Geoffrey's Tale

~ JoAnn


artwork by Linn Bankson

Gasping, heart racing, he wrenched himself awake and sat bolt upright in bed. Sweat beaded his forehead and upper lip, and he swiped a pajama-clad arm across his face, wiping away the perspiration that even now caused him to shiver in the cool Tunnel air despite his warm bedclothes.
He tried to force the images from his mind – weird, angular shadows that loomed and threatened, always just out of dream-sight … images he thought had been driven away years ago. Why had they returned now, after all this time?
Geoffrey slipped from his bed, careful not to awaken the other boys in the communal bedchamber. It was easy for him to slip out. He’d asked for the bed right by the chamber entrance when he’d arrived, and they’d given it to him, even though it meant moving a boy who was already using it. He’d been glad. He knew he’d never have been able to tell them how he needed to be near an exit or he’d feel stifled, choked, unable to breathe.
He’d been a scared, panicked eight-year-old, running blindly, who had stumbled into a tunnel entrance because … but his mind shied away from the reason why he’d been running. He shook his head as if to clear it.
Luckily for him, boys he later knew as Kipper and Zach were opening the mechanical door to the outside world just as he ran into the tunnel. When they saw him speeding towards and then past them, they realized he was being chased and quickly reversed the door mechanism. He was sure they heard whoever was after him bellowing his name, but they never asked him directly about it. They just caught up with him and, after he managed to gasp out his situation, assured him he was safe, and took him to Father.
Father…now that he thought back, he smiled as he realized he’d been really scared of him at first. Father had an old-man smell and that serious expression, one that made Geoffrey’s heart hammer. He had been sure he was about to be sent back Uptop, despite what the boys had promised him. But Father’s eyes were kind as Zach asked him to relate his circumstances, and – most surprising of all – Father had believed Geoffrey. It still amazed him, even after all this time, that Father immediately accepted the words of a scruffy kid with a dirty face, eyes red-rimmed with tears, nose running…he must have looked pitiful. But Father just nodded his head once and welcomed him to this unusual place called “Below.”
Father asked Kipper to run and get Mary. Zach told him Mary was like everybody’s Mom. Geoffrey didn’t remember his own Mom and had never had one since, but he’d always imagined what having a Mom might be like. When Mary came into the chamber, at first glance she looked more like what he’d thought of as a grandmother to him, but that was fine, too.
Mary fussed over him just like he’d imagined a Mom might, brushing some twigs out of his mess of hair, tut-tutting over the disheveled state of his clothes and the worn-through toes of his tennis shoes. Then she offered him her hand, announcing she was taking charge of him.
“First stop is the dining chamber,” she advised, which suited him just fine, since he hadn’t eaten in a while. They walked down a couple of rock-walled tunnels, finally emerging into a cheerful large space filled with trestle tables and benches, dominated at one end by a massive kitchen. “Say hello to Master Geoffrey, William! He’s joining us Below,” she’d called to a huge man with a graying reddish beard who was stirring a large pot of something on a six-burner stove. The man turned to him and in a booming voice barked, “Welcome, lad! Come taste-test my stew!”
After he’d gobbled down two helpings of the best food he could ever remember eating, Mary took him to a bathing chamber and insisted he wash up while she took his dirty clothes away. He was shy about using their facilities until Zach came in and casually began to shower. He followed Zach’s example, pulling a towel from a neat pile on a bench, and when Mary called out, Zach – dressed again in his weird assortment of patched clothes – went out to meet her, returning with a stack of similar clothes for him. At first he had wondered about them, but he put them on and immediately liked how they felt – comfy and warm, just like Mary’s hand in his. He slipped his feet into moccasins that immediately conformed to his own feet, such a relief after the filthy, stiff old tennis shoes he’d found in the trash and worn for the past month.
Mary took him down some more corridors that had large wooden-looking torches burning at intervals for light, until she turned into a big room with about twelve beds in it. Leading him to a bed in the far corner, she said, “This one’s been waiting just for you.”
Panic gripped him at the thought of that corner where he’d be boxed in, helpless. “Please, I’d like … that one … up front,” he stammered, his eyes darting around, looking for a means of escape. He couldn’t stay in this corner, backed against a rock wall.
Mary seemed to read something in his face and didn’t insist. “We’ll just ask Charlie if he’d mind switching with you,” was all she said, and she whispered something to a boy of about twelve, who nodded and pulled a battered case from under his bed … now Geoffrey’s bed. He smiled as he tossed his satchel atop the last bed in the row and plopped onto the mattress. “No worries, I always liked this one better anyway!”
Mary had made it all right, just as she’d made everything all right for him over the past three years. His nightmares had gradually stopped, and he’d almost forgotten his life Above.
Until tonight.
He lay shuddering, huddled under the quilt Mary had made as a Winterfest gift for him. It had always given him comfort before, but right now even its usual magic failed him. He screwed up his face, trying to figure out what had happened, why his nightmare had returned, forcing him to recall what had driven his younger self into blind panic, into headlong flight.
Something … Somebody ... What was it? He tossed and turned, his mind uneasy. It crouched on the tip of his memory, niggling at him, a queasy feeling from earlier today once more curling inside his intestines.
What had happened today?
He’d woken up and had breakfast with Kipper, same as usual. He’d gone to classes. Yeah, he’d had a test in science, but he had been prepared for it. Mary had called the younger children into a corner of the dining hall as they had arrived for dinner to introduce them to a new member of the community.
Unease grew into discomfort … which budded into a reminiscence … which blossomed into a memory.
***


“Geoffrey? Child, what are you doing out of bed in the middle of the night?” Mary, clutching a shawl around her thin shoulders, had turned a corner in the gloom of the night-time tunnels and nearly tripped over him as he waited by her chamber entry.
He hadn’t heard her approach, her slippers making no sound on the smooth stone floor of the passageway. He looked up from his curled position, misery in every line of his body.
“Your feet are turning blue! Did you lose your slippers?” she remarked, gazing more sharply at her young charge, noting the evidence of tears still staining his cheeks.
“No, ma’am,” he mumbled miserably. Then he screwed up his courage and added, “I was waiting for you.”
Mary bent to take his hand, concern puckering her brow. “Come with me. My bed is cozy.”
Her chamber was warmly inviting, lit by several chunky candles he’d delivered from Rebecca just the day before, and filled with plump, comfortable old armchairs. Mary tugged the somewhat reluctant Geoffrey toward her bed, which was piled with pillows and looked as soft and inviting as Mary’s embrace. “You get in and snuggle down, all right? I was planning to read for a while, so I’ll just sit here,” she mentioned, indicating her battered but beloved rocking chair.
Sleeping in her bed had helped Geoffrey rest before, but this time sleep was not his objective. He resisted the invitation, standing instead, somewhat stubbornly, by her rocker.
Mary assessed Geoffrey’s strange behavior and decided he needed more personal attention than just being tucked up warmly in her bed. Whatever was bothering him this time, it needed to come out, not be slept away.
She smiled fondly at the youngster, wondering why his solemn freckled face was the most dear to her, out of the faces of all the children Below. Possibly it was because he matched the vision she’d always carried in her mind’s eye of what her own son might have looked like . Tears began to well in her eyes, but Mary blinked them away. No sense in dredging up past hurts when she had present ones to work on.
“Well, if you’re not sleepy, why not join me here in my rocker? I could use the company,” she offered, and settled herself in the roomy old chair that had lulled two generations of tunnel orphans to dreamland.
Geoffrey hesitated only briefly before nodding, and he climbed into the chair, setting himself gingerly in Mary’s lap. This had been a respite he’d sought before, but in recent months he had been timid about this comfort. He thought he had grown too big, too heavy for the frail-looking older woman, and besides, he was nearly twelve, much too grown up for it. But Mary just tugged on his legs and shoulders until he was adjusted for comfort – hers and his. Grateful, even while realizing this would probably be the last time she could hold him like this, he relaxed into her embrace, his head on her shoulder.
At his relieved-sounding sigh, Mary smiled, kissed the top of his head, and murmured, “I was awakened by a bad dream.”
Surprised, Geoffrey whispered in return, “You were?”
She tucked an afghan around his bare feet, then pulled him closer as she replied, “Yes. Age is no proof against nightmares, unfortunately. I’m glad I ran into you – it’s not easy dealing with the night terrors all alone.”
Geoffrey bit his lip, hesitant to ask, but curiosity finally overcame his shyness. “What was your dream about?”
He could feel her shiver. “I wish I knew. I’m standing on a cliff, the wind howling at my back. It’s dark…cold. I’m all alone, and so very, very sad. I know I’ve lost something important. I wake up shaking, reaching out for…whatever it is I’ve lost.”
Mary blinked away the tears that threatened whenever she contemplated this particular nightmare. It had haunted her for years beyond remembering. It never got any easier to awaken from it. Hugging Geoffrey tightly for a moment, she whispered in his ear, “How about you? Can you tell me about your nightmare?”
“How did you know?” he responded, at once wary.
Sensing his tension, Mary urged him as gently as she could to reveal what was troubling him. “I always enjoy a visit from you, sweetheart, but it’s been ages since you’ve visited at night … and at those times, it’s a nightmare that’s the reason for it.”
He shook his head. “It’s not a nightmare. Or … at least … it’s not about the nightmare.”
She considered this. “All right, well, whatever it is, I’m listening.”
Although he had sought her out, Geoffrey found himself suddenly reluctant to reveal to Mary the source of his anxiety … no … his fear. What had awoken him in the depths of the night he now recognized was deep, terrifying fear. Tears pricked his eyes. What if she didn’t believe him? After all, it was years ago, and even now he was still a kid. Adults didn’t always listen to kids, he knew that for a fact. And if she didn’t, he’d just die. He’d have to leave this place, this safe place, the home he’d found when he’d thought none would ever exist for him. Where would he go then? Going back Above wasn’t an inviting prospect.
Mary began to press her feet off the chamber floor, moving the chair into a soft rocking motion. For a long while she held a troubled Geoffrey and they rocked in silence. His inability to articulate his pain concerned Mary not a little. They had become especially close since his arrival in their little community, and he had always shared his secrets with her before. For him to be so silent now gave her a sense of foreboding.
A brief, distant tapping – a sentry’s “all clear” – was the only sound that intruded into the chamber. Mary bent her head to whisper in the young boy’s ear, “You don’t have to tell me, but I think you might feel better if you did.”
He seemed to curl up inside himself, almost to get smaller in her arms.
Mary knew about this kind of pain. It had simmered inside him for so long, ignored, unexamined. Nobody, not even Vincent, could prise it from him. Yet she felt sure that part of his solemn demeanor was caused by this, his most private pain, something that he carried in secret, something that prevented the usual joyous spirit of youth from taking hold inside him. She hoped he could find a way to trust her with it, now, after all this time.
Determined not to say another word, neither to encourage him to speak nor to rest, she subsided into the rocking motion, letting it lull her, allowing him to take what comfort he could from her until he spoke, slept … or morning came.
Finally, when she thought he might have actually drifted off to sleep in her arms, Geoffrey began to reveal his secret in a halting, timid voice.
“I’d been at the orphanage for a long time. I watched others go away, smiling, happy, with families that chose them. I lost all my friends, but … nobody ever picked me.” His voice hitched, and Mary felt hot tears begin to soak through her nightgown.
He began to cry in earnest - great hitching sobs tore from him and he clung tightly to her, his face pressed hard against her shoulder.
“Some of the older kids started to pick on me. They pushed me around, stole my stuff. I tried to tell Mrs. Bracken, the lady who ran the orphanage … Ms. Jane, my teacher … but they told me to stop complaining and learn to get along. But those guys would do bad things and blame them on me, and I kept getting into trouble for them. Nobody would listen.”
Geoffrey sniffed loudly, and Mary silently reached for the handkerchief she always had tucked into the pocket of her robe.
“It got so bad, one day I just ran away. But … it … wasn’t nice outside either. Nobody would help me. I ate from garbage cans. One night somebody stole my shoes while I was asleep.”
His pain reached deep into Mary’s soul. She’d heard this type of thing often, from adults who entered their community. Even just today, Lou, a Helper, had introduced them to a man who told a similar tale. But for a child to suffer this way … She hugged Geoffrey close and murmured, “Go on.”
Again his reluctance showed, but eventually the youngster found his voice. “I hid as much as I could, but it was lonely, and it got real cold at night. I saw other people in the alleys and after a while I just kind of hung around where they were.”
A deep shudder wracked Geoffrey’s thin frame. “This one man ... Well ... He was nice to me and fed me and stuff. He said he’d take care of me. Said I was like the son he never had. I thought I was safe. But one night … one night …”
Mary braced herself for what he might say next, her mother’s heart breaking. This was the boil that needed lancing … this was the terror that kept him sleeping close to the entry … this was the fear that had never left him.
Forcing the secret past his lips was the hardest thing Geoffrey had ever done. “One night he got … weird. He … he wanted me to … do stuff. I said no. At first he said no problem, but then one day he got drunk with two of his friends and they tried to … to …”
He stopped, unable to explain further, unaware he didn’t need to do so. Mary’s brow furrowed in anger as she asked in a gentle voice, “Did they hurt you, Geoffrey? You can tell me.”
“No.” He shook his head vigorously, and the rest of his words came out in a rush, the dam finally breaking. “They tried, but I fought and bit and kicked. As soon as I saw an opening, I ran, down the alley and right across a street. The cars were honking at me and I almost got hit, but I couldn’t stop. I kept running. I got into the park, but these guys, they were pretty close behind me. I didn’t think I could run much longer, but I was too scared to stop. I just wanted to find a place to hide, so when I saw the big pipe, I thought it would be a good place. But as I ran inside, I heard them laughing outside and I realized I was trapped, no way out. If Zach and Kipper hadn’t opened the secret door right then, I’d have been caught. They’d have had me, and … and …”
He was breathless from sobbing. Mary held him close and said firmly, “But you weren’t caught. You ran to us, you found us, and you were safe. From then on, you were home, with a family who loves you, and you never, ever have to fear those men again. You know that, don’t you?”
He sniffed loudly and lifted his head. “He’s here.”
She looked at him, unable to process his words. “Who?”
“The man … the man who tried … He’s here now,” he whispered in a voice hoarse with fear.
Mary held him away from her so she could peer closely at his face, and asked in a confused voice, “The man who tried to hurt you, the man who chased you that day … he’s here in the Tunnels?”
Geoffrey nodded, already pretty sure, from the look on Mary’s face, that she didn’t believe him. “You introduced us to him tonight. At first I didn’t recognize him … he’s skinnier, he has a beard … but it’s him.”
Mary’s eyes widened in understanding. “Neil, the man Lou brought Below? I can’t believe it!”
Resigned, Geoffrey closed his eyes and lowered his head. He figured that would be the case. He was just a kid, and it had happened a long time ago, and nobody would believe him when they’d already accepted Neil as one of their own.
Realizing her poor choice of words, Mary quickly amended her outburst. “Oh, sweetheart, I do believe you, I just don’t understand how this man could have gotten through our screening process. We try to be so careful …”
Relief – jagged, immense – filled him. He opened his eyes and gazed up into Mary’s kindly face. “You … you do believe me?” he asked, almost afraid he’d heard her wrong. No questions? No second-guessing? She just … believed him?!
“Of course I do.” Her mind was spinning, considering the ramifications. “Oh! The other children!” She nearly dumped him out of her lap, she rose so quickly. “We must let Father know, and the others!” Rushing to the entryway, she whirled and exclaimed, “Thank you for telling me, Geoffrey! Now, run to Vincent, tell him to go to the children’s chambers … now!”
Feet thumping swiftly on the hard rock of the tunnelway, Geoffrey nearly flew towards Vincent’s chamber. Suddenly an arm threaded out from a side tunnel and caught at him, neatly spinning him and suspending his flight. Hard fingers pressed against his mouth, nearly cutting off his oxygen. His nostrils flared as he dragged in needed breath, and he looked up to find himself in the grasp of the man he most feared, the one Mary had called Neil.
“Thought I recognized you, you little brat,” the older man’s voice grated out. “Been lookin’ for you since dinner.”
Geoffrey squirmed and struggled against his captor. He was not the frail child he’d once been, and the older man grunted with the effort of holding him close and silent. Geoffrey kicked at the man’s shins with his bare feet, using his free arm to punch at him, but his blows were ineffectual. Neil grinned in the torchlight and began tugging him by inches down the side tunnel, away from the Hub. Hauling his young captive backwards, Neil managed to drag him into a wide area that Geoffrey recognized as the landing of the Whispering Bridge.
Neil hadn’t been Below long, and didn’t know how rickety that bridge had become. The children had been warned often not to play near it. Even the adults only traversed it when absolutely necessary. It was on the work schedule for maintenance, its rope and slat construction due for replacement with newer, stronger materials. Geoffrey had been across it once or twice. On the other side lay only storage chambers. If he was taken there, it might be some time before anyone found them.
Huffing with exertion, Neil bit out his words. “It’s you … or me, kid. This is … a sweet deal … I found here.”
Suddenly Geoffrey knew the man had no intention of taking him across the bridge, of doing to him what he had tried to do before. No, Geoffrey was going to be tossed off the bridge, and soon … too soon for anyone to save him.
Fear gave way to a rage so intense Geoffrey had almost no room for rational thought. Redoubling his efforts to escape the older man’s iron grip, he twisted and shook, trying to throw the man off.
The pipes suddenly burst into frantic life as the Tunnelfolk were roused, staccato code announcing Neil’s perfidy.
Their struggle intensified, but ever so slowly Neil managed to pull his captive onto the bridge surface.
Their violent movements caused the aging bridge to shudder and swing, making footing precarious. Geoffrey flailed with his free hand, desperate, and grabbed a handful of rope. Neil, with both arms engaged trying to keep Geoffrey moving and quiet, could not afford to let go of him to do the same.
The bridge swung more wildly as Neil advanced toward the middle. Just a little further and there would be nothing to break Geoffrey’s fall but the rocks hundreds of feet below.
The sound of running feet approaching their position distracted Neil momentarily. As he looked over his shoulder to assess the advancing threat, Geoffrey stomped as hard as he could on Neil’s feet. The effort caused Neil’s feet to slip a bit, just enough to send him off kilter. Geoffrey wrenched away from Neil’s restraining arm as Neil loosened it, waving it to try to regain his balance.
Geoffrey fell back against the rope he was holding, slapping his now-free palm against it and clinging tightly with nearly bloodless fingers. He pushed with all his might, rocking the bridge further. A slat cracked beneath Neil’s feet and Neil began to slide. Geoffrey turned his head away, hearing shouts and screams, and finally the sudden bounce as a weight left the bridge.
He heard Neil fall, screaming a curse … until he thudded against an outcropping far below and his scream ended abruptly.
The bridge began steadying. Geoffrey finally looked up and saw that Kanin and Vincent were the source of the footsteps he’d heard. They were struggling with the ropes, trying to calm the swinging. When Vincent made eye contact with Geoffrey, he warned him, “Softly, Geoffrey, come towards us. Keep hold of the ropes.”
The young boy nodded and took a cautious step, amazed his shaky knees could support him. He edged inch by inch toward the two men, until Vincent could pluck him by one outstretched arm and pull him to safety.
The bridge creaked ominously, but neither Geoffrey nor the two men paid it further attention. They took turns hugging the boy and asked if he was hurt. Kanin’s face was red with outrage, and Vincent’s eyes burnt with blue fire, but their voices were gentle and reassuring. Geoffrey couldn’t seem to stop shaking though, and his voice quavered as he told them he was OK. When they were satisfied that he was, indeed, all right, Kanin left to tap out a message to those who were still searching through the Hub.
Mary arrived, breathless, moments after the message went out. She took one look at Geoffrey and burst into tears. He rushed towards her and threw his arms around her, letting her warm embrace slowly settle the trembling in his limbs.
Vincent murmured quietly to Mary, “Neil tried to throw Geoffrey off the bridge. Geoffrey fought him and Neil fell instead.”
Mary nodded once, decisively. “Good” was her grim reply. Then she turned and led Geoffrey back to her chamber.
***
After sitting him on her bed, Mary tended to Geoffrey’s feet, cut and scrapped from his struggles. Her shawl was wrapped tightly around his shoulders, and he was slumped, exhausted. When she finished, the older woman looked up at him and smiled. His answering smile reflected back like sunlight, and there were no longer shadows behind his eyes.
As she looked up at him, she revealed a secret of her own. “I … lost … someone very dear to me once. Someone I never got to know, but who I loved more than anything. That pain still fills me sometimes … until I look at you.”
Her eyes began to fill with the tears, and his widened.
“I lost my own son, my own child. And although I’ve mothered many a child here Below – your friends, and even children no longer young, like Vincent – you have always had a special place in my heart. Now, I love my children here Below, all of them. But when you found your way to us, my heart took an extra beat, just for you. I need you to know how glad I am that you are here with us, and especially that you are here, right now, with me.”
She tucked his legs into the bed, then helped him settle into it and pulled the covers up to his chin. When she was done, she sat beside him and took his hand. “I need you in my life, Geoffrey. You are so very important to me. Thank you for finding me, for choosing me to tell your secret to. I only wish I could have helped you.”
Geoffrey was startled at her words. He’d never thought about choosing in that way. He’d never before imagined that he could choose. But … he had, without realizing it. In wishing for a mother to choose him, he never realized that he had long ago found a mother he had chosen for himself, one who needed him as much as he needed her.
“You did!” He reached up arms that Mary fell into. After he hugged her, she rose from his embrace and he said, “Once I’d told you, and you believed me … well, if I hadn’t, and you hadn’t, I don’t know if I could have fought that man. I had been so scared of him. But knowing you believed me … I knew if I could fight long enough, you’d make it OK.”
A worried scowl clouded Mary’s face. “That horrible man. It must have been awful for you.”
“I was scared. But he can’t hurt me now, right?”
“No, he can’t.” She smiled sadly. “You’re too young to have seen that.”
“It’s OK, Mary,” he said, raising one small hand to pat her cheek. “I’m OK. I’m really tired, though. I think I can sleep now.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
He closed his eyes and felt a soft kiss brush his brow. Weariness overcame him, and he sank into slumber.
He never had another nightmare again.

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1 comments:

Brit March 2, 2011 at 9:10 PM  

I love Geoffrey. He has a special place in my heart too. :)
Thanks for writing his story.
Brit

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