WFOL 2024 Challenge
no longer alone
by Tasha Lawson
A chill swept up her spine as she stepped across the stone threshold in the General Lee’s basement. Janet rarely visited Chinatown, aside from her monthly dinner date with her old friend, Rita. The two of them had been inseparable in their youth and then lost touch after college. They only reconnected a year earlier after a chance meeting on the subway. One widowed and the other divorced, each of them with children grown, they rekindled an old friendship.
For the past year, they had met on the first Friday of the month, at 7 pm sharp, and Lyn Pei always made sure their table was ready. But on this particular Friday, Janet knew she would be forgoing her usual hot tea and noodles in favor of whatever banquet the resident cook below had prepared.
She vaguely recalled the man’s name to be William. A portly fellow, Janet recognized, which spoke well of his cooking skills.
“It’s always chilly down here,” her friend said, sticking her hands into the pockets of her heavy coat before turning to grin at her. “Are you ready?”
Even though Janet was not entirely sure she was, she declared boldly, “Lead on, MacDuff.”
She hoped Rita knew the way. Janet had visited the tunnels before, of course, but only a total of three times. The first had been to meet Father, which Rita had assured her was the necessary first step towards becoming a helper. The second occasion had occurred about three days later when she and Rita had brought down a supply of second-hand books donated from her bookshop.
On her third visit to the tunnels, Janet met Vincent for the first time. That occasion stuck in her memory, for obvious reasons.
But this was her first Winterfest, a holiday her friend had told her had been designed as a sort of thank-you to the helpers who lived in the world above.
“I’m hardly a ‘helper,’” Janet had scoffed. “I just brought down some old books that were in too poor condition to sell.”
But Rita had been adamant. “You got the candle, didn’t you? They made a special point to invite you.”
Janet had tucked it into the pocket of her inner sweater, the wick and white tip sticking out precariously. Afraid of accidentally breaking it, she had treated it like spun glass since the moment the little tunnel child had shyly handed it to her across the counter of her bookstore.
As if conjured by thought, another tunnel child appeared ahead of them. Dressed similarly to the young girl who had delivered the candle, this one was an older boy. He approached them with a friendly smile.
“May I guide you to the Great Hall?” he asked.
“Please do, young man,” Janet’s friend said, sounding as old and uncertain as Janet felt. “We wouldn’t want to get lost and end up in Jersey by mistake.”
The boy laughed good-naturedly and introduced himself as Geoffrey.
“That was my older brother’s name,” Janet remarked, mostly to herself. “But he died long ago. In the war.”
Geoffrey suddenly had a sadness about him, and he did not press for more. Instead, he volunteered shyly, “I’m sorry your brother died.”
Janet felt the same, but this grief was old and dull, like the loss of her husband. Sometimes it would flare up around the holidays, the way the cold weather made the arthritis in her joints ache, and she was glad to have a distraction. To not be alone.
“Thank you, young Geoffrey,” she said.
Beside her, Rita noted, “We should hurry or we might miss the opening ceremony.”
* * *
Geoffrey proved to be an excellent guide, showing them on the most direct route with level ground, obviously taking into account the slowness of his charges.
“How often do you come below?” Janet asked Rita as they walked.
“Oh, only at Winterfest these days. The walk is so long, you know? But when I was younger, I would come down often. Do the children still have concerts, Geoffrey?”
He affirmed that they did.
“And I used to come to Father for advice sometimes,” Rita stated. “And Mary and Sarah would catch me up on happenings down here.”
Geoffrey queried, “How long have you been a helper?”
“Oh, twenty-odd years now,” Rita said. “I lived down here for a few months, after my divorce and bankruptcy. They helped me get back on my feet, then found me a place to stay in the city so I could get back to work. I’ll never forget the kindness everyone showed.”
Rita glanced at Janet and Janet nodded in appreciation. New York City was a difficult place to exist alone, especially when one reached a certain age. And with children grown and scattered across the country, neither had any family left in the city.
As they neared their destination, Janet found something she had not quite expected: a line.
“Just follow the others down through the Chamber of the Winds into the Great Hall,” Geoffrey advised them. “I’m going to go back and see if anyone else needs a guide down.”
Then he was gone. Janet glanced at her friend.
“What is this ‘Chamber of the Winds’?” she asked.
Rita winked. “You’ll see. Just stay close to me and don’t look down.”
“That’s not terribly reassuring.”
Her friend graced her with a smile. “Would I let anything happen to you?” she asked.
Shyly, Janet allowed, “I suppose not.”
“Then queue up and stay close. Vincent will be along soon to open the doors and let everyone in.”
The wait was not long, but Janet struggled with a flood of questions as they stood in the tunnel, other topsiders both ahead of them and forming up behind them in the line. She was curious about who decided to live below and who decided to be a helper. She asked about some of those Rita obviously knew well, like the man everyone called ‘Father.’ And, of course, Vincent.
“No one knows anything about Vincent’s origins,” Rita told her, “so there’s no point in asking.”
“He seems very… How do I say this without sounding crass?” Janet murmured loud enough for only her friend to hear. “I cannot imagine it is a birth defect as he is rather… attractive. Don’t you think?”
Rita pursed her lips as she fought to contain a laugh. After some moments of clear struggle, she whispered, “Not really my type, dear.”
Rolling her eyes, Janet pressed, “That’s not what I meant, and you know it. He just seems very, well… well put together. You know?”
“Vincent is one of the many miracles of this place,” Rita told her frankly. “And it is better not to analyze miracles too closely, lest they lose all their shine and wonder.”
The line began moving forward, and Janet’s heart rate increased. Instinctively, she reached out a hand to her friend.
Rita gave her fingers a gentle squeeze but did not let go. Instead, she looked at Janet and advised, “When we go through this opening up ahead, it will be hard to hear. So just do what I do and go where I go.”
Before Janet could argue, the line led them through the tunnel opening into a large, windy area. At first, it seemed as though they had stepped outside again, although she could hardly understand how they had done so deeper underground. But then as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she realized they were at the edge of a deep chasm.
There was no handrail. No safety measures. Not even a sign to warn them.
Janet shrank back against the wall to her left, terrified at the prospect of falling into the endless blackness just a few feet away.
But Rita held onto her hand and continued walking, guiding Janet down, step after step after harrowing step. And while the wind howled and whipped around them, Rita showed no fear. Instead, she laughed as a stray gust tried to steal away her hat. As she brought her free hand up to keep it in place, that same wind stirred silver-white hairs on her head into a beautiful wave.
The expression on her friend’s face distracted Janet through the last few steps downward, and before she knew what was happening, she had been escorted through two large doors into an open hall area, well away from the winds. Inside, everyone held their candles, and more children were at hand to guide them into the darkened space. A hush of expectation hung about the assembled group, but Janet felt impatient to know what would happen next. She was no fan of the darkness.
“Are we just going to stand around in the pitch black all evening or –”
Beside her, Rita tugged gently at her hand.
“Be patient,” her friend scolded. “They’ll want to make sure everyone gets inside first.”
With a disgruntled frown, Janet huffed but did not argue. She already felt very odd and out of place, no matter how open and accepting Rita had assured her the tunnel folk were. Waiting in the dark while her heart rate and blood pressure escalated did not sound like the good time she had been promised.
As Janet’s breaths grew more frequent and more shallow, she realized with alarm that she was about to have one of her episodes, the type that occurred when she found herself either boxed up too tightly or out in an absurdly open space. She pulled her hand away from Rita to place it over her own heart, desperate to quell her sudden panic before she embarrassed herself in front of so many strangers.
“Janet –” her friend protested, a bare voice in the darkness. But Rita seemed impossibly far away as the deep velvet blackness pressed in.
And then out of nowhere, a warm body pressed into her side, strong hands gripping her shoulders.
“Come this way,” a voice whispered in her ear, rich and soulful.
The hands guided her to a nearby table, and someone else gave up a seat just as the person assisting her pressed her into the chair. But the feeling of solid wood beneath her allowed Janet to finally take a deep breath, to bring in enough oxygen to fully inflate her lungs.
Beside her, she heard Rita repeating assurances. Then the deep voice spoke again, and Janet found it mesmerizing.
“I’m sorry you were frightened. If you can hold out a few moments more, there will be light to drive away the darkness.”
As if she had been kissed by a dream, Janet realized that she recognized the voice.
“Vincent,” she said.
“We are so happy you could join us today,” he answered her.
He withdrew just as Rita placed a reassuring hand on Janet’s shoulder.
“Are you all right, my dear?” her friend asked.
She nodded, and then realizing no one could see that response in such darkness, she said, “I’m all right.”
“Just a few more minutes, I think,” Rita assured her. “And I promise – it’ll be worth it.”
Taking in air and then letting it out, Janet focused on the reassuring strength of her friend’s grasp. But it was not long before a hush fell over the crowd and someone pushed closed the door to the room, cutting off the loud moans of the wind outside. For a long moment, the entire space went still and silent – in waiting. Janet felt her breath catch in her throat in anticipation.
The first candle flame flared like a lifeline in the darkness. Janet focused herself on it entirely, glad for the distraction as much as the light. Then one by one, more of the special candles were lit. Absently, she removed the one from her pocket and held it on the table in front of her. Behind her, Rita gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
Janet only half-listened to the words as the tunnel dwellers sketched out the history of their world, of the first Winterfest. Instead, she watched as the light slowly filled the cavernous room, chandeliers hoisted above bathing everything in warm light. And in her hands, Janet held a piece of it.
By the time they were finished, the darkness had been banished entirely. Rita had been right – it was worth it.
“Thank you for bringing me down here,” she whispered to her friend.
“It’s magical, isn’t it?”
With a wry shake of the head, Janet could only snort her agreement. But as she looked, really looked, at her friend, appreciating the lovely silver of her hair and laugh lines on her face, Rita was reminded of days long past. She saw Rita as she had been when the two of them met decades earlier – young and beautiful and full of life. And as the formal ceremony ended and those around them began to chat, musicians opening their instruments as children were allowed to run free, Janet thought on long ago days. Before she had married and raised babies.
It was a moment out of time, a memory pulled into the fantasy-like setting they now found themselves in and made reality. Almost like another life entirely, she felt reborn in this place.
Pulling herself from her reverie, Janet noticed that couples had paired off as the musicians seamlessly began a rousing waltz. She recognized few of the tunnel dwellers and even fewer of the helpers, so her eyes drifted aimlessly over the crowd until they settled on one familiar figure.
Vincent. He looked as handsome and romantic as ever. And his lady was with him. They had moved away from the crowd to examine some intricate tapestries.
Startled at the sight of the beautiful woman in an exquisite cream-colored dress, Janet knew at once that she had finally glimpsed the infamous “Vincent’s Catherine.” Rumors about the two young lovers abounded below, or so Rita reported.
Beside her, Rita sighed with contentment as she placed her hand into the crook of Janet’s elbow, the movement seeming more natural and easy in this place than it might have ever felt in the world above.
“That’s her,” Rita said, nodding to Catherine as if she could read her friend’s mind.
“Is she nice?” Janet asked, curious how a woman with obvious wealth and beauty had fallen in love with someone like Vincent. He was a good man, certainly, but —
Rita confirmed, “She is nice. Very nice.”
While Janet could tell there were a host of stories hidden behind those words, she simply nodded and resolved to find out more later. She sold books for a living, so she was used to being patient in that regard. In the meantime, she relaxed into the moment, letting the music and atmosphere and the feel of Rita’s arm in hers sweep over her.
For the first time in a very long time, she no longer felt alone in the world.