by JoAnn Baca
Keep You In
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my sister, and keep you in the rear of your affection …
Be wary then; best safety lies in fear.
~ Shakespeare, Hamlet
It was like she had an internal clock … or maybe she’d just been living Below a long time … but Jamie’s eyelids always seemed to pop open seconds before the sentry tapped out the 4:00 a.m. “all clear.” The first thing she did upon waking was scan the chamber, her gaze raking every inch of the small room.
Few shadows interfered with her inspection. Terror of the dark meant she kept several candles lit in her chamber at all times – her only indulgence in excess – and a tinderbox and a taper under her pillow for emergencies, along with her knife.
She rolled from her pallet on the ground and got to her knees on the mat beside it, reaching for 20-pound free weights before rising. They were some of the first things she’d cadged to bring Below once she had found shelter in the Tunnels, and over time she’d amassed a variety of dumbbells. Although she was slight, she worked with weights that some men had trouble with. Today she did three sets of 20 each of bicep curls, hammer curls, and triceps kickbacks, followed by push-ups – 100, straight-legged, on her knuckles. Without a break, she turned over and completed three sets of 40 sit-ups, varying her position with each set. The image she kept in her mind as she worked out was her shooting stance and the proper positioning of her crossbow as she slowly drew it and let it fire, visualizing bull’s-eyes as each bolt flew to its mark.
All these exercises focused on improving her fitness to better her already impressive abilities with the crossbow – her pride and joy, and the source of her personal identity. It had never failed her; she could trust it, which was more than she could say for most people.
She sniffed her workout gear, which had doubled as her nightwear. Time to wash it. After peeling the sweaty garments off, she pulled on a chenille bathrobe that had seen better days – many of them – and slipped her knife into one pocket. At this hour, she would have the small bathroom and shower facilities she shared with Rebecca, Brooke, and Lena all to herself, which was just how she liked things. Even after years Below, she had never lost her insecurity about being in a vulnerable state around others. Too many experiences at a young age in a precarious home situation had caused her to develop a set of personal practices she had still not abandoned. And she reminded herself of them every morning – another step in her regimen of ceaseless vigilance.
As she slipped off her robe and stepped into the shower, she recounted them: sleep close to the ground to avoid getting trapped; be aware of your surroundings and what anyone near you is doing; always have a clear line of retreat from every enclosed space; bathe only when no one else is around; always keep a weapon near at hand.
She soaped up and washed quickly, ever alert to the sound of approaching footsteps, even though only single women lived in this part of the sleeping chambers. Each day she vowed anew to never … ever … let down her guard, no matter how safe a place seemed, no matter how much time had passed without incident.
Eventually, the quiet gave her a sense of calm, especially after she had her robe on again. She combed her wet hair and brushed her teeth, the luxury of having to share these facilities with only three others never ceasing to thrill her. She didn’t mind the cracked mirror salvaged from a rooming house about to be torn down, or the old porcelain sink which stood on a makeshift pedestal, or even the rudimentary shower. She didn’t even care that Lena had taken over most of the scanty shelf space with her assortment of cosmetics and perfumes. Jamie didn’t need much because she’d never had much.
The halls of the Hub were still empty when she returned to her chamber but she peeked inside first to ensure she had no unexpected company. After assuring herself the small room was empty, she stole inside as quietly as she could. In minutes she was dressed in her armor for the day: layers of clothing and a heavy tunic which disguised her figure, her knife in a makeshift sheath inside her boot, and her crossbow slung over her shoulder. Usually mornings were reserved for crossbow practice, but this morning she had sentry duty, so she put the book she had been reading in a pocket of her tunic. Then she headed for the kitchen, with a detour to the laundry to deposit her workout clothes.
It was too early for breakfast, but William always made sure there were muffins and strong tea available for those who needed to make an early start to their day. “Hiya, William,” she said as she grabbed an empty thermos and filled it with the aromatic tea – today it was that lovely Oolong that the Pei family had sent down.
“Morning, Jamie, my girl!” William put two muffins in a cloth bag and handed it to her. “One for later.”
Jamie liked the gruff old guy. He never tried to hug her or even get too close. Smiling, she replied, “Thanks! You know these are my favorite!”
“Be back in time for lunch?” He had returned to the stove, where oatmeal was simmering.
“Would I miss your chicken noodle soup?” She rubbed her stomach in an exaggerated show of appetite.
His hearty laugh was one of her favorite sounds. “Not in this lifetime!”
The passages along the route to her sentry station were so familiar, her feet didn’t need direction, so she could munch on her muffin while letting her mind wander, even as her keen eyes ceaselessly surveyed her surroundings. She savored each bite before swallowing, remembering different mornings when breakfast was just a word in the dictionary and dinner was something scavenged during late-night raids on restaurant garbage cans. Occasionally, she had found something to eat at school by haunting the trash receptacles in the cafeteria, risking being late to class after the lunch hour in order to scarf an uneaten roll or half of a sandwich with only a couple of bites already taken out of it.
She knew she was small for her age because she hadn’t had a good diet growing up. In fact, those Below weren’t aware of her actual age because she hadn’t trusted them when she’d first met them and had lied. She had let them keep thinking she was younger than she really was until it was too late to admit her deception. No way she could amend the lie now, not after years Below. Sometimes it was frustrating when they wouldn’t let her do things she knew she was capable of, thinking she wasn’t old enough to take on the responsibility. She shrugged mentally. Eventually they would consider her “old enough” and that problem would go away.
She sucked every crumb off her fingers before wiping her hand on her jeans. The sentry station was close at hand. She whistled through her teeth to let Old Sam know she was nearby. He had insomnia, poor guy, so he often took late-night duty. Jamie knew he would be anxious to get to breakfast, which was why she had made sure to arrive early for her shift.
“How’s it going, Sam?” she said as she came up to the hidden entrance to the sentry station. “Got something for you.” She handed him the extra muffin William had given her. Remembering how it felt to be hungry, she tried her best always to share what she had.
“Quiet night. Just like we like ‘em,” Sam responded, reaching out eagerly for the muffin. “See you later, kid!” He waved with his free hand and moved down the passageway towards the Hub.
Jamie did a sweep of the nearest corridors before settling into her hiding spot. She wasn’t strictly required to do the sweep, but she liked to check things out anyway, to ensure she really was alone. She didn’t like surprises where people were concerned.
Sam had left a months-old PEOPLE magazine in the cubby. He’d forgotten his thermos, too. She shook it. Liquid sloshed inside. Jamie opened it and took a sniff. Tea. Most likely at least tepid, if not cold. Still, she wasn’t one to waste anything. She poured it into the cap and sipped it, then settled in for her watch.
Three hours later, Jamie put down her book as she heard furtive footsteps coming along the corridor to her left. That was the Topside direction. She considered her options. She wouldn’t allow herself to be trapped in the sentry post, especially if what was coming was an unknown quantity, even if the post was well concealed. So she slipped out and away, carrying her crossbow, arming it as she crept to an outcropping that provided both protection and a wider view than the sentry peephole.
The shuffling footfalls grew more pronounced as someone approached – alone, seemingly. But she didn’t want to trust her ears, so she risked a look around the edge of her hiding spot. Then she sighed and left her position, exasperated.
“Mouse, I swear! You know you can’t sneak up on me,” she scolded as the young man came into full view. He was crouched over like a cartoon villain, but once caught, he straightened and looked indignant.
“Not sneaking!” he protested innocently, then he gave her a crafty smile. “Surprise you someday.”
“Maybe. But not anytime soon.” She scowled at him, then relented and laughed – his smile, as always, raising her spirits.
He didn’t look at her as he asked, “Meet for lunch?” while scuffing one boot against the ground, kicking up dust.
“Don’t I always, silly?” she replied, half irritated and half entertained by him.
“OK good!” he said. “Bye!” This time he didn’t shuffle his feet. He took off in his loping half-run and quickly disappeared down the long corridor.
Jamie stood there watching him, thinking about how odd he was and how that suited her just fine. She had always wanted a male friend, but didn’t want the entanglement of a romantic relationship. Of course, she had a reserved friendship with pretty much all the men Below, and she counted Vincent as a special pal. But she wanted a best kind of friend, and she had found him in Mouse. Besides, he was like William – he never offered or expected a hug.
Mouse was another one who was older than he seemed, although nobody, not even Mouse, knew exactly how old he was. But she had overheard Father talking with Peter about Mouse one day … well, not exactly overheard, more like eavesdropped, because how else was she supposed to find out things others kept secret? Peter had said something about fingerprints and the possibility that Mouse was actually somebody’s son – which, really, wasn’t every guy somebody’s son? – who was kidnapped about 20 years before, which would make Mouse about 25 or so now. Father had wondered about reuniting him with his relatives, but Peter had said that, even if Mouse was this person, the family members were all dead now. Just like her family, all dead … to her, at least, in any way that mattered. So they were kind of like orphans together and about the same age. That made her feel a special bond with him. Not a bond like the capital “B” one that Vincent and Catherine shared, but … she felt connected to Mouse nonetheless.
She remembered “overhearing” another conversation, this one involving Samantha and Brooke. They had been musing about “couples” Below – who might be a couple, who thought nobody knew they were a couple, that kind of thing. Her name had been linked with Mouse’s as they speculated on the possibility that the two friends might be more than that. Jamie had wanted to interrupt them to explain that there was nothing going on between her and Mouse, but she would have had to reveal that she’d been listening to them. So she had just ground her teeth and kept quiet … and was relieved when they concurred that they had never seen stealthy hand-holding or any other evidence of romance between the two. Damn skippy, they hadn’t! And wouldn’t ever.
Jamie returned to her sentry post and tapped a message to Pascal that Mouse was heading Tunnel-ward. She settled back with her book again, her ears pricked for any movement.
Lena arrived right on time to relieve her.
“Here. Sam left this,” Jamie informed her, handing her the well-thumbed magazine. Sam hadn’t been the first, and Lena wouldn’t be the last to read it Below.
“Thanks! I missed this one!” She immediately bent her head to check out who had been named the most recent Sexiest Man Alive, apparently dismissing Jamie from her thoughts.
Lena had never seemed completely comfortable around her, although Jamie couldn’t understand why. Sure, they didn’t really talk much. In fact, they barely passed a few words in their quarters when they happened to see each other, which wasn’t often, as Lena never rose before breakfast was nearly over, and Jamie was always already well into her day by then. But then, Jamie thought of Lena as too “girly” anyway, concerned about things she didn’t really care about. Besides, Jamie had heard rumors about Lena – something about slipping into Vincent’s chamber in the dead of night once – and she didn’t much like the sound of that, especially considering it was Catherine who had vouched for her to come Below. Never mind naming your kid after that person, trying to make amends. In Jamie’s mind, betraying someone was about the worst thing you could do. She knew from first-hand experience how devastating that could be to the person who had trusted unwisely. That was one reason Jamie didn’t trust many people.
Seeing as how Lena was absorbed in the magazine, Jamie shouldered her crossbow and left without another word, striding quickly through the tunnels to the Dining Chamber. She was famished, her stomach gurgling as she anticipated William’s soup and the delicious rolls that would accompany it. She slipped past small groups of Tunnel folk chatting as they ambled toward lunch, saying hello only when spoken to, and she arrived to find Mouse there ahead of her, hopping from foot to foot as he waved wildly to get her attention.
Despite her hunger, she smiled and angled toward the table where he was. He had eaten his roll and most of his soup already. When he saw her looking at his tray, he announced, “Got hungry. Couldn’t wait.” His eyes appealed for forgiveness, and all she could do was laugh. “I’ll bring you another roll,” she said, and stepped to the end of the serving line.
When she returned with her food, Mouse didn’t wait for her to offer a roll; he plucked one off her tray before she had even set it down and was already munching on it when she slid onto the bench beside him. “No butter?” he mumbled between bites, as crumbs fell from his mouth.
“Forgot it, sorry,” she said, and began applying herself to lunch. By the time she reached for her roll, she noticed it had been torn in half and part of it was already disappearing into Mouse’s mouth. She decided he wasn’t too upset about not having butter after all.
Vincent approached their table as she was mopping up the last of her soup with the bit of roll she’d managed to save from Mouse. “Jamie. Mouse.” Vincent nodded at each of them.
“Need Mouse?” the young man asked hopefully.
“Always.” Vincent smiled kindly at him. “But right this minute,” he turned in Jamie’s direction, “I need this lady.”
She looked up, feeling guilty at the attention, even though she couldn’t imagine what she might have done wrong.
Vincent’s brow furrowed the slightest bit as he noted her reaction and he quickly sought to reassure her. “It’s a sentry issue that I wish to discuss … when you’re finished with lunch, of course.”
Jamie slid off the bench as she shoved her tray towards Mouse. “Here, put that in the kitchen for me,” she ordered her friend, who jumped up and stacked his dishes atop hers, quick to obey. Then she turned to Vincent. “I’m ready now,” she said.
Vincent swept his arm in front of him, indicating she should precede him out the doorway. “My chamber,” he said, surprising her, for sentry discussions were usually held in Father’s library. She nodded without speaking, adjusting to the new direction. As they walked in silence, Jamie’s shoulders stiffened with the anxiety that was coursing through her. She tried to think of any possible sentry problems that might involve her, but she could not come up with one.
They arrived at Vincent’s chamber entry and again Vincent indicated she should precede him. She fought the dread she was feeling. This was really unusual. She sometimes came to his chamber of her own accord, but she couldn’t recall the last time … or any time, really … that she had been escorted to his chamber by Vincent himself. She steeled her nerves and stepped inside the strangely darkened interior.
Light sprang into being as the overhead fixture was suddenly turned on and a small group of Tunnel folk shouted, “Surprise!” Startled, Jamie froze. Samantha ran up to her and shoved a cloth-wrapped bundle into her hands as she said, “Happy birthday, Jamie!”
Belatedly, Jamie recalled that this arbitrary date was the one she had given for her birthday. She tended to forget it from year to year as, in truth, the day had been plucked at random when someone had asked her when her birthday was, way back when she first was introduced Below. As with her age, Jamie hadn’t trusted anyone with the truth about herself at the time. But the false birthdate, just like her younger age, had been attached to her for so long, she felt she couldn’t reveal the real one at this point.
Mouse crept into the chamber behind her and whispered in her ear, “Surprise!” Taken off-guard, she shied away, leading him to chortle, “Snuck up! Surprised you!”
She managed a wan smile in reply, uncomfortable with all the attention and wanting to be anywhere but there, accepting good wishes and pretending to be happy about the surprise party. She appreciated most the cupcakes William had sent. They tasted fine even in a guilty state of mind.
“Open my gift,” Samantha insisted.
The young girl reminded Jamie so much of herself at that age, Jamie could almost not stand to be around the child. She had had that enthusiasm beaten out of her … and worse … at about Samantha’s age. The years that had followed were the worst of Jamie’s life. Pasting a grin on her face, Jamie said, “OK, hold your horses,” while she unwrapped the cloth from around the gift.
She stared for a moment at what Samantha had given her. It was a leather sheath for a knife, inexpertly tooled by young fingers. “Cullen helped me work the leather,” Samantha said proudly.
Eagle-eyed kid, knowing I hide a knife in my boot, Jamie thought. I’ll have to keep a closer watch on her. Aloud, she said, “It’s nice. Thanks.”
Samantha’s brow knitted for a second; she’d expected much more appreciation for all the work and thought she’d put into the gift, Jamie could tell. But Jamie couldn’t muster it. She was unsettled by the thought that a child had noticed her secretly hidden weapon.
Mary came forward to hug her and Jamie gritted her teeth and stiffened to accept the invasion of her personal space. Mary was always doing it and Jamie never had gotten used to it. You’d think Mary would have noticed by now that I don’t like being touched, she thought to herself.
“I’ve made you this poncho,” Mary said, offering her a folded item. Shaking it out, Jamie saw it was sewn with brown suede – many patches of it – that would slip over her head and rest atop her outfit to provide extra warmth while still allowing her to carry – and use – her crossbow easily. With much more enthusiasm than she had showed to Samantha, Jamie nodded at Mary and thanked her kindly.
Vincent’s gift of a journal was met with a blank stare. “For your thoughts and memories,” he suggested. Jamie was polite and thanked him, privately knowing she’d never be so foolish as to write anything down that some snoop might read. Maybe people were afraid to read Vincent’s journals – although she personally had no such qualms – but she had no plans to find out if a journal of hers would remain unmolested. Maybe she could use it to plan sentry duty schedules if … no, when, because she hoped someday to be in charge of it … her time came.
As quickly as that thought came to her, she used the opportunity of her “birthday” to say to Vincent, “Hey … uh … now that I’m … uh … older … d’you think I might move up the ranks in the sentry roll? You know … maybe take on more responsibility?” She hazarded mentioning her deepest wish. “Roster planning, maybe?”
Vincent blinked, obviously surprised at her request. Of course, as far as he knew, she was not an adult yet, and thus not ready for that kind of responsibility. Still, it didn’t hurt to put it out there. As Cullen had once counseled her, “If you never ask for something, the answer will always be ‘no’.”
“It’s a lot to take on, you know.”
His gentle comment seemed the predicate for an even gentler let-down, and she braced herself to pretend his denial of her request was no big deal. So she was caught off-guard by his next words.
“We can try it. You work up a sample roster for next week and we’ll review it together. After a month or so, if it seems you’ve got a good handle on the job, I’d be happy to turn it over to you. Thank you for the offer, Jamie.”
She nodded. “I’ll get to work on it then.” Inwardly, she was ecstatic – this was the best “birthday” gift ever, and suddenly the journal had a use. But she clamped down on a whoop of joy, knowing it would startle everyone and make her seem like the youngster they thought her to be…and maybe even cause Vincent to reconsider. Still, she couldn’t hide the elation in her eyes. If Vincent noticed it, he didn’t comment on it.
Thankfully, the party didn’t last much longer, as chores awaited, and everyone could see how uncomfortable Jamie was about being the focus of attention. In fact, she was out the doorway even while several stragglers remained.
Escaping down the corridor, Jamie headed to her own chamber to deposit her presents, careful first to check each chamber near hers as she passed them, to ensure nobody was lurking about. She frankly didn’t expect anyone to be there, what with Lena on sentry duty, Brooke in class, and Rebecca returning to the chandlery from the party. But she heard whistling as she approached her own chamber.
Her body suddenly tense, she set down her presents and silently slipped a bolt into her crossbow. She approached her chamber cautiously and peeked inside, to see Cullen brushing off a piece of furniture.
“What are you doing?” she barked, startling him.
His whistle cut off mid-note. He turned toward her and let out a relieved breath, seemingly untroubled by the armed crossbow, or perhaps just grateful it was aimed low to the ground and no longer at his heart.
“Jeez, girl! You ‘bout scared me half to death!” He waved a hand at what looked like a coat rack, but one adapted to some other use by the Tunnel carpenter. “Saw this old thing in storage and thought of your crossbow. Made this rack thingie so you can hang it up, use the hooks already there for your quiver of extra bolts … and maybe you could hang some other things on it, too.”
She stared at it, then at him. She didn’t like that he was in her chamber, not one bit. But … he obviously meant well. She disarmed her crossbow and stepped away from the doorway. “That was really thoughtful of you.” She backed up until she leaned against the far wall of the corridor. “Thank you.”
If Cullen had expected her to come inside and admire his handiwork, he quickly realized her body language was suggesting nothing of the sort was going to occur.
“Right. Well … anyway … happy birthday, Jamie.” He sketched a salute to her as he passed her and began heading down the corridor.
She called after him, “I really do appreciate it! It looks … nice.”
Without turning, he raised an arm and waved it to acknowledge her words.
She waited until he had turned back into the main passageway … and a while after that … before gathering her presents and entering her small chamber. A smile lit her features as she admired the handiwork of Cullen’s gift. Cullen had a practical mind. She admired that too. And, just like William, he knew to keep his distance.
She had a class in the defensive arts today, so she pulled off some of the heavier clothing she had worn for sentry duty to give herself a greater range of motion. The crossbow was left behind – hanging beautifully on the “rack thingie” Cullen had built – as was her quiver. She took up a shinai bag containing bamboo practice swords and headed down to the Great Hall.
As she traveled towards her destination, several of her students joined her. She had started this class after a few nosy Tunnel folk had come upon her practicing with a bamboo sword … way down in the Great Hall, which she had thought was too far away for prying eyes to notice her. They had mentioned it to others and before long several people had asked if she could train them. Nobody knew that she had gotten her own training simply by looking through the glass storefronts when classes were being taught in martial arts schools. You picked things up where and when you could, when you had no other options – that was always her way. She might not be formally trained but she remembered an old adage she had once heard: In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Her class today consisted of Zach, Rebecca, Pascal, Randolph, and a newcomer named Lucy. She limited classes to five students so that everyone could have a sparring partner, with her using one student to demonstrate techniques.
Those who weren’t walking with her had already arrived and opened the doors to the vast chamber. Since all the tables and benches had been pushed to the sides after Winterfest, it was the perfect large space in which to hold a class. The long bamboo poles could be swung with abandon, with no worry anything might be damaged.
Without any small talk, Jamie walked to her usual place in front of the class and set down the bag. Each student took a sword and stood getting their grip. Ideally, they would have heavy gloves to pad their hands, but … they made do with what they had. Jamie had never questioned how enough practice swords suddenly were “found” by Mouse Above when they were needed. Sometimes it was best not to ask. But she certainly wasn’t going to start complaining about the need for gloves.
“Let’s practice now. Partner up,” she called. “Blocking and deflection. Go!”
She took them through their paces, slowly and then with more natural speed, reminding them of their training. “Trust your intuition. You shouldn’t wait to see your partner move.”
She approached Randolph, the tallest of her students. “Spar with me,” she said. As he attempted to do so, she constantly cut or deflected him. “Don’t second-guess yourself,” she reminded him. “Trust your gut feeling that you should go.”
She watched Zach and Rebecca’s movements as they sparred. “Even if your partner hasn’t moved yet, anticipate his ‘go’ – be there first.” Everyone nodded, although few truly understood what she was saying. It was exasperating, but she was determined that more Tunnel folk learn self-defense techniques. This felt exotic and so drew students who might shy away from more traditional classes like boxing. But anything could be used in place of a bamboo sword, and building confidence that one could fight meant there was a greater chance that the bulk of any defense of the Tunnels would not be left to Vincent in the future but shared by others.
After nearly an hour, her class was exhausted. She guided them through some stretches and then dismissed them. It always surprised her when they preferred to wait until everyone was ready to go before leaving the chamber, but she had to admit to herself it was better if she had lots of help to secure the doors.
The classmates chatted together. Jamie rarely joined in, preferring to let the conversation wash over her as she stayed alert to their surroundings. She watched the dynamics of the exchanges, noting Randolph’s deference to Rebecca and how the latter was unaware of it, and that Lucy’s flirting with Pascal left the Tunnel pipe master blushing and tongue-tied.
She could tell the newcomer that Pascal was a lost cause. He was married to his pipes. No woman would ever come between him and them. Jamie liked the quiet man a lot. Always alert, good at his job, few distractions. He only took her class because Father insisted he do some exercise, and this was the least boring thing he could think of to do.
As they neared the Hub, everyone peeled off to go their respective ways. Jamie crept into her little chamber and placed the bag of bamboo swords behind her pallet. The sentry tapped out the dinner hour as she was washing her face and hands and running a comb through her hair – the wind down near the Great Hall always left it a tangled mess if, like today, she had forgotten a rubber band to hold her hair back.
She heard footsteps and grabbed her toothbrush, holding it handle outward as a weapon. “It’s just me!” called Brooke, the habit long ingrained not to surprise Jamie after an unpleasant incident when she had ended up on the ground after trying to sneak into her own chamber without waking anyone up.
Jamie relaxed and set her toothbrush back in its cup.
“Going to dinner?” Brooke asked as she entered the bathroom when Jamie left it.
Without waiting for Brooke, Jamie slipped out and headed down the corridor alone.
“Hey, birthday girl!”
Jamie winced as William’s booming voice announced her arrival, interrupting her thoughts. She nodded but couldn’t muster a smile. Since the party for her “birthday,” an idea had been growing in the back of her mind; what she was thinking about doing was foolish … but she couldn’t seem to talk herself out of it. Even as she had sparred during class, it had hampered her concentration. It seemed more and more like something she should do, no matter how foolish.
“Here, Jamie, sit by me.”
Her heart sank. Father. She could think of no way out of this. He probably considered it an honor to let her eat beside him or something.
She liked the old guy a lot, no question, but … he was inquisitive and it was hard to lie to him. He was different than Vincent. You could lie to Vincent and he knew you were lying but usually he’d let it go, thinking you had a good reason to. Father was just dogged, and he would keep asking questions until he got things out of you that you never wanted to reveal. She kept as far away from him as she could under normal circumstances. But … this was her “birthday” so she kind of had to sit with him if he asked.
“Vincent will get your tray for you. Come.” The old man indicated the bench beside him. Trying to disguise her reluctance, she sat, edging over as far as she could to the end of the bench.
“I hope this is enough,” Vincent said quietly as he set a large portion of everything before her. She looked up briefly to say, “Thanks,” and then began to dig in. If she could eat quickly, perhaps she could leave in a few minutes.
“Jamie, don’t bolt your food. It’s not good for your digestion,” Father scolded gently.
“Sorry,” she replied, putting her fork down. “Actually, I’m not that hungry.” She had been when she’d arrived, especially considering tonight was meatloaf and mashed potatoes night, but … her appetite had waned with the company she was forced to keep. Vincent had left once he’d put her tray down to go over to eat with Catherine, who was Below to do … something. Or maybe not anything. Just seeing Vincent was probably reason enough for her. Jamie liked her, mostly because she made Vincent happy.
She realized she’d zoned out for a second, and now Father was saying, “Nonsense. You’ve hardly touched your peas.”
She’d happily never touch peas, truth be told. But she grudgingly speared a few peas with her fork and swallowed them. She made a show of cutting small pieces of meatloaf and ate a few before excusing herself while Father was momentarily distracted by William coming in with dessert.
She felt guilty for only a moment. There was that something foolish she had to do.
Jamie entered her chamber to pick up a few items: a jacket, what small amount of money she had, a flashlight. Then she slipped away to take a little-used corridor into a long-abandoned passageway; she eventually wound her way Up Top. It was a circuitous path she had discovered several years before by surreptitiously following Vincent, a way of avoiding the sentry posts. When she became the sentry commander, she would ensure this route, and others like it, were closed off – they were a security vulnerability that shouldn’t be tolerated. But until then she would take advantage of them, just like Vincent … and Mouse, and a couple of others, none of whom were aware that she knew they used it.
Her destination was nobody’s business. And she didn’t know why she was making it her business now … except that the party for her fake birthday had brought it to mind. The last time anyone had acknowledged her “real” birthday, it hadn’t been celebrated, but it had been … lived through … in a particular place: her objective tonight.
She had enough change to take public transportation part of the way there, but she needed to hoard the rest to ensure she had money for her entire return trip. She couldn’t be gone too late into the night or it would invite notice and questions Below, neither of which she wanted. And it was better to walk part of the way now, in the early evening, than to do it at a later hour.
The streets in her old neighborhood were not that different than they had been the last time she’d ventured through them. Maybe they were slightly grittier with perhaps a few more boarded-up buildings, although it was hard to believe things had gotten even worse, given how bad it had looked when she’d left. The people were the same, though – a collection of druggies and prostitutes and main-chancers, sprinkled with people too old or too poor to vacate to better prospects.
Up ahead was the ramshackle apartment house where she had spent her early years. She entered through a gap in the sagging chain-link fence surrounding it and tramped through high weeds and the strewn detritus of abandoned furniture, broken bottles, and unsavory items better ignored, until she found her way to the back door. As she expected, it wasn’t locked. In fact, it was hanging from one hinge.
She entered cautiously, having pulled her knife from its sheath first. Remarkably, the electricity was on in the building, which had been condemned shortly before she had fled from it. She thought it likely that some enterprising individual occasionally tampered with the electric meter, providing power until the city caught on to the fact. She felt lucky she had come during one of the times the city was slow to check on it.
The stairwell in front of her was cluttered with trash and discarded clothing. Gingerly, she made her way up to the second floor, alert for anything moving. A baby was crying somewhere, and two women were engaged in a high-volume argument on a floor above. Other than that, there wasn’t anything to divert her attention from the climb up another floor to the third.
Jamie pondered her desire to return to this place that held such bad memories for her. Yet something was urging her forward, step by step. The need to confront her past had been building for some time, she realized now. The child she had once been demanded it. Mentally shrugging over her motivations, Jamie concentrated on the hallway before her. Although more than half the lightbulbs were burnt out or missing, there was still enough light to gauge what was ahead.
She moved forward cautiously, glancing at the numbers on the apartment doors. At apartment 3-F, she stopped. The door was ajar. If someone was inside, that someone was either very drunk, very high, or very stupid.
With the toe of one boot, Jamie pushed the door open wider. Nobody shouted or pushed back against the invasion. She inched forward into the apartment, her back sliding from doorframe to wall. The light within was dim but she could make out the shape of the furnishings, such as they were: an old TV on a stand, a broken-down couch, a scarred coffee table piled high with empty bottles and take-out cartons.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jamie saw someone enter the room through an interior door. She tensed, gripping her knife more tightly. The person stopped when they saw her.
“Callie? That you?” The voice was slurred but recognizable. Her older brother Brock. “Well, come on in then.” He stumbled to the couch and fell into it as he tried to sit down. “Bring anything with you?”
Ignoring his question, she stayed where she was near the doorway. “Where’s everybody?”
“Everybody?” He sounded genuinely confused. “Hell, girl, it’s been years. People move out … move on.” He belched, and the sour smell of beer permeated the space between them. Jamie’s lip curled in remembered distaste. She couldn’t even stomach William’s home brew, not after her early experiences with drunks like her brother.
“Maw?” Not that the woman had been much of a mother to her, but she had provided at least basic care to the younger Jamie … when she wasn’t strung out.
“Long gone,” he said. “OD’d ‘bout … dunno … maybe five years ago?”
This didn’t surprise her, not the way she had seen her mother going. “How about … Angelo?” She could barely get the name out but had forced it past stiff lips. That was her step-father, although he wasn’t really legally that. He was just the guy her mother was shacked up with at the time Jamie left … and one big reason why she had left.
“Who?” Brock’s brow wrinkled as he tried to recollect the name. “Oh, that a-hole Maw claimed was gonna marry her some day?” Snorting a laugh, he continued, “Shit, haven’t thought about him in years.” He fumbled in a pocket for cigarettes, shook one out of the pack and lit it.
As he took a deep drag, she prompted him, “And … where’s he now?”
Brock shrugged and blew out a stream of smoke in her direction. He had always thought that was funny. Jamie forced herself not to cough.
“Left. Before Maw OD’d. Prolly the reason she did. Moved in with some broad coupla streets down with some lil kids.” Brock waggled his eyebrows. “The man did love the little ones, didn’t he?” He laughed at his suggestive comment. “Come ta think of it, heard he got hit by a bus a while back. Idjit tried to rob the corner bodega and got chased right into the street. Bam. End of story.” Brock nodded to himself, satisfied he’d recalled the incident correctly.
“’Nuf of this trip down memory lane,” he complained. “Why’n’t you come on over here and sit by me, sis? We can get re-acquainted.” He pounded the dusty, stained upholstery of the couch cushion beside him and he laughed again. “Bet you’re even sweeter these days now that you learned some things, huh?”
Disgusted, Jamie considered leaving but she had one more person to ask about. “Where’s Colt?”
She had been so focused on her conversation with Brock that she had let her guard down. From the doorway beside her, her other brother replied for himself. ‘I’s right here, Cal.”
Jamie nearly jumped out of her skin. How had she let him sneak up on her like that? But she had little time to think about it because in the next instant his large hand had smashed down on her wrist and her grip on the knife loosened. It shot out of her fingers and skittered across the floor. Colt’s other hand came down heavily on her shoulder. “Why’n’t ya come on in and stay a while, Callie?” He laughed meanly as he half-led, half-dragged her toward the couch.
Jamie knew what awaited her if her two brutes of brothers got her between them, and she would die before she’d let that happen again. She took a deep breath to calm her mind and let her training take over. Neither Colt nor Brock knew the woman she’d become. When last they’d trapped her, she’d been a scared young woman whose ineffectual punches had actually delighted her tormentors. No shred of that person existed anymore, Jamie had made sure of it.
Before Colt could get her down on the couch, she suddenly went limp in his grasp … and then delivered an elbow directly into his groin. His gasp told her he was out of commission for a brief moment, so she took that opportunity to overturn the coffee table, sending bottles rolling and containers tumbling. With the arm strength she’d been honing for years, she easily picked up the table, hefted it for balance, then swung it downward with all the force she could muster against Brock’s knees. She listened to his howl of pain with grim satisfaction.
With Colt still doubled over, she launched for her knife and came up on her knees holding it. Colt tried to smack it out of her hand again, but her grip tightened and she kept her hold, ramming the heel of her free hand directly against one of his knees. He crashed down to the floor on one knee as his injured knee buckled, and she was ready with her knife, sticking him in his substantial gut. All fight left him then as he looked in shock at his bleeding stomach, and then up at her, his dull eyes uncomprehending. Brock was in no shape to even get off the couch to help his brother, who slid to the floor, clutching his bleeding abdomen.
Jamie, shaken but otherwise fine, stood up, careful to stay out of reach should either of them somehow muster the energy to come after her again. As she wiped her knife on the back of the couch, she said, “You’ll be okay, both of you. You might want to call an ambulance though.”
Jamie backed away from them toward the door, careful to glance over her shoulder several times while doing so, to ensure no one was coming, either curious about the noise or to offer the men assistance. But in this place, nobody minded anybody’s business but their own. The hallway remained empty.
She started to leave but turned back to the two moaning men to say, “It’s been great catching up with you both. Glad I had the chance to have as much fun with you as you two once had with me.” Then she disappeared down the hallway, running down the stairs with an energy borne of the adrenaline that was still coursing through her.
Night had fallen so she had to take some time to pick her way through the weeds between the door to the building and the fence. Once she was back on the street and running for the bus stop, she heard the distant sound of an ambulance approaching. She smiled with grim satisfaction, knowing that despite any medical help they would receive, neither of her brothers would ever walk straight again. Every day from now on they would be reminded of the retribution that had been visited upon them by their little sister.
Mouse saw her as she was entering the Home Tunnels an hour later. He, too, was returning from whatever mischief he had gotten into Above.
“Hey, Mouse!” She smiled and shouted, “Race you!”
As she took off, Mouse just stared after her, wondering at her good mood. There was no way he could catch up to her, of course, but that didn’t stop him from shuffling quickly after her, shouting, “Woohooooo!”
Mary was carrying a basket of clean clothes into the chamber Lena usually occupied when Jamie skidded to a stop, breathless. “I’ve got some laundry for you, too, Jamie,” Mary announced from inside Lena’s chamber.
Jamie waited for her to come out, then dug through the basket to pull her personal items out; she was still breathing heavily from her headlong rush back to her chamber. “Thanks,” she said.
As she looked up at Mary, she noticed the concern in her eyes. It was concern for her … like a mother would have, Jamie realized. It touched her and made her feel small for not recognizing that fact before. “Really … thank you,” she added, with more emphasis than the first time. “I appreciate it … and everything you do for me.”
A surprised smile lit Mary’s face. “Of course, sweetheart. You’re one of my own.”
The events of the evening – revisiting her painful past and confronting her old demons – had shaken loose a vulnerability in Jamie that she had rarely allowed to surface. Emotions she had suppressed ruthlessly were suddenly raw and unmasked. In the hour between fleeing the apartment and returning Below, she had had no time to subsume them and re-impose the self-possession that had been her shield for years. And that in turn had allowed Mary’s words to wash into her instead of over her, to open the floodgates to the understanding that suddenly engulfed her.
She had never truly been a part of the world Above. It had always been a bad fit. The people she had been born into had never loved her, never nurtured her, never rejoiced or cried with her. This was the world she was a part of … not the one Above. These people Below were her real family … not those brutes who had her blood but had made her life a misery. There was compassion here, and understanding. There was support and opportunity and appreciation.
She had locked so much up inside herself because of her life Above that she had been living in a tight little protective ball ever since. Was that still necessary now? Would it be so bad if she loosened up a little?
Taking the basket from Mary, Jamie set it on the ground. Tears were threatening to fill her eyes, so before Mary could see them, Jamie embraced her.
To her credit, instead of reacting with surprise at this first-ever phenomenon, Mary simply raised her arms for a responding hug, holding the slender-shouldered woman close.
When Jamie felt back in control, she pulled away. “You’re the best, Mary.”
The older woman cupped the younger’s face with the palm of one hand. “So are you, sweetheart. So are you.”
Jamie was still savoring the moment when Lena came rushing in. Mary picked up her now half-empty basket, smiled at Jamie, and left. Lena absentmindedly called after Mary, thanking her for the laundry delivery, then turned to Jamie.
“Oh, Jamie, I’m glad I caught you!” She handed a small parcel to Jamie. “I was on sentry duty and couldn’t be at your birthday party, but I wanted to give this to you.”
Jamie accepted it, somewhat startled by Lena’s enthusiasm, and opened it. It was a framed drawing by little Cathy.
“I made the frame,” Lena informed her proudly. “Cullen taught me. Oh, and that’s a picture of you, in case you don’t recognize yourself!”
Jamie laughed. “Good thing you told me!” But she couldn’t have mistaken the image for anyone else. Cathy had drawn someone with brown hair and brown clothes aiming a complex instrument that could only represent her crossbow. She was strangely touched and admitted, “I love it! Thank the little one for me, will you?”
Lena nodded. “I’m just going to check on her. She’s a little sneak, always getting out of bed to play, so I usually have to put her to bed twice in a night. Wanna come?”
This was an unprecedented offer. Normally, they barely spoke to each other as they passed in the corridor. But this seemed like the day to change patterns, so …
“Sure! If she’s still awake, I can thank her myself then.”
Jamie hung the artwork from a hook on her new coat rack before heading toward the nursery chamber with Lena.
As Lena suspected, Cathy had slipped out of bed and was busily coloring by the light of a single candle. Lena sighed, but instead of chiding her said, “Look who’s here to help tuck you in, Cathy!” Lena stood aside and let Cathy see who she meant.
“Jamieeeee!” The child clapped her hands in delight.
Lena whispered to Jamie, “She wants to be like you when she grows up.”
This news shocked Jamie and dismayed her a bit. She had never thought of herself as a role model. Sheesh. Is this how Vincent feels?
“You go to sleep and dream sweetly,” Jamie said to the little girl as her mother tucked her in … for good this time, as she informed her daughter. “And thank you for the best gift ever … sweetheart.”
It was later than usual by the time Jamie disrobed and put on her freshly washed workout gear. She lit the extra candles that always accompanied her sleep. Then, on her pallet once more, she reflected on the day.
It had been the most eventful in a long while – maybe ever. And she realized that, for the first time, she felt … comfortable. The wariness that she had always worn like armor was … well, not entirely gone, but greatly diminished. She felt like she had finally gotten hold of her life, that it finally made some sense, that she wasn’t just hiding down here, not anymore. And beyond that, she saw with sudden clarity how many people here cared about her and wanted good things for her. These were people who depended upon her and who she could depend upon in turn. She had a place. This was … home.
Jamie rose and blew out all but one of the candles that lit her chamber, plunging the room into a softened darkness that no longer felt threatening but cozy, enveloping. Her chamber held no fear tonight. She lay down, pulling her quilt over herself, and sighed deeply, letting go of so much that had been held tight inside of her for so long – an entire world of it.
As the sentry tapped out the 11:00 p.m. “all clear,” Jamie remembered she had left her knife in its hiding place inside her boot. But tonight, she didn’t feel the need to retrieve it and put it under her pillow. As the sentry had said, it was all clear.
That was her last thought as she drifted off into dreamless sleep.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
GOOD TO READ
Fan Fiction Sites
ON THESE WALLS
Fan Art Sites