by Linda S. Barth
“Jasmine, are you awake?” Samantha peered across the darkened chamber, waited for a few seconds, then raised her voice. “Jasmine?”
“Sshh! Be quiet or you’re going to wake everyone up!”
Samantha heard the rustle of blankets and quilts being tossed aside and the rapid tapping of bare feet on the stone floor. She barely had time to scoot out of the way before the other girl bounced onto her bed.
They both burst into giggles, then quickly shushed each other.
“I could hardly sleep at all,” Samantha whispered.
“Me neither!” Jasmine’s dark eyes gleamed in the pale light of a single night candle. “This is so exciting!”
“I know! It’s going to be the best day ever!”
“I thought it would never get here!”
“But it did!” Samantha grinned at her friend. “It’s finally here!”
The girls paused, listening as a brief message echoed along the pipes in the passageway outside their chamber. “Wait – don’t tell me.” Jasmine concentrated on the twice repeated phrase. “It said the same thing three times, ‘seven a.m. and all’s well,’ right?”
Samantha nodded approvingly. “You’re really getting good at the pipe codes, even though you’ve only been here a few months.”
Jasmine’s eyes sparkled, and her smiling face, the color of mocha, flushed with obvious pride. “I’ve been practicing a lot. You know, I really like it here and I want to fit in.”
“You’re doing great! It’s like you’ve lived here for years and years, just like me.” Samantha smiled back at her friend. “But it’s already seven o’clock, so we’d better get moving.”
“Right!” Jasmine jumped to her feet and headed toward her dresser. “We don’t want anything to go wrong with our plans now!”
“Definitely!” Samantha agreed, scrambling out of bed and hurrying to her wardrobe. “And if we don’t go today, who knows when we’ll get another chance?”
Several minutes later, the two girls had hurriedly washed, brushed their teeth, and dressed in jeans, boots, and layers of warm shirts and sweaters. Each pulled a backpack from under her bed and unzipped the pockets to make a quick last minute check of the contents.
“I’m all set. Are you sure you’ve got everything on your list, Jasmine, especially your flashlight?”
“Hang on – granola bar, chalk, a towel and a dry shirt just in case – yes, everything’s here.” Jasmine rezipped the pockets. “I put in some extra batteries for the flashlight, just in case. Mouse said I could have them for emergencies.”
“Good thinking. I packed some matches, too, but we can’t depend on finding wall torches all the way along the route, so we’ll need those flashlights.”
Jasmine shivered. “That’s the only thing I don’t like here, so much darkness.”
“It’s never really bothered me. I’ve heard other people say that it’s hard to get used to at first, but after a while they do.” Samantha smiled encouragingly. “Even Catherine had some trouble with it.”
“Really?” Jasmine’s eyes grew wide. “I never would have guessed that. She seems so, you know, together.”
Samantha nodded. “She is – she’s really great. But I heard her telling Vincent once.” With one outstretched foot, she shoved her pack back into its hiding place under her bed. “That was a couple of years ago though. She’s fine with it now. And I bet after a while you will be, too.”
“I hope you’re right.” Following her friend’s lead, Jasmine pushed her backpack as far under her bed as she could reach.
“I know I am,” Samantha told her, vowing silently to help her friend in whatever way she could. It seemed as if she had been wishing forever for a girl her age to move Below, someone who might become her best friend. Jasmine seemed to be the answer to her prayers.
“We need to hurry,” Samantha added as she quickly made her bed. “Breakfast starts in a few minutes.”
Jasmine smoothed the covers on her bed and repositioned the pillows. “I’m ready.”
They grinned at each other. “This is going to be so excellent!” Samantha could barely keep from jumping up and down in excitement, only resisting the urge to do so when she realized how immature it would look.
Jasmine, apparently unconcerned about such things, leaped into the air, pumping her arms as her dark curly hair fluttered wildly. “I can’t wait to get started!”
Without another word, the girls ran toward the chamber entrance, then stopped short, barely avoiding a collision with Mary.
The older woman stepped back quickly but then smiled at them. “You two are up and dressed right on time today. I must say that’s a nice surprise. I’m proud of you.”
Unexpectedly at a loss for words, Samantha finally managed, “Thanks, Mary, we don’t want to be late for a change.”
Mary nodded briskly. “I’m very glad to hear that, and I hope you’ll keep up such good behavior. It shows that you’re becoming more mature and responsible.” When the girls only smiled tentatively in response, she continued, “Now go along to breakfast. I have to check on the boys, and make sure they’re doing as well as you two.”
They were only too happy to do as they were told. “Don’t run,” Samantha advised under her breath, “just walk fast.”
“Yeah, I know that’s one of Father’s rules. I think it was the first one I broke.” Jasmine smothered a giggle. “And I don’t want to get yelled at.”
“Father would be mad, I mean angry, if he caught us running, but he doesn’t really yell. He’s not like that.” Samantha shook her head. “He only wants us to be safe.”
“I know – I just meant we don’t have time for that today.”
Jasmine’s pace quickened, but Samantha’s steps slowed to a halt, and she bit her lip as she looked back in the direction of their chamber.
Jasmine frowned as she came to an abrupt stop. “What’s wrong?”
“We didn’t just lie to Mary, did we?”
Jasmine shook her head firmly. “No, we didn’t lie. We really don’t want to be late today. That’s definitely the truth.”
Samantha hesitated, considering her friend’s words. “Okay, I guess you’re right.” Her face slowly brightened as they continued walking rapidly toward the dining chamber. “And that was nice of her to say we’re becoming more mature.”
Jasmine nodded in agreement. “Well, after all, we’re practically eleven. And in only two more years, we’ll be teenagers.”
“Isn’t it funny that our birthdays are so close together? We’ll be able to celebrate turning thirteen together!”
Jasmine grinned at her friend. “It’s almost like we’re twins!”
Having reached the spacious communal dining chamber, the girls quickly got in line to receive their breakfast trays, then looked for seats together at one of the long trestle tables.
Jasmine nudged Samantha’s arm with her elbow and tilted her head toward the far end of the room. “Not over there.”
Samantha looked in the direction Jasmine had indicated and readily agreed. “Definitely not. There’s no way we’re sitting with the boys this morning.” She turned quickly toward the opposite side of the room. “Let’s go over there and sit with Mouse and Jamie.”
“Good idea. We can check in with Jamie and let her know everything is still on for today.”
“But be careful around Mouse!” Samantha warned, leading the way. “We can’t let him know anything about our plans. He’s really nice and all, but you never know what he’s going to say next. And if he figures it out and tells anyone, it’ll all be ruined!”
Jasmine nodded. “Got it!”
The girls slid onto the bench opposite Jamie and Mouse who were nearly finished with their breakfast. “Hi, girls! Nice to see you here on time today,” Jamie said with a grin. “You’re even kind of early for a change.”
“We have a lot to do — I mean, it’s going to be a busy day,” Samantha explained. “So, we wanted to get an early start, you know, so we can get everything done…” Her voice trailed off as she forced herself to stop talking.
“Always busy, just like Mouse!” He grinned at the two younger girls. “Got lots of chores today? Lots of classes?”
Jasmine’s eyes flickered in Samantha’s direction. “Not exactly.”
Mouse shrugged. “Then what? Why so busy?”
Samantha felt her heart race. “What I meant is we’re trying to be more responsible, so we’re sticking to a schedule.”
Mouse frowned and shook his head. “Schedules are hard. Something always happens. Something always changes.”
“Well, we’re doing our best,” Samantha protested. She raised her eyebrows in a silent plea for help from Jamie.
Jamie set her crumpled napkin on a tray next to her empty plate and bowl. “Mouse, can you please take our things into the kitchen?”
“Sure, no problem!” He hopped up, quickly piled everything onto one tray, and headed off toward the utility sinks in one corner of the kitchen.
“Thanks, Jamie!” Samantha did her best to look nonchalant as she surveyed the area to make sure no one else would hear their conversation. “That was a close one!”
“So, today’s still the big day?”
The girls nodded vigorously. “Everything is working out perfectly so far,” Samantha said.
“Except for the last couple of minutes!” Jasmine retorted with a laugh.
Samantha felt her cheeks redden, but she couldn’t suppress a smile. “Sometimes I don’t know when to stop talking.”
“No kidding!” Jamie rolled her eyes as she smiled at the younger girl. “When are you leaving?”
“Right after breakfast.” Samantha quickly started spooning oatmeal into her mouth.
“We don’t have to be back until book discussion this afternoon,” Jasmine said, “so no one should be looking for us before that.”
Samantha swallowed a large gulp of milky tea, hoping to wash down another heaping spoonful of oatmeal. “That’s why we told everyone we’re using our day off to help Mr. Smythe at his shop. No one will be looking for us around here, and if the sentries see us on the way, they’ll think that’s where we’re going.”
Jamie frowned. “What are you going to do if someone finds out that’s not where you went? Have you thought about that?”
Jasmine shrugged. “Sort of, but actually, we’re just hoping that doesn’t happen.”
“That’s not much of a plan, girls.” Jamie shook her head. “You’d better spend some time thinking about that on the way. And you also need to figure out how you’re going to explain why you lied.”
“We will, Jamie, we promise.” Samantha set her spoon next to her empty bowl. She took a deep breath, trying her best to sound sure of herself. “And besides it’s not really a lie.”
“That’s right, it’s not a lie,” Jasmine confirmed through a mouthful of jam-laden toast. “Really!”
Jamie gave them a skeptical look. “Because?”
“Because we really are going to help Mr. Smythe, but just not today. We’re going up there next week.” Samantha smiled and reached for the blueberry muffin on her tray.
“You two are going to need a lot of luck to pull this off, but I guess you’ll figure it out for yourselves.” A grin lightened Jamie’s expression. “And you already caught a break when your Saturday morning classes were cancelled. With the boys having to take the special class today with Father and Dr. Alcott, you’ll be able to get away before they even notice you’re gone.”
Jasmine smirked. “And then they’ll be too embarrassed to even look at us afterwards when we get back.”
Samantha glanced toward the boys’ table, noticing that their typical lively chattering had been transformed into subdued near-silence and their usually grinning faces into expressions ranging from nervousness to actual fear.
“I kind of feel sorry for them,” she commented. “It’s going to be embarrassing to have to listen to all that stuff together.”
“They need to learn how to understand the changes their bodies and emotions are going through now that they’re getting older, just like you had to,” Jamie replied. “So, they’ll just have to put up with it. And it’s not like they have a choice.”
“You know, we were lucky about taking the special class, too,” Samantha said. “I only had to listen to Mary and Olivia all by myself when I turned ten, and then when Jasmine got here, they just made sure she knew everything she had to know. We handled it. Nothing to it!”
Jasmine nodded in agreement. “It’s going to be much worse for the boys because no way they’re as mature as we are – right, Samantha?”
“Absolutely right!” She turned to Jamie, eager to leave the boys to their ordeal and move forward with the long-awaited plans. “You’re still okay with what we’re doing, aren’t you, Jamie?”
“Well, I’m not 100% sure I should be helping you.” Jamie looked from one eager face to the other. “But I will. You just have to promise me you’ll only do what we agreed on, and you’ll be back within six hours.”
Jamie’s expression grew serious. “Really, girls, I know how much this means to you, but don’t try anything reckless. And if something goes wrong, one of you needs to get word to me right away. You remember the pipe code we agreed on?” She waited as the girls nodded quickly. “And you have everything you need in case of emergencies?”
“Everything’s in our backpacks. We hid them under our beds,” Samantha replied, “and we’ll get them on the way out.”
Jamie turned toward Jasmine. “Are you sure about this? There’s so much right around here that you haven’t had a chance to see or do yet. You could spend your day off in other ways.”
“I’m sure! Samantha told me everything. It sounds so cool!” She shot a quick glare toward the boys at their table against the far wall. “Plus, we need to show the boys they were wrong!”
“We can do it, Jamie,” Samantha said firmly. “We really can.”
Jamie nodded. “I know you can, and I think it’s great that you set this goal for yourselves. But just be careful. I want you to become strong young women, not stupid young women!”
The girls sat up straighter on the bench and looked determinedly at Jamie, their faces a mirror image of one another. “We won’t do anything foolish, we promise! Right, Jasmine?”
Jamie smiled. “Okay, but if I don’t hear from the two of you that you’re on your way back at the time we agreed on, I’m going to come looking for you. And I’ll bring Father with me!”
The girls stared at her in mock horror as they clambered to their feet. “Thanks, Jamie!” Samantha said. “We owe you one!”
“You owe me more than one this time,” Jamie retorted with a grin. “Go on, I’ll take your trays back for you. And you’d better get out of here before I change my mind.”
As they made their way to the entrance of the dining chamber, the girls struggled to keep from breaking into an excited run.
“As soon as we get our backpacks, we’ll be on our way,” Samantha whispered.
“Yes,” Jasmine whispered back, “and nobody will suspect a thing.”
They had not taken more than a few steps into the passageway when a familiar voice froze them in mid-flight. “One moment, young ladies. There is something I wish to ask you.”
“Let’s pretend we didn’t hear him,” Jasmine hissed.
Samantha shook her head. “We can’t do that. He’ll know we heard him.” She pivoted toward the sound of approaching footsteps, grabbing Jasmine’s arm to pull her in the same direction. “Good morning, Father!” Samantha knew her voice sounded unnaturally loud and far too cheerful. “It’s nice to see you this morning! Is there something we can do to help?”
She heard Jasmine huff a warning under her breath, then felt a tentative sense of relief when it was obvious that Father had not noticed anything out of the ordinary. They waited as he reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled out a small rectangular object wrapped with brown paper and string. “Good morning, Samantha, Jasmine,” he said smiling at them, “I understand you will be spending your free time helping Mr. Smythe at his bookshop.”
“That’s our plan,” Samantha answered carefully, “but we’ll be back here on time for the book discussion at four o’clock.”
“Excellent.” He nodded approvingly. “Then, I would appreciate it if you two would be so kind as to return this book to Mr. Smythe for me.”
Samantha took the small volume from his outstretched hand. “All right. We’ll – we’ll be very careful with it.” She hesitated for a moment and then continued. “So, we should be going now.”
Both girls felt a twinge of impatience as instead of waving them on their way, Father turned to Jasmine. “I trust you’re continuing to do well adjusting to life in our community, Jasmine?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, Father. I love it here. Everyone has been really nice to me, especially Samantha.”
Father smiled warmly at the pair. “I’m happy to hear that. We are very glad to have you with us, Jasmine, and I’m quite proud of you, Samantha, for being so responsible and caring.”
Samantha forced a smile to her lips. “Thank you, Father.”
“And you’re both setting a very fine example for the other children by using much of your free time today to provide assistance to one of our valued Helpers.”
Samantha wanted nothing more than to escape the rush of guilt caused by his benevolent words and prayed silently that he would just stop talking. From the corner of her eye, she saw Jasmine take a small step backward toward their original destination.
“Well, I can see you’re eager to get on with your volunteer work, young ladies,” Father commented with an indulgent smile, “so I won’t keep you any longer.” As he turned in the direction of the dining chamber, the girls could not resist rushing down the corridor in the opposite direction, this time not stopping even at one last directive from Father. “Please do not run in the Tunnels!”
Moments later, they scrambled to a halt in their chamber.
Samantha drew in a shuddering breath. “That was close!”
“Too close!” Jasmine agreed. “For a minute, I thought he figured out our plan somehow.”
“No, I don’t think so. He would have said something right away.” She frowned and squinted her eyes.
“What’s the matter now?” Jasmine asked. “Are you worried about his book?”
“Sort of…but we can figure something out about that later. It’s just that…” She took a deep breath before the words tumbled from her. “We already kind of lied to Mary and to Mouse. Jamie pretended she’s not worried about us, but I know she is. And now Father thinks we’re doing good deeds all morning when we’re really not, so we sort of lied to him, too.”
Jasmine shrugged. “He only thinks that because it’s what we told everybody. We did lie, and it’s too late to worry about it now.”
Samantha sighed heavily. “I guess you’re right. But we haven’t even left yet, and we’re already getting into trouble.” She flopped down onto her bed. “It’s just not going like I thought it would.”
“I know, but once we actually get moving, it’ll be fine.”
“Maybe, but what if it isn’t?” Samantha could not keep a nervous tremor from her voice. “What if we get caught?”
“We won’t get caught. We just have to be more careful.” Jasmine’s eyes grew wide. “You’re not gonna let the boys win, are you?!”
“No!” Samantha shook her head vehemently and swiftly jumped to her feet. “No way!” She crouched down to pull her backpack from its hiding place, and slid Father’s book into the outside pocket. As she rose to her feet, she felt her face settle into an expression of unshakable determination. “Let’s go!”
Jasmine grabbed her pack and swung it onto her back. “You got it!”
As they emerged into the main passage and headed on their way, Samantha felt her earlier sense of excitement returning. “I can’t wait to see the boys’ faces when they find out what we’ve done!”
“They’re gonna be so mad!”
“Well, if they hadn’t told us we couldn’t go with them when we found out they were planning their big secret adventure,” Samantha retorted, “we probably wouldn’t have even thought about doing this.”
“I know! I can still hear them saying ‘No girls allowed.’ Ooo, that makes me so mad!” Jasmine’s eyes flashed fire. “It’ll be so great when we tell them we got there before they did!”
“They’ll be so jealous! I bet they’ll start yelling and arguing with us, and then if Mary or Father or one of the other grown-ups hears them, they’ll really be in trouble!” Samantha grinned so widely she felt her cheeks hurt, but that did not bother her at all. “And they can’t tell on us, ‘cause then they’d have to admit they were going to do it, too.”
“Exactly!” Jasmine agreed. “No matter what happens, we win – and they lose!”
“And the best part is that this was really all their fault in the first place, so they have no one to blame but themselves.” Samantha nodded in what she felt was a dignified manner.
Jasmine snickered loudly. “You sound just like Father.”
“I do not!” Samantha glowered at her friend.
“Yeah, you really do.” Jasmine raised her eyebrows as she grinned widely.
Samantha blushed but could not help giggling. “I guess you’re right.”
As they reached the area of the classroom chambers, they heard Brooke and Mary’s voices rising above a cacophony of cheerful toddler enthusiasm. Jasmine slowed her pace. “They sound like they’re having so much fun in there together.”
Samantha nodded in agreement. “Mary always makes sure the little kids are happy. She really takes good care of them. I remember from when I was little.” She forced herself to match Jasmine’s slower steps. “She’s a great teacher, almost like a mom or a grandma, and she was so kind to me right from the start. I never felt scared with her.”
The children’s exuberant voices faded away as the two friends moved quickly again, hurrying along the well-lit corridor. “You said you came here to live when you were four, right?” Jasmine asked. “So, did you go to school like that with Mary?”
Samantha nodded. “It was great. I really loved it. I’ve always loved school.” Her smile slowly faded. “Sometimes I went to day care back where I used to live. It was so much fun and the teachers were so nice, I wished I could go every day. But I couldn’t and then after a while I never went back. And I wanted to so much!” Her voice trailed away as shadowy memories began to fill her heart.
“How come?” Jasmine asked, and then quickly added, “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Samantha shook her head. “It’s okay. I didn’t go back because my mother wouldn’t take me there anymore.” She forcibly blinked back tears of anger and hurt. “She knew I loved it, she knew how much I wanted to go, but that didn’t matter to her. I think she only cared about what she wanted to do. Nothing else mattered…I don’t even think I did.”
She hesitated, unsure of what to say next, longing to share some of the secrets she had lived with for so long, yet unwilling to burden her new friend.
Jasmine reached out a hand to pat Samantha on the shoulder. “I know what you mean. Sometimes parents really suck.”
Samantha’s sorrow turned to shock. “Jasmine! We’re not allowed to use words like that!”
Jasmine grinned. “I know. But it’s true, right?”
Samantha could not help smiling, but she looked warily over her shoulder before replying. “It really is!”
They continued in silence for a few minutes, their quick footsteps echoing on the stony floors of the brick-lined passageways, until Jasmine stopped abruptly and took a few deep breaths.
“Ooo, something smells so good! What is that?”
Samantha pointed to a wide entryway just ahead of them. “That’s the chandlery.”
Jasmine twisted her head sideways to look at her friend and then back toward the nearby chamber. “The what-ery?”
“Sorry! I forgot you probably haven’t been in there yet. The chandlery is the chamber where Rebecca makes all the candles we use, well, most of them anyway. Some candles get donated by Helpers, but she makes a ton of them.”
The girls paused, sniffing the steamy scented air that wafted from the doorway. “It smells like a flower shop!” Jasmine exclaimed. “How does she do that?”
“She must be making some of her special candles that we give to Helpers sometimes, to say thank you for everything they do for us.” Samantha breathed deeply. “Uh-huh – I smell roses and lavender. That’s her specialty.”
Jasmine darted forward. “I have to get a look at this.”
“No, wait! We don’t have time!” Samantha tried to grab her friend’s arm, but she was too late, and she could only rush after her as Jasmine disappeared through the doorway.
On the far side of the crowded, overheated chamber, they saw Rebecca hanging a pair of pale purple candles on the nearly full drying racks. As she turned toward two large pots of molten wax, the girls waved to her from just inside the entryway.
“Samantha! Jasmine! I’m so glad to see the two of you!” The candlemaker wiped perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Sure,” Jasmine replied. “What do you want us to do?”
“I’m making candles for some of our Helpers, and I’m running short on the essential oils I need. Taya was supposed to help me this morning, but she’s not feeling well, so I’m on my own.” She wiped her hands on a small towel secured to the belt of her apron. “Would you please get a vial of lavender essence for me in the storeroom? I can’t leave these pots of wax boiling with no one to watch them, and I’m almost to the step where the oil must be added, or the candles won’t turn out right.”
“Should we get more than one bottle?” Jasmine asked helpfully.
“No, just one. I can’t store the oils in this chamber because it’s usually so hot in here. They would deteriorate quickly and they’re not easy to come by.” Rebecca pushed back her blonde curly hair where it stuck to her forehead. “I have enough rose, but I need the lavender right away, so I’m happy you girls can go and get it for me.”
“We can do that,” Samantha answered quickly. “We’ll be right back!”
She pulled on Jasmine’s sleeve. “Come on!”
Jasmine ignored her. “Can I come back here sometime and watch you work?” She waved her free arm toward the far reaches of the chamber. “This looks really cool. And it smells so good in here!”
Rebecca smiled. “Of course, you can. I’ll talk to you about it later and we can arrange for a visit.”
“Thanks, Rebecca!” Anything further Jasmine might have said was cut short as she was yanked in the direction of the entryway. Pulling her arm free, she demanded, “Samantha, what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing’s the matter with me! You’re the one who told Rebecca we’d do this errand for her, and now we’re going to be even later than ever!” Samantha’s frown matched the tone of her voice.
Seemingly unruffled by her friend’s response, Jasmine countered, “It won’t take that long. And you know the rules. Aren’t we supposed to always accept help and give help to others?”
Samantha surprised herself by bursting into laughter. “Now who sounds just like Father?!”
Jasmine rolled her eyes. “I guess it’s me this time!” Her laughter echoed Samantha’s as they hurried into the passageway. “So, where’s the storage room?”
“It’s nearby, so if we hurry, it really won’t take long. And I’m sorry I was so snippy. You were right about helping Rebecca.” Samantha shrugged off the straps of her backpack and propped it against the wall outside the chandlery. “Let’s leave our packs here for now.”
Jasmine followed Samantha’s suggestion and dropped her pack on the stony floor. “Good idea – we can move faster that way.”
Minutes later, the girls were on their way back, with Samantha carefully carrying a precious vial of the essential oil Rebecca had requested. “Now when we get there, we’ll just give this to Rebecca and then we’ll leave, right?”
“Right! I’ll talk to her some other time about a visit.”
Samantha sighed in relief. “I really didn’t mean to be so bossy or anything before. I just don’t want us to run out of time.”
“That’s okay. You were right.” Jasmine grinned, then added, “This time.”
Samantha smiled as they approached the chandlery. “Well, actually I am right a lot of the time. Vincent says I’m an excellent student, and – hey! What are you doing?!”
They skittered to a sudden halt, shocked to see a small boy kneeling by their belongings, one hand on the zipper pull of Samantha’s pack. Scrambling to his feet as the girls rushed toward him, Eric looked as if he intended to race off in the opposite direction; but with an angry older girl standing with hands on hips on either side of him, he never had a chance.
“Eric! Were you trying to take something out of my backpack?” Samantha heard her voice echo off the stony walls, gratified as she realized her stern tone sounded exactly like an admonishing adult.
He shook his head. “No, well, not really,” he began. “I was just –”
“Yes, you were!” Jasmine declared, narrowing her eyes at him. “We saw you!”
“That’s right – we saw you!” Samantha’s long hair swung around her shoulders as she shook her head vigorously. “You know we’re not supposed to do anything like that!”
Eric pushed his glasses farther up his nose, his eyes darting back and forth behind the dusty lenses. “I didn’t really do anything wrong, Sam.”
“You certainly did!” she retorted. “You were getting something out of my backpack.” Her eyes widened. “That’s stealing!”
“You’re gonna be in big trouble,” Jasmine added. “You know, stealing is against the law.” She turned toward Samantha. “What happens to you if you break the law down here? I bet it’s pretty bad.”
Seeing Eric’s lower lip start to quiver, Samantha decided to take pity on him. “Look, if you explain what you were doing, maybe – just maybe — we won’t have to tell Father.”
“I wasn’t going to steal anything, Sam, honest! I was following you guys, and I just wanted to see where you were going. So, I thought if I looked in your backpack, I’d find a clue or a map or something.”
“Everyone knows we’re going to help Mr. Smythe in his bookshop this morning.” Samantha crossed her arms and tapped her foot. “You shouldn’t tell lies on top of everything else.”
“Samantha’s right,” Jasmine added quickly. “Lying is just as bad as stealing.”
Eric suddenly smiled up at them. “Well, you’re lying, too.”
The girls exchanged startled looks. “What do you mean by that, Eric?” Samantha forced a calm, unruffled tone to her voice. “Why would you say we’re lying?”
His grin widened. “Because this isn’t the right way.” He pointed back toward a tunnel that curved off the main passageway. “If you were going to Mr. Smythe’s shop, you would have gone that way.”
“We can get there if we go this way, right, Samantha?” Jasmine insisted.
Eric shook his head. “Nope. And I’m gonna tell that you’re going somewhere else. And that you lied!”
As he turned to scamper off, Samantha blocked his flight with quickly outstretched arms. “Just wait a minute,” she said, her voice deceptively calm. “What are you doing here anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be with the other boys – you know, for the special class?”
The girls watched as Eric’s grin disappeared. “I don’t want to go to it!” He looked frantically from one girl to the next, his voice rising with every word. “Please, Sam, Jasmine – let me go with you! I won’t tell on you – I promise!”
Samantha smiled serenely. “First of all, there’s nothing to tell. We are going to Mr. Smythe’s bookshop. We were just helping Rebecca first.”
Jasmine nodded, her smile mirroring that of her friend. “We had to go get a bottle of lavender oil for her. See, Samantha has it right here.”
Just as Samantha held the small vial up as proof, Rebecca emerged from the workshop. “Oh, girls, I’m so glad you’re back. Thanks so much for getting the oil for me. Jeremiah just stopped by to bring more wood for the fire, and now I can finish another batch of the scented candles.” She tilted her head toward Eric. “I’m surprised to see you here, Eric. Don’t you have that special class with the other boys this morning?”
The two girls clamped their mouths shut as tightly as they could and tried their best not to giggle.
Eric sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, then shouldn’t you be on your way?” Rebecca continued. “You don’t want to be late.”
The expression on Jasmine’s face defined innocence. “That’s right, you don’t want to be late,” she echoed.
Feeling a twinge of sympathy for the obviously flustered boy, Samantha touched him gently on the arm. “It’s really not that bad, Eric.” She noted his look of disbelief and searched her mind for something to convince him. “And if you don’t go, then all the other boys will know things that you won’t know. You don’t want them to tease you about it, do you?”
“Or tell you lies about it,” Jasmine added, raising her eyebrows at him.
He sighed again. “I guess not. Okay, I’ll go.”
The girls immediately looked toward Rebecca and realized she shared their reaction to Eric’s apparent change of heart. Just as he started to edge around them, she rested one hand on his shoulder. “Jeremiah is heading back to the hub, so he can walk to Father’s chamber with you. Let’s go get him.” As she shepherded Eric toward the entrance to the chandlery, she glanced over her shoulder, sharing a quick smile with her helpers. “Thanks again, girls, and, Jasmine, I’ll talk to you at dinner about finding a time to show you how to make candles, ok?”
Jasmine’s face broke into a delighted smile. “Thanks, Rebecca!”
As Rebecca and Eric retreated into the candlemaker’s chamber, Samantha leaned down to grab both backpacks from the dusty floor, then thrust Jasmine’s into her outstretched hands. “Come on – let’s get out of here before something else happens!”
“Wait a second – did you hear Eric say he was following us? What if someone else is, too?”
They stared back down the passageway, only to find it was deserted. “I don’t see anyone else.” Samantha tried to smother a surge of apprehension. “I think Eric must have done this on his own.”
“I guess you’re right, but we better be more careful the rest of the way. This is our plan and no one else is getting in on it.”
“Absolutely not! We aren’t sharing this with anyone!” Delighted to have a kindred spirit to enjoy adventures with, Samantha again felt her concerns evaporate.
After a final glance behind them, the girls took off at a fast jog, heading once more toward their destination. Their rapid footsteps raised little puffs of dust and dirt as they quickly made their way through the dim light in a warren of lesser used tunnels.
“How come everyone’s so nice down here?” Jasmine asked abruptly, surprising Samantha with her question.
“What do you mean?”
As if by unspoken agreement, the two friends slowed their pace so that they could talk more easily.
“Well, you know, Rebecca’s going to show me how to make candles, Mary and Brooke spend all day taking care of a bunch of little kids, William’s cooking for everybody all the time.“ She smiled mischievously. “And even when we break the rules, Father doesn’t actually yell.”
Samantha could not help laughing. “Well, he does get a little loud once in a while, like the time Arthur chewed up some of his maps.” Her voice grew serious. “But I think the main reason everyone’s really nice here is because they want it to be a good place to live. This is our home and some – a lot – of us had really bad lives before.” She sighed softy. “It’s much better here and no one wants to mess it up.”
Jasmine nodded in understanding. “I get it. Everybody does the right thing, follows the rules and stuff, so that no one gets kicked out.”
Samantha frowned slightly. “Well, that’s part of it. We are like a big family and everyone tries to get along and all, but on top of that, we really like each other, too, no matter what.”
“So, people hardly ever get mad or have fights?”
Samantha heard the trace of hope in her friend’s question. “Sometimes they do, but we’re supposed to use words to talk things out and everybody tries really hard to do that.” She glanced at Jasmine’s anxious face. “Of course, the grown-ups are better at it than the kids. But even when they disagree, they find a way to make things work because no matter what, they’re still friends. You know, it’s like me with some of the boys – even when they make me so mad, I still love them.”
Jasmine barked with laughter. “Ooo, which one do you love best?! I bet I can guess!”
Samantha glared at her. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it!” She stalked along the corridor, her shoulders and back ramrod straight. “They’re like my brothers! I don’t love love them!”
Jasmine hurried to catch up with her. “I know! Sorry! I didn’t mean to tease you. I really hate it when people tease me, so I shouldn’t have done it to you.”
Samantha gave her friend a sideways glance and then nodded. “Yeah, me, too. I hate teasing.”
They continued along the passageway, talking animatedly, never noticing Jamie and three of her trusted cohorts observing them surreptitiously as they passed their sentry posts.
“You know who I think is the worst one for teasing?” Jasmine did not wait for an answer. “Kipper!”
“Absolutely! Sometimes he drives me crazy! That’s why it’ll be so great to see the look on his face when he finds out what we did!”
“He’ll be wild,” Jasmine agreed, “especially since he claims he found out about the secret chamber before anybody else did.”
Samantha exhaled loudly. “He did not! It’s probably been there for a zillion years and I bet tons of people have gone there way before he ever said he was going to. And, besides, he only knows about it because Vincent talked about it once when he was telling us stories about some of the things he and Devin did when they were kids.”
“So, Kipper was just bragging as usual. Too bad he’s not mature like Zach is. Zach doesn’t tease us or go around making up stuff just to make us mad.”
Noticing a slight but unmistakable change in Jasmine’s tone of voice, Samantha looked sharply at her. “Zach? I didn’t know you were such good friends with him already.” She tried to suppress a smile as she noticed a blush suffuse Jasmine’s cheeks. “Of course, he is very nice and all…so I’m not surprised you like him so much.”
“I didn’t say that!” Jasmine protested loudly. “I was just – just making a comparison, you know, like we do in our reading class.”
Samantha rolled her eyes. “Okay, if you say so.” Then her broad grin was frozen by Jasmine’s retort.
“And you have a big old crush on Matteo!”
“That’s not true!” Samantha winced at she heard her shrill voice reverberate off the tunnel walls. “I most certainly don’t!”
Jasmine’s eyebrows rose dramatically. “You most certainly do!”
Before Samantha could summon a better defense, Jasmine continued, “And so what if you do? He’s really cute and nice and since he’s pretty new here, it’s not like he’s another one of your sort of brothers.” She looked carefully at Samantha. “We’re best friends, right? We can tell each other things like this and keep it a secret.”
Samantha felt her heart swell at the term ‘best friends,’ cherishing the reassurance that the wish she’d held for so long had come true. Her smile beamed. “Right! That’s what best friends do!”
Jasmine smiled back. “So, you won’t tell anybody I like Zach, and I won’t tell anybody you like Matteo. Promise?”
The girls shared a sigh of relief. The next thirty minutes passed quickly with continued animated chatting but without further interruption as they hurried through tunnel after tunnel. Almost before they knew it, they were within reach of their planned destination. Samantha pointed toward a turn-off ahead and to their right. “This way! It’s not far now!”
Jasmine slowed to a stop, panting slightly. “Can we take a break? I’m still not used to running around all the time like this.”
Samantha skidded to a stop. “Okay, but only for a few minutes.” She gestured toward the nearby tunnel. “We have to go this way, so let’s sit right in here.”
Jasmine followed her friend into the connecting passageway and dropped to the floor to lean carefully against the rough stone wall. “So, are we almost there?”
“Well, not exactly, but it won’t take too much longer. And it really will be worth it – I promise!”
Jasmine glanced around the narrow tunnel, its ceiling markedly lower than that of the others they had traveled. “I’m getting my flashlight out. It’s kind of dark in here.”
Samantha nodded understandingly. “That’s a good idea. I’ll get mine out, too.” She pulled her flashlight from her pack and switched it on. “But we won’t need them for long because there’s lots of light up ahead.”
Jasmine sighed in obvious relief as she rummaged in her backpack and soon produced her flashlight. She clicked it on immediately and then reached back into her pack to retrieve a small paper bag. She opened it to reveal two clementines and handed one to Samantha. “Here you go. I’m going to eat mine now, but you can save yours for later if you want.”
Samantha propped up her flashlight so that its beam gave some illumination to their surroundings Then she frowned slightly as looked at the small piece of orange fruit in her hand. “Where did you get them?”
“I took them out of the basket on the serving table at dinner last night.” Jasmine started to peel the skin from her orange. “But don’t worry – no one saw me do it.”
Samantha stowed her share of the fruit in a pocket of her backpack. She did not want to hurt her friend’s feelings, but she knew something had to be said. “It was nice of you to bring a snack for us,” she began, “but we don’t always have a lot of fresh fruit and things like that here. We’re not supposed to take extra pieces without permission. You could have just asked William if it was okay. He probably would have said yes.”
Jasmine popped a piece of fruit into her mouth. “But what if he said no?”
“Then, the answer would be no.” Samantha nodded emphatically. “Those are the rules.”
Jasmine hesitated before saying quietly, “I guess you’re right.” She looked down at the small segments of fruit in her hand as their sweet juice dripped from her fingers. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, just this once,” Samantha reassured her. “But don’t do anything like that again, okay?”
“Okay. It’s just that sometimes I guess it’s hard to break old habits.” Jasmine’s voice trailed away.
“What do you mean?” Samantha’s eyes grew wide. “Did you have to – to take food like that when you lived Above?”
“Sometimes,” Jasmine admitted. “I didn’t do it a lot, but Gran’s food stamps would run out.” She sighed softly. “She wouldn’t take me to the soup kitchen that much ‘cause she said she didn’t like taking charity. But a lot of the time we were really hungry, so I pretended the man at the bodega just gave me fruit and things.”
“Did she believe you?”
Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t know. She never asked…and I never said anything else about it. Like I said, we were hungry, so…” She shrugged and finished eating the rest of her orange, then wiped her sticky hands on her jeans.
Samantha struggled to keep from crying. “Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of food here, but we never have to go hungry. And if there’s ever an emergency, our Helpers pitch in.”
Jasmine nodded. “I know it’s different here. I’m just not used to it, I guess. But I promise I’ll try to remember the rules better from now on.”
“You will! And I can remind you if you want.” She smiled hopefully and watched her friend smile back.
They rose to their feet and retrieved their backpacks. “We better get moving,” Samantha advised. “It’ll still take about fifteen minutes or so to get there.”
Jasmine’s expression grew quizzical. “How can you tell what time it is? There aren’t any clocks around here, and you don’t have a watch.”
Samantha grinned and held out her left arm, pulling up the cuff of her sweater an inch or two. “Jamie borrowed a watch from Mouse and let me take it today. I don’t know where he got it, but he’s really good at finding useful things.”
“Yeah, like this flashlight. I’m really glad he let me bring it.” Jasmine’s voice trembled slightly as she stared into the darkness ahead of them. “Let’s keep them on, okay?”
“Sure,” Samantha answered quickly. “And since we both have one, I’ll go first and shine mine toward the floor so we won’t trip or anything, and you stay right behind me and shine yours up ahead so we can see where we’re going.”
Jasmine looked doubtful but after a quick demonstration, she exclaimed, “That works great! How did you know how to do that?”
Samantha smiled, happy to help her friend continue to overcome her one fear of life Below. “Vincent showed us. The first time he took all the kids on a hike in some of the darker tunnels, he taught us how to walk in the buddy system and use our lights like this. Now we do it all the time whenever he takes us on hikes.”
“Oh, I want to go on hikes, too!” Jasmine exclaimed as they walked farther along the tunnel, adjusting their pace as the rocky floor sloped gradually upward. “Does he take you guys exploring a lot?”
Samantha giggled. “Well, he used to, but now it’s him and Catherine who take us, usually every couple of weeks or so. They’re really nice to us, and I think they have a good time, too, but I kind of think they also do it so they can spend more time together.”
Jasmine grinned. “I think you’re right! Those two are really in looooove!”
Samantha’s smile widened. “They really are! And I’ve seen them going off on walks by themselves loads of time. Geoffrey always wants to go with them, but they usually find something else for him to do instead.”
“I hope he doesn’t get his feelings hurt,” Jasmine commented. “He’s really sweet, for a little kid, I mean.”
“He’s fine with it,” Samantha reassured her. “Vincent and Catherine are very fair. They always make sure they spend some time with all of us.”
As they reached a curve in the tunnel, Samantha indicated that they should pause. “The tunnel gets narrower here for just a little way. But it’s not bad. We’ll get through it quickly and then we’ll be there!”
“I don’t know about this.” Jasmine’s voice shuddered. “How long is it going to take?”
“Not long at all,” Samantha answered, turning to pat her friend on the arm. “Only about three or four minutes.”
“Are you really sure?”
Samantha raised her flashlight so that its gleam bounced off the low ceiling of the tunnel, allowing the friends to see each other’s faces more clearly in the dim light. “I’m sure,” she said with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “I’ve been down this tunnel a hundred times.”
Jasmine tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “A hundred times?”
“Well, maybe not a hundred, but enough to know what I’m doing. Come on, just stick to the buddy system with the flashlights, and you’ll be fine.” Seeing the remnants of doubt lingering on Jasmine’s face, she added, “Really! I promise!”
Jasmine sighed. “Okay – let’s go. But if we get stuck in here, they’re gonna hear me screaming all the way back in Father’s study.”
Eager to help her friend focus on something other than her fear, Samantha asked, “What did you bring to leave in the secret chamber?”
“We were supposed to bring something?”
“Jasmine, you know we have to leave something in the chamber so we can prove to everyone that we were there! Don’t tell me you forgot!”
Jasmine giggled. “I’m only kidding. I brought something, but it’s too hard to describe. I’ll have to show you when we get there.”
Samantha breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, I’ll show you what I brought then, too.”
They moved as quickly as possible through the final stretches of the tunnel and soon could hear a rumbling roar that rapidly grew louder with every step closer. The sound spurred them on, and they nearly tumbled out of the tunnel into the vast reaches of the chamber that housed their final destination.
Anxious that Jasmine’s reaction would be all that she had imagined and hoped for, Samantha ignored the wondrous sight before them and instead focused on her friend’s face.
Jasmine’s eyes widened. “Where are we?” she whispered. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“It’s called the Chamber of the Great Falls.” Samantha felt a wave of relief as Jasmine, clearly awestruck, continued to gaze at the spectacular vista in front of them. “We’re about halfway to the top of the waterfall, and there’s a river down at the bottom.”
Jasmine dashed forward, only to be stopped in an instant by Samantha’s warning. “Be careful! Don’t go too close — sometimes the rocks are slippery and you might fall!”
Together they inched closer to the edge and gazed down at the sparkling water of the river and the foaming force of the falls cascading into it. Then Jasmine looked up toward the top of the falls. “Where does the light come from?”
Samantha tilted her head upward. “I don’t know, maybe from some openings in the rocks way up at the top.” She looked back at the falls. “I haven’t been much farther than this.”
“The whole thing is so amazing!” Jasmine’s eyes darted left and right, as if to take in everything at once. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing, and we haven’t even gotten to the secret chamber yet!”
Samantha pointed toward the torrents of rushing water. “There’s another cave in there, behind the falls, and the secret chamber is right behind that.” She started to lead the way and then stopped abruptly when she saw that Jasmine had not moved.
“Can we just stay here for a few more minutes?”
“Sure,” Samantha answered. “We can sit farther down the path, but not too close to the edge, okay?” They walked several yards closer to the falls and then stopped at a flat place on the wide ledge. “Wait a second – the ground is kind of damp, but I have something we can sit on.” She pulled a piece of tarpaulin from her pack and spread it out. They settled themselves on it, sitting cross-legged and facing toward the falls.
“I’m so glad you like it here,” Samantha said. “I was kind of worried you’d be disappointed.”
“No way! It’s really cool!”
Samantha breathed a sigh of relief. “Even though I’ve been here before, it’s still kind of a surprise when I see it again. Do you know what I mean?”
“Sure! It’s kind of magical, like something in a movie or on tv or maybe in a storybook.” Jasmine’s eyes sparkled with wonder, then abruptly dimmed. “I wish my granny could’ve seen this place. She wouldn’t have believed her eyes.”
Samantha was unsure of what to say, then a memory of Brian describing how his father had begun taking him to visit the beach and museums flickered through her mind. “Did your granny take you to special places sometimes?”
Jasmine shook her head. “No. But I think she wanted to. Sometimes she’d tell me stories about when she was a little girl. She even went to a cabin in some mountains once. But when she got older, she never left Harlem again.” She turned her head away. “I don’t think she wanted to go away from where my dad lived…even though he was never coming back.”
When Jasmine hung her head and fell silent, Samantha said softly, “We can talk about it if you want. Sometimes that helps.”
Long moments passed, and when Jasmine spoke again, her voice was so low that at first Samantha had to strain to hear her above the sound of the falls.
“I don’t remember much about my dad, just that he always smelled nice, like soap, and he would hug me and twirl me around and call me Jazzy and say I was his pretty baby.” Her voice trailed away again.
Samantha searched for the right words. “He sounds really nice. You must miss him a lot.”
Jasmine sniffed back a tear. “Yeah, I guess I do.” She gazed out at the falls again. “But sometimes I get really mad at him and my mom and my granny, too – for leaving me.”
“What happened to them?” Samantha asked softly, then quickly added, “I’m sorry, Jasmine. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Jasmine’s voice was flat with resignation. “They died. They all died. My dad was in a gang and he got shot. I was almost five. My mom told me he was dead and then she left me, too.” She took a shuddering breath. “She stuck me with my granny and then…then she killed herself.”
Samantha’s heart ached for her friend’s pain and anger. “But your granny didn’t leave you on purpose. You told me before that she got really sick. She wanted to stay with you – I know she did.”
Jasmine’s expression hardened. “Yeah, well, she didn’t, did she?” She wiped her tears away with the back of her fisted hand. “She let them take her away to the hospital. I guess she thought the neighbors would take care of me until she got back…but she didn’t come back.” She shook her head slowly. “If that lady from the soup kitchen hadn’t come looking for me, maybe I would have died, too.”
Samantha gasped in shock. “Don’t say things like that, Jasmine!”
Her friend looked at her with eyes dulled by long-held pain. “Why not? It’s true.”
Samantha’s eyes filled with tears as she reached out a trembling hand to pat her friend gently on the shoulder. “I’m really sorry all that happened to you,” she began, “but I’m really glad that lady was a Helper and brought you here to live with us.” She waited and watched carefully until Jasmine nodded slightly. “Now we’re your family and you won’t ever have to be alone again.”
Jasmine smiled through her tears and took a deep shuddering breath. “I know that after everything that happened, things will be better now.”
Samantha nodded solemnly. “That’s how it is for most of us here. It’s like getting a second chance.”
The girls rose to their feet, and Samantha rolled up the tarp and stuffed it back into her pack. “Are you ready?”
With Samantha in the lead, they hurried toward the cave hidden behind the waterfall, quickly but carefully clambering over and around several small boulders that partially blocked their way. As they neared the falls, Samantha put out a hand to keep her friend from rushing forward. “Just be really careful here. We’re probably going to get a little bit wet anyway, but you don’t want to fall in!”
“Hmmm, I don’t know.” Jasmine’s voice was calm and serene. “I learned how to swim in the pool at the Y. I could probably dive right down to the river.”
Samantha did not fall for her friend’s sense of humor this time. “I’ll meet you back at home later then. I’m going to the secret chamber!”
Jasmine laughed loudly. “Oh, no – you’re not going there without me!”
With small, careful steps, the girls proceeded along the wet narrow ledge and emerged into a shadowy cave, their progress illuminated only by faint light seeping in from the outer chamber. Walls worn smooth from swiftly falling water eons earlier formed three of the cave’s sides, and a cascading curtain of water hid its entrance from anyone who did not know of its existence. Jasmine quickly fumbled for her flashlight and switched it on. She cast its rays in wobbly arcs, watching the light catch and sparkle as it reflected off the damp walls. “It’s bigger in here than I thought it would be, but it’s still pretty dark.”
Samantha retrieved her flashlight as well. “I was only in here once. I didn’t know about the secret chamber then, but I think the entrance is over there.” She pointed the beam of her flashlight toward the far back wall of the cave. Its light revealed a pile of fallen rocks about four feet high, just to the right of an unusually bumpy, uneven section of the cavern wall. “Let’s leave our stuff here.”
They stowed their belongings near the rock pile, then edged around it toward the jagged crevice splintered into the wall, its eighteen-inch opening hinting at greater depths within. “Is that it?!” Jasmine’s voice rose in shock. “That’s how we’re getting to the secret chamber?!”
Samantha bit her lip. “It does look kind of small, doesn’t it?” She quickly scanned the area. “But I don’t see any other way to get there.” She directed the beam of her flashlight into the opening. “It goes farther back. And I’m pretty sure we can fit.”
She looked at Jasmine who had begun backing away slowly. “No way I’m going in there.” She shook her head firmly. “Not happening!”
Even though she harbored doubts of her own, Samantha was determined they would forge ahead to reach their goal. “It’s okay, Jasmine. It’ll be fine.” When the other girl’s expression of disbelief did not waver, she continued, “I’ll go first and you can follow me. And if it gets bad or we get scared, we’ll just stop and come back out, all right?”
Jasmine took a deep breath. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Samantha smiled, hoping she looked much more confident than she felt. Turning sideways, she wriggled a few inches into the tight opening, clutching her flashlight so hard that her fingers began to cramp. “It’s not too bad. We can make it.”
Jasmine began following her friend’s lead, only to scuttle backwards as Samantha stopped suddenly to retreat into the cave. “Wait! We need to get our things!” She scrambled past Jasmine, grabbed their packs, and moved closer to the shimmer of falling water so that they would be able to see more clearly. Each girl quickly removed a small object from her pack.
“So, what did you bring?” Jasmine asked. “I’m dying to find out!”
Samantha opened her hand to let a length of pink satin ribbon unfurl in her grasp
“That’s so pretty! Is it a hair ribbon?”
Samantha shook her head. “It’s a tie for a ballet shoe. Lisa gave it to me when she visited us last month.”
Jasmine’s expression clearly reflected her exasperation. “You have two feet! What did she think you were going to do with only one ribbon?”
“I’m not sure,” Samantha admitted, raising her arm higher to let the ribbon flutter in the cool breeze that gusted through the cave. “But she told me to keep it until she came back again to give us ballet lessons.”
Jasmine snorted loudly. “She’s not coming back.”
“Yes, she is! She promised she would. She wouldn’t break her promise!”
Jasmine shook her head. “Sure, she would. She didn’t look to me like the kind of person who cares about promises. More like she only cares about herself.”
Samantha felt her heart drop when she heard words so like those she had uttered earlier that day. “How can you tell?”
“She reminds me of some people I knew before – you know, up there.” Jasmine gestured toward the hidden reaches of the city far above them. “Always out for themselves. And besides, I know one when I see one.”
Samantha felt confused. “One what?”
Jasmine’s mouth twisted in a wry grin. “One of those other words we’re not supposed to say around here.”
“Then you better not say it!” Samantha forced herself to smile, as if in new-found agreement with her trusted friend’s assessment of the ballerina, but she could not entirely stifle a flickering of hope in her heart.
“What did you bring?” she continued, eager to move past the lingering disappointment.
“I brought this.” Jasmine held up a small drawstring pouch made of colorful striped fabric. “See, it has my name on it. My granny embroidered it.” She handed it to Samantha. “You can hold it if you want.”
Samantha cradled the cloth bag in the palm of her hand. “Jasmine, this is so beautiful. It must be very special to you.” She carefully traced the delicately stitched letters with one finger, then gave her friend a look of concern. “I don’t think you should leave it here. What if we can’t get it back again?”
Jasmine’s gaze was drawn to her grandmother’s gift. “I didn’t know what else to pick,” she said softly. “I didn’t have a lot of things to bring with me when I moved here, and I needed something that everyone could tell belongs to me. So…”
Samantha handed the precious keepsake back to her friend. “You need to keep this. Put it back in your pack.” As Jasmine did so, Samantha smoothed tiny wrinkles from the pink satin ribbon still clutched in her hand. “We can leave this for both of us.”
Jasmine hesitated. “But we’re both supposed to leave something to prove we were here. That’s your ribbon, not mine.”
“Wait! I have an idea!” Samantha rummaged through the main compartment of her backpack, then held up a felt-tip pen. “We can write our names on the ribbon, and then everyone will know it’s from both of us.”
Jasmine shook her head. “That’ll ruin the ribbon. The ink will never come out even if we wash it a bunch of times.”
Samantha shook her head. “It’s all right. I don’t mind.” She pressed the ribbon flat against the smoothest section she could find on the pile of fallen rocks, then uncapped the pen and firmly wrote her name in careful cursive letters on the ribbon’s glossy surface. “Here, now you write your name, and we’ll have our proof.”
Jasmine took the pen and followed her friend’s directions. “Thanks, Samantha. That was a really nice thing to do.” She handed back the pen. “What made you think to bring a pen?”
“It goes with my journal. I always bring it in case I think of something I want to write about.” Samantha stowed the pen back in her pack. “I might be a writer when I grow up.”
Jasmine gave her a puzzled look. “I thought you said you wanted to be an artist.”
Samantha grinned. “Maybe both!”
Together, they turned back toward the narrow entryway to the secret chamber. “Are you ready?” Samantha asked as she tucked the coiled ribbon into her pocket.
“Now I am,” Jasmine vowed firmly. “Let’s do it!”
Once again, Samantha took the lead as one by one the girls entered the crevice, carefully squirming their way a few feet into the constricted passageway. They inched along, trying not to snag their hair or clothing on the rough walls as they struggled to hold their flashlights aloft.
Samantha heard Jasmine’s breath start to quicken. “It’s all right. I bet we’re almost there!” Then she stopped abruptly as the beam of her flashlight revealed a sight that sent jolts of horror through both girls.
“Oh, no,” Samantha gasped. She shook her head and blinked hard as if to alter the vision before them. “I don’t believe it!”
Jasmine’s voice rose to a near shriek. “It’s impossible!”
For several seconds, the girls could do nothing but stare straight ahead, their hearts beating rapidly as they struggled to make sense of what they saw. Then Samantha directed her flashlight’s beam in every possible direction within the small, cramped space, hoping they would spot a miracle. But to their horror, the light revealed nothing but a solid rock wall, impenetrable and absolute.
They knew there was nothing more to do, and in shocked silence, they returned to the cave, quickly gathered their belongings, and made their way back to their earlier resting place above the river. Together they slumped to the rocky floor and shared a tearful look of disappointment and disbelief.
“This was supposed to be the best day ever!” Samantha’s voice rose in a wobbling quiver.
“I know! But it’s more like the worst!” Jasmine’s voice was an echo of her friend’s. “What happened to the secret chamber? Why wasn’t it there?”
Samantha felt a surge of guilt and embarrassment. “I don’t know. I was sure it was there and we’d be able to find it, just like Vincent and Devin did…but maybe I was wrong.”
Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t believe that. We went exactly where the boys said they were going to go.” Her eyes took on a sudden glitter. “You don’t think they knew it wasn’t really there and they were just trying to fool us, do you?!”
Samantha’s eyes narrowed. “They better not have been!” She could feel her temper flaring alarmingly. “After everything we went through to get here! If they lied to us, they’re gonna be in so much trouble!!”
“A world of trouble!” Jasmine sighed heavily. “But what’ll we do now?” She glanced around the area and then answered her own question. “Why don’t we eat our lunch and then maybe we can find some other place to explore?”
Samantha shook her head. “We don’t have a lot of time left. We can probably have lunch, but then we need to go back.” Her voice quivered again. “This is really bad.”
“Maybe if we eat fast, we can still do something else on the way,” Jasmine suggested hopefully. “What time is it anyway?” She reached out and pushed Samantha’s sleeve farther up her arm over the borrowed watch, then pulled back abruptly and stared at her friend’s skin. “What’s that on your arm? Are those bruises? Did you hurt yourself back there?”
Samantha turned her head away, unable to look at the marks splattered across her flesh. The once charred red blotches had faded somewhat with time, but the memory of their pain had been seared into her heart.
“They’re not bruises,” she said softly. “They’re burns.”
“Did you accidentally splash boiling water on yourself? That happened to my granny once when she was making tea. She said it hurt like the devil!”
Samantha’s voice was barely a whisper. “No…my mother did it. And it wasn’t an accident…she did it on purpose.”
Jasmine’s eyes grew wide with shock as she stared at her friend. “Why would she do something like that?”
“She did it to punish me…when I was bad…”
Jasmine gasped. “You were just a little kid!”
Samantha closed her eyes as tightly as she could, determined not to cry. She had shed far too many tears over devastating memories and wanted nothing more than to leave them behind forever. But just as she had told Jasmine earlier, sometimes it might help to talk about the bad times, and with that thought, she took a deep breath, stared out over the falls, and began.
“I don’t remember a lot about back then. I know we – my mom and me – lived in a big house with a lot of other people, but it wasn’t like living here. It was mostly girls, but some boys, too, and I didn’t understand it then, but now I know they were all in college. And everyone was usually pretty nice, but not always…especially not my mom…”
“What about your dad?” Jasmine prompted gently. “Did he live there, too?”
Samantha shook her head. “I don’t have a dad. Well, of course, I had one once, but I never saw him. One time I asked my mom where he was and she just laughed and told me to look around and pick whoever I wanted and he could be my dad…but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted my real dad.” Her bottom lip quivered. “Sometimes I used to wish he’d come and find me, and we could go live somewhere else where no one would hurt me…but he never did.”
Samantha continued to gaze into the distance, as if searching for images and phrases that would make sense of her fragmented, painful memories.
She took another deep breath and then found her words cascading from her. “I was too little to know that part of the reason my mom did the things she did was because she took a lot of bad drugs. They all did. Dr. Alcott told me about that later – he’s the one who brought me Below to live – but I didn’t know it then and I always thought she punished me because I was bad.”
“But you couldn’t have been!” Jasmine protested. “You never could!”
Samantha sighed. “I know that now, but that’s what my mom said, and I believed her. One time she cut off most of my hair because she said I took her money.” She shook her head, feeling a disoriented sense of disbelief. “I didn’t even know what money was then, but I never thought my mom would lie to me. So, I thought I must have done it…Like when she said she couldn’t sleep at night because I was crying too much and bothering her. That’s when…when she burned my arm.”
Jasmine’s dark eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Samantha, I hate to say it since she’s your mom and all, but she’s the one who’s bad, not you.”
Samantha tried to smile to show how much those words meant to her but found she could not. She brushed away a tear that had managed to escape. “She never did things like that when anyone else was around. I guess she didn’t want them to know she was like that.”
“Was she ever nice to you, even once in a while?”
“Once she bought me ice cream in the park.” Samantha’s voice softened as she recalled rare happy memories of her life Above. “And sometimes she’d read me a story. I liked fairy tales best, but she said they were stupid.” She sighed again. “So, her friend Jessica would read them to me. She told me that ‘happily ever after’ wasn’t stupid, maybe it could be real.”
“I’m glad someone was nice to you,” Jasmine said softly.
Samantha nodded. “But then something really bad must have happened. I don’t know what it was, but they told her she couldn’t live with them anymore. I remember they tried to make her let me stay with them, but she wouldn’t.”
Jasmine shook her head. “Where did you go?”
“First we went to this place – a homeless shelter – but my mom said she didn’t like it there because there were too many rules. So then…then we had to live on the street. We slept in the park near the library at night. It wasn’t nice like the park where we go to play sometimes.” She turned toward Jasmine, her eyes glassy with remembered fear. “Sometimes she left me there all alone when she went off with one of her boyfriends. I was so scared…but sometimes I wished she wouldn’t come back and maybe someone nice would find me and give me a new home where I could be safe.”
“Did she have a lot of boyfriends?” Jasmine’s voice was somber.
Samantha nodded. “I think so. And they’d give her money. Sometimes she bought me food, but most of the time she just bought more drugs for herself. She told me it was medicine, but now I know it wasn’t.”
Jasmine’s voice was edged with anger. “So, did Dr. Alcott finally find you in the park?”
Samantha shook her head. “No one ever found me. It started to get really cold, I guess it was winter. We didn’t have warm clothes. I remember I asked my mom if we could go back to the house and live with her friends again, but she just laughed at me like I was making a joke.” She felt her hands clench into fists in her lap. “Then she got really sick. She was coughing all the time and she would just lie on one of the benches, all wrapped up in our blanket. I wanted to help her, but I didn’t know what to do! Then a lady came along and said we should go to a clinic and it wouldn’t cost any money. My mom didn’t want to go, but the lady helped her and we got there.”
She paused for breath and then rushed onward, anxious to end her story. “I remember it was my mom’s turn to see the doctor, but she didn’t go when the nurse called her. She told me she had to go to the bathroom and she’d be right back. But then she kissed me on the cheek – it was strange because she never did that anymore – and said ‘Bye, Sam, be a good girl for a change.’ And then she left…and I never saw her again.”
Tears rolled down Jasmine’s face. “What happened to her – and what happened to you?”
Samantha sighed. “I don’t remember much after that, just that she didn’t come back, and I started crying and the nurse called the doctor over to talk to me. The next thing I knew, I woke up in a bed in the nursery down here…and I’ve been here ever since.” She took in Jasmine’s understandably confused expression. “Dr. Alcott explained some of it later and he’s told me more as I’ve gotten older. He was a volunteer at that clinic, and I was really lucky he was there that day. My mom got as far as the street and then she collapsed…and then she died. I was really sick, too, with a fever, so since I was all alone, he brought me down here to Father. They tried to see if there were any family members to take me, but they couldn’t find any, so they let me stay.”
Jasmine let out a deep sigh. “Dr. Alcott rescued you. He saved your life!”
Samantha nodded. “He really did. And from then on, everything has been much better.” A ghost of a smile eased some of the unforgotten pain from her face. “I’m really grateful he brought me here and that Father said I could stay.”
“Otherwise, you would have gone into foster care.” Jasmine shuddered. “I know kids who went in the system – and it wasn’t good for them.”
Samantha nodded. “That’s what happened to Eric and Ellie before Catherine saved them.” Her eyes clouded again for a moment. “And even though Ellie wasn’t here very long, at least she was safe and happy for a while.”
Jasmine nodded emphatically. “Just like us – only we’re going to be safe and happy for a long time, right?!”
Samantha managed a genuine smile as the girls jumped to their feet and hugged one another. “Right!”
Jasmine’s stomach gurgled and she grinned at the sound. “So, do we still have time to eat lunch?”
“Okay but it has to be fast.”
The girls knelt on the stony ground and quickly unwrapped their parcels, sharing chunks of granola bars and a precious piece of chocolate they had hoarded for this special occasion. Jasmine slurped water from her canteen as she watched Samantha use a pocketknife to carefully cut an apple into slices.
“Where did you get a knife from? My granny would have killed me if she caught me with one. She said knives are really dangerous.”
Samantha tried not to look surprised at yet another view of a world she had known so briefly. “Most of the kids here have one. We get taught how to use them correctly, you know, for emergencies or for things like this.” She handed half the apple slices to Jasmine. “Cullen taught some of us how to do little wood carvings – I made a rabbit but it didn’t really come out that good – and Vincent showed us how to use the blade and flint to start campfires, that kind of thing.”
“Wow, that’s really neat,” Jasmine commented. “Do you think I could get one and learn those things, too?”
“You have to get permission from Father, but I’m sure he’d say yes. We can ask him when we get back. And Vincent will show you how to use it and tell you about the rules.”
“Vincent is so cool. I was kind of surprised when I first met him, you know ‘cause of the way he looks and all, but now I don’t even think about that.”
Samantha smiled approvingly. “Vincent’s the best.” Her smile widened. “If I tell you something, promise not to tell anyone else?”
Jasmine held out one hand. “Pinky promise!”
Samantha looked puzzled. “What kind of promise?”
“Pinky promise.” Jasmine reached for Samantha’s hand and crooked their smallest fingers together. “Now just say pinky promise and that means we swear never to tell another soul whatever it is.”
Samantha giggled. “I never heard of that before, but okay!”
The pledging of pinky promises and the music of tinkling laughter drifted out above the falls. “So, what am I promising not to tell anyone?” Jasmine asked.
Samantha whispered even though she knew no one else could hear them. “When I was little, when I just got here, I thought Vincent was from a fairy tale – you know, like an enchanted prince.”
“I can see that.” Jasmine nodded in affirmation. “He does have that look.”
“But that’s not all.” Samantha felt a blush warm her cheeks. “Even though I’m getting older, sometimes I wish Vincent and Catherine were my parents.” She paused and looked cautiously at her friend. “Pretty silly, right?”
Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t think it’s silly at all. They’d be amazing parents. You know, maybe I’ll wish for that, too.”
“And if our wish comes true, then we’d really be sisters!”
The girls shared a happy grin, then swiftly packed away the crumbs and wrappings from their lunch, careful to leave the area just as they had found it. Jasmine cast one last look back at the falls. “Even though we didn’t find the secret chamber, I think coming here was pretty great anyway.”
“Me, too. But now we’re really going to have to hurry to get back in time.”
“No problem – we can do it!”
The girls walked quickly along the path, then skittered down the slight slope, rounding the curve toward the connecting passageway. With Jasmine slightly ahead of her, Samantha found herself nearly careening into her friend who had frozen unexpectedly only a few feet from the tunnel entrance. One quick look ahead provided all the explanation she needed.
“Vincent! Catherine!” Samantha was mortified to hear the shrill squeak of her voice. “What are you doing here?”
Vincent tilted his head at her. “We might ask you the same question.”
Knowing it was pointless to try to come up with some plausible explanation, Samantha quickly opted for the truth. “We wanted to go on an adventure,” she began, “all by ourselves.”
“And I had never been here before, so this is where we went,” Jasmine continued with a hopeful smile.
Vincent kept his expression even as he looked from one girl to the other. “I understand that you wanted to go exploring, but this was not the best decision. You both know you’re not supposed to go this far from the home chambers without an adult.”
When the girls remained silent, he continued. “I know the idea seemed like fun, but if you think more about it, you’ll realize that what you did was potentially very dangerous. And I’m afraid there will have to be consequences for your behavior.”
The girls quickly looked to Catherine, hoping for the chance of a reprieve.
She shook her head gently. “Vincent’s right. What if one of you had gotten hurt? No one would have known where to find you.”
“Jamie knew where we were going!” Samantha blurted, then quickly pressed her lips together, chagrined at having revealed her friend’s role in a situation of which Vincent and Catherine very clearly disapproved. She heard Jasmine murmur, “Oh, no,” under her breath, which only made things worse.
But when Samantha saw Vincent and Catherine exchange a quick look, a sudden suspicion took shape in her mind. “Did Jamie tell you where we went? Is that why you’re here?” Vincent nodded, and then, much to her complete embarrassment, the young girl burst into tears of frustration and disappointment. Mere moments later, Jasmine joined her, their escalating sobs vying with the distant roar of the falls.
Catherine and Vincent immediately gathered the girls into their arms, holding them gently until their tears subsided. Samantha felt a large hand stroke her hair, smoothing it back from her tear-stained face, and she looked up into Vincent’s eyes.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked softly. “It might help.”
She looked toward Jasmine, still cradled in Catherine’s arms, and waited until her friend nodded in agreement. “Yes, I think so.”
A few minutes later, once again seated on the ledge high above the river, the girls told Vincent and Catherine about their thwarted plans, their voices paired in counterpoint as their words tumbled out in a somewhat coherent retelling of the main events of their day.
“We were going to do this all on our own, and we thought it was going to be the best day ever.” Samantha sighed heavily as they concluded their tumultuous tale. “Then when we found out the secret cavern wasn’t even there, it turned out to be the worst.”
Jasmine shook her head. “It’s even worse now because we got caught and you guys are mad at us.”
“We’re not angry,” Vincent said firmly, “but we were worried about you, and somewhat disappointed.” He turned to Samantha. “It’s not like you to make foolish decisions like this.”
Samantha found it difficult to look at the expression on Vincent’s face, but forced herself to do so. “I know…it’s just that the boys made us so mad with all their teasing, and we really wanted to do something by ourselves. We didn’t think enough about breaking the rules. We just wanted to have an adventure.”
She steeled herself for his response but was surprised when Catherine spoke first. “Vincent, that sounds kind of familiar.” The girls watched as Catherine tilted her head in Vincent’s direction, clearly not attempting to hide a growing smile. “Didn’t you tell me how you and Devin went off on adventures on your own when you were around the girls’ age?”
The girls turned to Vincent and observed with rapidly growing interest a faint blush darkening the golden tones of his face. “And if I’m remembering it accurately,” Catherine continued, “didn’t some of your adventures take place right here by the Great Falls?”
Samantha held her breath, knowing Jasmine would do the same, as she awaited Vincent’s response. It was not long in coming.
A slow smile quirked his unique mouth and slowly grew to a full-fledged grin. “Yes, Catherine, you’re remembering it accurately – maybe too accurately.” His laughter was warm and reassuring as he turned back to the young adventurers who were eagerly waiting to see what would happen next. “Devin and I did come here on our own when we wanted to explore and have adventures that we wouldn’t share with anyone else.” He gazed out over the falls for a few moments. “That was a wonderful part of my childhood, and I’ll always treasure those memories.”
Samantha took a deep breath. “Then, you’re not upset with us anymore?”
Vincent shook his head. “I’m still concerned – we both are – that you might have put yourselves in danger, along with anyone who would have been called upon to rescue you. But no, I’m not upset with you.” He smiled down at both of them. “How can I be when you were only doing the same things I did when I was a boy?”
“Did you get away with it?” Jasmine asked eagerly.
Vincent laughed again. “Sometimes, but other times we were found out and then we were punished.”
The girls’ eyes widened. “What was the punishment?” Samantha asked, her voice subdued and solemn.
“There was always a lecture from Father. We often were given extra chores, sometimes we were confined to our chamber for a day or two, and then other times –”
“How often did you guys get in trouble?!” A mixture of amazement and awe colored Jasmine’s voice.
Catherine laughed appreciatively. “Evidently, quite often!” She glanced up at Vincent. “It sounds like there are lots of stories the girls and I haven’t heard yet.”
Vincent nodded. “But we’ll save those for another time.” He looked down into the children’s upturned faces. “Samantha, Jasmine, we can’t approve of what you did, including lying to some of the members of our family, and there has to be a penalty for your behavior.”
Samantha felt her heart beat faster. “Are you going to tell Father?”
Vincent looked toward Catherine, then back to the girls. “No, we won’t tell Father.” He paused as the girls exhaled huge sighs of relief. “But I want you to take on extra chores for the next two weeks, and you must promise never to do something foolish like this again.”
Their voices were a duet of happiness and relief. “We promise!”
“And also, girls,” Catherine added, “we know you still want to take off on adventures like this, but until you’re a little older, ask an adult to go with you.” She grinned as she tilted her head in Vincent’s direction. “I think I know at least two adults who will always say yes.”
Samantha felt happier than she had in a long time, at least since breakfast that morning. “Thank you – thank you so much! You two are the best!”
Jasmine echoed her friend’s thanks and added, “Samantha told me you guys take the kids on hikes and things. Can I go next time?”
“Of course, you can,” Vincent reassured her. “We won’t go without you. And now we need to head back to the home chambers. But first there’s one question I have for you.” The girls waited expectantly. “Why did you come this way if you wanted to find the secret chamber?”
Samantha felt a prickling of apprehension as she noted the quizzical look on Vincent’s face. “Because the boys said this is where it is and, like we explained, we wanted to get here before they did.”
Vincent pointed to a place on the far side of the Great Falls, clearly inaccessible from their present location. “The entrance to the secret chamber is over there.”
In tandem, the girls’ heads swiveled from Vincent’s face to the falls and back again. For a rare few moments, neither could think of a word to say.
“Then why did they say this was the right way to go?!” Samantha asked, her voice full of hurt and anger. “Why would they do that?”
“I bet they were lying to us!” Jasmine’s eyes narrowed. “We’ll never trust them again!”
“I never thought they’d do something sneaky and mean like this,” Samantha declared. “Not to their friends.”
“Wait a minute, girls, you’re not sure about any of this.” Catherine’s voice was calm and firm. “True, they might have deliberately lied to you, but, on the other hand, they might have been telling the truth. Maybe they do think this is the right location for the secret chamber. You should find a way to talk with them about it later.”
When the girls remained quiet, Vincent added, “And weren’t you doing something ‘sneaky and mean’ to your friends as well?”
Being intelligent little girls, Samantha and Jasmine knew when to quit. Samantha’s gaze flickered from one adult’s face to the other. “I guess you’re right,” she said with a small sigh.
“I have an idea,” Catherine offered. “Why don’t we plan a hike to the secret chamber sometime soon? We can all go – including the boys.”
Samantha and Jasmine looked at one another, quickly coming to a silent decision of accord. “That would be so great!” Samantha replied, as Jasmine echoed her words.
“Then, that’s what we’ll do,” Vincent affirmed, “possibly in a week or two. And in the meantime, I’ll have a talk with the boys and make sure they promise to wait.”
Samantha felt her last doubts disappear, knowing the boys would never break a promise to Vincent, a fact she would share with Jasmine later so that she would be reassured as well.
“And now we really need to start back,” Vincent added, leading the little group away from the falls.
Samantha carefully slid back the cuff of her sweater and gasped as she noted the time on her borrowed watch. “Oh, no! The book discussion starts in twenty minutes. We’ll never make it!”
“Father postponed the discussion until tomorrow afternoon,” Vincent told them, “but make sure you’re not late for it then.”
Catherine cast an amused look in the girls’ direction as they switched on their flashlights and entered the connecting passageway. In an exaggerated whisper, she added, “Father said he needed to rest this afternoon. Something about a very stressful morning teaching a certain class with some of the boys, followed by a severe headache not even a cup of tea could cure.” The girls giggled knowingly as they scampered ahead down the narrow tunnel with Vincent and Catherine not far behind.
When they finally arrived at the main tunnel leading back to the home chambers, Samantha pulled Jasmine to a halt. “We need to let Jamie know we’re back so she won’t worry.” She reached for a short metal bar hanging by a piece of rope from a nearby hook. “We can send her a message on the pipes.” She offered the bar to Jasmine. “If I help you, do you want to try?”
Jasmine reached for it eagerly. “Sure!”
With Samantha’s painstaking assistance, Jasmine tapped out the message and they soon received a reply. “It says Jamie is in her chamber and we should go there now to tell her what happened,” Samantha translated.
She looked up at Catherine and Vincent who had been waiting patiently, affectionate smiles lighting their faces. Their expressions warmed the young girl’s heart, reminding her of how loved and protected she was in this wondrous community.
“Thank you,” she began and then simply said, “for – for everything!”
Vincent nodded. “I – we – want you to remember that even though what you did was wrong, we know you did it for the right reasons, and we’re proud of you for being brave and resourceful.”
“We also know,” Catherine said, “that you’ll be sure to make better decisions next time, right?” She waited while the girls nodded rapidly in agreement. “And don’t be upset with Jamie. She only told us where you were because she was worried about you.”
“That’s right,” Vincent added. “It’s not that she doubted your abilities, but she knows how easily unexpected things happen, even with the best intentions. She was just looking out for you. That’s what adults do when they care about you.”
Samantha blinked her eyes rapidly, feeling alarmingly close to tears once again. Jasmine looked at her friend and then answered for both of them. “Like Samantha said, thank you – thanks a lot.”
The girls hurried away, only to turn and race back toward Vincent and Catherine. “We just remembered! We were supposed to give a book to Mr. Smythe for Father.” Samantha pulled the wrapped parcel from her backpack. “We need to run up there right now!”
Catherine reached for the book. “I can do that for you. Even if you leave right away, his shop will be closed by the time you get there. I’ll drop it off in the morning… And I don’t think we have to mention this to Father.”
The girls threw themselves at the adults for quick but fervent hugs before rushing away once again.
Hours later, after a happily uneventful dinner and reading hour before bedtime, Samantha and Jasmine were tucked into their beds, chatting quietly long after “lights out.”
“So, you don’t think they heard what I said?” Samantha could not suppress an undercurrent of concern from her voice.
Jasmine sighed dramatically. “No, for the zillionth time. And even if they did, what you said about them was nice.”
“But I don’t want them to think I’m a big baby, wishing for them to be my parents and all.”
“Well, if they heard you – which they didn’t – then they heard me, too, and I don’t care.”
Samantha leaned her head on her arm and peered across the dimly lit chamber. “Why not?”
“Because it was a nice thing to say. And besides, maybe they hope they’ll have two amazing daughters just like us someday!”
“Jasmine!” Samantha giggled loudly. “They’re not even married yet! Oh, maybe they’ll let us be in their wedding, like flower girls or bridesmaids. I read about that in a book.”
Jasmine yawned dramatically. “That would be pretty cool.” She snuggled back down into her covers. “And now I’m going to sleep.”
Samantha settled back with her head against her pillow, but she found she could not close her eyes. She waited a few minutes and then whispered, “Jasmine, are you still awake?” There was no answer from across the chamber, so she whispered louder, “Jasmine?”
The eventual response was muffled, as if Jasmine had buried her face in her pillow. “No, I’m asleep.” But the giggling that followed gave her away. “What?”
“I was just thinking. Even though things didn’t work out like we planned, I had a really good time today.”
“Me, too.” Jasmine sat up and stared across at her friend in the faint light of a flickering night candle. “And I sort of don’t even care that we didn’t find the secret chamber.”
“Me either,” Samantha agreed, “and we’ll get to go there anyway on the hike with Vincent and Catherine.” She watched Jasmine tilt her head as an increasingly familiar expression transformed her friend’s sleepy face. “What?”
“I was just wondering. We probably aren’t going on that hike for a couple of weeks, right?”
Samantha propped herself up on her elbows. “Right.”
“So that means we have plenty of time to –”
“Don’t even think about it!” Samantha collapsed back onto her bed and drew a quilt over her head. “Good night, Jasmine!”
She heard her best friend giggle and call out, “Good night, Samantha!” Then, with her fist clutching the pink satin ribbon that she had placed under her pillow, she fell asleep, dreaming of new friends, true families, and amazing adventures yet to be.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
email the author: Linda
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