CAROLINE

Joan Stephens

"Got a message for you, Vincent," Nick said breathlessly as he thrust the missive into Vincentís hand. The tall leonine man smiled down at the boy. He was dressed as all residents of the tunnel world in several layers of castoff clothing to guard against the constant chill of the tunnels, but for the first time the child could remember in his short life, his feet were shod in shoes that fit and were without holes. He was warm, his belly full, and he slept unafraid. New to the tunnels, he had been brought there by Mary who, since losing her own child, had made it her lifeís work to rescue abused and abandoned children and bring them to the safety and comfort of her tunnel world.

"Thank you, Nicholas," Vincent said, tousling the childís bright white blond hair.

A grin blossomed on Nickís cherubic face, and he said, "Youíre welcome," over his shoulder as he raced out of sight.

Vincent sighed deeply, thinking, How could anyone deliberately abuse or neglect such a delightful child?

Dressed in a similar manner as the child, Vincent wore two layers of off-white sweaters with a padded vest tied over them, brown corduroy pants with leather patches laced over the knees with leather thongs, and dark brown fur-trimmed boots. Tucking the envelope inside his vest without looking at it, he proceeded down the tunnel to his chamber where Catherine and Jacob awaited him. He would read the note in the privacy of their chamber.

Standing outside their chamber, he listened to Catherine fuss at Jacob. To him it was the sweetest music in the world. "Lay still, Jacob . . . Now stop that . . . Jacob, puhlease . . . Donít do that . . . Jaaacooob," she wailed.

She turned as she heard him enter and glared at him. Her soft off-white full-length shift was tied at the neck with leather lacing, and had long sleeves that widened at the wrist. It was cinched at the waist with a long braided leather belt, knotted, the ends falling to her knees. At the moment there was a frown line between her eyes and a scowl of annoyance on her otherwise beautiful face. "Your son is as wiggly as an eel," she stated, trying to get a diaper on his squirming behind, which he promptly wiggled out of.

"I donít have any problem," the proud father said smugly.

 

 

 

Throwing her hands up in exasperation, she said, "You do it then."

"Gladly." He took her place beside the old restored wicker changing table. The child immediately calmed down.

"Catherine, I think he likes to tease you." Quickly diapering Jacob, he held him to his shoulder.

"Like his father, huh?" she asked dryly.

"When was the last time I teased you?" he asked lightly.

"Let me see . . . ?" She made a show of deep concentration then offered, "Like this morning, maybe?" She didnít catch her manís wide grin of accomplishment as she wandered back to the table and picked up the envelope that he had dropped there when he came in. "Whatís this?"

"Oh . . . thatís a message Nick gave to me. Heís really fitting is very nicely, isnít he?"

She nodded absent-mindedly. "Uh huh." She didnít recognize the handwriting.

"Open it, please, and read it for me?" Vincent requested.

She tore open the envelope, pulled the folded notepaper out and read it. "Itís from Diana," she said, looking up at him. "She wants to see you tonight."

"Oh? Why, I wonder?" he asked distractedly, gently patting Jacob on the back.

"She probably needs an explanation," Catherine answered.

"Explanation?"

"Yes, of what we told her when she was last here."

"Oh. Iíll see her later this evening then. She must be made to understand that she has to go on with her life and not wait for something that can never be." Just then the call came over the pipes that dinner was ready in the main dining chamber. Balancing Jacob on one arm, Vincent took Catherineís hand and they went to dinner.

*****

It was a clear, balmy night for October, not quite that night when the walls stretched thin between the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh. A huge full moon hung just above the trees as Vincent strode from the Central Park threshold. With his long strides eating up the distance, he swiftly walked through the streets anxious to get this meeting over with and to return to his family.

He had promised Catherine that he would return as soon as possible. Before long, he was leaning on the waist-high wall that surrounded the roof of Dianaís loft, gazing out at the city he lovedĖhis city of the nightĖwhen she came out on the roof. Her auburn hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, and she was dressed in grey sweat pants and an oversized white sweater that hung almost to her knees. The eyes that looked at him, searchingly, were red and puffy from the tears she had shed.

He turned from the lights. Noticing that she had been crying, he gently wiped a forgotten tear from her cheek then smiled sadly at her. "Diana . . . you wanted to see me?"

His smile arrowed into her heart like a shaft of sunlight that burned its way through the darkness, and she wondered how she could live without ever seeing that smile again.

Closing her eyes, she said, "Yes, I do," dreading the answer to her question but needing to know. "If Catherine had not returned, would there be room in your life for another?"

Gathering his thoughts, he was silent for a few seconds. He wanted to spare her any pain but decided that truth was the best answer. "Even without her, there would be no room for anyone else. She has always filled my heart completely . . . no one could ever take her place."

Her shoulders sagged as she heard his answer, but she straightened them fiercely and said in a small, firm voice, "Thank you, Vincent, for the truth."

Gently he took her hands in his and said, "The love you think you have for me will change and will become the love of a dear friend."

Sadly, she shook her head. "No, I will love you forever."

"No, Diana, you wonít," he gently disagreed.

"Why do you say that? Do you think my love so shallow?" she retorted angrily, tossing her head and moving away from him.

Quietly, his words pursued her, "Have you ever analyzed your love, Diana?"

Surprised by his question, she faced him. "Of course not, why would anyone do that?"

"You once told me that you immersed yourself in the victimís life." His voice caught as he thought of the long, dismal stretch of time when he had barely existed without the woman who was the other half of his soul.

"Yes, I do that," she agreed, gazing thoughtfully at her clasped hands.

"You knew Catherine had a secret, and when you discovered that that secret was her love for me, the way had been prepared. You were ready to fall in love with the love that lived between Catherine and me."

For a few minutes Diana was silent, digesting what he had told her. At last, she slowly nodded her head, "Thatís possible."

"You wanted that love for yourself."

"Who wouldnít?"

"Everyone . . . anyone," he answered, shrugging one shoulder. "Keep your heart open, my friend, and love will find you in the oddest places and at the strangest of times."

"Well," she said with forced brightness, "I certainly hope so, but I know my path now."

"I hope it will be a happy one," he said softly.

"It will be in time. Good night, Vincent."

"Good night."

With a breaking heart, she watched him walk away until he reached the fire ladder, then she returned to her lonely loft.

*****

As he quit Dianaís roof, Vincent thought that he would walk through the night-darkened alleys and streets of the city before returning to Catherine and Jacob. To him the city at night was magical, but on the night that Catherine had died, it had lost its magic and had become a dark and dreary place. Now with her restored to him, he wanted to recapture that magic.

The buildings became progressively more dilapidated and run down the farther he walked. Soon, he was surrounded by nothing but old condemned buildings: the windows like unshuttered blank eyes, the doors off their hinges and gaping wide open or canted like a drunken sailor. These old buildings were falling in on themselves, and yet he knew they were used as homes by the street people who had nowhere else to go.

As he rounded a corner, he spied a little ragamuffin scampering out of the shadows into one of the most rundown of the buildings. Her too-large tattered clothing hid her smallness, trailing on the ground, and she clutched to her breast what appeared to be a doll wrapped in rags.

His love of children was as deep as his love for Catherine, and it was that love that made him turn and follow the child into the building. As he entered through the doorless entrance, he heard five or six very young voices that fell silent as he walked across the unsound floor. A baby, crying somewhere below him, was quickly muffled. The floor squeaked as he glided across it, hoping to find a way to get to the children. There was a sudden silence, then with a roar, it caved in, the rotten timbers unable to support his heavier weight, and amid the screams of the children, he dropped into oblivion. His last conscious thought was Catherine.

*****

It was so dark, there was no light, and she couldnít find him. She called his name again and again. "Where are you?" She stumbled on through the darkness, becoming more frightened when she couldnít find him. Abruptly, she was hit with a terrible falling sensation followed by a flash of extreme pain.

"Vincent," she screamed as she shot to her feet, the book she had been reading falling, unheeded, to the floor. Waiting for him to return, she had fallen asleep in his oversized chair. Something awful had happened to him; he was in terrible jeopardy. Her scream had awakened Jacob, and his frightened cries filled the chamber. In her fear for Vincent, she didnít hear her sonís wails as she bolted down the corridor that led to Fatherís chamber.

She collided with him on his way to her, "Catherine! My god, are you all right? What is the matter? Is Jacob all right?"

"Itís Vincent," she gasped. "Heís in terrible trouble. I canít feel him; our bond is gone."

At this moment Mary ran up to them. Plain but with a beautiful, serene expression that made all who looked upon her think that she was lovely, she was a small, slight woman with long gray hair gathered in a braid that hung to her waist. That serene expression had been replaced by a look of concern as she asked them, "What is it? Whatís wrong with Jacob?"

"Oh god, Iíve scared him half to death," Catherine exclaimed as she hurried back into her chamber and, picking up the child, finally soothed him until he rested in her arms, hiccuping occasionally, sucking on his fist. He stared at her with large, wet, blue eyes. "Donít worry, sweetie," she consoled him, "Iíll find Papa. Heíll be home soon."

"Would you take care of him, please? Itís Vincent; heís lost somewhere Above," she explained as she handed Jacob to the older woman. "Iíve got to find him."

Glancing at Father and noting his tense pose, Mary nodded, "Of course." Taking Jacob, she quickly left. His whimpering slowly faded into the distance.

"Vincent went Above tonight?" Father asked in disbelief.

"Yes."

He sagged against the tunnel wall. "I had hoped that with you here . . ."

"Diana sent a note saying she needed to talk with him. We thought it would be safe enough. Oh god, Father, if anythingís happened to him." A sudden thought came to her. "Iíve got to see her."

She turned ready to go right then, but Fatherís cooler head prevailed. "First, can you leave the tunnels?"

Since her miraculous and magical restoration to Vincentís arms, she had not set foot out of the tunnels. She knew that her very existence depended on them, but his life depended on her finding him. She would sacrifice anything to find him. "I donít know, but weíll find out. I must for his sake. Whatever happens."

"Iíll send out search parties and notify the Helpers."

"No, Father, I have a better chance of finding him through the bond. Let me talk with Diana first."

"All right. While youíre changing and finding a coat, Iíll get one of our helpers to take you to Dianaís. I believe Pascal can find Frank for us." Urging her on her way, he left to speak with Pascal.

*****

Half an hour later found Catherine in a cab on her way to Dianaís loft. Frank Simonetti had picked her up just outside Central Park. He was a jolly, happy little man who reminded her of Santa Claus with his round little belly and twinkling blue eyes. Whereas Santa had long white hair and beard, Frank was nearly bald with a ring of hair around his head like a tonsure. Since the night had become cooler, he wore a lightweight gray windbreaker over a blue T-shirt and navy blue slacks. He greeted her cheerfully but quickly sobered when she told him what had happened. Driving as fast as legally possible, he got her to Dianaís in twenty-five minutes. When she left the cab, she asked him to wait so he could take a message back to Father. He settled back into the seat to wait for her.

She rang the buzzer in the entryway four or five times before she heard Dianaís sleepy voice ask who was there.

"Diana? Itís Catherine. Iím sorry to wake you, but is Vincent with you?" she asked hopefully.

"No, he left a couple of hours ago. Why?" Catherine could hear that she had shrugged off the last shreds of sleep and was wide awake.

"May I come up, please? I need to talk with you. Vincent is missing, and Iím afraid heís in terrible trouble."

"Yes, of course, Iíll send the elevator right down for you."

Diana had changed into a pair of brown sweat pants and beige sweatshirt with a wolfís head painted on it and was pacing nervously back and forth when Catherine stepped out of the elevator. "Whatís happened?" she demanded. "He was all right when he left."

Catherine couldnít help but see the vestiges of Dianaís conversation with Vincent on her face. Her eyes were still puffy and red, and it was obvious that she had cried herself to sleep. Catherine would have spared her that grief if she had been able. But now was not the time to worry about Diana and her longing for a love that she couldnít have. "I donít know," she answered the other womanís question. "I only know that heís somewhere in the city, and heís seriously hurt. And our bond is gone."

Diana asked the dreaded question, "Could he be dead?"

"No, I would know. Heís lying unconscious somewhere. Did you happen to see in which direction he went when he left?"

"He left by the fire ladder on the north side of the building." She motioned Catherine to a seat at the kitchen table. "Want some coffee?"

"Yes, please, if you can make it fast. His favorite part of the city is to the north. He tries to help the homeless who live there."

Diana had put some water in the microwave to heat. She retrieved two coffee mugs from a cup tree sitting on the counter and a jar of instant coffee from a cabinet just to the right of the stove. Waving the jar at the other woman, she asked, "Instant fast enough?"

Catherine nodded absent-mindedly, already planning what she would do next. As they waited for the water to heat, she asked the young detective, "Diana, can you get a van? Weíll need some way to get him back to the tunnels."

"I have a friend, Mark, who has one. Iím sure he would let me borrow it."

"You canít tell him why you need it." Catherine leaned her forehead wearily into her hands then glanced up as the microwave pinged.

Carefully removing the hot water from the microwave, Diana said, "I know. Iíll come up with something." She poured the hot water over the coffee granules and set a mug in front of Catherine then sat down across from her with her own mug.

"Call him now; we have to find . . . ?" The young woman clutched her head as a wave of excruciating pain assaulted her. Vincent had regained consciousness for a few seconds then mercifully he was gone again, leaving Catherine gasping for breath and holding her head. "Our bond is fragmented. For just an instant I felt it with the pain. If only he can stay awake long enough for me to find him."

"Can you stand the pain when it comes?" Diana asked, overwhelmed by the pain she had seen in the other womanís eyes.

"I will have to," Catherine answered, rising from the table to stand beside Diana as she made the phone call. "Vincentís life depends on it."

Tapping her foot impatiently, Diana finally breathed again when Mark answered. "Mark? . . . Sorry to wake you . . . oh, you were . . . Good. This is Diana . . . Fine. And you? . . . Good . . . Listen, Mark, I need to borrow your van. I need to pick up a piece of furniture that I just bought . . . I know itís late, but they work nights and sleep during the day, and they want me to pick it up now . . . You will? Thanks, Iíll be right over. Bye."

Leaving their almost full mugs of coffee cooling on the table, the two women rushed out of the apartment. Frank was sound asleep, snoring softly with his head resting on the back of the seat when Catherine tapped lightly on the window. With a guilty start, he unlocked the doors and the women clambered into the back seat. He had them at Markís in a few short minutes. Dropping them off, he was on his way to Father with the message that Catherine and Diana were searching for Vincent, that the bond had returned briefly, and that they would inform him by the pipes when they found him.

Mark was waiting for them in his apartment garage when they alighted from Frankís cab. The young man was of medium height and build with black wavy hair and intense brown eyes in a ruggedly handsome face, simply dressed in a black jogging suit. He came up to Diana and kissed her on the cheek. "Hi, Di. Hereís the keys." He looked questioningly at Catherine, but Diana took the keys without offering to introduce her. Her unaccustomed lack of courtesy was not like her, and he wondered what she was up to but shrugged his shoulders philosophically. That was Diana. She would tell him if he needed to know. "Watch that right rear tire," he cautioned. "Itís a little low."

"I will. Thanks, Mark, youíre a good friend." With no further ado, the women piled into the van and were gone, leaving a very bemused and wondering man.

*****

With her connection with Vincent fading in and out, it took several false starts before Catherine was sure that they were on the right track. Finally, she directed Diana down a particularly seedy looking street. "Heís near . . . I just know it. Weíve got to find where he is. Oh god, I havenít felt him for so long. Heís got to be alive. He canít leave without me. I wonít let him."

Diana could say nothing to reassure her. "Heíll be all right," she said with false heartiness. She, too, had to believe that he was alive. She couldnít imagine a world without him. It was a better place with him in it.

"Stop here!" Catherine suddenly cried. "Heís in this area."

Diana slammed on the brakes, almost sending them into the dashboard. She pulled the van over to the curb in the middle of the block on the north side. They stood beside the van surveying a very sad scene. Most of the buildings looked as if they were ready to collapse at any minute. With vacant windows and open doors, they invited the down and out in out of the weather. Diana thought that she had heard a rumor that these buildings were to be razed for community redevelopment.

Checking out the buildings, all appeared to be empty, but Catherine kept hearing a sound just on the edge of her hearing. As they approached the last building on the block, she exclaimed, "There! Did you hear that? It sounds like a baby crying."

"Youíre right. It is a baby," Diana agreed.

Entering in a rush, they came to a skidding halt just inside the door; confronted by a gaping hole where the floor should have been.

"This must be where he is. A babyís cry would arouse his curiosity, and he would check it out. The whole building looks as if itís ready to collapse."

The beam of the flashlight that Diana had found in Markís van showed them a deep, dark hole. The fact that she had forgotten to bring one proved just how shook up she was. Normally, she was much more in control. There was no sign of Vincent, but children could be heard whimpering under the fallen debris. And the baby was screeching in fear and anger. Diana called down to the children to be quiet and patient that help was on the way. This only increased their wails; they wanted out of there and they wanted out right now.

Catherine called out to Vincent, "Iím here, Vincent." She was immediately staggered with a wave of nauseating pain. She clutched her stomach and would have fallen if Diana hadnít caught her. "Heís here. Down there," she gasped, pointing a shaky finger at the northeast corner of the basement.

Leading her from the broken-down building, Diana sat her down on the curb.

Taking a few short shaky breaths, Catherine said, "Weíve got to find an entrance to the tunnels. I need to send a message to Father."

They found a manhole when the cover reflected the flashlight beam that Diana played on the surface of the street. "Thereís one over there," Catherine said and began to tug on it, trying to get it open. "Help me remove it, Diana. I seem to have lost some of my strength. I think I get my strength from the tunnels. Isnít that odd?"

"No more so than you being here," Diana commented dryly. "Can you go on?"

"As long as Vincent needs me . . . Iíll be all right." The cover was finally removed and Catherine climbed down into the tunnel, feeling an immediate strengthening of her spirit and determination. Using her shoe, she tapped out a message that she had found Vincent and received a prompt reply.

"Theyíre on their way," she panted as she climbed out of the manhole. She settled on the curb beside the other woman who loved Vincent almost as much as she did.

Trying to still her nervousness, Diana swung the flashlight beam back and forth making patterns of light on the buildings across the street. "How long should it take for them to get here?"

"Not long. They should be here soon," Catherine said.

After what seemed like an eternity, they heard a scraping sound. Mouse was the first to emerge into the beam of the flashlight. Then he reached down to help Father up onto the street. With ropes slung over their shoulders and tools in their hands, most of the community followed. Mary and several of the older women had stayed behind to ready the hospital chamber. Pascal had sent out a message to all the helpers asking for help and all the ladders, ropes, and flashlights that they had, telling them where to meet. While waiting for the arrival of the helpers, Father sent Brooke and Stephen to tell Peter Alcott what had happened and to ask him to go to the medical chamber.

"What about the children?" Diana asked, shining the beam of the light on the children barely visible through the debris. She was standing at the edge of the dark hole with Catherine and Father.

"I donít know," Father answered. "Iíll know more when I can examine them. Weíll take them to our medical chamber. Peter will be there and can tend to their injuries."

Helpers began to arrive with ladders and more rope. After the ladders were lowered into the basement, Father went down into the morass of fallen timber. Mouse, Pascal, and Cullen were immediately behind him. Examining each one of the children and immobilizing the broken bones, he sent them up one at a time. Using what they had on hand, they improvised a stretcher from one of the ladders and, tying ropes to the ends, hoisted the children to the surface. None of the little ones were more than ten with most of them seven or under. There was a tiny little girl about six, the child that Vincent had followed, with blond hair and brown eyes who was as thin as a rail. She had two broken legs and a broken arm. Another little girl with black hair and huge brown eyes, clutching a ragged doll, had a broken shoulder and a large bump on her head. A boy of about ten had a massive bruise on one side of his face. He had ragged brown hair and green eyes, a handsome boy. Another boy with dirty blond hair had a broken leg. The last child Father examined was having difficulty breathing. He was pinned under a floor beam that lay across his chest, and Father was afraid that he might have broken ribs that had punctured his lung. His red hair was plastered against his head and his forehead was damp with perspiration. He was the first one Father sent up and the first to be sent to the medical chamber.

Mouse brought the baby up. The frightened child had cried itself into exhaustion and was only whimpering when he placed the babe into Dianaís arms. Checking it over, she could find no obvious injuries, and following Fatherís orders, she took the child to the medical chamber although she wanted to stay and help with Vincentís rescue. But she knew that it was Catherineís place not hers.

Now came the hard part: extricating Vincent without causing him more damage. "Please be careful," Catherine called down to the men.

"Donít worry. Weíll get him. One piece," Mouse called back to her.

Unable to remain above any longer, she had to help and scrambled down a ladder.

"Catherine! You shouldnít be here," Father scolded her when she appeared at his side.

"Where else should I be?" she demanded. "He is my life." She picked up the end of a broken beam that Father was attempting to move. Together they tossed it aside and bent to pick up another. She glanced at the figure that appeared beside her to find Jamie bending to help and smiled encouragingly at the young woman. The others were moving the broken flooring and beams as fast as possible. Slowly, Vincentís form emerged until he was completely uncovered. Catherine gasped in horror; his hair was matted with blood and stuck to his head. And there was an open gaping wound on the right side of his head. "Father?" She looked at him with terror-stricken eyes.

Shouldering Pascal aside, he said curtly, "Give me room." Stiffly kneeling beside his sonís prostrate form, he assured her, "Heís alive. Now, let me examine him before we move him . . . Umm . . . No broken bones that I can find but heís lying on this beam . . . Thereís a possibility of a broken back. We must move him carefully. One of you bring a board over here." Cullen rummaged through the boards lying around and found a piece big enough to use.

With Father directing the men, they soon had Vincent strapped to the board, ready to be carried above. Catherine had experienced another wave of pain when he was rolled onto his side preparatory to having the board placed under him. Jamie kept her from falling and sat her down until the nausea had passed. "Can you go on? Are you all right?" she asked.

"Yes," she lied. "Just a momentary flash of pain. Iíll be all right." Nothing must delay the return of Vincent to the tunnels and to Father and Peterís medical expertise.

Now began the struggle to get him out of the basement. When they finally lifted him out on the edge of the hole, they stopped to get their breath. Matthew, Jonas, Stephen, and William, each, took a corner of the makeshift stretcher and carried him the rest of the way to the van.

"Pascal, you, Matthew, Jonas, and Stephen meet us at the Park entrance. William, organize those left into clean up parties. I want no evidence left that we were ever here. Weíll do everything possible for Vincent. Hurry. Return home as soon as possible." Father stepped into the passengerís side of the van and, waving at Catherine, urged her to get the van moving. William and the rest fell to with abandon and soon nothing was left that could be tied to the community Below.

*****

Pascal and the others were waiting at the Park threshold when they arrived with Vincent. Removing him quickly him from the van, the men hurried him to the hospital chamber, leaving Catherine and Father to catch up.

Peter was busily setting the broken arm of the little boy with dirty blond hair. "Here, Mary, Ho, you can finish this," he said when the injured man was brought into the chamber. He began a comprehensive examination: poking, probing, and moving arms and legs.

Just as Catherine and Father pushed the curtain aside, Vincent regained consciousness. "Catherine?" He tried to sit up.

"Iím here, love." She held him down. "Donít try to move. Youíve injured your back. We donít know if it is broken, but you need to be still until weíre sure." She bent down to kiss him. "Iíve been so frightened. I couldnít feel our bond. I didnít know what to think."

"Catherine! I canít see," he cried in panic, clutching at her hand. "Iím blind."

"Youíve had a severe blow to the head, but I think your sight will return," Father said, shining a light in Vincentís unresponsive eyes.

"Father?"

"Iím here, Vincent." Catherine could see Vincent visibly relax into the capable hands of his father.

Then he remembered why he had entered the old building. "The children! Are they all right? The baby?"

"The children are going to be all right," Peter assured him.

"Peter?" He turned his sightless eyes in the older manís direction.

"Right here," his old friend said, grasping Vincentís hand. "Iím going to leave you in Jacobís capable hands and go check on them. Iíll be back as soon as Iím sure they are all comfortable."

Vincent couldnít see the smile that his father directed at Peterís retreating back, but he could hear it in his voice. "When we found you and learned about the children, I sent for Peter, and as ever, he hurried here, and has been caring for them," the tunnel physician stated proudly of his friend. "Theyíre in the ward chamber. Mary and Ho are with them. They have broken legs, arms, shoulders, mostly bumps on the head, but they will be fine. Only one is in serious condition and heís going to be fine too."

"The baby?" he asked again.

"Sheís in excellent shape. Just cold and hungry." Father reassured him. "How did you get yourself into this situation?" he asked.

"I was on my way home from my meeting with Diana and took a favorite path home. I chanced upon a little raggedy child who darted into this old building. I was curious as to what she was holding in her arms, and I followed her. You know the rest."

Father shook his head at his sonís folly, but knew that he would always try to help any child that he saw. Finished with the bandaging of the wound on Vincentís head, he declared that he was going to check on the children himself.

"I was so afraid that I had lost you again," Catherine said, squeezing Vincentís hands in hers. "You cannot leave without me."

"You were my lifeline, Catherine. Without you, I would have given up."

"Donít you see, love? Thatís why I was allowed to return, to find you. I will always find you. You are so special. By your example you teach us how to be strong and loving. You are needed." She clasped his hands tighter and held them to her heart.

"If I know how to love, it is because others have given love to me. That is my strength. I will walk again and I will see your lovely face once again."

"Well, until you do, I will be your eyes and legs," she said, dropping a light kiss on each eye.

"I could not ask for two more beautiful eyes or more lovely legs." He raised her hands to his lips, gently kissing the ends of her fingers and then held them to his cheek.

Father and Peter returned from the childrenís chamber and reported that they were all doing fine. And Mary was having the time of her life caring for the baby.

They re-examined Vincent now that he was awake. They would be able to get a truer picture of the extent of his injuries. Both of them felt that it would be a matter of time before he walked againĖhis back was not broken, only severely bruisedĖand it would take some time for the swelling to go down even though he healed with amazing rapidity. Holding his hand, Catherine stood beside him as Matthew and Jonas moved him from the makeshift stretcher to a hospital bed.

"Thank you, Jonas . . . Matthew," he said.

"You just get well fast; we need you," Matthew said.

"See you later," Jonas said as they left the chamber.

*****

"Peter?"

"Still here, Vincent."

"Thank you for all your help. What would we do without you?"

"Yes, what would we do?" Catherine added.

Without thinking, he gaped at her in awe. With the rush of caring for the children, and then Vincent, he had not had the time to be amazed by her presence. He still found it hard to believe that she was here, apparently alive, yet each time he came upon her unexpectedly, his heart flipped. She wasnít a ghost; he had examined her physically and had listened to her most unsatisfactory explanation. He had heard her story of the unknown magic that had kept her with Vincent and how his desperate need of her had restored her to him in every way. She was exactly what she appeared to be: a flesh and blood woman. With an inward sigh, he decided it wasnít worth worrying about and accepted the miracle it was. As long as Vincent and Catherine were together and happily raising their son, he had no quarrel with the disruption to his basic scientific truths. But he refused to consider the implications of a possible future pregnancy. Whatever happened was beyond his control, and he wouldnít change it if he could. Pulling his thoughts back to what was going on around him, he replied, "Think nothing of it. Iím just glad I was in town. I was supposed to go upstate, but the meeting was canceled at the last minute."

"Thank god," Father said fervently.

"Well, Iím going to check on the children once more then go back home to bed. Iíve a full day tomorrow and need my beauty sleep. Coming, Jacob?" Peter held the curtain aside for his old friend then let it fall behind him as he followed.

"Youíre coming back later, Peter?" Catherine called after him.

"As soon as I can," he answered from the corridor.

*****

"Catherine?"

"Yes, love."

"Would you get Jacob and bring him here?"

"Surely. Iíll bring the little girl also."

After she had left, Vincent was deep in thought until he sensed someone in the chamber. "Whoís there?" he asked. He wondered why he didnít know who this person was.

"I came to see how you were doing."

His question was answered when he heard her voice. "Diana," he greeted her. For some reason that he had never understood, he had never developed a true awareness of her. Only when she was very close to him could he get a sense of her. It was as if she kept her feelings in a box, and unlike Pandora, was afraid to let out even one emotion, afraid that if she did all the rest would follow.

Turning his bandaged eyes to her, he replied, "Father and Peter say I will be well soon and should be up and about in a few weeks. I heal very fast. As for my eyes, that might take quite some time."

"Vincent, I am so sorry. If only I hadnít sent that note to you, this would never have happened." Her voice was filled with regret.

"Diana, what happens . . . happens. I could just as well have returned home without taking a side trip. It was my fault, my curiosity. Donít blame yourself." He smiled then asked, "Have you seen the children? Peter says that they will be fine. They will be a wonderful addition to the Community."

"Yes, thatís one reason Iím here. Donít you think we should try to find their relatives?"

"What makes you think they would be better off shuttled from one relative to another?" he asked.

"Youíre assuming something that we know nothing about," she answered back.

A mulish look came over his face, indicative of his stubborn nature and deep love for all children. "If someone had wanted them, they would have been found."

"But suppose they have been kidnapped or lost, what then?"

Bowing to her logical arguments, he said, "Weíll try to find their relative if you insist, but I seriously doubt if we will find any."

"I doubt it myself," she agreed, and then added, "but we should try."

He nodded and said, "And then weíll ask them if they want to stay with us or go back Above. If they elect to stay here, they will be given all the love and stability they have been denied in your world," he replied. "I am a product of that love, Diana. I can think of no better place to be raised. Can you?"

"No, I canít. But what about the baby?"

"What about the baby?" Catherine demanded as she came into the chamber, a baby in each arm. She had caught the last part of the conversation. "She stays with us. Vincent almost lost his life trying to save her and the other children. Caroline will be our daughter and will stay with us."

"Caroline?" Diana asked.

"Youíve named her after your mother," Vincent realized, turning in Catherineís direction.

"Yes, sheís as beautiful as my mother. Do you mind?"

"No. Itís a beautiful name." He turned back to Diana. "She will remain here with us."

Diana bowed to the inevitable. "I just wanted to make sure that all the children would be provided for," was Dianaís comment.

"You have a lot to learn about this community it seems," Catherine observed. "No child would ever be turned away or kept here against their will. You should ask Nick, our newest member, if he would like to leave." Handing her son to Diana, she said, "Here, take Jacob so I can give Caroline to her father."

She put the contentedly sleeping baby into Vincentís arms and stood beside the bed, beaming, as he held and fondled the baby. He felt of her all over. "She is beautiful, isnít she?" he said.

"Yes, love. Youíve given me a wonderful gift." Her eyes glistened with tears of happiness.

Dianaís heart twisted in her breast, and she hoped deep in her heart that someday she would have what they had.

*****

Improving daily, Vincent was soon up and walking. As soon as he was able to walk, Father had let him return to his own chamber.

"Itís so good to finally be together in our own chamber," Catherine said as she led Vincent to his oversized chair. He settled into it with a deep sigh of relief and ran his hands carefully over the table next to the chair, feeling everything that lay on the top.

"Vincent, are you worried that your sight may not come back?" Catherine knelt beside him and took his hand.

"No, not really. Father and Peter expect a full recovery but . . ."

"Youíre just not sure," she finished for him.

Gently stroking her cheek, he nodded. "Iím not sure, but I must have faith."

"I have faith; I am sure. Youíll see again."

"Then . . . it will be so," he said with smiling conviction.

Through all of his long convalescence, the entire community helped to amuse him and keep him busy. It was their way of showing him their appreciation and love. Catherine shouldered most of the care, but when she needed a break, there was always someone ready to read to him, play games with him, or simply to sit and talk. They still came to him with their problems, and he was included in all the council meeting, as well. Catherine was deeply touched by the outpouring of love and care that the Community lavished on him. He had always been so strong for them; now they could be strong for him.

*****

Some weeks later Catherine awoke to find him, head propped on his hand, gazing down at her. "How beautiful you are when you are asleep, and how wonderful to have your face be the one I see first."

"Vincent! You can see!" she cried happily. "When?"

"It started a few days ago when Pascal was reading to me. I was concentrating on the flow of the story, when I noticed a golden glow off to the right. I passed my hand in front of it and it disappeared. I knew then that my sight was returning. I swore Pascal to secrecy."

"Why?"

"I wanted to surprise you. And I did."

She rose up and, putting her arms around his neck, pulled him down beside her. She rained kissed on his face, eyes, and mouth, all she could reach. "Iím so happy for you."

"Itís your face I missed the most. To think of going through life without seeing your beloved face was unbearable." He gathered her into his arms. Kissing the top of her head, he said, "I want to see all of you, Catherine."

With a sharp intake of breath, she quickly doffed her nightgown and lay back down. She glowed like the sun in the light of his amber crescent window. She was his sun, and he thought that he had never seen a sight so beautiful. A sudden look of pain crossed her face. "What is it, my love?" he asked.

"It hurts me to think of you never having been truly loved before."

"I was waiting for you, my heart," he said, softly.

"And even if I didnít know it, I was waiting for you," she added. "Now, itís your turn. Off with your nightshirt," she ordered with a laugh in her voice. "I want you to see how much your body thrills me."

"It never fails to amaze me that you find my body desirable."

"Vincent, you have a beautiful body. It astonishes me that you find it so undesirable."

He rose to his knees, pulling the nightshirt over his head as he did. Her eyes drank in the beauty and symmetry of his body. His shoulders were broad and heavily muscled with arms lightly dusted with short blond hairs that gradually lengthened at the wrist and hands. His chest was lush with long blond hair down to his waist but his abdomen was bare, flat, and rock hard. The hair began again on his legs, which were muscular and long. He radiated masculinity and a well-controlled sexuality.

Lying down beside her, he took her gently in his embrace. They kissed: a long, slow, passionate kiss. Then they moved together in their desire for each other and once again fulfilled the otherís dream.

*****

Cuddled together in the warm afterglow of their love, her head rested on his chest over his heart. He had learned that it was one of her favorite positions. The beating of his heart centered her, being the foundation of her life. She was twirling his chest hair around one finger when he sensed a seriousness steal over her.

"Vincent?" she murmured.

"Umm," he purred contentedly.

"We must have a Naming Day for Caroline."

"Yes, soon," he agreed.

She sat up, gazing down at him with a most serious expression on her face.

"What is it, my love? Why the serious face?" he asked, teasingly.

"Iíve been wondering. I have one dream that has yet to be fulfilled. Do you have any that are unfulfilled?"

He could sense that this meant a great deal to her, so he answered her as truthfully as she had made her confession. "I must admit that there is one."

"Can you tell me what it is?"

"May I show you instead?" he asked, answering her question. Kneeling in front of her in all his naked glory, he took her hands in his. "I love you, Catherine. Will you be my wife?"

"Oh Vincent, how did you know that that was my last unfulfilled dream?" She pressed her nude body against his, enfolding him in her arms.

"Because it is my only unrealized dream." He squeezed her gently. "You havenít answered my question."

She leaned back in his arms so that he could see her face when she gave him her answer. "My answer, my dearest love, is an unequivocal yes. When?"

His smile matched hers and was so wide that the tips of his canines glistened in the candlelight. "On Carolineís Naming Day. Does that suit you?"

"Oh yes, thatís far enough in the future that I have time to find a nice dress and near enough that I wonít have to wait for you to be all mine."

Chuckling, he said, "I am all yours already."

"True," she said archly, "but this way I have witnesses."

Laughing hugely, he thoroughly kissed her.

"My husband," she whispered after he had released her mouth, "how wonderful that sounds." Her most cherished wish was about to come true, and Vincentís dreams had been shattered only to be merged into a reality he had never dared to dream. Their lives stretched before them in an unending landscape of hope and love.

Fini