Tyger, Tyger

by Rhonda Collins

 

"Tyger, Tyger, burning bright..."

Rollie stared with pain-crazed eyes at the liquor store across thestreet. He hugged the ragged jacket tighter around him: it wasn't thecold he was trying to block out, but the pain. Or, perhaps he wasonly trying to hold himself together for a little longer. Not sureit's worth the trouble, he thought vaguely. Sometimes, lately, Rolliethought it would be easier just to O.D. and let it go at that.

The stoplight above him blinked in the fog, and Rollie shudderedwith another wave of pain. It hurt so bad, and he knew that all heneeded was a little money for another fix. One more time. Then I canthink. Decide what to do next.

Without further hesitation, Rollie picked up the crowbar andstarted across the deserted street. With shaking hands, he broke thelock on the outside, then jimmied the door. It was easy. Easier thanhe'd thought it would be. Prying the cash drawer open was eveneasier.

Rollie grabbed handfulls of cash and stuffed it in his pockets. Hewas just about to leave when the first shot rang out...the bulletsplintering the box next to the register. Stunned, he hesitated afraction of a second, and another bullet hit the wall behind him.Panicked, Rollie vaulted over the counter just as the enraged ownershot again. Rollie reached the door by the time the fourth shotfinally struck its target. He cried out... turned...and a fifth shottook him in the chest.

Frantic--not feeling the pain as much as he'd thought hewould--Rollie ripped the door open and ran. He could hear anothershot echoing in the alley behind him as he pelted through thedarkness, his feet slapping in the puddles.

Rollie ran blindly for several blocks, down one alley and thenthrough another, going nowhere except away. At last he slowed,stopped and slumped against a wall. Standing in the opalescent foggyglow of a streetlight, Rollie lifted his hand and stared,uncomprehending, at the blood...then down at his chest. Shot. I beenshot! He put his head back against the hard bricks and tried to drawbreath, and the pain racked him, as it had for days. He was nothingbut pain in his world. Even the wound didn't hurt as much as theagony of his withdrawal. He started to slump. Just let it go. Let itbe over.

But from somewhere, farther up the alley, music drifted. Not thekind of music Rollie liked, but music all the same. He listened, andfrom a place deep inside he felt a different pain. Father. Vincent.Gotta get home.

For the first time in years, Rollie wanted home more than hewanted drugs. More than he wanted to die. It wasn't even a consciousthought or decision. Only wanting. But prodded by that feeling, thewounded eighteen-year-old pushed himself through the growing cold andpain to the tunnels below the city. He collapsed into a channel ofshallow water that ran down the middle of the passage.

Presently a black-cloaked figure loomed over him and turned himover. A familiar voice spoke his name in an astonished whisper."Rollie?"

***

For over an hour, Vincent had been sitting in the corner of hischamber, vacant since the beginning of his self-imposed exile,watching Father and Ho operate on Rollie. He felt helpless and angry.His curled fists were bracketed tightly between his knees. Hismuscles felt tight as piano wire. Pianos. Music. He could hear themusic in his mind...see the lovably earnest boy sitting, transfixed,at the piano. Practicing for hours. Even through meals. Trying sohard to become the best he could be. The thought only made Vincentmore angry. All Rollie had ever wanted in life was the music. Andlook at him. His dreams are gone. His future stolen from him. Lookwhat has become of him. We failed him, somehow. I failed him.

Vincent anxiously watched Father's intent expression as heworked...noted Ho's worried one. And he was glad--for once--of theloss of his empathy. Because he could no longer feel worried concern.He didn't think he could handle any more pain, right at the moment.He was emotionally and physically exhausted from his long search forCatherine, his grief at her death...and now, from the fruitless huntfor his son.

From his perch across the room, Vincent studied Rollie'ssweat-streaked face. A man's face, now, and yet...He is sochild-like, still. Despite everything. He wanted to take his friendinto his arms and hold him. To pour his love into him. But he knew itwas useless. The drugs had taken it all away from Rollie. Now, Rolliefelt nothing but the pain. Vincent felt a knife twist in his gutagain. The lack of hope was almost more than he could bear. Is therenothing left? No hope for Rollie, no hope for me...my son?

Vincent straightened into alertness as Father finally turned, witha deep sigh, from his patient. "How is he, Father?"

"He's fortunate." Father sounded tired. And worried. "The firstbullet passed clean through him. Had it been a few inches lower....But he's going to have a hard time ahead. Needs all his strength. Hehurts. He's going to need help."

Vincent felt a huge sense of relief that momentarily drowned outthe anger and hopelessness. Yet even without empathy, he couldn'tfail to be aware of the implied appeal in Father's comment. AndVincent didn't feel capable of answering that appeal. Hoping to avoidconfronting the matter directly, Vincent responded, "He has hisfriends around him now. People who love him."

Father wasn't willing to accept the evasion. "Vincent. Why don'tyou come home? Rollie is not the only one who needs you."

Lowering his head to escape Father's concerned gaze, Vincentreplied in a low voice, "I can't Father."

"The children ask after you every day. They miss you."

That was unfair, and Father knew it...using the children asleverage. And the unfairness woke some of Vincent's anger again,though he carefully kept his voice gentle. "The children haveyou...and Mary...and all the others. But my son...Catherine's child."The pain burst over him again full-force. The dark helplessness. Itwas useless. He was failing Catherine's son--as he'd failed her--andas he'd somehow failed Rollie. Failure piled on failure until itseemed impossible to do anything that would matter. He turned awaywith a huge, painful sigh.

"I know," Father said sympathetically. "Look. Why don't you juststay for the night, um? Until Rollie wakes up?"

Accepting the compromise was easier than arguing any more. Vincentnodded tiredly. Just now it seemed too much effort either to go or tostay. And he was concerned about Rollie. "Yes. At least for thenight, Father."

Father left then and Ho followed, having completed the suturing.Vincent scarcely noticed.

Going to the bedside, Vincent stood over his friend, watching thelabored rise and fall of Rollie's heavily bandaged chest. Vincentsmoothed the quilt that Ho had carefully laid over her patient. Tearsblurred Vincent's vision as he thought again of the talented, sweetchild that Rollie had been. Rollie was never completely convincedthat we loved him for himself. Did we ever make him understand thatalthough we valued the beauty he brought us with his music, it washe, himself, whom we loved? Kneeling beside the bed, Vincent tookRollie's hand, whispering, "Where did I lose you, Rollie? And can Ifind you again? Can I help you find yourself?"

Still holding Rollie's hand, Vincent closed his eyes and wept. Itwas a long while before he found the strength to move back to hischair. Once seated, he tried to sleep-- propped between the chairbackand the the cold stone of the chamber wall--but the dark dreamstumbled in his mind, giving him no rest.

Vincent ran through the murky dark. "Things" snatched at him andthe ground itself tried to swallow him. Far in the distance a childcried. His child. Catherine's child. He could sense a tenuousconnection, thread-thin, calling him. Too tenuous to help him findthe child, the connection only frustrated him. Sometimes in thesedreams, the child he searched for wasn't his child...sometimes it wasRollie...who was also lost in the dark, and piano music wound throughhis dreams, haunting and lovely, in bright contrast to the rest ofthe dream. Inside Vincent, the unforgotten and anonymous beastscreamed his rage and confusion.

Some time later, Vincent was wakened by Rollie's distressed cryand feeble, restless motions. He sprang up and moved to his friend'sside. Father was there too, though Vincent hadn't noticed his return.Soon, Rollie quieted, and his eyes opened, focusing on them. "You'resafe, Rollie," Father assured the boy, smiling. "Safe withfriends."

***

When Rollie woke, he woke slowly. Foul dreams and old memories hadhunted him in the dark he'd tried to hide in. He heard the pipesfirst. A comforting sound, somehow. But when he tried to move, thepain lanced through him and he groaned. But then, soft voicesanswered his pain. Familiar voices that stroked him in ways he'dalmost forgotten.

"You're safe, Rollie. Safe with friends."

Father. It's Father, Rollie thought, incredulously as his visioncleared. Then shame infused him with dread: he didn't want Father tosee him like this. He'd have to tell them what he'd done. But Vincentknew. Rollie could see it in his eyes as his friend motioned Fatherback and took his place. Somehow, it was easier to talk if he didn'thave to meet Father's pitying, disapproving eyes.

Vincent asked gently: "Do you remember what happened?"

Rollie couldn't bear to look directly at Vincent, either, but thesoft voice and the love in it demanded answers, so Rollie tried. Itstill struck him as surprising, what had happened. He'd stolen forhis drugs before and never been caught. "I was running. I got shot."He forced himself to face Vincent more fully. "A guy...at the liquorstore. I was rippin' 'em off."

Rollie felt a little sick as Vincent turned from him. Then Fathercame back, and there was a small prick of pain...and the large painwent away.

***

Vincent turned away as Father came to give Rollie anotherinjection. How is it, that Rollie--so good, so honest--can be reducedto this by this poison?

"He'll rest for a while now," Father commented gently. But hestill seemed very concerned...and that, in turn, concernedVincent.

"What is it, Father? He's going to recover, isn't he?"

"From the gunshot wound, yes. But...you've seen his arms,Vincent."

"Rollie is a heroin addict," Vincent agreed steadily. "You knewthat."

"His habit," Father explained, "has built up a tolerance tomorphine. I might have to give as much as five times the dosage Iwould give anyone else, just to numb the pain."

"You don't have it," Vincent said, guessing toward why Father wasdwelling so on Rollie's addiction.

But that wasn't it. Or at least not all. Vincent could read thatmuch in Father's expression and slowness in answering.

"I can always send word to Peter," Father responded. "But there'sonly so much he can do." He shrugged. "And you see, even if we do getthe drugs, we're walking a very thin line here. Too much morphine, werisk an overdose. Too little..."

"Then you're saying Rollie might die?" After the seeming reprieve,Vincent was borne down again to realize the specter of death stillhaunted the chamber. He could almost see it. He feared that Rollie'slast chance at life, his dreams, might be snatched away.

"If I ration the morphine...and monitor it day and night," Fatherreplied with careful deliberation, "I can keep him out of danger, butI can't keep him out of pain."

"I see." Vincent clenched his hands. "I understand."

It was the drugs. Always the drugs. It wasn't enough for them toforce Rollie to deny all that he was and could be--to force him tolie, cheat and steal...to forget his dreams: they put him in aposition where he got shot, then couldn't even grant surcease of thepain because one couldn't give him enough drugs to suppress itwithout suppressing life itself.

***

Assured that Rollie would sleep for a time, Vincent left Father towatch over him. He couldn't bear to be still any longer and wentwandering the passages, more or less at random. He moved blindly, noteven aware of friends who spoke to him...unaware of anything but thepain.

He found himself in the nursery, with no real awareness of howhe'd gotten there. It was the young children's playtime. Vincentleaned against the wall, hiding in the shadows-- unwilling to beseen, imwo;;omg tp be greeted. reproached for exiling himiself fromthem-- watching the children as they played. They are so happy. Socarefree. May they remain so.

For a few moments, the rage faded into peace as he watched thechildren and listened to their laughter. But soon his thoughts--inthe circular fashion that thoughts often have-- looped back to hisown son and Rollie. And the same problems. The same hopeless longing,restlessness, inertia.

He left the nursery then, before he could be noticed, before hispresence and black mood could disturb the play. He stopped at thekitchen to get something to eat.

Although dinner was long over and William elbow-deep in soapsuds,the normally truculent cook made no protest over fixing Vincent asandwich after hours. Nobody behaved normally toward Vincent anymore.Not even Father. It depressed him.

Nothing. Nothing was the same. He felt like a stranger even tohimself. Why should it surprise him when others treated him thatway?

My son, he thought. And I've never even seen his face. A stranger.Catherine said...that he is beautiful. So he cannot be like me.

Putting the sandich on a plate and bumping Vincent's arm to makehim notice, William asked, "How is he, Vincent?"

Recollecting William must be referring to Rollie, Vincent shookhis head, sinking onto a nearby bench. "I don't know, William.Between the gunshot and the drugs...even Father doesn't know."

William dragged out a bench and sat opposite him. "And you? How'reyou holdin' up?"

For William to be so solicitous, Vincent knew his despair must beshowing. I was right to leave the children, he thought. It'scontagious. He tried to force a smile. "Well enough. Thank you,William. For the food. And the concern."

"You really ought to come home, Vincent," William couldn't resistcommenting. As Father had been unable to resist it. Wanting of himwhat he couldn't do, didn't have to give. The failure of directempathy couldn't keep him from feeling the pressure of theirexpectations, their wanting that, however innocently, only added to his burden. William went on, "No need to stay down there in some damndark hole, all alone. Everything's fine. It's been weeks now sincethat damn killer blasted his way down here. If this Gabriel was gonnasend somebody else, he'd have done it by now?"

Vincent bent his head over his plate, avoiding William'ssolicitous gaze. The last thing he wanted right now was table talkabout Gabriel. "Perhaps. But I won't risk it." Choking down the lastof the sandwich and feeling it settle into a leaden lump in hisstomach, Vincent excused himself and pushed away from the table.

Collecting dishes, William waved him away--hurt, annoyed andresentful. "Go on, then. Feel sorry for yourself. You ain't the onlyone in the world to have lost people you loved, you know. And you'vestill got a lot of people here who love you."

Vincent thought dully, I cannot be here, among them. Not now.Then, abruptly, he was angry, in the sudden way anger came to himnow--always taking him by surprise, so that he lashed out heedlesslyat whatever had provoked it. "And what of my son? Who does he have,William? A madman who cares nothing for honor or love! And what ofRollie? Who will love them?" Without waiting for an answer from thestunned cook, Vincent spun on his heel and left.

It was wrong to have flared out at William that way. But hecouldn't seem to help it. And he was still angry. Sometimes it seemedto him he was always angry, with no way to discharge it or silenceit. Along with his hope, he'd lost his peace, as well. And so hebroke the peace of others, who meant no harm, who did love him: heaccepted that, even though he could no longer feel it. There seemedto be no way out of the cycle of hurting himself and hurtingothers.

He slowly returned to his chamber to relieve Father.Counterfeiting calm, he asked, "How is he?"

"He has some fever, but that's to be expected," Father repliedabsently. Turning, Father showed Vincent a stern, tight expression."Peter brought down some morphine, but Vincent...it's not enough. Notnearly enough. And it's all he can get." Father raked fingers throughhis hair. "I'll have to ration it very carefully...and Rollie isn'tgoing to understand."

"Surely he will, Father. He knows we love him...."

Father shook his head sadly. "All Rollie knows now, Vincent is thedrug...and the pain. You don't understand addiction. Not addictionlike Rollie's. A terrible, raging thirst; a hunger that overshadowsall else. Terrible even to imagine...." Leaning heavily on his cane,Father patted Vincent's shoulder. "I must go lie down for a while. Igave him another injection and it settled him for the moment. But Idon't know how long...." Father's pause was ominous and full ofmeaning.

"I'll watch over him. Go and rest, Father."

***

Settling back into his chair, Vincent watched Rollie as he slept.It seemed far too short a time before the young man woke again,crying out in pain. Vincent moved quickly to his side. "Try to liestill, Rollie, your wounds need time to heal."

"It hurts, Vincent." Rollie sounded like a woebegone child. "Ifeel those...holes in me. Burning...like fire inside."

Despite what Father had said, Vincent found he could visualizethat pain only too easily and too well. "Father has given you aninjection," he offered.

"It's not enough, Vincent. Doesn't do nuthin'. Help me, Vincent,"Rollie pleaded. He pushed away the quilt and started diggingawkwardly into a trouser pocket.

"I'm here," Vincent said, because he could find nothing else tosay. Because that was all he could do, and knew it wasn't enough. "Iwon't leave you." Then he stared in shock as Rollie extracted fromhis pocket a wad of dirty bills, which he thrust at Vincent. "There'sthis guy on Fourth.... The Bowery. Name's Tony. He's got what Ineed-- Tony."

Vincent felt as desperate as Rollie looked. His friend was in somuch pain. Father couldn't help. He couldn't help. But he couldn't dowhat Rollie was asking. He couldn't ease the pain by bringing Rolliemore of what was responsible for that pain. Madness. And yet Rollie'spain became his own. "You don't want this, Rollie. You don't needit."

"Vincent, please! It hurts so bad."

Vincent's response was fury. At himself, at Rollie, at thisimpossible dilemma. "Those drugs are poison." he insisted, trying tohold the rage in check. "They're what brought you here."

"Only this once," Rollie begged.

Vincent couldn't endure it. Turning sharply, he said, "Let me gofor Father."

Rollie's desperation wouldn't release him. "Vincent. I swear. Thelast time. I want to kick it--get clean. I will. I promise. But Iain't gonna make it otherwise. Please. I'm beggin' you. I need afriend." Again an accusation. A reproach, more bitter and blunt thanWilliam's or Father's but sinking into the same deep places andpulling at him like hooks. Then Rollie made it worse by rolling hishead away, implicitly saying that Vincent was no friend: a friendwould have helped, made the pain go away somehow. And Vincentcouldn't, wouldn't do that. Therefore Vincent was nobody, useless.Only somebody else refusing to answer his need.

Vincent had a name: Tony. It gave the rage a target, a purpose,and outlet. He strode out of his chamber, a murderous, sullen furysweeping over him in waves.

***

Rollie lay curled under the quilts. He hurt so badly all he wantedwas for it to stop. He couldn't imagine anything that would be betterthan that. He'd never hurt so bad in his life. Between the gnawing,tightening band of agony he felt from withdrawal, the fierce, burningpain of the wounds was unendurable. He couldn't stand it, yet therewas no way to get away from it. The pain was all he could feel orknow.

Tears slipped from his eyes: tears of pain, weakness and shame. Heremembered his empty promises--lies--to Vincent, and knew hisrejection had hurt Vincent, who'd never been anything but kind tohim. That wasn't right. But he couldn't seem to help himself. All Ido is lie, he thought savagely. To myself, to Vincent. Hurting himbecause he took the trouble to save my life. And this is what I givehim back. Rollie wouldn't even think of what Vincent must think ofhim. It hurt too much. He began to cry, in great, wracking sobs thatonly made the pain worse. Why did I come back? I'm just makingtrouble for everybody else. Hurting everybody else because I hurt. Ishould have just died. There's nothing left. I just make it worse,being alive. No hope for me any more.

***

Reaching Fourth Street, Vincent hung back in the shadows watchingthe nighttime thoroughfare and trying desperately to gain somecontrol over the beast slowly eating its way through his soul. Nearthe opposite corner stood a young man in a business suit--oddlyconspicuous among the other passers-by. They were on their way tosomewhere; this man stood, taking only a few paces in any direction:the motions of a man waiting. As Vincent observed, several people insuccession approached the man and gave him money. Each was treateddifferently. Some were met and then sent off with a laugh and apleasant expression. Others were scowled at or evenstruck...seemingly not in genuine anger, but almost offhandedly, asthough it hardly mattered or a smile was the same as a blow. Vincentdidn't understand this dance of power, though he recognized it forwhat it was. The man was demonstrating that he had the power toreward or punish at whim, to dominate his subordinates...some,literally children.

One such child approached the man and it suddenly, sickeninglycame to Vincent that the boy had been selling drugs for the man andwas delivering payment. And the man struck the boy. Vincent pulled ina tight breath and his eyes narrowed dangerously. Within him, thebeast clawed and roared, but Vincent maintained control and didn'tmove.

Somehow this wasn't the red-hot rage he'd felt so often before.This was almost cold. A calculating, deliberate rage that felt noshame, but only righteous anger. In the struck, corrupted child,Vincent saw all the murdered, lost and stolen children...all the lostdreams. He saw Eric and Ellie, Kipper and Samantha, gentle orphanedGeoffrey. He saw his own child, never seen but so vividly imagined,so deeply loved.

The man, Tony, had become in Vincent's mind all the evil he hadever fought.

Having apparently finished this night's business, the man left hispost. Crossing the street. As he passed the alley, Vincent called tohim softly...almost welcomingly: "Tony."

The man looked around in a way that said he saw only a dimoutline: Vincent was experienced in moving through the nighttimestreets, knew with precision and exactitude how clearly others coulddiscern him.

"Could be," the man responded carelessly, yet warily. "Who wantsto know."

Vincent thought of Rollie, of his suffering. Perhaps, despiteappearances, this man was another victim: cruel from his own unknownpain. Vincent was determined to be fair, judicious. Not give himselfover to the beast. He replied mildly, "A friend of Rollie's. He's interrible pain."

"Ain't that too bad," the man sneered. "Maybe I should sendflowers."

Vincent tried again. Gave the man a final chance to showcompassion. "Rollie thinks you can help."

"Help him? Yeah. I'll help him. I'll help bury him."

If it had been a test, the man had just failed it. And condemnedhimself by jeering at Rollie's torment. The callous mockery suddenlyswitched Vincent from the role of judge to that of executioner. Helashed out and caught the man's hand, letting the claws dig in. Theman screamed as Vincent replied in a deadly cold voice: "You alreadydid that."

His hand still imprisoned, impaled, the man dropped to his knees."OH, Jesus. Let go of me man! C'mon. I've got money. I'll give youmoney."

"I don't want your money. And keep your poison."

"Then what do you want?" the man pleaded, able to envision noviolence that wasn't an attempt at extortion or an assertion of brutedominance.

And with his claws biting into the man's flesh, the sharp scent ofblood in the air, Vincent thought blankly, What do I want? Andwithout thinking, he blurted, "I want it to stop!" with the sensethat it was all the incomprehensible cruelties, all the insanesuffering, all the horrible, empty, needless deaths that made of theworld a shell bereft of meaning or hope. All of it. He wanted it tostop.

Staring up, crouched at Vincent's feet, faced with a demand socosmic he couldn't comprehend it, much less satisfy it, Tony asked ina voice of angry bewilderment, "Who are you?"

Vincent hauled the man up and pinned him against the wall,one-handed. Then, deliberately, he moved forward into brighterlight...and let the man see him--the face of the beast. "Yournightmare," he declared flatly, knowing that was precisely how Tonywould see him...and what he would become.

Tony screamed wildly, horrified, terrified. And though Vincent hadintended and expected that reaction, it still hurt. He flung the manfrom him, tossed him clattering against a row of battered garbagecans. Vincent stood looking down at him. Hating him. Coldly anddeliberately he told Tony, "The next time I see you here...I'll killyou."

Then Vincent faded back into the shadows and let the man make hisscrabbling, frantic escape. Tony ran crookedly, hunched over hiswounded hand, glancing continually over his shoulder in obvious dreadof being pursued.

Following but not pursuing, Vincent thought, He's seen. Now heknows. And yet...my son is beautiful....

Tony's escape took him to a diner a few blocks away. Vincentwatched while he reported to another man--older, frowning, heavyset,wearing a better-tailored suit; annoyed to be interrupted at hismeal. To whom Tony behaved as a subordinate: cringing, whining,protesting, displaying his injury, insisting against skepticism. Itwas all in their poses. Watching in measured glances through thefront window, Vincent didn't have to hear the words. He waited forthe fuse to take light from this first spark, moving from lower levelto higher. He had no interest in Tony. He simply wanted it tostop--with a wanting that was itself like a fuse, burning within him.When the second man left, picking his teeth and scowling at the newshe'd just been given, Vincent followed him.

As the man's car--long, shining, dark as it moved past successivestreetlights--glided east, Vincent ran the alleys, keeping it inview. Near the river, it pulled into a warehouse and parked in achain-link enclosure. The man left the car and went inside. Pantingfrom the long run, Vincent slid up to a grimy window and lookedinside. At long tables, men in lab smocks worked with large carboysof chemicals, drums of powder--measuring, mixing, weighing on small,precise scales, holding test tubes up to the light.

The poison was prepared here. For children to sell...to otherchildren.

Flattening himself to the wall, Vincent drew deep breaths until hewas certain, until he was ready then found a door he could forcewithout much sound and eased inside. He went silently around rankedshelving to the tables he'd seen through the window. Nobody noticedhim until he was standing right behind one of the workers...whoglanced around casually, then stood frozen. The drug lab was welllit.

Vincent said curtly, "Get out. Now."

Without a sound, the worker immediately began backing away. Theother workers began looking up, seeing, reacting with unquestionableretreat. As the alarm spread, Vincent surveyed the tables and theircontents with hating eyes. Now. It was time. The beast's time. He letslip the last of his difficult controls and released the fury.

With one savage heave, he overturned the nearest table and thenswept another clean of glass beakers, retorts, and all its othercontents, such a hideous parody of medicine, of science. The almostcolorless flame of a fallen Bunsen burner set some cotton battingalight. The flames swiftly spread in a foul semell of the chemicalsthey fed on. It was all blazing, a mirror to the inner blaze Vincentfelt. Indiscriminately smashing everything he came to, everything hesaw, he released not only his rage over Rollie, but his fury andfrustration over Gabriel and his own lost son.

One man confronted him--briefly--with a gun. Vincent swatted theweapon aside...and then the man. Through the roiling smoke and heat,another armed man came to challenge the intruder. Vincent struck withferal suddenness and, disarmed, the man fled into the fire ratherthan face what he'd found before him. Turning, Vincent was charged bythe heavyset man from the diner--also threatening him with a gun. Abackhanded slash ripped the man's throat out before his finger couldcontract on the trigger.

His way now clear, Vincent stalked through the flaming debris andsmoke into the glass-fronted office a slim man in the best suit ofall crouched cowering, begging for mercy, pleading for his life. Theman was unarmed--not a threat--but Vincent was past noticing orcaring. Past mercy. Past justice. There was only the red rage andrevenge. To stop it. Stop it all.

***

Afterward, Vincent stood in an alley a block away and listened tothe sirens coming. Fire engines, police cars...ambulances. Even froma block away, the fire glared bloodily against the bricks, flashed inshop windows. But the fire within Vincent had burned out, leavingonly ashes. He felt numb. Dead inside. The beast was quiet now,satiated; but Vincent knew he couldn't blame this carnage on theOther. He'd done it. And yet he couldn't make himself care. His mindsang an elegy to innocence. And his heart was heavier thanbefore.

He stood, not waiting for anything in particular, until herealized that the shop windows now reflected the more diffuse lightof a dim and dangerous dawn. Heaving himself away from the brickwork,he began his slow way home.

Bypassing the living areas, Vincent stopped and washed the bloodfrom his hands, then continued on to his chamber of exile far fromthe community. Sitting crosslegged on the bare cement floor he atlast took up his journal to try to comprehend what had just happenedby casting it into words.

Last night

He sighed heavily and paused. The words wouldn't come. That utterferocity had nothing to do with words and resisted his mind's attemptto define or limit it. He continued with the paraphrase of aquote--someone else's words, someone safely dead and removed from allpresent turbulence.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to donothing. But nothing you can do is enough. Last night, I let ragecarry me into darkness. But tonight, up in that city, children willstill sell poison to other children. Where is the hope? Mychild...

The thoughts wouldn't come together any more than the words did.With another heavy sigh, Vincent laid the journal aside. On the samemakeshift shelf were other objects: Catherine's ivory rose...and theheavy ring, inlaid with black stone, that the assassin had offered asa token between them...and a lure. Picking up the ring, Vincent heldit so the light of his lone candle glinted off its surface. He readthe inscription. Veritas de liberabit-- The truth shall set you free.He curled his fingers into a fist around the ring, feeling it, athick, cold lump against his palm. There is no truth. No life. Itwill never stop. Where is the hope?

Setting aside the ring, he picked up his journal again, found thepage, and wrote:

The beast and I...are one.

With that chilling comment, he shut the journal and set it on theshelf with finality. Then he stretched out on his mattress and fellinto the same disturbing dreams of fear and haunting loneliness andfutile search. The same despair that clouded his waking hours.

Vincent dreamed of the beast...but the beast was named Vincent. Athing without a name has no substance, he thought desperately, I willnot give the beast my name. Wicked, feral eyes gleamed neon red inthe black surround. In the distance he could hear the wailing ofchildren in the distance; the beast's head turned. He beckoned forVincent to join him loping away to the hunt.

***

Rollie also lay lost in the darkness of his dreams. Even there,the pain pursued him.

He felt as though he were on fire, and he screamed, but no soundcame out. He cried, but the tears caught fire as they slipped downhis cheeks. Vincent and Father stood off to the side, their gentlehands outstretched for him, and there was a soft, golden light behindthem, hinting of comfort, release from pain. But he couldn't reachthem, no matter how hard he tried. Once, he thought he feltcomforting hands on him and tried to reach for them, but the painflared again and engulfed him.

Waking, Rollie was marginally more aware of where hewas--Vincent's chamber: where the nightmare-haunted children wereprivileged to flee for refuge and the comfort of sheltering arms. Butno more. He was alone here. And this nightmare wasn't the sort thatcould be dispelled by a special story told just to you.

He vaguely remembered begging Vincent to go bring him drugs. ButVincent hadn't taken the money. The bills were still there--no longerwadded up but stacked neatly just past the pillows. Yet Vincent hadgone...and hadn't come back. In his pain, Rollie couldn't thinkbeyond the fact that he hadn't scored. To get well, fixed, he'd haveto go himself.

If I can just get myself fixed, I can think. And if I die upthere, that's okay, too.

He managed to pull on his shirt and jacket and stumbled throughthe empty, half- remembered passageways. But the familiar waysbetrayed him: they led him to the cave where the piano was stored.The piano for his concert. The shining, full-sized grand piano he'dnever once played.

He turned his head sharply aside and lunged past. He had to getthrough. Get Above. Get fixed. But that piano...big as a car, almost,with all the unplayed music sleeping inside it.... He could almosthear it, the strong chords and swift arpeggios. Music by Chopin,Beethoven--old dead white guys, all of them, but the music so aliveand full of life and no race or color except the dreams everybody hadalike, the good dreams....

He'd hung around too long: Father came looking for him and foundhim there.

There'd be a lecture. Rollie knew Father. No use running and nointerrupting till the old man was done. With a dull emptiness andhopelessness, Rollie waited through what Father had to say about whenmore morphine would be coming. Another day. Tomorrow. One thingRollie was certain of was that he wasn't going to make tomorrow.

When Father told him, like it should be news, that his bodycouldn't survive his habit much longer, Rollie's frustration andanger flared. "Do you think I care?"

Patiently, gravely--hurting too: Rollie knew that--Father told himall the things Rollie already knew. About how everyone carried paininside; how escape only took them to where they couldn't feelanything--not even the good things. But what Father didn't understandwas that to escape the pain, the guilt, you got to where it didn'tmatter if you didn't feel anything. It was hard to stand therelistening to Father remind him about how he used to be, when he was akid. Before he'd got that nice Miss Kendrick killed, looking for him,for the concert. All his fault: because he'd gone off to be with hisbig brother, Anthony. Before that, there'd been the music. And Fathertried to remind him of that Rollie from before--full of hope anddesire.

"That was a long time ago," Rollie said flatly. "He's dead."

"No! Oh, no. He's here!" Father cried and hugged him, patted athim. "Do you remember what you used to dream?"

Passively held, Rollie shook his head, only wanting Father to getfinished and leave him alone. "No."

"Well, you told me once..." Father said in his storytelling voice,like it was a secret he was confiding, still patting at Rollie, "yousaid that you wanted to be good."

"Good at my playing," Rollie declared automatically, in caseFather thought he'd been trying to be different from Anthony, betterthan his brother who'd never been brought to the tunnels but livedwild on the streets. Playing wasn't sissy, like Anthony hadsaid...but it wasn't trying to be better because he'd loved Anthony.Who was dead now. Like Miss Kendrick. Like the music....

"Oh," said Father heartily, sincerely, "you were better than that.You were wonderful at playing! You brought great joy--to all of us.And you could again. All you need is the desire."

For the first time in a very long time, Rollie felt somethingother than a stab of pain. He felt that remembered hope, and helooked up into Father's face to see his own pain and hope reflectedback.

"And the courage to feel it," Father continued. "Stay with us,Rollie. Stay with us and try."

Rollie struggled, he wanted to stay...but he just couldn't. Thepain and the drugs were stronger than hope and love. "I...can't," hemanaged. He turned away.

"Please, Rollie. Please...Rollie...." Father's voice, with its ownpain followed him as Rollie lurched away through the tunnels towardthe surface.

***

Vincent woke to the silent dark. He lay there awhile trying toplace the time, but his time sense seemed to be off. Either he hadn'tslept at all, or he'd slept straight through the entire day intonight again. Hardly any messages sounded on the pipes. It must belate, then. Disoriented, he rose and began the long ascennt to theHome Chambers to check on Rollie.

He found the bed empty...and Father slouched despondently in thechair by the table.

Vincent asked, "Where's Rollie?"

Father looked around, then away. "He's gone," he reported. "I didmy best to stop him, but I have a feeling he may have gone back upAbove."

Vincent couldn't believe it. How could Father let him go? "There'snothing for him up there but death." he protested. "You knowthat."

"So," said Father, sternly resigned, "does Rollie."

As Vincent swung around to find the boy, bring him back, Father'svoice stopped him before he'd taken more than a single pace. "And ifyou do find him, what are you going to tell him...that he doesn'talready know?"

It was true. It was also intolerable. "Am I to stand aside whilehe's killing himself?" Vincent demanded.

"If that is a choice that he's made," Father agreed steadily. "Youcan't be with him every moment, Vincent."

"I am with him every moment. When he destroys himself, he destroysa part of me."

Father rose, finally, and came to him. "This," he commented, withsomething like wryness, "is what it is to be a father." It wentunsaid, but was understood, that the helpless concern Vincent feltfor Rollie, Father too had often felt...for him. Speaking the naturalfollowing thought, Father asked sympathetically, "Your son. Have youfound...anything?"

Vincent averted his eyes, freshly reminded of that otherunendurable imperative to cherish and keep safe. "A name," heanswered dully. "A name written on the wind. The memory of a face. Aname. Nothing."

"So," Father challenged acutely. "This isn't really aboutRollie."

"This is about all the lost children," Vincent acknowledged, thenabruptly left.

Father was right. Vincent knew it. It would never stop, and stillone had to manage to live somehow and be glad or else you'd infecteveryone around you with your misery. William was right. But itdidn't matter. He couldn't make it matter to him anymore. It made nodifference to him...and no difference to the beast. Common sense wasno help. Maybe nothing was. But he had to do something. He had totake some action. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is forgood men to do nothing. Edmund Burke had been right.

And Vincent was suddenly, fiercely ashamed of having spared theman in the office. Staring at him, listening to him beg for his life,Vincent hadn't exactly pitied the man. More been sickened by him.Disgusted. And, in that disgust, he'd stalked away and let the fateof fire determine what would happen to the wretched, whining helplesschild-corrupter in his fine suit.

He shouldn't have let Tony off with just a warning, either. Bynow, Tony was probably patrolling his corner again, collecting hishorribly tainted money. Despite the warning. Tony had seen. Butperhaps he still didn't know that Vincent never made idlepromises.

If I find him there, I will kill him, Vincent decided with a senseof satisfaction. It will be a start. At least some of it will havebeen stopped. Gabriel....

***

Rollie cried as he ran. The bullet wounds hurt: they'd opened. Hewas bleeding inside his clothes. The withdrawal pains hurt even more,every nerve and every vein shouting its spearate need. Have to findTony. Tony can fix me. But as Rollie ran, Father's face, with all itshope and desperate, pleading love, swam in front of him. ThenVincent's face: full of concern and disappointment. That wraithlikeface accused him too with its own sorrow that was his fault,reminding him of his betrayal. It was a lie: Vincent was the closestto a friend I ever had. Better than Anthony. And he's so sad for methat just being alive, I hurt him. Better if I was dead. Better if Iwas dead. Then the hurting would stop. He wiped angrily at the tears,because now, the pain of remembered dreams, of love he couldn'treturn or deserve, and of lost hope had become stronger than all therest.

Resting several times along the way, leaning into bus shelters andslumping on the front steps of brownstones, Rollie finally made hisway to the right corner. Finding it vacant, he stumbled on to thediner where Tony generally hung out. Checking that none of the bloodshowed yet, he went inside. Tony was there, but he was withsomebody--a lady with long red hair and an intense expression. Rolliewas scared of her. Cop, maybe, though she didn't look like it. Justthe suspicion was enough to make Rollie keep clear, sit small andwatch from a table, terrified Tony would get busted, get taken awaywhen Rollie was so close.... When the waitress stared at himexpectantly he ordered coffee he didn't want just to make her go awayand leave him alone.

As Rollie sat not drinking the coffee, a strange thing happened.He began feeling something. As much as he wanted the fix, as much ashe was worried about Tony getting busted, those anxieties began toseem very far away like something he'd heard about once in somestory. Like it had all happened a long time ago and was really overand imagining otherwise was just pretending. None of it was real.What was real was coming out of the radio the waitress had justfiddled with the knobs on. Not rock, big beat, that baby stuff: justthump, thump, thump, like a hammer--music. Real music. Pianomusic...and a piece he knew. Once, he'd been able to play anything heheard. That was how it had all started, his hearing a Rachmaninoffsonata (only he hadn't known the name then, or what a sonata was) ona radio, then getting caught by that old Eli playing the piece onthat bad old upright in Eli's basement where he'd been sneaking in tocrash, the upright with the sour top E and the pedal rods rusted sostiff he could barely move them.

He knew this music! The Moonlight Sonata. That Beethoven. MissKendrick's most special favorite. His favorite, too. Unbidden, hisright hand was doing the slow top part on the tabletop while his lefthand did the walking, the three note phrases he'd had to stretch forthen because his hand hadn't been quite big enough....

And that was real, that music. He was hearing it and he could makeit. He knew he could. He had to get at a piano. He could feel it inhis hands, like Miss Kendrick cursed him out for, as much as ladieslike her cursed--called him "Rollie Parrot" because the simplerknowing kept him from wanting to learn to read the notes on paper.The paper was all gone now and so was Miss Kendrick but where themusic was alive was in his hands. In him. He could feel it.

Shoving back the chair he ran, then had to walk awhile, then ran,and had to rest, until he came to a manhole cover he could shoveaside and get down. Then he ran some more, drawn, compelled, makingnotes all the time with his fingers in the air like if he stopped,the music might all run out of them again, until he stumbled into thepiano chamber and got his ten fingers on those keys. A littlestiff--both him and the key action. But he hadn't let the notes runout, he'd gotten back in time, and the music was alive again asthough it had never stopped--first from the radio, then back to himagain. A contagion of wonder to give away. To make it alive foreverybody, giving back for what they'd given him.

When he reached the final chord he collapsed across the keyboardand cried, great wracking sobs that shook him. And there for awhilethe pain bothered him again. But what bothered him worse was thathe'd flubbed the fingering in the middle part, tried to make themiddle finger cross over the third, the music pulling at him and hefollowing without planning out the moves beforehand, like MissKendrick had never taught him anything. Old Rollie Parrot, he couldimagine her saying, shaking her head and smiling, the way shedid.

Leaning back, he scrubbed his arm impatiently once across hiseyes, then began that part again, noticing now that this piano neededtuning too, just like that old Eli's had-- nobody taking care of itright, just leaving it to sit here in the damp all these years--andmeanwhile getting ready to change the fingering so the notes wouldn'tstumble like they had before. And the pain was carried away on thebright wings of joy.

***

Entering the alley near the corner of Fourth, Vincentautomatically tugged up his hood before going on to find out if Tonyhad returned to his post. As he ducked under a fire escape andstarted on, a figure came around the building, striding toward him.Although she was just an outline with the light behind her, startled,he recognized her at once--by her walk, her swinging, tied-back hair,her purposefulness...and the fact that he knew she was going to dowhat she did: walk right up to him and look him straight in the face.Without a flinch. Without a blink.

Diana Bennett.

He was startled, perturbed, and confused. She had no part in this.He'd told her bluntly to forget him. He owed her courtesy andgratitude for rescuing him, but that didn't entitle her to share hisjeopardy. He was absolutely determined to hereafter keep all histrouble to himself and involve no one else. Too many had been hurtalready.

He couldn't conceive what she was doing here.

With no greeting or preamble, she told him sharply, "Vincent,don't," just as though she'd known, not only where he'd be, but whathe'd intended. As if she knew his mind and his moves better than hedid himself, to be there ahead of him, facing him.

Deflected from the simple course of violence, he asked in dullperplexity, "How did you know?"

"I know," she responded carelessly, as if there's be no use inexplaining why or how she was here, since she was here. "It's what Ido." Then she told him, "Joe Maxwell came by to see me this morning.He knows what happened last night. He's looking for you."

The bewilderment was getting worse. Joe Maxwell, Catherine'sfriend, was somehow involved. And looking for him. That made nosense.

Vincent said, "He won't find me."

"I found you," Diana pointed out.

There was no arguing with that. And Vincent didn't want to arguewith her. Didn't want to talk to her, or anyone. He wanted things tobe simple again. But he inclined his head in admission to the factshe offered him as though it should mean something or he should careabout it. He didn't. Her energy and intentness wore on him. Justlooking at her tired him. He offered his own fact, that he'd learnedso bitterly well: "There are no safe places for anyone."

It was a dismissal. An end to this bizarre conversation. But as hestarted past her, her next words stopped him in his tracks.

"The place you destroyed last night belonged to Gabriel." As heswung around, astonished, she added, "It was his. I can't prove it,but I know it's true."

"Gabriel." Vincent repeated incredulously--the name nearly agrowl.

He was surprised, and yet not surprised. Things only seemedrandom. On some level they all connected. Everything leads back toGabriel. But nothing leads me to him.

Watching him with that searchlight intensity, she again read himaccurately, instantly, understanding him in a way he found decidedlyunnerving. He wasn't used to being understood.

She demanded, "Vincent why? If you didn't know, why did you doit?"

He felt like a leaking sandbag. The longer he stood herediscussing this, the less energy he had to take action. But Diana hadasked him a question; and she deserved at least courtesy from him. Sohe sighed and tried to explain. "I had a friend. His name was Rollie.I did it for him."

It occurred to him immediately that he'd spoken of Rollie asthough he were already dead.

"And did it help him?" Diana challenged. "Is he better now?"

Not even Father ever talked to him this way. And yet he couldn'tdispute the truth of what she said. No. It didn't help. Rollie isstill lost...to me...as Catherine's child is lost. And the hope.Reading it all in his face again, Diana went on, suddenly andpoignantly compassionate, "Vincent. I've been there, too, and this isnot the way."

His heart broke all over again, convinced Diana was right andequally convinced there was no other way. The clear line of simpleaction had been lost and he didn't know how to find it again. Withoutit, he was completely bereft. He burst out, "Then where is the way?What would you have me do? He has my son and I have nothing! Butthese!" He thrust his hands out for for her to look at as he'd forcedthe sight of himself on Tony, last night, deliberately brutal. Hishands: furred, fisted tight and shaking with inexpressible fury, heldso as to best display the claws--sledgehammers tipped withrazors.

She glanced at his hands as though they'd been vaguelyuninteresting parcels he was trying to get her to buy, then lockedeyes with him again, undistracted and certainly unintimidated. "Thosecan't help you find your son."

"They can make Gabriel bleed!" he growled. "Night afternight...."

She cut in levelly, "Until you kill him or he kills you. By thenit won't matter who wins, Vincent. What kind of father do you wantyour son to have?"

That was the most unexpected, and struck deep. It hadn't occurredto Vincent to think about actually having the child. All he'd beenable to focus on was getting him. And again, she was right: whatchild could thrive with a beast as his father? Yet that was where thestraight line led, if it led anywhere except into darkness, that hefelt, and dreaded, and still could neither deny nor avoid. There wasnothing else.

Diana went on grimly, with that astonishing pitiless compassion."If you continue alone in this, you're going to lose everything."

All the sand had run out; for Vincent knew that Diana was right inthis, as well. He'd felt it last night and forced it into words inhis journal: he would lose himself, and then there would truly benothing. Staring into Diana's eyes, he saw his own pain reflectedback. "Then where is the hope, Diana?" he demanded, almost quietly."Where is the hope?" He brushed past her without waiting for ananswer. There was none.

***

Vincent felt empty. Empty even of the rage. Its passing had lefthim a shell without hope or rage to be a beacon or a goad, to keephim going. Diana had been right to stop him--he would have destroyedhimself completely tonight--but now--there was nothing.

His legs felt leaden as he walked--drawn merely by the inertia ofhabit--through the upper tunnels and to the deeper levels.

All at once Vincent heard music--so faint and distant he thoughthe must be imagining it: the Moonlight Sonata. He paused only amoment. Then he moved faster, pursuing the sound whose strengtheningtold him where he was going long before he arrived: the chamber whereRollie's piano was stored. And Rollie was there. Intently, serenelyplaying. The music sure and flowing and measured, not a note hurriedor retarded. Somber, deliberate music. And yet, in itself and in thefact of it, soaringly triumphant.

Stopped, staring, barely daring to breathe or to believe, Vincentfound tears springing to his eyes. His heart hurt. And within himselfhe said, Here, Diana. Here is my hope. Things do not always shatterand fail and die. There is a resilience that can return even from themost horrible illness and tragedy. It doesn't all rest on me, tosomehow force it. It comes. Of itself, out of the strength of love,it still comes.

Then his eyes blurred so badly he couldn't see Rollie, or thechamber, as anything but a bright blur. He didn't have to see. All hehad to do was listen and let the hope slowly insinuate itself deepinto his soul.

He was startled by a light touch on his shoulder. He turned tofind Father standing behind him...with tears in his own eyes.

Father's hand squeezed his shoulder. "He'll be all right, now.He's found his dreams again."

Vincent couldn't speak at all. His throat seemed to have shutcompletely. Instead, he clasped Father desperately close and hung onas the patient voice told him, "It will come right eventually,Vincent. We're here for you."

Releasing Father, Vincent wiped at the tears with the heel of hishand and merely nodded. Grateful that Father didn't again try topersuade him to return, he walked slowly back to the bare, simplechamber where he was now most nearly comfortable and again sought toforce the inexpressible into words:

Rollie is home; and I think this time, he is home for good. He hasfound himself. Found his music. Found hope. And perhaps I have notyet lost everything. Once before, Diana warned me that if I continuedin this alone I would fail. Tonight she stopped me from walking intoa darkness from which there can be no returning. And she reminded meyet again that if I continued alone in this I would lose everything.That Rollie has not only survived but triumphed persuades me I mustseek help. Or at least accept it where it is so adamantly offered.Elliot's fate notwithstanding. There is no certainty. No safe place.For any of us. Yet we must live. As best we can. And trust that allmay yet not fail. Or nothing is worthwhile.

Laying his journal over his knee, Vincent again reached and tookup the assassin's ring. He turned it and considered it for a longmoment. From the back of the journal he carefully tore a page, wrotea quick note, then wrapped it around the ring before he had time tochange his mind. He'd have to ask Father for an envelope....

Picturing Diana, so determined and fierce as she'd faced him downin the alley, he resumed writing.

Help has been at hand--my hand, that would not reach out and takeit, whether from pride or fear of failure or despair that my touch isa mortal infection--for some time. And I will take it, for there isno one more worthy of trust than Diana. She shines like a beacon--abright flame--in the forests of this dark night. I will take her helpand her hand and let her lead me. She is my only hope.

***

It was several weeks later, and after much more heartache andpain, before Vincent-- with Diana's help--finally brought his own sonhome.

It was a quiet homecoming--just Vincent and Father. And of coursethe baby, whom Vincent found infinitely and heartbreakinglybeautiful. Like all his memories of Catherine.

Standing over the crib, Vincent contentedly, wonderingly watchedthe infant sleep. He couldn't hold his son: his hands were thicklybandaged to protect the burns he'd received from Gabriel'selectrified cage, and Father had forbidden him to care for the childuntil the danger of infection passed. Coerced by both a father's anda doctor's authority, Vincent had at least negotiated the concessionthat the baby remain here, with him in his chamber.

Home.

In perhaps another week, when the bandages could be safelyremoved, there was to be a Naming Ceremony for his son.

His son....

He heard a soft sound in the entry passage and looked up to findRollie waiting permission to enter, smiling hesitantly, his armstucked up tight under his armpits.

"Rollie!" Vincent was delighted. Rollie looked much better.Recovering his music had somehow given Rollie the strength to holdout through the pain while being gradually weaned from the drugs.Vincent said, "I'm sorry...that I wasn't here--"

Rollie shook his head. "You were. Every time I thought of givin'up, you were here," he pointed to his chest...to his heart."Besides," he added, his gaze straying to the crib, "you had otherthings you had to do." Glancing back at Vincent, he asked, "CanI?"

"See him? Of course. Come."

Vincent watched as the young man stared down at the child--who,except for coloring, bore no visible sign of his paternity. Vincentwas pleased when others wished to look at his child. He never tiredof gazing at him; it seemed only reasonable that everyone would wantto, as well.

How could anyone not love such a child?

Sitting on his heels, Rollie reached out most carefully to touchthe child's hair, then unfurl one impossibly small pink hand. Rolliewhispered wonderingly, "He's so little, Vincent. Hardly nuthin'."

"I'm told he will grow."

At that dry, amused comment, Rollie glanced up again. "Yeah. Hewill. He'll grow into somethin'...somebody good. You never lost hope,did you, Vincent?"

Vincent placed a hand on Rollie's shoulder. "Oh...yes. Butafterward, I thought of you. It helped." He didn't want to burden orembarrass Rollie by trying to express how much it had helped.

Rollie grinned, and Vincent thought then of Diana as she'd beenthat night in the alley. So determined. It is she who truly neversurrendered. Never gave up either. Not on me...and not on findingGabriel and my son.

And he thought of Father. Who had reminded him of what it trulymeant to be a father. The inescapable sorrows...and now the joys.

Between the three of them--Father, Diana and Rollie--they'd givenhim his hope back. And now his child."

"How long you figure," Rollie asked seriously, "before he's readyfor piano lessons?"

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Note from the author:

I've put a couple of samples of my earlier works online, but Ithought in all fairness I should put out something that I've donelater, just to give you a sample of the difference in writing style.It always makes me a little uneasy having people "judge me" by myearlier writing efforts. This piece appears in Nan Dibble's wonderfulfanzine PHOENIX 5 and I apologize to her for putting it online, butunfortunately I have too few short pieces that are not published inother people's zines and I know Nan will forgive me....

Any comments please E-mail me at rhcollins@juno.com.