By JoAnn Baca


I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.

Maya Angelou


While Catherine strode down a corridor in the Home Tunnels this particular Thursday night, she was paying scant attention to where she was going. Her mind was occupied with thoughts of the evening to come, one that would be spent alone with Vincent. She smiled dreamily in anticipation.

They were going to the ballet Tunnel-style, meaning Vincent would be guiding her through shadowy below-ground utility conduits, along disused sections of sub-basement hallways, and to a hidden ladder that, when partially climbed, allowed for an oblique but clear view of the action on the stage. He had described this to her when Lisa’s return had recalled a similar adventure to his mind and, ever since, he had promised her a visit to this secret perch.  Tonight…finally…that promise was to be fulfilled.

As she contemplated the moment when Vincent would be standing behind her on the ladder, pressed close so he, too, could see the stage, Catherine’s insides fluttered, and her feet, left to their own devices, led her astray from the most direct path to Vincent’s chamber. When she finally noticed she wasn’t where she expected to be, she stopped to assess her surroundings.

She placed her hands on her hips to study her whereabouts.  A loud wailing that she realized had been assaulting her ears for a while now grew louder still, and she belatedly noted that she was near the nursery and the children’s dormitory, one corridor over from where she had meant to be. But before she could retrace her steps, a blur seen out of the corner of her eye resolved itself into a screaming child. That child – barely more than a toddler, and wearing only the top of her pajamas – careened out of the nursery and thudded to a stop against her legs. Catherine wobbled a bit on her heels as she regained her balance, a look of concern crossing her face.

The young girl was in full throat, ear-piercing cries emitting from her tiny mouth. Her face was scrunched up as fat tears cascaded down her chubby cheeks, her nose ran copiously, and her bare feet were streaked with the dust she had kicked up along the corridor floor.

Catherine crouched down, the hem of her velvet coat brushing the dirt as she met the child at the latter’s eye level. “Oh, sweetheart,” she crooned, “it’s all right. You’re okay.” As she opened her arms, the young girl threw herself into them, her wet face burying itself against the soft satin of Catherine’s new dress. Catherine could feel the wetness as what had been on the child’s face permeated the fabric of her clothing. She sighed internally and scooped up the little bundle of unhappiness, still murmuring words of comfort.

At that moment, Mary appeared in the chamber entrance, her hair in disarray, a fussy baby in each arm. “Oh, Catherine, thank goodness you caught her,” she exclaimed, relief suffusing her features. “Melanie is new here, and she’s just not settling in well.”

Catherine looked from the harried face of the older woman to the trembling body of the child in her arms. She could feel how cold the youngster’s legs were, with no protection from the chill of the cool tunnel air. From a crouch she sank to her knees in the corridor, cradling the young girl, lifting the edges of her coat to wrap around the child’s bare legs, ignoring the fact that dirty little feet were smudging the velvet.  Melanie hiccupped, her cries slowly dying down, and she burrowed deeper into Catherine’s embrace. Suddenly, a damp warmth spread across Catherine’s satin-clad thighs. With no diaper on, little Melanie had baptized her savior with the release of another kind of wetness.

Mary looked aghast at first but, noting Catherine’s astonishment, her face soon relaxed into a sympathetic smile. “No good deed goes unpunished, my dear!”

Catherine began to chuckle as the two women shared a rueful glance. Then Mary hefted the fretting infants and, indicating them by raising her arms a little, added, “Let me finish up with these two and I’ll relieve you of your burden…and help you clean up.” At Catherine’s nod, she disappeared back into the nursery.

When Vincent arrived moments later, he found Catherine sitting crossed legged on the ground, smelling slightly less than fresh, wearing a stained dress and holding a child wrapped up inside her coat, only a head of dark curls protruding from the collar.

“Surprise!” Catherine whispered. “Mary literally had her hands full, and little Melly here was making a break for it.”

Vincent nodded. “Her voice has been heard very clearly for quite a while. You are the one to have finally quieted her.”

He sank to his haunches beside her. “It seems your clothing has suffered a defeat in battle.” His nose twitched and his lips curled into an apologetic smile.

Catherine rose to her knees and then stood, keeping the now slumbering girl close in her arms. “Let’s get her situated. Poor thing, she wore herself out crying.”

“Her father brought her Below a few days ago after her mother died in a car accident. We offered shelter to them both, but he’s disappeared. Little Melanie is confused and frightened. She hasn’t stopped crying since she woke up, and Mary has struggled to keep her diapered and dressed…as you might have noticed.” Again his nose twitched.

“Well, then, I’m glad I came along when I did,” Catherine asserted. “Dresses can be washed, but little girls need comfort right away.”

Melanie stirred in her arms as Catherine moved into the nursery and set the youngster down. Taking off her soiled coat, Catherine laid it aside and then helped Mary clean, diaper and dress Melanie.

“Perhaps you could lend me a skirt and sweater?” she asked the older woman.

“Of course, if you’ll watch the children for a few minutes….”

Left alone with a chamber full of little ones, Vincent and Catherine eyed each other before smiling. “Best laid plans….” He cocked his head to one side. “Perhaps...another evening?”

As she picked up a fussing infant and laid it on her shoulder, she replied, “Of course.”

When the baby immediately spit up on the shoulder of her already child-stained satin dress, Catherine didn’t even flinch.

# # #

“Shall we try again?” Vincent asked her the next evening as he handed her down from the ladder at her threshold and offered her a hug. His arms encircled her as he nuzzled against the crown of her head. More than willingly, Catherine embraced him in turn, lingering at his shoulder to inhale his scent and enjoy the feel of his strong arms surrounding her. Moments like these were so precious to her, when he let his guard down and showed her by his actions the feelings he was still reluctant to admit aloud.

When they finally, reluctantly, ended their embrace, Catherine turned with Vincent and headed into the tunnels. “How is little Melanie today?”

Vincent sighed. “Fussy again. Crying and screaming again. Refusing to be comforted…again.”

Concerned, Catherine said, “Perhaps we should swing by the nursery on our way to the theater?”

“The nursery is in the opposite direction, and…” he eyed her lovely new dress and reminded her, “you are not dressed for duty with children.”

She turned, placed a forestalling hand on his forearm, and said more emphatically, “Perhaps we should swing by anyway.”

He nodded, a ghost of a smile caressing his lips, understanding how a motherless girl would spark an empathy stronger than compassion in Catherine’s heart. They turned and moved in the opposite direction, toward the Home Tunnels.

There would always be another ballet.

# # #

Brooke’s nerves were stretched thin when Catherine entered the nursery. Little Melanie’s caterwauling had reach Catherine’s ears well before she and Vincent turned into the corridor nearest their destination.

Brooke noted that Catherine had doffed her Topsider coat before entering and had put on a heavy Tunnel-knit sweater – she recognized it as one of Vincent’s. Her fancy dress seemed adequately protected against accidents, but Brooke knew how inventive children could be in dirtying an adult with their sticky hands, runny noses, and other effluences. However, this time the Topsider knew what she was getting into, and Brooke was quite willing to hand off the squirming, squalling child into Catherine’s arms.

Melanie’s loud crying stopped immediately, which perturbed Brooke, who had tried everything with the child, with no success. What was it about Catherine that so entranced the youngster? She knew why Vincent was mesmerized by her but…a toddler?

Catherine cuddled the sobbing little one, sitting in a rocking chair with the youngster on her lap. Vincent had hastily placed a folded towel across her thighs just before Catherine lowered the girl there – even with a diaper on, Melanie had proved she could unload an unpleasant surprise on an unsuspecting lap.

“What’s all this now?” Catherine cooed, stroking the cheek of the calming girl, using the fingers of one hand to wipe her tears away. “You’re safe here, I promise. Brooke and Mary and Vincent and the others all love you and won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

Big brown eyes looked up at her, welling with tears as if to resume crying. But the tears didn’t fall. The child blinked them away then reached her arms around Catherine’s neck and clung to her as if someone was trying to pull her away. “I’m here. Don’t fret. Take a deep breath, little one. You’re safe.”

Eventually Melanie did as Catherine suggested, imitating Catherine as she mimed a long open-mouthed breath in and a slow expulsion of air. Catherine could feel the tension leave the little body, and slowly the child relaxed her grip on Catherine and cozied up to sleep in her arms, babbling softly a word that sounded like “Mama…”

“This can’t go on,” Vincent murmured to Brooke. “Catherine can’t come down every day to help with Melanie.”

Brooke exhaled a deep sigh of irritation, her nerves frayed after several hours with Melanie. “Everyone’s taken a turn with her, just like you did, hoping there’s someone Below she will trust like she does Catherine. Even Mouse tried, and the older kids. There’s nobody else, Vincent!” A tear of frustration escaped from Brooke’s eye before she dashed it away. Turning to Catherine, she sighed with resignation and added, “She is trying the patience of everyone Below, and we don’t know how to comfort her, poor little thing.”

Vincent placed a warm hand on Brooke’s shoulder. “No one is blaming you, Brooke. I stated the obvious because I’m frustrated too. I apologize.”

Catherine looked up at them. “It’s Saturday tomorrow and I’m happy to come down…and on Sunday, too, if it will help. Maybe I can wean her away from me during that time so that she can bond with someone else?”

Brooke nodded so eagerly at the suggestion that Vincent bit his lip on the retort he had ready, that Catherine shouldn’t be asked to give up her precious free time to help solve their problems.

# # #

The Council sat in emergency session that Friday evening for the most unanticipated of reasons: to decide what to do with a child who could not seem to find comfort Below.

Mary gave a synopsis of the untenable situation; although it wasn’t news to anyone, several Council members expressed amazement at Catherine’s singular ability to calm the child.

Jamie reported that a Helper employed at St. Vincent’s Hospital had been on duty when a man brought in matching Melanie’s father’s description succumbed to a drug overdose. She added that Winslow had recently been sent to view the body. Almost as soon as she finished advising the Council, word came over the pipes from a returning Winslow: ID confirmed. A mixture of resignation and sadness pervaded the faces of those in attendance.

“We’re at an impasse,” Father stated. “If her father had a secret for calming young Melanie, it’s lost to us now.”

Mary chimed in, “She’s upsetting the other children in the nursery and disrupting the sleep of the youngsters next door in the dormitory. This can’t go on. For her sake and ours.”

A gruff voice – William’s – added, “We can’t ask a Helper to take her on, knowing what a source of stress she is for our own caretakers.”

Vincent quickly offered his opinion. “While Catherine has kindly offered to care for her this weekend, that can only be a stopgap measure. She has a life Above and, even if she could take an extended leave to care for Melanie, which she cannot, the burden of the constant care of a child without hope of relief from anyone else is not a long-term solution.”

General agreement followed his comments.

When the murmurs died down, Father said, “We have this brief respite while Catherine helps. If nothing changes over the weekend – and it seems unlikely anything will – sadly, we must consider more radical options, to be implemented on Monday.”

Sighs and reluctant nods around the Council table indicated agreement with his analysis.

Proposals were few, as most ideas had already been tried and had failed. With the paucity of new options before them, the only one that everyone could agree on was to ask Catherine to tell Child Protective Services that she had found the infant abandoned in the Park, in hopes that professionals might come up with a solution or resources to care for her that they Below could not.

No one was happy with the vote, but it had been unanimous. And when the community at large heard of it, not one voice rose in argument.

# # #

Saturday morning brought the by-now-familiar screaming to Catherine’s ears as she neared the nursery. This time she was dressed for battle, wearing sturdy shoes and washable clothing, and she carried a knapsack with a change of clothes in it…just in case.

Once again, the frustrated child care provider tasked with dealing with Melanie handed the squirming, wailing youngster into Catherine’s waiting arms, where the girl immediately calmed down and stopped crying. As Catherine seated herself and the toddler into a rocking chair, she set her knapsack on the floor beside her.

“What’s this crying for, Melly? Hmmm? You’re surrounded by love and warmth and kindness here. I know I always feel so welcome myself whenever I’m here.”

Mary, entering the nursery in time to catch the last part of Catherine’s little speech to her young charge, smiled. She carried a bowl of oatmeal with her. “I was about to feed her…or try to,” Mary told Catherine. “Maybe…?” She handed the bowl over as Catherine reached for it.

“Yummy! My favorite! Is it your favorite, too, sweetheart?”

It appeared to be, as Melanie ate docilely from the spoon in Catherine’s hand, occasionally babbling nonsense, with sometimes the sound of “Mama” coming from her. Mary’s eyes widened in surprise at how easy the feeding process was for Catherine.

“Well, we have two days to figure something out,” Catherine said to Mary. “Let’s not worry about it right this minute. Just enjoy the quiet!”

Smiling sadly, Mary replied, “Quiet may return soon enough.” As she relayed the decision of the Council, Catherine sighed and nodded, all humor gone.

# # #

Vincent met her early on Sunday morning as she descended the ladder at her threshold, this time carrying a screaming Melanie with him. “Father is concerned that she may permanently damage her vocal cords with all her crying. So rather than wait for you to come to her, I thought to lessen her pain by bringing her to you as soon as you arrived.”

Catherine traded her knapsack for the youngster, whose crying subsided almost immediately, and Vincent shook his head in amazement. “What hidden power do you possess?” he asked her, frustration and amusement warring in his voice.

“If I only knew,” she said, gazing into the face of the now-quiet child. “I feel so bad for her, both because she’s inconsolable and because I suspect strongly that CPS will have no better luck with her than all the caring souls Below have had, despite their degrees and resources. And being raised Below would be such a loving environment for her, if she could just get past this.”

As she saw Vincent’s mouth open in defense of the Council’s decision, she stopped him by adding quickly, “I’m not questioning the Council’s judgment. I know it was made reluctantly. I’m just expressing my own frustration and sadness.”

Her warm smile of apology won her a quick hug from her Bondmate. “I understand, Catherine. I think that I – along with everyone Below – am just on edge because of the pain Melly is in and our inability to help her. We pride ourselves in devising creative solutions to all the problems we face, so this strikes at our confidence in our own ability to thrive in difficult circumstances. It’s brought the whole community low. This solution of ours is a defeat we will not easily recover from.”

Catherine nodded, understanding. This was a blow to the community’s sense of self-reliance. This child’s welfare was much like the Tunnel dwellers’ situation, and therein lay the paradox: the need to overcome obstacles ran deeper than the individual, even as each individual’s need was paramount in the minds of the community.

# # #

In what had become the routine, Catherine seated herself and the youngster in the rocking chair. As before, she set her knapsack on the ground beside her, its contents back-up in case of an accident. She fed Melanie as she had the day before, and the child was quiet and attentive to the activity of the children and caregivers around her.

Everything went well until lunchtime.

While Catherine was feeding Melanie, the child stretched her legs, accidentally knocking a full mug of tea off the table beside the rocking chair. Catherine’s reflexes were quick, and she lifted Melanie up and away from the spilling tea, but could not escape becoming saturated herself. She was forced to hand a now whimpering Melanie to Brooke while she grabbed her knapsack to change into dry clothes.

Samantha had been visiting with Catherine when the accident occurred and she offered her dormitory space to Catherine to change in. Sitting on the bed as Catherine pulled out her spare jeans and sweater, Samantha’s inquisitive eyes spotted a bottle at the bottom of the knapsack. She lifted it out.

Catherine said, “That’s in case something not so sweet-smelling spills on me!”

“Neat!” Here was something rarely seen Below, and the pre-teen was quick to ask, “Can I try on some of your perfume?”

Smiling, Catherine nodded, and Samantha enthusiastically splashed herself…perhaps a bit too liberally…with the fragrance. Catherine belatedly showed her how to rub just a bit on the pulse points of her neck and wrists, suggesting that next time she confine herself to a dab of perfume on just those spots.

Samantha barely listened, she was so excited to be wearing fragrance. “I’m gonna let Brooke smell me!” she announced, before bouncing off the bed and racing out of the dormitory.

Catherine laughed as she finished dressing, stuffing her damp clothes quickly into the knapsack before someone could offer to do her laundry. They already had more than enough to do.

As she slipped back into the nursery carrying her knapsack, Catherine realized she hadn’t heard Melanie crying since Samantha had disappeared from the dormitory. In fact, there was Samantha, an amazed look on her face, holding Melanie, who was not fussing at all.

Brooke and Catherine stared at each other for a moment before it dawned on Catherine what was going on. She blurted out, “It’s not me she likes, it’s Opium!”

Seeing Brooke’s confusion, she added, “My perfume! Samantha’s wearing it…as you can probably tell.”

That drew a smile and a roll of eyes from Brooke.

Catherine admitted, “That’s what’s calming Melly, not me!”

Mary entered the nursery, and she stared open-mouthed at the calm child in Samantha’s inexpert grasp.

“Just a minute,” Catherine said, and she dug into her knapsack for her perfume. “Here, try it,” she offered, tipping a small amount onto her finger and dabbing it on Mary’s wrist.

Wordlessly, Samantha thrust Melanie toward Mary.

Catherine took Samantha’s hand and together they backed out of the nursery and down the corridor.

Even when they had reached the intersection with another corridor, well away from the nursery, Melanie hadn’t cried.

Samantha and Catherine looked at each other in delight.

“I’m gonna go tell Father!” Samantha was gone in a rush, trailing a waft of Opium in her wake.

As she watched the dust settle that was kicked up in Samantha’s headlong run, Catherine’s heart filled with relief…and, ever practical, she began searching her memory for the ballet company’s schedule, mentally calculating when she and Vincent might try again to plan their special date.

# # #

Father declared an impromptu party after dinner on Sunday. Nearly the entire community was there to witness the miracle of a quiet Melanie, and everyone happily had a turn at applying some of Catherine’s perfume. Melanie was then handed from person to person, each of whom cuddled and kissed their newest community member as she remained blissfully quiet.

The delight on everyone’s faces was a balm to Catherine’s heart.

Cullen joked with Father that Opium had just become everyone’s drug of choice Below and, although shocked at first by his comment, Father relented and joined in the general laughter.

The entire group cheered when Brooke held up a little stuffed lion from the children’s toy box and then solemnly baptized it with a dollop of perfume. Melanie stretched out her chubby arms and reached for it, hugging it and babbling happily. Then Brooke stood the half-empty bottle on a shelf, where it would be accessible to anyone who needed to refresh the scent on the toy lion or wear it themselves.

As they stood to the side watching the general merriment, Vincent murmured to Catherine, “Father surmises that Melanie’s mother wore your fragrance, Catherine, and thus the comfort and safety she felt with her mother became inextricably tied to the scent she wore.” 

“And here I thought I was someone special,” she said, laughing.

Vincent turned to look at her. His blue eyes glittered as his gaze caught hers. “Never doubt that you are, Catherine. Never.”

Her heart stuttered in her chest at his words. And when he offered her his hand, she grasped it eagerly, following him as he led her away from the celebration and into a quiet corner of Father’s library. Once there, Vincent pulled her into his arms.

She drifted closer, pressing against him, and as she inhaled deeply, taking in the beloved scent of him, she felt the familiar nuzzle to the top of her head. Suddenly, she realized that Melly wasn’t the only one for whom her scent was special – but she knew it wasn’t the aroma of her perfume or shampoo that Vincent loved, it was just…her.

She breathed him in again - the aromas of candle smoke and clean earth and Earl Grey and…all the indefinable scents that combined to create Vincent’s essence. She understood what Melly had been craving. It was what she and Vincent found each time they held each other, getting lost in each other without the need for language - the sense of each other that, ever and always, each would recognize as the scent of love…of belonging…of home.