A Challenge Story
A Challenge Story
Author’s note: Written for CABB’s Summer Heat Challenge, August 2018
I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.
“I wish I could go.”
Samantha leaned heavily on her crutches and mumbled at the floor. Her prior arguments had fallen on ears as deaf as the stone beneath her feet. She’d have scuffed a toe in the dust, Vincent believed, had she the balance for it and the strength in her twisted ankle to support the doing.
“I made it this far,” she said, a rally of logic lifting her gaze, a frown etching deep around her words, accent to her not-quite-exhausted pleadings. “And they’re taking a van to Queens.”
He shook his head – as Father had, as Mary had (as Geoffrey had, too, receiving an ‘accidental’ whack on the shins with her crutch for the input of his two-cents). He could only hope his side-taking (as Samantha viewed it) would be delivered less … overlordly.
“Here, it’s level ground,” he said with a sweeping motion toward the corridor they’d just traversed (and immediately wished he hadn’t – he didn’t mean to be patronizing). “But it’s a long way up too many steps to the entrance.”
“You could carry me piggy-back.”
He could, he knew. He’d carried her down after her tumble outside Maria’s store, once Peter had checked her for broken bones. But she was so unsteady yet on the crutches and necessarily slow. More than anything, he didn’t want her left behind in an unfamiliar place so far from home or feel the sting that holding others back inflicted, though he hadn’t voiced that … and wouldn’t.
He looked to Catherine for support. Over Samantha’s head, she offered him a nuanced smile, part sympathy, part consolation, part carefulness … concern – for me, he sensed … confused concern.
“It’s going to be really crowded,” Catherine offered. “Peter said you came awfully close to breaking your ankle, honey. You just can’t take the chance of re-injuring yourself.”
Samantha’s heaved sigh was forceful and long-blown, aimed first at Catherine, then at him. He felt it stir his hair. “Fine, then,” she growled, whirling and flouncing off(he heard that last in Father’s voice) as best she could under the circumstances.
Vincent caught her mid-wobble, but, righted, she stumped and stamped toward home, leaving him alone with Catherine in the junction. A jostle of voices – excited, impatient – circled down the staircase she’d soon be climbing.
Catherine took his hand. She didn’t even begin a sentence, but there was conversation in her eyes. One that would have to wait … but, blessedly, one that could.
“Be well, Catherine,” he said, releasing her. “And have fun.”
* * *
He caught up with Samantha in a few long strides.
“I’ve never been to a street fair in Rego Park,” she grumped after a few silent yards. “Have you?”
That he knew for a fact she’d attended festivals above in otherneighborhoods could be left unsaid, he reasoned. There was something so sweet in her question; she’d forgotten, perhaps disregarded, his differences, his limits. “No,” he answered, as if it weren’t agiven. “Though, as a boy, Halloweens, I would go trick or treating above.”
“Yes, and with Winslow and Olivia and the others. A group of us, of friends.”
“I guess that counts.”
They came to a narrow portal. He went first and watched her navigate through without offering a steadying hand.
“At Halloween, above,” she continued, “was there watermelon? Homemade ice cream? Games where you can win prizes? And don’t mention bobbing for apples, because we do that down here and apples aren’t prizes and I’m totally over that anyway; it’s for babies. Dancing in the streets?”
He looked down at her thunking along. Apples had always been a treat for him, but that wasn’t necessary to say either. “No, no watermelon, no ice cream, no dancing. Candy though.” Which he and Devin would sort into piles – good, better, best – hiding a portion of the most favored from their take, given Father’s ideas of what constituted ‘enough junk food’.
They made a sharp turn and veered into the tunnel toward the children’s chambers. The hallway was unnaturally quiet.
“You’ll heal in a matter of weeks and be ready for what comes next,” he said. “I promise you, Samantha, there’ll be other parties.”
“Maybe. But Tony was going to be at this one. And he asked me. Specially.”
Ahhh.Tony. He’d been at Maria’s store when Samantha had gone down. A broken sidewalk grate, a heel caught in the gap. She’d been reading the flyer Maria had given her to take below as invitation – a gypsy festival in Rego Park in Queens the coming weekend. At the second-floor apartment window, Peter had told them, Tony saw her fall and rushed down the stairs to her aid, sitting with her on the concrete while Maria directed foot traffic around her until the pain subsided enough she could hobble inside … with Tony’s arm around her waist. Peter had further reported that Samantha seemed quite disappointed he’d arrived so quickly to tend her and even more dismayed to learn Vincent was waiting in the basement to carry her home.
At this point in Peter’s story, Father had pursed his lips and stroked his chin, surprised, Vincent intuited, at the passage of time that meant Samantha was no longer a child. And Geoffrey, at one of the library tables redoing homework he’d misplaced, listening to the doctors’ conversation, had scowled … deeply. In retrospect, he’d wager Tony was why Geoffrey was glad enough for Samantha to stay home from the party.
Tony. He understood now, understood more anyway.
Before he could choose his next words, Samantha went on. “Vincent … did you …” she began. “Did you get left behind much?”
He debated his answer for several steps. There was truth, and there was too much truth.
“The first time was the worst,” he admitted. “I was very young, maybe five. I …” He broke off and rubbed his forehead. There was not the place he wanted to go. He drew a new breath. “But as I grew, I … accepted what was and looked forward to the after-stories. My friends were … generous.”
Samantha stopped and looked up at him, willing him on.
“Once … I was here while the others went above and a magical thing happened. I was glad, then, that I’d stayed behind, and later on, if I felt sad or envious, I’d revisit that time. It helped, thinking that you just never know when …”
“When life will take a turn?” She waggled her taped foot and grinned.
Ahh, there she is. “Yes, indeed, Samantha.”
She hobbled on. “Tell me what happened, Vincent.”
“Well, it was summer, an unusually hot and humid summer much like this one, and the heatwave had filtered down to the tunnels.Tempersbelow were growing short; everyone seemed in everyone else’s way. So Sebastien and Lou organized an outing to Rockaway Beach – a relief for the children to be somewhere else, the same for the adults to have us gone. They brought two vans – both blue and white, I remember. Devin called them hippie vans …”
At his digression, Samantha bumped into him, once, twice. The story …
“Anyway,” he continued, “two vans … loaded with coolers for the picnic they’d have once they got there, stacked with towels and umbrellas and floats and flippers. I saw them off at the entrance in Chinatown that opens on to the alley behind Dr. Wong’s shop.
“I remember the heat reaching for me like gluey fingers, sticking with me as I walked away. I thought about a swim beneath the falls, but instead I wandered the upper corridors to be, as much as I could, somewhere elsemyself. I ended up under the park, beneath the bandshell. You know that spot, don’t you?”
“Sure. Our teacher showed us. We went there to appreciate.”
“Right, well, so did mine, the first time. Do you go regularly?”
“Not real. I know, I know, I should. What happened, Vincent? What magical thing?”
He felt the tip of her crutch graze the side of his boot. “Workers were setting up for a concert. A cellist, I heard someone say, Marcel Hubert, and a pianist. So I settled down to wait. People were seated; the music began.” He chuckled. “It was Rachmaninoff, The Storm,and before they reached the end, a heavy heat bore down, even down to me. It began to thunder. Lightning flashed.”
“Did you get wet, Vincent?”
“Not that day. It never actually rained. The first time I took Catherine there, it did though; we both were soaked.” He trailed off at the memory, felt himself smile …
“And so …” Samantha prodded.
“And so, that day the skies lowered and threatened and the audience gathered their things to leave before the heavens opened. In their wake, programs and coins sifted through the grate overhead …”
(Worse things found their way through the storm drain cover over the years: cigarette stubs he was forever grinding out and sweeping up, crushed waxed paper cups, accordioned wrappers of straws, the lip-sticked straws themselves. Dangerous things too, sharps and vials that Father lectured must be carefully disposed of. Definitely not magical, he determined and hurried on …)
“I heard a tinkling, saw a glinting. Something was caught on the bars above my head. I jumped for it but couldn’t reach it, so I threw pebbles at it until it dislodged. A bracelet, one made of carved oval stones and gold links, a scarab bracelet I later learned. It was small and delicate – it belonged, I was sure, to a young girl, a girl close to my age, I imagined. I waited for a while, hoping she would come back looking for it, and at the same time wondering how I’d get it back up to her if she did.” He chuckled again. “I even tried throwing it, thinking I might be able to send it back above, but it kept falling back into my hands. No one came, and there was no more music; a stillness settled in. Eventually I had to go home or Father–”
“Would have a cow?”
“Exactly. He had them regularly back then.”
“But what was the magic?”
“I suppose it was the exceptional warmth of the stones in my hand, the feeling I had that it was a sign, that I was meant to be just … there… at that one particular moment to catch this treasure before it fell into the rubble and dirt below. That one day, if I could be patient, I’d know why.”
“You mean, someday you’d find the girl it belonged to?”
He remembered Father’s dismissive tsk when he’d showed him the bracelet and voiced that very possibility. You would better place it in the gifting chamber, Father had directed, but he’d held on to it … and to what became his private hope. “Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “Though from that day forward, I never minded staying behind … in the same way.”
“You still have it, the bracelet?”
“I do. Let me show you.”
They doubled back and took the corridor to his chamber. He pulled his velvet chair over to his trunk of childhood keepsakes and insisted Samanthasit… rest… while he unpacked books, a tattered pinwheel, a toy carousel …
He presented her with a carved wooden box, settling it in her lap.
“Oooh, Mary has one like this,” she said, running her fingertips over the lid’s peaks and valleys, the petals of the wooden roses adorning the four sides. “She calls it her treasure box, but she won’t let me see what’s inside.”
“One of our helpers long ago made these from cigar boxes and layers of wood. He gave them ‘round as gifts.”
There was but one treasure in his old satin-lined box, the double-stranded, gold-link bracelet with nine scarabs of rhodonite, tiger eye, red jasper, sodalite, jade, carnelian, rose quartz, blue lace agate, and onyx. He named each one. “The scarab is a messenger of eternity, a reminder that destiny and fate are always at work in your life. They’re bringers of fortune, of good luck,” he told her. “I want you to have it. The box too.”
He nodded. “Let me,” he said, unfastening the spring ring clasp and fitting the jewelry to her wrist. “I remember now, the blue stone is a little loose in the setting. Mouse can fix it for you.”
“I’ll never take it off,” Samantha whispered.
“You’d better,” Vincent said and Samantha giggled her okay.
He walked with her to her chamber where she cleared the center space of her bureau for her tramp art treasure box.
“I can’t wait to show Catherine,” she said, turning the links and stones that gleamed in the candlelight. “Will I be lucky now, Vincent? Will my life change?”
He turned in her doorway. “Believe that it will. Leave a crack in the wall … a way in. And be patient. Luck takes its own time.”
The next day, mid-morning …
Catherine carried her coffee mug to the children’s table where Samantha sat alone with her breakfast and book. All the street-party attendees were sleeping in, it seemed. Half of them sick from too much rich, though delicious food (Father had harrumphed at that report and figured junk,but smiled ever so broadly when Catherine presented him with an ice-packed basket of cheburekiand mantiand samsa), the other half just plain worn out from a day and night in the unrelenting heat. She’d had her work cut out for her, keeping everyone hydrated.
“Pretty,” Catherine said, touching the golden tiger-eye stone topmost on Samantha’s wrist. “I had one just like this when I was your age … well, a little younger, I guess. My mother gave it to me; they were all the rage. My favorite stone was a pale blue one, even though I’d dropped it on the tile floor at school, stepped on it, and cracked it. Afterward, I was always afraid it would fall out of the setting.” Her gaze settled on a year long past. “I lost mine one night in the park. We were there for a concert in the bandshell. A storm was moving in and mom wanted to leave before it hit. When we got home and I realized it was gone, I was heartbroken. We went back the next day to look for it, but … no luck.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Samantha said, grinning up at someone behind her. “Luck just takes time sometimes.”
Catherine turned, finding Vincent, who was smiling in his most knowing way – and Tony, blushing beet-red, holding the huge stuffed bear he’d won at the fair – and turned back, finding Samantha inspecting the stones of the bracelet for the blue one … with its small and perfect crack.
Title taken from the poem Fortune’s Favours by Leonidas of Tarentum, 3rd century, B.C.
Opening quotation from Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.
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