The Summer 2023 CABB Challenge
NEW VOICES FROM ABOVE AND BELOW
a gift very grateful
by J. L. Rowan
Author’s Note: This story is a sequel to “A Gathering of Family” which can be found in the Anniversaries Challenge Collection on CABB – New Chambers. However, “A Gift Very Grateful” can be read and enjoyed on its own.
~ ~ ~
I put the final stitches into the hem of a tunic I had been working on since morning. Though certain sections of the tunnels had electricity and I was welcome to use the common sewing machine, I found that unless there was an urgent need, I preferred hand sewing the garments I worked on. I found it a more mindful exercise, especially as time moved at a slower pace down here.
With a smile, I set aside the finished tunic and petted my cat, Lily Jane, who lay curled up beside me on the foot of my bed. Catherine Chandler had rescued Lily from a local animal shelter shortly after she had brought me to the tunnels eighteen months ago, when my life had been put in danger by government officials and it was clear that I could not return home.
I leaned over and placed a soft kiss on Lily’s head. A black Maine Coon mix, Lily Jane had been only a kitten when I found her wandering the streets, miaowing pitifully. I had promptly rescued her, and we had been inseparable since. I had never been so happy to see anyone as I had the day Catherine had appeared with Lily. Lily didn’t seem to mind the tunnels and was pulling her own weight in pest control.
I rose from my chair, put away my sewing supplies, and gathered the tunic before leaving my chamber. It was mid-afternoon and I needed to drop off the tunic with Mary before finding Father to discuss the possibility of establishing a formal library chamber. While Father’s study chamber served as the tunnels’ de facto library, it was bursting at the seams, with far more books than shelves to hold them. I had been a librarian in my former life, and the disorganized scattering of books throughout the tunnel chambers nearly drove me mad. It was beautiful and romantic in a way to see books dotting the various surfaces, nooks, and crannies like raindrops, but what good did it do if the book you wanted couldn’t be found?
I finally felt as though I had been here long enough that I could make suggestions; although, truth be told, I doubted I would meet with success. No one else seemed to mind the chaos, so they probably didn’t see the disorganization as a problem. I was prepared for my request to be denied, but hoped Father would allow me at least to catalog the books, if not corral the errant ones into one location. While his memory was excellent, it wasn’t infallible, and even he couldn’t remember every book in the tunnels. And on a more personal note, I missed my job and the work I had done. That work had focused on manuscripts and some rare books, but the possibility of any librarianship work, even if only a little, brought me a great deal of joy. I had to try.
Once I finished meeting with Father, I would be helping William with the evening meal. It was quite the undertaking to feed so many mouths day after day, so tunnel residents took turns helping out in week-long assignments. This week, I had been assigned to help with the evening meal preparation, and next week, I was assigned to help clean up after breakfast. Working with William had helped me realize the magnitude and importance of the work he did. Food service was a pretty thankless industry Above, but not down here, and having everyone help out ensured it stayed that way. My two weeks would pass quickly and in a few months, I would rotate back onto the schedule for another two weeks.
Mary wasn’t in her chamber, so I draped the tunic over a chair and made my way to Father’s study chamber. I was surprised to find not only Father, but Vincent and Catherine there as well.
“Cathy!” I dashed down the stairs to exchange a hug with my friend. “Your timing is perfect! I need a lawyer on my side.” I shot an amused glance at Father. “I’m going to try to argue the merits of having a formal library chamber instead of a scattered trail of books, and I think I will need all the help I can get.”
Catherine laughed. “My pleasure!” She glanced at Father. “You won’t find a better librarian.”
Father, who was standing beside his desk, book in hand, looked sternly at me over the top rim of his glasses. “A courtroom of lawyers will not persuade me.” He glanced down at his book and then looked back up. “But I’ll think about it.”
I traded a bemused glance with Catherine and Vincent and turned my gaze on Father. “Then, what about letting me catalog the books in the meantime? A written record of the tunnel holdings could prove quite useful.”
He sighed. “We started one, actually, in the early years. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.”
“It would be helpful, Father,” Vincent put in, “especially in schooling the children, to know the extent of our resources.”
And to keep them in one place, I thought. But that was clearly an argument for another day.
Father gave me a measuring look and then unexpectedly smiled. “Very well. Catalog to your heart’s content. Perhaps you’ll come across an old medical text I seem to have mislaid twenty years ago.”
“Thank you.” It was a small victory, but it was a start. I smiled at them. “Well, it’s my turn this week to help William with evening meal preparations, so if you’ll excuse me –”
“Kaileigh, wait,” said Vincent. “Jamie is going to fill in for you today.”
“Why?” I stared at each of them, noting that they regarded me with sobering expressions. My heart plummeted. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I had a visitor this morning at my office,” Catherine said.
I paled and gripped the back of the chair beside me. “The agents.” Had they somehow discovered me?
“No.” Catherine’s eyes held sorrow and pity as she looked at me.
Father, on the other hand, looked distinctly displeased, while Vincent seemed concerned. A chill seized me. They all knew something I didn’t, something important. “Who was it?”
Father favored Catherine with a forbidding look that would have silenced any tunnel dweller, including me, but Catherine seemed unfazed. “It was your sister.”
“My – what?” I couldn’t believe what I heard. “Alanna?” I stared at Catherine. “Alanna is here? In the city?”
My family lived hundreds of miles away in rural Vermont, near the Canadian border. They’d lived there for generations, and I was one of the first to venture farther south than Montpelier. And of all of them, Alanna hated cities the most. Not once had she come to visit me here, though we were twins (albeit, fraternal) and had been inseparable for most of our lives. When I “died,” I hadn’t just lost my sister, I’d lost my best friend.
Drawing a deep breath, I paced to the far side of the chamber, my thoughts whirling. I’d spent a long time considering my future after I saw my death certificate, ultimately choosing to remain Below rather than assume a new identity through plastic surgery and forged documentation. I didn’t want to leave New York. And no matter how much I changed my appearance, I still wouldn’t be able to contact my family, not for a long time. And when I did, it would be hard enough for them to believe that I was alive without adding the weight of a new face to their burden.
In a way, the fact that my family lived a thousand miles away made it easier on me. But now that Alanna was in the city…
I spun on my heel to face them. “I have to see her.” Even as I said the words, I knew it was impossible.
That was the hardest thing about this new life. My family couldn’t know that I was alive. I’d spent many a sleepless night pacing my chamber, fighting the urge to go Above and place a phone call – just one phone call – to my family to let them know that I wasn’t dead, that I hadn’t met any of the horrible ends I knew they’d imagined I’d met. Usually, the knowledge that government agents were almost certainly tapping my family’s phones checked my impulses, but once, after the death certificate came, Vincent had to stop me. I hadn’t thought anyone would be awake, not in the middle of the night, but he was, and either by grace or accident, he had encountered me in the tunnels. He’d barred my way to the exit and in his gentle voice talked me down, talked me back to reason. I’d sobbed on his shoulder and let him lead me back to my chamber.
Father’s voice the next morning hadn’t been nearly so gentle, but beneath his anger I’d heard the tones of paternal concern, as I knew I would hear now.
I was not disappointed.
“Absolutely not! I forbid it!” He slammed shut his book and paced the chamber in short turns. “It’s only been six months since you were declared dead. It’s not safe!”
“I know that!” But that didn’t stop the longing of my heart or the tears from filling my eyes. I blinked them back and glanced at Catherine. “Why did you tell me this?” What good did it do for me to know? What did it do except bring my heartache back to the surface?
“Kaileigh –” Vincent stepped toward me, but I shook my head and hurried for the exit.
“I have work to do in the kitchens,” I whispered, afraid my voice would break if I spoke, afraid I could not stem the tears if I stayed.
* * *
I had assured Jamie that I was perfectly well and was halfway through peeling a mountain of carrots when Catherine joined me, took a knife, and started slicing the peeled carrots into rounds for the evening’s soup.
“We need to talk, Kaileigh.”
I couldn’t look at her, and peeled another two carrots before speaking. “Why is she here?”
“She said she came to clear out your storage unit, but I don’t think that’s the whole truth.” She scooped the cut carrots into a large pot.” She was hesitant. She spoke in a low voice, almost a whisper. She hinted, in a very roundabout way, her fears that she was being watched. And she had some rather pointed opinions regarding the circumstances surrounding your death.”
Oh, no. Please, no. I dropped the vegetable peeler and finally met her gaze. “Is she in danger?”
“I don’t know.” Catherine laid aside the knife. “We’re going to try to have lunch tomorrow at my place. I’ll make sure she’s not followed. I think –” She paused.
“I think she may suspect that you’re not really dead.”
That didn’t surprise me. The government, after claiming I committed suicide and providing a body pulled from the river as proof, had ‘accidentally’ cremated said body before my family could claim it. My family must have so many unanswered questions.
Catherine took my hand. “If she asks me, what do you want me to tell her?”
“I want –” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted Alanna to know I was alive. I wanted her to stop grieving. I wanted her to be happy.
But more than that, I wanted her to be safe. I wanted my new family here to be safe.
Tears filled my eyes. “Cathy, you can’t tell her anything that would endanger either her or the people here.” I snatched a corner of my apron and dried my eyes. “I will be fine.” I had no choice, after all, no matter how much it hurt.
“Can she be trusted with the truth?”
I released a slow breath. “I – I think so. She was always far more level-headed and reasonable than me, never impulsive or emotional.” I rolled my eyes. “It drove me crazy when we were little. When we turned eighteen, she told me she had found our eldest brother’s hidden journal when we were ten.” I smiled faintly at the memory. “She always was a curious snoop. But she never said a word, not to anyone.” I focused on Catherine and my smile faded. “She can be trusted, but I don’t think you should tell her. You mustn’t take even the slightest risk.”
“I would never do anything to endanger her or the people Below. I’m sure you know that.”
“Of course I know, but if she’s being followed and watched, she could be forced to reveal whatever she knows. So she can’t know anything.”
A shadow passed over Catherine’s face and she nodded. She pulled me into a hug. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Later that evening, dressed in my warmest bedgown and sitting up in bed, I held Lily Jane and tried to forget that Alanna was Above. As if sensing something was wrong, Lily purred even louder and batted at the neckline drawstring of my bedgown. I smiled, distracted, and dangled the trailing end of the drawstring just out of her reach.
The soft ting of a bell at the entrance of my chamber interrupted our game, and I glanced up to see Vincent standing there.
“May I enter?”
Lily Jane miaowed at him and I smiled. “Of course.” I put Lily down as Vincent came to sit at the foot of my bed. Lily miaowed at him again, still purring, and padded down to greet him and rub against his arm.
He petted Lily with care. “I wanted to see how you were doing. We didn’t have much of a chance to talk at supper.”
“I’m – it’s hard.”
“I know it is.” He regarded me with kind eyes. “Catherine had to tell you about your sister, Kaileigh. You’re her friend, and she wants to honor that friendship.”
“I know,” I whispered.
“How would you feel if you found out she knew and didn’t tell you?”
I sat for a long moment, fidgeting with the knot at the end of the drawstring. Finally, I glanced up at him. “I’m not angry with her. I’m just . . . angry. And I’m tired of being angry.” I blinked back tears. “It’s not fair, Vincent.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Cathy has to convince Alanna that I’m dead. She has to – for Alanna’s safety, for my safety. For everyone’s safety.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Is it ever going to end?”
“Eventually, the government will give up, I’m sure.”
“And how much of my life will I have lost before that happens?”
He regarded me for a moment. “Are you so very unhappy here with us?” There was kindness in his tone, but also a hint of reproach.
It went straight to my heart. “No. No, Vincent, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” I sighed and brushed away tears. When I first came to the tunnels, the transition was difficult, but I fought it with gratitude – intentional gratitude, daily moments of thankfulness I recorded in a journal. Focusing on the good had kept the sadness and grief at bay. As I became more acclimated to my new home, my focus on gratitude had faded. Recently, I hadn’t written in my journal in weeks, and it clearly showed. “Please forgive me. I am not unhappy here, I promise. I just – I feel torn.” Peace had eluded me in this place of sanctuary.
“It’s only natural that you would feel that way.”
“Perhaps,” I murmured. I didn’t like the feeling, though. “Vincent, I need you to promise me something.”
“Don’t let me go Above.” I earnestly held his gaze. “Don’t let me leave the tunnels. I don’t think I’m going to try, not right now, but –” What if Cathy’s conversation with Alanna took a wrong turn? What if my emotions got the better of me? It wasn’t only my life that would be in danger if I left. Leaving might put all the people Below in danger, to say nothing of my sister. It was bad enough the government thought I had overheard the agents’ conversation. What would they do if they suspected I told my family about it? What would they do if they found out about the tunnels?
If he thought my request strange or alarming, he didn’t show it. His gaze was somber, but not unkind. “I won’t. I promise.”
I wiped away my tears with my sleeve. “Thank you.”
He stood. “Sleep well, Kaileigh. And trust Catherine. She’ll do what is right.”
I nodded. “I know. Goodnight.”
He left, and I rose to extinguish the candles in the wall sconces, leaving one burning on the small stand beside my bed. I blew it out last and crawled beneath the quilts and covers. The ambient light from the torches burning outside in the tunnels illuminated the arched stone entrance to my chamber, so it wasn’t completely dark. Lily came to curl up beside me on the pillow, purring.
I closed my eyes, and thought of all the reasons I had to be grateful. Tomorrow, I would start journaling again. Perhaps it would help.
* * *
When I didn’t hear from Catherine the next day, I didn’t give it much thought. When a second day passed without word, I started to wonder. On the third day, I sought out Vincent, fighting down a sense of alarm. Catherine had told me about their bond, and I knew that he would know if something were wrong. I found him in Mouse’s chamber and waited in the tunnel until they had finished talking – something about one of Mouse’s newest ‘finds’ from Above. I wasn’t really paying attention, but from Vincent’s tone, it didn’t sound too serious.
He stepped into the tunnel. “Kaileigh. Is something wrong?”
I tried to swallow the fear that had formed a lump in my throat. “It’s been three days. I’m trying not to worry, Vincent, but –”
He gestured to the tunnel ahead and I fell into step beside him as he walked. “I don’t think anything is amiss. Catherine doesn’t seem overly worried or afraid. I sense only that she is intensely preoccupied.”
“Thank God,” I whispered, relief washing over me, washing away all the awful things my imagination had thrown before my eyes as I lay in the dark or paused at a task long enough to lose my concentration.
“Be patient.” He paused at a fork in the tunnels. “Catherine will come as soon as she is able.”
“I know.” I hugged him impulsively. “Thank you, Vincent.” I hurried down the right tunnel toward the kitchens, making a mental note to add another entry in my journal.
The following morning, Vincent found me as I was busy cataloging books in Pascal’s chamber. I glanced up at the sound of his entrance. “Vincent, is there any way you can talk to Father about establishing a library chamber soon? Honestly, it’s ridiculous the running around I’m doing trying to find all the books scattered throughout the tunnels.” I smiled at him. “I’ve already gotten lost twice this morning.”
He smiled in return. “I’ll talk to him, but look at this as an opportunity. You’ll know the tunnels as well as I do by the time you’re finished.”
“You’re probably right,” I said with a laugh, closing my notebook. “Do you need me for something?”
“Catherine is on her way here.”
I sobered at once. “I just need to put away my things.”
I returned my work notebook to my chamber, fighting down anxieties. I hated that my mind instantly ran to the worst-case scenarios, most of which played out far worse in my head than what they’d probably be in reality. From across my chamber, Lily Jane watched me from the comfort of her nest of blankets, blinking slowly at me as if to tell me all would be well. I splashed some water on my face. All would be well, and if it weren’t, there wasn’t much I could do about it. I took a deep breath and started for Father’s study.
Vincent, Catherine, and Father were waiting for me when I arrived. Before I could say a word, Catherine gathered me into a hug.
“Alanna is fine. You have nothing to worry about.”
A weight lifted from me and I returned the hug. “The agents aren’t following her?”
“If they are,” Catherine said, “they didn’t see anything suspicious. In fact, Alanna told me she’s spent each morning down by the river. That can only serve to protect her. If she thought you were alive, why would she spend hours down there?”
“Oh. Of course. Then she thinks I’m really dead? You convinced her?” I tried to keep the disappointment from my voice, and didn’t realize until that moment what it meant to me for Alanna to still have hope that I wasn’t gone.
“It took a couple days before I could arrange a meeting in my apartment that was absolutely safe, but we talked. I told her I didn’t believe you had killed yourself – no one who knows you would believe that – but that instead, it was the work of the government. I said I assumed you had stumbled into something dangerous, and that her feeling that she and your family were being watched was probably accurate, and the agents were trying to determine if you had told your family anything.”
“What did she say?”
“That you hadn’t said a word. That my story made sense. I told her to keep this in confidence in order to protect her family. She said she would.”
“Do you think it worked?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. Your sister plays her cards close to the vest. I’m not sure what she really believes, but” – with a smile, she pulled an envelope from her coat pocket – “I have something for you.”
I accepted the plain, white envelope and turned it over in my hand. There were no markings on it. “What is it?”
“A letter,” Catherine said. “From Alanna.”
“What?” I nearly dropped it in surprise. “But I thought –”
“She gave it to me this morning before leaving town. I think she suspects a lot more than she let on. Or perhaps she just hopes.” She shook her head. “If she does believe that you’re alive, I’m certain that no one will ever know, and when she gets home, I expect she’ll say whatever it takes to convince any agent watching your family that she truly thinks you died by suicide.”
I stared at the letter I held and then at Catherine. “Thank you, Cathy. I’m sorry I got upset with you.”
She hugged me. “It’s all right. I understand.”
Father smiled. “Why don’t you take a break from your work and go read that?”
I returned his smile, thanked them all, and hurried to my chamber.
I propped the pillows against the headboard and settled down, careful not to disturb Lily Jane, who was sleeping in the middle of the bed. I opened the envelope and pulled out several folded pages and found the beginning.
I couldn’t help but smile at her greeting. As a toddler, Alanna’s attempt to say my name came out as “Kitty,” and the nickname stuck.
I miss you. It’s been eighteen months, and part of me died when you did. It took me a long time to accept that you’re gone, but even as I write this, I don’t know that I have, not really. I plan to give this letter to your friend, Cathy, to give to you, and if I really thought you were dead, I wouldn’t do that.
They said you committed suicide, that you drowned yourself. I don’t believe that. I will never believe it. I know you, Kitty. You wouldn’t kill yourself, and you certainly wouldn’t drown yourself. I haven’t forgotten, you know.
Neither had I. As children, Alanna and I had lost a close friend to an accidental drowning. After that, I had confessed to Alanna my secret fear of oceans, lakes, pools – any body of water larger than a bathtub or a trickling brook. She never told a soul. I eventually sought therapy to help fight down my fear to a manageable level, but even now, I’d never board a cruise ship or go swimming in the ocean. And were I ever given to suicide, drowning would be the very last method I’d choose.
I wanted to come sooner, but Mom and Dad wanted me to stay close to home, first during the investigation and then especially after the death certificate and ashes arrived (the government brought them to us). But we recently got notice that the contract on the storage unit with your things was going to expire (your assets were untouchable during the investigation), so I used that as an excuse and came. Weird things have been happening since you went missing, Kitty. I know we’re being watched. I remember you mentioning Cathy, that she worked in the D.A.’s office, so I thought I’d talk to her while I was here.
She doesn’t think you killed yourself, either. She’s convinced the government killed you after you stumbled into something dangerous, probably by accident. I can accept that. That makes sense. But what doesn’t make sense is why they fabricated a suicide story. You live in New York, murder capital of the U. S. It would have taken far less trouble on their part to dump your body in a back alley and make it look like a random murder. Something’s not adding up. And I think the cremation wasn’t an accident. I think they’re trying to hide something.
I also talked to the manager of your apartment building to find out what happened to Lily Jane. He said she was taken to the Almost Home no-kill shelter, and when I went there, they told me that a woman came the next day and specifically asked for Lily and adopted her at once with a very generous donation. They wouldn’t give me the woman’s name, but I’d bet you a bowl of Mom’s caramel corn it was Cathy. Except Lily wasn’t at Cathy’s place. So where is she?
I think Cathy’s trying to protect you. I think she’s trying to protect me. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m okay with that. I’ll play along for now and come back to New York in a year and re-gauge Cathy’s take on things. I like her, by the way.
Or maybe the government truly did kill you like she said, and you are gone. Maybe I just can’t believe it. Maybe I’m inventing conspiracy theories so I don’t have to face the truth. I think I’ll find out soon. If they’re still watching us after I go home, then something is definitely wrong. But I’ll wait a year and come back, and maybe Cathy will have good news for me then. Whatever the truth is, I know that someday I will see you again.
All my love,
P.S. If you really are alive, maybe you should burn this.
Another five pages were included, telling me everything that had happened in the family in the past eighteen months. I devoured every word. There was no way I’d burn my sister’s letter. And then I laughed out loud. There, at the very end, she’d written, I’m guessing you’re not going to burn this, are you? She knew me too well.
I laid the letter aside and pulled Lily Jane into my arms from where she’d been curled up. She chirped in surprise, shook her head, and then settled in my arms, purring.
Somewhere deep down, Alanna knew I was still alive. That brought me a comfort and a hope I hadn’t felt in a long time. And it somehow gave me peace and took away any lingering hesitations and anxieties I had about living Below. Gone, too, were the urges to go Above and call my family. Alanna knew I was alive, even if she doubted it. She wouldn’t give up hope. I felt like my connection to her had been restored. I would see her again, perhaps next year. I could wait that long. And I didn’t have to live on a knife’s edge anymore. Something in me relaxed at last. I could now turn my full focus and energy to building my life here Below.
I kissed Lily and put her down and reached for my gratitude journal on the stand beside my bed.