The door slammed shut with a reverberation that jostled the hanging “art” framed above the nondescript couch. It also caused shudders along the backbone of a bone-weary woman in the kitchen, and in a seven-year-old child tucked away in her room. He was home.
A coat barely made it to the edge of the couch, flung in anger. “God-damn it!” he thundered. “I told you tonight’s bowling night, and I don’t see dinner waiting for me on the table. What do you do all god-damn day that you can’t have dinner ready when I get home?”
She knew better than to respond. Instead, she rushed about looking to please him, whether she wanted to or not. A plate, followed by silverware, quickly appeared on a mat. A mug followed. She turned back to get the food, but not fast enough. One large hand wrapped around her throat, dragging her close to his face, close enough to see the spittle that gathered in the corner of his mouth. Close enough to note he should be seeing a dentist for teeth looking like that. ‘What an odd thought to have before being choked’ flitted through her mind.
“Why the hell I married such a piece of shit like you, I’ll never know. I break my back providing for you and that useless kid, and what thanks do I get? Common wifely duties are beyond your reach!” He dropped his hand, and she sagged like a half-full sack of potatoes dropped to the floor. “Now get my dinner, and get it now!”
Peering around the hallway corner, the little seven-year-old scowled at the scene she just witnessed. Fathers were supposed to love you, love their wives. She saw it on a TV show at a friend’s apartment. That show never looked like her house.
Her stance was rigid, her mouth set, but her lower lip quivered just enough to give away her fright. She had never seen Mommy so ... so ... well, so given up. No fight left. And that really scared her.
It was up to her now. Everybody knew kids can’t do much. He constantly told her she was good for nothing. So what was she supposed to do? Well, she wouldn’t back down. She was all Mommy had.
First, the coffee was lousy; then, the meat was tough, followed by a ranting against any vegetable colored green. Each remark earned the woman a back-hand against her cheek. The third one sent her to the floor in a daze.
“Leave her alone!” screamed the little girl. “Get your grubby hands off her!” She wished she could say those swear words he said, but she knew from experience that was like lighter fluid to a fire.
“Or what?” he sneered. He laughed. “You gonna take me on, little girl? This I gotta see. Bring it on!” he dared.
She stood her ground. Yelling at her, at least he wasn’t hitting her Mommy.
“Just as I thought. All bluster! She’s as worthless as you.” He looked down derisively at the woman on the floor. “Now get up, and get me something decent to eat!” He gave her a swift kick to the ribs to enhance his meaning and then hauled her up by a hank of hair; the woman winced in pain.
At that, the little girl started toward the duo, when the woman held up her hand in a gesture of “stop!” With the grip on her hair, she couldn’t shake her head “no,” so she frantically tried to wave off the little girl.
It didn’t work. She marched up and kicked the back of his leg, just above the ankle, as hard as she could. He yelped, and let loose of the woman to grab his ankle with one hand and hop on his other leg, swearing all the while. He caromed into the table, knocking the plate off the table and onto the floor. Bits of food splashed onto the woman.
“You little bastard!” His searching hand found his chair and he sat nursing his lower leg.
“I told you to leave her alone,” she said in all her childish logic.
The two stared at one another; the man staring down while rubbing his ankle; the child glaring up, defiantly standing with arms folded across her chest.
The man stood up, gingerly stepping on his leg to test its worthiness. “Who needs this shit!” He gathered up his bowling ball, shoes, and limped over to grab his coat off the couch. Pausing as he opened the door, he turned to the woman and said, “Get this place cleaned up and tan the hide of the kid for what she did, or so help me, I’ll mop the floor with you, and shine my shoes with her bloody nose!” The door slammed as loudly with his going as it did when he came in. The sudden silence rippled through the room.
The child rushed to the woman. They clung to each other, each with the same thought: how much longer could this go on, and what were they to do?
“Let’s go, Mommy!” The child tugged on the mother. “We have to go!” she implored.
The woman sat, dazed and dejected. She had no energy to leave. She looked at her child and marveled at her courage, her strength. How had she borne a child so unlike herself? “You go, baby. Go far away from here. It’s too late for me.”
“No, Mommy, I won’t go without you.”
“Then you’ll be next. He’ll beat on you like he beats on me, and I won’t be here to stop it. I don’t want that for you, baby, it’s bad enough you see it.”
“We can make it together,” the child insisted. “We got each other, that’s all we need, Mommy! You said so yourself. Remember?”
A wan smile broke out on the woman’s bruised and swollen face. “Baby, would you go get me an aspirin?”
The child took off at a run for the bathroom medicine cabinet. The woman didn’t want her here to see the end, for she knew his last kick had caused something inside to break and she was bleeding out inside.
The child ran back and saw her mother slumped over on the floor. Something was wrong. She shook her screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, wake up!” over and over. When the police came after a tip from a neighbor tired of hearing the screaming, they found the little girl holding the woman’s head in her lap, gently smoothing her hair and repeating over and over, “It will be okay, Mommy. It will be okay.”
It looked just like it did the day the social worker took her on the tour, only this time it had more people in it. The courtroom was imposing, especially where the judge sat. Standing in front that day, she knew she wouldn’t be able to see the judge because of her height. She hoped that was okay.
She walked in with the social worker, shoulders back and her head up, just like her mother would want her to. Today, she would tell the court exactly what happened the day her world fell apart; today, she would send the man she called father to jail for a long time - forever would be too short a time in her opinion; today, she would become lost herself.
The lawyer man had prepared her. He was nice enough, told her to call him Joe. All she needed to do is tell the truth and speak up so everyone could hear. She could do that. The lawyer man seemed confident. Said her father didn’t have a leg to stand on, which struck her kind of funny since she had kicked him hard enough to create a limp for quite some time.
There was a rustling over in the corner of the room. Her father was brought in, hands shackled to a chain belt at his waist. He was wearing an orange jumper. Bet he hates that! she thought. He looked up and stared right at her. Such hatred shot from his eyes that it caused her to shiver. The social worker noticed and turned toward her, blocking her view of her father.
“Are you okay, honey?” she asked.
The girl just nodded. She took a deep, if shuddering, breath. For my Mommy, she kept repeating in her mind.
The judge came and everybody stood. Then they sat down and it began. The lawyer man Joe called for her to come up. She stood up, squared her shoulders, and strode up to the box where they had told her in the orientation she would sit. She was about to step up into the chair when a man in a uniform stopped her, smiled at her, and told her to “Hold on, there, young lady! We have to get you sworn in.”
She placed her hand on the book he held, and said, “I do” to his question about telling the truth. And she would tell the truth, for the truth would give her justice. Then she was allowed to sit.
Joe approached where she sat.
“Good morning,” he opened. “You remember the talk we had about what truth is and how it is important to tell the truth today?”
“I’m sorry, honey, you have to speak your answer here in court.”
“I do. I’m to tell only what I saw and heard, and not make stuff up.”
Joe smiled. “That’s correct!” Never had he met such a determined child as a witness. She would be excellent in testimony today. One more scumbag off the streets, he thought. Days like this one made Joe Maxwell glad he worked as an assistant district attorney. And if he was lucky, it would help his standing at the office.
“Tell the court your name.”
“Your last name?” he prompted.
“Mazikoski.” She paused. “I prefer just Jamie.”
Joe figured she didn’t want anything from the man who killed her mother, not even his name.
“Jamie, it is, then.” He smiled at her. She looked back. “How old are you, Jamie?”
“Eight and four months.”
“That means you were, what, almost seven when your mother died?”
She nodded. Joe cocked his ear toward her, and she remembered to speak. “Yes, I had my 7th birthday a month after Mommy died.” Now that she was 8, she felt funny saying “mommy” but the lawyer man said it would be okay, and maybe even help the jury feel kindly toward her. So “mommy” it would be. She would do anything to help her mother now, since she had failed her then.
“Where were you, Jamie, the evening your mother died?” He got right to it.
“At home in my room. And then I heard the door slam. He was home.” Her head reflected a slight tilt to the direction where her father sat.
“What happened after you heard the door slam?”
“I heard him yelling at my Mommy. His dinner wasn’t ready and he had bowling that night. He called her bad words I’m not supposed to say.”
“That’s okay, I think we all get the idea.” Joe had turned and looked toward the jury. “What happened next?”
“I heard a slap, so I left my room and stood at the end of the hall, looking into the kitchen. I watched him slap her two more times, like this.” She crossed her arm in front of herself, then let it fly toward Joe.
He ducked back just in time. What a kid, he thought. So brave to be holding it together when she must be devastated.
“Both slaps were back-hand that way?” Joe reinforced his question, mirroring her action.
“Yes. He liked hitting that way. Told me it hurt more. He was right.”
Joe frowned. “Jamie, did he ever hit you that way?”
Joe again looked at the jury as he paused, letting the fact that a child knew that back-handed hits hurt more from personal experience settle into their minds.
“What happened after the slaps?”
“Mommy fell to the floor. She looked kinda confused. Then he kicked her, real hard, right here.” She pointed to her front and right side of her rib cage. “Then he grabbed her hair, and started to yank her up to get his dinner. That’s when I kicked him.”
He marveled how matter-of-factly she was recounting watching her mother get the crap beat out of her.
“You kicked him?” he asked.
“Yes. I yelled at him to stop, and he wouldn’t. So I ran up and kicked him in the back of his leg. I’m just a kid, so I only reached his ankle.” A few of the jurors couldn’t help but snicker a bit at her description, imagining where an adult would have liked to have kicked him.
“Then what happened next?”
“He called me a bad name, knocked me into the kitchen table and that spilled his plate. He decided to skip dinner and go bowling. The last thing he said was to tell Mommy to clean up the mess and tan my hide, or he’d come home and finish the job he started and shine his shoes with my bloody nose.” She looked down a moment. “I don’t understand how a bloody nose would shine his shoes, but I didn’t want to find out. I wanted to leave and ran to Mommy to help her.”
Joe just nodded in understanding, allowing her to gather her thoughts and continue.
“Mommy told me to leave, it was too late for her. I told her we could do it together.” She looked down, tears starting to form. She wiped a cheek with her hand, looked up, and continued. “We could-a made it, too, just the two of us. She asked me to get her an aspirin. When I got back, she was slumped over on the floor. I couldn’t wake her up. Then the cops came.”
Joe couldn’t help himself. He reached out and gently cuffed her chin as he thanked her for testimony, and her bravery in helping her mommy.
She looked at him abjectly. “But I didn’t help her. I got there too late. Mommy’s dead and I’m alone.”
“You did all you could, Jamie. No mother could ask for more.” He turned and headed back to his table. “No more questions for this witness, your Honor.”
As Joe expected, the decision went his way. The defense attorney tried to propose the woman had fallen against the table, but the jury didn’t buy it. The attorney had tried a couple of questions directed to Jamie in cross before he gave up, figuring it was hurting more than helping. Nowhere had Joe met such an adult eight-year-old. Jamie was unshakeable in what she had seen, because she had seen it, had been there, and had held her dead mother in her arms.
Her father was sentenced to 25 years to life with his track record of violence considered along with the death of his wife. Jamie had sat in the rear aisle of chairs to hear the sentence. It was enough. Love you, Mommy, she thought. She stood up and left the courthouse, beginning her new life.
In the year and a half that Jamie had waited for the trial to start, she had been a ward of the court in foster care. She had been to three different places, none of them horrible, none of them very nice. But she tolerated them because she knew it wasn’t forever. The day her mother died, Jamie vowed she would never be subject to another man, and wasn’t too sure she wanted any adult in charge of her. Jamie would be responsible for Jamie from now on. And if anyone said an eight-year-old couldn’t take care of herself, well, they didn’t know Jamie.
She quickly learned the city. Knew where the best garbage bins were for food from restaurants or food stores. Knew where to get some heavier-grade cardboard boxes for shelter. Knew the beats of the cops so she could avoid getting caught for being out of school. She even knew which gas stations would let her use the restroom, washing her meager clothing and her body.
Her favorite place was Central Park. There she felt like any other kid. If enough kids were there, she was often invited to play with them, luckier still when one would ask her to join their picnic. The parents suspected, but never said anything. They made sure she ate well and had fun, if only for an afternoon.
When you go to the park regularly, you begin to recognize others who also frequent the park. Some were kids. They reminded Jamie of street kids, yet they always had an adult nearby. Definitely not foster kids. They were too happy for fosters. Their clothing also spoke of tougher times than other kids. One kid was different from the rest. He was happy enough, but a bit funny sounding. And he was always carrying little things he made. After watching cautiously over a period of weeks, Jamie began mixing in with them.
As time went by, the adults with the group were taking notice of Jamie. They knew she was a runaway, and that she needed a deft hand to find out her story and see if she was tunnel-worthy. For that is where this group lived; the tunnels below NYC provided a haven that few knew about. It depended on secrecy for its survival, and every man, woman, and child who lived there knew it. One did not talk loosely about Below. The adults knew there were more homeless kids than many knew about, or certainly cared about. They couldn’t rescue them all. But every once in a while, one child earned his or her way into the group. Jamie looked to be such a child.
Now 11, she acted about 14. Mouse had learned her mother had died. Pneumonia, he thought. No father in the picture. Never had been, apparently. The girl was clearly bright. Very independent. So much so that Mary was a bit concerned about it. The community survived with cooperation and caring for each other. Still, there was promise there, she was certain. Mary spoke to Brooke, and suggested the young girl invite the other girl to come with them at the end of the day for dinner.
Brooke casually asked Jamie if she wanted to join them for dinner that evening. They had to be heading back as it was dusk, and they needed to be home before dark.
Jamie shrugged her shoulders. Why not? She felt she had done her due diligence and trusted this group. They gathered what little they had brought with them and started off. They didn’t go very far. One or two of the older kids suddenly stopped and hung outside a culvert. They looked around, then jerked their heads toward the tunnel. The others hurried inside, Jamie in tow. What the? she thought. Trying to get her eyes to adjust to the dark, she was pulled along and suddenly a door opened behind a grate, and light shone through. The grate was pulled open and everyone passed through. Except Jamie.
“Hang on, here! Just where are you guys going? I’m not dumb enough to fall for some sex traders.” Her stance said it all: four square and ready for a fight.
Mary blanched that such a young girl knew about the sex trades. “Don’t worry, dear. We aren’t into kidnapping children for any reason. We live down here, safe and sound. We help each other, and together, we make a home. We thought you might like to see it. And if you like it, maybe think about joining us.” Mary looked hopefully at her.
Jamie stared back, measuring the words she heard. Live below ground? In what - tunnels? It sounded fantastic, unbelievable, yet smart. She decided to check this out and started forward through the grate opening. This could end up being an adventure!!
It was every bit as fantastic as Jamie thought it might be. This group of people really had something going for them. It was a lot of work, ekeing out a home from the hard earth, seeking out enough food to keep everyone fed, if not full. But somehow, it all came together.
She was a bit put off by the man called Father. For one thing, just the name caused her to resent the man. Secondly, he appeared to be in charge, and a dispenser of rules. Jamie had little regard for rules that weren’t to her service. But the longer she stayed, she saw that most of the rules were indeed for the protection and safety of the residents. And he was kindly most often, making her wish for a grandparent she had heard about in stories.
Mary was around a lot. She seemed to be in charge of all the kids, and Jamie could tell she loved it. Yet there was sadness in Mary’s eyes, and Jamie knew the pain behind that look. She had seen similar pain in her own mother’s eyes.
She was learning quite a few names, and most she remembered, and of those she met, most she liked. One man by the name of Winslow brought out her cautious side, as she suspected he saw right through her. But he left her be, other than polite exchanges, so she held her counsel for the time being. The small man named Pascal was nice, but totally into his communication system of banging on pipes. Banging on pipes! She could hardly believe that one! She was starting to pick up a little of it. That funny kid, Mouse was his name, explained a few sequences to her. Shrugged, and told her, “You around, you pick up.”
One name she heard a lot, but had yet to meet its owner, was Vincent. She understood something was very different about him. She couldn’t imagine what it could be. Mouse was different. One of the kids stuttered. They were all homeless. How different did you have to be? she wondered.
One afternoon Jamie sat on a rock by the falls, transfixed by the sound and look of the water falling in the distance. She never heard him approach. “You look pensive,” a voice unlike any she had heard before spoke. She began to turn toward the voice. “Wait!” the voice entreated. “Don’t turn around! I don’t want you to be frightened. I don’t look like other men you know.”
Jamie snorted. “That would be an advantage in my book. Most men I know are worth less than the thread that holds their clothes together.”
“You are so young to be so bitter toward men.”
“I’ve got my reasons.” She turned back straight. “You must be Vincent.”
“You’re not much of a conversationalist, are you?” she noted.
“That’s a pretty big word for a girl your age to know.”
“Just because I’m a kid doesn’t mean I’m dumb. I read books.”
“Have you been to school?”
“I school myself. Don’t need schools and their rules. Besides, they find out you’re on your own, they slap you in the system faster than a bedbug bites.”
“We have school here. You might like it.”
Vincent knew when to press and went to drop back.
“How are you finding the tunnels as a place to live?”
She shrugged. “All right, I guess. It’s kind-a nice not to have to find a new spot so often. And I eat better here. That William can sure cook something outta nothing.”
“Everyone treat you well?”
“And you’d tell me if they didn’t.” Unseen by her, Vincent raised one brow in emphasis.
“’Well’ is relative. Compared to up top, you guys are all peaches and cream.”
Vincent smiled at that description, thinking of a few individuals in particular.
“Can I turn around now?”
“’May I turn around,’” Vincent gently corrected. “And yes, you may.”
Jamie turned. She stared. She knew it was considered rude. But she stared.
Vincent detected little reaction other than her intense gaze. He met it calmly.
“Wow! Where did you come from? Guess you got no place to live but down here, huh?”
“Yes, this is my home. Above would not know what to do with me.” He smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it. But it would not be fair to the child to unload his sadness upon her for his captivity Below.
She still regarded him. “You aren’t ugly, exactly. Kind-a hairy, but man, are your eyes blue!” She knew little of social graces, and just spoke what to her was the truth. She finished her perusal of him and sat back on the rock.
“How long do people generally stay here?” she asked.
Vincent smiled. Next topic. He no longer held her immediate interest.
“Some were born here. Others come for whatever time it takes for them to feel ready to leave.” He paused. “Are you heading out soon?”
“Well, I thought about it. I generally don’t stay this long.”
She spoke with more bravado than she felt. Vincent knew it, but let her have her self-image as it was.
“Time to move on, then?” he prompted.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I may stay a while more. I noticed you guys could use some help. So, as long as you feed me good, I can help.”
“That seems a fair trade. Thank you for your help.” He accepted her decision as logically thought-out, when he felt her panic at the thought of leaving. “Perhaps you’d allow us to ask for your help in our classes. Some of the younger children struggle with their lessons. You could help explain things in a way they get.” He hoped she would take his offer, and get into the classes. A slight ruse was justified for the greater good. She had too good a mind not to develop.
With that less than definite pronouncement, she gestured for him to join her on the rock. He sat next to her, and together they contemplated the falls silently.
“Stop fidgeting, Jamie! I’ll stick you with a pin if you don’t,” warned Mary as she carefully marked the excess material in the sides of a dress that she was remaking for Jamie to wear to Winterfest.
“I don’t see why I have to wear a dress.” Her arms crossed in front of her, blocking Mary’s access to the other side hem. Mary looked up, pointedly, at her arms. Jamie unfolded them and huffed up her bangs.
“You want to look nice, don’t you?” Mary couldn’t understand her reluctance. Many of the younger kids, not quite teenagers yet, but just kids, didn’t seem to want to dress well for special events. “After all, you are becoming a young woman.”
“I’m only 13! For cripes sake, what is so wrong about wearing pants?” The frustration was clear.
“Nothing,” Mary admitted. “Especially here Below, where the temperature is always cool. Pants are eminently more practical.” She paused, wondering how to explain in a way that might influence Jamie in the slightest. “Sometimes, we women want to wear something that reminds us we are more feminine, more mysterious.”
“Whatever for?” Jamie eyed her curiously. Honestly, she could think of no reason.
“Someday, Jamie, you may
discover someone who interests you in a special way. When that happens,
you’d like that person to notice you, right?
Jamie nodded. “I guess.”
“Looking our best helps us. Even though it’s what’s inside that counts, that makes the person worth knowing, we still need to be seen to be noticed.”
Jamie thought about that a moment. There was logic to it. A slight smile made its way across her mouth.
“So, if I’m not in the business of attracting anyone special, I can wear pants then, right?”
Mary stepped back and guffawed. Jamie had never seen Mary laugh so hard, or maybe even at all. The best she’d seen was a smile or a grin.
“Jamie, you win! Wear your best pants. How about a new blouse to go with it? The pattern on this dress is nice, and we can cut off the skirt, insert a plakect, a tie or two, and it would look right smart. What do you think?”
Having no idea what she meant, but not having to wear a dress, Jamie agreed. Jamie would wear pants to Winterfest for several more years to come.
Vincent watched Jamie ably handle the kids. Sixteen now, she demonstrated leadership with a natural aptitude that spoke of her background. Or, Vincent thought, what little they knew of her background. She still kept that to herself. Whatever it was, she never used it as an excuse. There wasn’t an ounce of self-pity in her. But Jamie was not someone you told what to do. Suggestions went over better.
He and Jamie would still occasionally sit on the rock at the Falls, and contemplate together. But Vincent admitted that it seemed to be Winslow whom Jamie gravitated toward. Odd. Other children mostly stayed out of Winslow’s way. Winslow didn’t speak to Vincent about their time together, and Vincent didn’t think it was his place to ask. But he was curious. Someday he would learn about it. He could wait.
“What do you think you’re doing?” A loud bass voice boomed.
Jamie had come into the leather shop curious to see what it was about. Any kind of rigging needed, whether rope or leather, wire or twine, Winslow could make. He was a big man, dark as night. He yelled as a normal voice. By all rights, Jamie thought she should have taken an immediate dislike to this man, yet there was something about him – a bone-deep honor and a fierce loyalty that she could spot straight away. That meant a lot to her.
“Just checking out your workshop, what you do.”
“I ain’t got no time for no babysitting, little girl, so run along with the other kids.”
Jamie planted her feet apart, standing squarely in front of him, hands at her waist. “I ain’t no kid in need of babysitting, and maybe I could help.”
Inside, Winslow was chuckling. He had watched Jamie’s progress in the community and had to admire the kid. Whatever she went through, she didn’t let it touch her. And determined – lord, this girl would be a force to reckon with if a fool got on the wrong side of her. And he was no fool.
“No lolly-gaggin’ and no messin’ with my system, you got it?”
“Okay, then. I’m working on a new set of rigging for the Whispering Bridge. Cullen will bring by the boards, and then the whole mess has to be put together. You up for that?”
“Sounds okay.” She stood silent a minute. “Who hangs it?” The question was pronounced with much less bravado.
“We make the new team member do that.” He grinned. “That’d be you.”
Her eyes opened to the proverbial saucer size, and she swallowed hard.
He held back no longer and laughed and laughed. “You should see your face!” He pointed at her. “Lordy, you are a green one.” He sighed and wiped his eyes, regaining his composure. “Stick with me kid, and I’ll teach you all you need to know, and none of it comes from books.”
She gave him the eye, stared at him a minute, and stuck out her hand. Surprised, Winslow accepted it and they shook on it. An unlikely friendship had started.
The buzz about the tunnels made the rounds at lighting speed, surpassing the pipes. Vincent had brought down a Top-sider who had been injured. He tended to her in his chamber. Some were saying they saw something in Vincent they had never seen before: he was entranced by the woman.
That was enough for her. Jamie would be on her guard, and have Vincent’s back. No Top-sider would take advantage of him. At 18, Jamie knew some about the games women could play with men, and she also knew that Vincent knew nothing about it, not really. As far as she knew, Vincent had only one or two girlfriends growing up, and it was probably more accurate to call them infatuations, from what she had heard about them. This woman could be trouble.
Over the next year, Jamie had to admit that the woman seemed okay, especially for a rich bitch, uh, woman. Jamie had seen the type Above when going on errands, had one or two give her dismissive looks or irritated “Be gones!” to know she wanted nothing to do with one. But Catherine was different. You knew she had money, but Jamie wasn’t sure why, because Catherine didn’t wave it around, or demand everyone do everything for her. It just seemed to be part of her aura, Jamie thought.
And she had to admit that, if it weren’t for Catherine, the community would have lost both Father and Vincent. It was Catherine who got the materials Mouse needed to free them. She was no shrinking violet, that was for sure.
But the best argument on Catherine’s behalf was that Vincent loved her. Even Jamie could tell that, and he would not love some vapid society dame. So Catherine was the real deal as far as Jamie was concerned.
It happened that Catherine was to take something to Vincent on a work detail farther Below, so Jamie volunteered to escort her. Catherine didn’t know the tunnels that well, and there was always the potential for problems. Every once in a while, one of Paracelsus’s weird followers would surface. Best always to be prepared for anything. That’s why Jamie wore her crossbow on her back.
They trekked along companionably. Catherine broke the silence.
“Tell me, Jamie. How long have you lived Below?”
“About six or seven years.”
“How did you come to join the community here?” After Catherine asked, she thought better of it. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
They continued on in silence.
“Lost my parents. Played in the park a lot, and Mary brought me down.”
Jamie’s story about herself rolled easily from her lips by now. Story it was, because she told no one the truth. Truth gave you power, and she would give no one power over her ever again.
Catherine felt there was much more to the story, and also heard the message that it was none of her business.
“My mother died when I was ten. I feel her loss still, odd moments when I wonder what she would think about what I am doing, or wish she could share something with me.”
“Still got a Dad?”
“Yes, I used to work for him. He’s a lawyer as well. Only it’s corporate law, which is only one step up from patent law as the most boring work you can do.”
“You work for the city now?”
“Yes. After I met Vincent, he encouraged me to act on a wish to do something different with my life. Something that counted, made a difference, you know?”
“So I went to work in the DA’s office, and work for a guy named Joe Maxwell. I investigate cases, find witnesses, look for ways to establish connections to crimes and so forth. And, when I’m good, Joe lets me try a few cases like a real lawyer!” She smiled.
“I met a lawyer guy from the city named Joe. He seemed nice.” That popped out before Jamie realized she was saying it.
“How did that happen? Were you in trouble?” Catherine winced. Pressing too fast with someone who kept closely guarded secrets rarely resulted in success.
Jamie shook her head. They continued on, careful around some wet patches. The torchlight flickered as Catherine felt some air currents.
Jamie thought about Catherine’s question. She could leave it be, or say something more. She ran the math in her head, determining the upside and downside of revealing more. She decided a small part could be shared.
“I testified in court.”
Catherine stumbled. “You what?”
“I testified in court. As a witness.”
Catherine was leery about asking what Jamie witnessed, yet this was the most Jamie had ever shared about herself. She didn’t think even Vincent knew this. But by this time, she was too curious not to go forward.
“What did you witness?”
Jamie cursed herself silently for divulging any information. This woman, Catherine, made talking far too easy. How was she getting herself out of this mess? Make up some case? Then that would be another lie she had to try and remember. The debate within herself raged silently.
It took several more minutes before Jamie spoke. By now, it was a pattern, and Catherine let it play out.
“I saw my Dad kill my Mom.”
Catherine reached out and halted Jamie by holding her arm and turning Jamie to face her.
“Oh, Jamie, I’m so sorry. How old were you when it happened?”
“Five or six.”
“And your Dad?”
“He’s in prison.”
Catherine couldn’t help herself. She pulled Jamie in for a hug. “I’m so sorry that happened to you, Jamie.” Slowly, Catherine felt Jamie’s arms wrap around her. She wondered how long it had been since anyone had hugged Jamie. Catherine felt Jamie’s grip loosen and pulled away to gave Jamie some space.
“Don’t tell anyone down here. They don’t know.”
Catherine shook her head. “I won’t. I promise.”
“Not even Vincent.”
“Not even Vincent,” Catherine repeated. “But why not, Jamie? Why can’t they know? They love you, you know that.”
In reply, Jamie shrugged. “Just don’t.”
She didn’t want to see their eyes when they knew - the pity that always accompanied those looks. Then the worry that crept in, wondering how much like her Dad Jamie might be. That thought kept Jamie up more than one night herself. Jamie liked well enough the Jamie the community knew. She wanted it kept that way.
“We need to be going.” Jamie started down the path and Catherine followed.
Catherine watched the play of thoughts cross Jamie’s face. She knew the gift she had received from Jamie – the trust to share something she had told no one else. An unlikely friendship was formed today, one that Catherine valued.
Catherine understood more about Jamie now that she knew her story: her independence, for one thing. She figured out there was a lag in time between testifying and coming Below. Catherine suspected Jamie may have been a street kid. And authority only worked so far with Jamie. Catherine smiled, remembering the young girl taking on Father when she disagreed with a rule. Adults telling her what to do didn’t set well with Jamie, probably because of her father,
Catherine made a mental note to herself to never ask Jamie to deliver anything to her at the office. She didn’t want to give Joe the opportunity to recognize her and question where she’d been, just in case Jamie’s Joe was her Joe.
As they got nearer to their destination, Catherine’s thoughts turned to admiration for Jamie’s survival instinct. She had a resilience to her that many her age did not. She wondered if Jamie would ever want to return Above to live. She would help her if ever she did.
They saw the work crew ahead. Vincent knew Catherine was near, turned and walked toward them.
Even though he was covered in dust and grime, Catherine still saw his beauty. She smiled and threw herself at him for a hug. Vincent caught her, and held her close, then separated to look at Jamie. “Thank you for escorting Catherine, Jamie.”
“We had a good time, didn’t we, Jamie?” Catherine looked from her to Vincent. “I think we are going to be good friends. So be on your guard, Vincent. When two determined women get together, you don’t stand a chance!”
Jamie snickered. It struck her funny, and then funny because it was the truth – Jamie had found a friend in Catherine, they were determined women, and Vincent didn’t stand a chance if they wanted something.
Vincent bowed in defeat. “Why don’t you join us for some food before you all start back?”
“Before I forget, Vincent, here is the package from Father that I am to deliver.” Catherine handed it over to Vincent. He helped her sit on the tunnel floor. Before them, various meats, cheeses, and fruits lay spread out, complemented by loaves of bread that William had baked.
The walk back to the common area seemed shorter than the trip going had been. They spoke little, walking back lost in their own thoughts. At the tunnel juncture that would take Catherine back toward her apartment building, Catherine turned to Jamie.
“Thank you for escorting me, Jamie.” She smiled at the young woman. “Thank you for sharing with me. I’ll keep your confidence. And if you ever need to talk about it, or anything else, for that matter, you have a friend who will listen.”
Jamie wondered at that. She had a friend, an older woman, more of a big sister type, who was rich to boot. Go figure. But she was glad. And for some reason, she felt a little lighter. The burden she carried lost some of its weight. Impulsively, she hugged Catherine in an awkward goodbye, then turned and walked away.
Behind her, Catherine smiled, holding the hug to herself a moment longer. Then she turned and started down the tunnel to take her home.