WFOL 2024

GUESS THE AUTHOR

Match Game

SECRETS

by Linda S Barth

Vincent scrambled under the long trestle table and scooted backwards until he felt the wall’s solid support. Squashing his legs to his chest, he huddled in the shadows, waiting for his pounding heart to calm. That was close — too close!

He was almost certain no one had seen him skitter through the jovial crowd and dive into his hiding place. But there was no way to be sure. He longed to creep forward and lift the hem of the linen tablecloth just high enough to peek beyond its insubstantial shield, but he didn’t dare. Chewing his bottom lip to stop its trembling, he strained his ears toward the voices just outside his flimsy fortress.

Seconds dragged by, then he let out a long shaky sigh. Only grown-ups – Mary and Dr. Peter – chatting about something or other. There was nothing to indicate his big brother was furiously searching for him. Or worse — that he had found him. But even the relief of knowing he was safe – at least for now – didn’t help much. It was only a matter of time before Devin figured out where he’d gone.

He felt his eyes burn with tears, but he wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t! Five-year-olds didn’t cry over things like this.

He hadn’t meant to do it – really, he hadn’t. He thought Devin would be happy to know Darlene had just entered the Great Hall with her dad. After all, he’d been watching and waiting for her since the party began.

He sniffled. He’d only been trying to help. But maybe he shouldn’t have yelled, “Look, Dev! There she is! It’s Darlene!” while yanking on his brother’s sleeve and pointing toward the pretty young girl. Well, at least he shouldn’t have done it in front of all the other kids. The kids who immediately started teasing Devin about his “girlfriend”, making kissing sounds between shrieks of laughter.

He winced, picturing his brother’s face when Winslow started braying, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G! Devin and Darlene up in a tree!” He’d never seen Devin so mad, not ever.  Not even the time he’d accidentally torn his big brother’s favorite Batman comic book, the almost new one he’d been so lucky to find under a bench in the park. Devin had done a lot of yelling, then all had been well again. But this time it was different. This time, he’d broken a promise.

He wished he’d never even heard of Darlene, the girl who was supposed to be a big secret. The one Devin whispered about while they were making Winterfest plans when they were supposed to be asleep. “You know, this is a secret, right, Vincent? So, promise you won’t tell anybody! Okay?” He had vowed to honor the promise, to keep the secret. But he hadn’t.

Another sniffle. He knew how important secrets were, but in all the excitement, he’d forgotten. And now Devin was so mad at him, and the other kids probably thought he was a stupid baby with a big mouth. He’d looked forward to Winterfest for months, and now he was stuck hiding under a table. And his brother hated him. And no one would want to be his friend anymore. Winterfest was ruined! Everything was ruined!

He could no longer keep his tears from falling. He’d have to stay here all night and miss all the fun. No games, no chocolate cake, no magic show. No looking at the tapestries and making up stories about them. No riding on Father’s shoulders to hold up a Winterfest candle.

Father! He could ask him for help! He began inching his way forward, then thought better of it. Promises were a pretty big deal to him, too. Maybe think of a better plan, wait a while longer.

But not too long. What if he fell asleep and no one noticed him? He’d get left behind in the dark. He’d starve and they’d find his dead body under the table next year! He surprised himself with a muffled snicker. Okay, that was silly. He’d come out eventually…but not just yet.

Wiping a dribbly nose on the sleeve of his best shirt — oh great, now Mary would be mad at him, too! – he wriggled into a more comfortable position. Maybe he’d tell himself a story to pass the time, or maybe he’d take a nap, or – the voices just outside the cloth barrier caught his attention – maybe he’d just listen to what they were saying.

He hesitated. He’d been warned about this more than once. What had Father called it? Something about dropping leaves? The word hadn’t made sense, but he’d understood its meaning. Okay, he wouldn’t listen to other people’s conversations, no matter how bored he was becoming. If he did, he’d just be adding leaves dropping to his list of bad decisions.

He started to put his hands over his ears, and then he heard it. His name – they were talking about him! But why? Did they know where he was hiding? Were they helping Devin?

He had to find out. Grateful his new best pants had suede-patched knees, he crept forward soundlessly until he could clearly hear every word.

“The last time I saw him, he and Rebecca were chasing each other around the games table. But I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”

“I suppose you’re right, Peter. And it’s good for the children to let loose once in a while and just enjoy themselves.”

Peter chuckled. “Jacob tends to keep them on a tight rein, doesn’t he?”   

“Now, I’m sure he’s just doing what he thinks is best. But this is a special night, and they should enjoy every minute of it.”

So, that’s why he’d heard them say his name. Mary must be wondering where he was. That made him feel warm inside, to know someone was thinking of him, maybe missing him.  

“Are you enjoying your first Winterfest?”

“I am, Peter. It’s really quite incredible. The way everyone has contributed, and how happy they are to be here, sharing everything. That spirit of belonging is so strong Below, not just today but every day.” She sighed. “It’s – well, it’s just amazing.”

“I know what you mean. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.”

“Well, other groups have tried, but you’re right. I don’t know if any have succeeded like this one has. It’s really something special.”

Vincent frowned. Mary’s voice sounded sad, and he wondered why. But at least neither she nor Dr. Peter had said anything about Devin searching for him. Maybe he was still safe. But he had to be sure. He inched even closer.

“And you’re happy living here? Coming Below was the right choice?”

“It was the only choice, wasn’t it?” Another sigh. “I can’t believe it’s been almost a year. But I am happy here. It feels more like home every day.”

“And you’ve found your place in the community. Your medical skills are invaluable, and the care you give the children means so much. They really love you.”

“And I love them.”

“Especially one, right?” Peter chuckled. “Now, don’t say you don’t play favorites. I know you better than that!”

Mary’s laugh was warm and light just like it always was. She was thinking about her favorite child, he just knew it. His heart raced. Could it possibly be…or was that too much to hope for?  

“You certainly do know me well – and yes, you’re right. I have come to love all the children, but Vincent has a special place in my heart. He always will.”

A wave of happiness washed over him. He was her favorite! Not Rebecca or Olivia or Pascal or even Devin! Him!

The voices fell silent. Vincent held his breath, wondering if Mary would say anything more. But it was Peter’s voice he heard, uttering words that confused him.

“Nothing can entirely take away the pain of what you’ve lost. But you’re making a difference in Vincent’s life…and he’s making one in yours.” 

“Vincent and I have both suffered terrible losses. There’s no denying what happened to either of us.”

Now it sounded like Mary was trying not to cry. He wanted to scoot out from under the table and hug her, like all the times she’d comforted him. But he couldn’t.

“That’s true, Mary. The loss of a mother, the loss of a child…those are terrible burdens to bear.”

But what did it all mean? Losing a mother – he got that – they meant him. Everyone knew about that. But who was the lost child? He quickly pictured his friends and where he’d last seen them. No, they were all right here at Winterfest. Mary hadn’t lost any of them.

Then, who was it? It didn’t make any sense. Mary never did anything wrong. She would never lose anything, especially not a child! What were they talking about?

“There’s a special bond between a mother and child. I’ve seen it hundreds – maybe thousands – of times in my practice. It’s something precious and longed for.”

“And when that bond is broken…the pain is unbearable. But our finding each other — Vincent and me – maybe that was meant to be.”

“A way to help both of you heal.”

“Yes, maybe we can be what the other needs. Vincent needs a mother. I need a child. It’s what I’ve wished for…”

Vincent gasped, then clapped a hand over his mouth. Did that mean what he thought it did? Was Mary wishing she was his mother? He lowered his hand as his grin grew. Wow! That would be great! Perfect! Then, he’d finally have a mother and a father! It didn’t matter if they weren’t his real parents. A lot of kids Below didn’t know who their real parents were. And he’d have the best ones ever!

He frowned, thinking of Pascal’s mom and dad and how lovey-dovey they were. Father and Mary weren’t like that. What if Mary decided not to be his mom after all if it meant she’d have to get all mushy with Father? 

Hmmmm…that was something he’d have to figure out later. Right now, all he could think of was that Mary loved him more than all the other kids. She loved him so much she wished he was her own little boy.

He tilted his head, considering the details. It would probably have to be a secret. He didn’t want the other kids to get their feelings hurt. But that was okay. He’d know, and this was a secret he was sure he could keep.

It didn’t matter either that maybe Mary had lost some other child sometime. She wasn’t going to lose him! He wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

And he didn’t even care anymore that he was missing Winterfest. He’d just gotten something much better than games and candy and all the rest of the fun. Maybe he’d just take a little nap for a few minutes and dream about this amazing news. He stretched out on his back and gazed up at the underside of the table until his eyes drifted shut.

Then snapped open again.

“Mary! Dr. Peter! Have you seen Vincent anywhere?!”

“Not lately, Devin. Why? Is something wrong?”

Don’t tell, Dr. Peter, don’t tell! Vincent sat up, gulping down his fear before remembering no one knew where he was. Yet…

“It sure is! And when I find him, it’s going to get a whole lot wronger!”

Dr. Peter used his “Calm down, everyone” voice. “Why don’t I help you look for Vincent, and when we find him, we can work this out together?”

Devin’s grumble didn’t sound promising. “Okay, I can use some help! I’ve been looking and I can’t find him anywhere. But when I do…”

As their voices and footsteps faded away, he breathed a shaky sigh of relief. He’d wait a few minutes and then head in the opposite direction. Devin wouldn’t think to look in places he’d already searched.

He knew how to count up to fifty now, and that was almost a minute. He would count out two minutes and then make a break for it.

“One, two, three, four, five…”

The hem of the tablecloth began to rise. He stared in horror. Devin was back! This was it. It was all over.

He wouldn’t cry. He’d be strong and brave. He’d —

“You can come out now. They’re gone, and when Devin returns, I’ll protect you no matter what.”

He gazed into familiar eyes smiling at him with kindness and warmth. Everything would be okay now. He reached for the gentle promise of her outstretched hand and let her guide him into the light.

The light of a mother’s love.

2 Comments

  1. A lovely story in which there is some sadness and happiness at the same time, and how much the conversation , which Vincent overheard changed in his life. He felt singled out, the best. Now he not only has a wonderful Father, but also a mother. What a joy for his little heart. Here I see such a sweet little boy full of joy, understanding and very sensitive… And it makes me want to hug him.
    What a remarkable trip back in time.

    Reply
  2. Paula, your comments always are such a joy to receive. Thank you so much for enjoying the story and for letting me know!

    Reply

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