The Jacob Chronicles
art and story
by Vincent Peters
PROLOGUE: April 10th, 2007
“Why are you still debating this, Jake? Just do it!” he thought while he lay in his chamber staring up at the dancing shadows cast by the one remaining candle burning on his nightstand.
He rolled over and looked at the writing desk in the corner and to the simple sheet of paper that sat there atop it, beckoning him with its bright yellow color. Finally, with a sigh of frustration at his own reluctance, he threw back the blanket, took up the candle, and strode over to his desk.
Now, with a look of complete determination, he took up his fountain pen and began to fill out the application form before him.
“In for a penny, in for a pound. All right, here we go.”
“Name…Jacob – Chandler – Wells. So far so good,” he whispered softly to himself.
“Gender – male”
A look of confusion came to his face as the next question took him completely by surprise.
“Ethnicity? Good grief, how on Earth do I even begin to answer that one? I mean, if they had a box for big, fuzzy, lovable, feline goofball to choose from it would be easy, but nothing here really applies to me.” He eventually decided to check the box marked OTHER and in the blank beside it, he simply wrote in “mixed.”
“Location-,” he softly snickered at the plethora of replies he could put here. “I don’t suppose they would accept 1,200 feet beneath Central Park, third passage off the Library then 5th chamber on the left as an answer.” In the absence of any other options, he wrote down the only trusted address he knew and moved on with the application.
“Interests…What? That’s all the space they leave for this one. I’d better write small then – let me see there’s Music, Art, Literature, Science, Mechanics, History, Chess, long, moon light walks with my family in the park, …oh why not… cave exploration. That’s me, boy, a real Renaissance Man. Well…”, he chuckled to himself when his Devin-influenced sense of humor chimed in, “half a Renaissance Man anyway.”
Three more questions later and the humble application was finished. With a sense of accomplishment, he placed it in an envelope, and in the morning he would find one of their helpers and send it on its way.
* * *
MAY 22nd , 2007
Father sat in his usual chair and looked on with great interest at the proceedings. Before him two worthy opponents were locked in an epic battle of kings, knights and pawns. Other than the occasional messages being passed from pipe to pipe by the ever-vigilant Pascal, the silence that filled that chamber was almost palpable.
“You are definitely showing a great deal of improvement, Jacob. I’m very proud of you,” Vincent softly addressed his son so as to not break his concentration on the game.
Ever the proud grandfather that he was, Jacob’s namesake couldn’t help but also break the silence. ”Indeed. I don’t seem to recall a game between you two lasting this long in recent memory. Well done, my boy, well done.”
Jacob moved his bishop slowly and deliberately. ”I’ll have you checkmated in two moves, Dad.” With that he sat back in his chair with a look of self-approval at his feat.
“You must always remember, Jacob, that pride goeth,” Vincent moved his knight, “before the fall. Checkmate.” After administering his lesson, he too sat back in his chair with an equal look of approval.
Jacob sat up, dumbfounded over how he could have failed to see the trap his father had set for him right there before his eyes. “Well played, Dad, as always.”
Vincent leaned forward to begin to gather the pieces, beaming with pride at his son both inwardly and outwardly. ”Your grandfather was right, Jacob. You have never lasted this long in any of our other matches. You are getting much better at the game.”
“Believe me when I say, Jacob, that it is far better that you are well on your way to being the heir to Vincent’s chess legacy, lest you inherit my proclivity for suffering the agony of defeat…quite possibly forever.”
“You never seemed to be in agony when we played, Father,” Vincent said with a smile.
“No, I was not. After the first seven or eight hundred crushing defeats one does become numb to the eventuality.”
“Even when you get trounced by a seventeen-year-old, Papa?”
He chuckled as he reached over and ruffled his grandson’s hair. “Especially when I get trounced by a seventeen-year-old.” With that, all three enjoyed a laugh at Father’s brutal self-honesty.
“You three seem to be enjoying yourselves. What’s the occasion?”
“Catherine,” Vincent said warmly as he rose from his seat to greet her.
“Hi, Mom! We were just enjoying the end of yet another lesson in accepting defeat with grace and dignity.”
“You challenged your father to chess again, I take it?”
Jacob, too, rose to his feet and leaned down to kiss his mother on the cheek as he walked past, returning the black box of chess pieces to Father’s corner of the Library. “Eeeeeeyep! Just like Papa, hope springs eternal.”
“How was the hearing?” Vincent asked her as they warmly embraced.
“She’s going to be removed from that dreadful place and put into a proper foster home immediately.”
“I’m glad. From what you have told us, that poor little girl has been through enough.”
“Yes, she has,” Father said as he stood and walked to greet his daughter-in-law. “I was telling Vincent this morning after you left for the courthouse, that if the court did not see fit to remover her from that vile place, that the Council was prepared to offer her full and unconditional shelter here with us.“
“She’s a very lucky girl. Judge Williams has no tolerance for people like her former foster parents. Not only can he not stand abusive people like that, he also has no stomach for red tape when children are in danger, so he has fast tracked the transfer of guardianship.”
“Good…good,” Father said, trying to hide the most recent flareup of his dislike of the heartlessness and cruelty that the world above was capable of inflicting on the young and defenseless. “And uh…. what is it you have there?” he inquired to draw his mind elsewhere.
“I have a mystery,” she replied, raising her hand to better display the envelope in it.
“What is it, Catherine?” Vincent asked, turning his head to the side ever so slightly. It was a habit of curiosity she had seen him perform so very many times over the years, and yet it still made her laugh a little inside every time she saw him do it.
“I got a letter in the mail today from Montpelier, Vermont.”
“Is that…unusual?” Father said, leaning in to get a better view of the mysterious envelope.
“On any other day, the answer would probably be no, but when a letter arrives at my building addressed to Mr. Jacob Chandler Wells, it does tend to stand out.”
Jacob stopped dead in his tracks halfway to Father’s study and turned around.
“Huh what? A letter for…ooooooooh” He began to chuckle as he walked over to his parents’ side. “Noooooo WAY! I can’t believe it! HA!”
“Something you’d like to tell us, Jake” Catherine asked, “or are you going to plead the Fifth and leave us all in the dark?”
“Vermont, huh? I was wondering where it might have ended up.”
The trio looked at Jacob and almost as if it had been planned, all three asked, ”Where what might have ended up?”
Jacob was then snapped out of his joyful fascination. “Hmm? OH, Vermont…right. I found this application for a Pen Pal project about a month ago on one of my patrols. It fell through the storm drain grate over by the old eastern portal. I was going to just ignore it, and then I thought why not, filled it out, and sent it in. I figured it was my version of putting a note in a bottle and throwing it into the sea. Either someone finds it, or they don’t.”
“It would appear that someone found your bottle,” Vincent said, handing the letter over.
“It sure looks that way.” His expression then changed from one of elation to something far more pensive.
“Is something wrong?” his grandfather asked, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I hope I didn’t just accidentally break or otherwise bend the living dickens out of some highly valued, sacred, cherished governing law of the community with this, ‘cause if I did, I promise I will pace my chamber for three hours straight and work myself up into the biggest nervous sweat you’ve ever seen in repentance. I promise.“
Father’s expression of warmth never wavered. “Well…other than sounding remarkably like your Uncle Devin in his youth, I would be inclined to say no….no you haven’t. If you will forgive the curiosity of an old man, however, why exactly did you send it in the first place?”
“I was curious.”
“All my life I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the world above. I’ve heard stories. I’ve read books. I’ve heard of experiences with the people who live up there but…other than our Helpers, I’ve never known any Toplanders. I guess I wanted to learn more about that world from someone who didn’t know about all this, about why we all live down here; to see the world through the eyes of someone else, maybe?”
“Jacob, my boy, there is nothing wrong with being genuinely curious about the larger world out there. I must admit that my own personal bias against it may not have painted the best picture of it for you. I sincerely apologize for that. I do not, for one moment, doubt your love of our world, nor your commitment to keeping it and us all safe. Therefore, I am going to trust in your own judgment to guide whatever correspondence you may have with…uh with…”
Jacob looked at the envelope. “Sarah Hancock.”
“Thank you, Papa, “the much-relieved teen said, leaning down to gently head butt his grandfather.
“Perhaps you should retire to your chamber and read it before supper,” his father suggested. With that, Jacob bounded up the steps and out of sight.
“Doesn’t seem all that long since you sent me letters, does it?” Catherine said, taking her husband by the hand.
“Nor you to me.”
* * *
Jacob practically launched himself down the passages to his chamber, sidestepping the occasional neighbor and making every effort not to run over others. He knew that being hit by someone his size was not going to be a pleasant experience and that in his current state of excitement he was dangerously close to being a bull in a china shop.
Sitting down at his desk, he looked down at the letter, his mind awash in all the possibilities it offered him to make a connection with a world beyond his own. He was trembling with anticipation.
“Okay…breathe. Calm down, Jake. Whatever you do, don’t tear the letter trying to open it.” In the absence of a letter opener, he used the next best thing at his disposal. Extending the claw of his right thumb, he slid it under the flap of the envelope and proceeded to open it with near surgical precision.
He lit the candelabra above his desktop and, bathed in its glow, delved into the potential wonders that it might contain.
Hi! It looks like our applications were paired up, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to do this.
I’ve always dreamed of having a Pen Pal and now that dream has come true. When I was a little girl, I would sometimes write to myself and pretend the letters had come from some far off, magical place. You know with dragons and kings and damsels in distress, basically the whole once upon a time thing. What can I say, I love things like that.
I don’t know what to say yet, so I guess I will start by talking about myself until we can strike up a proper conversation.
I’m 17 years old with golden blonde, shoulder length hair and pale blue green eyes. According to the Vermont D.M.V. I’m five foot eleven, but I think they were being generous. I live with my grandmother in Montpelier, Vermont. I’ve lived here since I was ten and lost my parents to a drunk driver. I know that’s a bit of a downer introduction, but I’m still trying to get over that event. I do pretty well with it most of the time, but there are times when it still hits me. So, if I go completely Goth now and again, you’ll know why.
When I saw how many things we had in common I thought I had to be dreaming. I hope I’m not.
Exploring caves!! That sounds really cool. My Gran and I took a trip down to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky two years ago. We had a blast. We’re already planning to go back someday to spend even more time there. If you ever get a chance to go, I really recommend it.
I guess it just leaves me with questions. I thought that might be a good way to kick things off between us.
Sarah’s (not so) Big List of Questions:
- You like music, too. What kind do you listen to?
- Your address is in Manhattan. Do you see many shows on Broadway?
- Do you play games besides chess? I don’t think I have the patience for that one. LOL.
- Moonlight walks!!!! I love those, especially in the fall when the trees change up here, it’s magical! Do you have a time of year you like to night walk in? Where do you walk?
I can’t really think of anything else right now, and I don’t want to go on and on like I’m running off at the mouth, which I can do, especially if I am nervous.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Your Pen Pal,
Jacob set the letter down and sat back in his chair. He was ready to reply right then and there, but he heard the dinner call on the pipes and knew it would have to wait until afterwards. He stood up, doused the candles, and turned to leave. He stopped and turned to look at the letter once again. She had said she loved things magical and to him, his world held a magic all its own; one he could not wait to share. He smiled and bowed like the gentlemen in all those classical paintings he had seen in his schoolbooks. “Until then, Miss Hancock.” He washed his hands in the basin beside his bed and left for supper. “I really hope nobody saw me bowing to a letter…geeze Jake, you’re as bad as Dad.”
* * *
Jacob could not remember when dinner, a mealtime he usually enjoyed, had taken so long. At last, it was behind him, and he could retire to his chamber and write his reply.
“I don’t even know where to begin. UGH…why…why can’t I be a hopeless romantic like Dad? I bet he never had these problems. If only I knew how to do this better.” Growling at himself in frustration with his nervousness over something like writing a letter he began to mock himself. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once! ….no….NO! I am not going to sit here and be paralyzed by some stupid case of childish nerves. That being said, I….guess…the best course of action is simply to follow her lead? Not much of a plan, but it’s a better plan than I began with.”
Hi! I hope that this letter finds you well and in good spirits. Let me first say that it is my pleasure to tell you that you are not dreaming. You have a Pen Pal and it is me and, the last time I checked, I am very much not a figment of your imagination.
I, too, am 17 years old and according to my grandfather who is a retired doctor, I’m six foot eight and counting, and I think he is still utterly in shock over that one. I have long dark brown hair to the bottom of my shoulders with blue gray eyes and a chin beard slightly darker than the hair on my head. Fun fact, my friends growing up called me “Tank”; most of them still do. As you might imagine with a nickname like that, I’m not exactly tiny.
While there are no dragons or damsels in distress where I live, one could definitely say it is a magical place at times and, as such, it is in keeping with your daydreams. Owing to circumstances over which I have no control, I live apart from most everyone else in a small but tightly knit and loving community and one I find myself truly blessed to be a part of. It might sound odd that in a city the size of Manhattan that I can live apart, but it can happen if you know where to go.
I’m not entirely sure what a Goth is nor what it means to be one, but given what preceded it, I assume it is not a good thing for you to be? The general tone of your letter left me with the impression that, like myself, you prefer to live a life of joy rather than of sorrow. I can only imagine what a loss so overwhelming would be like for anyone, but please know that you have my most sincere condolences for your loss; even if they are very belated, they are genuine. If there is ever a time when the lesser angels of your nature should rear themselves, I would like you to know that if it is within my power to do so, that I shall do whatever I can to help you to quell them, even if it is from this distance between us. I, too, in my past, have had to battle them. Please take comfort in knowing that I do not, nor have I ever felt it to be a burden to help those I do not know. To borrow a quote from my Uncle Devin, “It’s a me thing.”
Yes, I explore caves. You could say it has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Since I was very little, my father and I would often spend long afternoons and sometimes days, exploring any passages or chambers we could find. I must admit that even now, there are times when we venture out, that I cannot help but to succumb to that childlike thrill of wanting to see what beckons us from just beyond the reach of our lights. I sincerely doubt there will ever come a time when that thrill of discovery will leave me. A cave named Mammoth certainly seems like a place I would be enthralled to experience. I will make a point to visit it, should I ever find myself in Kentucky.
And now it is my turn.
Jacob’s (not so) Big List of Answers:
- I have been raised with music as a part of my life and my world. I can remember, as a little boy, my parents taking me to hear concerts in Central Park. To hear the music thunder then whisper i’s choruses around me, was thrilling. I have been exposed to many types of music and continue to be so which has led to my tastes being best described as eclectic. If I had to choose a favorite, I would be torn between Scott Joplin and Mozart. Perhaps I need to invent a new word for my musical tastes. After listing those two, eclectic doesn’t really seem to convey my tastes at all.
- Sadly, I am not able to attend Broadway Theatrical performances. Due to the issues arising from being a “Tank” I don’t get out much, other than on moonlight walks. I have, on several occasions, been able to find ways to attend the theater in other locations which afford me the ability to remain unseen by the rest of the audience.
- You will be happy to know that chess is not the only game I play. I am quite proficient in many games besides it. For me, chess offers a chance to hone my thinking skills and engage in deep conversations with my father. Playing chess with my grandfather is far more entertaining for me. He harbors a deep passion for the game, but his ability to defeat my father or myself eludes him and has become a bit of a long running joke in my family.
- I find a great deal of peace in our night walks. We walk in Central Park, late in the evenings when the hustle and bustle of the day has long left the park. I don’t really have a favorite time of the year to walk there. For me, simply being able to get out into nature is a truly wondrous and special time for me. Every season brings to my senses unique sounds and smells that I lack at other times in my life, and I cherish it all equally. I must admit, though, I am very fond of thunderstorms. Their sheer power is awe inspiring and humbling all at the same time. The opportunity to experience one always leaves me speechless.
I must close this letter now as the hour is getting late here and in the morning I have several rather physically demanding chores to attend to, so I must be well rested although the thrill of receiving your letter today may make falling asleep a little more challenging this evening.
In closing, let me say that I believe myself to be equally elated to make your acquaintance.
Until we write again; be well Sarah.
Your Pen Pal-
Jacob C. Wells
* * *
Over the following weeks, the entire community began to notice a change come over Jacob. He was still his usual helpful, caring, nurturing, outgoing self and yet there seemed to be, interlaced therein, something new. Nobody could quite place what that something might be, but it was there.
Mary walked into the wardrobe chamber, hastily clearing out a space in the center of the room between several long rows of shelving that served as storage for the sewing chambers. She had enlisted Jacobs help to transport the enormous donation of fabric remnants and clothing their Helpers had collected over the last month. Following closely behind her, Jacob ducked through the entrance carrying four titanic bundles, one under each arm, and the other two suspended from his clenched fists.
“Where would you like them, Nana?”
“Right here between the stores will be fine for now. I wasn’t expecting those to be sent down all at once, so until we can get it all sorted out, the floor’s as good a place as any.” She turned around to see her surrogate grandson still holding the four heavy bundles. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts yet again. “Oh, good heavens, put those down before you hurt yourself!” With a resounding thud, the four bundles came to rest on the chamber floor. “There, that’s better, isn’t it? Now then,” she said pulling a chair out from the corner of the chamber,” sit yourself down and rest up. You’ve earned it. Between hauling the new pipes and timbers for Pascal, loading block ice for the cold stores chamber, and bringing those bundles down here, I think you’ve done just about enough helping for one day. I…know you can feel my gratitude, but I’m going to say it anyway. We all truly appreciate everything you do for us, Jacob. I hope you never feel that you’re being taken advantage of because of the things you’re capable of doing.”
He simply smiled and shook his head as he straddled the chair. “Nana, you’re not taking advantage of me, really. I’m happy to help. You know that. It just wouldn’t feel right to me to do the things I can do for my own self-interests. I’d rather use them to help others. It’s like Spider-man says, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and my responsibility is to my home, my family, and our Helpers. Besides, by my standards, this job wasn’t heavy at all. I didn’t even break a sweat. I did completely break all concepts of modesty and humility with that remark just now, but not a sweat.”
“I see, well if they weren’t that heavy for you then I don’t suppose you will be needing this plate of William’s chocolate chip cookies to recover your strength with as a thank you.” Mary moved the plate back slightly and only as a jest. She was very fond of Jacob and liked to show it whenever she could, especially if it consisted of tempting his sweet-fang as they jokingly called it.
“I never said anything about not needing to recover. I just didn’t break a sweat is all,” he said with a chuckle, leaning a bit more to the side to better see the plate behind her.
“I thought so. Eat up. my little man.”
Jacob could scarcely contain his urge to flat out laugh at her comment every time she said it. He was the tallest member of the community, including his father. He really hadn’t been anything resembling little since he was ten years old, but, like his father before him, he would forever remain one of the many children she had helped to raise that her heart would never see any other way. She had been a motherly figure to so many over the years, but in ‘her little man’ she had come to know the singular joy of being a grandmother.
“Jacob, may I ask you something? It’s rather important to me.”
“Is something wrong, Nana? Are you all right?” he asked, taking her hand in his. She smiled back at him, amazed at how a hand so powerful could express such compassion.
“Oh, I’m fine. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound that way at all. No, it’s you I’m concerned about.“
“Me? Why are you concerned about me? I mean I know you are concerned about everyone’s well being, but why mine in particular; why now?”
“For two months now it’s been as if your body is here, and your mind is somewhere else completely.”
Jacob sighed in relief. “I um…I’ve made a new friend, Nana. Her name is Sarah.”
“Is that the name of the Toplander you’ve been writing to?”
“The one and only.”
“I hoped it might have had something to do with it. I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you aren’t suffering from anything.”
“I’m curious. What have I been doing, exactly?”
“That look in your eyes. I’ve only seen that far off look three times before: When you and your father were so very ill in your younger days – thank Heavens we didn’t lose either of you to whatever that was – and twenty years ago when Catherine came into your father’s life. For weeks after they first met, you couldn’t keep his mind in these tunnels if you nailed it to the floor. Now that I know you’re not getting sick again, I can stop worrying.”
Jacob smiled back at her reassuringly. “I’m fine, Nana. I’m not sick or battling inner demons or anything like that. It’s just all so new to me and I’m just trying to figure it all out, but I promise I’ll be sure to add a little more ballast to my mind from now on.”
* * *
Weeks turned to months and with the passage of time whatever it was that Jacob and Sarah had discovered in one another, it continued to bloom in unexpected ways for both of them. It had actually reached the point that when the pipes announced a letter had arrived for him, the entire community began to smile.
Today the pipes had rung down his letter’s arrival, but with it came a moment Jacob had hoped he could avoid. He sat down at his writing desk and removed the letter’s contents, placing them onto a sheet music holder that Mouse had affixed to the desk to hold books while he did homework in his school days. She had sent him her picture, and for the first time he could see what he had previously only imagined. “Hello, Sarah,” he said to the stillness of his chamber.
He sipped his tea as he read his latest message from the Big Out-there, as he had begun to call it. The stillness of his chamber was occasionally broken by a chuckle when her delightful humor would shine through her words until, in mid sip, he paused before lowering his cup and saucer down as the letter drew his undivided attention more so than ever before.
“…I know sending my picture was really forward of me. I hope I didn’t do anything too taboo. You call yourself a goofball, but sometimes I get a hint of gentleman in the mix. I mean handwritten letters? Be still, my heart, right? I thought it was about time you had a better idea of what I look like than to go by my comical descriptions of myself, so here you go. You’ve been rather shy about talking about that part of yourself and I am dying of curiosity. I don’t suppose you have a picture lying about that you could send my way, do you? Or if you use it, a Skype call maybe…”
For one brief moment, Jacob thought about completely fabricating a description of his appearance, but after the sincere rapport they had created with each other already, he owed her some semblance of the truth. “Okay, Jake…time to be completely honest yet creatively omissive with someone you really really like. How hard could that be? Who am I kidding, it’s easier to try to pull a fast one on Nana.”
I know this letter is far shorter than those I have sent you in the past, but I wanted to address this particular question in its own letter. Another shall be following shortly with my replies to the rest I promise.
I can’t really think of any other way to say this other than to simply say I have no photographs of myself. I don’t believe it possible for me to Skype either, mainly because I have no idea what that is.
In my first letter I said that I live apart from others. Please allow me to expound on that in the hopes that it may let you better understand that part of who I am.
I am substantially physically different from other people. While my family and the community in which I live afford me a life not that different from your own, they also collectively protect me from the outside world and the judgments it would surely cast upon me should I ever be seen by the wrong people.
Standing six foot eight is the least of my attributes many would consider abnormal. Some might even go so far as to think of my physicality as horrific, and to others, bordering on monstrous. In short, they would think of me as nothing more than a freak and treat me no differently than one.
Your friendship has illuminated my small world in so many ways that mere words can scarcely begin to describe. The last thing I would ever want to do is frighten you with my appearance or otherwise make you feel shunned by not returning your kind gesture of sending a photograph to you. I sincerely wish I could, but some stones are better left unturned. Please, forgive me.
Jacob C. Wells
His letter went out the very same afternoon and all that was left, was to wait.
* * *
To Jacob’s amazement, in less time than it usually took for her to reply, another letter came for him.
“Mail call!” his mother said when she poked her head in his chamber.
“ Mail call? But I wrote her barely three days ago.”
She handed him a very large envelope this time. “Allow me to introduce one of the wonders of the world above: Same day delivery.”
“And here I thought the pipes were a fast way to communicate. Thanks, Mom.”
She kissed him on his cheek. “If she keeps sending things this way, I am so going to start charging for delivery service.”
“Well, I could always repay you by helping you move the furniture in your chamber, like you’ve been asking Dad about for a week now,” he said with a grin.
“Don’t tempt me. I might just take you up on it, kiddo,” his mother told him over her shoulder as she left.
Jacob sat at his desk and removed her letter from the heavy cardboard sleeve.
I hope this fast turnaround didn’t leave you saying, “what her again”. I know it usually takes longer to get back to you, but this one couldn’t wait.
I wanted you to know that I completely understand. It’s no biggie. I like you and that’s what really matters to me. I have a good imagination and I can easily make do with tall, lovable goofball with a chin beard as my mental image of you.
* * *
Late August, 2008
Vincent sat bolt upright on his daybed with such urgency that Catherine almost dropped the book she had been reading to them. “Jacob!” His eyes darted about as if trying to make sense of something, but his expression spoke to the fact that whatever he was feeling, it seemed to be very overpowering to him.
“Vincent, what is it? What about Jacob?!” She was quickly by his side, cupping his cheek in her hand and drawing his gaze to her own. It was a simple gesture, but one that had proven time and time again to help him focus on the present when his empathy had hit him in unexpected ways. “What about our son?”
He looked into her eyes, and she could see his composure returning to replace the look of panic that had resided there before. “Catherine, I felt…no…he felt…empty. A coldness, hopelessness verging on despair followed by physical pain. It was so strong…I…thought for a moment that it felt as if his will to live had left him.”
“Where is he?”
“Below us. Come!”
The two entered a small chamber off the Whispering Gallery and found their son partly in the shadows, seated on the ground with his knees drawn up to his chest. His arms were wrapped around his legs and his head rested upon them; his long brown hair hiding his face, and the look of torment that surely must have been there. The chunks of stone that lay near him, jagged scratch marks on the stones and the small patches of blood in the fur covering his knuckles and fingertips indicated that the walls had quite recently lost a fight with their son.
The two approached their obviously grieving child and slowly, carefully sat down beside him. He seemed oblivious to their presence which could only mean one thing. Whatever it was he was feeling, it was strong enough to shock his father and blind Jacob to his Bond with them. He had no idea they were with him. This was far worse than him simply being upset.
“I’m here, Jacob. So is your Mother,” Vincent said barely above a whisper, leaning in closer and placing his hand to his son’s back.
Father entered the chamber a few minutes later with Mary at his side. They had come as quickly as they safely could when they received word from Vincent by way of the pipes that something dire had happened to Jacob.
“How is he?”
“He’s not spoken a word since we arrived, Father, and other than an apparently violent outburst directed at the walls, there is no sign of what may have triggered…this.” Vincent looked back at his son, who by now was held in the arms of his mother, looking for all the world like a small boy holding steadfastly to anything that would offer him the slimmest glimmer of comfort.
Mary lowered herself to the floor and addressed Catherine.” I remember…when he went through that change and we almost lost him…sometimes I could get through to him.”
“Please, Mary, please try.”
Mary took Jacob by the hand and spoke softly to him. “Jacob? Where’s my little man, hmm?”
What felt like an eternity passed when he broke the silence of the chamber with a voice somewhere between a child and an animal. ”I’m here, Nana”
“There he is. There’s my little man,” she said soothingly, while she gently moved the hair from his eyes. “You had us all worried, sweetheart.”
“No, no. Now is not the time for that. You haven’t done anything wrong. Something’s hurt you. Can you tell us what happened, please?”
As Mary worked her magic with the boy, Father and Vincent had likewise knelt down beside him. “Reach out, Jacob. Feel us here. Can you do that for me?” Father asked.
“He knows we are here. I can feel him now,” Vincent said with a sigh of relief as he felt his son’s love for everyone in that room come flooding back into his very soul as they, too, flooded Jacob with all the love they felt for him.
“It’s…over”, he said weakly fighting back an onslaught of emotions, many of which he had never felt before nor ever wished to again. “She wants to meet m…how could I ever show her,” the tone in his voice echoed the heretofore nonexistent resentment he felt for himself, “what…I…am.”
His words had stunned them all into silence.
“Jacob…Jacob can you hear me?”
“I want you…no…I need you to listen to me more carefully than you ever have in your entire life. Will you do that for me? Please?”
Jacob simply nodded weakly.
“What you are, what you have always been, is a miracle. You are a living testament to love; not only between your parents but the love this entire community feels for you, including myself. What you are is my cherished grandson. And,” Father began to fight off his own emotions, “I will go to my grave loving you and your father for who and what you both are because I do not give a damn that either of you is not human.”
Jacob broke from his mother’s arms and embraced his grandfather. One by one the boy felt the arms of his family envelope him and, for now, the despair faded, drowned out by the love around him.
Eventually, he had regained enough of himself and his strength to be returned to his chamber.
“You go on ahead. I will join you in a moment,” Father asked of the group. He stood alone surrounded by the overlapping choruses of sounds and voices swirling around him in the gallery and wondered if this was how Jacob’s heightened empathic sense experienced the world around him.
He broke his train of thought when he slammed the tip of his cane down on the walkway of the bridge. ” You…never stopped to consider any of this did you? DID YOU?! As long as you got what you wanted, why concern yourself with the emotional repercussions your grand desires would have on innocent souls that never asked to be tormented by the legacy of your twisted and immoral ambitions…Damn you, John.” With that seething resentment purged for the time being, Father returned to the dormitory level to help tend to his grandson.
* * *
Jacob lay in his bed, propped up on several large throw pillows with his hands wrapped, a comforter pulled halfway up over him. His initial feelings of grief and loss had subsided from their former catastrophic levels, leaving him feeling humiliated by having been so blindsided by his own emotions and weak as a newborn. Word travels fast down below and many well-wishers stood a quiet vigil outside his chamber, hoping that he could sense their being there for him.
Vincent stepped out from behind the curtain drawn across the chamber’s entrance to address Jacob’s extended family. “Thank you all for being here. It has touched Catherine and me deeply to see so many of you here showing your concern for our son and ourselves. He wishes for all of you to know that he can feel your warmth of spirit, and he asks that you not be afraid for him. He wanted me to tell you all,” Vincent paused in disbelief that he was about to quote his big brother,” It ain’t over till the fat lady sings and she’s on vacation.”
The crowd chuckled softly among themselves at Vincent’s reluctant, if not near perfect, impersonation of both his son and Devin, knowing that was Jacob’s way of way of telling them he was going to be all right.
“What happened? We all heard him wailing and roaring, and then the distress call went out on the pipes from you for Father and Mary.”
“We do not have the full story yet, Martin, but when we do and if he feels comfortable with our telling you, you shall all have your answers. Either way, I do not think Jacob would want you all to remain in the dark.” The curtain parted and Father whispered something in Vincent’s ear, “Please, excuse me.”
Vincent returned to the chair that had been set by Jacob’s bedside to join Mary and Catherine who both still held his hand.
“I’d like to go on record as saying that I feel like a complete ass…and that I’m sorry for causing such a disruption to everyone,” he said weakly.
“All of that is in the past now, Jacob. What can we do to help you here and now?” His father asked of him in a tone of warmth and reassurance that nearly masked his uncertainty and concern.
“I don’t know if there is anything that can be done, Dad. What was I thinking?”
“Nothing that I wasn’t thinking the night I found your mother. Something somehow has brought the two of you together, and despite everything your rational mind told you then, you followed the voice speaking to a part of you which you never knew was there until it answered that calling.”
“I envy you two. You have your happily ever after…but me…I…” He clenched his eyes tightly shut, fighting back the torrent he knew was demanding to be set free.
Father placed his hand atop Jacob’s head as he began to weep and gently stroked the boy’s forehead with his thumb. “Just cry, dear boy. No one here will ever think anything less of you for it. I promise you.”
Vincent placed one hand beneath Catherine’s and the other came to rest above it, with his son’s in between them. “We found the ending of which you speak, that is true; but there were many many times that we both felt as you do now, that things were insurmountable, forever and relentlessly insurmountable.” He looked to his wife as he spoke the final words.
“Your father’s right, Jake. There were times when we felt as much uncertainty and doubt as we did love. That maybe we had fooled ourselves into believing in an impossible dream that could never be. There was even a time when…we thought it best to end it.”
“And for my part…” Father added sounding ashamed to admit it,” I thought it, at the time, to be the best thing for both of them. I have never in my life been so happy to be proven wrong. But in hindsight, everything about this world you call home was once an impossibility. Building all of this from nothing; your father even being born, let alone surviving; being in the park at the right moment to save your mother’s life, and yours later on. You bear the name of Wells. Impossibility holds no dominion over our family, and it never shall.”
“What will I tell her? I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want to lose this…. whatever it is,” he said, his voice shaky and uncertain, his face having gone pale, the youthful vigor everyone knew him for ravaged by emotional exhaustion.
“Only that voice which calls to the both of you will know what to say and when. Have faith in it and it will guide you to the harbor you seek,” Vincent replied. “Now…I know it will be difficult, but please try to get some rest. One of us will be here when you wake.”
Even half-conscious as he was, Jacob had heard every word his family had told him, and as sleep overtook him, the last thing he remembered was his immense feeling of gratitude.
Father and Mary were the first to leave. They walked along in silence, arm in arm, lost in their worries. A very somber Mouse walked past them without saying a word. It was the first time that either of them could recall him not running to get somewhere.
When Jacob was finally asleep, Vincent left chamber while Catherine took the first watch.
“Mouse? It’s very late. What are you doing here at this hour?” Vincent asked Jacob’s visibly worried best friend.
“Just heard…not good…Jacob going to be okay?”
“Thank you for coming, Mouse. That was very kind of you, and yes, Jacob will be all right in time. He’s resting now.”
“Okay…good…Mouse was worried. Heard he was sad…very not good sad…why?”
Vincent sighed heavily, trying to come up with an answer Mouse would understand. “You remember the young lady he has been writing to over the last year? The one he has become very fond of?”.
“The nice Toplander girl from far away?”
“Yes. You see, Mouse, because Jacob is different from people above, he became very sad when he realized that there is no way for him be able to meet her because we have to keep ourselves hidden.”
“Shouldn’t have to hide…Vincent and Jacob, great good people…my friends…family to Mouse!”
“I agree. Sadly, our world is far more accepting than hers is.”
Vincent placed his hand on Mouse’s shoulder as the two turned to walk down the tunnel.
* * *
One week later, Jacob lay in his bed listening to a tune being played by a well-worn music box beside his bed which had lulled him to sleep so many nights when he was little. Even now, he found that its soothing tones helped to quiet his racing thoughts.
The privacy curtain pulled back slightly as Mary looked in. “Jacob? If you are up to it, you have some visitors who would really like to see you.”
He closed the lid of the music box and sat up against the pillows. He wasn’t feeling anywhere near one hundred percent, but sensing who it was behind the curtain helped to raise how he felt several points closer to one hundred.
“Ready when you are, Nana.”
“All right, now remember what we talked about? Okay then.” The curtain opened fully to reveal twelve young children who rushed excitedly past her.
“Jacob!” they called out.
“Munchkins!” he answered back, and they piled onto his bed.
“We missed you,” said one little girl, hugging as much of him as her arms could reach around.
Jacob placed his arm very carefully around the girl and gently returned her hug, “I missed you too, Squirt! I’ve missed all of you!”
“We made you this!” a red-headed boy announced as he handed Jacob a large folded piece of construction paper. The lettering was definitely in Mary’s handwriting and read WE HOPE YOU FEEL BETTER SOON. Most of them were too young to sign their names yet and instead left a print of their hands in different colors of paint. Included inside the makeshift get well card were drawings they had made for him.
“Woooooow! Will you look at this! You guys did a fantastic job. Thanks, gang!!” His emotional shock from earlier had not tarnished his warm and fangy smile in the least, which lifted Mary’s spirits greatly.
“Are you gonna come back to read to us soon, Jake?” another asked.
“Yeah, will you? Pleeeeeeeeeease?”
“Next Tuesday after lunch, I promise. I’ll even read two stories to make up for it. How does that sound?”
The preschoolers cheered their approval.
“That’s what I thought.” At the moment he sounded almost like his normal self.
“All right, everyone, all right, we have to get back to school now.”
“Jake?” one of the shyer children asked as the others began to shuffle out.
“What’s up, Sam the man?”
“Would…would you do the thing?”
“You bet, but …um…you’ve got to press the starter button first,” he said crouching down onto his haunches to come face to face with the boy.
To the average onlooker the scene would have been reminiscent of David and Goliath, but as Mary looked on, it was nothing short of heartwarming.
“Okay, you know the drill…on three. Ready? 1….2…3 — let ‘er rip!”
Sam gently pressed Jacob’s nose. ”Beep.”
Jacob proceeded to growl out an R-R-R-R-R-R-R-R noise like a car which transitioned into a deep, bassy rumble in his throat akin to a purring sound while he wiggled his ears in time with his purr, eliciting a giggle of happiness from the boy.
“Eeeeeeeyup, looks like the old Purr Motor is in good working order!” he said as he ruffled Sam’s hair.
“Thanks, Jake!” the boy said, smiling.
The two parted company with their customary fist bump. “Any time, kiddo.”
* * *
The loud pounding of boot-clad footfalls and the rattling of his tool belt echoing off the walls of the cavernous Main Gallery lead anyone who heard them to one inescapable conclusion. Mouse was in a hurry.
“Pardon me…coming through…make a hole…I mean, sorry make a hole please…Mouse on a mission!”
Given all he had been through emotionally over the last few days, Jacob’s dreams that night had been remarkably calm and blissful. That was, until Mouse barged into his chamber at what passed for predawn in the World Below.
“Jacob…Jacob…you sleeping now?”
His eyes flew open, then fluttered shut as he answered,” Not anymore, Mouse. What can I do for you my friend…at this hour?”
He was very excited and spoke so quickly that he might as well have said only one exceedingly long word. “I found it! Mouse fix your problem. Make the sad go away.”
Jacob sat up and lit the lamp beside his bed. ”Fix what, now? “
“Your not good sad.”
“Yeah, I kind of got that part. Um…” he shook his head to clear the remaining fog of slumber from his mind. “You were planning on fixing my not good sad, how exactly?”
“You’re sad because you have to hide. Can’t be with the nice Toplander girl you like. Now you can be with her and hide with no hiding.”
Jacob ran that sentence through his mind and tried to make sense of it. Even if he had been drinking his morning tea at the time, he wasn’t sure that any of what Mouse had said would make any sense. ”How do I hide without hiding?”
Mouse reached into his carryall bag and took out a poster he had found the night before while he was out foraging for thingies and gizmos topside. He handed it to Jacob who began to read it through half-lidded eyes. Several lines into reading the poster, he was wide awake.
“Oh my God, Mouse. You’re a freaking GENIUS!!!”
“Mouse knows…is okay good?”
“No…not okay good…this…this is okay epic! And it’s only three weeks away!” he said, dropping the poster and wrapping the inventor in a huge hug.
“Glad to help…Can’t breathe.”
* * *
Vincent and Catherine had just come back into the West Entrance Tunnel from a walk to watch the sun come up, when suddenly he stopped in his tracks and, once again, looked about at nothing and everything all at once.
“It’s Jacob. Something has drastically changed…he’s filled with an indescribable joy.”
When the wall slid shut behind them and they were one again in the safety of home, they simply held each other, silently celebrating the prayed for, but unexpected change in their son’s condition. No words were shared between them. None had to be. Their tears of joy were more than enough.
“Goooooooood morning, family,” Jacob said as his freshly bathed and dressed self entered their dinning chamber and proceeded to lovingly headbutt each of them as he walked past. Father, Mary, Vincent, and Catherine exchanged glances with one another as they watched him humming merrily to himself as he piled breakfast onto his plate and took his customary place at the table.
Father looked to Vincent for any hint of a next move and was greeted by a simple ‘proceed’ gesture.
Setting his tea down, Father shifted his posture into a pose that everyone knew meant he was thinking about his next statement. “Good Morning, Jacob. You seem to have either regained your appetite or decided to see just how much food you can balance with one hand on that somewhat insufficiently sized plate. Are we to assume that you have something to tell us with regard to yourself of late?”
He looked down at the plate and suddenly became aware of just how much he had placed there, “Uh…anyone in need of seconds…possibly thirds? Looks like I have plenty to go around.“
They all enjoyed a good chuckle at his reaction to just how hungry he was after scarcely eating the last several days. “Welcome back, Jacob,” Vincent said, draping his arm on his son’s shoulders.
“It’s good to be back, Dad. I don’t ever want to feel that way again if I can avoid it”
“Have you found that safe harbor?”
“I have. Well, Mouse did actually; and it’s in Central Park.”
The rest leaned in closer toward him. “Go on,” his grandfather probed on his family’s behalf.
“Mouse was up topside last night, and he grabbed a random poster that he was going to use to light his burners with. That was, until he read it, and then he practically broke all the laws of physics trying to get it to me as fast as he could.
Okay, so get this: in three weeks’ time, there is going to be a huge festival up in Central Park. All the theaters on Broadway are coming together to host it. Broadway in the Park, they are calling it. Anyway, they are urging all the people who come to the event to dress up as characters from their favorite Broadway shows and just have fun with it.”
“I’m not sure, I understand. How does this improve your predicament?” Mary asked.
“Do you remember that storybook you used to read to me, Nana, the one with that bratty prince who got cursed by an enchantress? They made a Broadway Musical out of it a few years ago. I could invite Sarah here to attend Broadway in the Park. If we were dressed up like Beauty and the Beast characters, people would just think I was just wearing a costume like they suggested. It’s like Mouse said, ‘hide without hiding’. I’ve already told her that I’m physically different and have to hide myself because of it. I could just say I was wearing a mask for the occasion. Okay, so maybe Phantom of the Opera might be a better analogy…but I digress.
We get to meet each other, and nobody will look twice! It’s perfect! If I play my cards right, it could even be the first step in easing her into learning I wasn’t actually wearing a costume at all.”
Catherine leaned over and whispered to Vincent, “That certainly brings back a few fond memories of our first Halloween, doesn’t it?”
“More than a few, yes.”
Jacob rose to his feet and walked to Father’s side to face him standing almost as if he were a soldier at attention. “As much as I wish to do this, as a sworn Sentry and Protector of this community if my emotional impetuousness has blinded me to my responsibilities to this world and the people who reside here under my protection below and above, I will go no further with this endeavor, Papa.” No longer was he speaking as family to family, but, rather, as citizen of the world below respectfully addressing its leader.
At that moment Father was never prouder of his grandson for his steadfast commitment to protecting this world. He gestured to Jacob to come closer. The boy knelt down on one knee and leaned in to receive his instructions. “Jacob Chandler Wells, Sentry and Protector of our world, you know your responsibilities to keep this place and its citizens safe just as much as you know full well the risks you face above, let alone those of being seen in broad daylight. Therefore, if you do not go topside to meet with this young lady in three weeks’ time, I will personally throw you into the Abyss for having squandered such a rare and precious moment for you both.“
Jacob let the words settle in his mind and sighed in relief as a tear of joy ran down his cheek. “Thank you, Papa.”
* * *
Once again in full-on bull in a china shop mode, Jacob returned to his chamber and opened his writing desk.
I hope this letter finds you well and sitting down.
Over the last year we have been writing each other, I’ve been very reluctant, and bless you for being so patient with me, when it comes to a face-to-face meeting or anything to do with my face in general, but I finally decided to get off my fuzzy butt — very long story there– and, for once, face the outside world, but not alone.
There is a saying in my family,’ Shakespeare knew everything.’ I could not help but to feel that in my painful self-awareness of my physical differences when it comes to you, that in my cowardice I was “dying a thousand deaths” so I have chosen to be valiant and taste of death but once. You once told me you are a theater nerd’s theater nerd, so I believe the reference will most certainly not be lost on you.
In three weeks’ time, there is going to be a three-day long festival in Central Park dedicated to Broadway Theater. Given your aspirations to be an actress, I thought it would be the perfect venue for us to at long last meet. The organizers of this event are strongly urging its attendees to dress as their favorite Broadway characters. —-
Jacob paused from his writing and took a calming breath. For the first time, he was going to have to essentially lie to her. “This is for a good cause. I can set aside my principles just this once, for her….no…both of us. Come on, Jacob, you can do this.”
— I have a very detailed costume that will easily conceal my real appearance. I’ve been perfecting it for years now and it is ready for its maiden voyage. It is a leonine costume of sorts which, if you were to come dressed as Belle, we could go as Beauty and the Beast.
I do so hope you can attend. Be well, Sarah.
Your Pen Pal ~
Jacob C. Wells
* * *
Jacob was, for most of his life, a model of patience. The time spent waiting for a reply this time seemed to him to be a nearly insufferable duration unto itself. He sat in the library working on a story time plan for his munchkins when the pipes sounded off. He heard his call sign and his ears perked up to listen to the message.
CQ CQ JCW DE CW ( Attention Attention Jacob C Wells from Catherine Wells) DELIVERY ARRIVED ABOVE — ON WAY DOWN — WHEN GOOD TIME TO MOVE FURNITURE? MOM
Jacob chuckled to himself. “Well, Jake old boy, you did make her the offer.”
He closed his notebook and placed the stories he was planning on reading to the children tomorrow into a leather bookbag and slung it over his shoulder. Jacob bounded up the spiral staircase and exited the library from the upper level and made his way up two more levels, meeting his mother at the last sentry point before entering the portions of the tunnels he thought of as home.
“I take it from your message, that whatever Sarah sent this time that it’s time to pay the piper?” he asked, leaning against the carved stone archway that passed for the front door of their world.
“With interest,” Catherine replied, smiling.
Jacob hugged his mother and kissed her cheek. “Welcome home, Mom. A box? Huh…do you think that maybe this time she decided to write me with an ancient Sumerian clay scroll?”
“You’ll never know until you open it,” she said, smiling up at her son. Seeing the change this friendship had brought out in him made her feel a warmth inside equal to the first time she had laid eyes on him the night he was born.
“Why not here? You must be more than a little curious, and that never ends well for cats, so I hear.”
“You…did not just make… a cat joke.”
“Guilty as charged.”
Jacob shook his head and joined her in a good laugh. He may not be human, but thanks to his upbringing and a lot of loving support from his family and community, he had developed a very good sense of humor about it. One that, from time to time, was even shared in by his father.
Before he even opened the box, he could smell a scent rising from within it. He knew this smell. He’d experienced it many times on the warm summer breezes blowing in from the gardens in the park.
He carefully opened the box, and within sat one red rose. His heart nearly skipped a beat, several actually. This could only be in reference to his proposal to meet her. Affixed to the stem was a small notecard, folded closed. He removed the note from the box and looked up at his mother with a hint of nerves.
“You might want to read that. It’s kind of part and parcel when receiving flowers.”
“I’m almost afraid to.” He tried to calm himself a bit and then opened the note.
It’s a date, Goofball! See you in two weeks.
Your Pen Pal ~
The stillness of the upper sentry posts was rocked by a single word as it echoed from down below.
* * *
Time was short and Jacob had only one last thing to take off his list before he met Sarah for the first time. A picture for her. This was a task easier said than done in a world devoid of photography, but, as his Grandfather had said, impossibility held no dominion over a Wells.
It was past midnight and the world below slept except for Jacob, who walked his final patrol of the night. “Okay Jack, it’s all yours. Nothing to report out of the ordinary.”
“Thanks, Jake. Have a good night.”
Instead of returning directly home, he made his way to an old storage chamber. It was mostly empty except for the supplies he had left there earlier in the day. Lighting several candles he had left there, he closed his eyes and whispered to the silence of the room, “You out there, buddy?”
“I was out there, but now I’m in here. Hiya Jake!” a voice said from behind him.
Jacob turned to face his friend, one who most thought of only as imaginary. He had been talking with him since he could talk, but now he kept their conversations a bit closer to the vest for fear people would think him nuts. He knew that given how he and his father looked, that fear was unwarranted here, but better safe than sorry.
“Kris, I need an artist.”
“Well, you’re in luck as it just so happens that I am one, or was one? Deceased grammar can be so tricky sometimes. What can I do for you, my young commissioner of the arts?”
“I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, so I don’t have much in the way of art supplies, but I was able to get some charcoal and paper, and I was wondering if you might make a quick portrait sketch of me for a friend. Please?”
“Charcoal and paper huh? No problem, my friend.” Kristopher sat down and took up the drawing board and charcoal sticks. “You know me, just give me a box of crayons and a paper bag and I can give you the Sistine Chapel. Now, strike a pose.”
Kris worked his magic in what seemed like no time at all, then turned the board around to face Jacob. “Aaaaaaaaaand, voila!”
Jacob shook his head in disbelief at how little time it took Kris to make what he saw before him. “You were truly not appreciated in your time.”
“I know, right? Oh well, I can at least be appreciated in my after time. Anything else I can do for ya?”
“Not that comes to mind. Thank you so much. I’d hug you but…”
“I’m here but not here at the same time. Not easy for a hugger like me lemme tell ya, but the smile on your face is more than enough reward. See ya around, Jake.” With that, Kristopher turned and walked toward the doorway, vanishing in the gray area between the light and the shadow.
“Now I know how people feel when I up and vanish in the park. I hope it only looks half that cool.”
* * *
By the rising of the sun tomorrow, it would be time. Jacob carefully packed the last of his things into a large knapsack and cinched it closed. It was time to go up.
Since he had used his mother’s address for his mail deliveries, she had suggested that he meet Sarah at her apartment, and owing to the time it took to get there from down below, she had offered for him to stay with her above to help maintain appearances.
After putting out all the candles in his chamber, he walked down the labyrinth of passages to the point where he would go up. When he entered the library, he stopped in his tracks. Assembled there were his family, minus Catherine, and many of his extended family.
“Did…I…forget to show up for something?” he asked of the crowd.
“This is an auspicious occasion for you, Jacob. We all wanted to wish you well on this new adventure,” Vincent said as he crossed the chamber. He embraced his son and held tightly as if not wishing his little boy to be a man just quite yet. “My son has grown up,” he whispered.
“No, Dad…” he replied, looking slightly down to his father’s eyes as he touched his forehead to his father’s. “I just grew. I’m not ready to surrender the things of my youth just quite yet.”
“I…um…I have something for you, Jacob,” Father said as he approached solemnly. “I was wearing this the day I met your Grandmother Margaret and the day I married her and again the last days we were together. It exists now as a symbol of the triumph of the heart over adversity and distance. May it do so for you as well.” He pinned a small, gold, tie pin engraved with his initials to the lapel of the boy’s vest. He stood before his grandson and opened his arms, comically aware of their difference in height. The boy leaned down and hugged his grandfather, nuzzling his cheek as he did so.” Carpe Diem…”, Father said softly.
“…. quam minimum credula postero,” Jacob replied, finishing his grandfather’s sentiment.
Jacob addressed the assembly. “You all know me well and I bet there isn’t a single one of you who ever thought you would hear me say this, but I’m at a total loss for words. Um…let me just say, thank you. For everything. For this world, I call home and all of you I call family. You all mean more to me than words can ever truly express. I know that you will all be holding my hand in spirit while I’m above, but if you could do me a favor…hold my left hand, because I’m going to need this one to hold hers.” The crowd erupted in cheers and applause in his honor. With that he made his way to the world above.
* * *
One hour after sundown, a tapping to the beat of ‘shave and a haircut’ sounded at the balcony door.
Catherine opened the door and looked up into the beaming face of her son.
“Hi, Mom, I’m hooooooome,” he said, hugging her as he entered.
“Welcome. How’s the park looking for tomorrow?”
“I took a peek at it this afternoon from the South Entrance, and from what I could see from there, this thing is going to be incredible!”
“Great! I really hope it is, Jake. For both of you. Well, you’ve already had the five cent tour years ago, so make yourself at home. Any plans for tonight?”
“Unless you have a chessboard I don’t know about, I’m pretty much open to anything to keep my nerves at bay.”
“Oh, no. I will leave that kind of fun to a professional like your grandfather. I had something else planned.”
“I’m all ears….quite literally, see? “ he said, wiggling and turning his ears this way and that.
“If I didn’t already know it before, I can see why she calls you Goofball,” she said as she walked around the corner and into the kitchen.
“You wouldn’t have me any other way and you know it, Mom,” he called as he sat down on the sofa and put his feet up on a nearby ottoman. His eyes widened as he sniffed the air. “Do I smell popcorn?”
She returned from the kitchen with a large metal bowl filled with popcorn and two smaller bowls. “Nothing gets past that nose of yours, does it?”
“More to the point, nothing gets past this stomach of mine. What’s the occasion?”
“Mother and son movie night. I thought you might need to do a little research before the big day,” Catherine said as she cued up her DVD player.
Jacob looked at her with a bit of confusion. “Research?”
Sitting down beside him, she handed him the case. He chuckled when he saw the familiar characters from the storybook he had been read as a child. “Should I take notes?”
The narration began, ‘Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish and unkind…’
She leaned over the bowl between them, “You know…basically everything you’re not.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m a pretty close second in the body hair and fang category.“
* * *
Jacob had finally managed to fall asleep later that night after several failed attempts. He lay there on his stomach, sprawled on the sofa, looking as if he might fall off at any moment.
“That kid can sleep anywhere. But my God, if I tried to sleep that way, Vincent would be untying the knots in my back and neck for weeks.”
She proceeded to open the shades on the balcony windows, producing the desired effect. Unaccustomed to sunlight as he was, Jacob was immediately awakened by a sunbeam in his face. “What the…riiiiiiiiight the big bright ball of child-waking light in the sky.”
“It’s called the sun. I thought you two should be properly introduced,” she said teasingly.
He rolled over and sat up, his brown locks falling as they may across his face before being tucked away behind his ears. ”No, I’m the son. I don’t care what they told you, but that …thing….is an impostor.” Jacob rose to his feet, stretching out his frame, his arms extended outwards to his sides in a yawn that was one for the ages.
“Since you have your own chamber now, I had forgotten how much of a display you make getting out of bed in the morning.”
“It’s a cat thing.” Jacob walked to the balcony door and went to open it, then paused. The sun was rising over the park and his instincts told him to stop in the shadows; old habits die hard. He opened the door and stepped outside, the morning breeze playing with his hair and tugging at his long muslin shirt which hung half out of the waistline of his trousers. “It’s…so different,” he said, looking out at the city he had, up until now, only seen from the balcony at night.
His mother fought back happy tears when she realized how much of his life experiences would be written anew over the next three days. She was still nervous, as all parents would be, but still it was tempered by hope. “How are you holding up, kiddo?”
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever be doing something like this, let alone seeing all this with someone…I think I like more than I let on to myself that I do.”
“It can be sneaky that way. I remember standing where you are, looking out at the park, knowing your father was down there and had been all my life; wondering if it had all been a dream in the beginning.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s not a dream, Jake. She’s out there, right now. Waiting to meet you.”
He leaned his head over and rested his scruffy cheek her hand. “You have no idea how thankful I am to have parents who know exactly what I am going through right now.”
Catherine hugged her son tightly and, side by side, they watched the remainder of the sunrise together.
“I’ll get some breakfast going. I’m no William, but you’ll survive.”
They returned to the living room, and he gathered up his knapsack and headed for the bathroom. “I hope I don’t completely decimate your supply of dry bath towels. You know how they tremble in fear at the mention of my name at home with as many as it takes to get me properly dry. I apologize in advance.”
“No need to apologize, Jake. Let me introduce you to another marvel of the world above.” She followed him into the bathroom and opened a drawer beside the sink. “Jacob Wells, meet…a Blow Drier.”
“Oh, sweet mystery of life. at last I’ve found you!”
* * *
When Jacob stepped out of the bathroom, he had been completely transformed. Gone was the scruffy, half-awake youth who had entered it. Now, in its place stood a young man in the most formal attire he possessed. It had been made for him by the sewing circle for special occasions and saw the most use at Winterfest. His hair was completely pulled back into a ponytail, per the notes from the night before. His boots had been cleaned up and were now covered by knee length, tan, suede gaiters, his gray dress trousers, bloused out above them. A matching vest covered his bright white dress shirt, tied closed at the neck by a black cravat. Proudly displayed on the vest was a gold tie pin.
“How do I look, Mom?”
For a moment she was speechless. The way he looked reminded her so much of Vincent on their wedding day. “Handsome as always. In the good looks department, the apple didn’t fall far from your father’s side of the tree.”
“Thankfully, my hair came from your side, otherwise I might still be trying to get it to behave itself by the end of festival.”
They both jumped when the buzzer of the intercom beside the front door sounded off. “Mrs. Wells? There’s a Miss Sarah Hancock to see your son. Where would you like me to have her meet him?”
Jacob felt almost faint as Catherine answered the call. “Thank you, David. Please tell Miss Hancock that Jacob will be right down.”
“I’ve heard about him for years, never met him. Have him stop by and say hi on his way out.”
“I’ll do that.” She turned to her son. “Your lady awaits, good sir.”
He walked over to the door, but was stopped, briefly, by his mother. “Hold on a minute, Jake. I have something for you. I so rarely have need for this stuff anymore, except for rent, I almost forgot.” She handed him a clip of money which he put into a pocket inside his dress cloak. “Your Grandpa Charles left a large piece of his estate to me after he passed away. I’ve never really had much use for it since I moved below, and I can think of nothing he would have liked more than to see it go to good use by helping out his grandson.”
“I’m not that well versed on money…is um…is it a lot?”
“It should let you two have a wonderful time together. Now, go get ‘em, Tiger!”
“Lion actually, but thanks for the compliment,” he said with a mischievous grin.
“You just got even for the curiosity thing, didn’t you?”
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeyup. Love you, Mom!”
The doors of the elevator parted, and Jacob exited into the lobby. He looked toward the front doors and there stood Sarah, dressed in a Belle costume that could have come straight from the movie he had watched the night before. “Show time, Jake-o.”
* * *
Sarah stood near the interior doors in a state of nervous excitement. After a year of sharing so much about themselves in their letters, she was finally going to meet the person who had been there for her no matter what, who had shared so much of himself in spite of his physical differences, and most importantly of all, had become the closest, dearest friend she had ever known. She was startled out of her thoughts by a light tapping on her left shoulder. When she turned, she immediately realized that she had willingly fallen victim to one of the oldest jokes in the book. Turning to the right she looked up into the same smiling face from the sketch he had sent her only a few days ago.
“Hi, Sarah. It’s me…Jacob. It’s a pleasure to…”
His greeting was cut short when he found himself enveloped in a hug, one which he gladly returned in kind. If anyone walking past had even noticed the rather out of place couple, it didn’t matter in the least to them at that moment.
When the hug broke, she looked back into his eyes and for the first time, he heard her voice. “Hi, Goofball. It’s great to finally meet you, my friend.”
“You too! You look…beautiful.” He caught himself falling to his emotions and tried to save his statement before he came across as too forward. “Uh…in your Belle costume. It looks just like the show. I took so long getting myself ready this morning, I was afraid I was going to miss our meeting.”
“Turn around, let me look at you.”
Jacob turned a full circle, his cloak flowing out behind him. “What do you think?”
“I think that is the most kick butt costume I have ever seen! How long have you been working on this? It’s fantastic. Your expressions read so well, and I can’t even see the appliance seams on your face, you’ve got them so well concealed. It all looks so real, I mean really real, real. Your contacts, even your hands. I give it twelve out of ten.”
“Thank you. I inherited part of it from my dad and made it my own over the years,” he said, and when he did, all he could think of was ‘hide without hiding’. He was also relieved he didn’t have to lie.
Jacob offered her his arm and gestured towards the lobby doors. “Would you do me the honor of accompanying me to the park, my lady?”
She smiled up at him and wrapped her arm around his, nothing under the fabric of the shirt gave way to her embrace. “You weren’t kidding about being a Tank. Most guys at my school like to think they are, but they are just shallow, self-centered sticks with overblown self-worth.”
Jacob chuckled at her compliment. “Yeah, I’m definitely not a stick. I don’t even think I qualified as a stick when I was born.”
“More like the whole tree, I’d say. You know, the one everyone reads Shakespeare under.”
“I read Shakespeare by a waterfall, personally.”
“In a matter of speaking, yes.”
David opened the exterior doors as the two approached and tipped his hat as he met the pair. “You must be Mrs. Wells’ son. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too, David.”
“I’ve never seen you in the building before. Must be coming and going when I’m off.”
“Hehe, must be.”
On the outside Jacob appeared calm and content; inside he was trying to silence all the warning bells going off in his mind like too many people tapping on the pipes at once. The sun was up, there were people walking about in front of the building, cars and buses were passing by en masse. In mere seconds he would be seen by all of them. He would be out in the open and completely vulnerable.
Then he felt it. The warmth of the morning sun on his face, his dear friend holding his arm, and, although he made it a point to never intentionally read someone’s emotions out of respect for their privacy, he had let the veil down and he could sense her completely and to him, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever experienced in all his eighteen years. The fondness she held for him was giving way to something entirely new. She was falling in love with him. Papa was right; impossibility held no dominion.
They stepped out onto the sidewalk and proceeded to cross the street and join the throngs of other park attendees. As they walked along the path toward the event, Jacob could still not believe this was actually happening. He was walking above in broad daylight surrounded by thousands of Toplanders, and what he felt from passersby were not feelings of revulsion or fear or hatred for his appearance but instead romantic sentiment for what he and Sarah represented to them. He wondered if this was what it felt like to be like everyone else.
“Penny for your thoughts, Kitty.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make it feel as if I were ignoring you, Sarah. Being out in the daylight like this is all so new to me. I was lost in my thoughts.”
“I could tell. You have the cutest kid at Christmas look right now. It’s like looking at someone seeing the world for the first time. You really don’t go outside that much, do you?”
“No. I don’t come up…I mean…go up…uh…go OUT until well after sunset, and even then I have my hood over my head so people can’t see my face.”
“I’d kind of hoped you were exaggerating that part of your life in your letters. Being all dark and mysteriously angsty because I had made a Goth reference or two. You know, like you were living Sonnet 29’s opening just for effect.”
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone, beweep my outcast state.”
“You know that one!”
“Since I was five. I know all of them actually.”
“Ego quoque eruditus,” he said with a chuckle.
“It’s Latin. It means ‘I am too educated’”, he said, wiggling his eyebrows for added effect to impress, at which point they both enjoyed a good laugh. “It’s funny you should mention Sonnet 29.”
“Well, sad to say, I’ve lived parts of it recently.”
Sarah held his arm a little tighter, in a very reassuring way, “Which parts?”
“Well, for a time, I looked upon myself and cursed my fate, with what I most enjoy contented least.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You’re real sweetheart. I’ve known that about you for a long time now. What about now? Still living number 29’s opening, big guy?”
Jacob smiled at her. “Not anymore. I’ve since moved on to ‘Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee — and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”
“Let us review, shall we? Tall, built, educated, knows theater, quotes Shakespeare, and is just as nerdy as I am. Dude, you have officially made me think I won the cosmic lottery.”
“In all honesty, Sarah, I think we both did.”
* * *
“What shall we do first, Kitty?”
“I think it best to follow my grandfather’s advice.”
“What did he tell you?”
“Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.”
“Right. I’m afraid I only barely speak Pig Latin. Could I get that in English?”
It means ‘Seize the day, trust as little as possible in the next one.’”
“Soooooo, go for it.”
By mid-day, the initial nervousness had long passed, and Jacob and Sarah walked hand in hand amongst the pavilions taking in the sights and receiving several compliments on their portrayal of the classic storybook characters, much to his amusement.
Their walking was abruptly interrupted by Jacob’s stomach reminding him just how much time had passed since breakfast. Given how fast his metabolism ran, it was not going to be ignored. “I…am so sorry. It usually isn’t quite so…demanding,” he said with an unmistakable expression of embarrassment. Sarah giggled at his reaction and for a moment, she could have sworn that he looked like he was blushing.
“I was so nervous and excited this morning, I managed to save time for one small muffin in my hotel lobby. What strikes your fancy for food, good sir?”
Jacob took in the scents on the wind but couldn’t pick out one thing he really recognized. “When it comes to food, if it is anywhere within reach of my mouth, it doesn’t last long.” He looked around in the hopes of seeing something he recognized as food. Failing in his quest, he looked back at Sarah.” I’m really out of my element. I think it best if I defer that to your best judgment.”
She took a few steps backwards and extended her arm, thumb raised. She seemed to be measuring him like an artist’s model.
“What are you doing?” he inquired, making his own head tilt of curiosity.
“Mmmmmmhum, just what I thought. You strike me as someone who has been deprived the joy of pizza.”
“You would be right. I’ve heard of it, never had it.”
“Time to get caught up with all things teenager, mister.”
Jacob removed his cloak and laid it on the grass in the shade of a large tree nearby while Sarah retrieved lunch for them. Upon her return, he stood up from his makeshift picnic blanket and accepted the rather large white and red checkered box she had offered him.
“Now before you dig in, I have to warn you, I will not be responsible for any funky dreams this gives you later on tonight.”
“Duly noted,” he said as he opened the box that now rested in his lap. His eyes went wide at the site of two enormous slices of pizza that resided within. “Good Heavens! Is one of these yours?”
“I got my own, Kitty. You’re a biiiiig boy and from the sound your tummy made, I really don’t think you’re going to have any problems finding room for that.”
“For someone who just met me in person this morning, you know me all too well,” he said, raising the first slice out of the box. He opened wide and his fangs became fully visible.
“Don’t you have to take those out?”
He paused before his first bite. “Take what out?”
“Your dentures. Don’t they have to come out to eat?”
“My den…OH, no I, um, I can eat with them in. No problem there.”
“Your makeup skills never cease to amaze me. Well, dig in then.”
Relieved to have not had to explain things more than he wanted to, Jacob took his first taste of Toplander comfort food. As the flavors and textures danced across his palate, he made a mental note to have William investigate the possibility of adding this to his menu plans.
The remainder of their first outing was spent, listening to the numerous music venues on the docket that day and looking at the event schedule to plan the next day. With the setting of the sun, the two were walking hand in hand once more. They had left the festival grounds and were walking along the paths flanking the lake as the lights began to come on.
“Is this how it looks when you walk here?”
“It’s beginning to.”
“Is this where you come with your family?
“Not quite.” He pointed farther ahead of them. “We usually walk around the carousel, over that way.”
A sudden rush of cool night air charged past the couple and Sarah was pleasantly surprised by his reaction. “Here…” He raised his arm and draped the side of his cloak over her shoulders, drawing her to his side and gently placing his arm around her. “Better?”
She seemed to be in the same state of wonder and awe that had consumed him that morning as they entered the park. Where had he been all her life, she pondered. Not only did they share so many common interests as to be able to talk all day and never exhaust the topics at hand, but all day long he had responded to her needs before she ever gave words to them. Eventually she was able to regain enough of her wits from dreamland to answer him with a soft, “Mmmmm. Warm Kitty is warm, although I am seriously rethinking your nicknames.”
“Really? What could possibly be more appropriate than Kitty or Goofball?“
“Well, you said your friends call you Tank and I get that one.” She playfully poked him in the side. “Ooooooooh, someone is ticklish? Gonna have to remember that one. But to me, Tank doesn’t seem to fit. You’re way too kind to be nicknamed after a weapon. Goofball still works, but right now. I’m going to have to go with Teddy Bear.”
He smiled in approval. “From my given name to Goofball to Kitty and now Teddy Bear. I seem to be moving up the ranks quite nicely.”
“Keep this up and I might just have to add Gentle Giant to the mix.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to use that to describe me, but you would be in very good company.”
The time was growing later and having not slept very well the night before was finally beginning to catch up with them as they made their way back to the Catherine’s building. When they arrived at the front door, the night doorman signaled for a cab to return her to her hotel.
When the cab pulled up, she hugged him tightly saying, “Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night ‘til it be morrow.”
Jacob took her hands in his and without any hesitation softly spoke, “Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast. Would I were Sleep and Peace, so sweet to rest. Be well, Sarah.”
He watched the cab drive away and out of sight, and with a deep, contented sigh, he entered the building and pressed the elevator call button. When the doors opened, he entered into the landing and rounded the corner to the door of 21E, which opened as if someone had been waiting. “And here I thought I was the empath.”
“You still are,” came a familiar voice from the balcony, ”but tonight your mother has a slight advantage in your absence.”
Catherine closed the door behind him as he proceeded to remove his cloak and lay it across the back of the sofa. “Hi, Dad.”
“You will be happy to know, Jacob, that despite our bond, I did everything in my power to not accidentally eavesdrop on you today. But…now that we are all together as a family, I believe things went rather well for the two of you?”
They sat together around the dining table for a condensed version of the day’s events before Jacob could collapse into blissful slumber.
“I don’t even know where to begin. In only one day I’ve felt the sun on my face for the first time, walked the streets and the paths of Central Park in broad daylight, been complimented on my appearance by complete strangers in a very positive way, eaten pizza, which William needs to learn how to make by the way, listened to live music, watched incredibly talented actors ply their trade, and on top of that we spent a lot of the time just talking and sharing of ourselves and our experiences. I am left filled with a warmth and completeness I’ve never known, at least not like this. I get it now. What you felt when Mom held you the first time.” He closed his eyes for a moment and his smile grew all the warmer. “And I still feel her.”
Catherine took Vincent’s hand in hers as Jacob told them about his first meeting with Sarah and for both of them, his descriptions of how and what he felt, and was still feeling, took them back twenty years.
Vincent rose to his feet and donned his cloak. He hugged his son proudly. “You found your harbor, but the journey for you both has only just begun. Have faith in yourselves and in this dream, and you will always find safe harbors together just as we did.”
“With role models like you two, how could I not succeed?” Jacob said as he pulled both of them into a family hug.
Catherine walked Vincent out to the balcony and bid him good night. They talked a bit more about their son’s adventures that day before he returned below. When she returned inside, she found Jacob back in his muslin sleep shirt and pants, sprawled out once more on the sofa. She remembered all the times she had seen him that way when he was little and couldn’t help but indulge herself a little now that she had the chance.
Carefully and quietly she drew the comforter up and tucked it in around him. Gently brushing the hair from his face, she could still see the little boy that lived in her heart as she kissed his cheek good night.
* * *
Jacob thought he had been excited the morning before, but now, having met Sarah, he discovered that he was going to have to seriously change the way he defined that word. He sat up on the sofa yawning widely before he performed his morning stretch in a way that would have made even the most skilled yoga Instructor envious.
“Did you sleep any better last night?” his mother asked, handing him a steaming cup of tea.
He hovered his nose over the cup, inhaling the scent as he was wont to do. “Oooooh, citrus. Thanks, Mom! As for how I slept last night, I’m afraid I can’t say. I slept right through it.”
Catherine had always cherished how her son loved life, even when it seemed to be so cruel to him at times growing up. It never ceased to make her smile. “I will take that as a yes.”
“I hope Sarah slept as well as I did. It seems neither of us found it easy to lose ourselves in the arms of Morpheus the night before.”
“I’m sure she did.”
Jacob reached for a silver pocket watch that lay atop its coiled chain on the end table beside him. “Plenty of time to spruce myself up. No, wait…” He spoke with an overly flamboyant and cliched tone of an actor. “I must remain in Ker-eck-tor. Beasts do not spr-r-r-r-ruce up, we gr-r-r-r-r-oom and pr-r-r-r-reen ourselves!”
Catherine could only shake her head and try, with little success, to stifle her laughter.
He finished his tea and retired to the bathroom, but not before,once more attempting to make his mother laugh. “I am but a poor player who frets and struts his moment upon the stage and then is heard no more,” he said, ending with a bow.
“Hit the showers, kiddo.”
Before he left that morning, he had a surprise in store for his mother.
“All set for day two, Jake?”
“I’m more than set, but I have something I’d like to ask you.”
“Would you like to meet her?”
Catherine was torn. On the one hand, she didn’t want to intrude on their precious time together, but she did want to thank the young lady for the incredibly positive impact she had made in Jacob’s life.
“I sense the gears are a’turnin’. Let me help you with that. I would like you to meet her. “
She smiled. “Motherly dilemma averted.”
They walked out the front door together and as she went to lock it, she suddenly noticed. ”Your cloak, you forgot it. Want me to grab it before the elevator gets here?”
“I’m going without it today,” he said with a tone of liberation in his voice. “I wear that thing every time I come up to hide my face, but I don’t have to hide anymore. Well, for today and tomorrow at any rate.”
“New experience for both of us, I guess.”
He offered her his arm. “May I have the honor of walking in public with my mother?”
“The honor is all mine,” she said as they stepped into the elevator.
The doors parted and the two walked out together. “There she is. Looks like she’s got more than one Belle outfit. That looks like the snowball fight dress. Good thing for me it hasn’t snowed yet.”
“Good Morning, Sarah,” Jacob managed to get out before he was once more bear hugged in the lobby.
“Quite the hug you have there. I’m guessing you slept as well as I did last night.”
“I had enough energy left for a quick shower, a call home to Gran, she says hi by the way, and then I passed out hard.”
“When you see her again, please pass along my greetings. Sarah, I would like you to meet my mother.”
“Hi, I’m Catherine. It’s so nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Mrs. Wells.”
“I don’t want to embarrass Jacob too badly, but speaking for both his father and myself, we are very grateful for the difference you’ve made in his life. “
“Thank you. He’s made a big difference in mine too, especially when the anniversary of my parents’ death came around. Hit me hard this year.”
“Jacob told us about your struggle with their loss. I lost my mother when I was that age, so I know where you’re coming from. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m happy to say, Goofball here saved the day on that one.”
“Goofball? Oh no, I’ve been demoted.”
“No, you haven’t, Teddy. I just didn’t want that one to be overused until it was properly run in.”
“Sorry, Mom. That falls squarely under the statutes of Pen Pal Privilege.”
“I love it when my son uses my profession against me,” she said, playfully elbowing him in the side.” I should let you two go. More adventure awaits. See you tonight, kiddo,” she said, hugging him farewell.
* * *
The day had gone just as splendidly as the one before. By mid-morning, they found themselves once more consulting the festival’s events directory when Jacob suddenly looked behind them as if searching for something.
“What’s up, Kitty?”
“I don’t know it…yes, there,” he said, taking her by the hand and leading them through the crowds. Sarah had no idea what he was up to, but he seemed like he knew exactly where he was going, even as he changed direction several times.
As they approached a little girl, he let go of her hand and knelt down in front of the small child. “Hello sweetheart. Are you lost?”
The little girl nodded but had not yet looked up at him. “I thought so. Sarah, do you see any police officers?”
She looked around but none were in sight from her vantage point. “I don’t see any, no.”
The little girl looked up and came face to face with Jacob. Her eyes went wide, and he could feel fear beginning to take hold of her. She wasn’t afraid of him, for the most part, but more from losing her sense of security from having become separated from her family.
Sarah could see in her face what he could sense within her, and without a moment’s hesitation she went into the performance of her life. “Hi there. My name’s Belle. What’s your name, cutie?”
“Maria” came the quiet and uncertain reply.
“Maria, I’d like you to meet a dear friend of mine, Prince Jacob. I know he looks like a big and scary beast, but he’s really kind and gentle.”
“Yes, I am. Say…would you like to see me do a trick?”
She nodded shyly.
Jacob smiled. “Okay then…push my nose.”
Maria hesitated and looked at Sarah who followed his lead.
“Why don’t we do it together?” she said, putting her finger to the tip of his nose. Maria followed suit. “Here we go!” Together they pressed his nose.
Jacob began to purr and wiggle his ears, much to the delight of both of them. If Sarah had thought his costume had been lifelike before, this certainly added to her opinion of the craftsmanship that he had put into it.
“I’m glad you both liked that,” he said with a chuckle. “Now let’s see about finding your parents, Maria. May I pick you up so you can see better over the crowd? You might be able to find your parents if I did.”
She thought about it for a moment, then held her arms out to him. Jacob carefully picked the little girl up and stood to his full height to give her a better view of the people around her, at least he wanted to make it look like that. In truth, he was sensing the crowd and comparing her emotional signature to that of people around them, looking for a match. Within seconds, he found what he was looking for. The one person out of thousands that milled about, with as strong a sense of longing and fear that matched Maria’s own. “Is that your mommy over there, Maria?”
“MOMMY!!”, the girl called out elatedly.
Jacob set her down and she ran toward her mother who likewise was running toward them. It was a happy reunion. Jacob, mostly out of habit, began to retreat from the scene, his mission accomplished but was stopped by the girl’s mother.
“I don’t know how to thank you. Here…”, she said as she retrieved her billfold.
He had done so much for so many people over the years, most of whom never even saw him, only the results of his assistance, that the act of being thanked had caught him completely by surprise. “I…appreciate the gesture but that won’t be necessary, ma’am. Bye bye, Maria. You stay close to your mommy for me, okay?”
The little girl nodded.
Two patrol officers approached the group from behind another cluster of tents. “Did you find her, ma’am?”
“Yes! These two found her. Thank you for helping look.”
“Our pleasure, ma’am.”
“And who are you supposed to be, pal?” asked one of the officers as Jacob and Sarah turned to walk away.
“Me? I’m just your friendly neighborhood Lion-man”, Jacob said over his shoulder with a mischievous grin.
“Don’t you mean Teddy Bear?” Sarah whispered to him.
“That too,” he whispered back, nuzzling her cheek.
* * *
Music began to draw crowds to Wollman Rink, which had been converted to a dance floor for the festival. They watched the goings-on there for several minutes before curiosity got the best of Sarah.
“Do you dance, Kitty?”
“I suppose that depends on what you think of as dancing. I’m not that well versed on contemporary moves.”
“I think of it as making yourself look like a complete idiot on the dance floor but having so much fun doing it that you just don’t care.”
“Then yes…yes, I do know how to dance.”
They stepped out onto the dance floor and, following her lead, Jacob cut loose. He had to admit that letting it all go was rather fun. The pounding of the beat and the make it up as you go, high energy moves were quite appealing to his feral side, which always enjoyed it when he got his heart pounding.
After a time, they retired from the dance floor to catch their breath and enjoy a cold drink to cool off with.
“And you said you weren’t sure you could dance,” she said, leaning back against him as they sat under a shade tree. “You could have fooled me. I’m glad you gave it a try.”
“Do or do not, there is no try.”
“Wait a minute! You just quoted Star Wars.”
“I thought you didn’t go to the movies?”
“I don’t. I have, however, read just about all of the books from that epic.”
“A student of Shakespeare and Star Wars, yup Goofball, you have had quite the education.”
The music changed to a slower tempo and drew his attention once more to the dance floor.
“Oh, I know this one! I loved that movie!!” she said.
“What is it? I don’t recognize it.”
“It’s So Close from Enchanted. If they make a book about it, I am so getting you a copy.”
Jacob got to his feet and helped Sarah to stand. “May I have this dance, my lady?”
The couple walked out to the dance floor hand in hand. The memories of the movie he and his mother had watched came flooding back to him. He stood tall and proud with as majestic an air as he could project, going so far as to hold his free hand behind his back.
“I’m not sure what to do,” she said with a hint of nerves. The dance floor had substantially cleared out when the slow dance had begun, and he could sense that she was feeling a little unsure and very self-conscious.
“Just focus on me and nothing else. Follow my lead and let your heart do the rest.”
Sarah nodded as he took her in his arms and the dance began. The world and her fears seemed to melt away as they moved about the dance floor. As the song played on, he could feel her confidence building along with her happiness. He closed his eyes for a moment and let her feelings and his flow through him, adding to the wonder of this moment. For several measures of the song, she rested her head beneath his chin, eventually to be joined by his resting gently atop hers.
When the melody rose towards its big finish, the blissful couple spun and twirled, their eyes never parting from the loving gaze of the other.
“Big finish,” he whispered to her as she felt herself lifted from the ground and spun with him several times as a huge smile graced both their faces.
The song ended as he returned her to her feet. They stood there for a moment in silence, their eyes still locked, holding each other’s hands. Suddenly, the moment was broken by thunderous applause and cheers. Both of them looked about, startled out of their blissful state. It abruptly dawned on the couple that somewhere in the midst of their dancing, people had stopped to watch and had formed a large circle around them.
“Well…” she said over the cheering, “let’s take a bow, Goofball.” They held hands and bowed to the crowd, which made them cheer all the more. “I could get used to this.”
* * *
Still basking in the afterglow of their unexpected fifteen minutes of fame, Sarah and Jacob walked hand in hand down one of the many paths north of the rink on their way to the carousel. Jacob’s ability to sense others could, at times, become very distracting white noise in his mind. He had learned with time to create a mental mute button to allow him better focus. Even with the help of his self-taught mental discipline, he had been intentionally moving farther and farther away from the crowds. Right now, he wanted only to focus on the incredibly pleasant feelings flowing between himself and his companion. But his guard down, their bliss was about to be abruptly terminated.
With a loud, concussive thud, Jacob was struck squarely in the gut by an undetected assailant, sending him stumbling backwards and crashing over a low metal fence, tearing open the back of his vest and shirt as his momentum deposited him onto a large mass of rock rising above the grassy path. Stunned only for a moment, he was now aware of the situation. It took a predator to sense one, and he detected two coming dangerously close to Sarah, who stood there in shock at what had just taken place.
“Well, well, looks like your big friend there wasn’t too much use to you today, lady. Now be nice and just hand over the bag.”
“..what?” she muttered, still not completely there.
“Your bag, bitch, hand it over,” the second said, stepping out into view from behind a thick stand of trees, sporting a pistol tucked into his belt.
“Leave…her…alone,” came a deep and threatening voice from the rocks behind the would-be thieves.
“Hey, hey, lookie here. Mister tough guy thinks he can take us both on? Ain’t that rich!”
“I don’t think anything…I know,” he said just before he launched off of the rock from his crouched position and landed between Sarah and those who sought to do her harm. He stood there, eyes locked on them, half crouched in a defensive posture, a deep growl rising from his throat and his fangs bared. Within seconds, her gentle giant was becoming something else entirely before her very eyes.
Sarah gasped when she saw through the torn back of his clothing that as he growled, the hackles on his back stood straight up as his claws, which had been barely visible, slid out into full view.
“Whatever there, Bruce Lee. In case you hadn’t noticed, You’re goin’ up against a baseball bat and a nine mill. What do you say to that, huh?”
Jacob knew by now that they weren’t going to back down as he gave them fair warning of his intentions. “Cry HAVOC! And let slip the dogs of war.”
He roared his fury and charged forward toward his first target. The mugger frantically attempted to draw his pistol but could not bring it to bear before Jacob grabbed him by both wrists and tackled him to the ground. Once his prey had been pinned, Jacob snarled and bore down, bringing the full weight of his upper body onto the man’s wrist, shattering it like eggshells, the gun clattering out of reach of his now useless hand.
Once he knew the pistol was no longer a threat, Jacob twisted his torso to the side, coming down onto his prey a second time, backhanding him. The man’s head snapped to the side as his attacker’s hand made contact, two teeth flying from his mouth in its wake. Another loud roar was the last thing he remembered hearing before he blacked out.
In a panic, his partner in crime swung the bat like a golf club, striking Jacob in the side of his ribcage. He roared out in both pain and rage as he turned on his new objective, while he menacingly rose up to his full height.
Looking up at the enraged beast before him, the mugger realized far too late that he should have run. Jacob grabbed the bat from his hand and snapped it in two across his leg. With it now fully raised, he kicked forward, his boot heel catching the man in the center of his chest and sending him flying backwards against a tree. He slid down to the ground, whimpering and gasping.
Jacob picked him up by the front of his shirt and brought his face to his own. “I couldn’t hear you. Would you mind saying that again?”
The thug repeated what he had said in the sputtering voice of someone who had had the wind knocked out of them. “Please…don’t…kill…me…”
“I’m not going to kill you, but if you ever threaten an innocent person again and I catch wind of it, I might just have to change my mind.” With that he dropped the man to the ground beside the remains of his hardwood bat.
With a snarl, he turned to the sound of a police officer running toward them, drawn by the sound of the decidedly one-sided fight.
He turned his attention to Sarah. He frantically looked her over. “Are you all right?” She was still in a state of shock and was unable to answer him. He looked over his shoulder once more and saw that a second officer had joined in converging on them. Still running on instinct now fueled by his fear of being discovered, Jacob picked her up and, carrying her in his arms, ran as fast as his legs would carry him for the nearest entrance to the world below.
* * *
The park seemed to race past her in a blurry fog. She was aware that she was unharmed and being carried. In a counter tempo to the pounding of boots on the pavement, she could hear his breathing, like large bellows on a blacksmith’s furnace.
She wasn’t sure how long this had gone on, when everything around her went dark and all she could hear was the sound of his feet echoing all around her. The sudden change from light to darkness and the abrupt change in temperature that accompanied it was enough to start bringing her around.
She was now aware that he was walking, but it felt more and more like he was staggering. Sarah looked around, and saw they were moving through a concrete tunnel of some kind, illuminated by a few remaining operable work lights. They came to a junction, and he gently set her down to stand once more. She looked into his eyes and what she saw was not what she had feared she would. There was no anger, no savagery or blood lust in them, only a look of concern as they once more looked for any sign that she had been injured.
She watched him walk into a walled off junction that looked to be a dead end. He paused at the wall before him and pressed on several seemingly random bricks. When the last was depressed, they all popped forward again to the sound of a mechanical clunking as the bricked-up passageway slid open to his right.
He turned to her and softly spoke, his voice choked by pain and sadness. “Sarah, come with me…please? There are things I must tell you. We’re not safe here, but we will be in there.”
She hesitated for only a moment, then caught sight of his eyes again. They were the eyes of her gentle giant, and she stepped through the portal with him.
The wall slid shut behind him, and he sighed with relief that they were now safe in his world. That feeling of relief, however, was tempered by the return of feelings he had experienced the month before near the Whispering Gallery. He sat down on a stack of shoring timbers that lay against the wall and beckoned her closer. “I don’t bite, I just look that way,” he said, trying to sound like the friend he prayed she still saw before her.
Sarah sat beside him and waited for whatever was to come next, unsure of what to say or do.
He was afraid to speak, afraid he would not find the words. “The valiant taste of death but once.”
She looked at him with a puzzled expression before he continued, “I was…uh…giving myself a pep talk.” Sarah could not help but notice that as he spoke his ears seemed to droop a little and his face seemed pale.
“Are you okay?”
“I’ve endured worse beat downs than that. I’m more worried about you.”
“I’m fine. They never laid a hand on me.”
Although that news had calmed him somewhat, he still had a difficult task ahead of him. He had lived by a code of honesty all his life; right now the one thing that frightened him more than anything else was the truth.
“Sarah…I…I know you must feel like everything you thought you knew about me just went up like the Hindenburg, but I want you to know that everything I have ever told you about me was absolutely true. That I’m physically different; that I live apart from the rest of the world you know; that I’m protected by the people I live with; all of it was true. This is what I really look like. These tunnels are where I live.” He paused and looked away for a moment while he composed himself. “What you saw when I took down those thugs in the park is also part of what I am. It’s that part of me that I’ve learned to make peace with, but it’s also a part of me that frightens others when it’s unleashed, even when it’s for a good cause.”
He placed his hand on top of hers. “The only time I have ever lied to you was telling you that this was a costume. I didn’t want to, but my desire to meet the person who had so vastly changed my life for the better compelled me to come up with a story to explain my body somehow. The library where I live has hundreds of books at our disposal, but not a single volume holds any sage advice for telling someone you really like that you aren’t human. “
“You’re not human,” she echoed him in a mix of astonishment and acceptance. “That sure does explain a few things I’ve noticed about you.” Sarah pondered on that revelation for only a moment. “Is Catherine really your…”
“Mother? Yes, yes, she is. She lives here with my father and me. The apartment is where she works. It was the only address I had access to, so I went with it.”
“And your father?”
“Where do I even begin?”
“You could always follow the wisdom of Lewis Carroll.”
He thought on it for a moment. “Begin at the beginning and go on ‘til you come to the end. Then stop?”
“That’d be it.”
“Okay, down the rabbit hole we go. I am the son of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. My father was born as the result of the experimentation of a literal mad scientist. He was an absolute genius, but what he had in intellect, he was completely devoid of in morals. His research, for lack of a better word for it, led to my father being born. He was supposed to be the ultimate weapon and he is, but not in the way that man intended. He isn’t a weapon of war. He defends those who cannot defend themselves, as do I.”
“What about you? Were you….”
“Created? No. My father was the result of an experiment. I was born out of love, pure and simple.”
Sarah brought her free hand to rest atop his. “I can tell.” With any fears she may have had now vanquished, it was her turn to be completely honest with him. “All I knew about you came from your words. They were kind, funny, uplifting, supportive; they came from the heart. They came from who you are. I had a pretty good idea of your soul long before I ever saw what contained it. You’ve always been there for me, Goofball. Even when I was nothing more than words on a page from one state away, you cared about me. When I totally lost it at the anniversary of my parents’ death last year, you could have just said, ‘screw this emo nut job — I’m out’, but you didn’t. You helped me to get through it. Now it’s my turn to be there for you. No way in hell, I am ever going to change how I feel about you or fear you or distance myself from you just because you’re…”
“Okay, that’s like the bazillionth time you’ve finished one of my sentences in the last two days. It’s like you’re….”
“Reading your mind?”
“You…you’re not really…are you?”
“No. Whatever my father and I are, we’re both highly empathic, myself more so. Thoughts have emotions attached and I can sense them if I choose to. It’s just a sensory version of fill in the blanks game, really. I’ve…been reading you since you got here. My bad.”
“That’s okay. It’s a part of you, too. It might take me a little time to get used to, but I’m cool with it. So…what’s the Force telling you now, Obi Wan?” she asked, closing her eyes and trying her best to silence the clutter in her head.
Jacob felt her fully in his mind and took a jagged breath as a tear rolled down his cheek when he felt what she hoped he would. “I…I love you too, Sarah.” He leaned forward and placed his forehead to hers.
“The Force is strong with this one,” she told him, placing her hand to his cheek and wiping the tear with her thumb.
They lingered in the moment for several minutes before Jacob broke the silence. “You two can come out now.”
When Sarah looked up, she saw Catherine step out from the next junction, then look back over her shoulder.
“I figured you’d make your way up when the fight broke out. It’s all right, Dad, she knows about us.”
“Hello, again, you two.” Catherine said as they approached.
Sarah’s eyes widened briefly as the near visage of her friend walked into view to stand beside her. “I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say you’re Jacob’s father?”
“People say there’s a strong family resemblance, but I don’t see it. Sarah, you already know my mother, allow me to introduce my father, Vincent,” he said as he attempted to stand.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she stood up and strode over to him and shook his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wells.”
Vincent chuckled at her exuberance. “My father is Mr. Wells, and few have ever called him that. Please, you may call me Vincent.”
When Jacob stepped farther into the light, Catherine saw how deathly pale he was, “Jacob! Are you all right?”
“I…” was all he could say before he crumpled to the floor unconscious.
* * *
Sarah sat in Jacob’s favorite chair in the library listening to the strange metallic clanking echoing around the chamber. She hoped that by focusing her attention on that mystery sound, that it might, somehow, keep her concern for him in the low sweat stage.
From behind her she could hear footsteps descending the spiral staircase. ”Hello! You must be Sarah. I’m sorry we’ve kept you waiting in here by yourself, dear. We must seem terrible hosts, but Father thought it best that if Jacob’s injury was severe, that you be spared seeing what it might take to treat it.”
She stood to greet Mary. “Is he going to be alright, Mrs. ….um.”
Taking her by the hands, Mary smiled back, which Sarah took as a sign that things weren’t as bad as she’d feared. “My name is Mary. I’m Jacob’s Nana. It looked worse than it was, thank heavens.”
Another figure began to descend the stairs. “Miss Hancock, I presume. I am happy to report that he is going to be just fine, if not a little bit slower for the next few days from bruises and a bit of muscle strain.”
“If his descriptions of you all were as spot on as everything else, I’m going to say you’re his…Papa?”
“You would be correct. Now that the crisis at hand has been dealt with, I would like to welcome you on behalf of our entire community to our little corner of the world, my dear. “
“Thank you. How bad was he hurt?”
“Well, he sustained mild trauma to three of his ribs. None of them was broken, thank goodness, but they were dislocated. His loss of consciousness was caused by the inability to breathe deeply enough after his sustained exertion. For anyone else, that would have happened almost immediately but, fortunately for all of us, he is of a much hardier stock than just anyone else.“
“No kidding. I froze up like a deer in a headlight, and to think, he carried me in that condition for God knows how far. I feel guilty. His hefting my dead weight could have made it worse.”
“It would not have mattered to him in the least in that instance. What Jacob did to protect you and see you to safety surprises no one here, Sarah. It is simply who he is,” Vincent said, as he approached the gathering.
“Quite true, Vincent, quite true. My grandson has grown to be the embodiment of noblesse oblige. I’ve known him all his life, and yet I don’t think there will ever be a time when his selfless devotion to others won’t leave me feeling anything less than utter reverence.“
Father, Vincent, and Mary all looked toward the ceiling simultaneously, leaving Sarah a little baffled as she too looked up to try to figure out what had attracted their attention. She couldn’t see anything that struck her as unusual. All she saw were two chandeliers and several pipes running between them, stretching from one doorway to another above the catwalk.
“Ah, good. He’s coming out of it.”
“Coming out of what?” she asked of Father.
“Before I set his ribs back into place, I thought it best to mildly sedate him lest he come to from the additional pain and reflexively start swinging. The last thing I would ever want is for him to deck me. The only time I want to be severely beaten by him is at a chessboard,” he said, chuckling as he began to usher her up the stairs.
“A wiser decision no doctor has ever made, Father.”
* * *
His head was still in a fog from having passed out, and the slight sting he still felt in his arm suggested that Papa had shot him up with something. He became aware of the pipes and felt a sudden relief that he was home. Where was she? He couldn’t remember how he got here or whether or not she had come with him. There was no sense of how much time had passed, and he had not yet heard a time call from the pipes to tell him. For all he knew, he had been out for days and she was gone.
He felt his hand gently lifted off the mattress and clasped by two unseen hands which felt small compared to his own. His ability to sense the world around him was next to useless when he was drugged like this, but his other senses more than made up for its temporary absence. He caught her scent, and he became filled with joy once more.
“Hey there, Teddy,” came a familiar voice.
His eyes slowly opened and he found himself looking up into the face of the love of his life. “If this is a dream, I am going to be very upset when I wake up,” he joked.
“Nope, I’m afraid I’m really here and you’re stuck with me, dude.”
“Oh no, I’m stuck looking at beauty incarnate. What ever shall I do?”
“Well, for starters you can keep flattering the crap out of me like that all you want.”
“I intend to.”
Father didn’t want to interrupt the two, but as a doctor and concerned grandfather, he had duties to attend to. “And how are we feeling, hmm? A bit easier to breathe now, is it?”
“Much easier, Papa, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me just yet. You still have to suffer my bedside manner for a few more hours,” he said, sitting on the opposite side of the bed as he began to check the sound of Jacob’s breathing. “Everything sounds just as it should. Do you have any other discomfort that we don’t know about?
“It only hurts when I laugh and breathe and move and swallow or think and…I really have to pee, but other than that, I feel great.”
“You’ll be happy to know, Sarah, that he is exhibiting all the signs of being his usual self. I would also like to say that I wholeheartedly approve of his nickname. Jacob is most definitely a goofball.”
“Can I pick them or what!” she said, playfully fist bumping Father’s shoulder.
“You can indeed.” He returned her fist bump. “I hope that was the appropriate gesture to use in return. It has been quite some time since I was you age, and I find that I am a little out of date.”
“You nailed it, Papa.”
“Like a pro.”
“Well, then it would seem that this old dog can learn a few new tricks now and then. Jacob, Sarah, I hate to be the bearer of bad new, but you need to get some rest, my boy. Let your body work its magic.”
Jacob looked at Sarah with a panicked expression when he realized how short their time together was growing. “Will I see you again?”
“Like I said, I’m not going anywhere. You’re stuck with me.”
“Not to worry, Jacob. Your mother will be guiding Sarah back down tomorrow morning. I know you will quite happy to learn that this will not be her only visit here. Before you awoke, we had a brief but lovely conversation, in which Sarah expressed great interest in helping our world. You will be happy to learn she’s one of us now.”
“But what about the rules for the gradual introduction into our world, Papa?” he asked with a tone that suggested to Sarah that he was teasing his grandfather.
“As the de facto leader of our community, I do possess the right to, as you put it, ‘bend the living dickens’ out of the rules when needs be. I know how much Catherine means to your father, and I should have been as cordial with your mother in the beginning. It was a grievous lack of foresight on my part back then and a mistake I do not intend to repeat with you.”
Jacob nodded settling back into the pillows a little as fatigue began to overtake him.
Sarah kissed his forehead and whispered to him, “Sleep…perchance to dream…of me.”
Father escorted Sarah from the hospital chamber and back to the library to collect her things before heading up.
“Okay, I have a question, Father.”
“And what is that?”
“I know he can read my emotions like a book, but back there you said you were going to let his body work its magic. I’m guessing he doesn’t fly around like Peter Pan, but is there anything else I should be aware of?”
Father chucked at her question. “I have often referred to Jacob and his father’s abilities as magical. Please forgive me and allow me to explain. You see, my dear, their bodies possess the ability to heal far faster than you or I. For anyone else, four dislocated ribs would take days or sometimes weeks to fully recover from. By the time you return tomorrow, Jacob will most likely be only vaguely sore in that area.”
“So, I can smoosh-huggle the stuffing out of him?”
“Huggle, yes. Smoosh, I’m not sure he would want to have his ribs reset twice in as many days.”
“I’ll do my best not to ruin your handiwork.”
* * *
Sarah was not a notoriously early riser, but in the last three days, she had found more than one reason to be one. She hastily gathered her things and an extra hoodie and made for the elevator.
She piled herself into a cab excitedly. “135 Central Park West, please.”
“You going to the Festival in the park, Miss?”
“No.” she replied, smiling. “I’m headed for somewhere much better.”
Catherine was out front to meet her when she arrived. “Good Morning, Sarah! Ready for a bit of a hike to breakfast?”
“I’m more than ready. How is he?”
“Not quite ready to show off his feline flexibility in the morning, but much better.”
They walked back into the building, and as they entered, Sarah looked over her shoulder. “Isn’t it over that way somewhere?”
“Many of them are, if you know where to look, but this one I think, you’ll find is the best route right now.”
Catherine opened the door to the main stairwell and led the way down to the basement garage. They walked across to the south wall of the garage where she unlocked and opened a storage closet. It was filed with legal file boxes, some odds and ends, and one large wooden packing crate. “I made arrangements years ago with the building manager to use this old room as my personal storage space.” She lifted the corner of the crate, and it hinged up like the hatchback of a car, exposing a hole in the wall and a very well used set of metal rungs. “After you.”
Sarah put on her backpack and carefully began climbing down the rungs. Once her eyes had adjusted to the light, she found herself in a narrow brick-lined corridor left over from the building’s construction. At the far end, multiple bricks had been removed, creating a hole large enough for a person to easily pass through. When she and Catherine had stepped through the opening, Sarah was amazed to find that it connected to multiple walled corridors going off in any number of directions. “I hope this world has good GPS.”
“That would make things easier. Vincent had to guide me for most of the first year we were together. I always got the feeling that he really didn’t mind too much. I remember the first time I made the trip on my own. I was so nervous. When I reached the entrance to his world, he was waiting there for me with a look of such pride on his face. He handed me something he had asked the school children to decorate for him, and he told me he had been saving it for that occasion.”
“What was it?”
“A gold star. I still have it.”
Eventually, the brick and concrete tunnels gave way to candlelit bedrock and the cool outflow of moist air. It reminded her of the caverns she had visited with her Gran. Several long and winding staircases later, and there in the light of two watch fires stood her gentle giant. He was leaning against a stone archway and smiling from ear to ear. “Come here often, ladies?”
“I think it’s safe to say seeing your face is going to become my new favorite thing,” she said as he approached them.
“Charm and good looks are just a cross I must bear. Nothing I can do about it, I’m afraid.”
He kissed his mother on the cheek and wished her a good morning, before she went on ahead of them. Jacob then smiled down at Sarah and took her into his arms. She hugged back, quite gently by her standards this time.
She looked him over. “Well, you don’t seem to have sprung any leaks, so I must not have hugged you too hard.”
“Like I said, I’m a Tank. It takes a lot to really knock me out of the game. Hasn’t happened all that often, I’m happy to say.”
“All that often? I’m not sure I like the sound of that. Should I be concerned?”
“Not at all. I don’t make it a habit to get in harm’s way.”
“Good. Because if something were ever to happen to you, I would personally nurse you back to health so I could kill you.”
“I’ll be far more wont to duck then, the next time someone ties to use me for batting practice.”
“Good Kitty,” she said, reaching up to playfully pet the top of his head.
He made his signature purring sound, ears and all.
* * *
After a cordial breakfast in the company of Jacob’s family, Sarah was given the grand tour. In all her wildest dreams, she never imagined that a place such as this could ever exist, let alone be under Manhattan. A library, music rooms, classrooms, and the phantom noise from the day before turned out to be a very sophisticated and efficient communications system. She had made it a point to thank Pascal for making something that seemed so intimidating actually easy to follow along with. It really was its own self-contained world. She had found her magical, faraway kingdom from her childhood.
“I’m just in awe, Jacob. Your world is amazing in so many ways,” she said as they walked arm in arm along a labyrinth of passages that felt to her to be descending.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.”
“Oh my, yes.”
“We’re about to live one of my favorite scenes of the movie, only better. Now, close your eyes, take my hands.”
“Okay?” she replied with a nervous giggle.
He led her a short distance farther down the tunnel and she noticed the air seemed to grow slightly damper. It was at that moment that she was very happy she had listened to Catherine’s advice and dressed warmer than she thought she had to.
Abruptly, the echoing of their footsteps stopped as they walked along. It had been replaced by the sound of crunching gravel under her feet and a soft, distant roar that seemed to be everywhere around them.
He brought her to a stop, and she heard him walk around behind her. “What you saw so far…that’s not my world, that’s just where I live. Now…open your eyes.”
All she could do was gasp at the sight before her.
“This…is my world.”
Before her stretched an immense cavern that seemed to go on for as far as the eye could see. From high above, countless waterfalls cascaded down the rocks and into the nameless lake upon whose shores they now stood. The expanse seemed to be bathed in otherworldly shafts of light that danced in the mists of the upper falls, highlighting intricately carved pillars that framed the entrances to galleries and balconies that populated the walls all around them.
Jacob just stood there with his arms wrapped around her from behind, his head lying alongside hers, letting the waves of awe and wonder wash over both of them.
“You’re never going to look at Central Park the same way again, are you?” he whispered in her ear.
They walked along the shore, simply enjoying their company and the natural and man-made wonders around them for as long as their time permitted.
Eventually, Jacob spoke the words neither of them wanted to hear. “It’s time for you to go back up. You have a train to catch.”
“Will you walk me up?”
“I will go as far as I can.”
The junction wall slid open, and Jacob and Sarah stepped out. They walked along until he stopped at the edge of the deeper shadows where, without his cloak, he could go no further. He looked towards the tunnel opening, knowing that his mother was waiting outside with Sarah’s bag.
“I don’t want this day to end,” she said, not even trying to hide the sadness in her voice.
“Then focus on this end instead. Remember when I said I had lived the 29th Sonnet recently?
“I am happy to say that I have arrived at its conclusion.” He held her hands “I think you know the part I mean.”
“I’d still like to hear you say it, Teddy.”
” When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
They embraced one final time. “Be well, Sarah “
Jacob kissed her cheek.
She reached up and guided his chin down to her. “It’s supposed to go here.” The kiss left Jacob praying that his legs would not buckle from under him.
She exited the tunnel and began her reluctant journey that would take her to the train station and back to her world in Montpelier. She looked back and smiled, knowing that somewhere in the shadows of Central Park, her gentle giant would be waiting for her return.
* * *
Sarah took her seat on the train, and within minutes it began to roll out of the station. She never knew when, exactly, he had found to time to do it, but when she reached into her backpack, she found a freshly cut red rose with a small piece of paper wrapped around its stem.
She read the note and smiled.
My Dearest Sarah,
When you get home, remind me to tell you about Winterfest.
All my love,