IN PLACE OF THE STARS

January - June 2007

 

"What if Rommel had been able to block Montgomery here?" A clawed finger pointed to a spot on a frayed map of Africa. Vincent and Joe Maxwell were engrossed, restaging the World War II Battle of El Alamein.

"I don't think he could have," Joe disagreed. "Montgomery already had Rommel cut off."

He ignored the ringing of the telephone, knowing Vincent wouldn't answer it; he never did.

Catherine was at her desk and picked the phone up on the second ring. "Hello? Yes, this is Catherine Chandler." She had been speaking for only a moment when Vincent raised his head abruptly to look at her.

"Yes, sir," she was saying. "I'm honored, but I don't think... no, sir." There was a long pause. "I... yes. Yes, I will, I'll think about it, but I really don't.... Yes, sir. Goodnight." She replaced the receiver, looking dazed.

"Catherine?" Vincent started to rise. "What is it?"

Joe reached for his friend's arm. "It's okay, Vincent." He grinned. "You probably heard that one of our state legislators died suddenly, day before yesterday. I'll go way out on a limb and guess that she's just spoken with the governor, and he's offered to appoint her to fill the vacant seat."

Catherine's eyes shifted, reflecting surprise. "How do you know?"

Joe shrugged. "Because he called me this afternoon to ask if I thought you could handle the job. I told him you could, but you wouldn't accept." His grin widened. "Guess he only half-believed me."

Vincent was sitting quite still, listening, and Joe suddenly felt awkward. Glancing at his watch, he got to his feet. "Listen, it's getting late. Vincent, we'll finish this later, because you are wrong, my friend. Montgomery had Rommel covered on all sides. Cathy..."

"I'll walk you down," she answered automatically. When she came back, Vincent was still sitting motionless, gazing past the map still spread across the open books piled haphazardly on his desk. Sinking into the chair Joe had vacated, Catherine peered at him. "Vincent, are you okay?"

She could see the effort as he brought his thoughts back from wherever they'd been wandering. Impulsively she reached to touch his hand. "Vincent, it's okay. I only promised to think about the appointment, and I have. I'm going to turn it down."

He curled his fingers around her smaller ones, feeling the warmth of her hand, the pressure of her fingers gripping his. "Why?"

For a moment she gaped at him. "Vincent, the legislature meets in Albany. That's a hundred and fifty miles away. My family is here... my home..."

He tightened his grasp on her hand. "I know that. But I can feel what's inside you, Catherine. Part of you is stimulated, challenged by this opportunity."

He waited while she considered his words. "Maybe," she conceded finally. "It's scary to think about, but maybe you're right. There's a part of me that wants to try this. But that doesn't mean..."

"What is it that holds you back?" he asked softly.

Her eyes slid uneasily away from him. "There's the kids... I can't just uproot them and drag them to a new town, new schools... and my job..."

"And me," he added.

"Partly," she confessed.

"Catherine, there's no need to take the children anywhere. I'll be here. And Joe will grant you a leave of absence." Leaning forward, he touched her cheek. "I don't ever want to hold you back from things you must do. You know that."

She nodded. "I know."

"I think you must do this... for both of us." He smiled. "The legislature only sits for four or five months. It's not that long; we'll have weekends..."

* * * *

Catherine cast one last look around the bedroom, wondering what she might be forgetting. Downstairs, she could hear the teenagers calling to each other, rough-housing as they carried the last suitcases and boxes out to the car. The noise they made was something that would ordinarily annoy her, but not today. Things had happened so quickly over the past three weeks she hadn't had time to think, and it was only now that it really struck her... she was leaving, going to live somewhere else. This time tomorrow, she wouldn't be able to hear her children bickering no matter how loud they were. Her throat tightened uncomfortably.

In the hallway beyond the open door, she heard Jacob's voice, followed by the slow sound of his footsteps as he descended the stairs.

Vincent's presence filled the room, and Catherine knew he was behind her even before he placed his hands on her shoulders. Turning, she slid her arms around his neck, standing on tiptoe to press her face into the warm hollow between his shoulder and neck.

"I don't want to go," she whispered, holding him tightly.

"I know," he answered.

After a moment, Catherine drew back. "Why do you suppose my path through life is full of detours I don't want to follow?"

"Because you have compassion, and wisdom, and are meant to help others," Vincent answered, his eyes smiling at her. "But you always come home to me."

"Yes," she agreed fervently, pressing herself into the warmth of his embrace one last time. "I'll always come back to you. I'll miss you," she added in a whisper.

"I know. I'll miss you, too."

There was nothing else to be said, and after a moment Catherine disengaged herself from Vincent's embrace. He released her reluctantly. With the children going in and out of the front door, it wasn't safe for him downstairs, so she knew he wouldn't follow her.

As expected, the front door stood open and as Catherine came out, seventeen-year-old Charles was just wedging the last box into the back of the mini-van. Catherine went down the steps, joining the others on the sidewalk. Her children had gathered around for farewells, even Evan, who submitted to being hugged with sheepish tolerance. When there was no more to be said, Catherine went around to the driver's side of the car. Pausing with the door open, she glanced toward the second-floor study windows with one brief, heartfelt look before sliding behind the wheel; a narrow gap could be seen between the window frame and the heavy drape which covered it.

Leaning across to the open passenger window, she called to her middle son. "Jacob, I'm sorry. We have to go now."

At thirteen, Jacob had just begun to shoot up in height and was entering the gangly, all-arms-and-legs stage. His voice had started to crack, too, and it did so now, as he pleaded, "Do I have to? Can't I stay here?"

"No." Catherine made her voice firm. "We've talked about this, Jacob. Please don't make things harder than they are."

Charles reached out to touch his brother's shoulder and Vicky and Evan crowded close. "Go on, Jacob," Charles urged quietly. "Think of all the new things you'll see and do in Albany."

"I don't like new things," Jacob complained under his breath. "I want to stay here."

Vicky heard him. "I like new things," she said sulkily. "I wish I was going."

"I wish you were going, too," Jacob mumbled. Unwillingly, he climbed into the front passenger seat.

Clustered together on the sidewalk, the other children waved and called out goodbyes until the car rounded a corner, disappearing from view.

Concentrating on making her way safely through the Sunday afternoon traffic, Catherine was only half-aware of Jacob's sullen stare out the window. For the moment she was simply gratified that she didn't have to deal with Vicky's usual animated chatter.

Once they were free of the city and the congested highways surrounding it, she turned her attention to her obviously unhappy child. "I'm sorry, Jacob," she said softly. "I know this is hard for you."

Jacob slumped farther down in his seat and didn't answer. Catherine sighed, wondering for the hundredth time if the decision to take Jacob to Albany was right. It had been Vincent's idea to take one of the children, an idea she had resisted until his patient reasoning wore her down.

"You need company," he'd argued. "Someone to connect with, who understands. And it will be a valuable learning experience, as well." The plaintive and longing look in his eyes when he added, "I don't like to think of you being all alone," convinced her.

Deciding which child should go took longer. Taking all four in turns wasn't practical; school was in session and it was quickly decided that having each child change schools for brief periods would be too disruptive.

Just turned seventeen, Charles was a junior in high school, taking a stiff course of honors classes in preparation for college. It hardly seemed fair to interrupt his studies. Vicky would have made a good companion, but she was only ten and that brought up the issue of child care, something Catherine had never had to deal with before. The idea of giving her child into a stranger's hands was a little frightening, and besides, Vicky was Vincent's mainstay. He couldn't quite bear to be separated from both her and Catherine at the same time.

Since Evan was only eleven, most of the arguments against taking Vicky also applied to him. As Vincent told Catherine with a twinkle, "Being a responsible parent, I couldn't allow him to go with you."

She'd laughed. Much as she loved her youngest son, she often found herself riding a thin edge between exasperation and irritation; trying to live with him without Vincent as a buffer was unimaginable.

That left Jacob. At thirteen and a half, he was easily old enough to be left on his own for a few hours each day, if necessary. Another factor to consider was that Jacob was the child closest to his father's world, choosing to spend all his leisure time Below. To provide them with a balanced look at their parents' diverse worlds, Catherine and Vincent had elected to send their children to school in the world Above. Jacob was the only one who still did not seem completely at ease Above, and it was Vincent's suggestion that he be the child to accompany her to Albany.

"He has no friends in your world, Catherine. He has only the children from Below, and Father and Carl. Perhaps this is an experience he should have before he makes his decision on which of our worlds he will inhabit."

She had agreed with his calm logic, but now, seeing her son so obviously miserable wrenched at her heart.

"I'm not overjoyed at the idea of being so far from home either, Jacob," she reminded him, glancing sideways at his morose profile. "Can't you try to make the best of this?"

"Nobody made you go," he answered sullenly.

Considering this for a moment, she said, "Well, in a way someone did."

His head lifted a little. "Who?"

"Your father."

That got his complete attention. "What? Dad would never make you do anything you didn't want to do."

She shook her head slowly, smiling. "No, not in the way you're thinking. He sees me in a certain way and expects things of me; I don't want to disappoint him."

"But you want this, too," Jacob said shrewdly.

"Yes, I suppose I do," she answered. "That doesn't make the parting any easier, though."

"You still got to choose," Jacob reiterated.

"Jacob, you're only thirteen. Your father and I both think this will be good for you." She reached over to brush an affectionate hand through his hair. His effort to duck it was only half-hearted. "We'll be home most weekends," she reminded him. "Time will go quickly. You'll see."

"I guess so," he muttered, staring out the window at the passing scenery. "Look at all the cows," he said after a moment.

Catherine glanced his way and smiled. "That reminds me of something..."

Jacob pulled himself up in his seat, curiosity shining in his eyes. "What?" From the time he was a little boy, Jacob had loved to sit and listen to the storytellers Below: Mary, old Carl, and especially Father. It wasn't long before he was making up his own stories and writing them down for his friends to read. Recently he'd begun transcribing the stories told by the older tunnel residents, putting them on paper for future generations. "Come on," he urged his mother. "What do they remind you of?"

Catherine smiled, remembering. "Of something that happened when Vicky was little," she began. "I don't know if you remember how stubborn she was..."

"Still is," Jacob interjected with a grin.

"Yes, sometimes," Catherine agreed. "Anyway, I don't remember where we were going. I can't even remember if I had any of the rest of you with me. Vicky couldn't have been two yet; she was learning to talk, and in the stage where she wanted to know the names of everything she saw. She was in the back, buckled up in her car seat, when she pointed out the window and said, 'Whazzat?'"

Jacob smiled at his mother's imitation of Vicky's baby lisp. "Then what?" he prompted.

"I told her it was a cow. And she said, very firmly, 'No.' I said, 'Yes, it is, Vicky, it's a cow.' She screwed up her face in that emphatic way she has and said, 'No!'"

Jacob chuckled.

"We went back and forth a couple more times like that," Catherine continued. "I could tell I wasn't getting anywhere, and she was becoming more and more frustrated, so finally I gave up and said, 'Okay, Vicky, it's a tree.'"

"What did she do?"

Catherine turned and gave him a wide smile. "She settled back in her seat and didn't say another word for miles. I'm sure she thought she'd won an important argument."

"That's funny," Jacob said. "Would Tink mind if I put that story in the chronicle I'm writing?"

"Probably not, but you'd better ask her first," Catherine advised.

The rest of the drive was spent discussing some of the other stories that would be in the book Jacob called his chronicle and presently Catherine stopped in front of the small apartment building which she and Jacob would call home for the next few months.

The apartment did no more than meet Catherine's sketchy specifications: two bedrooms, furnished, in a safe neighborhood near the Capitol building. Jacob poked around the tiny rooms in a desultory fashion.

"I know it isn't much like home, Jacob," Catherine said, trying to lift his spirits, "but we're going to be here for a while, so we may as well make the best of it."

"Who's going to fix dinner?" Jacob asked practically.

Catherine looked at him blankly. "I never thought about it," she said slowly. The last time she'd attempted to prepare an actual meal was very soon after she and Vincent had married. It had been an unequivocal disaster, pointing up her domestic shortcomings in a most embarrassing way. Only Vincent's gentle understanding, laced with amusement he'd done his best to hide from her, had preserved her dignity.

"We can scramble eggs in the microwave," she suggested, confident in her ability to do that, at least. "There is a microwave, isn't there?"

Jacob glanced around the minuscule kitchen. "No."

Catherine was dumbfounded. "Are you sure? I thought everybody had a microwave these days."

"William doesn't. He doesn't need one."

Catherine paused. "No, he doesn't," she agreed. "Well, I guess we'll just go out for something. Come on, help me bring in our things."

After unloading the van, they went three blocks to a small restaurant Catherine had noticed on the drive in. Jacob was quiet throughout the meal, but since he wasn't precisely sulking, she let him be. Only when they got back to the apartment did she try again to reach him.

"Are you going to unpack tonight?"

Jacob groaned. "I don't know." He made a face. "I can still taste that spaghetti."

Catherine made a grimace of her own. "I know," she admitted. "It wasn't very good, was it?"

"Not like William's," Jacob said.

Jacob's attitude was beginning to wear on Catherine's patience, and she stopped, taking a long, deliberate moment to compose herself before speaking. "You know, Jacob," she said finally, "things will be much easier for you if you aren't so quick to compare them with what you're used to. I'll agree that tonight's meal wasn't the best, and certainly not up to William's standard, but tomorrow we might go somewhere where the food is excellent. Would it be fair to expect William to meet that standard?"

"No," he mumbled.

"I guess not, either. I think it would be best if you remember that, like it or not, you and I will be living here until the legislative session is over in June. My advice to you is that you stop moping and apply yourself to getting whatever you can out of the experience. Now go unpack your suitcase and get ready for bed."

Chastened by her unexpected and unusual vehemence, he slunk into the smaller of the two bedrooms.

Much later, she went in to tell Jacob goodnight, but he'd already fallen asleep, sprawled across the half-made bed. Sighing, she pulled the quilt over his shoulders, tucking him in as best she could. Tomorrow he could make the bed properly. Tonight it was best to let him sleep.

In her own small room, the bed was already made up with sheets and blankets brought from home. Her clothes had been unpacked and put away, and a few personal items were placed around the room to make it seem more familiar. Slowly she got ready for bed and turned down the sheets, sliding into a bed that seemed cold and lonely without Vincent beside her. Smiling briefly at the framed photograph of her children on her nightstand, she reached for the small leather-bound book that lay beside it.

Shakespeare's Sonnets. Wistfully she opened it, lingering over the inscription. As she began to turn the pages, a slip of paper, folded in half, fell into her lap. *Shakespeare knew everything*, she thought reflexively, but that note had long ago been tucked away with all the other brief missives Vincent had sent her over the years. Laying the book aside, she picked up the paper, fingering the heavy vellum before opening it.

The message was brief, with no salutation or signature. *The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another*. Unexpectedly, her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Vincent," she whispered softly, resting her head on her knees. "I miss you so much."

When she finally reached to turn out the light, the note was under her pillow. She and Vincent had been separated before, of course, but this was the first time the separation was to be measured in months instead of days. Weekends together would help, but at the end of each would be another separation. Somewhere in the future there was a boundary, but for now the cycle seemed to stretch out endlessly.

Somehow, she and Jacob struggled through the first unfamiliar week. In a way, it reminded Catherine of when she'd first joined the D.A.'s office and the struggle to remember new faces, names, responsibilities.

She had been named to the Assembly, the lower of the two legislative houses, and along with the appointment she had inherited her predecessor's office staff: two legislative aides assigned specifically to assist her. In addition, there was a pool she could draw on for more complex tasks, such as drafting legislative bills. At the moment Catherine couldn't imagine ever needing the pool's assistance.

Her aides were pleasant enough; Tim was in his early twenties, blond, blue-eyed, with an easy manner and a warm smile. Megan was younger, with darker hair and intelligent brown eyes. Both were eager to please.

The state had initiated a new program only a few years earlier, a small school program in the Capitol building itself, available to the children of legislators and other state employees for a nominal tuition fee. It had been another factor in the decision to bring Jacob along. The program was reputed to be an excellent one, with special emphasis on the legislative processes and students were encouraged to attend legislative sessions; older ones were permitted to act as pages after school hours.

It was Tim who took Jacob to find his class the first morning while Megan gave Catherine a tour of the office. Time passed quickly with so much to learn, but Catherine and Jacob were both glad when Friday arrived.

By five-thirty, Catherine had finished everything she'd planned to do this week. Home beckoned like a beacon of love and comfort, and she and Jacob went toward it gladly.

It was dark by the time they reached Manhattan, but lights glowed softly behind the draped windows, extending a welcome. Jacob was out of the car before it had quite stopped moving, dashing headlong up the steps. Catherine followed more sedately, catching up to where he waited by the door in an agony of impatience. She didn't bother to tap the doorbell; wherever he was, Vincent surely knew she was here.

"We're home," she called as soon as they were safely inside. Voices erupted from the parlor and children spilled into the hallway - not only Charles, Evan and Vicky, but some of the tunnel children as well. Catherine recognized several of Jacob's special friends and it wasn't difficult to guess that they just couldn't wait to see him.

As Jacob exchanged happy greetings with his friends, the other children gathered around Catherine. As she looked up from Vicky's welcoming hug, she felt suddenly warm. Looking across the children's heads, she found Vincent waiting in the shadows by the stairs, watching her.

Always, the best thing about coming home after an absence was seeing his beloved face and the pleasure shining from his eyes. She smiled.

Everyone had questions to ask, so the entire group retired to the parlor.

After Catherine explained her new duties and responsibilities to Vincent and Charles, the conversation turned to a parallel discussion of the national Congress and the tunnel Council. As she was listening to Charles, her eyes wandered, settling finally on Jacob, who was across the room talking with his friends. He looked completely happy, his face flushed with excitement and pleasure. Shifting her gaze, she noticed for the first time that he and his friend Amanda were holding hands.

This was another, more subtle reason why Jacob had been the child chosen to accompany her to Albany. Both she and Vincent had noticed Jacob's friendship with Amanda evolving over the past couple of years.

Both Jacob and Amanda were very young to be dealing with the feelings they almost certainly had for each other, so she and Vincent had decided it would do no harm for them to be apart for a while. If nothing else, it would give each of them space to think and to grow.

Jacob glanced up, catching her eye, and she smiled at him. "Hey, Mom," he called. "May I spend the night in the tunnels?" It was a common request; Jacob's preference was always to be Below. He'd been away for a week, and it was only natural that he would want to spend time with his friends.

"I don't know, Jacob," she began doubtfully, glancing toward Vincent for guidance.

"Please?" Jacob's entreaty coincided with Vincent's almost imperceptible gesture of acquiescence and Catherine nodded.

"All right, but I want to see you back here sometime tomorrow. Don't forget this is where you live." It was an oft-repeated admonishment.

It was clear that being here, among his family and friends, had lifted Jacob's spirits. He grinned. "I thought I lived in Albany now."

"Only temporarily," she answered, suppressing a smile. "Home is truly where the heart is, Jacob, and I suspect both our hearts are always here. Nevertheless, I'm sure your father would like to spend some time with you before Sunday."

"Okay," Jacob agreed, frowning a little at the uncomfortable reminder that this was only a visit.

Vicky, Evan and Charles preferred to stay home, joining their parents as they went upstairs. Always one to follow his own pursuits, Evan continued on to his own room. Vicky would have liked to follow her parents into the second-floor study, obviously still wanting to talk, but Charles took her arm, steering her away. "Come on, Vicky," he said casually. "I'll show you my new computer game." Bending close to her ear, he hissed, "Can't you see they'd like to be alone?"

Catherine and Vincent were not oblivious to the byplay on the stairs, but chose to ignore it. They had been together for nearly three hours now and their opportunity to touch had been limited to a little surreptitious hand-holding. Catherine needed to feel Vincent's arms around her. Sighing, she moved into his embrace.

* * * *

Sunday afternoon found Catherine and Jacob on their way back to Albany. A cycle had been completed, the first of many. Jacob seemed more cheerful this time, and Catherine surmised he was finally convinced he could survive these separations from home.

"I need some money," he announced when they reached their apartment. He was in the tiny kitchen, having carried in a large box that rattled when he moved it.

She stared at him blankly. "Money?"

He sighed elaborately and gestured toward the box. "I talked with William this weekend," he explained. "He gave me some recipes, and I brought some stuff to cook with. I need to buy groceries."

Catherine's stare was openly incredulous, but if he wanted to try cooking their meals, she had no intention of discouraging him. "All right," she agreed, and reached for her purse.

Jacob was adamant about doing this alone, so she allowed him to walk the few blocks to the supermarket, and when he returned, she stayed conspicuously away from the kitchen. When Jacob finally called her, she was pleasantly surprised to find that he had prepared a meal that was eminently palatable."It's very good, Jacob."

He glowed under the praise. "If it's okay, I'll come home early tomorrow and have dinner ready when you get here," he suggested.

"All right," she agreed. "If you want to. But you don't have to do this every night, Jacob. Any time you don't want to cook, we'll go out."

He wrinkled his nose in disdain. "I'm tired of restaurants. Cooking's sort of fun."

As the weeks passed, it remained fun, and Catherine grew to enjoy coming home each night to find a home-cooked meal waiting. Jacob seemed to embrace the responsibility gladly, making sure the cupboards and refrigerator were adequately stocked. Each weekend he consulted with William to learn new dishes. He'd made a few friends among his classmates at the Capitol, too, and his initial sullenness had worn off.

Once more, for Catherine, the balancing of two lives became routine. Thankfully, there were few weekends when her new responsibilities weighed so heavy she didn't go home; surprisingly, when she gave Jacob the option of going home by air or bus, he chose to remain with her in Albany.

Catherine spoke on the phone with one or more of her other children nearly every day, depending on who was home when she called. On the other hand, Vincent didn't like telephones. He never had, so instead she wrote him long letters, telling him about her days, and about Jacob, and of how much she missed him. In return, she came home each evening to find a heavy vellum envelope on her pillow.

* * * *

Nearly three months after Catherine was appointed to the Assembly, when she was at her desk going over some notes, a hesitant tap sounded on her closed office door. As she looked up, the door opened and Tim stuck his head in doubtfully.

"Tim, I said I didn't want..." she began, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. He interrupted.

"I know, Cathy, but one of your kids is on line two."

She stared at him, her heart suddenly racing. The kids called the apartment all the time, but none of them had ever called her at work.

"I... thank you, Tim, I'll get it." She waited until the door was closed before reaching for the phone.

"Hello, Mother." Charles sounded unusually subdued, which fueled her anxiety.

"Charles, what is it? What's happened?"

"Father asked me to call you. Mother..." He hesitated, as if searching for the right words. Finally he found them. "... he wants me to tell you Grandfather died in his sleep last night."

"Oh, no." The protest was instinctive. Father had been growing more and more frail with passing time, but somehow she'd thought he'd live forever. Her thoughts leaped to Vincent, and suddenly all she could feel was a driving need to be with him, to comfort him.

"Mother? Are you there?"

Somehow she gathered her thoughts enough to answer him. "I'm here. I'm okay, Charles. Tell your father..." She hesitated. There were many things she wanted to tell him, but not through an intermediary, even this one. "Tell him I'll be there as soon as I possibly can," she said finally.

Hanging up, she began to gather her things, aware of little besides the compulsion to get out of here, to be on her way to New York, to Vincent. The door, when it opened, was an intrusion.

"What?" she almost snapped at a hapless Tim. His eyes widened. Behind him, she could hear Megan speaking softly to someone else. "I'm sorry," Catherine apologized. "I've had some bad news."

"I'm sorry," Tim said automatically.

"My father-in-law died," she said.

"I'm sorry," he said again, his face softening in sympathy. "Can I do anything?"

She shook her head. "No. I'm going..." She broke off as Megan came to stand in the doorway as well.

"Cathy, Mr. Allen asked me to remind you that the debate starts in fifteen minutes."

Her wits completely scattered, Catherine responded with a blank look.

"The debate," Megan prompted. "You know. For the child abuse bill. It starts in fifteen minutes."

The expression on Catherine's face suddenly seemed to get through to Megan and she stopped, bewildered. Tim took her arm and pulled her away, whispering as he closed the door. Alone, Catherine sank into her chair and buried her face in her hands.

The child abuse bill. Of all the bills the Assembly had considered so far this session, this was the first she'd actually wanted to co-sponsor. She'd helped draft it, making sure the wording closed all the potential loopholes. The notes scattered on her desk were for her speech, the first she'd be making as an assemblywoman, in support of the bill.

Vincent needed her, and in her heart, that took precedence over anything else, but she had a responsibility here that went beyond her obligations to her family, even Vincent. The bill had its detractors, and the vote promised to be extremely close. A few votes - her own and perhaps one or two others that might be swayed by her speech - could make the difference.

Ten minutes later she rose, outwardly composed, and swept her notes into a neat pile, tucking them into a side pocket of her briefcase. In the outer office, Tim and Megan looked up when her door opened, and Tim leaped anxiously to his feet.

"I'll be in the Assembly debate," she said quietly. "If Jacob gets here before I get back, please ask him to wait for me. And Tim? Please don't tell him anything."

Tim's hasty promise followed her out into the hallway, where she strode briskly, joining other legislators making their way to this morning's session. Inside, she made her speech, hollowly accepting a few handshakes and swiftly whispered congratulations on her way back to her seat. There were two more speeches, one in support of the bill and one against it, before a lunch break was called.

By the time the afternoon session convened, her nerves were stretched nearly to the breaking point, but somehow she made it through, listening to the animated debate and even rising twice to dispute someone else's statement. At last the bill came to a vote.

Years ago, votes had been taken by voice or with a show of hands. That was before modern technology had stepped in, making these methods obsolete. With trembling fingers, Catherine found the plastic card issued to her upon appointment, sliding it through a slot in a small box mounted to the table where she sat during legislative sessions. A moment later the box beeped, the card's magnetic strip having been read and her identity duly recorded. Rapidly she pushed the button that would record her vote in favor of the bill in question. Her other hand was already gathering her things as she rose and pushed her way toward the exit. Near the door, her path was blocked by an attractive black man about her own age.

"Great speech this morning, Cathy," he said. "Good points you brought up during the debate, too."

"Thank you, Doug," she answered, trying not to be rude in her haste. Douglas Allen was a co-sponsor of the bill they'd just debated and was understandably pleased with the way things had gone.

He didn't seem to notice. "Still too close to call, but we have a good chance for passage," he continued blithely. "I knew I wouldn't regret letting you put your name on the bill."

"I'm glad, Doug, but you'll have to excuse me now."

Some quality in her voice penetrated, and he looked at her sharply. "Cathy, is everything all right?"

Without thinking, she shook her head. "No. I have... a family emergency."

"I'm sorry, Cathy." He followed her out into the hall. "It's not one of your kids, is it?"

"No." She hesitated, habit making her reticent, but she'd already told Tim. "My father-in-law passed away last night," she said finally. "I need to go home. My... husband needs me." Her tongue stumbled over the forbidden word, but she felt strangely defiant. She'd done her duty and now she could follow her heart; she didn't much care who knew it.

"I'm sorry, Cathy," Douglas Allen repeated. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Make my apologies at the victory party, if there is one," she flung back over her shoulder.

"I will," he called after her.

Hurrying back to her office, she glanced at her watch. Three-thirty already, and Charles had called at what? Nine-thirty? Quarter of ten? Too much time had passed, and her guilt increased with every passing second. The sight of Jacob slumped on the couch in her office brought her up short. Somehow, she had completely forgotten him.

"Hi, Mom," he greeted uneasily. "Tim says you need to talk to me."

"Yes," she responded, dropping her briefcase on her desk before going to sit beside him.

There was trepidation in his eyes as he faced her. "You're going to tell me something bad, aren't you?"

Slowly she nodded, remembering how Jacob had always been his grandfather's favorite, how close they'd always been. She reached for his hands, startled to feel how warm they felt against her cold ones. "Jacob, I don't know of any easy way to tell you this. Your grandfather died last night."

For an agonizing moment he just sat, and she wondered if he had heard her clearly.

"How?" he asked finally.

"I don't know. Charles said he died in his sleep. I don't know any more than that, Jacob, but he was very old."

Jacob nodded gravely. "Are we going home now?"

Disturbed by his stillness, she studied his face for a moment before nodding. "Yes. Right now."

"Are we going to the apartment first?"

"I'd rather not. We have everything we need at home, so unless you need something..."

Withdrawing his hands, he shook his head and started for the door, shrugging into his jacket as he went. Slowly she followed.They were well beyond the Albany city limits when he spoke again. "When did Charles call you?"

She glanced over to where he huddled unhappily in the passenger seat. "About nine-thirty this morning," she answered quietly.

He nodded as if she'd confirmed something he already knew, and murmured something she couldn't quite hear.

"What was that?"

"He never told me all his stories," Jacob said.

Catherine thought she heard his voice break.

"He was going to tell me a story about Brigit O'Donnell - you know, the Irish writer."

Catherine took her eyes off the road just long enough to glance at him. "You know, your father knows that story," she said gently.

"He does? How?"

She managed a smile. "He was there. He's met Brigit O'Donnell. Jacob, many people know the stories your grandfather knew. They aren't lost."

"Some of them are," he argued, sinking back into his seat. "There are stories nobody but Grandfather knew. And now they're gone."

"You may be right," Catherine agreed slowly. "Jacob, maybe what you need to do is be grateful for all the stories your grandfather was able to tell you. You're writing those down for everyone to read and are creating a legacy that will last forever."

He made an odd, stifled sound and when she looked over, he had pushed his face into the crook of his arm and was crying. With a swift glance in the rearview mirror, she pulled across two lanes of traffic onto the shoulder, unfastening her seatbelt even before the van made a full stop. She put her arms around him and he burrowed against her, sobbing. "It's all right, Jacob," she murmured, trying to comfort. Even when his tears slowed, she continued to rock him gently.

"I should have been there." His voice was so low she could scarcely hear him.

"Jacob, there wasn't anything you could have done."

"I could have been there."

Abruptly, she recognized what was troubling him. "Your grandfather knew how much you loved him, Jacob," she said quietly. "The fact that you haven't been able to spend much time with him lately doesn't change that."

He turned his tear-streaked face toward her. "Do you really think so?"

"Yes. I do." Biting her lower lip to stifle her own unexpected rush of tears, she mustered a smile and was heartened when Jacob found the strength to return it.

Dusk fell while they were still en route, and the house was dark and silent when they reached it. For Catherine, the urgency to reach Vincent was back, so she and Jacob hurried to the tunnels without stopping. The passages Below were unusually still, and they saw no one until they reached the passage outside Vincent's chamber.

Hushed voices reached them, floating out of the lighted entrance to Vincent's chamber, and as Jacob and Catherine approached, a woman came out, turning toward them. As she passed, she touched Jacob's shoulder in sympathy, and paused to exchange hugs with Catherine.

"How is he, Olivia?" Catherine whispered.

"Holding up," Olivia replied. "He's been waiting for you, I think."

Catherine nodded sadly, suppressing a twinge of guilt over the long delay. "I know."

Jacob had gone ahead, and when Catherine entered the chamber he had already crossed the room, hurrying to the comfort of his father's embrace. The other children were there, and Vicky leaped from her chair to fling herself into Catherine's arms.

"Oh, Mommy," Vicky sobbed. Catherine hugged her hard, stroking her hair.

"I know," she whispered. Still holding Vicky with one arm, she put out her other hand to touch Charles and Evan, who had gathered close.

They must have made an odd, touching tableau: Vincent and Jacob on one side of the chamber, Catherine and the other children on the other side. William and Pascal, who had obviously been conferring with Vincent on something, excused themselves in self-conscious murmurs and went out. After a few moments the children began to speak in the hushed tones of mourning.

"Lots of Helpers came here today," Vicky whispered. "Uncle Peter came first, because Daddy called for him."

"And Uncle Devin's coming," Evan added.

"He's flying in from Houston tonight," Charles explained.

"I need to pick him up at JFK; may I have the keys to the car?"

Catherine was surprised and vaguely relieved to learn that Devin had been located so quickly, and handed Charles the keys without comment.

"Father received a long letter from him only two days ago," Vincent explained quietly. "So we knew where he was."

"I called him right after I called you," Charles added, and she touched his shoulder in sympathy.

"Not an easy job," she murmured.

"No," he answered. She saw his father's inner strength reflected in the cool gray of his eyes and silently blessed whatever power had given her this extraordinary son. He offered her a smile of encouragement and understanding before turning to his brother. "Come on, Jacob. There should still be some of the stew from supper left in the kitchen, and I'll bet you haven't eaten. Evan... Vicky..."

Normally, the younger children would not easily acquiesce to their brother's authority, but their natural willfulness had been blunted by grief and they filed out obediently. Charles moved to follow.

"Charles."

He turned back in the doorway. "Yes, Father?"

"Your mother hasn't eaten either. Perhaps you'd bring her something?"

"Leave it outside, Charles," Catherine added quickly, and he nodded, pulling the heavy drape across the opening as he left.

Instinctively, Catherine knew Vincent had been the mainstay of the entire community today, lending all of them his strength and composure. Perhaps no one else could have seen how near he was to breaking, but she knew, and crossed the chamber to draw him into her arms.

"Oh, Catherine," he whispered close to her ear, sounding dangerously close to tears. "I need you."

Or had he said, *I needed you*? In her guilt, she couldn't be sure. "I'm here," she murmured, holding him tight. "I'm here now."

His answer was simply to tighten his grip and they stood together in the center of the chamber for a very long time, holding each other; the only sound was the rasp of Vincent's uneven breathing.

"It happened so fast," he murmured at last, his voice breaking. "Last night I read to him, and we talked of the work to be done on the water system. This morning, I thought he must be sleeping late. When I finally went to wake him..."

"I know," she whispered. "Charles said it was in his sleep?"

Vincent nodded. "He looked peaceful, as if he'd just slipped away in the night."

Despite the calm of his words, Catherine could see ineffable sadness deepening the blue of his eyes and the effort it took for him to shift the focus of his thoughts. His finger traced a path down her cheek.

"You should sit now, and eat," he chided gently. "It's been a long day."

"For all of us," she agreed, but let him seat her at the table and bring the tray Charles had left outside the entrance. She had no appetite, but managed to swallow a few mouthfuls of lukewarm stew for Vincent's sake. When she had eaten enough to satisfy him, she rose.

"You have more work to do here," she said, indicating the papers he'd pushed aside to make room for the tray. The tug of motherhood was strong; sorrow and regret that she had not been here to help their children at this difficult time was weighing heavy upon her. "I want to be sure the children are settled," she whispered. "Will you be all right?"

His look was tender. "Of course. They need their mother. Go."

Bending down for a soft, regretful kiss, she left the chamber. Charles, she learned, had already left for the airport, so she sought out the younger ones.

Children who had families Below lived with them, but the children who had come to the tunnels alone slept in dormitories, supervised by some of the women. Catherine and Vincent's children certainly had family, but didn't actually live Below, and Vincent's chamber, the only one set aside for his exclusive use, was much too small; when the family stayed Below, the children slept in the dorms.

Catherine went first to the large chamber that served as the boy's dormitory. Evan was there, roughhousing with some of the other boys. They stopped when she came in, looking abashed.

"Sorry," one of the boys mumbled and Catherine's heart went out to him. Obviously the boys felt their playfulness had been inappropriate on this day, but she understood their need to deny what had happened, if only temporarily.

"It's all right," she assured him.

Across the chamber JoAnna, one of the women who tended the community children, looked across at Catherine and smiled before raising her voice in gentle command. "Time for bed, boys. Did you all brush your teeth?"

An affirmative chorus rose in answer, and the boys began pulling down blankets and crawling into bed. Catherine moved to Evan's bedside, where he let her tuck him in. In the background she could hear JoAnna moving about, tucking the other boys in for the night, but Catherine ignored her, focusing on her son.

Her relationship with Evan had always been prickly, but tonight he seemed to need something from her. "Are you all right?" she asked, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb the others in the chamber.

He nodded. "I'm okay. I'm not a baby, you know."

"No, I know that. You're growing up almost too fast for me, Evan," she admitted, ignoring the defensive edge in his voice. "But what happened today... your grandfather... is very sad. Do you feel sad?" she prompted.

He looked unhappy. "I guess so," he said.

She studied him carefully. "Have you cried for him, Evan?"

A fleeting expression of guilt disappeared beneath one of affronted dignity. "Boys don't cry," he informed her.

"Oh, Evan, where did you hear that? Of course boys cry, and men. Your father cries; he cried tonight. I haven't cried for your grandfather yet, either," she admitted softly, watching her son's face. "The pain is too new and doesn't feel real yet. But I know it will, and I'll cry when it happens." She touched him, smoothing back a strand of fair hair. "When it feels real to you, Evan, you'll cry. And know that your father and I will be there for you. Sometimes it helps to have someone else, but if you want to be alone, that's okay, too."

"Will I really feel that sad, Mom?" he asked in a nearly desperate whisper.

"Oh, yes, Evan, you will. You loved your grandfather. Losing him was a shock to all of us and shock makes you numb. When the numbness wears off, you'll feel the hurt."

Doubt and disbelief clouded his eyes. "Vicky cried already," he said bluntly.

"Evan, Vicky is a very emotional person. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and she's always cried more easily than you have. Don't judge yourself by other people."

Relief was finally creeping into his face and voice. "Dad said that, too," he admitted.

"And you doubted him?"

Evan squirmed. "I knew he could tell I didn't feel anything, and I was afraid he thought I didn't care. I thought he was only being nice."

"No," Catherine said, smiling faintly. "Evan, your father would never patronize you by 'only being nice.' He will always tell you the truth, if you only trust him." Leaning over, she kissed his cheek. "We both love you, Evan, and we believe in you."

"I love you, too, Mom. I missed you today."

"I missed you, too, Evan. Will you be able to go to sleep?"

"I think so."

"All right. I'm going to check on Vicky and then I'll probably go back to your father's chamber. If you need me..."

"I know. Goodnight, Mom."

"Goodnight, Evan."

As she started toward the exit, he whispered after her.

"What is it?" she asked, turning.

He produced a brave grin. "Thanks."

She smiled.

Talking to Evan had taken more time than she'd anticipated, and when Catherine reached the girls' dormitory chamber, the lamps had already been dimmed. Inside, the soft murmur of voices could still be heard, and Catherine found her way easily to Vicky's bed.

Vicky was still awake and Catherine sat on the edge of the bed. "Hi, sweetheart," she whispered.

"Hi, Mom," Vicky answered. "Is Daddy okay?"

Catherine was mildly surprised. "Of course he is, honey. Can't you feel him?"

Vicky shook her head. "No. Not at all today. He's been blocking me."

"Well, I suppose that's because he thinks you have enough to worry about, too," Catherine suggested.

"It scares me when he does it and you're not here," Vicky said.

"Vicky, your father tries to protect you from things that might be too big for you to handle. It's not your job to worry about him," Catherine said gently.

Vicky gave her a inquisitive look. "It's your job, though, isn't it?"

Catherine nodded slowly. "Yes, it is," she admitted. "When two people love each other as your father and I do, they have a responsibility to each other."

"He needed you, and you weren't here." Vicky's voice held an edge of resentment.

"I know I wasn't. I came as soon as I could." Catherine tried to keep her voice steady.

"I needed you, too."

"I know. Vicky, I'm sorry. I wanted to be here; you must know that."

Tears began to well in Vicky's eyes, and Catherine gathered her close. "It's okay. I'm here."

It wasn't long until Vicky slipped into an exhausted sleep. Catherine tucked the covers around her tenderly, brushing away the tears.

Looking up, she saw Mary standing alone near the center of the chamber. She seemed oddly still. Catherine approached her, concerned by the tense way Mary held herself, and how her hands twisted tightly together. "Mary?" she whispered.

At the sound of her name, Mary seemed to notice Catherine for the first time. "Oh, Catherine..." she began, and her voice wavered.

Instantly compassionate, Catherine put an arm around Mary's shoulders. So often, Mary had been a source of comfort to others; she wondered if anyone had thought to comfort Mary. "The girls are asleep," she whispered. "Come with me to your chamber and I'll make you some tea."

"Some tea," Mary repeated. "That would be nice, Catherine. Thank you."

It was fortunate Catherine knew the way to Mary's chamber, because the other woman seemed uncertain of her direction. Once there, Catherine guided Mary to a comfortable rocking chair before turning to the small brazier and the copper kettle that stood on an iron shelf above the coals.

"The water's hot," she said, trying to sound normal. "I'll have tea ready in a moment."

Mary didn't answer, but looked up a few minutes later when Catherine proffered a steaming cup. "Oh, Catherine," she said, sounding lost. "Father's always been the one we've turned to in times of trouble. I can't believe he's gone." Covering her face with her hands, she started to weep and again, Catherine held someone while they cried.

"Oh, Catherine, I'm sorry," Mary whispered when the tears ceased. "I don't know what came over me..."

"Of course you do," Catherine answered. "You loved Father; we all did."

"I didn't mean to cry on your shoulder, though. I meant to wait until later, when there was time..."

"You're like Vincent," Catherine soothed her. "Everyone is looking to you for strength, but you're grieving, too."

Mary nodded. "Thank you for understanding." She smiled wistfully. "I can't believe I'll never see him again. I'm going to miss him so much."

"We'll all miss him, Mary, the entire community. But for you it's different, isn't it?"

Mary looked down at her hands. "I didn't think it showed."

"It doesn't, not really. You've always taken such care of everyone here, Mary, but you seemed to take extra care of Father. I noticed it and wondered, that's all."

"There was never anything, you know," Mary explained, still watching her hands. "He was so busy, caught up in the responsibilities of our world... and there was Margaret..."

"I know he cared very much for you, too," Catherine assured her.

Mary forced a smile. "I know he did," she answered softly.The tea had cooled, so Catherine made a fresh pot for she and Mary to share. When it was gone, Mary looked more at peace. "Catherine, thank you for your kindness tonight. You made a difficult time much easier."

"I'm glad." Catherine rose and began to gather the tea things.

"Leave them, please?" Mary asked. "I'll take care of it. You have your family to care for."

Catherine smiled. "Mary, you're my family too, don't you know that? But I would like to get back to Vincent... if you're sure...?"

"I am," Mary said firmly, looking more like her usual competent self. "Go on, now."

Catherine went. She made a detour past the boys' dorm, but when she checked, both Evan and Jacob were asleep. Knowing her children were all safe satisfied her maternal instincts and freed her to return to Vincent's chamber.He was alone, open books spread across the table in front of him, writing, and she paused in the entrance to watch him. After a moment he pushed the papers away and stood up; there was no mistaking the relief in his eyes.

"There was a message from Charles," he said. "Devin's flight has been delayed. He says they'll spend the night at the house and come down in the morning."

"That's a good idea," Catherine agreed softly. "I'm sorry I didn't get to speak with him before he went."

"Catherine, Charles will be all right."

"I know he will. But I'm his mother, and sometimes I like to help my children through the rough places."

"You do, Catherine. Constantly. For them, and for me, too."

He turned back to the table, straightening the books and putting the papers in order; Catherine began to prepare for sleep. Once she'd slipped on a long, warm nightgown and brushed her hair, she climbed into bed, curling under the blankets to watch as Vincent moved methodically about the room, putting out the candles. When the last flame was extinguished, she pulled down the covers on his side and waited for him to join her. After a moment, she lifted her head from the pillow, seeking him in the darkened chamber. "Vincent?"

He didn't answer and it was a moment before her eyes adjusted to the dim glow cast by the stained glass window. Finally she found him, a dark silhouette standing near the mantel. He was very still, his head bowed, and she slid from the bed, shivering at the touch of the cool tunnel air on her bare legs and feet as she crossed the chamber to his side.

"What is it?" she whispered, wishing there was more light so she could better see his face.

The muscles of his forearm tightened beneath her hand. "I was remembering..." he began. His voice drifted away and she shook him, just a little.

"Remembering what?"

"Father. When we were boys, Devin and I." He stopped and she prodded him again.

"What would Father do?"

"We weren't allowed to put out the candles; he was afraid we'd set the place on fire, I guess..."

"Or that Devin would, anyway."

His hand came up, covering hers where it rested on his arm. "Perhaps," he agreed, his voice scarcely audible, even in the stillness. "He would come in, after we were in bed, to tuck us in and put out the lights..."

"And snuffing the candles made you think of that," she prompted softly.

"Devin's bed was there, under the window; mine was over against that wall." He gestured, showing her how the room had been arranged. "Father would come to me first, while Devin was taking his bath. He'd sit on the side of the bed and we'd talk."

"About what?"

"Everything. What I'd done that day; what I'd learned, what I'd read. Things that troubled me. When Devin came in, Father would kiss me goodnight and put out the candle by my bed. Then he'd go to Devin; Devin didn't like to be kissed, but Father would ruffle his hair, or pat his shoulder, and he'd put out Devin's candle and the room would be dark..." He stopped. She waited, but he didn't go on.

"When did you move the beds?"

"What?" The apparent non-sequitur had gained his attention and she could feel him looking at her.

"You said Devin's bed was the one under the window. When did you change?"

He bowed his head. "After Devin left, when we were searching for him, not knowing... I couldn't bear to lie in my bed and see Devin's empty. So I would wait until Father left the chamber and creep across to Devin's bed. Somehow, seeing my own bed unoccupied was easier."

"Father never knew?"

"I think he must have known, but he never spoke of it."

"Perhaps he knew it comforted you."

"Yes. Perhaps he..." He broke off abruptly and she pressed his arm; she could see the shine of tears streaking his cheeks.

"Vincent?"

The stillness was broken by his strangled sob and with a sharp gasp he turned, burying his face against her shoulder; her arms went around him, holding him close. His sudden release of grief had stolen coherent speech; all he could seem to manage was her name, over and over.

"It's all right," she soothed, stroking his hair. "It's all right now. I'm here." Her own eyes filled and she felt the wetness of his tears as he turned his head, kissing her cheek, her ear, and the side of her neck. There was no tenderness, only a desolate, instinctive need to fill the emptiness and she gave herself to him willingly, murmuring soft words of love and consolation as she drew him toward the bed. His distraught lovemaking was much more a life-affirming gesture than an outpouring of passion; afterward, he buried his face in her hair and cried.

"Catherine, I'm sorry," he whispered much later, when the tears had all been spent and he found his voice again.

"Do you think I don't understand what you're feeling?" she whispered fiercely. "Vincent, when my father died..."

He raised his head to meet her eyes. "Yes. I remember. I knew what you needed but I couldn't..."

"You weren't ready then, but I wanted to do this for you, Vincent. I want to be here for you."

"You are. Always."

She felt a familiar sense of awe that even now, in the midst of sorrow, he could find the strength to be concerned for her. "I should have been here for you," she whispered. "All day, it's all I could think: that I should be here, helping you."

"Catherine, no. You came as soon as you could; I know that."

"You needed me, Vincent and I wasn't here. I'm sorry."

"Oh, my love," he murmured, pulling her tightly against him, "you were here, in my heart. I could feel you, and it gave me courage."

She almost believed him.

* * * *

When Catherine awoke, Vincent had already risen, and the chamber was empty. Dressed in the soft, warm clothing she kept in his chamber, she went in search of him, a search that naturally led to Father's study. As she came in one entrance, Devin came in another. She stopped, watching as Devin crossed the chamber quickly to catch Vincent in a hard, masculine embrace.

"Devin. Thank you for coming," Vincent said when they stepped back to look at each other.

"Hey, he was my father, too," Devin said awkwardly. "I had to come. Where's Chandler and the kids?"

"The children are at breakfast," Vincent said softly. "Catherine is here."

Smiling, Catherine moved from the shadowed doorway where she'd been observing. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop. We're glad you're here, Devin."

Devin flashed a grin. "I'm glad I'm able to be here. I wish you'd teach me that trick, Vincent," he added.

"Which trick is that, Devin?" Vincent inquired.

"The one you just did... knowing she's there without turning your head."

Vincent treated them to one of his slow smiles and Catherine was suddenly grateful to Devin and his droll wit. As Vincent turned toward her, he seemed stronger, more centered than he had been last night, and the guilt that had burdened her since yesterday eased a little.

"It isn't a trick, Devin, and it can't be taught," Vincent explained. "It has to be felt..." He touched his chest lightly. "Here."

Devin nodded. "I guess I can't do it, then," he said. "I've never had much luck feeling things."

Vincent studied him slowly. "If that were true, you wouldn't be here now," he said. Devin seemed at a loss for words, and after a moment, Vincent went on. "Have you eaten today?"

The change of subject seemed to give Devin a chance to regain his emotional balance. "No, not yet. We wanted to get down here..." A wave of his hand included Charles, who stood quietly observing.

"Perhaps we should all go to breakfast together," Catherine suggested. "Vincent, I know you haven't eaten yet..."

In the dining chamber, the tunnel denizens were huddled together in small groups. The shock of losing Father was not so new today, but grief was still strong and voices were hushed. A few greeted Devin solemnly, expressing regret, but most seemed absorbed in their own sorrow.

After serving themselves from the buffet-style table William kept laden, Catherine, Vincent, Devin, and Charles found a small table in a corner. Despite all the talk about eating, none of them had much appetite, merely pushing the food around as they talked.

"When's the service, Vincent?" Devin asked.

"Tomorrow," Vincent answered. "He wanted to be interred down in the catacombs. With Grace."

Devin raised his eyebrows. "Not Above with Margaret?"

"He left a letter," Vincent explained. "I found it yesterday. This is his world and this is where he wants to be."

Devin nodded slowly, looking bemused.

"About the service, Devin," Vincent continued. "I've been trying to compose a eulogy, but I wondered if perhaps it's your place to deliver it."

Devin stared at him for a long moment. "Vincent, I don't know exactly why you're saying that, but everyone knows you've always been more his son than I am."

"He loved you, Devin," Vincent argued.

"I'm not saying he didn't love me," Devin countered. "I'm just saying that you're the one who should deliver the eulogy."

Catherine reached for Vincent's hand. "Are you worried about giving Father's eulogy?"

"No. Father was always there for me, no matter how difficult the problem, even when it meant risking his life." There was exchange of deep looks with Catherine. "This is something I must do for myself, as well as for Father."

"All right. As long as you're sure." Catherine's smile was reassuring, but she didn't release his hand.

"I'll say something if you think I should, Vincent," Devin offered slowly. "It's just we weren't really that close..."

"It isn't necessary, Devin," Vincent assured. "I only wanted to give you the opportunity." He smiled. "You've already done something for him."

"What?"

"Father received a letter from you only three days ago. He said the stories you told made him feel he was there on the oil rigs with you. It was all he could talk about."

"Yeah? I'm glad." Devin grinned. "It's a funny thing about that letter. You know how I hate to write... but last week, something kept nudging me, telling me I should sit down and write my father a long letter... I found myself telling him stories I knew he wouldn't approve of, but his approval suddenly didn't seem so important anymore. I just wanted him to know I was thinking about him. For the first time, I even told him I loved him. If I hadn't written that letter..."

"But you did," Catherine interjected. "That's what's important."

"Yeah," Devin said. "I guess so."

* * * *

The next morning found the entire community and most of the Helpers crowded into the Great Hall.

Before them, Vincent stood, tall and somber, waiting patiently for the noise to die down. Gradually a silence fell across the hall and he began to speak.

"I look across this hall at all the faces, remembering how much my father cared for each one of you... how much each of you meant to him..."

Catherine watched him, listening to him tell the story of how Father had founded their world on hope and love, knowing how difficult this was for him. Beside her, Vicky was weeping softly into Charles's shirt. Possessed of an inborn serenity that could carry him through anything, Charles comforted his sister with an arm around her shoulders.

On Catherine's other side stood Evan, and she studied him furtively. The set of his mouth was grim, but he was painfully dry-eyed. He shot her a grateful sidelong glance when she pressed his hand in solace. Beyond Evan stood Jacob. His face was drawn in grief, his cheeks wet, but his chin was raised bravely.

Catherine wished she could take away her children's grief, draw it into herself somehow. It was a futile wish, though, as so many of a mother's wishes are, so she tucked it carefully away in a corner of her soul.

She turned her attention back to Vincent, who was reading a passage from Antoine De Saint-Exupery's *The Little Prince*.

"'...At night you will look up at the stars... And you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens... In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night...

"'And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend.'"

He looked up; his eyes were wet but his voice was steady. "The man we called Father was a parent and a teacher to all of us; he was also our friend..."

After the service, the mourners dispersed slowly and it was well into afternoon by the time Catherine found her way into Father's study again. Vincent, Devin, Pascal, and a few others who had grown up Below were gathered on one side of the chamber; hushed laughter indicated they were telling childhood tales. Vincent looked up when she came in, but didn't move to join her.

The chamber's only other occupants were Jacob and Amanda, who pored over an open newspaper spread out on Father's desk. Jacob was reading from an item while Amanda rubbed his forearm in a soothing, half-automatic gesture; Catherine wondered if her son was truly as composed as he appeared.

He looked up as she approached. "Look, Mom. It passed."

Catherine gave him a blank look. She was still focused on Jacob and his needs and had no idea what he was talking about. "What passed?"

"The child abuse bill. It passed."

She felt suddenly absolved. "Good. That makes it worthwhile."

"The effort was worthwhile whether the measure passed or not, Catherine." Vincent had come up behind her.

"I meant... not being here..."

"That's the bill they debated the day Grandfather died," Jacob told his father helpfully. "That's why we were late."

"You had a responsibility, Catherine."

"I wanted to be with you, Vincent. If there had been a clear majority either way..."

"Two votes, Mom," Jacob broke in. "That was the margin. Two votes."

"One of them yours?" Vincent asked.

Catherine nodded.

"And the other possibly swayed by the speech you made," he concluded.

"How did you know about the speech?"

"I read it in the paper."

"It's in here, Mom," Jacob said. "Most of it, anyway."

"It must have been a slow news day," Catherine said, chagrined.

"It was a good speech," Jacob argued. "My class heard it from the gallery. I was proud of you."

Across the room, Devin was calling for Vincent to rejoin the group. "I agree with Jacob; it was a good speech," Vincent said to Catherine, his voice low. "I, too, am proud of you."

* * * *

Catherine stayed home the week following the funeral, feeling her family needed her far more than the legislature did. She spoke with Tim and Megan, just to keep up with events, but her primary concern was family.Because Vincent felt his new responsibilities keenly, the family stayed Below, though Catherine privately felt he just needed the security of the home he'd always known.

Vincent was healing; she could see it. Though he missed Father dreadfully, the sadness was bearable; he had accepted the loss and was grateful for the memories. There were still moments when grief threatened to overwhelm him, of course, and at those times Catherine was there to comfort him.

Like Vincent, Charles had a deep inner stillness; it gave him a spiritual strength that enabled him to endure his grief. Vicky, too, was mourning her grandfather in what Catherine thought was a healthy manner.

Only Evan still dragged around looking grimly unhappy. His prickly nature had reasserted itself, and she was wary of approaching him; however, Vincent assured her that Evan was working through his grief in his own way.

Jacob was dealing with his grandfather's loss in another way. Apparently driven to complete his chronicle of Father's stories. He spent hours each day with the older tunnel residents, tape recorder in hand, asking them to repeat the tunnel legends. Evenings were spent hunched over a notebook, painstakingly transcribing the day's tapes.

Even caring for her family didn't fill all her time, and one morning, after visiting with Mary over cups of herb tea, Catherine found herself at loose ends.

Wandering by Father's Chamber, she found Vincent and Charles bent over a long table with Pascal, William, and Jamie. Maps and charts were spread across the table's surface and a vigorous argument was taking place. Vincent glanced up when she came in, but he was clearly distracted, and with an apologetic smile, she backed out again.

Her next stop was Vincent's chamber, her home away from home, but it was already occupied. Some of the children had gathered there, including her own younger ones, and were telling stories of Father. She stood in the entry for a few moments, listening, before turning away.

What she had overheard had prompted her own bittersweet memories of Father; her inner ear brought back his voice from long ago as he harshly castigated her temerity in loving his son. The memory made her suddenly miserable, and she tried to change it. Abruptly came the knowledge of how much she herself missed him and she swallowed hard.

Looking up, she found that her aimless wandering had brought her to the Whispering Gallery. Stepping out onto the bridge, she listened, but there were no voices today.

"You know, they say the Abyss goes down forever." Devin's casual comment cut through the quiet of the chamber. She whirled to face him. "You okay, Chandler?"

For a moment, the grief she'd been keeping at bay threatened to choke her; with an effort, she stifled it. "Yes, of course."

He nodded and stepped out on the bridge to join her, looking down over the railing. "When we were kids, we used to go down to the lower levels and drop things down, hoping to hear them strike bottom. We never did."

She smiled in spite of herself. "I know. According to Vincent, there used to be a lot more rocks up in Central Park."

Gazing down into the bottomless depths, Devin's expression became distant.

Instinctively, Catherine touched his arm. "Devin, are you all right?"

When he looked at her, his usual insouciant expression was gone; his eyes were bleak. "I don't know," he answered finally. "I guess I thought he'd live forever."

"No one lives forever, Devin, but your father had a good life," she said slowly.

"Yeah. And a son who walked out on him when he was fourteen. A son who let him think he was dead for twenty years."

"Don't do this to yourself," she said softly. "He loved you, Devin. He understood why you had to go."

"Did he really?"

"I know he did. He talked about you, Devin. He knew your heart was always up there somewhere," she gestured toward the rock ceiling arching so high above their heads. "And that you had to follow it. You always came back, though, and that meant everything to him."

Devin's eyes were shining with tears and he sniffed them back impatiently.

"It's okay to cry," she told him softly.

"Vincent's lucky he has you, Chandler," Devin said with a sidelong glance.

She shook her head, not looking at him.

"What is it?" he turned toward her, putting his hand on her shoulder.

She shrugged. "I wasn't able to be here that day," she said. "I guess I'm still feeling guilty."

"You shouldn't feel that way," he said. "You're the best thing that ever happened to him."

"Maybe," she admitted, knowing in spite of herself that he was right.

"And you're taking care of your kids," he challenged."And me. And Mary," he continued relentlessly.

She wanted to smile, but the sorrow was rising in her again and she was afraid of bursting into tears.

"What I want to know," he continued, "is who holds you when you cry, Cathy?"

The question startled her, and she jerked her head up to look at him. "Vincent does," she said, surprised to hear defiance in her voice.

"Yeah? Well, I think he'd better do it pretty soon," Devin observed gently. "You look pretty close to the edge."

"You know, it's strange; all my memories today are of the times Father was angry with me, when he believed I was a threat to Vincent's happiness."

Devin looked startled. "The old man thought that?"

"Yes. We were adversaries for quite a while."

"I never knew that." Devin's grin was wry, if a trifle shaky. "Nice to know he could be irritated with somebody besides me."

"In the same cause, though," Catherine pointed out.

"Protecting Vincent," Devin agreed.

Catherine nodded slowly.

"And the old man won't be around anymore to do that," he observed.

In a heartbeat, Catherine knew why all her memories of Father were angry ones; it was because she was alone now. Of all those who loved Vincent, and there were many, no one else felt that fierce desire to protect him at all costs. Father had. It had been the basis for most of his fears and the root of his early hostility. In later times, he had lent her strength and support. And now he was gone.

Abruptly and without warning, she began to cry. Beside her, she could feel Devin folding her into a clumsy embrace. Helplessly, she leaned against him, sobbing. A moment later, his hold loosened. "Here," she heard him say gruffly, and Vincent was there. Gratefully, she turned into his arms, clinging to his vest, burying her face against his chest.

At last her sobs eased and she lifted her head to find Vincent looking down on her with compassion. "Thank you," she whispered, wiping her wet cheeks.

"You're all right now." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes," she agreed, still sniffling a little. "Where's Devin?"

"I don't know," Vincent answered, turning to look, too.Remembering the sorrow in Devin's dark eyes, she suspected he'd gone to seek his own privacy.

* * * *

Later, Devin joined the family at dinner. Taking a seat beside Catherine, he nudged her arm.

"Check out the kid," he murmured, with a surreptitious nod toward Evan.

As she studied her youngest son, she could see the shadow in his eyes was gone, and he carried himself as if a great burden had been lifted. Vincent noticed it too, and glanced at Devin inquiringly.

"We found each other in the Chamber of the Winds," he explained, pitching his voice low so it wouldn't carry. "He was crying. We spent a long time down there, talking. Hell, I even cried a little, myself." He produced a half-embarrassed grin. "He's going to be okay now," he added with certainty.

Catherine nodded and Vincent leaned back almost imperceptibly. "Thank you, Devin," Catherine murmured. "For me and for Evan."

They were all healing, getting past that first, terrible grief, but there was still a vast emptiness left by Father's passing. Still, a week after the funeral she knew she needed to get back to Albany.

"You can stay another week if you like, Jacob," she offered, thinking he might not be ready to return.

He looked up from writing in his ever-present notebook. "No, that's okay," he said. "I'll go."

It surprised her. "Are you sure?"

He grinned. "What would you do without me? One for all and all for one, remember?"

Devin looked up from playing chess with Vincent. "Hey, Chandler, what time are you leaving tomorrow?"

"Why?"

"I was hoping you could drop me off at JFK."

"Devin, the airport's east. The most direct route to Albany is west, through New Jersey," Catherine pointed out.

"Does that mean you won't take me?"

"It means I'll lend you cab fare. Are you going back to Texas?"

Devin shook his head. "I thought I'd visit a friend in Illinois - and after that, who knows?" He shrugged expansively, grinning, and both Catherine and Vincent knew there was no point in trying to pin him down.

* * * *

The next afternoon was one of departures as Devin left for Illinois while Catherine and Jacob set out on the now-familiar road to Albany. Jacob brought his notebook and tape recorder, earphones dangling around his neck as he scribbled rapidly. Catherine thought about asking him to put it away and talk to her, but he was so wrapped up in his work, she hesitated to disturb him.

Jacob's obsession with transcribing Father's stories continued; he still made time to prepare their meals, but often she came home to find him leaning on the kitchen counter with a spoon in one hand and a pen in the other, absently stirring while he wrote.

"Mom, may I stay home from school today?"

Automatically she felt his forehead. "Why? Are you sick?"

He pulled away from her hand impatiently. "I'm fine... I just... Mom, I have to finish this story. I've been trying and trying to remember the way Grandfather used to tell it and I couldn't. And then last night, I dreamed about it. Grandfather told the story, the whole story, just for me, Mom, and if I don't write it down right away, I'll forget it." The words rushed from him in an impassioned torrent. "Please?"

"This really means a lot to you, doesn't it?" she asked slowly.

"It does, it really does! Please, Mom. You know I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."

She considered him carefully. "Are you sure you'll be all right by yourself?"

It was the naturalness of his response that persuaded her, as he gave an exasperated snort. "Mom, I'm thirteen."

She smiled. "Yes, I know you are. All right, Jacob, you may stay home today, and today only."

When she got home that evening, he was sprawled on the couch, so soundly asleep that he didn't hear her come in. The urgency was finally gone from his face, and Catherine realized she hadn't seen him so relaxed in weeks.

She covered him up and he slept through until morning.

"I finished it, Mom!" he exulted. "Look!" His face glowed with accomplishment.

Even though she knew the hours he'd spent, she was surprised what he handed her. "This is wonderful, Jacob," she said, reading a line or paragraph here and there.

* * * *

Three weeks later the legislative session ended. Catherine and Jacob packed their belongings and headed home.

That evening the family gathered together in the big study on the second floor of their Upper West Side townhouse, and Catherine watched with pride as Jacob unveiled his first completed story.

"This is splendid," Vincent said, turning pages slowly. "I can almost hear Father speak. I'm proud of you, Jacob. The stories of our world will never be lost now."

Later, in the privacy of their bedroom, Catherine slid into bed beside Vincent, moving to snuggle against his shoulder. "I thought the legislative session would never end," she sighed. "It's good to be home."

"I never before realized how long five months can be," Vincent agreed. He nuzzled the top of her head. "I'm glad you decided not to go back."

She burrowed into the warmth of his embrace. "I've been reminded recently of the fragility of life; of how precious my family really is. I never want to look back and wish I'd taken more time with you, or with the children. I want to have that time, and enjoy it." She smiled. "The legislature can get along without me; I don't want my family to."

He caught her hand, turning it to kiss the palm.

 

How are the waters of the world sweet - if we should die, we have drunk them... if we should fail or secede - we have tasted of happiness - we must be written in the book of the blessed. We have had what life could give... we have known - we have been the mystery of the universe.

- John Jay Chapman

 

The End