On rounding the corner, Catherine saw the shadowy figure of Jamie just inside the doorway. The girl stood before a wash basin, sleeves rolled up, a bank of candles flickering on a shelf above. The splash and drip of water mingled with the muted rhythmic ping of distant tapping. Liquid-captured light danced across rippled surface, casting scattered illumination throughout the room. She watched as Jamie combed through her hair, fixing it in a neat ponytail at the nape of her neck.
Catherine brushed away a strand of her own, tucking it behind her ear, her fingers trailing an abrading path down the side of her face, coming away coated and sandpaper-y. There had been so much dust. Stone reduced to choking clouds of grit; a great, blinding curtain that had parted to reveal all was well. But what if it had been different? What if …? A trickle of perspiration beaded on Catherine’s neck. She coughed on a deep inhale of the cool tunnel air.
“Catherine … Hi.” Jamie said. “You Okay?”
“I’m fine,” she assured, nodding and clearing her throat. “I came to see how Father is doing.”
“He’ll be alright, I think, but we need to keep him awake for a while,” Jamie replied. “You know, the concussion thing.” She glanced over Catherine’s shoulder. “Where’s Vincent?”
“He and some of the others went back to make sure the maze area is secure,” Catherine answered. I won’t be long, he had promised.
“Do you need someone to show you out?”
“No, thank you, I’ll wait for him,” she replied. It needs to be him.
“Okay, then why don’t you come in with me to sit with Father?” Jamie suggested. “It’ll pass the time,” she added, with a smile.
Passing time was the last thing Catherine wanted to do at the moment. Stop. Seize. Savor. But whiling away seemed a frivolous use of a precious commodity. However ... “Yes, I’d like that.”
“You clean up,” Jamie said, handing her a washcloth from a stack by the basin. “I’ll go check on Father and make sure he’s up for a visitor.”
Catherine watched the girl turn the corner, then eagerly plunged her hands into the basin. A cloud of gray rose to the surface. Swirling it away, she pooled water in shaky palms and bathed in its cleansing promise. She scrubbed with purpose, seeking each hidden grain of dirt, willing the lingering remnants of fear to rinse clear with the last dislodged particles.
As she tried to fix her hair, she noticed Jamie’s reflection in the tarnished mirror that hung above the basin.
“Better,” Catherine replied. Cleaner, anyway.
“Catherine …” Father started to prop himself up, awkwardly shifting on his elbows.
“Please … lie back,” Catherine said, applying gentle pressure to his shoulder, easing him to the pillow as she pulled close a stool. She was suddenly tired, her legs rubbery, and she was happy to sit. “How are you feeling?”
“Well enough, considering …”
Jamie emerged from a dark corner of the room carrying a stone pitcher. She retrieved a tin mug from Father's bedside and filled it with cool water. It's surface dewed with condensation on contact with the chilled liquid. “Vincent says Father’s hard head probably saved his life.”
Father laughed. “He does, does he?” Grimacing, one hand on tender ribs, he reached for the offered cup with the other. He took a long, slow drink. “I must admit ...” he said, looking up at Catherine. “I feared the worst.”
Jamie took at seat at the other side of Father’s bed. “We were all pretty scared.”
“If you hadn’t got through to us in time ...” Father’s voice faltered, faded.
“Don’t,” Catherine urged. Please.
Jamie pressed at the bedsheets, smoothing wrinkles from the worn fabric. “We’d be lost if anything happened to you or Vincent,” she said, her voice barely audible.
“Now, now …” Father patted her hand and managed to make himself upright in bed. “We mustn’t think of such things. And, furthermore...” He wagged a finger for emphasis. “We must ensure that nothing like this shall happen again. Right?”
“That area will need to be blocked off. A barrier constructed. It shall be quite an undertaking, and one that would be unnecessary if the children would heed our warnings …”
Father and Jamie continued on about plans to seal the maze, but Catherine was too distracted to really listen. She looked around the makeshift hospital chamber. A single-bulb industrial fixture hung in the center of the room, it’s electrical source a mystery. Clusters of candles dimly lit dark recesses. As her mind wandered, bits and pieces of conversation drifted across her consciousness; walls, warnings, instability, dangers. Tapping echoed in distant whispers and flurried clangs, crossed and jumbled, seemingly indecipherable. It all felt so precarious to her - like the scant rope and board bridges that spanned the tunnel world's deepest chasms. The existence of it all so improbable. Yet so vital, essential... so precious.
She could feel her pulse throbbing in her temples and she cradled her head in with trembling hands. She was overwhelmed by the need to see Vincent, to have him near. “Excuse me --” she interrupted. “Can you tell?” she asked, motioning toward the pipes. “Is there any word of when Vincent and the others might return?”
Father cut short his conversation with Jamie and turned his attention to Catherine. “I’m sorry, dear … you must be exhausted. Let us arrange for someone to lead you Above,” he offered. “I don’t know how long it may take them to assess the situation at the maze and secure the area.”
“Not as long as you might think,” came a response from the doorway. Catherine turned at the sound of Vincent’s voice. “A temporary blockade has been erected,” he reported. “And I’m certain, for now, that will be enough.” He entered the chamber and moved to her side. At the sight of him, her heart returned to its normal rhythm. He took her hand and the connection made her whole again. His presence, here, always, a requirement now. He, a necessity.
He leaned close, his cheek brushing her hair. “Are you well?”
“Yes,” she reassured him. Now … I am now, she wanted to say. With you ...
“Vincent, was the damage extensive?” Father asked. “Have you formulated a plan to permanently seal the area?”
“Yes, we have a plan,” Vincent said, moving to Father’s side, “and I will tell you about it … later,” he added, placing a kiss on the top of Father’s head. “Rest now.”
Vincent offered Catherine his hand and she took it, gratefully; grasped it, securely.
“Let me take you home,” he said.
You already have.
1 Home And Love by Robert William Service