WFOL 2024

GUESS THE AUTHOR

Match Game

THE ASK

by Crowmama

Trust life, and it will teach you, in joy and sorrow, all you need to know.

~ James Baldwin

 

Isaac had no idea what to ask for.

While holding Billy’s tiny hand as he fought the wind on the uneven stairs in an underground cavern that had no business being windy, as they waited to be handed a flame that candle by candle illuminated the hall they’d been led to, he didn’t know. 

The Tunnel people’s opening words, like a recited prayer, held the cadence of time and years of history.

Isaac never took much stock in history. Nothing good came from looking back too hard. He had enough to worry about in the here and now.

When he’d contacted her, the only lawyer he had in his address book, Cathy hadn’t hesitated.

“Of course, I’ll help with the estate. I owe you, Isaac, and friends do for each other, right?”

She took on an impossible load of paperwork and somehow made a million legal loose ends disappear.

If only she could make the rest of his life less complicated.

If only she hadn’t made it more complicated.

But that’s a woman for you. They give, but that doesn’t mean their next ask wasn’t waiting in the wings.

Keeping up on the rent of the new, two-bedroom apartment ten blocks further from the gym in a marginally better part of town, balancing his client sessions with Billy’s schedule, trying to make Billy happy, knowing he could never make him happy, missing his sister like crazy—too many plates to drop. How was he supposed to fit in Cathy’s new request? Did he even want to?

Guess he was here to find that out. 

The crippled leader made clear the invitation to “Winterfest” was so Isaac could learn more about the tunnel people. He didn’t doubt it went both ways.

“Hello, Isaac. Hello, William,” Cathy said as she waddled over, heavy pregnant and hand-in-hand with her man. “I want you to meet my husband, Vincent.”

Isaac’d already encountered a million people here, people whose names he would never remember until he got to know them better.

Except Vincent. He remembered him.

Although they hadn’t formally met the day the Silks tried to blow him into Kingdom come, Isaac could safely say he’d never forget that face.

And that face wasn’t happy.

Not scowling, but not matching the festivities around them, while Cathy’s expression begged Isaac for his help and acceptance.

He’d seen that look before.

“If anything bad happened, you’d take care of Billy for me, right, Isaac? You’re the only one we have left.”

That was him. The man you called when you needed a favor.

Isaac Stubbs, next of kin … last of kin.

His sister hadn’t chosen well for her baby’s father.

Did Cathy?

Isaac extended his hand without a word.

Equally silent, the cat man shook it.

Cathy turned her focus to the boy pressed up against Isaac’s legs.

“William, do you remember me?”

She used Billy’s full name, his grandfather’s, the contractor and Crawfords’ center fielder. The little apple staring up at Cathy in her holiday finery and silk shawl had fallen about as far from his namesake’s tree as one could fall.

Billy didn’t answer but began twining his delicate fingers through her wraps’ fringe.

Isaac almost snatched the pawing hand back, but Cathy stopped him with an “It’s fine,” and a smile.

The cat man also addressed the boy.

“Do you wish to meet some of the other children?”

Seemingly unfazed by the strange man’s looks, Billy gave a shrug and continued to play with the shawl. 

“William, can you help me get some food while your uncle and my husband discuss some things?”

She held out her hand, and remarkably, given how many teachers and social workers had tried the same tactic, Billy took her bait. It was the first time Billy willingly left Isaac’s side since the funeral.

Cathy shuffled onward with her follower in tow, unaware of the miracle she’d wrought and looking less like she was carrying a basketball in her belly and more like it was carrying her.

Her husband followed her with his eyes.

“She close?” Isaac asked.

Without breaking his gaze, Vincent answered.

“Days away, so say Peter and my father, the doctor here.”

Isaac had met the old man along with his council to discuss rules and how to handle Billy’s introduction to down here. The doctor was the one who put the question of “payment” before Isaac in the first place.

“You’ve proven your honor and discretion, and Catherine believes you could become a valuable helper to us. However, I want you to understand, we would also be helpers to you. What is in our power to give will be given. You only need ask.”

Back in the present, as if he were speaking to himself, Vincent added. “And I feel a … an urgency… to finish, to fix. It is why she pushed for your introduction so strenuously, despite it being during Winterfest preparations. Winterfest is always a busy time for our world, but Catherine can be … insistent.”

No doubt about that … nor any question how gigantic a party this was—the music, the food, the dancing, the entertainers roaming the hall, the kids running and playing games. He saw how this would take a lot of man-hours and resources preparing for.

Vincent gazed around them. “Many here are those you will teach. Father and Catherine have discussed their plans with me.”

Their plans. But not his?

“You aren’t certain about it?” Isaac asked.

The man opposite took a beat before answering.

“As you have probably noted in your visits, most of my people are … not fighters.”

No, they weren’t—artists, bookworms, caregivers, some kooks … not warriors.

“But you are.”

The lion man acknowledged the truth with a nod.

“As you see, I have weapons with me always. They do not.”

You’d be surprised.

Before Isaac could protest, Vincent sighed, adding his own caveat.

“However, as Catherine reminds me, I must take on a new role soon.”

Dad.

Even being from two different worlds, Isaac commiserated.

He heard the same hope buried under the worries, as buried as these tunnels were from the city above them.

Scanning the party goers, he found Cathy and Billy munching on some cookies together. His nephew waved when he saw his uncle searching for him, prompting Isaac to wave back.

All that terror and wonder and responsibility wrapped up in a small and growing package, looking to you to make all the right decisions. Looking for you to save the day.

Speaking of saving….

“You the one who found Cathy? When she got attacked, I mean?”

Is that how she learned about this place? Learned about you?

“I was,” the strange man said, looking down at his claws. “I was lucky to have found her then. As I was lucky to be found and brought here as a baby.”

So, no other cat people lurking in the shadows down here.

Cathy was taking a gigantic risk, walking into the unknown by having a child with this guy. Then again, God rolled the dice on every baby that got born, his mama used to say.

 “Lots of kids get brought here?”

“Some are found by us, yes. Others our Helpers bring to us to raise or to educate because they aren’t thriving in the world above. Some find their way here. Some are born here.”

As his baby would be, for Cathy’s sake. Isaac hoped the medical care was at least as good as up in the city. It had to be, right?

He scrutinized the smiling faces of the Tunnel people—well-fed, healthy, happy. Maybe their clothes were patched and closer in style to 1889 than 1989, but that didn’t seem to matter to them or to the others dressed like him and Cathy, the other “Helpers,” he figured.

And the kids …

The kids were blooming like flowers around the room.

They were laughing and joking and playing, which wasn’t that special. Even in the worst circumstances, most children managed that. But the searching stares scanning for danger or a target, those were absent here, as was the stoney grappling with pain he’d seen in Billy’s eyes.

“We care for the children as best we can,” Vincent explained. “We have little, but we offer them a safe place, our time, our love … our acceptance.”

What Joycey had wanted for her son.

Yet safety and time were hotter commodities than he ever realized before becoming a single parent to a seven-year-old.

Isaac shook his head. “My sister told me, ‘While the concrete is wet, you gotta keep people from walking all over it.’”

“Yes, that’s what we believe. I am a teacher here, as are many … as is Catherine, now. But it has also been my responsibility to protect them and everyone here.”

No wonder he seemed like the weight of a crazy city rested on his big shoulders.

No wonder Cathy begged for help.

And no wonder Vincent was against it.

Protector is who he is.

Plenty of boyfriends and husbands of the women Isaac taught ran headlong into the same identity crisis—who am I if not this?

He’d answered Vincent the same way he did them.

“And you’ll still be their protector, but sometimes the fight comes to them. You can’t be everywhere … not when you’re caring for a wife and new baby. I can teach them to defend themselves. That’s my job.”

A half-shrug of half-acceptance—he remained unconvinced.

But Isaac had another trick in his bag.

“How big would you say Cathy is? 5’4”, 5’5”?”

“I believe so.”

“And she’s … well, she was … probably 110 pounds soaking wet.”

Across the hall, Cathy let Billy pull the silk shawl from her velvet-clad shoulders as the boy gazed at the cloth with the undisguised want of a young child.

Billy raised the fluttery fabric above his head and skipped away, looking for all the world like a butterfly flittering through the stone hall.

Cathy held her baby belly and laughed. 

She was no longer the put-together professional woman who walked into his gym. 

In the big man’s eyes, Isaac saw what she had become.

More.

Even more loved, even more beautiful than the pretty and pissed-off socialite she’d been.

“She was a skinny little thing when I first met her. Didn’t know if she had the juice, but she nearly knocked my head off.”

That got her man’s attention.

“It was my own damn fault. We were sparring, and I pushed her.”

Her husband looked askance at that.

“It’s my job to … you dig?” he defended. “But she got me to the ground, grabbed a baseball bat, and … I had a hard time getting through.”

 Vincent accepted the retelling with a bow of the head.

“Those little ones can be sharp, deadly … especially when they have to be.”

“She can be,” the lion man agreed, but heavy, like a witness.

Isaac didn’t expect that, yet given her job … her history… her need to prove herself …

“However, few are like Catherine,” her husband argued. “Some will freeze when faced with peril. That’s why we have sentries.”

“True, but guards can’t be everywhere, either. I teach people how to get past their fear, how to escape, to hide, and you all are pretty good at hiding.”

The lion man crossed his arms.

“That sounds … accusatory.”

Was Isaac … accusing?

Yeah, probably.

Since Joycey’s death, there was no doubt, he’d gotten meaner … more brittle, less forgiving.

Joycey deserved more than she got.  She hadn’t mattered in the world. Just some poor, Black woman working for a boss who wouldn’t give her a day off, even when she was sick, who had to wait until the weekend to go to the hospital. She’d relied on doctors who didn’t see her … or the blood clots forming in her lungs. She deserved more than being told it was all in her head, even when she couldn’t catch her breath. And after she passed, she deserved more family for her delicate boy than a broken-hearted, street-fighting uncle.

They could’ve moved back to Utica to be around the short list of distant cousins they still had left. But with no work there and no guarantee growing up in a rust belt town would be any better for Billy than it had been for Isaac and Joycey.

All he and Billy had were the people of their neighborhood … and it wasn’t enough. Camaraderie and good wishes they had …  but from people trying to survive themselves, Support spread too thin, never enough to fill in the gaps.

He caught a glimpse of Billy near the stairs, still twirling up a storm, catching the candlelight with the shimmering cloth, and surrounded by kids who appeared to be laughing with him, not at him. That was definitely different from the Lower East side. There, anything Billy loved would have been snatched from his hands out of envy, desperation, or spite, and there wasn’t a damn thing that dainty boy could do about, even after every lesson his uncle had tried to teach him.

Vincent was right. Some people weren’t meant for fighting.

He’s not like you or daddy,” Joycey insisted. They’d discussed sending Billy to private school, but that was a dream. They didn’t have the cash, a problem her death hadn’t fixed, despite’s Cathy’s best efforts.

“Billy’s different … Sensitive. You know what I mean. He’s special.”

In his own way, as special as the man in front of him.

Joycey appreciated truth telling, calling a spade a spade.

Seemed like Cathy’s guy did as well.

The pregnant woman returned, reaching around her husband’s waist as they all looked for Billy in the crowd.

His nephew had handed the shawl to a little Black tunnel girl, and both scampered away as she mimicked his earlier flight.

“No disrespect, man,” Isaac said. “It’s hard to learn about this place and not be a little jealous that you all have a … sanctuary.”

“No disrespect taken, Mr. Stubbs,” Vincent said, accepting the apology. “It has been my sanctuary and Catherine’s as well.” He offered Cathy a look of love that could have warmed the entire hall. Then, back on Isaac, sincerity on his sleeve, he added. “As a Helper, it is now yours … yours and William’s … whenever you have need of it.”

Isaac heard Billy’s laugh through the din, and that was the moment Isaac knew.

He knew what to ask for.

2 Comments

  1. I really like the idea of teaching self-defense to the Tunnel community. It never suited me to have that burden rest on Vincent’s shoulders. Now the circumstances are unique a new role for our hero no longer only a husband but also a Father. This conversation between them is so real, you showed all those feelings surrounding them. It’s a pity that Isaac and his nephew met such a tragedy, but I also see hope here and for this sensitive boy as well as for the others and that’s beautiful.

    Reply
  2. Wow, Karen!! What an amazing blending of stark realism with hope and redemption and possibilities. I’m so impressed by everything about this story and by your talent. Your Isaac came alive in this story. I could picture every moment, hear every word. I hope you’ll continue with this plot line — it’s much too good to end here!

    Reply

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