This is my tribute to Sandy ‘Chandler’ Shelton, and I thought it would fit into the April 12th celebration since this year the theme is "Of Love and Dreams." I love Chan (can’t make myself write that in the past tense), and this is my dream for her.
A dream, nothing more…and nothing less. I am not a believer, not in the meaning many people give to the word, but I do believe in the Tunnels, and in the power of Dreams.
Catherine walked briskly through the familiar galleries, once more on her way to retrieve her wayward youngest. Dinner time, and the boy was missing again. Not that anyone worried, as they all knew where he was. The Painted Tunnels had always fascinated him, and he would have spent most of his time there, if allowed to. He was not supposed to go there alone, though, but if he couldn’t cajole an adult or older kid to go with him, he would sometimes escape on his own. About the only stroke of rebelliousness in an otherwise easy-tempered and quiet child.
When he was younger, he would only stare, for hours, at the paintings left untouched since Elizabeth’s death, ten years before, but in the last year, he had started adding his own drawings on the blank parts of the tunnel walls. First with chalk, and recently with paint she had bought him for his last birthday. The boy had talent, and showed a purpose and concentration amazing for an eight year old. He had a preference for landscapes and nature, and could spend hours painting places and animals he would only ever see on books or screens.
Chris was Vincent and Catherine’s "surprise" child, born long after his three siblings, when his parents were both well into their forties. He also was the only one who looked like his father.
As she neared the painted tunnels, Catherine smiled to herself. As she and Vincent had often mused, it should have been expected for the child to be talented, considering who he was named for. Christopher, for Kristopher Gentian.
Nine years ago, for Winterfest, Mary had surprised Catherine with a dress like the one in the portrait adorning their chamber Below. After the celebration, they had gone back there and had some fun in front of the mirror, trying to mimic exactly the posture on the painting. Well, one thing led to another, and nine months after that memorable and very passionate night, Christopher had been born.
His appearance had come as a shock to Vincent, reawakening long-buried fears and guilt, but those feelings had now long been worked through. Vincent loved all his children with ferociousness, never ceasing to wonder at the miracle they represented for him, yet he and his younger son shared a very special bond. Literally.
Ah, there he was, painting, of course.
"Chris! Everyone’s waiting for us to start dinner. How many times will you have to be told not to come here alone!"
The boy had the wisdom to look guilty, lowering his green eyes, inherited from his mother along with his straight, honey-brown hair.
"Sorry, Mom, I didn’t know it was so late. But I’m not alone."
"Who is…" The question ended in a gasp as he stepped out of the shadows.
He hadn’t aged one day. He looked exactly like he did when she last saw him, more than twenty years ago. The same shabby clothes and unruly black hair, the same pale face, twinkling eyes and youthful smile under the Yankees cap.
Seeing his mother’s shocked face and widened eyes, Chris decided introductions were in order.
"Mom, this is my friend Kristopher. We have the same name, except that his is written with a K. He comes here when I’m alone and teaches me to paint."
"What are you doing here with my son? You are supposed to be long…" She caught herself in time.
Kristopher smiled beguilingly. "Why, I’ve been keeping an eye on my namesake. He’s good, and I thought I could help him progress. I feel kind of like his godfather, you know.
Catherine didn’t know if she liked the thought of a ghost (for she had now to admit there was no other explanation) as her son’s godfather and mentor, but she pushed it aside for the moment.
"Well, in a way, I guess you are," she admitted with a crooked grin, before turning stern eyes to her son. "But you, young man, should have told us about meeting him. You know the rules!"
"But Mom, Kristopher’s all right, I can feel him!"
Catherine sighed. Sometimes, having two empaths in her life was just a little bit too much.
"Feel him? And how does he feel?"
"Strange, kind of… chilly, you know, but nice."
A coldness, that’s how Vincent had described it too, so many years before. Catherine turned back to Kristopher to find him gone. She sighed again. Just like him!
"Kristopher’s like that," Chris said helpfully. "He’s just there, and then, he isn’t."
"Boy, do I know!" Catherine muttered. "We’ll discuss it again with your daddy, but for now, let’s hurry to dinner."
But before they were even out of the painted tunnels, Vincent came running in their direction.
"Catherine, Chris? Is everything all right? I felt…"
"Well, you see…" she started, but stopped on seeing his eyes widen as he looked over her shoulder. She turned around.
Kristopher was back. And he wasn’t alone. He held a little girl by the hand.
"Kristopher." Vincent only said.
"You know him, too, Daddy?"
"Oh, yes," Kristopher answered. "Your parents and I go back a long time."
"And who is she?" the boy inquired, staring at the child.
"She’s… a friend of mine. Thought I’d bring her here."
They looked at her, a plump little girl with a round face, and hair the colour of moonlight. She smiled at them, not in the least intimidated by Vincent’s and Chris’s appearance.
"What’s your name?" Chris asked.
The girl seemed to hesitate and looked up at Kristopher.
"Chandler. Her name’s Chandler," he smiled.
"Hey, but that’s my name!" Catherine protested.
"So? You gave him my name," he nodded to Chris, "I can give her yours. Besides, it’s really her name."
Catherine sighed once more. Talking to Kristopher was just as frustrating as she remembered.
"And is she… like you?" she asked.
"No, not quite. I come and go. She is here to stay."
"To stay?" Catherine repeated. But where does she come from? Where did you…"
Kristopher flashed his youthful smile. "You haven’t changed, Cathy. Still full of questions. Watch out, you might get answers." The little girl yawned. "She’s tired, she’s had a long trip. Take care of her, she belongs here." The time for Vincent and Catherine to glance at the child, and he was gone.
Vincent and Catherine looked at each other over Chris’s head. They would discuss the whole thing later, but for the moment, there was nothing to do but take Chandler with them. Vincent picked her up, and she put her arms around his neck to snuggle contentedly against his chest.
"Are you hungry, Chandler?" Catherine asked. The girl nodded. "Good, we’re going to have dinner, now." They left the painted tunnels. As his parents were silent, Chris decided to make conversation.
"Hi, I’m Chris, I’m eight. How old are you, Chandler?"
The girl smiled, and spoke for the first time, with no trace of her former hesitation. "I am five."
"I’m from here, from the tunnels. And you, where are you from? How did you get here?"
The hesitation was back. "I… don’t remember."
"Chris, leave her be," his mother said. She needs to eat and rest, first. Tomorrow, we’ll try and find where she belongs."
"But you heard Kristopher, she belongs here!" the boy protested.
"There may be people above looking for her, Chris."
"Oh, no, she’s not from Above," Chris stated with certainty. "She doesn’t feel like other people. She’s more like Kristopher."
Catherine shivered uncomfortably. "Strange, chilly, but nice?"
He thought about it for a few seconds. "Not so strange, and much warmer, but just as nice," he decided.
A look at Vincent’s face told Catherine that he concurred with his son’s opinion. Oh, great. Two empaths, a ghost, AND a warm, nice little… whatever. Where are certainties when you need them?
She went back to safer ground and turned stern eyes to her son. "How long has Kristopher been visiting?"
"Since last Winterfest," the boy answered somewhat sheepishly.
It was Vincent’s turn to look stern. "And when did you intend to tell us?"
Chris looked down; "He said it was a secret," he said meekly, knowing how weak the excuse was. "He said he wasn’t like the others, that was true, I could feel it. And he said he couldn’t come and help me if they knew, because they wouldn’t understand." He saw his parents’ faces and tried to wiggle out. "But I knew if there was something wrong, you would feel it, Daddy, and you’d come." Their unyielding stares told him it had certainly been the wrong thing to say. "Okay," he surrendered. "I should have told you."
"You certainly should," Vincent stated, "and don’t think you’ll get away with it so easily. We’ll talk about this again, and there will be a price to pay."
"I know, Daddy," the boy acquiesced resignedly. "But you know Kristopher, too?"
"So you know he’s all right?"
"Chris, he might not have been. That wasn’t for you to decide."
They had all forgotten the little girl who had been apparently asleep in Vincent’s arms, and started when she lifted her head, smiled and declared: "Kristopher’s very nice. He’s my friend!"
Vincent smiled back to her. "I know that he is." Turning to Catherine and Chris, he warned them. "Maybe it would be best to keep Kristopher’s presence between us. He was not completely wrong when he said there were people in the tunnels who wouldn’t understand."
They both nodded.
"But you and Mom do understand, don’t you?"
Vincent chuckled and Catherine rolled her eyes. "Well, I have to, don’t I?"
The little girl named Chandler seemed to take to the Tunnels like a fish to water. There was none of the usual first days of awkwardness and disorientation the newcomers, even the young children, always experienced. After a hearty dinner and a good night’s sleep in a chamber where three other little girls had gladly welcomed a new "roomie", she settled into everyday’s life with an astonishing easiness, and soon it was, many people said, ‘as if she’d always been there’. In the mornings, she followed the kindergarten classes where the other children loved her cheerfulness and the teacher, Cathy, marvelled at her creativity, artistic talent and crafting abilities.
In the afternoons, she roamed through the tunnels and seemed to be everywhere at once, playing with other children, visiting with the older residents. She seemed to be particularly attracted to those who ‘made’ things and spent hours watching them and trying to imitate. She learned quilting with old Mary and candlemaking with Rebecca, decorated cookies with Geoffrey, who had replaced the much regretted William in the kitchen, covered herself up to her ears with clay in Kanin’s workshop, hovered around Cullen until he lent her a small chisel and showed her how to carve wood without carving her fingers.
She also became a very apt student in Jamie’s computer classes, using the machines and high speed connection Mouse had found a way to bring to the tunnels. Jamie said Chan, as everyone had taken to calling her, was ‘a natural’. In a matter of days, the precocious, energetic and endearing five-year-old had won all the tunnel-dwellers’ hearts
Her relentless stamina did have its limits, though, and more than once she could be found asleep on old Father’s lap, while he was dozing, too, a fairytale book slipping from his hands.
Her best friend and favorite accomplice remained Chris. She loved spending time with him, preferably in the Painted Tunnels. Such occasions were not as frequent as she would have wished, for Chris had classes most of the day, and at night, he went back to the brownstone where he lived with his parents and older siblings. Jacob, nineteen, attended Columbia University, where his seventeen-year-old twin sisters, Caroline and Rosalind, were to join him after graduating from high-school. They had all decided to stay in NYC, because they knew that, while Vincent wanted the best the world had to offer for his children, he was not ready yet to let them leave for a place where he couldn’t protect them.
Chandler had been to the brownstone several times, and in the park with the other kindergarten children, but she didn’t feel really at ease Above, she much preferred the tunnels. Her favourite moments were the week-ends that Vincent, Catherine and their children spent Below. Then she had time to be with Chris, and if an adult was willing to accompany them - often one the twins, Carrie and Roz, who were also interested in art - they went to the Painted Tunnels.
Chan loved drawing, and Vincent and Chris were her favorite subjects. She drew them everywhere, on paper, on the schoolroom blackboards, on tunnel walls, on computer screens. There was a small incident when she began drawing them on her friends’ clothes. The other kids found it very cool to have Chris’s face on their sweaters, but Olivia, who supervised the laundry chores, strongly objected, and the children were devastated when the pretty drawings came back as blurred stains.
It was Carrie who found the solution.
"Why not have her drawing printed on T-shirts? There’s a place near our school that does it for cheap."
Catherine was reluctant. "I don’t want those drawings of your brother to go out of the Tunnels and be seen by strangers. What if they get curious?"
Carrie and her sister just laughed.
"Oh, Mom," said Roz. "You haven’t seen the place! They work mostly for manga addicts, heavy-metal fans and online video games players. Compared to a character from World of Warcraft, whatever Chan comes up with will look so tame they won’t even bat an eye at it! Better make it sweat-shirts, though. Kind of chilly down here."
Catherine, after a discussion with Vincent and some Council members, agreed to consider the idea. Chan and Chris were enthusiastic and started to work on a design with Carrie and Roz as artistic advisors. The result was stunning, a very lifelike rendering of Chris’s face, with the chamber of the falls as a background.
"But we need something in writing, too!" Chan decided.
"Tunnel Child?" Carrie proposed.
No one liked it that much, and various other propositions didn’t meet with any more success. Until Jacob had an idea.
"What about ‘Tunnel Brat’?"
"Like Unca Devin says?" said Chris. "Mom’s not going to like it!"
"I like it," Chan beamed. "Tunnel Brat, that’s how he called me!"
She had met Devin a couple of weeks before, when he’d come to visit, and on seeing her, he’d laughed and picked her up. "Hey, I see you’ve found yourself yet another tunnel brat? Hi, sweetie!" She’d loved him instantly and had been sad when he’d left again, a few days later.
Chris was right, ‘Mom’ didn’t like it very much, but she yielded, and not long after, the 'Tunnel Brat' sweat-shirts came into existence, soon becoming every tunnel child’s (and some adults’, too) most prized possession.
One day, Chris entered the study where his father was working. Before his son opened his mouth, Vincent knew what he was going to say.
"Kristopher’s back, isn’t he?"
"Yes. You felt him, too, Daddy?"
Vincent nodded. "And…?"
"I was wondering… could Chan and I go alone to the Painted Tunnels?" He saw the hesitation on his father’s face and went on. "You know he won’t come if there’s someone else there, unless maybe it’s you or Mom, but I know you don’t have time to come with us. I miss him, Daddy, he taught me real cool stuff, and I’m sure Chan would like to see him again!"
Vincent smiled at his son’s pleading eyes. It was not an unreasonable request, and the boy had learned his lesson, never going back there alone.
"I’ll discuss it with your mother." He chuckled as the boy’s face fell. "I think she can be convinced. She likes Kristopher, too, and she loves Chan. By the way, have you noticed?"
"About Chan? Yes," the boy smiled. "She doesn’t feel like Kristopher anymore, now she’s just like everyone else, here."
Vincent repeated that to Catherine that night as they prepared for bed in their brownstone. "She’s truly one of us, now, Catherine. Wherever she came from."
"Yes, wherever…" she said with a crooked smile. "I had news from Joe, today. He said his search has come to no result. No little girl corresponding to Chan’s description has been reported missing in the area, or in the country for that matter. Oh, and by the way, he and Jenny are coming for dinner tomorrow night."
"It will be good to see them. But you know, I could have told you those enquiries were for naught."
"I know, I think I’ve always known, considering who brought her," she admitted. "But I had to try and find out, as we do with all children we take in. There are some we’ve been able to send back home."
"Catherine, she is home. She belongs here. I know it, Chris knows it, and you know it too, if you’ll let yourself admit it."
She sighed in surrender. Vincent then informed her of Kristopher’s return and their son’s request.
"Vincent, do you think it’s safe?" she frowned.
"And you?" he asked with a smile.
She punched him in the arm. "You exasperating man! Yes, if I must say it, I do trust Kristopher. I don’t think he’d harm either Chris or Chan, or anyone in the tunnels. Whatever he is, he’s a friend."
"Whatever he is?" Vincent chuckled.
"Oh, all right, you’ve won. He’s a ghost. We have a ghost as a friend. There, I’ve said it."
"So, you see, that wasn’t so difficult."
"Don’t you dare look so smug, Vincent. Or you’ll pay for it."
"Oh, I’ll pay willingly, you know I always do," he whispered, drawing her into his arms to kiss her, which efficiently ended the conversation.
"Sweet Sleep Of Night" by Chandler
Vincent and Catherine were once more on their way to the Painted Tunnels, since the two young artists had failed to come back on time. It didn’t happen often, though, and they always apologized. If truth be told, the two adults were rather glad of the errand, as, like everyone, they were curious as to what went on, there, and eager for an opportunity to meet Kristopher again. The previous times, the children were already on their way back when they’d met.
They were not disappointed. They heard his voice even before entering the long chamber. "You should add a bit more shadow, there, Chan. There, looks better, doesn’t it? Oh, hi!" he said when Vincent and Catherine approached. The kids started and looked guilty.
"Sorry, Mom, Daddy, I guess we forgot time. It’s because we’ve almost finished. Look!"
Vincent and Catherine both gasped on seeing what covered a vast, formerly empty section of wall.
It was a beach, softly glowing in the light of the early morning hours. Under a tender, pastel sky, the light blue sea rolled on the shore in gentle, silver-lined wavelets. It was a beach they recognized for having walked it together for hours, she in reality, and he in a very Real dream.
And they were there, too, in the painting, walking on the shore with their hands linked. Catherine’s long white dress and Vincent’s cloak billowed in the soft breeze as they strolled, smiling to each other.
Behind them, near a huge, jutting rock, two children ran barefoot in the surf, splashing each other, so realistic that one could almost hear them laugh. Their faces were turned away, but the Tunnel Brat sweatshirts, unruly honey-brown mane and moonlight hair were unmistakable.
"So, how do you like it?" Chris asked anxiously.
Vincent was the first to recover. "There are no words. This is… extraordinary, in so many ways. You and Chan did it?"
"Kristopher showed us a little when it was too difficult, but mostly, we did it all ourselves. I did the beach, and Chan did you and Mom, and us. That’s cool, no? I love being on a beach. Like the lake in Connecticut, only much bigger!"
Catherine and Vincent looked at each other, but there was not a trace of bitterness in the boy’s voice. He knew his parents would give him the whole world if they could, and that was enough.
"Chan, Chris, this is wonderful!" Catherine said warmly, pulling them both into her arms for a hug without worrying about paint stains. I know that beach, I was there, and I feel like I’m there again. Thank you!"
"I hope you’ll let everyone see it, now," Vincent asked.
"Of course, Daddy, but only when it’s completely finished."
"We still have things to do!" Chan added.
"But I’m afraid you’ll have to do them at another time. Remember? Dinner! And you need to wash up a bit, Catherine reminded them. Off with you, now, we’ll join you in a minute." The kids scurried away after waving goodbye to Kristopher.
Catherine and Vincent turned to their very unusual friend. "Thank you," Catherine said.
He smiled. "You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. Those kids, they’re good, and they have a way of growing on you… Maybe I’ll stay around here for a while, watch how they turn out…"
"My turn to say: ‘You’re very welcome’, Vincent replied. Consider yourself as much at home in these tunnels as Chan now is."
Kristopher looked at him seriously, cocking his head to the side.
"Thanks for the offer. I might. Not as if I still have a bookshop to hang around in, anyway."
"Yes, I learned
for Mr Smythe," Catherine said. "I’m sorry."
"Don’t be. By the way, he says hello, and sends the tit willow his regards."
Catherine and Vincent exchanged a look and a chuckle, and when they looked back to Kristopher, he was gone.
But his voice lingered on.
…And over our heads floats the blue bird
singing of beautiful and impossible things,
Of things that are beautiful, of things that are
lovely and never happen…
On the last words, a spot of light illuminated the children in the painting.
…Of things that are not and that should be!
The light faded with the last echoes, and they remained in front of the painted wall for a while, holding each other tight.
"Beautiful, but not so impossible, it would seem. We’re the proof of it and so is Chan." Catherine finally whispered in Vincent’s neck.
He kissed her hair. "Yes, wherever she was before, whatever happened to her, she is home, now."
And so she was.