By JoAnn Baca


If you’re going to walk in someone else’s shoes, do it over rough ground.

Cindy Rae


Clutching an empty carton, Catherine made her way to the basement of her co-op building. These days, anytime she wanted to visit Below, she ensured it looked like she was going to her storage unit for a purpose.  If anyone had seen her – and she was doubly careful these days to ensure that never happened – and attempted to follow her, they would have been stymied by the internal lock on the door of her storage unit. Of course, if they had knocked, she wouldn’t have been there to answer, but she counted on the fact that New Yorkers tended not to be quite that nosy.

She opened the access panel just wide enough to get partway down the tunnel ladder, tugged a stack of empty boxes as close to the doorway leading to Below as possible, then softly pulled the door closed. As an added measure of security, Mouse had recently ensured that the hatch leading to the iron rungs of the ladder was seamless when closed, no hinge anywhere along the wall to give away its presence. Only someone who knew where to look would find the latch to open it. It was just one of the many ingenious creations that kept the Tunnel world a secret from prying eyes.

A note had called Catherine Below, and she had barely stopped to change her shoes before rushing out the door, heart racing to match her quick footsteps. But when she reached the ground and turned, it was Father who she found waiting for her, and her heart – which had been pattering in anticipation – quickly sank.

Father showing up unannounced was rarely a good thing.

“Catherine, I have to thank you for responding so quickly to my summons.”

As she leaned to place a kiss along his grizzled cheek, she wondered at the word “summons” – the note had seemed like an invitation, and she wasn’t sure she liked this implication of a command appearance. Still, she forced herself to maintain a neutral tone as she asked, “Is everything all right Below? Is Vincent…?”

She left her last sentence hanging, hoping to get Father to come to his point quickly if this was to be yet another argument about the appropriateness of her relationship with his son. He could sometimes take an inordinate amount of time to arrive at a subject he felt was distasteful.

“Yes, we’re all well Below. It’s…” He seemed to force himself to stand straighter, although Catherine could tell the long walk to her threshold had caused his hip to act up. “It’s…Vincent, yes. He is well, generally, but…”

She could see she was going to have to maneuver him into getting to the crux of the problem, even though he was the one who had called her down. Gently, she suggested, “Let’s find someplace to rest while we discuss this. There’s an outcropping not far from here where we can sit.”

Relief suffused his features before he caught himself and schooled his face to hide his physical discomfort. “Yes, that would be…welcome.”

Catherine took the old man’s arm and guided him down the corridor and up a side tunnel to an area where several large flat-topped stones made fairly comfortable seats. With a barely concealed sigh of relief, Father sank onto one.  Catherine perched on another, her posture upright, primed for whatever discussion…or argument…was to come.

“You said Vincent is well but…. What did you mean, and what can I do to help him?” She felt she had framed the discussion as much as possible without knowing any more than that “but.”

Father spared her a rueful glance before focusing his attention on the handle of his cane. “Physically, he is fine. Healthy, I mean. But every so often through the years, he has entered these…call them depressive states, for want of a better term. He becomes…morose, uncommunicative…difficult. He’s prone to angry outbursts, he doesn’t sleep well, he’s restless, he even complains of headaches…and as you know, Vincent rarely complains, even when badly injured.” He finally looked at her again as he added, “It’s best to…to…leave him to himself during these times.”

Catherine saw where this was going. Father was about to ask her to go back Above…and stay there for some undefined period of time. She didn’t mind disappointing him on that score, but first she needed to learn as much as she could about previous incidents. So, barely disguising her impatience, she asked, “How has…leaving him to himself…worked out in the past?”

Shrugging, the Tunnel elder admitted, “We just wait it out. Eventually, after some time – days…weeks…or longer – he comes out of it.”

“I see.” Catherine stood and brushed the back of her slacks. “Well then, I think a visit from me is in order, don’t you? Come on, I’ll walk back with you.”

Father’s frown portended his reply. “I believe it’s best if…”

Rather than letting him tell her to be a good girl and run along home, she pretended to misunderstand, and she finished his sentence by saying, “…if I visit with him to see if another approach might yield better results this time around? Yes, that would be best.”

Without waiting for an agreement she knew would not be forthcoming, she literally grabbed him by the arm and tugged him upright. Startled, his body moved to accommodate her urging, and he was walking beside her back to the hub before he realized what was happening.

Catherine heard his resigned sigh and smiled grimly to herself. I’ve learned your tricks, Father, and now you know I have a few up my own sleeve!

~ ~ ~

“Vincent? May I come in?” Catherine stood just outside the entrance to Vincent’s chamber, being polite despite her desire to rush right in and hug him.  There was a sound that might or might not have been him saying something. She took it as permission to enter.

The chamber was dimly lit – the overhead light was off and only two candles struggled against the darkness. A tall shape beside the massive velvet-upholstered chair was discernible as a deeper shadow. Catherine picked up the lantern that always stood by the entry and lit its candle – she now made sure she had lighters in the pockets of any jackets she routinely wore Below - then carried the lantern within.

There were books strewn across the table in the kind of disarray that normally would drive Vincent to distraction. She gently pushed a few aside to set the lantern down. Vincent didn’t turn to greet her. He stood with his back to her, his head down, his shoulders slumped. Her heart bled at the sight. Father thought it was best to leave him alone like this?!

Without a word, Catherine wrapped her arms around Vincent’s waist from behind,  snuggling against his back, her forehead gently resting between his shoulder blades. She felt him stiffen in surprise at the intimate gesture, but she didn’t let go or even loosen her hold. She just stood there, hugging him close. After some time, his shoulders relaxed and his stomach lost tautness as he began to breathe deeply again. Once she was sure he wouldn’t pull away, she turned her head and laid her cheek against his back while tightening her embrace.

The only sound that entered the chamber was the distant rumble of a subway train passing overhead. Even the pipes were silent. The stillness was so absolute, Catherine was sure that everyone Below was walking on tiptoes to ensure nothing disturbed Vincent’s melancholy. Again she wondered why they thought leaving him to brood alone was the best way to help him through such a time.

Wanting to offer more comfort to him, Catherine rubbed her cheek against Vincent’s back as she began to stroke her fingers against the sides of his chambray shirt. She could feel how warm he was without all his usual layers…and she hoped he, too, could feel the warmth of her breath, of her arms, of her cheek.

Long minutes passed. Vincent neither moved away nor lifted his hands to cover hers. But Catherine was determined to let him know – by touch, if that was all he would accept right now –that she was with him even in his melancholy. After a while, she felt him expel a long breath, and he began to turn in her arms. She lifted hers slightly away from his body to allow him movement while keeping him within the circle of her embrace. When he had turned to face her, she was relieved to feel his arms encompass her and draw her close, and she followed his lead.

His warm breath ruffled the hair on the crown of her head. She felt his cheek nestle there as his embrace tightened, and she tightened hers in response. Time ticked by with hardly a sound intruding, the flickering of candlelight and their tandem breathing the only movements within his chamber. She could feel the incremental relaxation of his body into hers, his body heavier against her as he leaned more deeply into their embrace. Whatever else was happening, he knew he wasn’t alone in his universe…and never would be again.

She had almost been lulled to sleep by the slow rhythm of his heartbeat when Vincent’s raspy whisper brought her to full awareness once more.

“Why are you here?” The words were accompanied by a tighter hug, showing her how grateful he was for her presence.

“Father told me you weren’t feeling your best today,” she murmured in reply.

“He told you to come?” The surprise was evident even though his voice was barely a whisper.

She smiled against his chest. “Well, let’s say I invited myself.”

His soft chuckle made her day.

“You have hidden talents, Catherine.” He pulled away slightly to look down into her face.

She was saddened by the etched furrows in his brow, the deepening of the lines between his eyes. “And you, Vincent…” Gently, she admonished him. “You should not keep these moments from me.”

“I don’t want to burden you.”

Of course he would say that! She would happily have shaken him if she thought that would do any good. Instead, she replied, “You are never a burden. But…if you are carrying one, you should know by now that a burden is easier to bear if shared.” Her eyes glistened with tears as she begged, “Please, share yours with me.”

He lowered his arms and turned from her, but she grasped his hand and would not let him move away. “I know I’m not as strong as you, but I can shoulder some of this, if you’ll let me.”

He spoke into the darkness, his back to her. “You are the strongest person I know, Catherine, but…”

She squeezed his hand and tugged at it, urging him to face her once more. “No buts. You have shared my darkest moments. You lent me your strength many times when mine was low. Let me do the same for you now. Honor me with that.”

He turned to her. “Honor you? With this…malaise?”

“Tell me about it. Help me understand it.” She embraced him again and looked up into his tortured face. “I won’t leave you like this. I love you.”

He shook his head, his blue eyes despairing. “There’s nothing in this to love.”

“There’s you. At the heart of it. And my heart is with yours.” She said it so adamantly, it sounded like she was angry with him, but she knew he could feel the truth of her words through their Bond.

“Oh, Catherine. Do you never give up on me?” He gave her a weak smile.

“I think you know the answer by now.” She smiled up at him, and raised one hand to cup his bristled cheek. “My beautiful Vincent. My love.”

He raised his eyebrows, startled at her words. His eyes widened when she rose on tiptoes. Then she couldn’t see his reaction any longer when her own eyelids drifted shut as she kissed his lips.

She let her kiss linger against his mouth, feeling his lips part as he took in a shocked breath. She didn’t pull back, just as before when she held him until he eased himself past the tension he had felt when she first embraced him. She was determined to offer her lips to him until he finally relaxed into the kiss, and so she strained to remain on tiptoes. Then, just when she felt her calves rebelling, his arms reached around her and he lifted her up to meet his own lips, kissing her back so tenderly it brought tears to her eyes once more.

She sighed against his lips when he pulled away, the warmth of her breath beckoning him to return. He lowered his head to hers as he put her back on her feet, then moved his arms from around her, only to cup her face between his palms to hold her still. She let him take the lead, offering him her mouth for exploration, and was rewarded with a feathering of soft kisses that melted her, her legs becoming weak even though she was now standing firmly on the ground.

His thumbs gently stroked her flushed cheeks as he raised his head to gaze into her eyes. She noticed the deep furrows on his brow had eased away, that the despair that had been etched across his face had vanished. He looked at her with love lighting his features, with a sparkle that had been missing earlier in the crystalline blue of his eyes.

“How is it possible, Catherine? You come to me, and…I am changed, utterly.”

She turned her face to kiss the palm of his hand, then looked up at him once more. “Neither of us is who we were before, Vincent. Old patterns can vanish along with our old lives, if we let them. Share your thoughts with me. Please? Let’s get through this…together.”

He nodded, exhaling a long sigh. But before he began to share his thoughts, he shared his lips with her again…and again.

~ ~ ~

“When did she go in there?” William’s normally loud voice was tempered to a low mutter. He asked the room in general, which held several members of the community, gathered to make plans for how to deal with Vincent’s latest bout of depression.

“Father said about three hours ago. It’s been radio silence since,” Cullen replied.

“Do you think….” Mary could hardly say the words but eventually she got them out. “Do you think he…hurt her?”

“Haven’t heard her scream,” said William.  “Besides, he’d probably just yell at her. You know how crabby he gets when he’s like this.”

They had all had ample experience with his short temper during those previous phases, which was why they were meeting now, to mitigate anything else that could disturb him while he was in its grasp. They had already ensured that the Tunnels were as quiet as possible, pipe traffic held to only emergency usage. Lighting had been lowered to ease the headaches Vincent often had when in the thrall of his depressive state, and work schedules were being adjusted to ensure that Vincent would be left alone as much as possible.

Father had tried to warn Catherine away, and her sudden appearance was a cause for concern for everyone Below. After all, she was breaking all the established protocols: going in to bother him in the first place, staying in his chamber when he always wanted privacy in the second, talking to him when silence was the norm. They fully expected her to learn what they had learned long ago: Vincent in this state was not the Vincent she thought she knew.

“Isn’t it almost dinnertime?” Jamie’s stomach had been rumbling for the past half hour, so her question was not unexpected.

“I made soup and rolls,” William told her. “You’re welcome to dip into the pot whenever you want.”

Jamie nodded and slipped quietly away. She headed to the kitchen, situated behind the Dining Chamber, well out of the path of the corridor leading to Vincent’s chamber. But when she rounded a corner, she was startled to find herself face to face with Vincent, who was holding a tray with two bowls of soup on it and several rolls.

She froze, unsure if she should stay still or turn around and clear the way for Vincent to continue down the corridor alone, but before she could decide what to do, he said, “Hello, Jamie. I’ve missed seeing you.”

She uttered a surprised “Huh?” then recovered enough to add, “Uh…missed you, too.”

“I’m just bringing dinner to Catherine. We’re still talking, but we got hungry.  Please tell the others we’ll join them tonight for Game Night.”

“Uhhh…we’ve canceled Game Night,” she responded. “You know…too noisy.”

Vincent passed her in the corridor as he said, “It would be nice for Catherine to experience one of our Game Nights. I don’t believe she’s ever been invited to one.”

As he turned the corner and disappeared from view, Jamie noticed her jaw was hanging open and she closed it with an audible click of her teeth. Abandoning her original plan, she hurried to tell the others that they had all better eat soon, because Game Night was back on.


“Father, you needn’t have been the one to accompany me back to my threshold,” Catherine said. “This can’t be doing your hip any good.”

Father leaned heavily on his cane but stubbornly declared, “Nonsense! Besides, I had to speak to you privately, to find out what you did to pull Vincent out of that…”

“’Depressive state’?” she finished for him, using his term. When he nodded, she replied, “I sat quietly with him until he was ready to talk, then I let him tell me what he was feeling.”

“That’s it?” Father’s inflection indicated he was dubious.

“Well…almost.” She allowed herself a private smile, knowing Father was concentrating on his footing and so wouldn’t see it. “Of course, it’s going to take more than one conversation to help him through what’s troubling him. But the important thing to learn about this is…” She took a breath before finishing her thought, but Father finished her sentence instead… in a way she hadn’t expected.

“The important thing is not to keep you away from Vincent,” he said, with perhaps a shade too much rue in his voice.

Catherine just smiled. Interventions sometimes took different forms.