The Summer 2023 CABB Challenge
NEW VOICES FROM ABOVE AND BELOW
thanks for the angels
He’d leapt in front of Catherine as she was jogging by, startling her, frightening her a little. He appeared to be one of the homeless men who appropriated Central Park benches, and she was wary though the Park was crowded this June morning. Pet dogs, allowed to roam off-leash until 9:00 am, were definitely outnumbered by humans running, biking, skating, speed-walking, and that was not counting the nannies with strollers and young families with toddlers and the obvious police presence. Still, to watch as joyous disbelief became an overwhelming grief when the man realized his mistake… She lingered perhaps longer than she knew it to be wise.
“I’m sor … sorry,” he mumbled. “I thought for a minute … I’m sorry, Miss.”
She watched him fumble in his pocket, probably for a handkerchief though the possibility of his having a gun or knife occurred to her. With a prayer it was what he sought, Catherine offered a small packet of Kleenex.
“Thanks,” he said, accepting it, his face turned from her. Hiding tears? She wondered.
“You thought I was someone you know?” It was not wise to engage this stranger. He’d taken a tissue and was offering the rest back to her. She could walk away but something… sympathy… kept her standing there.
“Yeah. Someone I…knew. But she’s… Thanks,” he said again and made to walk away.
“Here,” she offered and he looked at her this time.
“No, it’s okay. You keep them. Never know when you might need them.” He hesitated then added, “But I hope you don’t. You’re kind. Like my Caty…was.”
Catherine considered scarcely a moment before suggesting, “There’s a kiosk just up a short way. Come and have coffee with me?”
“What? Why? Aren’t you even a little afraid, Miss? You should be. You don’t know me. I could be a…”
She smiled. “I don’t think you ‘could be a …’ ” she parroted him, “and maybe it would do us both good to get just a bit better acquainted.”
“Who are you? Why would you…?”
“I’m Catherine. Almost Caty, though no one calls me that. Was she Catherine, too?”
“You’re very different, Catherine, from the folks who…” he paused. “She was Caytlin.” And with that, tears began to slip down his cheeks. “Can I have another …?”
She handed back the Kleenex, and when he’d used one, she gestured away his effort to return what remained. “Shall we go for some coffee?”
That afternoon Catherine sat beside Vincent at the Mirror Pool and told the story of Kevin and Caty as she’d heard it.
“You might have been in danger,” Vincent said, raising her hand to his lips, “though I know you to be compassionate with everyone.”
“She died so young. They were only married a couple of years. It was all very sad.”
“And he’s fallen on hard times?”
“Fallen apart. I had no sense of alcohol or drugs but he’s living on the street, sleeping at a men’s shelter. How’s he supposed to survive with no address, no money, no decent clothes to even apply for a job? Nothing but grief. And a broken heart.”
“If I spoke to Father, or we did, he might be persuaded to welcome Kevin. Could you find this man again and invite him Below? We could ease his grief and perhaps show him a way through. I’m sure we have a Helper who’d be willing to hire him.”
She hesitated before suggesting, “I really don’t know him, Vincent. It’s only feelings I’m going on, and his story could be just a story. Made up. We’d be taking a risk. I don’t like chancing you, this world, to an unknown.”
“I understand. You’re right. Perhaps he takes more… knowing? And I don’t like chancing you with him either.”
“The Park is pretty safe on a weekend morning. Crowded. Lots of NYPD patrols.”
He could tell she wasn’t ready to give up on the possibility of saving Kevin.
“What if we were to arrange seemingly random encounters? Cullen, for one, goes Above on occasion for supplies. Linn and Henry live Above and frequent the Park. Sebastian does his magic tricks there. You could point out Kevin and they’d happen to strike up a conversation. There will likely be others who’ll want to be involved.”
She smiled at him. “That’s a wonderful idea. I’d feel better doing it this way. Thank you.”
While Catherine did manage to just come upon Kevin and take him for coffee at the outdoor kiosk most Saturdays, the others were also getting to know him, offering him little necessities and judging his trustworthiness before the decision could be made to bring him Below. The vetting process continued until it was voted by the Council that they should extend the coveted invitation.
Some weeks later everyone was gathered in Father’s chamber for a children’s afternoon program of song and instrumental music. Smiles shone on every face, proud parents all, if only surrogates in most cases, for the orphaned children who’d been rescued from the streets of Manhattan.
One member of the audience stole glances at the woman who’d made his presence possible in this underground haven. He admired her. He was grateful to her. He’d once, for that brief and glorious moment, thought she was his Caty, alive, come back to him. How his heart had…but he’d come to accept reality. Caty had died. She was not somewhere waiting to be found, but she was with him in a new way while enjoying eternal peace. It wasn’t easy, even believing that, and he envied Vincent. A lot. He had his Catherine…yet… if Caty could come back, Kevin wouldn’t live apart from her or settle for visits.
He could not understand Vincent’s… carelessness…with life. What was he thinking? That they had forever? That Catherine could not find…no…she loved him too much for that to happen. Granted, being as he was, Vincent faced real limitations, but Kevin knew of at least one friend of the community who lived Above in a home with Tunnel access. Probably there were others. Surely Vincent and Catherine were aware of that. Someone should speak to him. He was risking everything. It would only take something awful happening to either of them and there’d be no going back, as Kevin knew too well. He shook his head. It was wrong, he thought, to waste what they’d obviously been given…a love so deep and true, a blessing like the one he and Caty had known.
He’d been studying to be a dentist while Caty taught second grade. Their happy wedded life, the future they thought theirs was stolen by the fatal disease. Caty’s family, parents and a sister living in California, were too far away to be of much aid. He had only three cousins and an aunt out in the Midwest. They’d never been close. He tried not to remember Caty’s last year and a half. It hurt too much. At least now it was over for her, and that comforted him somewhat as he struggled to go on with his life.
Although he hadn’t completed his studies, Kevin was only a semester away from taking the State licensing exams when he’d had to leave school to care for Caty. Confident in his years of education and his experiences as a dental intern, he put the instruments and supplies Dr. Alcott provided to good use serving the needs of the Tunnel family as a way of repaying their kindness. He was always ‘on call’, which suited him just fine, though oral hygiene in the underground world was rather exceptional, he found. They’d set up a small space for him near the hospital chamber, and one morning a fine patient’s chair, the kind he’d admired in many dentists’ examining rooms, had appeared as if by magic.
It was the same morning Mouse seemed to be in a great deal of trouble with Father.
Winterfest was near. It would be his first and while sadness still lay heavy over everything for Kevin, he was not immune to the excitement of the children, the happiness of the adults. Down here everyone seemed caught up in the preparation of simple gifts imagined in the heart and made real with love and joy. Gratitude for one another was the inspiration for the holiday. It was the custom for families to exchange presents among themselves, he’d been told, though the children were encouraged and did always open their kind hearts with small tokens of love for those adults without family. And no child ever went without the surprise of a book or toy. Gifts were spread around generously by all. It helped that he and Caty had never celebrated Winterfest…he had no sad memories of her associated with the festivities.
Kevin wondered, hoped that maybe, just maybe, Vincent might be planning a proposal of marriage for Catherine. Now that would be the best of Winterfest gifts! He’d been cautiously asking some of his new friends about the couple, sharing his thoughts now and then, wishing someone would finally say they thought similarly and would offer to speak to Vincent. No one did.
Kevin, still new Below, wasn’t an especially close friend of Vincent’s, of anyone’s really, but maybe that would work in his favor. There was no good-friend-boundary to overstep. He worried that Vincent was juggling the real possibility of unbearable tragedy with all his faith in the balancing act. One horrific moment…a terrifying diagnosis or accident or criminal act…
Winterfest was now days away. Having discovered some facility with wood carving, Kevin, under the tutelage of the Tunnel craftsmen, had managed a small rendering of a bride and groom. It was his plan to leave it for Vincent and Catherine, a not-so-innocent but anonymous gift in thanks for all they’d done for him. And maybe give them…Vincent…a nudge toward embracing the happiness that would not wait forever for him.
The Great Hall now lay dark. Most of the Tunnel family had all but retired for the night. The children, too much sugar and too much excitement evident in their unbounded activity all day, were allowed to take a gift to bed. It was a longstanding Winterfest tradition that made bedtime less troublesome for parents. Kevin smiled to witness it all. He hadn’t been this happy since… It felt good to rejoice in the joy of others. He couldn’t help but wonder at the children he and Caty might have had, the Christmases and birthdays…but that was sadness and this day belonged to the celebration of glad togetherness.
He would have given much to be a fly on the wall when his wood carving was discovered. He’d left it in plain sight on Vincent’s desk, hoping it would be a sort of introduction to the talk he planned to initiate…soon. Someone had to do it, he told himself. And what could happen but that Vincent would, in his own polite manner, thank him and change the subject. Nothing worse than that…and maybe something really good would come of it. They both deserved everything the other had to give. He wanted it for Catherine. She’d been so fearless in her kindness to him at that first meeting and ever welcoming and concerned for him since. And Vincent was such a good guy, so good to her, so in love with her… Kevin wondered sometimes if his love for Caty measured up to Vincent’s for Catherine.
He’d been invited to join some of the adults who wanted to extend the cheer of the day. They were to meet in Father’s study, promised wine and whatever was left of the delicious desserts that had found their way Below.
Kevin knew, or thought he knew, most of the Winterfest feast was provided by Catherine who seemed their primary benefactor. She was a prosecutor in the DA’s office, not much in the way of salary, but he’d heard she had money that she was only too willing to share as often as Father would permit. The old fellow ruled the roost, that was for sure, but Kevin respected and liked the man. And he was deeply grateful for this world Father had created.
Stopping by his chamber for a jacket…not yet accustomed to the chill of Below… he was surprised to find Catherine and Vincent waiting for him.
“Kevin, we were wondering if we could talk for a minute.”
“Sure. Come in. I was going to join everyone for the ‘after party’, I think someone called it.”
“Yes, we will, too,” Vincent said, allowing Catherine to precede him into the chamber without relinquishing her hand.
“Want to sit?” Kevin offered, gesturing toward two chairs at the table near his bed.
“No, we won’t keep you.”
Catherine looked to Vincent who nodded and said, “You tell him.”
She did not hesitate, announcing with a wide smile, “Vincent and I are to be joined on Christmas Eve.”
Kevin almost couldn’t believe it, but he laughed a ‘Yes!’ and hugged each of them.“I am so happy for you both. I can’t tell you how…”
“… relieved you are?” Vincent suggested.
Kevin looked a bit surprised. “Well …yes. I guess… After losing my Caty, I couldn’t believe you were…”
“… procrastinating?” Vincent finished for him again.
“I hope you understand…it’s just that I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to you, my friend, or to you, Catherine, before you’d… Days pass and can never be re-lived differently. When we run out of days… You must treasure each one while they are yours together. I hope you didn’t think me…how did you know?”
Vincent chuckled. “I felt… more than knew…because of your loss and your care for us that you’d become somewhat…impatient…with me.”
“I hope you can forgive that.”
“Nothing to forgive. You’ve been right. I thought I first had to move beyond some…”
“Yes, well, we wanted you to know…” Catherine rescued Vincent saying, “your gift will sit atop our wedding cake.”
He laughed. “My gift? No secrets down here. But I’m honored. Truly. You’ve befriended me wholeheartedly. Caty would have loved you both.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet her.”
“There’s always Heaven for that,” Kevin said, “but not for you,” he added with real concern, “not for a very, very long time.”
Catherine hugged him.
“We’re going to tell the others now.”
“I’ll be along in a bit. I like to write a letter…to Cat …in the evenings, about my day. It’s been a very happy one, especially thanks to what you’ve just told me. Go on and bring everyone even more joy this Winterfest.”
Kevin heard the news still being received with delighted exclamations and cheering as he approached Father’s chamber. He smiled.
“It’s a good place, Caty, with such good people. Thanks for helping me find my way here.”
thanks for all the Angels, Hank