Spring Break

by Margaret Davis

Author's note: Nonie first appeared in a story in Within the Crystal Rose I written by Linda Mooney.


The park lay covered in pristine white, heaps and billows of snow covered everything. The wind howled and moaned, whistling around buildings and trees and driving the snow into every crevice. The children of the city watched with noses pressed against windows. The sudden storm had driven them from their playgrounds and sidewalk games and held them prisoner. Later there would be sledding and snow forts and piles of snow balls gathered to pelt the unwary, but for now they were prisoners... bored prisoners.

While the city Above quieted and ground slowly to a halt under the onslaught of what would eventually be eighteen inches of snow, the city Below teemed with activity. In the Main Pipe Chamber, Pascal darted from one side to another in a blur of motion. He slid to a stop in front of a large black pipe and rapped out a message.

 

Food pickup, Zeke's Deli, bring cart. When the acknowledgement sounded, he darted away to relay two more messages of safe arrival from residents caught Above in the storm. He knew Father was worried about several of the older children who had gone to pick up a package from a Helper and had not yet returned.

There had been several extra food pickups requested. Helpers in restaurants suddenly faced with few if any patrons, knew where the leftovers could be used. Pascal rested a minute as the messages slowed. Later he would wonder if he would have heard the signal at all if the pipes had not been silent for a moment.

 

S O S S O S, the faint tapping drew him quickly to a seldom-used pipe.

 

Who, he signaled and waited. No response. He waited, bare forehead pressed against the pipe to catch the tiniest of sounds.

 

S O S, the signal was faint and hesitant.

 

Where, he pounded out the word. When no answer came, he tried again. W h e r e h e l p?

Lost, the reply was a series of soft taps.

 

W h o l o s t? The other traffic on the pipes halted as he rapped out an All Quiet.

 

Nonie. Her tapping was hesitant and uneven, but her name was clear.

Vincent raced through the tunnels in answer to Pascal's message. Little Nonie had lost her way in the tunnels that led from the park entrance. As he ran, Vincent could hear Pascal's carefully slow messages designed to reassure the girl that help was on the way.

 

V i n c e n t c o m i n g. S t a y t h e r e.

Vincent was close to the tunnel to which Pascal had directed him when he was hit by a bolt of fear and heard the high-pitched scream of mortal fear from the lost child. He rounded the corner, his cloak billowing behind him, to see Nonie braced against the wall and staring in horror at the tunnel floor. A centipede, unconcerned about his audience, crawled across the stone, his legs a blur of motion as he bustled along. Vincent reached down to pick up the child who burrowed her face into his neck and sobbed.

"You're safe, Nonie. It's all right, you're safe now," he crooned and patted her back. She had been in the tunnels only a few weeks, since her grandmother died and left her with no family. She had blossomed in the short time under Mary's care and William's cooking. Her cheeks had filled out and the dark shadows under her eyes had disappeared.

The child had an extraordinary empathic ability. As yet untrained and untested, she nevertheless projected strong emotions, Lately Vincent had sensed a restlessness from her, a longing for green, growing things. Her feelings had prompted him to mention a long-planned project to Father, and the wheels had been set in motion.

Nonie's sobs faded into a series of hiccuping sniffles and finally she was silent.

"Are you all right?" Vincent inquired gently, even though he knew she had come to no harm.

"I called for so long, I thought you'd never come. Are you gonna whack me?" she asked in a pitiful tone.

"Why would I do that?" he was mystified by her question.

"Gram used to whack me if I was bad, before she got sick, I mean."

"And have you disobeyed?" he inquired.

"Mary and Father said I mustn't go 'sploring cause I might get lost. I just wanted to see the trees and the grass, Vincent. I followed Jamie and Mouse when they left and I closed the door real careful. It was windy and raining so I didn't leave the drainage tunnel, but then I got lost trying to get back to our chamber."

"You remembered to call for help, Nonie, and that was a wise thing. What have you learned from this?" Vincent looked into the tearstained face and tried not to smile.

"I can't never go to the Park again." she said with a sigh, the weight of the world on her shoulders.

"No, that's not true. But you must always go with someone else until you're older. Do you understand why?"

"Yes. Don't put me down, that bug'll get me!" She had felt Vincent's move to set her on her feet.

"It's a centipede, Nonie. Centipede means a hundred feet. That's why he moves so fast. Wouldn't you move quickly if you had a hundred legs?"

Vincent's questions had the desired affect of arousing the child's curiosity and she peered down at the floor from the safely of her perch in his arms.

"Really? A hundred feet? Are you gonna step on it and squash it?"

"Why should I kill it? He's done me no harm," Vincent said.

"Oooh, I hate bugs! I always step on 'em. 'Cept roaches, sometimes they jump on your shoe and try to run up your socks!" She twitched at the thought, feeling hundreds of little bug feet crawling on her.

Vincent smothered a laugh at the picture her words conjured up. This child had been exposed to the harsh realities of life when her Grandmother had become ill. Her empathic nature had drawn her to Vincent's mind long before he knew her physical location. In her dreams she reached out for comfort and, touching a kindred soul, had been aware of his serene thoughts.

Months later, when death claimed her last living relative, her unhappiness had finally made her rescue possible, as Vincent was drawn to her location by the touch of her thoughts.

He carried her into the main tunnel and then set her down. "Come, take my hand, we'll go to your chamber together." Hand in hand they paced the tunnels toward the living quarters, each warmed by the touch of the other's heart.

* * * * *

It had been Eric and Geoffrey who broached the idea of Spring Break to Vincent and subsequently to Father. Eric seemed genuinely puzzled that the tunnel classes didn't have the pre-Easter vacation planned. His explanations to the other children had them clamoring for the Tunnel version. Finally a plan had been agreed upon. The children certain that they had won a major victory, gloated about the vacation time granted, unaware that Father and Vincent had activities planned that were fun and a learning experience.

In truth, the idea of a break was a welcome thought. The long winter months between Winterfest and spring passed slowly even in the tunnels. The children were restless and the adults found they shared the feeling. Spring break would bring them all renewal.

* * * * *

Vincent, the pied piper of the tunnels, led the children toward the special chamber where the first of the special events would take place. The children plied him with questions and guesses about where they were headed and what they would do when they got there.

"Patience is a virtue," he intoned in his best Father imitation and was rewarded by a round of laughter from his followers. As he led them downward and through several connecting tunnels, the air began to warm. Finally he stopped and turned to face them.

"Wait here a moment, please." He ducked into a side tunnel. Down the passage the tunnel opened into a large cavern.

"Mouse?" he inquired in the direction of the figure bent over along one wall.

"Vincent!" Mouse's head popped up from where he had been counting the tools. "Start now?"

"The children are waiting outside, is everything ready?" Vincent asked.

"Seeds, tools, water can, marking things, string," Mouse looked down at the supplies as he counted off the items needed. "Ready."

"I'll get the children," Vincent said and started back out of the cavern.

"Okay good... okay fine!" The grin Mouse gave Vincent's retreating back was an indication of his excitement. He had worked all week on rigging the lights and waited expectantly for the others to see the results of his work.

The eager voices of the children preceded them into the chamber. Geoffrey was the first one into the cavern and he exclaimed in wonder.

"Look, look--a garden. We're going to have our garden!" he shouted.

To laughter and squeals of delight, the children pulled off their outer layers of clothes made unnecessary by the natural warmth of the cavern which was close to the steam pipes and the Mineral Springs. Each selected tools from the pile at Mouse's feet and waited for Vincent to direct them.

He laid aside his cloak and quilted vest and picked up a hoe. "First we prepare the ground by raking it, pulling out any big rocks and then adding compost and working it into the soil."

They moved apart to stake out their plots without quarreling. Kipper and Eric had to be persuaded that their rakes were not swords and that gardening was the activity of the day. Then everyone settled down and worked diligently raking and smoothing the soil.

At the noon hour Mary and Rebecca appeared with picnic baskets of sandwiches, carrot sticks, oatmeal cookies and juice. A cheer went up from the workers who made quick work of washing hands and faces in the basin Mary filled from the nearby spring. Then they gathered around a blanket that Mary pulled from one basket each vying to tell the results of the morning's efforts.

After lunch Mouse tested his work and the chamber was flooded with the lavender light of the ultraviolet bulbs Catherine had donated. The exclamations of wonder thrilled Mouse and he capered about in a happy dance.

"Knew it worked... make garden grow big! Look, Vincent... brought water. Need it." Mouse led the way to a shadowy corner of the cavern where a pipe protruded from the wall and ended in an ordinary faucet. He turned it on and water gushed forth from the opening and all around the joints and fittings. He shut it off quickly, "Needs new washers."

Shallow irrigation channels etched in the soil would bring life-giving water to the seeds. A large rock under the outlet would prevent undue erosion. As Vincent explained these plans, they carried them out and water soon gurgled down the man-made stream beds.

Each child selected a packet of seeds to plant in the rows they had marked. Peter Alcott had donated a package of tongue depressors for marking sticks. Father had sputtered about using brand new ones in a garden until Peter presented him with a second new box for the hospital chamber.

Nonie sifted the through the packages. Each had a colorful picture of the mature product and she found it hard to choose. Finally, the big bumpy seeds in the green bean packet seemed to have more appeal than anything else, and she lifted it from the box.

Vincent showed each one how to plant the seeds they had chosen. The cucumbers and squash had to have hills of soil where fifteen seeds were planted together. Nonie's green beans were placed at intervals in the row and then the soil was firmed after they covered the seeds by walking sideways on top of the row.

Each new seed brought a different adventure but by late afternoon everything had been planted even the potatoes. William had given them all the potatoes that had started to grow roots. The children so carefully taught conservation measures, were surprised these perfectly good potatoes were to be cut up and planted. It gave Vincent the perfect opportunity to explain about germination and the need for something for the new plants to feed upon until its root system was established.

As he spoke, Vincent heard Catherine's name on the pipes. He knew she planned to meet him here after work. Her happiness at seeing him soon, wrapped around his heart, and there was another feeling as well--she was excited. Vincent could almost feel the racing of her pulse as she hurried through the tunnels.

The source of her excitement was evident when she entered the cavern carrying a small tree. As the children gathered around her each trying to be the first to tell her of the day's adventures, she looked over their heads and into Vincent's eyes and smiled.

"I brought this for your garden," she said to the group. "It's a fig tree."

"Look, Nonie, a tree! You wanted to see trees and now you can have one right here in the tunnels!" Geoffrey's kind heart made the connection instantly. He remembered when he first came to the tunnels and how he had longed for trees as Nonie did now.

Shovels were brought and a hole quickly dug for the tree. Carefully they removed it from the pot and placed it into its new home. The hole was filled in and then they watered it. Nonie tugged on Catherine's hand and when Catherine bent down to her, Nonie wrapped her arms around her.

"Thank you for the tree," she said.

* * * * *

"Look, Vincent!" Zack held up his creation for his mentor's approval.

"Excellent work, Zack," Vincent praised, "all you need now is the tail."

They had worked on building kites for two days. They had read the principles of aerodynamics and designed kites to illustrate what they had learned. Constance had provided the strips of cloth to make the tails and rolls of string had been found in a drawer in Father's desk.

Vincent assembled another kite with help from the younger children; it reminded him of his youth when Devin was still in the tunnels. One day Devin had seen children Above flying kites and had returned full of ideas for Vincent. They had constructed their kite and taken it to the Chamber of the Winds. The string had not been long enough and the kite had been snatched away by the wind and dashed against the roof of the chamber. But for a few glorious moments, it had dipped and swayed and flown high above them.

The next day was Saturday and the children clamored around Vincent after morning meal to ask when they would fly their kites.

"Let's go meet Catherine and then we'll start," he suggested.

When Catherine descended the ladder from the sub-basement into the tunnels, she found a tribe of willing escorts and Vincent waiting for her. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder and carried a plastic sack over one wrist.

"Well," she asked as she looked into the eager faces, "are you ready to fly kites?" There was a chorus of affirmatives from the group.

"Me, too! I have another box to bring down, it will just take me a minute," she said and dumped the backpack and sack on the tunnel floor. She went up the ladder and carefully looked around before walking to the parking garage and her car. From the trunk she lifted a box a foot square; the lettering on the side read "15 Dozen".

Catherine handed the box down to Vincent then followed down the ladder. She picked up her things as she turned to the group, "Okay, I'm ready."

The children outpaced Vincent and Catherine who walked side by side carrying the box and the backpack.

"Fifteen dozen?" Vincent questioned softly.

"Well, I wasn't sure how many we needed," Catherine replied. "And I thought one box is easier to carry than all those long cartons, and it's a tradition Above, that you eat lots of eggs after Easter! Egg salad, deviled eggs, plain eggs... " she stopped as the giggles got the best of her.

"And who are we to stand in the way of tradition?" Vincent asked, the amusement plain in his tone.

"Right! I brought all kinds of decorating kits and food coloring to dye them with, I can hardly wait!"

"Kites, first," Vincent reminded her.

They left the box with William in the kitchen and Catherine's backpack in Vincent's chamber. After all the kites had been duly admired by Catherine, the group carried their creations down toward the Chamber of the Winds. Cloaks and sweaters were left in the outer corridor and final preparations for flight began.

From the plastic sack, Catherine pulled a green Chinese kite with a long tail and a ball of string. She attached the string as the package directions indicated and then waited with the eager children for time to begin.

There was no need to run to make the kites airborne. All that was required was a friend to stand on the stairs and hold it up while the owner walked forward. Instantly the wind snatched it away and threw the kite up toward the high chamber ceiling. Then a cross current caught it and it veered away to the side. There was joyous laughter as the creations took on a life of their own and danced above them tethered only by the slender strands held by each child.

"Watch it, watch it!" Kipper shouted as his kite dipped toward Geoffrey's. For a moment it looked like they could avoid a collision, then the two kites tangled together and swooped downward to crash against one of the pillars near the entrance.

One of the struts on Kipper's was broken and the tail had been ripped loose from Geoffrey's. Gently they untangled the pieces and bent over them in serious consultation.

"We can fix them," Kipper declared. "Come on, let's do it now and then we can come back. Okay, Vincent?"

"We'll await your return. Just remember to add equal weight to the other side so it will fly straight," he cautioned.

"Okay, we'll be back soon." They dashed out of the chamber intent on making fast repairs and returning to the fun.

"Are you going to fly your kite, Vincent?" Zack shouted to be heard above the winds.

Vincent glanced at Catherine as he picked up his kite. "Are you ready to fly yours, too?" he asked.

"I'm having fun watching. I'll wait for a while. Do you want me to hold the kite while you get started?" she asked.

"Please."

Catherine stood on the stair with her back to the chamber. She could feel the wind tugging at the kite, ready to pull it away from her. When Vincent said "Ready", she held it above her head and released it. Instantly it soared above her, dancing from side to side. Her hair whipped around her face as she descended and moved back to the place by the wall where the winds were less fierce.

Nonie waited for Catherine to sit down again and curled up next to her. She felt the warmth of Catherine's arm around her and was comforted. This place was scary and she didn't like it much; but she was unwilling to be parted from Vincent and the other children under any circumstances.

There were other places down here that made her afraid. The North Well, with its endless circling stairs was something to be avoided no matter who escorted her. It was there she had heard a shriek in her mind, a sound of pain and fear. She felt a presence there, something that wanted to hurt and to kill. She dreamed of it, sometimes, a darkness and a voice--soft and deadly. When she screamed at the voice, she had awakened in Vincent's embrace.

"What is it, Nonie?"

"Don't let it get me, please! Don't let it hurt me, Vincent!"

She remembered his comforting words that told her she was safe now and nothing would harm her. That was why she didn't want to be away from Vincent. He would protect her from the bad in this place.

"Look, Nonie," Catherine said.

She looked up and watched in awe as the three kites held by Vincent, Zack and Patrick flew high above them. She laughed as the kites dipped and swayed, and all thoughts of darkness and fear were pushed aside for the moment.

Lunchtime arrived all too soon. The children were reminded of the afternoon activities as they packed up the kites and dashed off to see if William had really boiled 15 dozen eggs.

"You didn't fly your kite, Catherine," Vincent's head tilted to one side. "Why?"

"I just enjoyed watching so much, that there never was a good time to start," she replied as she gazed up into his face and those piercing blue eyes.

"Perhaps now is a good time?" he asked.

"Sure, why not."

Vincent stood on the fourth step and waited for her nod. When she gave it, he released her kite and it jumped up into the air. The pull on the string was incredible and Catherine tried to let it out slowly.

She was so intent on watching the kite and steering it away from the walls, that she didn't notice where Vincent was until he came up behind her. He reached around on either side and placed his hands over hers on the string. Catherine leaned back against his chest and relished the warmth and sense of safety.

 

Who would have thought flying kites could be so romantic, she thought and tried to smother it before Vincent sensed her feelings in their bond. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and realized from the penetrating gaze that he was well aware of her feelings. All thoughts of kites and winds were forgotten as she lost herself in those azure depths.

Her face was so expressive, he doubted she knew how much of her thoughts were so clearly seen. Her eyes seemed to change color with her emotions from the jade of this moment to sometimes a silvery grey when she was deeply troubled. And always in my heart, the gentle touch of her love.

The wind whipped his golden mane around her face to mingle with the honey brown of her hair. Time seemed to stand still as the two each gazed at the beloved face of the other. He swayed toward her and her lips parted in anticipation of that for which she longed.

"Vincent? Catherine?" the voice seemed to echo and reverberate all through the chamber.

Vincent stepped away from Catherine as Mouse bounded into the chamber.

"What is it, Mouse?"

"Father said late for lunch, forgot the time. Mouse came to find. Ooh, neat kite! Mouse try it?" he inquired as he bounced from one foot to the other.

"Sure, Mouse," Catherine's voice had a tone of amusement as she handed over the string. One of these days there won't be any interruptions, Vincent, she glanced at him and from the slight crinkling at the corners of his eyes, she knew he heard the message.

* * * * *

"All right, who can tell me how many eggs are in fifteen dozen?" Father asked. Never one to let an opportunity to teach the children pass him by, he used the eggs as an opportunity to ask math questions. How many half dozens in the entire box, how many kettles needed if thirty eggs would be boiled at one time?

The most important question came from the children's perspective: how many eggs would each one get to decorate? In the kitchen William wondered how many egg salad sandwiches would be tolerated and who was going to peel all those eggs, as he lifted yet another batch from the boiling water.

* * * * *

Catherine looked around the dining chamber at the groups of children decorating their eggs. Her loving glance touched each one and finally stopped on Vincent. He was listening to Patrick explain why purple eggs were prettier than green ones. She saw Nonie's lower lip protruding and realized she was the one who had dyed all her eggs green.

"Kings wear purple robes so that makes it the best, huh, Vincent," Patrick nodded disdainfully toward the other eggs laid out to dry.

"All colors are precious, Patrick, and they mean different things to different people. Purple can also be the color of grapes, of a sky before it storms and bruises."

"Oh, yeah, like my eye when that Topsider hit me!" Patrick held one of his purple creations over his eye. "See, like this!" he said to Nonie.

"My eggs are the color of the trees and the grass in the Park," she retorted in a defensive tone. "They remind me of spring."

Catherine smiled at the exchange. When she was little there had been no one to argue with over whose eggs were the best.

"Why such a sad face, Catherine?" Vincent stood at her side and looked at the pensive expression.

"I was just thinking about when I was little. After my mother died, Dad always made sure we dyed eggs, but it reminded us both so much of her that it wasn't a lot of fun. And... I never had anyone to tell me that purple eggs were the color of bruises," she teased.

Vincent said nothing as he reached out and drew her close for a hug.

"All right, let's get these eggs back in the trays. They need to be in cold storage," William stood with his hands on his hips until he was sure everyone was complying with his instructions.

The eggs were loaded back into the trays from the box and carried off. The children assigned to kitchen detail wiped off the tables, removed the bowls of dye and began to set up for evening meal. Dishes, glasses, cups and eating utensils were set out on the long sideboard along with a stack of cloth napkins.

"Will you stay for evening meal, Catherine?" Vincent asked.

"What's for dinner?" she replied.

"Egg salad sandwiches, perhaps?"

"I think I have to go home now," she laughed before she could get all the words out and was rewarded by his deep, raspy chuckle. She had smelled the wonderful aroma all afternoon and knew it was William's special Italian vegetable soup that simmered in the great kettle.

* * * * *

"Vincent, have you seen Nonie?" Mary asked as she stepped through the portal into his chamber. "She asked to be excused earlier at evening meal. I thought she would be back, but no one has seen her and she's not in the girls' chamber.

"I've not seen her since before evening meal, Mary. Did you check Father's chamber? She likes to visit with him."

"I checked there first, he hasn't seen her either."

Vincent grabbed his cloak in one hand and Catherine's hand in the other. "We'll look for her, perhaps she's at the garden. Ask Pascal to put a message on the pipes, please, Mary."

Catherine was silent as they walked toward the garden chamber. She knew that Vincent was casting his thoughts ahead trying to find the touch of Nonie's mind and dared not interrupt his concentration. His feet took him automatically through the right tunnels to reach the garden and he kept her hand firmly in his.

The garden chamber was just ahead when Vincent slowed his pace. Catherine gave him a quizzical look and he pointed into the chamber.

"She's in there," he murmured.

Catherine followed Vincent through the entrance and immediately spotted the missing child. She was crouched down in the middle of the garden plot talking to something on the ground.

"Hello, bean. I see your head poking up. There's bunches of other beans here, you'll like it."

As Catherine drew near she saw the sprouting green beans had broken through the ground and had begun to push the soil aside. Nonie looked up when she heard their footsteps and smiled.

"See my beans, Vincent! They're growing just like you said," she beamed at him and launched herself toward him.

Vincent caught the little body and hugged her. He hoped the success of her garden experience would help Nonie complete her final adjustments to life Below.

"Mary was worried about you," he said.

"I had to come and visit the garden. There are happy voices here, Vincent."

"Not like the voices in the Chamber of the Winds?" he inquired.

"Did you hear them, too?" her eyes were round with wonder.

"The voices are always there, Nonie. But you must not let them frighten you. Do you remember what Narcissa told you?" he asked.

"Yes, she said the voices are from before and now and beyond; but, Vincent, they scare me sometimes." She hung her head certain that she had failed.

"You must tell us when you are frightened. We understand, it is your gift."

"The other kids don't hear 'em," she declared. "Why me, Vincent?"

In her question Vincent heard echoes of his childhood questions to Father, why am I different, Father. "No one knows why we are given these gifts, Nonie; but know in your heart that there is always a purpose, even if we don't understand it now."

With a mercurial change of mood, the kind known only to the very young, Nonie turned toward Vincent and Catherine with a smile. "We need to go home now. The beans are tired."

Hand in hand the three left the chamber so the beans could sleep in peace.