MARYíS BIRTHDAY

Gwen Lord and Chuckie Burge

The heat of the day in New York City had been tremendous once again, breaking all previous records for this time of year. Everyone gave a sigh of relief when the sun finally set and the red glow had given way to darkening skies, as dusk enfolded everything magically, until at last the curtain of night descended, with a welcome but gentle breeze.

One by one, the lights in the sky scrapers that flanked Central Park came on, transforming the harsh lines of the buildings and giving them a whole new dimension. One of the balconies overlooking the park belonged to Assistant District Attorney Catherine Chandler. Most evenings dinner was whatever take-out meal she could pick up on the way home after work. After she ate, while she awaited the magic bewitching hour of midnight and the arrival of Vincent, Catherine would open her briefcase and catch up on the work she hadnít managed to finish during the day.

As she worked she kept glancing at her watch, willing the hands to move faster. After an intense few hours, she repacked her briefcase and placed it by the front door so it would be easy to pick up in her mad rush to work the next morning. Then, freed of her obligations, she went out on the balcony and relaxed on a chaise lounge, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. A short time later she heard a gentle thud as Vincent landed on the balcony to join her.

"Vincent, Iím so glad to see you," Catherine greeted him warmly as she stood and they hugged each other tenderly

Vincent kissed her hair as his arms held her close before they turned to look at the view from the balcony they both loved so much. "Iím glad to see you too. Have you been working tonight? I thought I felt your "paperwork frustration" mood through our Bond as I walked here," he teased.

She leaned her head against him and laughed softly. "Youíre right on all counts," she admitted. "So, how are things in your world? Much more interesting them mine, Iím sure."

"Tomorrow is Maryís birthday. I have strict instructions from everyone to bring you Below to help us celebrate her special day. Father and the others are full of plans, so you must join us if you can," his voice was soft, almost a whisper, but also stressed his desire to have her attend the party.

Turning her head slightly, Catherine replied as her head nestled against his neck and the intoxicating combination of leather and candle scent from Below made her heart sing. "Of course, Iíll be there, Vincent. Thank you for including me."

His hand tightened on her shoulder. "No need for thanks, you are always welcome Below, Catherine."

"I like Mary so much. Sheís had a difficult life, yet she never looks sad, and offers love and hope to everyone. We must make her day very special, Vincent."

"You feel it too Ė the strong ties of our family," he remarked.

"Yes, Vincent, I do."

"Sheís been the only mother Iíve ever known. Nothing was ever too much trouble. Devin and I would come in after playing games with our trousers dirty and torn. Father would scold us, but Mary would get out her needle and thread and silently make it better for us Ö till the next time," he smiled mischievously.

"One special lady, no wonder Father relies on her so much." Catherine turned and smiled up at him.

"Yes, Iím ashamed to admit at one time I envied the relationship between them. But then, two years ago, a miracle happened. You came into my life, a life that was full of duty to my community but drab and joyless ... and lonely. You taught me to believe in myself, and opened up a whole new world for me, a world full of endless possibilities I never dreamed could be mine. Every day is special to me, because of you, Catherine."

Catherine felt deeply touched and grateful for the love Vincent had for her. Sheíd had numerous romances over the years and a few fleeting affairs, but never once in all that time had she ever truly loved anyone, not as she totally loved Vincent. It didnít matter that their relationship was more spiritual than physical. Catherine reluctantly accepted this, but it was Vincent who would not believe that she could be content with these limitations.

They stood now in silence for a little while, drinking in the beauty of the night. At last it was Catherine who spoke. "Whose idea was it, Vincent, to give Mary a birthday party?"

"Father suggested it. He thinks so highly of her, as does everyone Below."

"Since my father died and I went Below to heal," Catherine said, "Iíve come to rely on Maryís good judgment, and her wise values."

Vincent closed his eyes as he nodded in silent agreement. "I have to wonder, thoughÖ"

"About what?"

"This party Ö it is very unusual for Father to suggest a party. Heís been rather distracted lately, too." He turned his head to smile at her. "I guess my curiosity will have to wait until tomorrow night to be satisfied."

"What time am I expected?" she asked.

"About eight oíclock. Iíll meet you in your basement whenever youíre ready," he said as they turned away from the view to sit in their usual place on the cushions near the wall.

"Iím looking forward to tomorrow night, Vincent. Please tell everyone how much I appreciate being included."

"Of course, Catherine." Picking up a book of sonnets, Vincentís claw-like nails expertly flicked the pages until he found just the right one

~ ~ ~ ~

When in disgrace with Fortune and menís eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this manís art and that manís scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark a break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heavensís gate:

For thy sweet love rememberíd such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings

~ ~ ~ ~

"That was beautiful, Vincent, I love that one so much. Shakespeare certainly did know how to write."

"Yes, that sonnet is a particular favorite of mine. It feels as if Shakespeare wrote it for me, every line speaks what my heart feels" he admitted.

"I read most of the great works by Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron and so many others when I was in school but their words simply washed over me. They were meaningless until you read them to me, Vincent."

"I only read what I see on the written page, Catherine."

"Yes, but you bring the words alive Ö simply by the way you read them."

Vincent bowed his head and his hair cascaded down, covering his embarrassment at such praise.

Catherine tried to make him understand. "Vincent, you paint pictures for me with your words. I come close to tears when you read such powerful lines."

"You paint pictures for me also, Catherine, of your life Above."

"I agree with you about what the sonnet says, Vincent, I wouldnít change my life now for anything. To me you are perfect and I wouldnít have you changed in any way," she said, then impulsively leaned forward and kissed his lips.

Vincent shyly returned the kiss instead of pulling away. Catherine felt a deep thrill at this new response from Vincent. It gave her hope that he might, someday, be able to overcome his fears of intimacy.

Vincent savored the moment, and then whispered, "I must go, it will soon be dawn and you need some sleep before you go to work."

"Will you tuck me in then?" Catherine teased him.

Vincent, now used to her gentle teasing, wished he could fulfill her half-serious suggestion, but was still hampered by his inhibitions. He put the book down, helped Catherine to her feet, then drew her into his arms for a hug. He tilted his head back and looked into her eyes, then leaned down and placed a brief kiss on her lips before hugging her again.

"Till tomorrow then," Catherine whispered, her cheek against his. His action reassured her she had not frightened him off with her earlier kiss.

He stepped back and reached down for her hand, turned it over and tenderly placed a kiss on her palm. "Till tomorrow" he paraphrased, "parting is not sweet, but just sorrow."

As swiftly as he had arrived on her balcony, he was gone, as was the magic that was boundless whenever he shared time with her.

* * * *

Catherine lay in her lonely bed, unable to sleep, tossing and turning as she thought about the difficulties they faced and wondered if they would ever find a way to be together. Eventually she fell asleep only to be rudely awakened by the obnoxious ringing of the alarm clock. She opened her eyes and stared at the clock face in disbelief as she swatted at it. It couldnít possibly be time to get up, she had barely closed her eyes. She groaned in annoyance, then faced reality and stretched a few times before climbing out of bed. A sunbeam stretched across the balcony and through a pane of glass in the balcony doors. Catherine smiled and thought to herself, Happy Birthday, Mary.

Catherine turned and saw the dress she had chosen last night to wear Below to the party tonight, as it hung in readiness on the wardrobe door. The simple classic line in powder blue crepe spoke quality as it hung there and Catherine felt this would be the right dress, especially as it was already a favorite with Vincent.

But, first things first and she had to shower and have some breakfast, then grab a taxi to work, a place she really didnít want to be today, as the hours would surely drag until she was free to go Below tonight.

* * * *

"Happy thoughts, Radcliffe?" Joe teased, as he passed her desk.

"Sure are, Joe," she smiled.

"Iím taking you to lunch today and it is non-negotiable," he said, his dark Italian eyes flashing their ever-present humor.

"I might have other plans," she admonished him in jest as he walked away.

"Then break them." Turning and pointing his finger directly at her, he said with a fake scowl, "Noon! The boss has spoken."

She stood up and saucily saluted Joe, saying, "Sir, yes sir," and both ended up in fits of laughter.

"I mean it," he shouted, exiting the end of the long room.

* * * *

Shortly before noon, Catherine and Joe climbed into a yellow cab. The driver was instructed to take them to one of Joeís favorite places, an old-fashioned diner belonging to his uncle. The small diner was filled with office workers and shoppers but Joe had called earlier and his uncle had saved a corner booth for them. Soon the waitress served them his special burgers with all the extras.

They chatted about every subject under the sun and between them, had put the world to rights over lunch Ė now why couldnít the politicians do the same and save a lot of time! A comfortable silence descended as they finished their meal and then lingered over coffee.

The relationship between them was unique. Joe was both her boss and also the brother Cathy never had, while Catherine was the woman Joe wanted to be in his life both as a friend and possibly, someday, something more. He knew there was someone in her life but he hoped it wasnít serious and one day his turn would surely come, so he bided his time and continued to be her friend, her comforter Ö her brother.

Joe reached across for her hand, holding it in a way that Catherine worried what might be on his mind. "So whatís on your busy schedule for tonight then?" Joe questioned. "That look on your face this morning told me something special was in the cards."

"Vincent and his family are giving a party for a friend of ours."

"Here in town?" Joe asked.

She felt awkward and disliked evading his question. "No, not exactly."

"So, where then?" he demanded to know.

"Why do you have to be so damn nosy, Joe?"

"Itís the lawyer in me, pal," he laughed, then got serious. "I care for you, Cathy, and Iím just trying to look out for you. I donít know this Vincent guy Ö but if he ever hurt you, heíd have me to deal with."

"I know Ė but you donít have to worry. Vincent would never hurt me."

"From what youíve told me Ö and that sure ainít much, Vincentís sort of a Ďdown to earthí kinda guy. Doesnít sound like your type to me at all."

"Whatís my type, Joe?" she asked.

Joe longed to say "Me" but thought better of it and concentrated on giving her an answer. "Elliot Burch, or some of those high society guys."

"Ah."

"Guys your Daddy would have approved of, Radcliff. Guys from your social set."

She looked at him in exasperation. "When love calls, you have to follow your heart and my heart is happy with Vincent."

"Guess that rules me out then," he joked.

"Guess so," she shrugged and smiled apologetically.

Joe smiled back, then glanced over at the waitress and signaled for her to bring the check.

A few moments later his uncle came over and said, "Whatta you doin, Joey? You know your moneyís no good in my place. When are you gonna bring your Mama in to eat?" He looked over at Catherine with a big smile on his face. "Your Mamaís not as pretty as this little lady but you need to be a good son and bring her to see us."

Joe stood up and hugged the older man. "Okay, Uncle Gino, I promise Iíll bring Mama in soon. Right now, though, this Ďpretty ladyí and I have to get back to work. Thanks for a great lunch."

As his uncle walked away, Joe left a generous tip for the waitress then he and Catherine caught a cab back to the office.

* * * *

The day wore on endlessly, as she knew it would. Every task was an uphill climb as all Catherine wanted was to be with Vincent.

When Catherine finally left the office, getting yet another taxicab was almost impossible. She did finally grab a cab, but, inevitably, it got stuck in traffic near her apartment so she paid the guy and walked the remaining block.

She opened the door and gave a grateful sigh of relief to be in the air-conditioned apartment, newly gleaming from the daily cleaning staff that kept it spick and span. Catherine slipped off her jacket, dumped her purse and briefcase on the sofa, then kicked off her shoes before crossing the room and opening the balcony doors. The tiles were warm beneath her feet as she walked over and leaned on the balcony wall, looking down at Central Park as slowly it emptied of nannies, joggers, skate boarders, picnickers, dog walkers and sun worshipers. With the setting of the sun, the park would refill like a second showing of a play, following the matinee. In would come the people of the night, the unsavory population of this huge throbbing city. Evil would replace the daylight activities, with nobody safe while the cloak of darkness ruled.

* * * *

After another light meal sheíd picked up at the Deli on the corner of her block, she decided to take a long, relaxing shower. The cascading water eased away the trials and tribulations of the day, then wrapping a white fluffy bathrobe around her, she curled up on her sofa and used her TV remote control, trying to catch up on the news of the day while she waited for it to be time to get ready.

At last the wait was over and, after a stretch, Catherine went across to the bedroom, slipped out of the robe and put the blue dress on. It fitted to perfection, falling caressingly over her petite figure. Stroking the dress into place, Catherine was well pleased; Vincent would love it. Sitting down at the dressing table, she touched up her makeup, then searched for a certain pair of earrings. She clipped them on and critically scrutinized her reflection. She always wanted to look her best for Vincent.

The safety lock clicked in as she closed the apartment door and swung around to head down the hall. Waiting for the elevator, Catherine lovingly caressed the gift wrapped present for Mary, tweaking the bow and stroking the pretty paper. Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the elevator. She stepped in and pressed the button for the basement but at the 8th floor it stopped suddenly, causing her to sigh and mutter a curse under her breath.

"Hi, Cathy," a familiar voice rang out as the door opened.

"Hello, Brian, how are you? I havenít seen you all week."

"Iím fine, we must have just missed each other then, as I havenít been anywhere really," he smiled. "Iím on my way to play in a chess tournament."

"Chess, eh? No more "Dungeons and Dragons?" she teased.

"Yes, itís all because of Vincent. He got me interested in playing a real game of skill. Iím now in the finals," Brian admitted shyly.

"Thatís great! Iíll tell Vincent Ė heíll be so proud of you."

"Are you seeing him tonight?"

"Yes. Iím going to a party." She held out the gift and smiled. "Itís Maryís birthday and Iíve been invited to help celebrate."

"Gee, tell her ĎHappy Birthdayí from me, will you, Cathy?" As the elevator stopped he winked knowingly, "Guess youíve still got another stop to go."

"Sure do. Bye, Brian, good luck," she said as the doors closed. A few moments later she exited into the basement and made her way to the special door that led to the tunnels. Since the time she had carelessly allowed Brian to follow her Below, Catherine had adopted a routine of waiting in the shadows and watching quietly for five minutes or so before going the last twenty feet to the entrance so she could be sure there was no one else in the basement. Shifting aside the empty boxes that half-covered the metal doors, she unlocked the padlock and opened the doors, softly calling out, "Vincent?"

A shadow detached itself from beside the jagged bricks that formed the doorway into the tunnels. "Yes, Catherine."

She held Maryís gift out. "Can you catch this for me?"

"Of course Ė shall I catch you too?" he teased.

"Youíd be sorry," she retorted as she swung onto the ladder, re-latched the door and began her descent. "I think Iíve put on a few pounds from Williamís good cooking."

As soon as she was within reach Vincent plucked her from the ladder and swung her into his arms, then pretended to stagger. "At least an ounce or two," he teased before he stood her on the brick floor. "You look lovely tonight, Catherine."

"How can you see what I look like in this half light?" she laughed. "I think youíre just being polite."

"Iím used to this half light, and the darkness is always my friend," he reminded her. "Youíre wearing that blue dress that you know I like."

"Well, until we reach the next wall torch, I canít see you or what you are wearing, so letís be on our way."

When they reached the flickering glow of the torch, Catherine ordered Vincent to stop. "My turn," she said, "let me look at you, Vincent."

He looked very uncomfortable under her intense gaze.

"Umm, beige leather trousers, white lace shirt, rust leather vest and your thigh high boots." As she was describing his attire, her wayward mind was saying, God Ė heís a hunk, heís so tall Ö and gorgeous Ö and heís all mine.

"Enough, Catherine," he laughed, allowing his fangs to show, which he rarely did, and which Catherine loved to see, because it meant he felt comfortable with her and didnít have to hide them.

"You look magnificent," she murmured softly, but the main thought in her mind was, He is so sexy Ö and he has no idea

"Thank you," he said softly.

Suddenly it occurred to her to wonder what he may have sensed through their Bond; how much of her thoughts would be apparent to him. "Uh, Vincent?" she asked.

Vincent studied her beautiful, confused face for a moment, and then answered her unspoken question with his own hesitant one. "Do Ö do you really find me Ö desirable?"

Her embarrassment was forgotten as she hastened to assure him. "Oh, Vincent, of course I do. How could you ever doubt that?"

"Easily, Catherine, but thank you for making me feel, for the first time, like a man instead of Ö"

"You are a man Ö my man, and donít you ever forget it," she said fiercely. "I wouldnít have you any other way. Weíre two halves of a whole, Vincent." Their eyes met and the resonance and emotion of their Bond half-stunned both of them for a moment before she tried to lighten the mood. "However, I can see Iím going to have to be more careful about letting my mind wander."

He smiled and held out his hand. "We must continue on our way or weíll be late for the party," he warned. "Did you have a good day?"

"Long and boring for the most part," she replied, "but, Joe took me out to lunch at an old fashioned diner, which was a welcome break. But, mostly, I thought of you, Vincent. I missed you and couldnít wait to be with you tonight. I no longer enjoy my life Above, my thoughts constantly wander to Below - and you."

"But you do have a life Above, Catherine. A life your parents planned and dreamed of for you," he insisted.

"Parents can hope and plan for their childrenís future, Vincent," she said quietly, "but each child must live their own life, and follow their own dreams. Youíre telling me I should heed my parents wishes for me Ö but you have gone against Fatherís advice on living your own life; specifically his advice on our relationship. Why is it all right for you but not for me?"

Vincent shook his head and walked in silence for a few minutes. "I have no logical answer and in fact, I should not be offering my opinion."

"You have every right to offer an opinion or a suggestion." She smiled up at him and teased, "That doesnít mean Iím going to follow it, however."

Vincent smiled at her in return. "Now why does that not surprise me?" He changed the subject and nodded at the parcel he was carrying. "I assume this is a birthday gift for Mary?"

"Yes, I hope Mary will like it," she smiled. "I decided she needed something completely impractical and frivolous."

"Is it a secret or may I inquire what it is?" he asked.

"I found a beautiful lacy gown and negligee." She laughed, "She will probably have to wear a heavy flannel robe over it to keep warm but I wanted her to have something pretty."

"Youíre so generous, Catherine."

"Not at all, you are the generous ones. You all have so little but you share all you have with each other and youíre happier than anyone I know Above. I have more money than I will ever use and I would like to share it with all of you, to make your lives easier Ö but you wonít let me," she said regretfully.

"Catherine Ö Catherine," he sighed. "if that is what you truly want to do, and it would make you happy, then who am I to deny you?"

"I could help so much, Vincent, yet in ways that nobody but you and I will realize how the improvements are being made. Weíll go slowly so the changes wonít be obvious and make anyone uncomfortable." She laughed, "I say slowly, yet my mind is brimming with ideas and I canít wait until we can start some projects."

"You have a wonderful heart, Catherine."

"My heart has been full of wonder and love since you came into my life, and I need to be able to share this happiness. Now I can, thanks to you, Vincent."

Vincent held her close for a moment then said, "What did you want to ask me?"

"You definitely read my mind Ö I was going to ask what kind of gifts you and the others are giving Mary?"

"As you are well aware, shopping is usually not an option, so we tend to make our gifts or offer help or a favor of some kind. I have repaired her sewing table, which had a wobbly leg, and refinished the top. Father discovered a first edition by a poet Mary loves in his trunk full of books. And Mouse Ďfoundí a beautiful glass paperweight that he swears had been thrown away."

They came to a junction and turned into the tunnel leading to Fathers chambers. Soon they could hear the chatter of happy voices and see the warm glow issuing from his chamber.

They stood quietly for a moment at the top of the stairs, enjoying the camaraderie of the group. Too soon they were discovered and descended the steps to be welcomed, then slowly made their way across the chamber, greeting their friends. Finally, they reached Mary and Father standing in front of his desk.

"Happy Birthday, Mary" Catherine hugged her warmly.

"Iím quite overcome with such kindness from everyone," Mary said, a hint of tears in her eyes.

Vincent offered the gift he carried. "This is from Catherine," he said. "Let me hold it for you while you open it."

On doing so, the tears overflowed Maryís eyes, and then trickled down her flushed cheeks. Father offered her a clean handkerchief from his tunic pocket, which she took gratefully, dabbing away the wet tears.

"Itís a beautiful gift, Catherine, oh, dear child, you spoil me," Mary said as she stroked the luxurious fabric.

Father now stepped forward, leaning on his beloved silver topped walking stick as he put an arm around her trembling shoulders. "There, there, my dear, no more tears Ö this is supposed to be a happy occasion."

"This is a happy and special occasion," she agreed, then blurted, "I shall wait to wear my beautiful gift when I move out of my chamber."

A sudden hush descended on the Birthday gathering, as if everyone had been struck dumb. Vincent asked haltingly, "Mary? Youíre not leaving us Ö are you?"

"In a way," she confessed shyly. "Iím going to be married and I will be leaving my chamber to live with my husband."

"Married!" Several voices rang out in disbelief at the same time. Then everyone noticed the sparkle of mischief in the eyes of Mary and Father as they glanced at each other. After an embarrassed cough, Father turned and spoke. "The book wasnít all I gave Mary for her birthday; I also gave her a ring. A ring Mary will do me the honor of wearing when she becomes my wife."

The group of friends waited patiently for Father to continue. He leaned against his desk, resting his bad hip and looked around at them. "As you all know, this community has gathered together Below because of various reasons for each individual. The world Above is cold and inhospitable to those who are different." He smiled at Catherine, "The exception, of course, is our friends and helpers like Catherine. The common characteristic of the people Below is we are all, in some way, survivors. I found my way Below when my marriage to Margaret was annulled and my career as a scientist was destroyed. It was a kind woman named Grace who found me on the streets, ill and starving, and led me Below. She nursed me back to health and introduced me to a different life. Surrounded by new friends, I was able to regain perspective and find a purpose in life. Grace was a dear friend and companion, but she died suddenly and unexpectedly, giving birth to my son Ö Devin."

Mary knew how hard it was for him to speak of all this. She squeezed his hand, silently offering moral support.

Father smiled at her and raised her hand to kiss it, then continued. "A few years later, this very special lady came Below. Like so many of us, her life had been shattered due to circumstances beyond her control. But, in time, she recovered from her losses and became an indispensable part of our community, a key member of our council and most importantly, a surrogate mother to the orphans who came to live with us. I could not have raised my two sons, Vincent and Devin, without her help. Over the years, we privately acknowledged a special Ö feeling for each other but it never seemed to be the right time for us to be together. But, we have finally realized there would never be a "right time" and you simply have to make time for yourselves before itís too late. You have to believe in your feelings and follow your heart. We hope you will all be happy for us." He turned to Mary and kissed her, publicly showing his love for her.

Catherine and Vincent were the first to step forward and offer congratulations, along with hugs and kisses, then moved away to allow the others to approach the happy couple.

Catherine looked around the chamber. What a lovely Birthday celebration this had been. Nothing Above could hold a candle to the joy she felt each time she joined her adopted family Below. She felt a warm glow, deep within, from the sheer happiness of being here with the tunnel community tonight. The knowledge that she could now begin to make life a little easier for all Below added to her delight. Could she be happier? Only time could tell but one thing was crystal clear, she wouldnít trade being a part of this wonderful and magical world for anything.

Catherineís eyes found Vincentís and the Bond resonated with their own private dream, that like Mary and Father, one day soon, a life together would be possible, and their fantasy would become a reality.

The End