the pillows and closing his eyes in feigned sleep.

Catherine laughed. "No, you silly. You and Daddy would take up all the room and there'd be no place for me. We'll ask Charles if you can sleep in his room."

"'Kay," Evan agreed, popping up like a jack-in-the-box.

"Mother, no!" came a simultaneous wail from the doorway. Charles was dismayed. "He makes too much noise and I can't sleep! Let him stay in Jacob's room!"

Evan was a notoriously restless sleeper. Frequently he talked or cried out in his sleep, thrashing continually and travelling all over his bed in the process. Catherine and Vincent had always slept with the connecting door between the nursery and their bedroom ajar so they could hear the children, but had taken to closing it of late because Evan was so loud. Only Vicky, who had shared a room with him all her life, was unaffected, sleeping tranquilly through everything.

"Please, Charles," Catherine reasoned with her oldest son. "He's too little to sleep by himself up there."

"Oh, all right." Charles relented grudgingly as he joined them on the bed.

Damp and woebegone, Jacob emerged from the bathroom. Catherine thought very briefly about warning him away, then gave a fatalistic mental shrug. Surely the other children had been exposed; there was no point in trying to quarantine poor Jacob now. As she made room for him on the bed, Jacob curled up beside her. Vicky was still in her lap, subdued now and sucking her thumb, the tattered remnants of a blue and white blanket tucked securely under her arm. Evan had finally settled down on Catherine's other side with his head against her arm.

Cross-legged in the middle of the bed, Charles faced them, an open book in his lap.

"I think we're ready, Charles," Catherine told him.

Clearing his throat importantly, Charles began to read in a clear, steady voice. "'It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling...'"

Jacob snuggled closer as he listened and Catherine's arm went around him protectively. Jane Yolen's Owl Moon was a great favorite with the children and Charles read it to them frequently. Even Evan would sit still for it, as long as Charles remembered to pause after each page to show the pictures.

Vincent came out of the bathroom, rolling down his sleeves. A large damp splotch marked the front of his vest, a souvenir of bathing three small children. Pausing for a moment, he surveyed his family curled together on the bed; Catherine smiled at him as he retreated to the study.

The children spent their days Below; Vincent often balanced his responsibilities as a parent with the duties required of him in the tunnels. Frequently, he might be found reading to a group of older children while bouncing a toddler on his knee. Just as frequently, he might be found making minor repairs in the tunnels, surrounded by a half-dozen eager young assistants.

Vincent's work was no less demanding than Catherine's, but because of their schedules, bathtime often fell to Vincent. While the wonders of fatherhood had not faded for him, there were times when he was grateful for any respite. Evenings such as this one, when Catherine had time and energy to relieve him, were welcomed.

Two hours later, the children were all blessedly asleep, leaving their parents with a rare hour of leisure. Both had chosen to read, and Vincent had settled into his favorite spot on one end of the big old leather couch. Preferring to lie down, Catherine was snuggled under a worn patchwork quilt with her feet on Vincent's lap. One bare foot had burrowed under his vest for warmth and his hand was absently stroking the other one.

She was far away, transported by the words on the page when the doorbell gave an abbreviated buzz, jerking her back to reality. She lifted her head to look at Vincent, who lowered his own book.

"Kipper," he reminded her, turning a page.

Kipper had been the answer to a prayer. In the year before Evan was born, Catherine and Vincent had felt the strain of coping with their work, raising two small children and running a household.

While Catherine shopped for groceries (or had them delivered), took the kids to the dentist or the park or to buy new shoes, it was Vincent who usually gave the children breakfast and got them dressed in the mornings.

There were also the more practical aspects of every day living. Catherine couldn't cook. Vincent could, but didn't enjoy it. Their kitchen was filled with the most modern appliances, which made Vincent uneasy. Neither liked spending evenings or precious weekends cleaning and keeping the house liveable. What they desperately needed was household help, and it was Father who offered a solution.

Many of the tunnel children opted to live in the world Above when they reached maturity and frequently, one would express a desire to go to college. While admission was seldom a problem because of the extent of their educations, scholarships were sometimes hard to come by and student loans didn't stretch far enough.

Father suggested, hesitantly, that Catherine might offer college tuition in exchange for someone to cook, clean, run errands and help with the children.

Kipper was the first. Now in his junior year at New York University, where Catherine paid all his expenses, he had his own room on the third floor of the old brownstone. He did all the cooking, most of the cleaning, helped with the children, and generally made himself useful. "Indispensable," Catherine often said.After spending three Saturdays teaching him to drive, she now trusted him with her car whenever he requested it.

They heard the front door open and close, followed by the rattle of the locks being thrown. When Kipper didn't come up the stairs, Catherine surmised he had gone to the kitchen to find something to eat. He would probably stop by the study for a brief chat on his way up to his own room.

A random thought struck her and she nudged Vincent with her foot. "Has Kipper had chicken pox?"

Because of its relative isolation, many common diseases of the city Above did not reach the tunnel world. Consequently, many of the children grew up without ever contracting some of the more frequent ailments of childhood.

So far in his life, Vincent had been immune to every disease he had been exposed to, and it had never even occurred to him to worry about the spread of the illness. Catherine had suffered the disease, so she was immune, and it was too late for the other children, but Kipper had been too busy the past few days to spend much time here, and he might still avoid infection.

Following Catherine's diagnosis of Jacob's unusual rash, Vincent had read a little about the disease and knew that what was a mild illness in children was frequently more severe in adults. With a sigh, he laid his book aside. Catherine moved her feet and watched him go.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Vincent found Kipper building an impressive-looking sandwich. He explained the situation briefly and the young man grinned.

"Never had 'em," he confirmed. "At least, not as far as I know." Like many of the tunnel children, Kipper had not been born there. Instead, he had found his way Below purely by accident after running away from the last in a long series of foster homes. He had been eight, and had sought shelter from a raging thunderstorm by entering one of the large storm drains in Central Park. A sentry had been attracted by the boy's helpless sobs of terror and despair, and Kipper had found a home at last.

"I can't go Below," Kipper went on. "If I've been exposed, I'd spread it to everyone down there. I'll call a friend and see if I can stay at his place."

Vincent felt a wave of dismay as Kipper reached for the telephone. The same restrictions on going Below would now apply to his children. And if the children couldn't go Below, neither could Vincent. Catherine would be working, and most of the teenagers from Below were like Kipper, not immune to the disease.Unless Catherine was home, Vincent was Below. In his heart, he still thought of it as 'Catherine's house.' As long as she was there, it was his home and he was as comfortable as if he were in his own chamber, but without her... it was a place Above. Now he would have no choice.

"It won't be easy for you," Catherine said with quiet sympathy, after Kipper had gone. "I'll talk to Joe. Maybe I can take some time off." She didn't sound hopeful.

Vincent shook his head and smiled. "I will manage."

Jacob's bout with the virus was mercifully brief and six days later all his pox had scabbed over and he was no longer contagious. Catherine had managed not one, but two afternoons off and Mary had spent part of another afternoon with the children so Vincent did not feel too isolated. The children had enjoyed the novelty of spending days Above with Vincent's full attention, and overall, things had gone smoothly.

There was a two week respite before Evan began to run a mild fever."The timing's right," Catherine said wryly as she examined the boy's still-smooth skin. "No spots yet, but I'll bet that's what he's got."

Evan wasn't ill enough to slow down much and she had the usual tussle getting him into a diaper and pajamas.Tonight it was Vincent who listened while Charles read a story.

Catherine was deeply embroiled in a murder trial which promised to be complicated and difficult. Jury selection had taken four days and opening arguments were to be presented tomorrow. The case demanded her full attention.It was past midnight when Vincent tapped lightly on the desk, startling her."You're frustrated and tired," he observed with sympathy. "It's late."

"I have to finish this argument tonight," she said wearily. "I have to present it in court tomorrow morning." She scrabbled through her papers irritably, searching for an elusive page of notes. "I hate these complex, drawn-out, messy cases. I keep telling that to Joe and he keeps giving them to me anyway."

"Because he has confidence in your abilities," Vincent said, reasonably. He removed the pencil from her hand. "And when you aren't so tired, you enjoy the challenge."

She propped her chin on her fist and smiled. "I suppose. Here." She shoved an untidy sheaf of papers at him. "Look at this. No matter what I do to it, it doesn't sound right."

Five sheets from a yellow legal pad were covered with pencil marks. Arrows and lines marked rearranged passages and entire sections were crossed out. Catherine's normally neat script was nearly illegible in places. The whole thing was difficult to follow, but Vincent, armed with years of practice, managed easily enough. He read it through twice before suggesting a few minor changes in sentence order and word choice. Catherine penciled in the alterations and blinked. Her dry presentation of facts had been transformed into an incisive, compelling statement.

"I wish I knew how you do that," she said fervently. "What would I do without you?"

He smiled. "You seldom ask for help. I think you do quite well by yourself." He reached for her hand. "I've checked on the children and they're all asleep."

"Evan?"

"His fever is down. He seems comfortable."

"I just need to make a clean copy of this..."

"I will. Later..."

"You don't have to..." she broke off at the look in his eyes and let him draw her to her feet. "All right," she acquiesced, and followed him across the hall to the bedroom, where he locked the door behind them.

The next morning found Evan broken out in the distinctive chicken pox rash. He appeared to be little the worse for his illness, however, successfully evading his brothers' attempts to examine him.

"You boys stop running and get your clothes on!" Catherine called as she rummaged in her jewelry box for the appropriate accessories to complement the quietly competent, professional look of the gray wool suit she was wearing. "Hurry up, Charles, or you'll be late."

There was a clatter as the older boys raced upstairs to their rooms and Vincent came out of the nursery with Vicky in his arms. Catherine finished fastening her earrings, pulled on her shoes and checked her reflection in her dressing table's mirror, smoothing a stray wisp of hair.

An impatient horn sounded faintly from the front of the house and Jacob's voice echoed down the stairs. "Mommy! Your cab's here!"

Vincent handed her several sheets of lined yellow paper, folded in half. She opened them for a cursory glance; her opening statement was neatly copied in the familiar bold, graceful strokes of Vincent's pen.

"Thank you," she said hurriedly, thrusting the papers into her briefcase and picking up her purse. The older boys had reappeared, more or less dressed, and Evan wandered in from the study wearing his favorite outfit... his birthday suit.

"Evan, where are your... never mind, I don't want to know." With a rueful shake of her head, Catherine handed parenthood into Vincent's capable hands. "I'll probably be home late," she told him regretfully, bestowing a quick kiss. In rapid succession, she dispensed equally quick kisses and hugs to all four children, ending with Charles.

"Better hurry, honey," she warned, already moving toward the door. "Your bus will be here in a few minutes."

The cab outside beeped again and she disappeared down the stairs.

With calm efficiency, Vincent supervised Charles' last minute preparations and saw him out the front door, watching discreetly as the boy boarded the van which would take him to the private school he attended.

With Catherine and Charles gone, Vincent turned his attention to the younger children. First was Evan, still happily nude. With only a few minor arguments, Vincent managed to dress the child in his clothes, reasoning that Evan was apparently too healthy to try to keep him in bed. Vicky and Jacob were already dressed and Vincent took all three downstairs and into the tunnels.

It was only a few feet to the nearest pipe and he kept a wary eye on the little ones as he tapped out the news that Evan was ill and they would not be Below until the illness passed. Pascal's answer was prompt and sympathetic to the quarantine, but Vincent could almost hear his friend's amusement in the pattern of his coding.

The next day Charles came home from school feeling miserable."I think I'm sick, Father," he said listlessly.

Vincent put a hand to the boy's cheek. "You have a fever," he said. With a loving arm around Charles's shoulder, he led him upstairs and put him to bed in the nursery, where the child quickly fell into a restless sleep.

To keep the younger children from waking their brother, Vincent offered to read a story, and almost immediately regretted it. Their home held many books, but there was one in particular that Vincent held in low regard.

Catherine had dug it out one day while going through a box in the basement, and it had been the source of several spirited debates. Vincent contended that the story was trite and the language stilted and limited.

"It's not meant to be great literature, Vincent," Catherine always argued back. "It's supposed to be fun!"

There was no doubt the little ones enjoyed it and they produced it frequently for Charles or Catherine to read aloud.

Vincent suppressed a mental groan as Evan placed the worn copy of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat in his hands.

"Let's choose another book," he suggested.

"No! Cat inna Hat!" insisted Evan firmly and Jacob nodded. Only Vicky didn't seem to care, climbing up to arrange herself comfortably in her father's lap.

Defeated, he sighed, opened the slim volume, and began to read. "'The sun did not shine...'"

"I like that story!" Jacob said with satisfaction when it was over. "I wish we had a cat in a hat!"

"I am very glad we do not," Vincent returned dryly, removing Vicky from his lap. "The last thing we need is something to create more chaos."

"What's chaos?"

"Chaos, my son, is when you and your brothers and sister are all making different noises and messes at the same time."

"Daddy!" Jacob knew he was being teased. "What is it really?"

Vincent smiled. "Chaos is..." he hesitated, searching for words of definition that a four-year-old could understand. "...when things are all mixed up and confusing."

"Like a big mess."

"Yes."

"Are we being chaos now?"

"Chaotic. Things are not chaotic now, but they have been, and I predict they will be again." Vincent's rueful amusement escaped Jacob as he nodded solemnly.

Vicky and Evan had taken advantage of their father's momentary distraction to indulge in some typical toddler mischief and were busily pulling books from a shelf behind Catherine's desk, tossing them into an untidy heap.

"Evan! Victoria!" Vincent's tone was sharp as he crossed the room quickly. He caught Vicky's little hand as she reached for another thick volume. "No!"

Crushed by the reprimand, she began to cry. Evan, in characteristic two-year-old fashion, ignored Vincent completely and continued to pull books out vigorously.

Gathering Vicky up in one arm, Vincent scooped Evan up with the other, physically removing him from the area. He carried the boy to another, safer part of the room and put him down, where Evan threw himself onto the floor in a frenzied rage. Awakened by the noise, Charles began to call for Vincent from the nursery.Ignoring Evan's theatrics, Vincent carried Vicky, still sniffling pathetically, toward the nursery. "Now, Jacob," he said as he passed by, "we have chaos."

After pacifying Vicky and comforting Charles, Vincent returned to the study where Evan, stubborn to the last, was still loudly venting his frustration. Ignoring his children did not come easy for Vincent, but he knew the absence of attention was a powerful deterrent when it came to childish tantrums and he had perfected the art of watching while seeming to be otherwise occupied. When Evan finally began to calm himself, Vincent rewarded the toddler's returning composure by gathering him into his lap and wrapping both arms around him securely.

Jealous, Vicky trotted over. Vincent gently but firmly stopped her from climbing up. "Not now, Victoria. It's Evan's turn."

Although her lower lip began to tremble and her eyes to well, Vincent could feel through the tenuous connection which bound them that she was more indignant than hurt. Jacob left the puzzle he was working and came up behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Come on, Tink. If you get a book, I'll read to you."

With Charles ill, Jacob was revelling in the opportunity to be the big brother. While he couldn't actually read yet, he had most of the picture books memorized. Hastily, before Jacob could change his mind, Vicky dug out her favorite, Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon.

"'In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon, and a picture of...'"

A little loving attention from his father and his own resilient nature quickly restored Evan's good spirits. Wriggling out of Vincent's arms, he joined Jacob and Vicky, who were bent over the book. Peace and harmony had temporarily returned.

 

* * * * *

 

As happened frequently during trials, Catherine did not reach home until well after the children were asleep. She found Vincent in the study, staring thoughtfully into the fire, a book open on his lap.

"Hi," she said softly, leaning over the back of the couch to put her arms around him and press her cheek against his. "How was it today?"

"Long," he answered with a hint of a smile. One arm went across hers and he leaned his head back. "My estimation of those who must always remain home with their children has risen considerably."

She laughed and kissed his cheek. "Let me change and we'll talk."

Entering the nursery on her way to the bedroom, she reappeared almost immediately to ask, "Vincent, why is Charles in here?"

"He has a fever. I thought it best to keep him near."

She nodded in rueful understanding. "Chicken pox." Returning a few minutes later dressed for bed, she curled up beside him on the couch. "Now tell me why Jacob and Evan are sleeping on the floor in our room."

Vincent chuckled quietly. "When I put them to bed upstairs, they thought it a great adventure, which lasted just until they realized Charles and Kipper weren't there to protect them from strange sounds and shadows. Their imaginations brought them down here so I put them to bed on the floor."

Eyes closed, she made a sleepy sound of amusement and burrowed more securely into the circle of his arm. She was numb from a grueling day in court followed by hours in the law library dissecting the day's testimony and preparing for tomorrow. "What else happened?"

Knowing she needed distraction from the grim realities faced that day, Vincent began to relate some of the children's more amusing adventures. By the time he finished the second story, she was fast asleep, and he picked her up tenderly and carried her to bed.

 

* * * * *

 

"Mother! Mother!" Charles' voice came weakly through the open nursery door and Catherine reacted instinctively, rolling toward the sound, one hand already reaching for her robe. Vincent stopped her.

"I'll take care of him," he said, and she sank back down with a mumbled 'thank you'.

In the nursery, Vincent sat down on the small bed and touched Charles' face lightly. "What is it?"

"I want Mother."

"She's sleeping, Charles. She's very tired. What do you need?"

The child's voice began to rise in panic and Vincent realized he was lost in a fever-induced dream. "She has to stop them!" he cried. "She has to make them go away!"

When he was ill, Charles's dreams tended toward delusional, almost delirious, and were often peopled with a mysterious 'they' who had to bedriven away. Sometimes 'they' were Below and he called for his father, but when the shadows he feared were in the world Above, he wanted only his mother.

"Where are they, Charles?" Vincent asked gently.

"On the roof. They're on the roof! Tell Mother to make them go away!"

"I'll make them go away," Vincent promised.

"They'll see you!" Charles said frantically.

"I'll cover my face. I won't let them see me." Vincent was calm, soothing, and the boy began to quiet.

"No, don't let them see..."

"I won't. I'll be careful." Gradually Charles stopped thrashing. "Are they gone now?" Vincent asked.

Charles' breathing slowed. "They're gone."

"Good." Vincent remained by the bed, waiting for his son to go back to sleep.

Sometimes he thought Catherine and Father made too much of the need for secrecy by repeatedly warning Charles not to mention the world Below or the people who lived there. That the boy felt an obligation to protect his father from those Above, even in the depths of his fevered dreams, disturbed Vincent. A child should not be burdened with so much responsibility, but it was a burden all of his children would have to shoulder for the rest of their lives.

Charles' eyes opened again, focusing clearly this time. "Father. Could I have a drink of water?"

Vincent fetched the drink. When Charles finished, he took the empty cup and set it aside, watching over his son as he closed his eyes and drifted into sleep once more, this time without apparent dreams.

With all quiet once more, Vincent returned to the warm comfort of his own bed. Catherine turned toward him, eyes closed, and murmured something unintelligible.

When involved in a trial that required all her attention, she tended to be so immersed in what was happening in court that it was difficult to leave behind when she came home. During such trials, it was not uncommon for her to make objections and motions in her sleep.

She spoke again, sharply, and Vincent reached for her. He could always tell when her work was invading her sleep and had become adept at redirecting her dreams without waking her. Drawing her close, he settled her head against his shoulder. "Hush," he whispered. "Listen." His touch was enough to quiet her and he could feel her tension dissolving. Softly, in a voice and cadence meant to soothe, he began,

"'There is sweet music here that softer falls

Than petals from blown roses on the grass,

Or night-dews on still waters between walls,

Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;

Music that gentlier on the spirit lies...'"

 

* * * * *

 

In stark contrast to Jacob, who'd had a fairly typical case of chicken pox, and Evan, whose case was preposterously light, Charles was a sick little boy. His temperature had soared as high as 103 degrees and the distinctive chicken pox pustules were everywhere.

Within a few days, his torso was covered with them, as were his face and neck. He had them on his scalp and in his ears. Scores of tiny, white blisters spread over the creases in his groin, elbows, and behind his knees; he could scarcely walk because the blisters covered the soles of his feet. He tried to be brave, but the discomfort and incessant itching made him oversensitive, and the daytime noise made by the other children made it difficult for Charles to rest.

Vincent was up with Charles three or four times a night and his days were spent directing the energies of the three younger children. Catherine's work was imposing a high degree of stress, just as it always did during a major trial, and although she argued feebly against it, he implacably expended the time and emotional energy to talk with her, advise her, and absorb the petty frustrations that would otherwise build up inside her.

Though Vincent's body required little sleep, it did demand some rest and by the time Charles was visibly better, he was feeling the lack of it. Fatigue had become a constant companion, one he pushed aside in order to meet his family's needs.

It was with a sense of foreboding that Vincent answered the thin, fretful cries emanating from the nursery a few mornings later. Lifting Vicky in his arms, he could feel the heat from her small body; there was an ominous blister on her neck. As soon as he picked her up she stopped crying, wrapping little arms tightly around his neck and nestling against his shoulder.

"Catherine?" He turned toward the bedroom where he'd left Catherine wrestling with Evan and his clothes. Shrieks of outrage from his smallest son told him she wasn't finished. "Catherine?" This time, he raised his voice to be heard over the noise and she looked up expectantly.

"Victoria's sick."

"Oh, no." Catherine's hold on Evan loosened and he took advantage of her momentary inattention to squirm free. "Evan!" She made one ineffectual grab for him and made a frustrated 'I give up' gesture as he scampered out the bedroom's other door. "You'll have to catch him later and get his socks and shoes on," she told Vincent, coming toward him.

"What's the matter, sweetheart, don't you feel good?" Her tone changed as she laid a cool hand against her daughter's cheek. Her eyes met Vincent's as she gave him a wry smile. "At least she's the last one," she said. "After this, we never have to worry about chicken pox again."

"I hoped at least one of them had inherited my resistance to disease," Vincent said. "Victoria shares my empathic gifts..."

"She's also had the occasional cold," Catherine reminded him. She pressed a kiss to Vicky's warm forehead. Turning her head a little and lifting her chin, she met Vincent's lips in a kiss that was equally brief but much more intense. "I have to go," she said. "I'll be late."

Charles felt well enough to get up today, though still not up to his usual level of activity. Appropriating a corner of the big couch in the study, he curled up under a hand-made quilt as he read, drew pictures and tried with mixed success to nap as his brothers played around and occasionally over him.

Vincent was almost wholly occupied with Vicky. Clinging and whining, she shrieked whenever he tried to put her down. He could feel, through the delicate thread that connected them, how uncomfortable she was, and knew that physical contact with him helped. The bond he shared with his daughter was different than the one he had with Catherine... more nebulous, although he sometimes wondered how much of that was due to her age.

Babies, he had learned when Charles was born, experience only the most basic emotions... contentment when their needs are met and outrage when they are not. As each of his children matured, Vincent could feel them expanding, adding emotions as they took in more and more of the world around them. Vicky was old enough to perceive a wide range of feelings now, but still young enough to be completely self-centered. Vincent sometimes suspected that as she grew and learned to give, their connection might become stronger.

The source of the bond between himself and Catherine was something he had often pondered. Love seemed an easy answer, yet he loved Father, had loved Father all his life, but had never developed any sort of connection. With his sons, he thought it might be different. They were, after all, of his blood and Catherine's, and there was no questioning his love for them, but he had no more sense of what they felt than he did with Father. Physical proximity helped him to pick up some of their feelings and he was more sensitive to them than with others, but that was all.

Vicky was the only one, and with her, he and Father had decided after hours of thoughtful discussion, it was more a case of their mutual empathic gifts reaching out toward one another than a true reproduction of the bond Vincent shared with Catherine.

By mid-afternoon, after too many sleepless nights and a day without respite from fretful, pent-up children, Vincent was close to losing his almost limitless supply of patience. Naps all around, he decided, were in order. Charles was already dozing on the couch in the study, so Vincent sent Jacob in to lie down on the big bed in the master bedroom while putting Evan in his own bed in the nursery. Jacob complied in his usual good-natured fashion and Vincent considered it little short of a miracle that Evan popped out of bed only twice before succumbing to the sandman.

He made one half-hearted attempt to pry Vicky loose from his neck, but surrendered the idea when he felt her distress. Reclining against the arm of the couch, he made himself as comfortable as he could, shifting Vicky to his lap, where she nestled into the curve of his arm. Thumb in her mouth, she took the worn remnant of her blanket and began rubbing her cheek with it rhythmically. In a matter of moments, she, too, was asleep. With his brood quiet for at least an hour, Vincent picked up a book from the table at his elbow, and savored the moment's tranquility.

Little more than an hour later, he thought he heard a noise from the bedroom. Putting his book aside, he rose to his feet, careful not to disturb Vicky. Carrying her into the nursery, he managed to shift her to the crib without waking her.

Evan's bed was empty and the door into the bedroom, open when he'd left it, was now closed. Turning the knob, he was greeted with a trail of toddler-sized clothing leading straight to the french doors which opened onto the second-story terrace. The french doors stood ajar and Vincent crossed to them with swift, silent strides.

Outside, the day was bright, the sun dazzling in a clear blue sky. On her dresser, Catherine kept a cut glass bowl full of walnuts for two squirrels that lived in the elm tree in their back yard. One of the tree's branches nearly touched the low brick parapet, making it easy for the squirrels to come visit. It delighted all four children to place walnuts on the terrace and then dart inside to watch for their sure-footed little friends.

Evan had taken the bowl out with him and was placing walnuts in a neat line along the top of the wall. From his place just inside the doors, Vincent was vexed to observe that the boy was stark naked. The temperature outside was in the forties, warm for February, but not exactly comfortable. A normal child would be driven indoors fairly quickly, but Evan was not a normal child. One of the things he had inherited from his unusual father was a tolerance for extreme temperatures and Vincent knew that it would be a very long time before Evan began to feel the cold.

Finished with the walnuts, Evan raised both arms and began to plead with their tree-dwelling neighbors. "Quirrels!" he shouted. "Come on, quirrels! I bring you nuts!"

He put a bold hand out toward the low-hanging branch and Vincent decided it was time to intervene.

"Evan, come here, please," he requested.

Startled by his father's voice, the toddler turned quickly, pressing back against the low wall.

Crouching to reduce his visibility, Vincent extended an encouraging hand. "Please, Evan. Come here."

On the right, the terrace was protected from strange eyes by the blank wall of the neighboring house. On the left, it was shielded by a twelve-foot wooden trellis. In the summer, the trellis was covered with climbing roses which grew from a long brick planter at its base, but now only dried remnants of last summer's color and scent remained. Similarly, the rear of the house was screened by a row of poplar trees lining the back fence, but without summer's protective foliage, they were not adequate protection. Evan's bright blue gaze was sly and he seemed aware that Vincent did not want to venture into the sunlight.

"No," he said obstinately, turning back to look for squirrels.

"Evan!" Vincent made his voice commanding. "Come into the house. Now!"

Evan cast an insolent glance over his bare shoulder. "Don't want to," he said.

Vincent strained his senses, trying to determine if there was anyone in neighboring houses or yards in a position to see the terrace. He sensed no one, and yet... "Evan," he almost hissed, "I want you to come here now!"

His son continued to ignore him and what remained of Vincent's patience was fast running out. With his eyes, he measured the distance between himself and Evan. Three quick strides, grab him and come back... at least three, maybe four seconds of exposure... too long in this light...

Vincent settled back and weighed alternatives, balancing Evan's well-being and the future consequences of allowing the boy to be so openly defiant against his own safety and that of his world and the life he and Catherine had built together. Evan was safe enough as long as he remained on the terrace floor, and Vincent reluctantly decided to remain inside the bedroom. Only if Evan tried to climb up on the parapet would Vincent risk exposure to prevent him falling.

"Evan," he said again. "I want you to come inside now. It's cold," he reminded the boy.

"Not cold," Evan disagreed. "Sunshine!" He pointed to the sunshine's source.

"I see the sunshine," Vincent agreed. "It's still cold. Come in now."

"Daddy come out? See quirrels?"

"I can't come out, Evan, and the squirrels won't come while you're there."

"Not come?"

"No. You scare them."

"Scare quirrels?"

"Yes. Come inside and we'll watch for the squirrels." Movement at Vincent's elbow made him shift his gaze momentarily. Jacob stood beside him, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

Young as he was, he grasped the situation instantly. "Want me to get him, Daddy?" he offered.

"Not yet, Jacob," Vincent cautioned. Evan was clearly debating the best course of action and his brother's appearance on the terrace might be enough to trigger the wrong decision. "Evan?"

"Quirrels not come," Evan said. "'Bye, quirrels!" His mind made up, he picked up the empty nut bowl and marched into the house. With his youngest son safely within reach again, Vincent closed the french doors, making a mental note to ask Mouse to install a new lock, one high enough that even the most adventuresome two-year-old could not reach it.

Evan was scarcely back into his clothes when Vicky woke, crying fretfully. Vincent was glad when Catherine arrived home on time for once.

"The defense rested its case this afternoon," she explained. "Closing arguments Monday morning and then it goes to the jury. My closing statement's mostly done and I'm giving myself the weekend off." She smiled at him. "You look as if you could use some help."

"I can."

"Here, I'll take her," Catherine offered, reaching for Vicky.

With a squall of protest, Vicky turned away, renewing her hold on Vincent's neck.

"Don't you want your mother to hold you, Victoria?" Vincent asked her.

Her answer was to strengthen her grip and bury her face against his neck.

Catherine managed a small smile. It was not the first time one of her children had rejected her in favor of Vincent and she knew the rejection was temporary, but somehow it always hurt a little. She looked around to find the rest of her children equally unimpressed with her presence.

Charles was absorbed in a book; Jacob was at her desk busily coloring, and Evan was playing with Vincent's chessboard, arranging and re-arranging the pieces.

"Well," she told Vincent, "at least you're happy to see me."

"Always," he assured her.

The muted ring of the bell that signaled someone's presence at the tunnel entrance below interrupted, andCatherine frowned in bewilderment. No one had come visiting since the quarantine. "I'll get it," she said.

Hidden behind a false wall, there was a long narrow stair that began in a corner of the master bedroom, but it was dark and stuffy and Catherine never used it unless she was with Vincent. This time she went the more conventional route, down the main staircase, into the kitchen and down the wooden basement stairs. One wall of the laundry room was lined with shelves and she went to the corner, touching a hidden catch with a practiced hand. A section of shelving swung toward her. Stepping through, she left it open and touched another catch, springing the perfectly balanced cement barrier Mouse had designed and implemented years ago.

"Mary?"

"Hello, Catherine."

Mary stepped past her without waiting for an invitation. "I've been trying to find the time to get up here all week," she explained, offering Catherine one of the baskets she carried. "Vincent must be feeling like a caged lion about now."

"I think he must," Catherine agreed, leading the way upstairs. "I was going to try to persuade him to go Below this evening. He needs a change."

"You look tired, too, Catherine," Mary said.

They reached the kitchen and Mary placed her basket on the table and reached for the one in Catherine's hands. "Now, I brought some of William's barley soup and a loaf of fresh-baked bread. I'm going to watch the children while the two of you relax and spend some time together."

Vincent had come down to see who their visitor was and he offered a faint protest. "Mary, it's very kind of you," he began, "but..."

"No arguments, Vincent." She quelled him with the look that could instantly subdue a roomful of unruly seven-year-olds.

"No arguments, Mary," he agreed meekly.

"Mary! Mary!" The three boys burst in, greeting her with an exuberance that was diametrically opposed to the way they had greeted their mother.

"Hello, Jacob. Charles, you look as if you're feeling better." She had a word and a hug for each boy, finally picking Evan up and settling him snugly on her hip. "And how's my big boy today?"

"Fine," he answered, snuggling against her.

Catherine watched with only a twinge of maternal possessiveness. While she loved her children equally, she was aware, and wasn't particularly proud, of the fact that she did have a favorite child in Charles. Whether because he was the first, or just because he reminded her so much of his father, she didn't know, but she did her best to hide it. Vincent, she knew, had the same struggle not to favor Vicky, and Jacob was the apple of Father's eye, sharing his quiet ways.

Evan needed to be someone's favorite child. Devin had an affinity for him, of course, but that, Catherine thought wryly, was because they were kindred spirits. Mary did what no one else, not even Vincent, could do... reach past the tightly-wound bundle of energy and mischief that was Evan and bring out a quiet, relaxed little boy that Catherine hardly recognized.

"All right, you two," Mary scolded lightly. "Go on and find something to do."

Catherine looked at Vincent. He looked so tired and the usual spark in those blue eyes had been fading for days now. Perhaps what he needed most was a nap. As quickly as the thought came, she discarded it. He was tired but she suspected that Mary's caged lion analogy was more apt than she knew.

"Remember how you used to worry Father by going out into the park at night?" Mary prompted.

"The park..." Vincent repeated slowly.

Catherine smiled. "How long has it been since we went for a walk in the park?" Not waiting for an answer, she took a step toward the door. "Let me just change..."

Five minutes later she reappeared wearing jeans, boots, a thick sweater and a warm parka. She had Vincent's cloak draped over her arm.

The boys were around the table eating soup and Mary was using her own brand of persuasion on Vicky, who was still refusing to be parted from Vincent.

"Mary, perhaps..." Vincent said doubtfully as Mary pried little arms from around his neck and pulled a struggling, screaming Vicky into her own embrace.

"Perhaps nothing, Vincent," she said, raising her voice to be heard over the clamor. "You need a rest. She'll be fine as soon as you're gone."

Catherine offered the cloak tentatively, allowing him the choice. He glanced from her to their daughter and back again. Sighing, he took the cloak and swung it around his wide shoulders.

"Quickly. Before I change my mind," he said. Taking Catherine's hand, he touched a pressure point on the kitchen wall and the secret door there opened silently. It led to a landing on the secret stair. A right turn would take them up the stairs to the bedroom. Vincent went left, Catherine following blindly.In the tunnels, they travelled side by side, still holding hands. Neither spoke until they reached the Central Park threshold.

"How is she, Vincent?" Catherine asked, knowing the source of his preoccupation.

"Beginning to calm," he answered, pulling the lever to open the massive sliding panel.

"We can go back if you're worried," she said.

Holding the gate for her, he met her eyes. "No. Mary is right. We need time, too. Victoria is in good hands." The gate clanged shut behind them and he triggered the sliding panel's closing mechanism.

The night was clear and cold and their breath smoked in the icy air. The moon was just past three-quarters full and only the very brightest stars could be faintly discerned. Old snow crunched underfoot as they avoided the well-travelled paths.

"Dare I ask how your day went?" Catherine ventured after a while.

"I survived it," he said with a touch of wry humor. "Charles is vastly better, Jacob was more cooperative than one could possibly expect a four-year-old to be, and Evan fed the squirrels."

"Evan fed the squirrels," she repeated, sure from his tone that there was more to the story.

He related the tale, emphasizing the more entertaining bits and glossing over his own part in it, but Catherine wasn't fooled. By the time he finished, she had come to a stop.

"Vincent, what would you have done if he'd tried to climb the wall?"

"I would have gone out for him," he said calmly.

She shuddered and stepped forward, slipping her arms around his waist and pressing close. "I'll be glad when you can take them Below again," she said fervently. "You're safe there."

"Am I not safe in our home?" he asked. It was a notion that surprised him. Quick access to the tunnels was all he needed to feel physically secure and their house was designed to provide that. Even this afternoon it had been more ingrained habit than fear which had kept him inside. The actual risk of someone being in a position to see him at that time of day was remote and the chance of someone seeing enough to respond to it was so negligible as to be almost non-existent.

"I suppose you are," she said. "I just like to be there... to protect you, I guess." She laughed, tugging at his arm to get him walking again. "Silly, isn't it?"

"I have felt your concern, Catherine. Victoria will be past contagion soon and we can return Below."

"How was she today?"

Several seconds passed and she twisted her neck to look up at him. He sighed. "She wanted me to hold her."

"All day?"

He nodded.

"And you did."

Again he made a slight gesture of agreement. "I could feel her discomfort, her distress."

"What will you do, Vincent, when holding her isn't enough to fix whatever's wrong in her life?" She stopped and faced him. "You try so hard to shelter her and it worries me. You can't take away her troubles any more than you can take away Charles's, or Jacob's, or Evan's. Or mine."

The look he gave confirmed the truth of that statement. Knowing that his inability to protect everyone from everything troubled him, she changed the subject. They had strolled aimlessly while they talked and it was only now that she noticed that they were in the southern quadrant of the park, near Central Park West. Gazing over Vincent's shoulder, she pointed. "Look!"

He did, putting a reflexive arm around her shoulders and pulling her more securely into the shelter provided by his larger body. Snuggled against him, she waited for him to see what she had seen. It took a few seconds... first he scanned the immediate area, an instinctive reaction even though all his senses told him no one was near. Already he was recognizing that what Catherine felt was pleased expectation, not fear, and he quickly looked further.

"I see it," he confirmed, tipping his head back to look up at the elegant apartment building just across the way. "I used to know someone who lived there," he confided.

"Did you?"

"Mmmm. I spent many pleasant hours on that very balcony." He pointed to a spot high above their heads.

"Really? So did I." She offered him a mischievous smile. "Shall we revisit it?"

He looked down at her, his eyes beginning to glow. "Easy enough for me," he said, "but how will you reach it?"

"Oh, that's easy, too," she explained. "I'll just knock on the door and tell whoever lives there now that I need to use their balcony."

"Do you think it will work?"

She pretended to consider. "Probably just get me arrested," she decided.

"Perhaps it's just as well," Vincent consoled her. "In light of my advancing years, it probably wouldn't be so easy for me after all."

She gave a softly muffled laugh. "Your advancing years. Right." Resting her head against his shoulder, she became wistful. "We do have some wonderful memories there, don't we?"

"Do you miss it?"

She knew he was thinking of the life she had surrendered to be with him. "Sometimes," she admitted honestly. "Especially when the decibel level reaches new heights and I want nothing more than solitude and quiet. Then I remember all the cold, lonely nights I spent wondering if you would come... wishing you would come..." She tightened her arms around his waist. "I'd much rather have you, and our children, and the noise and confusion..."

"Speaking of noise and confusion..."

"We should go back?"

His head moved in a barely perceptible motion of regretful agreement and they turned back the way they had come.

In the tunnels, they walked arm in arm, talking of all the inconsequential things parents talk of. When they reached the last major junction on the way to their home, Catherine stopped."Vincent, will you do something for me?"

"Of course," he agreed immediately.

"You've spent an hour with me. Will you go now and spend an hour with yourself?"

"Catherine..."

"Please?" She reached up to stroke his cheek. "You give so much to everyone else, Vincent. Give this to yourself."

"You're tired... Victoria..." His protest was half-hearted. An hour of solitude did sound enticing.

"I'm fine. I'll have all of tomorrow to rest. What's Vicky doing?"

He reached out for his daughter and was surprised at what he found. "I believe Mary's gotten her to sleep."

"Well, then. I'll see you in an hour or two." She kissed him and walked away without giving him time for further argument. Letting her go, he watched until she disappeared around a gentle curve in the tunnel before taking the other fork.

Upon reaching home, Catherine found Mary had all three boys safely tucked into bed and Vicky was cuddled, dozing, in her lap as she rocked in the rocking chair.

Standing, Mary transferred Vicky to Catherine's arms. Waking enough to cry a little, Vicky renewed her hold on her blanket before relaxing back into a drowsy half-sleep against her mother's shoulder. Catherine smiled, relishing the silky feel of Vicky's strawberry curls under her chin.

"Mary, thank you," she said gratefully. "The walk was exactly what we needed."

"No need to thank me," Mary said briskly, gathering up her things. "And no need to see me out, either," she added as Catherine followed her toward the stairs. "I'll be fine."

"All right." Catherine stopped at the head of the stairs. "Goodnight."

Mary's voice floated up the stairwell. "Goodnight!"

All four children were asleep when Vincent returned. The lines of exhaustion were still on his face, but his step was lighter and Catherine was glad she had insisted he take time for himself.

"Where did you go?" she asked sleepily as he slid into bed beside her. His skin was cool to the touch and he smelled faintly of the night sky.

"I started for Father's chamber and found myself in the Whispering Gallery," he explained wryly. "The voices were calling me tonight... wanting me to join them, it seemed."

"So you did," she prompted, nuzzling into his shoulder.

"I went to your old building."

She managed a sleepy giggle. "The balcony?"

"No." Amusement colored his voice. "I thought it best not to frighten whoever lives there now so I climbed to the roof."

"Was it as easy as you remembered?"

He gave a low, tired laugh. "I'm grateful you don't live there any longer."

"But you're glad you went," she mumbled and was asleep before he could draw breath to answer.

"Yes," he murmured softly into her hair. "I'm glad I went."

They were both still in that first, deep sleep when Vicky's fretful wail pierced the quiet. Heart pounding, shaky and unbalanced from the abrupt awakening, Catherine stumbled into the nursery.

"Hush, baby, I'm here," she soothed automatically, picking up the crying child.

"Daddy!" Vicky sobbed, reaching past Catherine's shoulder. "Daddy!"

Operating on pure instinct, Vincent had reacted to his daughter's cries, too, and when she turned, Catherine found him standing behind her. Vicky leaned for him. Catherine's balance was already precarious from fatigue and the shift in Vicky's weight made her sway toward him.

He reacted reflexively, taking Vicky in one arm and steadying Catherine against his chest with the other. "I'll take care of her," he whispered. "Go back to bed."

"You're as tired as I am," Catherine whispered back, leaning against him. "Tireder."

"I can't sleep while she's awake. You can."

"It isn't fair," she objected, conceding the point. "Promise you'll wake me if there's anything I can do?"

"I promise. Go back to sleep."

They shared a brief, apologetic kiss. As she made her way back to bed, Catherine could hear Vincent crooning to Vicky as he carried her into the study.

The pale pink glow of dawn was streaking the windows when Catherine woke again. Reaching out, she realized she was alone in the b ÝShe listened for the sound of Vicky fussing but all was silent.

Tiptoeing into the nursery, she observed that the crib was empty. Evan was teetering precariously on the edge of his bed, so she paused to move him over and cover him before going on to the study. It, too, appeared empty.

"Vincent?" she whispered from the doorway. A breath of movement from the couch drew her. Creeping closer, she peered over the back.

Vincent was on his back, head pillowed against one arm of the couch and feet propped on the other, sound asleep. Vicky slept on his chest, head tucked under his chin. His arms cradled her protectively as she clutched a fistful of his nightshirt. Their hair mingled against his chest and it was difficult to tell where Vincent's long golden mane ended and Vicky's rosy curls began. Vincent stirred, sighing in his sleep, his hands tightening about their daughter.

Taking a quilt from a nearby chair, Catherine spread it over them, tucking it around Vincent's feet and across the back of Vicky's neck. "I love you," she breathed, pressing the softest of kisses to each forehead.

Standing back, she memorized the way father and daughter looked.It was a peaceful, loving sight, a sharp contrast to recent days. Soon, though, all the chaos would be behind them, and things could return to normal... at least, as normal as they ever were around here. Smiling, Catherine slipped back to bed.

 

THE END