A Day in the Life ~ Cullen

Cullen’s Day

by Crowmama

The House of Belonging

  

Is the stair here?
Where’s the stair?
‘The stair’s right there,
But it goes nowhere.’

And the abyss? the abyss?’
The abyss you can’t miss:
It’s right where you are–
A step down the stair.’

 

~ Theodore Roethke, The Abyss

 

Cullen awakened to a world that he was certain didn’t want him.

And, for the 734th day, he wasn’t next to the woman whose name always hovered on his lips.

He didn’t say it. Beatrice… Betty. Beatrice Fortrose—she had hated her name. Said changing her last name to Cullen was the best thing she ever did.

In Francis Cullen’s opinion, it was not the best thing she ever did. Marrying a worthless woodworker who lived a hand-to-mouth life… No. She could have done so much better…

The time clanged over the pipes—eight taps—as he clung to the dream that woke him. Both disturbing and precious, glimpsing her face, hearing her voice, the feeling of Betty.

A dream of promise—a new home with a new child. They never had those. Their finances and her health too poor for either. He never gave her what she deserved, but she loved him to the end, and he missed her. He missed that.

Today loomed. Only his second day back on the duty crew below … with Winslow, and Winslow didn’t love him.

Not that he deserved love.

Cullen pulled his patched blanket tighter to him.

His wife called him by his nickname “Barney” in the dream, as in “Barney Rubble”. Barney to her Betty, and at every opportunity, he’d reward her with the cartoon’s laugh, “a hee-hee, a hee-hee”.

Barney, come to the nursery. Look at our baby! Isn’t he wonderful?

Barney, Francis, Cullen—most people down here didn’t know his first name, perhaps only Father.

George says you’re a woodworker, a carver?” Father asked, hopefulness in his voice when his boss brought him down. “And a hand tools expert?”

Hand tools, the polite way to describe the stuff you don’t plug in. Without money to pay the electric bills, you learn to cope.

Father had asked his name—Francis Cullen, but, please, only Cullen. The leader had asked if he could keep a secret—why not?Asked what he wanted—a place to stay, food to eat, wood to work. What would you leave behind in the world above to live with us—just bad memories and medical debts.

They had a need, and so had he. They cut corners to bring him down. He cut …

All because he carved a toy horse for George’s new grandson.

A number of the guys on George’s jobs were Tunnel men, he realized later—Howard, Foster, Neil. Not much different from the others on the crew, except they seemed more focused … grounded.

Father mustn’t have broadcast Cullen’s full name. If he had, Winslow would have used it against him by now.

It had been almost two weeks.

Mouse was better … mostly.

Really looking, you’d see his gait teetered even more now, that he favored his right side.  You’d notice the pained hitch when he worked too long.

Winslow noticed.

Cullen didn’t blame Winslow. Mouse was just a kid, in heart if not in body. Someone had to look out for him, keep him safe, hold a grudge. Cullen would have done the same if the positions were reversed, if the universe let him take back that day.

Last night’s dream—a break from the visions of Mouse’s shock as Duncan’s half-moon knife pierced the boy’s belly.

Not even your own. Used what you were supposed to sharpen, to fix, to make better. Such a loser.

A disgusted groan escaped as he threw the covers off and pushed himself from the cot.

Being late would not make him any more popular with his work “buddies”. 

The woodworker scrubbed his eyes before his gaze landed on the broken dollhouse sitting in the corner. The stupid dollhouse he’d hauled down from George’s reno job.

A few days before, Cullen’s gaze had lingered on it too long.

“You should take it.” George had said. “For the kids down der. These Yuppies ain’t gonna want it.” 

What Cullen should have done was throw it in the dumpster. But it wasn’t in his nature to toss something that could be fixed.

His eyes traveled the wavering, water damaged roof, the snapped shutters, the windows missing mullions—all those replaceable. He had already gathered scraps, already began carving a sleigh bed for inside.

His wife would have loved it with its Victorian gingerbread details and Morris & Co. willow wallpaper, mostly intact. But she loved every dollhouse.

No profit in them, he tried to tell her—too much to carve, too many small pieces to fabricate. But each child should have their own, the more intricate, the more beautiful, the better, in her opinion.

She’d grown up with one. Her grandmother’s passed on. In his mind’s eye lived little Betty who escaped into a land of play, into a house of order, a house of kindness. Neither of them had too much of those during their childhood.

That’s why he dreamt of her last night—the dollhouse.

Ridiculous down here. There were too many kids. Any tiny furniture would be pulled apart, crushed by accident or spite. Any effort would fall into unintended consequences.

Enough to worry about here without fretting if the kids got enough toys, he could almost hear Winslow bellow.

And if he didn’t stop sitting in reveries, Cullen was going to be on the receiving end of that bellow … more of it, anyway.

After pulling on some clean—cleaner—clothes from the pile next to his bed, he gulped down cold tea and chewed some bread he’d pilfered from the kitchen the night before. No time to wait until everyone cleared out to grab what was left-over from breakfast.

With the stale biscuit hanging from his mouth, he rechecked his tool belt and hurried out of the chamber.

 

* * *

Hours later, grimy from the last of the tunnel clearing and bone weary from lifting cross beams, Cullen stood with the crew, a few still huffing from the heavy morning work, staring at the crumbling concrete steps that led up to Clinton from the South Well.

The passage, crouch height when they’d started, had to be cleared and stabilized. Neither Cullen nor Vincent nor Winslow were much help that first day, leaving Kanin and Mouse to the initial evacuation.

And Vincent—hands fisted, circling, waiting for the smaller men to pass out the buckets, poised to jump at any sign of instability. Cullen offered an understanding rap on the shoulder and a quick step to toss the rubble when his turn came. No words passed between them, but the gestures seemed appreciated. It was almost worth today’s aching muscles and splinters from the rough-hewn bracers to see Vincent ease as they were hammered home.

Now Winslow and Kanin debated on how to approach the stair repair.  Mouse, Foster, Vincent, and Cullen himself watched the darting ideas, trying to stay out of the line of fire.  Useless chatter, if he knew anything, standing back from the rest. Without Father’s maps and Father’s input, this was an exercise in futility.

The water damage to the stairs and surrounding walls was as extensive as the fallen passage. It needed to be mitigated, for sure, or the stairs entirely rerouted. Kanin advocated for safer, dryer ground, while Winslow wanted to build a wooden set over the crumbled ones and be done.

“We’ll be here in another year or two doing it again,” Kanin argued.

“We need the stairs now, and it’ll take six times as long to reroute them. Until then, people will still have to use these. We got the entry in Chelsea to do and six other projects waitin’ on us. We could get more wood from Herb—”

“Herb’s costs money, Winslow, even if he’ll give it to us at cost. We can reroute and carve new ones with the only cost being our time.”

Kanin seemed to be more frugal these days ever since his wife got pregnant.

“Yeah,” Winslow agreed sarcastically, “except for the tools these fools will break and all the other things we gotta handle in the meantime while you’re working on a set of stairs for two months.”

“It won’t take that long…”

“Man, you know it will! At least that!” Winslow shouted.

“We should talk to George,” Cullen stated. “He’s doing that job in the Village … extra wood there.”

The old dollhouse wasn’t the only discard from the Helper’s renovation work. The new owners wanted matching floors and wood and didn’t care much about saving the old. Some of the thicker floor timbers were wide and hard as stone. If they made sure the water wouldn’t be an issue, the old wood could be used and cheaper stuff to patch when needed.

Nothing came in answer.  Most of them looked like the dog just swore.

Kanin broke first.

“That wood could be used for a number of things down here,” Kanin reasoned to his shoes, as if talking to Cullen directly was giving up something.

A few nods and agreeing yeahs.

He might have argued that creating a temporary stair with lumber that could be repurposed was a good use of materials, but Winslow interjected.

“Cullen doesn’t get to say how we use resources.”

They all shut up.

“Roger that,” he murmured, not willing to mount a defense.

But the big man wouldn’t let go of the bone.

“This isn’t your business, Cullen,” Winslow seethed. “You made it real clear what you thought of this place—”

“Winslow,” Vincent interrupted and placed a claw on the other man’s padded shoulder. “We are a place of second chances. Many people, including yourself, were under the spell of the gold.”

While he appreciated the camaraderie, the other men wouldn’t. Not a fair payment for Vincent’s tolerance.  

Mouse jumped forward. “Yeah!” he chimed in. “Treasure, bad. Extra chances, good.”

No.

Winslow was one thing—voted to banish Cullen and didn’t hide it, and that was fine, expected.

But Mouse sticking up for him …

… somehow, that was worse than any insults the other man hurled.

Being defended by the boy whose betrayed eyes Cullen endured when he closed his own every night—icing on the cake of the series of terrible decisions that led him here, surrounded by people who either hated or pitied him.

“Fine. When you all decide on a project …”

He wrenched up one of the candle lanterns and turned towards the exit.

“Cullen—” Kanin started.

But Cullen didn’t wait, bolting back the way he came…

 

* * *

 

It was miles. Miles between him and … home.Not home, not anymore.

Above again … leave New York altogether. Could he get a new name? No more secrets and secret places. Foolish coming down here. Only meant to be a waystation until he got himself back together, until he ran out the clock on the debts he still owed. With the treasure they’d found, he would have made good on them, started another life. But, like a million times before, he was swindled by greedy bastards above and by his own dreams below.

He didn’t belong here.

Thundering round the corner, lost in thoughts, too late to notice the light ahead, the figure holding it, before they collided.

A flash of face—Rebecca—along with a glimpse of torches and candles flying, the flame of her lantern flickering out.

“Jesus!” he yelled over her startled scream. Then, utter darkness.

Black.

No light at all. Only the sound of his rasping breath.

“Rebecca! Are you ok?” he gasped.

“I’m okay,” she reported back.

A scraping noise as she hauled herself off gritty ground.

“Are you all right?” she asked in return.

He searched for her, but his hands found nothing. Not even the walls.

The dark encompassed him—a living thing, at once too vast and confining.

“Rebecca!” he screamed before he could help himself.

She had to be here!

“Shhhh,” she hushed. “It’s ok, Cullen. Just stand still.”

He had to stop himself from groping in the blackness. Every instinct told him to keep moving, to find her, to find light and get away.

“What the hell were you doing out this far from the home Tunnels?” he shouted over his thundering heart.

“Well, since you asked so nicely …” A gentle sarcasm tinted the words. “I was coming to resupply your crew.”

Shit. Of course, she was.

No full-time torches here, light supplied only as needed, torches and lanterns hidden. Harder for any indigent wanders and easier to trick out any crazy, city spelunkers.

Cullen stuffed his hands in his pockets, searching for matches, but none came. He must have forgotten them in his hurry to meet up at the worksite.

“I don’t have any matches.”

“It’s fine,” she stated in a calming voice, probably because of the pathetic shaking in his own. Then she commanded, “Just breathe,” followed by an exaggerated inhale-exhale, as if to show him how.

He followed her, still feeling half-coward, half-insane, but with no idea what else to do.

“That’s good.” The serenity in her voice, bizarre, given their situation. “Now, accept the dark. Listen to it.”

“What?”

“Hasn’t anyone taught you to find your way around here without a lamp?” she asked, surprised

“No.” he answered, unexpectedly hurt by the oversight.

“Hmmm. That’s too bad. I guess, no time like the present.”

She breathed in and out again, waiting again for him to copy her before saying, “There is earth all around you. Above, beside and below you.”

Was she kidding?

That did not make this any better.

“The darkness will tell you what you need to hear.” Her voice echoed. “Just let it.”

What he needed to hear was how to light a goddamn match and get the hell out of this place.

“We’re so used to having a light to guide us, we don’t consider we can do without. But we can if we have to. We can stay on the path.”

She must have huffed a few too many wax vats. There was no direction in the pitch-black. No way to move.

“I’ll stop talking, and I want you to quiet everything for a minute, then tell me what you feel.”

What he felt?

Cold.

Alone.

Stupid.

Angry.

“I don’t feel anything,” he murmured.

“Take your time. It doesn’t happen all at once,” she insisted.

But there was nothing.

Nothing to tell him where he was or how to escape.

Nothing… except…

An echo… somewhere ahead, a pipe tapping.

“I hear the pipes, at …” he began, turning his head, trying to pinpoint the sound. “… about … ten o’clock from where I’m facing.”

“Good,” she praised. “And … since there were no direct pipes down this corridor, that would mean …”

She waited for him to answer.

“That the main tunnels are in that direction.”

“Tell me more,” she encouraged, awaiting him again.

After a long minute, he went on. “There’s a drip … behind us. Not too far.”

“Any idea where it could come from?”

Flashing memory of Mouse shambling along under the weight of his tools. Water here. Maybe pipe cracked? Maybe raining again?

“We passed some dripping walls on our way to the work site this morning.”

“Did you pass them back from the site yet?”

“I can’t remember.”

I didn’t notice while I was running away.

“That’s ok,” she insisted and pushed on. “Now, notice any difference in temperature or pressure?”

He twisted round again. “Back from where the dripping is … I think it’s where the others are.”

Distant arguing—their voices raised.  “I think I hear them.”

“So they aren’t far off. We can find them if we need them.” Another deep breath. “Are your eyes adjusting yet? Can you see anything?”

Blinking more, he uttered, “It’s a little lighter ahead, but I still can’t see the walls or anything.”

“How do you think you can get there?”

Uncertain and faltering, he shuffled each foot forward on the sandy floor a few inches. He reached, his arms circling in nothingness, but bending further than he had before … almost too far … he found Rebecca, or more precisely, her arm.

“There you are,” she declared, sounding satisfied.

Her strong fingers found his and squeezed, and, by God, it felt good.

“If you reach out towards your 7 o’clock …”

The jagged wall of the cave—man-made, hollowed out by tools.  Star like, with arms extended, one holding to her, the other gripping the wall, legs braced, he could do this. He could find his way if he had to.

He startled from considering his next move by an unexpected spark. It flickered in the slight breeze, casting stark and quaking shadows over Rebecca’s cork-screw curls.

“Hi.” She held a lighter aloft.

She’d had a lighter all along.

Anger, glittering hot, engulfed his body.

“Are you serious?”

He dropped her hand.

“You had that thing the whole time and you let me…”

She made a fool of him.

Why wouldn’t she. It was too easy.Rebecca stared at him a moment more, something like disappointment marring her features.

What right did they have to expect anything from him?

Rebecca bent to the strewn supplies and retrieved a lantern. Without saying a word, she righted it, checked it, lit, and held the light aloft.

He wrenched it from her grasp and continued back to his chamber and, hopefully, out of this hell.

 

* * *

 

If asked what he was doing, Cullen would have growled, packing.

In truth, he’d finished packing his few belongings long before.

He was debating.

Deliberating which tools in front of him were truly his and which belonged to the Tunnels.

The ones given over to him to sharpen … those were easy, pushed to the end of the bench, out of his line of sight.

The chisels and handsaws and hammer he’d brought down were already stuffed in the bag, ready to go with him.

But the tools he’d received while here—the gouge and drill he’d gotten to carve the replacement leg to William’s worktable, the saw, clamps, and hand-planer from Earl’s collection, given to him as the heir apparent of the furniture restorer. He’d done some of his best work with them. If he hadn’t come down here, he wouldn’t have them.

He should leave the tools, but could he live up top without them?

And he had to go.

When bills multiplied to the point they could bury you, you left—a poor man’s only defense.

And yet …

Mouse’s eyes when he slashed the knife through his body. Betty’s eyes, exhausted and hurting, shambling to the hospital, never seeing the same doctor twice, only stabilized and sent away, the E.R. docs always saying go to her own doctor to get tests done that they couldn’t afford. Until her leg broke while stepping off a curb—not falling, just stepping—and the only thing left was to deal with the cancer’s pain.

Perhaps some debts were forever.

He’d punched the oncologist who lectured them for not coming in sooner, for not getting the scans, not because he was wrong. Cullen should have found the money, should have forced her to use it, even if that meant not eating for the rest of the year. Should have gotten the cash for chemo, even when they said, “too late,” and Betty swore she wouldn’t take it because of money.

Stupid money!

“Cullen?”

Goddamn perfect …

Rebecca.

Her tapered fingers held to the rough doorway as if contemplating coming in. Neither young nor old, her face, her manner, could be twenty-eight or thirty-eight. Cullen never gave her much thought, except she and Mouse kept him in enough candles and electric lamps to carve and create.

And look how well that turned out for Mouse.

She must have finished her deliveries. All she carried was a small bag from which she pulled a hefty candle.

“I came to say I was sorry,” she stated, offering him the gift.

Unbelievable.

What was she apologizing for?

She had only been trying to help.

He wasn’t ten steps down the passage when he recognized her intentions.

“Don’t apologize, Rebecca.” He reached to take the candle and placed it on the workbench.

“But I am sorry,” she protested. “You got scared—”

“Don’t. Really,” he insisted. “I’m tired of apologies.”

He attempted a reassuring smile.

“Leave the sorrys to those of us who need to say them, okay?”

She exhaled, and her relief opened the door for him to elaborate.

“My wife apologized for everything …” he explained. “Her whole life—for being a minute late, for tripping, sneezing … anything. ‘Betty,’ I’d tell her,” and then I’d sniff like a crying Ali MacGraw. ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’

Rebecca must have seen the movie, because she chuckled at his passing imitation, and her laughter allowed his.

How long had it been since he’d laughed?

“And Betty’d put her hands on hips …” He demonstrated the stance. “‘What does that even mean?’ she’d say. ‘Only a pillock never says he’s sorry!’”

He shook his head, still chuckling.

“My wife wasn’t a model or rich or anything, but she was so beautiful, and we had the best jokes together.”

He picked up the toy bed, tracing the trails of raw carving.

“No one else would ever get them, but that didn’t matter. I think that’s what I miss the most.”

“It sounds like you loved her very much.” Rebecca’s voice floated into wistful.

“Me and Betty…” he said, the cheerful melancholy of remembering taking over. “We were together almost every day from the moment we met. Loving her was as easy as breathing, in and out, awake or asleep, even when she drove me crazy.”

Rebecca tilted quizzically, as if to inquire without being rude enough to ask aloud.

He sighed. “Like when she was apologizing for dying.”  He dropped the half-finished toy to the table. “As if she chose to die in some shitty, charity hospital.”

They didn’t swear down here. Another rule he kept breaking.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

And Rebecca uttered just as quietly, “Who needs to stop apologizing now?”

She reached and lifted the unfinished bed to inspect, then spied the dollhouse, now sitting at the end of the table near the wall.

“These are beautiful,” she exclaimed, holding up the toy and gesturing towards the house.

They weren’t, but in their broken and unrefined shape, they had potential.

Still, he protested, “They’re just toys.”

“They’re perfect.  Or will be, anyway. Are they… for the children?”

He nodded.

“I could …” she stammered. “I could help you. I can make some little pillows and sheets out of some fabric scraps I have.”

Didn’t she see what he’s doing? Didn’t she understand what she walked into?

“That’s fine. I mean, you should.” Hands lifted in defense, he went on. “But I won’t be here to finish them.” Gathering his sack to his shoulder, he said ,“I’m leaving.”

“But—” she started.

He cut her off. “People here don’t want me around.”

“Who?” Rebecca persisted, as if amazed.

Who? Is she kidding? Who doesn’t?

Yet …

Under her benevolent scrutiny, he couldn’t come up with a concrete example…

Except the obvious.

“Winslow … for one.”

Winslow, my friend who understood me better than most down here.  The man who voted for me to come here and then voted for my expulsion. 

Winslow, who once trusted me. Who hates me.

“Winslow needs time, Cullen. He’s always been rough,” she argued. “He thinks that’s how you have to be with people. He’ll come around.”

Is she joking? Winslow? And even if he did…

“He’s not the only one.”

Like the last time he’d tried to eat in the dining hall—the deliberate avoidance interspersed with covert glances, the parents steering their children away.

“You weren’t here when we found the chest,” Cullen shook his head. “You weren’t a part of the disaster.” Stating the obvious, but also a warning.

You don’t know me. You don’t know how bad I can get.

“No, I was up top,” she answered. “I had disasters of my own to take care of.”

Jesus.

He was such an ass. 

His worst fault—forgetting other people hurt, that they had tragedies of their own. He was so much better, kinder, when he had Betty. She steered him so gently it didn’t even count as reproach.

“My mother was dying,” Rebecca furnished in explanation. “She used to live here, but she … died above.”

“I’m sorry.” The sentiment inadequate and rote, but nothing else came to mind.

“It’s ok.” She shrugged. “She’d been suffering for a long time. By the end, it was a relief she was out of pain.

“Yeah,” he agreed.  He understood that.

And that should have been it.

Rebecca should leave now.

This is when people go, when polite conversation ends, when they escape, in Cullen’s experience.

Instead, Rebecca ventured farther into the chamber, perusing his books and studying his work bench. “I heard about it, though. What happened with the gold and jewels, with everyone …”

With me.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” she stated, turning away.

Of course, it doesn’t surprise her. Why would it? She sees through you. Sees your horrible life, your half-dead heart. Rebecca can’t stand you. She—

“That ship and it’s treasure,” she stated to the chamber. “I’m glad it’s gone.”

Not him gone … the treasure.

What?

All that money…

Their part of it could have done a lot good down here.

“Why?”

“I studied history,” she said, “in a past life…”

And after a considered minute … “I read about the era, pretty extensively. That ship…” She shook her head. “It was meant to be buried, forgotten. There were only two ways to acquire that much treasure,” she stated as if preaching to the choir.

When he couldn’t answer after a silent minute, she elaborated. “Slavery and conquest. Those beautiful things were bought with people’s lives and people’s land.”

The candle maker traveled the length of the workbench, inspecting the tools and carvings, thrumming the blade of one of the abandoned knives to test its edge. Thankfully, dull.

He swore to sharpen them a week ago. He couldn’t look at them without throwing up.

“We share everything down here,” she continued. “Always have … including guilt. I’m not surprised that gold inspired violence—like a ghost, a curse. I want no part of that.”

He crumpled in to sit on his cot with no more will to move.

“Although,” she backtracked. “I think… I hope Vincent was right… giving it to the Sisters. Maybe redemption is possible. Maybe a curse can be broken.” She glanced around and focused again on the broken dollhouse. “We didn’t have one of those down here when I was growing up.”

“Was it… good? Being raised here?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I have nothing else to compare it to.”

Her long fingers—artist’s fingers, musician’s fingers—eased open the toy house hinges.

“It was safe … most of the time. Pleasant,” she said, peering into the miniature rooms. “We had the older kids to help us—Vincent, Pascal, Ike, Olivia. Of course, sharing everything—clothes, toys, food—that could be hard, but most of us never knew any different, and we were loved.”

She turned back to him.

“Hillary and Thomas, the kids closest to my age, left a few years ago. They moved upstate. Sometimes I visit when they need a few extra hands. They send us food—corn from their farm and chickens every year. And Robert and Ike are working with George above.”

“We’ve met.” He nodded … pressed on. “So, why didn’t you leave like your mom and your friends?”

“She wanted me to. I guess I stayed, because I’m doing what I want here.” She picked up the candle she’d brought him. “Some people want an exciting life, important titles, filled with famous people. I don’t. I don’t care about golden halls or fancy parties. I’m happy making a home here.”

She smiled.

“It’s important. The candles are important. Taking care of the lanterns and supplies, teaching the children our ways, helping put up food, making the candles for Winterfest … I like that.”

Gazing into tiny windows, she added, “I think people forget the work that goes into making a regular life, a good life. There is endless waste above. Most of the wax we get is from restaurants. Did you know that? Candles don’t burn at the same rates; they drip, or whatever, and they toss them. Can you believe it?” She laughed a little at such absurdity.

“Yeah, I can. They only want perfection up there.” He dropped his bag to the floor.  “And if you don’t have cash, you’re useless.”

“So silly,” she muttered, her eyes tracking the myriad projects and tools along the table. “Just because you don’t make money doesn’t mean you’re useless.”

“When did you learn to walk without a light?” Cullen asked before he realized he wanted to know.

“My mother taught me. She—”

Tears.  They stopped her.

“I’m sorry,” he hurried, touching her shoulder, trying to take back the hurt.

Again sorry, again regret.

Choking over sadness in her throat, she went on to assure him. “I was just remembering when she took me to the forks and turned out our carbide lamp. I was about six at the time, horribly afraid of the dark. Not a great thing down here, huh?” she asked him. “Maybe that’s why I make the candles.”

She smirked a bit, wiping the tears.

“Anyway, she told me I had to find my way back. I was so angry and frightened to me toes, like you were today. I screamed, but she didn’t relent. She said if I learned to talk to dark and to listen back, I’d be fine. And then she left me, although I don’t believe she went far.”

“She sounds like a great mom,” he said, although he didn’t believe it.

She sounds more like a hard-ass.

Rebecca didn’t say answer, as if she didn’t know how much to elaborate, but then she shook her head.

“No, she wasn’t,” she said, shrugging. “But that’s ok.  Once I stopped panicking, I kept my hand outstretched.  I even crawled when I was afraid I was close to an edge.” She took his hand. “You should too, by the way.”

Then, smiling through the last of her tears, she went on. “She taught me a lot, including you don’t have to be perfect to be loved … and everyone deserves a second chance.”

You don’t have to be perfect.

But you have to be safe.   

“Not everyone,” he whispered.

“No, not everyone,” Rebecca agreed, staring into his eyes. “But Vincent believes in you, and I’ve learned to trust his insight into people. If he says you deserve it, I believe him.”

He had to tell her. She wasn’t there, and she had to understand.     

“Vincent saved me. I was taking the treasure hunter to the Abyss. We both deserved hell, that bastard and I. I was going to …” It sounded so pathetic, so desperate. “I would have paid with my life for what I did to Mouse.  I still would.”

She nodded, and there was kindness there, in her expression, in her whole being. The same mercy Mouse granted, and Vincent. The same grace that had made him crazy, uncomfortable, unworthy.

Now … in her face, he loved that goodwill; he needed it.

They must teach it down here or gather up those who have it and offer them a haven from an unforgiving world.

He wished Betty had seen this place … lived here.

“I’m glad you didn’t die, Cullen.” Rebecca spoke slowly, as if she needed him to understand, to accept. “I know a lot of people are.”

She gripped him tighter.

“You said you’d give your life?”

She glanced to the dollhouse, waiting for him to follow her gaze.

“So … will you?” A question in the form of a request.

Will you live another life? Live with the stares and hatred of a few, to do good for many? Earn your second chance?

Maybe he could.

Maybe it was time to pay some debts.

For Mouse, for Vincent, Father, Rebecca … even Winslow, he’d take a few more hesitant steps in the dark.

The tapping call to the midday meal pealed out while they both stood, holding hands, listening.

“We should go,” Rebecca stated and expectantly pulled on his hand towards the exit.

Together?

“No,” he said automatically. “I usually don’t go to the hall when—”

But thumping footsteps in the corridor cut his protest short.

Vincent turned into view, pulling back suddenly as if he’d been running.

“Cullen, you’re still here. Good,” he began, not even winded. “We were hoping you would join a meeting in Father’s chamber to discuss the stairs.”

They wanted him?

“We’re at an impasse,” Vincent explained.

One named Winslow and Kanin, no doubt.  But why did they need him?

“Are you sure?” This wasn’t some ploy to get him to stay, right?

“The entire crew believes your input would be invaluable.”

Yeah, I bet.

Perhaps it was a ploy, but they wanted his help, his help to build a life.  At least Vincent, Father, Rebecca, and Mouse seemed to trust his judgement, his knowledge … him.

He would need to earn that trust from the others, but he still had the chance to.   No amount of gold and jewels could buy that.

“I’ll go, if you insist.” He mock groaned and rolled his eyes. To the candlemaker, he said, “Sorry, Rebecca. Can I get a raincheck on lunch?”

“Absolutely, and no more apologies, remember?” She released his hand and wagged a finger.

“And you remember, only a pillock never apologizes.” He smirked and winked, then bent his arm back behind him.  “Hey! Hey! Stop twisting my arm, Vincent!” he joked, hopping on the path to the home chambers. “Of course, I’ll be there if you can’t do without me.”

 

_______________

Chapter title: David Whyte. The House of Belonging. Many Rivers Press. 2002.

 

3 Comments

  1. Cullen … what a many-layered character you’ve shown us. Gruff, not particularly lovable, still hurting, still angry at the injustice he and Betty experienced, still terribly lonely. You’ve opened a door on the tightly-wound character who lives behind it.

    The finding one’s way in the dark is genius. Not just in a practical sense – real world facts applied to the fairytale story – but in its metaphor. Cullen needed to find touchstones to guide him out of the “chamber of dark rivers” where he still lived.

    Well done, Crowmama!! Thank you!
    Hugs,
    Carole W

    Reply
  2. Crowmama, I so enjoyed getting to know both Cullen and Rebecca through your eyes. Loved all the allusions to light and darkness, the true value of gold and wood, and that seeing them in a certain way might lead to greater self-awareness and a time of forgiving.
    I also so enjoyed this view into daily tunnel life — so well expressed! This is a story I will read again. Thanks very much for writing it and for being part of the ‘A Day’ project again this year.
    Linda SB

    Reply
  3. “You don’t have to be perfect to be loved … and everyone deserves a second chance.”

    “You don’t have to be perfect.” Crowmama you took a hard man to understand and showed his many shades of gray to show his pain admidst all the roughness. And boy all the guilt he carried inside. It was great to peel back the layers of the onion called Cullen. And another chance to meet the wonderful wise Rebecca. Thank you for this story.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.