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 woke to a world that didn’t want him.
And, for the 734th day, he wasn’t sleeping next to the woman whose name always hovered on his lips.
He didn’t say, 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 awakened 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.
In the dream his wife called him by his nickname “Barney”, 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 had 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. George who thought Cullen showed promise, generosity, the seeds of a good Tunnel dweller. Guess the joke was on him.
A number of the guys on George’s jobs were Tunnel men, Cullen 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.
Only if you really looked 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.
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—still working above, since no one was ready for him below yet—Cullen’s gaze had lingered 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 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 tunnel clearing and bone weary from lifting cross beams, Cullen stood with the crew. A few still huffed from the heavy morning work of propping up the passage, while they all stared at the crumbling concrete steps that led up to Clinton from the South Well.
The passage, crouch height because of grit and rock debris when they’d started, had to be emptied and braced. None of taller men—Cullen, Vincent, Winslow—were much help that first day, leaving Kanin and Mouse to the initial evacuation.
And Vincent, probably still rattled from his and Father’s experience of water + rock = rubble, poised to jump at any sign of instability —hands fisted, pacing, waiting for the smaller men to pass out buckets. Cullen offered a friendly shoulder rap and a quick step to toss the pails 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, if he knew anything, standing back from the rest. Without Father’s maps and Father’s input, this was an exercise in conjecture.
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,” Kanin whined, “even if he’ll give it to us at cost. We can reroute and carve new ones with the only cost being our time.”
The stone carver 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 suggested, hoping that offering a possible solution would forestall the argument. “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 would serve.
Nothing came in answer. Most of them looked like the dog just swore.
“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.
Cullen 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 a say in how we use our resources.”
They all shut up.
“Roger that,” Cullen murmured, not willing to mount a defense.
But the big man wouldn’t let go of the bone.
“This isn’t your business,” 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 community of second chances. Many people, including yourself, were under the spell of the gold.”
While Cullen appreciated the understanding, 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.”
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.
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 of grit as she hauled herself off ground.
“Are you alright?” she asked in return.
He searched for her, but his eyes and hands found nothing. Not even the walls.
The dark encompassed him—a living thing, at once 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. She should be back there, with her casks and molds making her candles, safe.
“Well,” she began in the echoing dark, “since you asked so nicely …” gentle sarcasm tinting 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, urban 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 instructed, “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.”
“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 resonated. “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 vats of wax. 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?
“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.
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 coming 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 off balnce … 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 …”
He did, meeting 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.
Screw that! 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 lamp 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 told to get tests done 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.
Goddamn perfect …
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 drew a hefty candle.
“I came to say I was sorry,” she stated, offering him the gift.
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 really 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 then 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 cute, and we shared the best jokes.”
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, when that would be, 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 for the discarded bed and spied the dollhouse, now sitting at the end of the table near the wall.
“These are beautiful,” she exclaimed, inspecting the toy and gesturing towards the house.
They weren’t, but in their broken and unrefined shape, they had potential.
Yet he protested, “They’re just toys.”
“They’re perfect,” she countered. “Are they… for the children?”
“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, “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 exclaimed, as if amazed.
Who? Is she kidding? Who doesn’t?
Under her benevolent scrutiny, he couldn’t come up with a concrete example…
Except the obvious.
“Winslow … for one.”
Winslow, my former friend who understood me better than most down here. The man who voted for me to come here and then for me to leave.
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, walk-around-the-table avoidance coupled 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.”
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 in the right direction 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 would leave now.
This was 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 …”
“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.
All that money…
Their part of it could have done a lot good down here.
“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 she were 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 focused again on the wrecked dollhouse, walking over and running her long fingers—artist’s fingers, musician’s fingers—across the warped wood. “We didn’t have one of those down here when I was growing up.”
“Was it… good? Being raised here?” He looked up to ask.
She shrugged. “I have nothing else to compare it to.”
She 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, 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 children closest to my age, left a few years ago. They moved upstate. Of course, they aren’t children anymore.” She smirked. “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. We fought about it a few times.” She picked up the candle she’d brought him. “I guess I stayed because I’m doing what I want here. Some people want a exciting lives, important lives, 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, this time a genuine one that reached her eyes.
“It’s important, what I do here. 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 back into tiny dollhouse windows, she added, “I think people forget the work that goes into making a regular life, a good life. There is so much waste above, endless waste. Most of the wax we get down here is from restaurants Above. 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.”
Cullen stood, now unencumbered by his bag, and walked to her.
“When did you learn to walk without a light?” he 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 pain he caused.
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. “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 doubt she went far.”
“She sounds like a good mom,” he said, although once out of his mouth he realized he didn’t believe it.
She sounds more like a hard-ass.
Rebecca didn’t say anything for a long time, as if she didn’t know if she should elaborate.
“No, she wasn’t, but that’s ok.” She finally answered with a shrug. “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, if you’re ever caught in the dark again.”
Then, smiling through the last of her tears, she went on. “My mom 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. “Not everyone deserves love.”
“No, not everyone, I guess,” Rebecca agreed in a murmur, staring into his eyes, seeming to know who he was talking about, “but Vincent believes in you.” And adding with more confidence, “I’ve learned to trust his insight into people. If he says you deserve our trust, I believe him.”
Cullen 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 a one-way ticket into the Pit. 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 his hand tighter.
“You deserve the second chance.”
She glanced to the dollhouse, waiting for him to follow her gaze.
“And you said you’d give your life … so … will you?” A request in the form of a question.
Will you live another life? Live with the stares and hatred of a few, to do good for many? Will you do the work? Earn the opportunity to make it up to those that believe in you?
Maybe he could.
Maybe it was finally time to pay some debts.
For Mouse, for Vincent, Father, Rebecca … even Winslow, he’d take a few more hesitant steps in the dark.
They were both still standing there holding hands when the tapping call to the midday meal pealed through the chamber.
“We should go,” Rebecca stated and pulled him towards the exit, expectant.
To lunch? Together?
“No,” he said automatically. “I usually don’t go to the hall when other people are around. They—”
But thumping footsteps in the corridor cut his protest short.
Vincent turned into view, pulling back, as if he’d been running and came on a sight he didn’t expect.
You and me both, buddy.
“Cullen?” he began, not even winded … and went on as if nothing amazing hadn’t just happened. “We were hoping you would join a meeting in Father’s chamber to discuss the stairs.”
Father’s chamber? They wanted him at the planning meeting?
“We’re at an impasse,” Vincent explained.
One named Winslow and Kanin, no doubt. But why did they need him?
This wasn’t some ploy to get him to stay, right?
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. The entire crew believes your input would be invaluable.”
Yeah, I bet. Entire crew…
Maybe it was a ploy. Probably was. 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.
“Alright, I’ll go.” He mock groaned and rolled his eyes. “If you insist…” To the candlemaker, he said with genuine regret, “Sorry, Rebecca. Can I get a raincheck on lunch?”
“Absolutely.” She replied releasing his hand and beginning to walk away, but turned back to add, as if she just remembered, “And hey, no more apologies, right.” A finger wagged in his direction.
He smirked and winked. “You know only a pillock never apologizes.” Then he bent his arm back behind him, starting down the path to the home chambers with a hop.
“Vincent! Stop twisting my arm!” he joked in mock indignation. “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.
GOOD TO READ
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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!
Dear Carole – I’m not very subtle, am I? LOL. In all truth, I did think it was very important that everyone Below learn to walk in the dark, in case their light stopped working for some reason! It was one of the first lessons my friend Kipp Dawson, (you can look her up on YouTube,) was taught while coal mining.
Thank you for all your support, for making these webpages and for your beautiful digital art work!! – <3 Karen
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.
Dear Linda – Your comment means so much to me! And now, if you do read it again, you can enjoy better edits! That’s why it took me so long to thank you for your feedback. I was so embarrassed. I tried to finish the original editing surrounded by people on a trip, and THAT does NOT WORK! LOL!
Thank you so much for reading this and for your challenges! This was hard to write, no lie, but I thought it was important to explore how Cullen could be forgiven and how he could move on.
Thank you again, friend. – Karen
“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.
PearlAnn – You make my heart happy. 🙂 It was a treat to share this with you.
Thank you for your comments and your enthusiasm in BatB fandom! You truly help keep the dream alive. <3