by Linda Mooney
Warm mist rose above his ankles, obscuring the floor of the tunnel for several yards in front of him. As he slowly walked through it, tiny tendrils curled up to his knees and he sniffed, trying to decipher the cloud's essence. There was no odor of sulfur, meaning it didn't come from any subterranean volcanic activity, and there was lacking the tell-tale smell of ozone from a true low-lying ground fog. The appearance of the layered whiteness usually didn't bother him, but the fact that it was here, in this section of the tunnels below the Grotto where there had never been any before, surprised him and caused him to glance around, looking for possible fissures or cracks in the tunnel walls. A new ream in the sides could mean possible danger, a shift in the rock that might need bracing. Temporarily postponing his current errand, Vincent branched off into a smaller section to check the rest of the area.
The ceiling was much lower here and he had to walk slightly stooped, at times even sideways between the narrowed walls. The lantern's light flowed before him, the silence so pronounced that he could hear his own breathing echo against the rock. The way slanted upward, curved at an angle, then appeared to widen in the distance. It was then he heard the faint sound of voices.
He stopped and listened, trying to make out who might be talking and for a fleeting moment he thought it might be a small following of Paracelsus', still active and hidden even after the scientist's death. But these were definite barks of laughter and good-natured loudness; he dismissed his first idea and continued forward with more caution. When the tunnel turned sharply and the murmuring became more clear, he paused long enough to extinguish the lamp's flame and proceeded in darkness, leaving the lantern on the floor behind him. He might need both hands free....
He walked into a world of utter fantasy and mystery, where miniature suns blinded him with whites and reds and blues and the air was thick with the smell of compressed wood and drying paint. Stunned speechless, he watched as people bustled about him, apparently busy at some task or errand...and completely ignoring him! Not letting his guard down, he remained by the tunnel wall that suddenly did not took like the underground of New York City. Chicken wire, lattice strips and papier mache filled a section of space to his left, topped by a tarp of sorts and painted in the lichen-covered green-greys much like the colors of Below. He reached out and tentatively rubbed a
finger across the surface, amazed at the rough texture that felt incredibly like a real rock wall.
"Hey, Ron! Beserra says to get your buns to the trailer if you want her to clean you up before she leaves,” a young man in a t-shirt and jeans yelled at him from behind a fake boulder. Vincent tilted his head, wondering if he should respond. When a warm hand clapped him on the back, he whirled suddenly, defensive.
“Goodness,” the older gentleman laughed. “Catch you daydreaming?”
The man laughed again. “Victor yelled cut ten minutes ago. Why don't we get over to wardrobe and get out of these things?”
“Things?” Vincent parroted. The strangeness of the situation was beginning to make him dizzy. The man he knew as Father began to walk off, while still carrying on the conversation over his shoulder.
“Lord, but I'm glad it's Friday. I'd better hurry if I plan to catch that eight o'clock flight. You and the family have any plans for the weekend?”
Vincent watched the beloved figure depart when, from the corner of his eye, he caught sight of someone emerging from a trailer at the opposite end of the huge room; his heart sang her name.
He removed himself from his spot of sanctuary to hurry over to her, to find comfort in her presence from the terrifying unreality of this place. “Catherine! Please...tell me. . ."
Her look of confusion baffled him and he halted before he could reach out, seeking her touch. Then— even more alarming - he realized he did not feel her in their bond! This close...and it felt so very far away. “What's happening?” he begged softly.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, placing a hand to his vest, a singular, familiar gesture.
“We've wrapped for this episode. Did you have a problem with that last scene? Do I need to get George?”
Vincent backed off from her, more confounded with each passing moment. Everything looked wrong,
smelled wrong, felt wrong, and here stood the woman who literally was the other half of his
life, staring at him with total concern. There was a mixture of emotions he could not feel, yet could clearly see in her green eyes, but— A small voice deep within him said their bond was still there, still alive and vibrant and fulfilling; there...but distant.
The woman's brows knitted in thought. “Gee, you don't look so good. Hope you're not trying to come
down with that flu that's been going around. Maybe if you laid down in your trailer for a while. . ." She made a small gesture over her shoulder; Vincent glanced up to see another trailer to the side of hers, bearing a nameplate on the door. He turned back to her.
“Will you be nearby?”
“Near - ?" Biting her lower lip, she finally gave him a sympathetic smile. “Look, you go lie down and I'll tell Margaret you'll deface yourself later.” She then turned and walked away, disappearing behind a bank of electronic equipment, and the sound of her heels on the concrete gradually faded away.
A thousand questions crowded in his mind, a hundred more lay on his heart, but first he needed to get away to think clearly. He saw several men standing by the section of tunnel from whence he had emerged only minutes before; uncertain as to their reactions should he attempt to slip back into the crevice, he opted to take up the offer of the trailer.
The interior was sparse; a small kitchenette, a table, two chairs, a cot. Various vials and containers cluttered the counter; a stack of letters sat on the table, along with a small case; a checkered shirt and blue jeans were neatly folded on the cot. Vincent sat heavily in the chair, closed his eyes, and tried to bring the last fifteen minutes into perspective.
It was difficult.
***Warm mists rose above his ankles, obscuring the studio's tunnel floor for several yards in front of him. As he slowly walked through it, tiny tendrils curled up to his knees and he sniffed, hoping the effects of the steam from the dry ice wouldn't aggravate his sinuses. He could smell the dampness of the wet earth walls and the darkness became deeper, making him worry that he could crack his head against an unseen portion of the plaster cast ceiling. When the passageway suddenly curved around and opened up into a larger cavern, he stopped in surprise and admiration.
Great! The boys have done an incredible job on this one!
He stood on a ledge about five feet wide above a sloping precipice that yawned into the blackness of the pit below it. The diffused light came from somewhere - he couldn't figure out how - but he chose to follow the trail that led upward, where the brightness took on a more golden glow. He wandered a bit further, his eyes kept wide by the realistic qualities of the set. However, a nagging thought made him stop and carefully take stock of his surroundings. Since when had the sound stage been this detailed? And this big?
The sounds of scuffling made him turn back in the direction he'd been heading and he was vastly relieved when a friendly face popped into view from around the bend.
“David! Thank God, I was beginning to—”
The moon-shaped face broke into a wide grin. “Vincent! Good! Father worried. Said you'd been gone too long.” He abruptly turned, with the apparent intention of going back the way he'd come, but the commanding voice hatted him in his tracks.
“Not David, Mouse,” he backed up and gently corrected "You okay, Vincent?”
“I'm not Vincent, I'm Ron.”
Mouse smiled again. “Oh, I see. Playing game. Okay, fine.”
Ron stepped closer. He didn't care for the way the conversation was going and he tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. “All right, David. Maybe you're trying to get back at me for the
practical joke I played on you at lunch. Fine. I apologize. Now can you please tell me what's going on?”
The young man he believed was David gave him a puzzled look, then shrugged his shoulders as if accepting his friend's temporary mental quirk, willing to play along if that's what he wanted
“Okay, good. Must go, though. Father's waiting.”
Ron sighed, hesitated, then hurried to catch up with the young man who moved through the rocky corridors as if he knew where he was going. The clatter and clank of the subways and the coded tappings on the miles of pipes filtered to him, along with the pressed hush of the rock walls as they passed through them, and the actor couldn't help but marvel at what the special effects and Sound engineers were capable of doing. In a short time the tunnel widened out and he followed his guide in through a doorway of sorts - and came to an abrupt halt at the head of a short set of stairs.
The cavern and his mind both opened up, vast and full of wonder. Truth encased him, stole his breath, and spotted his skin beneath the makeup in beads of cold sweat.
Oh, God, it's REAL! I'm here. It exists! Father's chamber, the tunnels, the dwellers...everything!
Then that means there really is....
“Vincent! I was starting to worry.”
Ron mentally kicked himself. This wasn't Roy walking - no, limping - toward him; it was Father...the Real Father. For a brief moment he felt panic, certain the older man would see through the layers of latex and instantly spot the impostor, but the concern in the blue eyes was sincere and unsuspecting. Father paused to look up at his son.
“You're not angry for my sending Mouse to look for you, are you? You were gone longer than you said you'd be....”
“No, no, there's no problem,” Ron quickly assured him, in what he hoped was his best character imitation. “Forgive me if I caused you to worry.”
The greying head nodded. “Not any more than usual. Will you be staying the rest of the evening
here? Surely you're not going back there tonight. It can wait until tomorrow.”
Ron tilted his head as he mulled over his predicament, completely unaware of how much a mirror image he was to his counterpart. In effect, he was Vincent, and Vincent him. So many unanswered questions bombarded him, the most urgent being the Real Vincent. What if he returned before he, Ron, could get back to the sound stage?
Could he even get back at all...?
He saw the troubled look cloud Father's eyes once again and decided to beat a quick retreat to where he could think quietly, else sooner or later he was going to slip up and his impersonation would be discovered. A second short set of stairs led off across the chamber and he took the chance that they led to Vincent's private chamber, just as they did in the studio. He muttered a hasty “pardon me,” and strode rapidly over to the connecting passage.
Entering the familiar/unfamiliar room, he sat heavily on the edge of the bed, exhausted mentally
and physically. He'd already put in a fourteen hour day, hoping to wrap that last scene and the
episode before the weekend. Thank goodness the scene had called for a tight shot of his hands, he
thought, requiring full makeup on them and not the furry gloves he wore otherwise.
He smiled in spite of himself; in a way, the whole thing was funny. Face it, old boy, you're
not in Kansas anymore. Either you've gone completely around the bend, or someone's set you up as a prime candidate for “Bloopers and Practical Jokes.”
He rubbed his eyes, careful not to dislodge the appliances or smear the makeup, and heaved a deep sigh.
Think, dammit, THINK! How in the world did I get myself into this mess in the first place?
The answer came as a single flame lighting a dark and cold room, the radiance slowly pushing
back the unseen, the unknown.
The fissure. The strange tunnel. The fog.
Vincent's head jerked up, blue eyes clear and focused once more. He had to get back to the
tunnels; he had to go through that fog. And perhaps with a little prayer and a lot of luck he would be returned to his own tunnels, the family and home which existed in his own lifetime. Quickly, he got to his feet and opened the narrow door of the trailer, glancing out to see that the area was almost vacant; only a few people stood in a small group by a set of huge doors, with a glowing red exit sign overhead. He moved silently, thankful the tall banks of lights that flooded the tunnel scene near it had been extinguished, leaving his destination, at least, in semi-darkness.
It only took him a few seconds to reach the crack in the wall that would lead him back home, then
he heard a voice float to his ears and his blood quickened in response. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw the Catherine that was not his Catherine emerge from the trailer behind his, waving good-byes and heading for the exit. He closed his eyes and listened to the voice of love that tugged at his heart.
Obeying, he turned in the direction of that pull and slipped sideways into the narrow fissure. All that remained behind him were faint imprints on the false dirt floor.
He rounded the corner and shuffled his booted feet carefully. After the excruciatingly bright
lights in the immense cavern, his eyes were still having trouble adjusting to the blackness here, but he quickly found the lantern he'd left behind earlier and lit it, grateful for the soft amber glow it shed. He rubbed his eyes to ease their watering and proceeded on through the passageway.
The remembered mists, tenaciously clinging to his legs and the edges of his cloak like solid
phantoms, began to thicken as he strode deeper into the twisting, sloping corridors. Again he tasted the air and again he could not construe its origin, yet he dared not stop or pause for fear that if the wispy clouds dissipated, so would his chances to reach home.
The way graduated downward, the walls got closer together, the ceiling pressed its millions
of tons of earth down around his head. Relying on his memory, he knew it should open up soon and
he moved a little faster.
He stepped out into the main tunnel so suddenly that he gasped in surprise, half collapsing
against a ledge to catch his breath. For a fleeting moment, right as he emerged from the shrinking
crevice, he could almost swear someone...or something...passed him, moving in the opposite
direction - toward the strange world he'd been so eager to leave: An ebony shadow as large as he,
with a sense of urgency and purpose as desperate as his.
His sense of time had left him but it did not matter. He had to find out if this was his world,
containing his family and his love, and not an extension of the artificial one he'd fled.
He met Father as the elderly patriarch was coming from the direction of the dining chamber.
Wordlessly, he dropped the lantern and bear-hugged the man, who lost his glasses in the exchange
and grumbled about sons who enjoyed scaring their fathers to the point of heart attacks, until
Vincent released him.
“Father, what time is it?" he asked urgently.
“I don't precisely know. Around seven, I believe,” Father replied, still flustered but somehow
glad to be the recipient of such unexplained happiness.
“Morning or evening?”
“Good Heavens, evening! What is it?”
Vincent patted Father's shoulders. “I'll tell you later, but now I must go to Catherine.” And
he left his parent behind, as puzzled as ever but knowing he'd probably hear the full story as soon as his son returned.
At the branching of the tunnel that led to the Central Park exit in one direction and to the
sub-basement of Catherine's building in the other, Vincent paused to reach out through the bond, intense joy tingling in his blood to find it strong and solid, and called out to the other half of his heart. In answer, a flood of love so warm and sweet and tinged with worry bathed him from his golden face to the tips of his boots, and he knew the Catherine who was his was hurrying to join him at the foot of the ladder.
He waited for her.
A weary and bedraggled actor struggled his way out of the tiny crack in the fake wall and
stumbled to his dressing room to shrug out of the grimy, hot and sweaty costume. The studio looked
and sounded deserted and he called out to see if anyone was left besides the security man. Getting
no response, he slumped in the chair next to his tiny table, opened the train case to adjust the small magnifying mirror, and began to painstakingly remove the mask from his face.
“No one will ever believe me,” he mumbled to himself. “Id better keep my mouth shut or someone will commit me for sure. But Lord, it's great to be back home in Kansas..."
He reached across the table for the box of tissues, unaware of the shaking of his hands...or of
the almost invisible wisps of opalescent fog that still clung to the edges of his pants legs.