CABB’s

WFOL 2024 Challenge

Winterfest Guests

INTO A NEW BELONGING

by Carole W

“Mommy, why is that man staring at you?”

Instinct propelled her between her daughter and whoever she was talking about. She didn’t question, didn’t doubt, just reached behind her, signaling for her daughter’s hand. Closing on its sweet warmth. Willing her own hand not to tremble or clutch too tightly.

Her scrutiny swept the crowded sidewalk, studying those at the next book cart over, then those at the next, and the next. Everyone so bundled up – winter coats, watch-caps, fur-lined hoods – everyone bent to the dollar bargains racked outside the Strand.

Everyone but him.

A man, unabashed, intent upon her … but not … Not Anders.

It’s New York, she reminded herself. He might well be staring into space, she and her daughter simply the path of his … contemplative gaze.

“It’s all right,” she reassured her child, giving her fingers a squeeze, smiling down at her. “I don’t think he–”

“Excuse me?”

His words were close, but still a distanced question, one she could answer with an icy glare, a walking away.

But no. She was …

Well, not hemmed in, not really. He stood on the other side of their chosen cart, even a respectful step back. She could wade into the foot traffic of 12th Street, sail around the corner, dart inside the packed store. Should he follow with any ill-purposed objective, he’d surely give up in the face of all the potential witnesses.

Customers. She chided herself. She didn’t want to transmit fear to her little girl, didn’t want her child to live looking over her shoulder.

She didn’t want to live looking over her shoulder either.

In the old days, needing a quick getaway, she’d have crossed Broadway, eased down to Novik’s Optical Shop, in and through to the storeroom, disappearing through the secret door Mr. Novik guarded with tall metal shelving on wheels … on the way, plucking a Tootsie Pop from the glass bowl he kept full on the counter underneath the mirrors.

Is he still alive, Mr. Novik? Still in business? Is there still … a Below?

She shivered back into the now. The man was half-smiling at her, his eyes crinkling in thought. Long thought. Confusion.

“I’m sorry,” he was saying. “For a minute I thought you were …”

He took another long look, at her, then at her daughter. At her again.

She could read his face, read beyond his expression. She was good at that now. There was no menace in him. None. Armor fell away, the stiffness of suspicion, in its place her own blurred curiosity.

“Miss D? Marguerite Downing? I know it can’t be, you can’t be, but–”

“You know my mother?”

Now she stared, long and fully, chasing the memory that glimmered like candlelight at the far end of a tunnel.

Seal-brown eyes. Brown-black hair when he pulled off his blue stocking cap. And when he loosened the scarf wrapped high around his neck …

Three long-healed scars across his cheek.

He shook his head and a wide grin broke free. “Holly?”

“Devin?”

She couldn’t get to him fast enough and moved into his open arms as if they were old friends.

Which they were.

“I– I can’t believe it,” they both said at once, and laughed, and let each other go.

No one on the street bothered to look twice. And for the first time in a long while, she didn’t care if they did.

She felt a tug on her coattail. “Mommy?”

Her daughter wedged in between them. “I’m Ria,” she announced, her cheeks rosy in the chill, her attention diverting to the lazy snowflakes drifting from a suddenly darkening sky.

“Your daughter?” Devin queried and she nodded. “She looks so much like you, the way I remember you, I didn’t really need to ask.”

“I was a little older, I think … almost nine, the last time we saw each other.” Her hand strayed to her cheek in memory of that day, of Devin’s face when she met him in the corridor where her mother had told her to wait, the jagged, crusty, angry lacerations, the jagged, crusty anger that fueled him past her even as she called out to him Wait! I’ve come to say goodbye …

“Oh, yeah, right. Well … that was … a day.”

Devin’s shrug and half-laughing sigh suggested something other than the sting of an old wound.

“So … you’ve healed,” she went on. “Did you patch things up?”

“With Vincent?” Another shrug, another half-smile. “There wasn’t anything to patch up, really. It just took a while for me to tell him that.”

Vincent. The easy way his name was spoken. Aloud. Fondly. In such a present tense

Something steadied within her psyche. He is. He’s still …

“Ahem.”

A store clerk grasped the cart’s handle.

“Gotta get this inside,” he said with a head-gesture to the gathering clouds. “Anything you want ‘fore I do?”

“Yes! This, this, this, this and this,” Ria said, claiming the books she’d moved to one side of the top row. She looked up, confident, open, explaining, “There’s nothing to read in our room.”

Devin had the composure to not react and she was grateful for that.

“Can I pay you out here?” she asked, unbuttoning her coat to reach for her wallet when the clerk nodded, but Devin pulled a ten-dollar bill from his pocket.

“I got this.”

“Thank you,” Ria offered. “Mr …?”

“Your mom and I are old friends, and I hope we’ll be friends too, so you can call me Devin like she does.”

Ria’s easy nod and contented hum as she shuffled the books now in her possession brought quick tears to her eyes, tears she could blame on the sharpening wind if necessary. Her daughter dwelt in sweet possibilities still, no matter the uprooting she’d undergone, the changes of more than scenery …

The bookish crowd had disappeared with the rolled-inside carts. The three of them stood together on the sidewalk, the foot traffic parting around them like water in a stream.

“There’s a diner I like a couple blocks over,” Devin said. “I’d really like to catch up. It’s early for supper … or late for lunch, I guess, but would you– Coffee? A sandwich? A slice of pie?”

“Yes, yes. Absolutely. I would like that … so much.” She took a breath, the air sweeter than she knew it to be.

“Can I get a black and white cookie there?” Ria asked. “See, every day, our first week here, Mommy promised we’d get something the city’s famous for. So far, I’ve had an egg cream, a bagel with a … a sm– … a … schmear, a soft pretzel but no mustard, yuck! And a slice of pizza which I folded.” She ticked off the treats as she relayed them, tapping the books held in the crook of one arm with her fingertip.

“I bet you can, and if not, we’ll find one somewhere easy enough. I know they make a really good cheesecake, though. Is that on your list?”

“It is,” Ria replied, nodding in all seriousness as they walked along together. “And so’s a hot dog, but it has to be a Nathan’s, whatever that is.”

“Gotcha,” Devin agreed. Over her daughter’s head, he looked to her, brows raised. “Remember the day we skipped school and headed for Coney Island?”

She chuckled. “Hard to skip when your own mother’s the teacher.”

“We brought back a dozen Nathans hoping for forgiveness, but the Old Man said he’d rather eat a shoe than a hot dog. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he opened the bag.” After a pondered moment, Devin chuffed. “Hey, did Miss D know all along? She sure wasn’t mad … and she didn’t go to lunch with us that day like usual …”

Now she laughed. “She told me not to let on, said it would spoil the day for us. She was all about adventures, even then.”

“Was she?”

He’d started to say something else, to ask something else, but instead pressed his lips against the words, checking for traffic as they stepped off the curb.

“Still is,” she told him and saw him smile in relief and gladness within a ream of questions.

 

They decided to split a giant tuna melt at the table in the window of the shoebox-sized diner. The sandwich would be enough for the three of them, Devin told them, but Ria declined and ordered a grilled cheese on challah. “And a slice of cheesecake,” she’d added, opting, after much deliberating on the choice of topping, for plain.

The waitress – Esther, her name tag read – clucked her approval. “Three forks, then?”

“Well … is it a very big slice?”

Esther patted her shoulder. “Not to worry, Ziskayt.

Ria nodded, opened a book, and was gone.

The diner’s row of two-person tables was empty, but the red vinyl stools at the counter were at least half-taken, the occupants seemingly well acquainted, the conversation spirited enough to mask theirs. She relaxed into the curve of the wooden chair.

Devin. I’m so glad to see you. I didn’t expect to, ever, again. And you’re telling me you left a week after we did? And didn’t come back for twenty years? Why–” She broke off. Why was a question Devin might well ask her, not so much about the leaving as the coming back. She began again. “So … where’d you go?”

“Now that’s a long, crazy story. For now, let’s just say … all over. At the time, far and fast was my only destination. Canada first, then California. Alaska, Mexico. New Orleans, Charleston … Sioux Falls, Boise. All over Europe. Australia, New Zealand …”

“New Zealand?” Naming the place, even in the choked near-whisper she managed, felt like shooting off a flare – Here we are! – one that could be seen an entire country and an ocean away. Don’t be silly, she admonished herself. Didn’t Mom always say fear is the main source of superstition? To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom? Please, she begged the Universe, please let her be right. She took a breath, held it until she could be sure her voice wouldn’t quaver. “Mom and Bram are in Nepal now, but New Zealand’s where they settled finally – that’s where he’s from originally. I actually went to a regular high school there for half a year. And college. Where I met …” She tipped her head in Ria’s direction.

Ahh, okay. And he …?”

“Is not,” she answered. “Can’t be. Won’t be. It’s …” Terrifying, impossible. “Not happening.”

He didn’t ask more of her, not then, not there. But telling him even that much and seeing a fiery protectiveness flame his cheeks and spark in his gaze chipped away at the stone-burden of the mess she’d made, ignoring so many red flags, mistaking recklessness for exuberance, possessiveness for devotion. For being unprepared, imagining she’d never, ever see him again.

He hesitated, but only for a moment. “Oh, yeah. I remember now. Your mom got remarried and we got a new teacher. Ya know, losing Miss D. broke Vincent’s heart. He had a major crush on her.”

“Did he, now?”

And they both laughed.

 

“It’s funny,” she said, after a bite of cheesecake that tasted like silk and dreams. “We traveled after we left New York. To almost all the cities and states you named, all the countries. It’s possible we were in the same place at the same time.”

Devin signaled for a refill of their coffees. “I never stayed in one place very long. I did do five months in Alaska on a salmon boat, May to September … let’s see … 1969 I think.”

“That’s rough work. You’d have had to lie about your age.”

“It wasn’t the first time.”

“Bram did that too – salmon fishing, I mean – on a boat out of Port Protection. Alaska’s where we moved when we left New York. We lived in a tree house that summer.” She thanked Esther with a smile, cupped the newly-steaming mug with both hands. “I … wasn’t happy; I missed the city, our apartment … my room. My friends … you and Vincent, everybody. But Mom was. She was happy everywhere, really embraced the change, you know? Though sometimes when it was just the two of us, we’d talk about the tunnels. She’d say she missed teaching, missed … Below. That even though we never actually lived there, it was still home. For me to remember that.”

A quiet moment stretched between them; they both turned to the window, studied the street’s traffic. Steam billowed from the grate just off the curb, interrupted by a yellow cab’s pausing. A man in a black overcoat stopped to check his watch, hurried on. Ria turned a page, her chin propped in the palm of her hand, halfway through her book already.

She tapped the tabletop next to Devin’s resting hand. “Are you … living … you know.”

Devin shook his head. “No, I’ve got this, uh, thing going on in Ireland now.”

A rosy blush enhanced his answer.

“A thing, is it? I’m going to need a name.”

He rubbed his chin, raked a hand through his hair. His eyes were truly lit with stars. “Brigit.”

It felt good to be happy for someone.

“Then why are you here?” she asked. “Is everyone all right? Is Father– Is he okay? Is Vincent …”

“Oh, everybody’s fine. Father turns out to be– Well that’s a story for another day, but he’s good. And Vincent … well, he’s good too. Better than good, actually. I’m in, ummm, town for Winterfest.”

“Oh! I can’t believe they’re still– I only went to two, but I never forgot–”

“What’s Winterfest?” Ria piped up.

“It’s a … party,” she told her.

“A big party these days,” Devin added, and the numbering softened the edges she felt she was made of. “A … gathering. A kind of reunion,” he continued. “Do you know that word? Reunion?”

“Uh huh. Grandma used to give me a word a day and I had to look it up and use it in a sentence. I kept them in a little Hello Kitty notebook. My favorite word was ennui, even though I’m never bored.”

Devin chuckled. “The Old Man’ll love her.”

She didn’t want to ask, shouldn’t ask for invitation. There’d been rules back then, rules her mother explained one freezing afternoon, the two of them formal in upright chairs at the table, the kitchen’s one window layered with ice being etched by a whipping wind. Rules most likely even more stringent today, the secret being harder to keep the more people who knew … But that night, that long-ago night, her mother placed an orangey-red and white candle on the quilted placemat between them and said she was old enough to be trusted and what a honor it was to know and could she promise … promise forever

“Sorry, hons, but we close early on Fridays.” Esther gathered the white china mugs with one hand. “Something to go maybe?”

“Just the check,” Devin said. “And thank you for the table and the time.”

“They’ve been having a reunion,” Ria told her.

 

Out on the sidewalk, she knelt to fasten the inside buttons of her daughter’s barely fitting pea-coat. The thrift store had stocked little in her size and they’d left Auckland so quickly, so surreptitiously she hadn’t packed for a different season, fearing it would give too much away. He would have searched her closets, taken inventory, once he tracked her down. She didn’t want to consider who among her old and knowing friends might still give him her address.

The wind – stronger now, insistent – snatched the lapels from her hands more than once. But she persisted, fashioning, too, a hood of sorts with the knitted scarf Devin offered.

He pulled his cap lower, turned up the collar of his wool-lined jacket. “Let me see you home … wherever home is.”

That last was a question, even if his inflection suggested otherwise.

“If we’re counting New York City specialties, you’ve been here … less than a week,” he went on. “Ria mentioned a room. Where’re you staying?”

What could she tell him other than the truth. Goodbye was inevitable. She couldn’t latch on to him, couldn’t lean. She’d made this decision; she was on her own. We. We’re on our own, she corrected herself. In this city she’d been away from far longer than she’d been a resident, where anything was possible … and so much was yet unknown. But at least today, she didn’t have to hide.

“The Washington Square … for now. Used to be The Earl,” she elaborated when she saw unfamiliarity in the knitting of his brows.

“Sure. I know the place.”

Devin didn’t hurry their walk to the hotel. His asking Ria for her favorite place in New Zealand sparked a several-blocks-long conversation about the Waitomo Caves – which they’d both seen – and the glowworms and the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, and did you know you shouldn’t touch them or they might quit growing?

At the park, Ria wanted to go through and around the Arch … more than once.

Devin stood close, shoulder to shoulder if a head taller than she.

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” he asked, his gaze following her daughter, keeping watch. “Will you be at the hotel long? Looking for a place, for work? Do you need money?”

“I hope not,” she answered. “And … I’m not sure. Probably. Eventually. Not yet. In that order.”

Her attempt at humor sent his arm around her.

 

In the hotel lobby, she moved into his arms again. He’d be leaving for Ireland early Tuesday morning, he said, but she realized, once the door sighed to its close after him, he hadn’t said good-bye.

She mounted the staircase almost in a fog, half-dazed by coincidence, half-energized by the same. A sign, her mother’s voice declared. Ria had gone up ahead, up the four flights to their room, humming a tune she called Grandma’s Get To It song. One day, maybe soon, she’d take her to a used record store and have the shopkeeper play the original for her, You Can’t Hurry Love.

On the landing she made the turn toward their door and found Ria sitting on an only slightly battered, strapped and buckled trunk. She hadn’t expected its delivery so soon, but the storage locker manager had been impressed, she’d said, the rent on the unit having been paid by the year for two decades, never had to send a late notice, which was a first and only, and Don’t you worry, honey. I’ll help you right out. No hurry to get the furniture or all those boxes either, she’d gone on to say. You’re paid up through December.

She wore two keys around her neck on a long rawhide lacing, both talismans of sorts, parting gifts from her mother when the call came for boarding her flight to Kathmandu. In case of fire, she’d whispered and kissed her, passing her the note wrapped around them then, its message the storage company’s address, the locker number, the advice to Ask for Marge if she’s still there.

Then three months later … Flames, the taste of scorch, the wheeze and cough of suddenly unbreathable air. Anders … out of nowhere, sitting on a bench at the fountain in Albert Park, his hands drumming his thighs … as if he knew she would come. As if he couldn’t wait to–

How could Mom have known he’d be back?

Why didn’t I?

 

A large steamer, they had to drag the trunk over the threshold, Ria pushing, she pulling, hoping the rivets of the leather handle would hold.

The brass lock gave way as if it had been oiled with regularity.

And inside … clothes she remembered her mother wearing when they’d go below. Her teacher clothes: cotton henleys, knitted sweaters, a long, quilted vest, sheep’s wool-lined boots. And her own youthful coat: patchworked leather and denim and velveteen, embroidered and ribboned, jingly with charms and chains.

She’d loved that coat.

Loved it more on Ria. A perfect fit.

Next, the red and turquoise paisley headscarf her mother donned as soon as they slipped through the secret door, the multi-colored fingerless gloves … summer, winter, spring, or fall.

And underneath, the fancy kerchief as she called it, the one she saved for special occasions, for Winterfest. Finely woven silk threads, still soft, the unworn, locked-away years leaving it only a shade darker than the pale honey-gold it once was. Folded to fit a strange container, a once-shiny shell of something. A reflector? From the headlight of a car? Why would she keep such a thing?

When she could, she’d have to ask about it.

There was more stashed inside … saved … treasured. Why else would her mother store it for so long?

She’d leave the remaining layers to savor in the coming days, but for one more thing. A ribbon-tied bundle of candles, wrapped in the quilted placemat she remembered from her childhood. Eight of them. Reddish, orange, and white-tipped … Their glory faded, each of them partially burned away, lit so many years ago.

 

She woke to a quick, hard rap at the door. Morning had only broken, the sky just blooming with color, the street lamps still glowing. Who?

Her ear to the paneled wood, she heard nothing. No shadow passed between the hallway’s low lighting and the crack under her door. One by one she released, unbolted, unchained …

At her feet on the patterned carpet, a candle, bright with newly-dipped color. An envelope of heavy ecru linen, its flap deckle-edged, across its face in flowing cobalt ink, in handwriting she’d swear she recognized … her name … and Ria’s.

And inside a folded message …

Novik’s on Broadway, 8:00 tonight.

The community has agreed.
You must come. Come to Winterfest.

Come Home.

Father
Devin
Vincent

Holly (in a headscarf) watching as Sebastien performs a magic trick at Winterfest.

_______

Title: John O’Donohue. For an Exile, from To Bless the Space Between Us. 2008.

Author’s note: This new story contains elements of an older one posted on my fan site, Imagine That. You don’t need to have read it to understand this one really, but if you’d like to, it’s here:

The Broken Headlamp

10 Comments

  1. This is an amazing story, full of emotions, a little sad, but with hope at the end. Vincent was first abandoned by his favorite teacher, and then Devin ran away. I felt his loss and how good that he later found happiness and love. Mrs. Marguerite treasured his gift… I have an understanding of Vincent and Devin’s friend’s situation. Bad choices and their consequences. She wants to live peacefully and find a home. Ria is a sweet child who loves books and I agree that Father will love her. Unusual is the similarity between Devin and her and a life of constant travel. Carole is a beautiful story with deep content. Thank you for this.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Paula. I’m so glad you enjoyed this story! I was glad for this challenge and for the opportunity to bring someone new to Winterfest, even if my imagination said she was actually coming home again. Thank you for catching the similarities between Holly and Devin. I really want to continue her story now!

      Reply
  2. I really liked it, especially the hopeful, welcoming ending.

    Reply
    • Thank you for reading this one, Susan! I’m glad to hear from you and really glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  3. I wanted to underline every beautiful, lyrical word and phrase. They seem to come so naturally to you, Carole.
    For how many years and with how many extraordinary, unforgettable pieces have you graced fandom, dear Friend? We are grateful. Know that.
    Your writing gifts me with a new sense, a taste of the sublime, I think.
    ‘Thank you’ seems so inadequate when faced with your artistry, but … thank you for giving of yourself this way.
    Love you, dear Heart.

    Reply
    • Nancy, you are always so good for my spirits. Thank you for your very kind words. I am even more grateful for BatB because it brought us together in friendship. These years have been the best!

      Reply
  4. I love this story! Everything Devin (one of my most favorite characters in BatB and beyond) blends seamlessly with your amazingly real original characters. It all becomes part of the story, part of the BatB world. And, as always, the writing is beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us!

    Reply
    • Linda! I am glad, grateful, and always relieved when an original character seems a natural part of the BatB world. I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring out a new one – your ideas for challenges are great! Your generous words make me want to work harder at this. Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Love this and all the little details that bring the characters to life. The elements of longing for home after adventure (and heartache) are obviously common to both Holly and Devin. But there is that added connection to her mother and their old memories that make it extra special. I especially love Ria’s innocent enthusiasm. I can imagine how much she will adore Winterfest and the magic of the world Below – now to be a secret passed on to a third generation. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Tasha! For reading and for such kind words about this story. You found in it all I hoped you would and I’m really glad! You made my day!

      Reply

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