Brooke held up the purple skirt across her hips. The purple skirt was trying too hard. But she wanted to fling the floral jumper across her chamber. Choosing what to wear to a silly party shouldn’t be this hard. At least there’d be no audience for her outburst, she thought ruefully.
She had been through her moving day ceremony where her few things had been taken out of the dormitories and put in a space of her own. She’d gone through the storage chambers picking out pieces that had been dutifully cleaned up and repaired for her new quarters. She had crossed the threshold of her new chamber alone and holding an unlit candle. Lighting it was the signal for the others to rush in laughing and cheering and help her set up the space.
It had been a happy day. Michael had said he wanted to be there but his college girlfriend was taking him to visit her parents in their vacation house in Maine. He’d sent a copy of Orlando and inscribed it “To a great student and friend – Dream Big, Michael.”
She had sobbed her eyes out alone that night, the words of that inscription playing over and over on a loop. She had wanted to delay moving out of the dormitories in the hope – vain as it turned out – that when she was looking through the piles of chairs and tables, it would be with Micahel, for things for their first chamber.
But Michael was always going to look at her as a dear tunnel sister. As safely sexless as her jumper of floral upholstery. Olivia had pieced it together with bits of brown lacing. Brooke had loved it because it had flowers on it. Patterns were a rare sight Below, along with colors other than shades of brown. But it was still tunnel clothes. At least the purple skirt came from a store up top. Edie had brought it down when donating a bag of her old things.
If she wore it with one of her least patched sweaters she could look…like a tunnel kid who was desperately trying to not look like a tunnel kid. Besides, she didn’t have the shoes to go with it. The smart little flats all the topside girls were wearing now. She could just picture walking into the dining chamber in a sleek purple skirt and her big, clunky tunnel boots.
She angrily brushed her hair. She was going to be late to breakfast. That could be useful though, if she wanted to grab something for Jack-a-fool.
She felt that pressure again at the small of her back that she really should have told someone about them by now.
She finished dressing in a long brown work skirt, she’d decide what to wear to the party later. As she knotted the laces at the throat of her blouse, she was resolute that she was going to tell the others about Jack-a-fool. She was just waiting for the right moment.
She walked to the dining chamber, remembering meeting Jack-a-fool very much by accident…
She had been wandering further than she usually did. It was the day she’d overheard the Council discussing the possibility of introducing Sharon, Michael’s girlfriend, to Below.
Girlfriend. Below didn’t really have boyfriends and girlfriends. It had lovers and partners and spouses. It had words like joining and commitment. She had hoped that Sharon would stay up top with her Above words. Because up top relationships were not for keeps. Not really. But to be introduced Below meant she was going to be more than a silly crush. She was going to be part of Micahel’s life. A part that Brooke wasn’t, and would never be.
After overhearing that, she’d walked where her feet took her, skirting up much closer to the perimeter than she’d normally dared. Beyond the perimeter lay the remnants of Paracelsus’ community. Though it was said that, after driving most of his original followers away, there were at most a handful that still kept his ways alive. He had died, Brooke made herself not think about how, and Tamara had disappeared.
She walked to an alcove with a small stream that trickled through it. She dipped her fingers in the water and rubbed her eyelids. She felt very tired.
A small groan escaped from a corner of the space.
Her head whipped around. There was a huddled figure there.
Brooke’s instinct was to run but the figure groaned again. They were hurt. She crept closer. The figure was a person of medium build. Their clothes were tatters save for a clearly expensive jacket of dark green leather. Brooke’s guard went up even further. The figure had seen her approach and was watching her with caution. They did not try to hide the mark on their wrist.
The alchemical symbol for gold was branded there. They were a follower of Paracelsus.
All sense told her to run and tell no one what she’d seen. But the person looked hurt and Brooke couldn’t bring herself to leave them.
Her throat felt dry as she spoke. “I’ll get you some help. Just stay still.”
“No” was the immediate response. The voice was strange, like wisps of smoke dragging over broken glass. “I don’t want help from you – it costs too much. Besides, my people might take it as a call to war. It’ll be all right. I might be luckier if it ends here. I can’t go back.”
Brooke set her lantern down and crouched by the figure. “There’s no cost for me to help you, and you can’t just bleed out here.”
The figure shrugged. “Was doing a fine job of it until you showed up. What’s your name?” the person asked with a mild curiosity.
Brooke could see them better now in the light from her lantern. Their eyes were hazel and their hair longish, to their shoulders. A firm jawline was currently tightened in trying to ride out the waves of pain.
Brooke hesitated a moment before telling them. “Brooke.”
“Brooke? Like a babbling one, huh? It’s pretty. I’m Jack-a-fool.” They said their name with the three syllables skipping like stones above the smoke.
Brooke rolled the name over her tongue. “Jack-a-fool. Do they have names like that where you’re from?”
Jack-a-fool laughed and then immediately regretted it as a wave of pain rode up. “‘Where I’m from.’ We’re both rock babies, my beautiful babbling Brooke. My mama and papa just decided to follow The Dark Man into the promised land.”
Brooke thought about telling them she wasn’t Below-born. But she had stopped thinking of herself as coming from Above a long time ago.
She’d come to Grandma Mill’s small apartment in the city after her parents’ death when she was seven years old. And right away she noticed the strange people at the corners of her grandmother’s life. People in patchwork clothing like her rag doll would fix the refrigerator so it’d stop going “ka-thunk ka-thunk” all through the night. They would be there to take a bag of watercress and dill Mill grew on her balcony garden. They would be there to give Mill a tureen of delicious chicken soup when Brooke got the flu.
When she was a month past her eighth birthday, Mill began to tell her about the people beneath the city. How they lived in secrecy and safety. How they depended on people like her to keep their world going. And Brooke was a big girl now and old enough to keep a good secret like that.
Brooke remembered her first Winterfest. Standing in the biggest room she’d ever seen in her white patent mary janes, watching the room be filled with light. It felt like a dream. Vincent danced with her to a waltz the fiddlers played. And she didn’t notice how much of the evening her grandmother spent talking with Father and Peter huddled together in a corner of the room.
It was after that Brooke noticed how thin Mill was getting. How easily tired. And then there were awful big plastic chairs in the waiting rooms while tests were run. And then the nice comfy sofa in Peter’s house where Susan let her watch a movie on HBO that had bad words in it. While in Peter’s office Mill, Peter and Father made plans for where Brooke would live when the illness had finally burned through her.
She remembered Mill asking if she’d like to live in that secret place and her eyes lighting up with the idea. She had asked if Mill would be coming too. And Mill looked sad and said “we’ll talk about that later.” Which is something grown-ups always said when something bad was going to happen that they didn’t want to talk about.
And then there had been Olivia coming in to get her ready for school while Mill was in the hospital for the last of it. And there was a goodbye to Mill with her eyes already closed and she’d cried. But Vincent had been there to hold her hand as she walked down to her new home. Her E.T. backpack was slung over her shoulders. The last gift Mill had given her for Christmas.
The backpack had since been donated to a Helper’s child starting school. Her plaid skirt and mustard yellow turtleneck had been patched and pieced and recycled into completely new items of clothing several times over. And with those pieces of Above gone it was easier and easier to think of herself as from Below.
A tunnel kid who read Frankenstein and The Green Knight in battered, ex-library copies instead of textbooks in her classes. Learning how to knit and sew and can food. And she became a part of Below. A part people were kind to but considered as an unchanging part of Below as much as the Falls.
She wasn’t encouraged to go up top to school like Michael had been. The Helpers had not asked if she’d be interested in apprenticing with them. It was understood that good Brooke, sweet Brooke, nice Brooke was going to look after the younger children and be a help to Below. And eventually some nice tunnel boy would take her for a wife.
Brooke bristled at that future, not the least because she had no vision to counter it. She’d been in love with Michael. Silly, unrequited love. The bitter aftertaste of it still remained in her mouth as she crouched forward to tend Jack-a-fool’s wounds.
She tore pieces from the hem of her blouse and dipped them into the water to clean the cuts and bind them. Jack-a-fool was watching her like a cat, their hazel eyes showing flecks of gold in the lantern light.
They spoke. “You’re not asking how I got these.”
Brooke’s eyes stayed on her work. “That’s your business.”
“If I told you I got them hurting an innocent person, would you stop?”
Brooke’s fingers stilled. She looked at Jack-a-fool with a calmness she did not feel. “I would tend your wounds because nobody deserves to bleed out alone in the dark. But I would tell the others about you.”
“You’d have The Lion Man, The Son of Paracelsus, finish me off, huh?”
“Paracelsus is not Vincent’s father!” Brooke was surprised by the level of upset in her voice. “It’s a vicious lie. Vincent was found one night behind St. Vincent’s Hospital.”
Jack-a-fool didn’t look sorry, but they didn’t press the issue further. “Maybe yes, maybe no. You got stories Papa Jacob tells you, and we got stories The Dark Man told us. Who can say who is right? Probably nobody. I bet it was some drunk Columbia boys one night who dared each other to climb into the lion cage at the zoo in the Park and make it with one of the lady lions.” They laughed at the image that produced and rode out another wave of pain.
Brooke privately admitted she was glad that had hurt them. “I don’t know who Vincent’s parents are but, whoever they are, they didn’t deserve such an incredible person. I’m glad he’s part of Below.”
“Maybe they didn’t want to give him up.”
Brooke had never considered that. “I guess that’s true. Maybe they hoped someone would find him.” She dressed the last cut. “I hope they didn’t leave him planning to come back only to find he was gone.” She was embarrassed her eyes were welling with tears.
Jack-a-fool looked at her with an expression that almost looked like tenderness. “Nah, I guess they knew they had to leave him and he got found, and had a pretty good life for the most part. Dark Man really wanted him for his own. Wanted babies like him. Make an army of the new breed, he called it.”
Brooke shivered. “Look, I have to get back before I’m missed. I’ll bring you something to eat later; the water’s safe to drink.”
Jack-a-fool nodded. “I will be eagerly waiting for your return, pretty Brooke.”
Brooke returned to the home tunnels, turning over in her mind the need to tell someone about Jack-a-fool. But she returned to the nursery to hear Mary chatting with Lena about how Sharon had been cleared to be told about Below, and there would be a small party in the library to welcome her in a few weeks.
Brooke returned to Jack-a-fool that evening with rolls stuffed with roast chicken and an apple, knotted in a cloth. She hoped she’d splashed enough cold water on her face to wash away the signs of how she’s spent most of the afternoon crying in her chamber.
Jack-a-fool took the food and watched her closely as they took a bite of the apple. After they swallowed, they said, “Whoever they were, they weren’t worth it, honey.”
Brooke flinched at being found out so easily, but had to weakly laugh at her own absurdity.
“I was madly in love with someone who unfortunately was not aware of that fact. And honestly, it might be better that they weren’t. At least I didn’t have to hear ‘I hope we can still be friends.’”
Jack-a-fool chuckled. “That’s life. At least when you get your heart broke like that, that’s the end of it for you.” They gestured to their bandages. “I wanted someone else’s woman, and she wanted me too; I thought so, anyway. But over there you gotta fight for that right, and I lost…and she didn’t come with me. I can’t blame her much. It’s a hard world and she figures what’s the use in having somebody to protect you who can’t even fight?”
Brooke shook her head at the way Paracelsus’ group operated. “It’s not like that where I’m from. You don’t take what isn’t yours and we choose who we love.”
Jack-a-fool shrugged. “Love is a mad angel, she doesn’t give a damn sometimes about what we want. I was happy to go along and get along and then suddenly I wanted her like the rock wants the chisel to shape it into something grand.” Their eyes looked far away. “I remember the first time I had her, she asked if I was gonna fight for her and I said yes, not meaning it. But I had her and then I would have fought your lion man for her.”
Brooke shook her head. “That’s not love, that’s lust. And you can have sex with somebody and it not mean anything at all.”
Jack-a-fool grinned. “Gotta be rose petals on the bed and three hours of indescribable bliss, huh? How many of your lovers have given you rose petals?”
Brooke blushed and went to change her subject. “It’s just… I think it should mean something, that’s all. Anyway, you really should come with me and let Father treat you in the infirmary.”
Jack-a-fool shook their head. “No dice. I figure I can sell my coat, it’s a real Dapper Dan,” they said the name as though Brooke should recognize it, “that’ll give me enough money when I’m back on my feet to get outta town. There’s more to the world than these rocks and New York, believe it or not.”
Brooke sighed. “Well all right, but give yourself time to heal, at least. I’ll be back with a blanket and some more food tomorrow.”
And it went on like that for the next several weeks. Bringing them food, changing their bandages, and talking. About anything and everything. Brooke never got used to how they could make her say more than she wanted to. Or how much she was beginning to look forward to seeing them…
Brooke pulled herself back to the present as she walked into the dining chamber. At the long table laid out with food, she slipped an orange into her pocket. For all the trouble Catherine seemed to bring them, she’d also brought a better, steadier supply of food. Brooke filled a bowl with oatmeal and went to find a place to sit.
She took a seat by Noriko, who was chatting with Jamie. Noriko smiled at her and said good morning.
Brooke smiled back. “Good morning, any idea when the party will be tonight?”
Noriko took a sip from a mug of hot chocolate. “Around seven. Michael wants to keep it casual. Joe will be there too; Father thinks it’s a good idea to have another top-sider there.”
“To show her we’re not all weirdos who dress like some Shakespeare in the Park production, huh?” Brooke tried to say it with good humor. But Jamie and Noriko shared a look. Brooke went on. “Will she be having dinner with us, or will there be food at the party?”
Noriko replied, “They’ll be coming down after having dinner with Cathy and Joe…and me.”
Noriko blushed a little at the end. She and Joe were new, and she was clearly getting used to the idea of being in the kind of love you could see. And Brooke could see it, the way her mouth softened thinking about Joe. How she was wearing top-sider clothes underneath a tunnel jacket, because she was going to spend the day with him before dinner.
Noriko finished her drink and got up to return the empty mug to the trays that would be carried back into the kitchen for cleaning. Jamie looked up and saw Cullen coming in with Olivia and her mouth tightened.
Brooke thought about Cullen and Olivia; they showed that maybe all relationships Below weren’t for keeps. Brooke remembered talking about them with Jack-a-fool as they peeled the orange she’d brought them that time. They knew that trick of how to peel them so the peel came off in a neat spiral in your hand…
Brooke had watched the brightly colored ribbon smelling like summer unfurl in Jack-a-fool’s nimble fingers. They had somehow gotten to talking about relationships Below, and Brooke was explaining how a couple separated in her world.
“…There’s no violence. It doesn’t even really have a name, some people call it the unbinding ritual or the ceremony of separation. But what happens is that the couple announces their intention to separate, they decide who will remain in their chamber and who will move. The candle their joining vows were said over is lit one last time and thrown into the Abyss. After that, they are free to light a candle with someone else if they want to.”
Jack-a-fool took a bite of a segment of the orange, and the juice ran down their chin. Brooke stayed her hand not to wipe it away with her fingers. They spoke, “Sounds better than our way. But there’s still the hurt; seems like Olivia couldn’t wait for Kanin to come back.”
“It wasn’t like that.” Brooke surprised herself by defending Olivia. When the whispers of what Olivia and Cullen were doing became obvious – when Olivia started taking prenatal vitamins sent by Peter at breakfast – Brooke had pursed her lips and tried not to say anything about it when Olivia and she were minding the nursery.
She knew Kanin had refused to let her visit or accept her letters. And he had not written once. But…Brooke looked at the stream that ran with a sighing hiss through the chamber. But what? Sometimes people loved each other and then they stopped loving each other. And Cullen loved Olivia. That much was obvious. And he loved the daughter they’d made like his own heart.
Brooke sighed. “Sometimes things just don’t work out, for a lot of reasons.”
Jack-a-fool smiled. “It sounds like my Brooke is realizing love is as messy as eating an orange.”
Brooke laughed. “You don’t take anything seriously, and I take everything too seriously. No wonder you get me to talk like this.”
Jack-a-fool looked at her with that almost-tender look that made her feel increasingly funny in her stomach. “Maybe I just like the sound of your voice.”
Brooke shook her head to pull herself back into the reality of the dining chamber. She ate a spoonful of oatmeal as Noriko walked back to the table. Olivia and Cullen walked up with cups of coffee and rolls. Their daughter River was carefully bundled on Cullen’s chest.
Cullen asked casually, mostly looking at Jamie, “S’okay if we sit here?”
“Sure,” Noriko said, “I’m just leaving to go see Joe. You two take care, I’ll see you tonight at the party.”
“I’m done too,” Jamie said briskly, standing up holding an apple with a bite taken out of it. “I’ve got to get to my sentry post.” Brooke looked at her as she walked to the entrance of the chamber with Noriko, Jamie still had no intention of ever forgetting who nearly killed Mouse.
She wondered what that kind of love was like, that made you fiercely hate anyone who harmed someone you loved, forever. But she wondered if she would be able to forgive someone who hurt Vincent…or Michael. Probably not, Brooke mused, as Cullen and Olivia settled themselves on the opposite side of the table from her.
There was a moment of awkward silence that Brooke broke. “So, do you need me in the nursery tonight?”
Olivia stirred her coffee. “Well, that’s up to you. I thought you might like an excuse not to go to the party…” Olivia trailed off, worried she might have stoked trouble back into a crackling flame.
“No, it’s all right, I’d like to go. I’ve asked Lena to cover for me tonight.”
Olivia smiled. “Good. I can braid your hair if you like?”
“Thanks, I’ll decide how I want to wear my hair later.”
River blurted out noises of distress, and Cullen’s attention was drawn to her, crooning comfort words to make her settle. Brooke’s heart clenched at that kind of tenderness. Her parents were becoming phantoms to her with every passing year, the smell of her father’s aftershave more difficult to recall, which soap opera her mother followed fading into photos kept in an album in her trunk.
She had thought Michael would make an excellent father, and he probably would, but it wasn’t going to be with her. For all she knew, it wasn’t even going to be with Sharon. But she strangely couldn’t be happy that Sharon might end up as broken-hearted as she did.
Brooke quickly finished her oatmeal before her thoughts got too maudlin. She wished Olivia and Cullen a good day and made faces at River until she giggled.
She walked past Vincent’s chamber. He was reading Watership Down to the youngest children; his own child was held by Catherine in the worn velvet chair. Brooke paused to hear his voice tick out the words of one of her favorite stories.
The tableau in the chamber was one of peace, and Catherine watched Vincent with eyes of love that filled a room with their glow.
Brooke listened a moment more then continued on. She thought about that look in Catherine’s eyes, and how Vincent returned it with interest. She hadn’t been happy when Catherine came back to Vincent after he had found her in the park. She marked that reappearance with every knife gash and bullet wound Father had to tend to.
But Catherine had brought them food, clothes and medicine. And she made Vincent happy, a happiness that was his alone. Instead of having to have a slice of someone else’s happiness given like a piece of bread to a starving man, he had a happiness that was a banquet laid out just for him.
And their love radiated out and bound all of them together. Henry and Lin were together because of Catherine and Vincent, Lena raised her daughter in safety instead of on the streets because of them, and Michael…probably never would have met Sharon without them.
Her mouth quirked; she could still be a little upset at Catherine for that.
She walked on, nodding at the people she passed. And taking a glance behind her to make sure she wasn’t observed veering off in the direction of where Jack-a-fool was. She walked down to the cavern with the stream. Jack-a-fool was reading a magazine, a new one. Brooke realized their green leather jacket was gone, and their clothes changed for a simple red canvas jacket over a shirt and jeans.
Brooke stilled and Jack-a-fool looked up. She knew what they were going to say before they opened their mouth.
“I went up and sold my coat for traveling money. It’s time to be moving on, I just wanted to say goodbye.”
Brooke felt a great many things as she walked to the blanket they’d spread out to read on and sat down by them. She handed them the orange in her pocket.
“For the road, I guess.,” she said, trying to keep her voice light.
“Thanks.” Jack-a-fool looked at her, uneasy, as if for the first time they were the one not sure what to say. “I’ll miss you, babbling Brooke…I’d ask you to come with me but I think that’s not your style.”
And it wasn’t. She knew she wasn’t made for living hand to mouth, one step ahead of an enemy’s switchblade or a jail cell, like they were. But she admitted she was going to miss them a lot more than she expected to.
She sighed. “Some people are the girl who got away, I guess I’m the girl who gets left behind. Sweet and forgettable like a comfortable old chair.”
“That’s not true, Brooke.” Jack-a-fool looked at her with a look that was tender, and it made a band of heat press around her torso. “You’re a real special lady, and if nobody here is smart enough to see that, their loss.” Their eyes got cloudy. “I guess I thought this would be easier. I just…”
Jack-a-fool looked at her. “I just want to be careful with you, is all. The greatest wrong in the world would be to be careless with you.”
Brooke’s breath caught and she looked at them. The only sound was the stream in the cavern. She looked into those hazel eyes and smiled.
“I want to be careful with you too.” And she leaned in and kissed them.
Jack-a-fool returned the kiss. And then there was more kissing. And there were fingers at the laces of her blouse. And there was want and need. And there was skin, a shoulder feeling like the swell of a wave under her fingertips. And there was her awkwardness and inexperience. And when Jack-a-fool laughed she wanted to squirm away and die of shame but they held her to their chest so she could feel the laughter deep in their chest. And she started laughing too. And then there was laughter in it. And there was heat and light. And then there was feeling her body return to itself after its atoms had been shot in a million directions like marbles.
After, Jack-a-fool and Brooke had split the orange she’d brought. And this time when juice ran down their chin she did use her fingers to wipe it away. And they licked the juice off her fingers. And Brooke took her time dressing, feeling Jack-a-fool watching her.
They walked to the surface together, the tunnels depositing them near Grand Central Station. They walked into the building, and Brooke was dazzled by the vault of the ceilings and the number of people, each with someplace to go. Jack-a-fool took her to a restaurant there and ordered them a dozen oysters and showed her how to eat them. They tasted like the sea and mermaid’s tears.
Over the meal they said names of cities to try out the sound of them, of where Jack-a-fool might go. They walked to the ticket counter and Jack-a-fool bought a ticket to New Orleans. Brooke walked with them to the train platform.
They sat on a bench and made up stories about the people who passed by. Finally it was time for Jack-a-fool’s train to leave. Brooke stood up and looked at Jack-a-fool. She knew she was never going to see them again.
Jack-a-fool smiled and kissed her goodbye. A kiss like Cherry 7-Up on a hot day.
“Goodbye, Jack-a-fool.” And Brooke turned to leave first, and she did not look back.
She wore her floral jumper to the party. And she wore her hair loose around her shoulders. Sharon looked nervous and reached out for Michael’s arm from time to time. Almost like she wanted an anchor reminding her that this was really happening. That she was surrounded by piles of old books and candles flickering deep beneath New York City.
Brooke smiled and walked up to her and held out a hand. “Hi, I’m Brooke.”
“Nice to meet you!” Sharon put her glass of punch down. “Michael told me all about you, how great you are with kids. If you ever wanted to work…’up top,’ is it? A lot of my family’s friends are always looking for an au pair when they go on vacations in the spring or summer.”
“I would like that.” Brooke meant it, she was glad to have the purple skirt after all. “Especially if it’s anywhere near a beach.” She smiled; it didn’t matter what your shoes were when you were walking barefoot on the beach.
“That’s great! Remind me again when vacation season rolls around.” And Sharon went over to Michael who wanted to show her something in a book Vincent was holding.
And Brooke would remind her, and who knew what would happen in the time between now and the warmer months? There were possibilities everywhere, and there was always going to be a place for her here. A pretty sound foundation, if you thought about it. She wiggled her toes in her big, thick boots and smiled.
That night, as she slipped into her bed, she reached under her pillow and pulled out the oyster shell. She’d slipped one in her pocket during the meal and cleaned it before going to the party.
It glowed a gentle pewter in the candle light. She ran her thumb over the inside of the shell and wished for safe travels for Jack-a-fool, and for happiness for Michael and Sharon, and for the protection of everyone Below.
She slipped the shell back under her pillow and blew out the candle. And dreamed of silver seas that were waiting to be crossed.
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