Someone was banging on the bars of his cage. Again. The metallic clang assaulted his ears, over and over again, drumming in an arrhythmic beat that he fought to ignore – and failed.
Why can’t they just leave me alone? Why can’t they just let me rest? He brought one hand up to cover his head, muffling the sound somewhat. At least this time they aren’t yelling at me… calling me names… Yet.
It took another few moments before it occurred to him that the hammering on the cage bars should be causing a vibration on its metal floor; the floor always rang when the bars were struck. The feel of that reverberation was often as bad as the noise itself. But that sensation was missing this time. In fact, this didn’t feel like his cage after all; this felt almost like…
A pillow. A blanket. A bed.
Then an even more staggering realization blossomed in his mind; he wasn’t wearing his mask. His hand was lying on the skin of his face with no layer of fabric in between the two.
Charles opened his eyes. His gaze focused first on the dusky pink and beige roses, their paint faded into delicate paleness, that adorned the body and neck of a crackled porcelain pitcher. Where…?
The clattering began again; sharp staccato raps sounded nearby then seemed to echo off into some distant place. Without thought, he began to rise, but halted almost immediately as jolts of pain seared across his shoulders and down his back.
My back! Eddie. The whip. Dev. The Tunnels. Vincent. It was all clear in his mind now, how he’d come to this magical place, leaving the horrors of the carnival and its freak show behind him. Not going back. Never going back! My home now, if I want it… Vincent said so.
Gently this time, he sat up with slow careful movements to minimize the scrape of the raw wounds on their bandages. He’d expected the discomfort this time, so it was easier to ignore it now. The pain disappeared in the next breath when he remembered that he was sitting on the hospital bed where Vincent said Devin had slept once as a boy, when he’d been sick with the measles.
“Dev’s bed…” He whispered almost inaudibly, because everyone knew that speaking a wish aloud could prevent its coming true. Vincent had said this was his home, if he wished it to be. He caressed the soft, clean comforter. “My bed?”
It was a possibility too wonderful to really believe, an idea too good to not be a small child’s daydream. He looked around again, seeing the space with new eyes and with a heart where a tiny flame of hope had been kindled.
A home of his own. A real home. Things of his own. A room all his own.
Chamber, he corrected. Dev and Vincent call this a chamber.
Near the foot of the bed, tiny bottles of all shapes, sizes, and colors lined the shelves of an old medical cabinet. He crossed to peer at them, looking beyond the sight of his own reflection in the cupboard’s glass door. He tried to read the neat, cramped letters written on them, but they were words he didn’t know. These words hadn’t been in the books he’d read as a child, before his mother died and Eddie had begun to—
No. Don’t think about that. No more Eddie. No more Eddie anymore.
As he reached to turn the knob on the cabinet’s door, his attention was caught by a green and yellow lantern shaped like a many-faceted globe that hung on an iron arm near the archway. When he went to look at it, he saw something bright shining in the wall.
Tiny pieces of something glittered inside the rock – stars inside the stones! – sparking in the light of the candles that were placed throughout the room. He leaned in so close to the chamber wall that he could smell the moisture in the granite blending with the faint scent of iodine. As he did so, his shadow blocked the candlelight, causing the tiny stars to wink out. Oh…
That disappointment lasted no more than a moment before he noticed other things in the chamber: white boxes with red crosses, small birds embroidered onto a towel, heavy clay crocks and jugs on the dresser, a small, square clock ticking on a glossy steel cart. He held the timepiece to his ear, smiling at the sound of its soft heartbeat drumming between his cheek and his palm. He continued to hold it there as he went around the room, gently touching some objects, not yet daring to brush his fingertips on others. So many things, so new, so interesting, so magical.
He found himself beside a pair of carved wooden candleholders, so tall they came up almost to his chest. He breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with the scent of warm wax that reminded him of spring breezes and sunshine. Dev said this place was full candles, and it is. I don’t know enough good words to describe—
The pipes began to tap again just then, their quick irregular clang a contrast to the steady little clock he still held. He finally placed it back down and turned his head this way and that, seeking out the source of this noise he’d been hearing. Two large pipes ran parallel along one wall and when he touched them, the top one sang beneath his hand. This was what he’d heard before, as he’d followed Devin through the secret door and into the big library where he’d met Father. He’d heard it, but it hadn’t meant anything then; he was far too frightened and fascinated by all this newness to even wonder about it, let alone ask. It was like music, almost like a fairy was dancing inside.
Dev said… this place was full of music… and people who were like a family… My family?
He followed the pipes to where they bent around the chamber doorway and vanished down the tunnel. At the threshold, he stopped, hand on the pipe, uncertain. Maybe it really is a fairy… at the other end of this pipe? There’s not supposed to be any such thing… that’s just story stuff. But there isn’t supposed to be anything like Vincent either, so… maybe…?
Charles reached for his hood on the bedside table where he’d left it after talking with Vincent. It was almost to his chin when he remembered, Vincent doesn’t hide his face here. He squeezed the worn black fabric between his hands, clutched it to his chest. He started to put it on, then stopped, paused, lifted it again; a lifetime of shame and scolding, threats and punishments, people staring, pointing, turning away from him, the looks on their faces, the things they’d called him… all of these warred with one small, sweet word in his soul: home.
“Home,” he whispered. “My home… if I want it… to be.”
The tapping began anew, Tinkerbell calling to him, a siren song on a copper pipe.
“Home,” he said again, louder this time. The mask slipped from his fingers, a cloth puddle on the granite floor at his feet. One hand on the pipe, he traced its way out into the candlelit tunnel.
“Little Bunny Foo-Foo, hopping through the forest— no, hopping down the tunnel,” Lauren sang to herself as she imagined her front two-twist braids standing straight up on the top of her head like a pair of rabbit ears, “picking up the field mice and petting them on the head…”
I like this song better with Bunny Foo-Foo in the tunnels than in the forest, she thought, even if there aren’t many mice in the tunnels down here. Why is that? There’s lots of mice and rats Up Top. I remember them in the alley back behind the old building.
She frowned then and slowed to a walk, thinking of the only place beside the Tunnels where she’d ever lived. They were so mean to Daddy up there. So mean firing him when he hurt his foot. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t walk for such a long time. Not his fault at all. And then they kicked us out of our room in the basement. He was a good soo– soup– super-in-ten-dent – That’s the word! I know he had to be the best and superest intendent there’s ever been. Daddy can fix everything. They were bad firing him like they did. But it’s better down here anyway, and Daddy’s happier fixing tunnel machines and stuff.
She grinned as she pictured how her father had been singing to himself as he fixed the new washing machines by Dr. Peter’s threshold. She resumed her skipping and tried to hum the song he’d been singing. Everyone’s really happy about his idea to use the washing machines there instead of the big tubs in the kitchen. Especially Daddy.
Old Sam was one of the tenants who lived upstairs from their last apartment. She’d known him all her life and he’d always been nice to her, even though he was a million years old and sick a lot of the time. When the building’s owner fired her father and threw them out, Old Sam had let them stay with him before telling them the secret of the Tunnels and bringing them here.
Lauren had only been to and from Dr. Peter’s threshold a few times, and never all by herself. Until today. Mary never let any of the new Tunnel children go off alone until they’d learned all the tricks and rhymes they were taught in their classes, so that they would know their way around without getting lost. Today at long last, Lauren had proven herself and been allowed to bring her father his brown bag lunch, running an errand just like the big kids did. She’d sat on his lap while he ate and told him the story of Corduroy, the teddy bear. Well, at least just as much of it as she could remember without the pictures to help her.
Lauren arrived at the turnoff toward Mouse’s chamber, easily identified by the piece of red metal pipe he’d turned into a lantern holder. One of the kids had decorated the bottom of its first bend with a white mouse sticker to make it easy to spot. OK, here’s the Mouse House. Time to start counting.
“One tunnel, two tunnels, three tunnels, four,” she counted aloud as she flitted past each offshoot from the main tunnel. “Three tunnels on the left,” she held up both her hands, thumb and index fingers extended, to double-check which had the “L” for left and nodded, confident she had it correct. “Then one tunnel more. The next on the right is the hospital door. It’s not really a door, I know, but it rhymes.”
She giggled as she skipped. “Keep going down the hill, so steep that it’s not funny. Turn right at the rock that looks like a big bunny.”
Now, that one really does look like a bunny, she thought, pausing to examine the profile it made as it was illuminated from behind by the torch. She reached up to her front braids, held them up above her head like rabbit ears, and began to hop-skip-jump her way down the passageway.
Turning right, she resumed her singing as she capered further down the corridor, until a thought made her skid to a stop. She hugged herself tightly around the middle, where it felt like a huge ball of worms was wriggling in her tummy.
Uh, oh. Next is the hidey-hole where Kipper jumped out and scared me when we were playing hide-and-seek. I don’t like that spot. She bit her bottom lip, then stuck the middle two fingers of one hand into her mouth. I’m gonna run past it, as fast as I can, even if we’re not supposed to run in the tunnels. And if Kipper’s in there again, well, I’ll just run so fast he can’t catch me!
She nodded to herself. Yes, that’s what she’d do. She took her fingers from her mouth – only little kids sucked on their fingers like that – took a deep breath, and she started to run…
Everything was so new, so exciting. Charles had never seen lanterns or torches, except in storybooks about train conductors and castles. The sight of them, the heat of their flames, the wonder of this whole place made his head swim, his heart try to escape his chest with happiness. And he’d never dreamed up anything like the song that kept singing to him now and then from the pipes, just enough that he could follow the sound as he explored this new world.
What’s making this noise? Maybe it really is a fairy! I’ll ask Dev when he gets back. Or Vincent. Vincent will know! I know he’ll know. This place is special, like he is.
He heard another sound now; this one came from behind him. The soft tapping grew louder. Closer. Footsteps. Oh, no. Someone’s coming. Oh. No. Maybe I’m not supposed to be here! They’ll get mad at me!
He shuffled away as fast as he could with his awkward gait. His mangled and misshapen legs kicked up plumes of dust from the tunnel floor, dry and choking. They’ll get mad at Dev, maybe, too! I’ll get in trouble. Get kicked out. Have to… have to leave… go back! No, no, no!
There was nowhere to go – no chamber, no tunnel to hide in, no way out. He lumbered around the corner and spied a dark hole along the curve of the tunnel wall. Hide! Don’t let them see!
Spurred on by a terror that made icy crystals form in his blood, Charles threw his body toward the gap in the granite. He nearly fell in the process and banged one shoulder against a jutting snag of bedrock. With a stifled groan, he backed himself into the depression as best he could, but it was no use. He was just too big, too tall, too misshapen and deformed; his body always betrayed him like this. It always had. It always would.
He kept trying though, forcing his way into the shadow the gap created, even when the rocks scraped against his back. The still-fresh wounds there reopened and pain knifed down his spine. The panic was even worse than the physical pain; sweat washed down his face and formed rivulets as they worked their way past the tumors on his neck. Maybe it’s dark enough. Maybe they won’t see me. Maybe it won’t be like—
The footsteps were growing louder now and from his sadly inadequate hiding place, he heard someone racing toward him. He could feel his pulse throbbing in his temples.
There was a sudden scuffling sound, as if someone were trying to keep their footing as they ran. Charles covered his face with his hands, only one eye allowed to peek between his fingers, and just then a little girl – surely no more than five years old – careened around the corner.
He’d watched television as a boy, seen shows or movies when the action went into slow motion, usually accompanied by an audio track of ominous music or sound effects. This looked like that, only this scene had no sound. Everything was silent except for his own choked breath, unnaturally loud and quick; the air seemed to be trapped by talons of glass that had suddenly appeared in his throat.
The young girl wore a serious expression on her round little face as she came into view. Her fists were balled and pumping madly with her stride as she ran. He noticed incongruous small things about her: her jacket was decorated with quilted pastel paisley squares and suede patches that exactly matched the light caramel color of her skin; the patent leather of her shoes was still glossy and bright under dry splotches of mud; petite silver hoops bobbled in her earlobes with each step.
She skidded slightly in the dirt as she raced around the curve, then she regained her footing and ran, full speed, right into his legs. She fell onto her bottom with an audible soft thump and sat there in a cloud of fine dust at his feet.
“Owwww,” she said, her tremulous bottom lip protruding. She looked up, her frown clearly showing that she had no idea what she had collided with so unexpectedly.
Charles watched her face as her gaze focused on his calves, then continued along his legs, traveling up and up past his chest, coming finally to rest on the hideous face he’d been trapped behind for as long as he could remember.
Her lovely obsidian eyes grew wider and rounder the further up his body she looked. She met his gaze, stared at him, her mouth slack and full of baby teeth like perfect, pale pearls.
He brought his hands down from his face and held them out to her in supplication. He struggled to say, “It’s all right, little girl. I won’t hurt you,” but no words came out; the only sounds were garbled, guttural noises, growls the likes of which a monster might make… and he knew it.
He reached out to her, quavering palms up, still trying to speak; he had to make her know that he would never harm her. Her face was frozen – she wasn’t crying – and for an instant he thought that perhaps she might understand, just like Vincent had, that he wasn’t really a freak. She was part of this magical place, after all – maybe it would be different this time, now that this was his home. He reached down to help her up, making sure to use his left hand; it was the better one, the hand less deformed and grotesque. He always tried to use that one as much as he could whenever possible, especially with new people.
Just before he touched her, his quaking fingers less than a foot away from her, she screamed.
She crawled backwards away from him, impossibly delicate hands and dainty feet scrambling in reverse, her backside colliding now and then with the rough stone floor as she tried to find some way to get away from him. She managed to get several feet between them crab-walking backwards that way.
“No…” he begged as he began to follow her with a pair of lumbering steps.
Then she screamed again, even louder that time, if it were possible to do so. She turned, got her feet under her, and ran shrieking down the tunnel.
Her wail arrowed through him. He felt his heart torn from its place in his chest, could almost hear the sound of his soul breaking and shattering onto the floor beneath him, an infinite number of shards of hope littering the ground.
He stumbled one step and then another, a vain attempt to make this right somehow. But then he stepped into a divot in the floor, his ankle wrenching to the side beneath him. He reached out to try to catch himself on the wall, but he only managed to scrape the skin from his palm. Down, down, down he fell, the giant from the beanstalk, landing hard onto both knees and hands.
He looked up, hoping the small girl would still be there, that he could tell her he wasn’t a monster… but her cries had already begun to fade down the corridor.
Her screams were the sentence he knew he deserved. What everyone had told him all his life was true; the looks of horror and disgust he’d seen on strangers’ faces since he was small… that was the truth. This magical place wouldn’t – couldn’t – be his storybook ending. He was a monster, a hideous creature, a freakish dragon-man, too foul and ugly to be allowed to stay in a place as good and as wondrous as this.
I scared her. I’m bad. They’ll be after me now. I’m so bad. I gotta get out of here!
He got to his feet, ignoring the physical pains that ranged from shoulder to knee – what was that compared to the despair of the death of this dream? – and he ran, careening and plunging, down the tunnel. Torches reached their fiery fingers at him as he rushed past them; the shadows they threw onto the rock walls loomed like the maws of demons.
Have to get back! Where? Which way? He’d never thought to keep track of which way he’d turned to get here, had no idea how many tunnels he’d passed, or even how much time he’d spent following the pipe-song.
After several minutes of steady searching and increasing desperation, he saw a light through one archway, brighter than the others. And there was a noise, too – a soft whirring and a chittering sound. He followed it past a torch affixed to the wall by a unique red pipe with a white mouse sticker on its first bend.
Lauren, her tears now dried and nose soundly blown, snuffled on Mary’s lap. She’d raced to the kitchen without stopping even when her side ached from running. William had scooped her into his huge, strong arms and carried her all the way to Father’s study.
“There, there, Lauren dear.” Mary always smelled like vanilla cookies and baby powder. “You just had a bit of fright, that’s all.”
“He was a bad man!” She squeezed harder around Mary’s neck and buried her face deep into the woman’s shoulder. “A big bad man!”
Mary tenderly kissed the top of her head and hugged her tight, like she’d never let her go. Then she gently untangled Lauren’s fingers from their death grip and snuggled her on her knee. Mary petted her like she was a kitten until she relaxed again. Nothing bad could happen as long as Mary was here to take care of her.
“No, darling… not a bad man. Just a sad man.”
“I’d be sad, too, if I looked like him,” Lauren said.
“He’s sick, sweetheart. And the thing that makes him sick… it makes him look the way he does, too.”
He’s sick? He didn’t look sick. He didn’t sound sick. Lauren watched Father and William talk on the other side of the chamber. William began to raise his voice and Father hushed him. They both looked at her and put their faces closer together again and whispered some more.
“Now, remember what the pipes said?” Mary patted her back. “Your daddy had to go Above for some parts, but Dr. Peter’s going to tell him to come right down here to you just as soon he gets back Below.”
Lauren nodded up at Mary.
“So off you go, darling girl. You go play with the other children in the nursery until then. And I’ll be down to read to you in just a few minutes.”
“The story about the ugly duckling?”
Mary smiled and nodded back. Lauren held up her little finger and Mary wrapped her own pinkie around it and gave it a squeeze. Lauren kissed her on the cheek.
I love Mary’s skin. It’s so nice and soft and wrinkly. That must be what a rose petal would feel like if it got all pruney like my fingers do when they’re in my mouth a long time.
Lauren climbed the spiral steps to the study’s upper level and paused at the top to wave goodbye to the grownups, but they’d already turned back to talk to each other and they didn’t see her. With a shrug, Lauren took a few steps toward the tunnel when she heard Mary’s voice.
“She’s just a child. She doesn’t know any better.”
Lauren stopped and tip-toed back toward the iron railing, peeking around the corner of a bookshelf to watch them.
“Neither does he…” Father sounded sad as he ran his hands through his gray hair. “This is my fault. I should have talked to the children last night… I should have prepared them…”
“At least no one was hurt,” Mary said. “Vincent is out looking for him. I’m sure everything will be—”
A sudden flurry of taping on the pipes quieted the adults. They all stood as still as the statue in Vincent’s chamber, listening to a message that Lauren couldn’t completely understand. She understood enough of it, though: Emergency… Mouse… hurt.
“Dear God! Mouse!” Father looked really frightened. His forehead always got wrinkled like that when he was mad or worried. “Mary, my bag…”
Before Lauren could call down and ask them what had happened to Mouse, Mary grabbed Father’s big, brown doctor bag and all the grownups ran down the tunnel faster than she’d ever seen old people move.
I’m not going all the way back to the nursery by myself! He’s out there somewhere. And he hurt Mouse! I’m staying right here until they come back!
She sat down on one of the tiny chairs at the top of the staircase, put her fingers in her mouth, and waited.
Unseen by all in the study, Lauren watched as Father fixed Mouse’s cuts. William yelled a lot and loudly, and he said the giant man didn’t belong here Below because he was a stranger, and because he’d hurt people.
Father called the giant man Charles. Father and Mary seemed to feel really bad about it, and Mouse said it might have been his fault.
Was it my fault? She sucked harder on her fingers as she thought. I ran around the corner. We aren’t supposed to run in the tunnels. I was afraid of the hidey place and I was running really fast. I didn’t see him and I ran into him. He didn’t hit me. I guess I hit him. And then I got scared and I screamed, and maybe I scared him, too…
Father insisted the man needed Below. Me and Daddy needed Below.
William was always really nice to Lauren, but he sounded like a bear when he said, “He needs medical attention we can’t provide… special education… therapy…”
She didn’t know all those words and was trying to puzzle them out when she heard Vincent’s warm deep voice.
“No,” he said. Lauren peered through the bars of the railing and saw Vincent’s tall, dark shape in the doorway at the top of the little stairs. “Only love.”
No… only love.
Vincent stepped to the side of the entrance to let Catherine come in, and a handsome black-haired man followed her.
Then an enormous shadow filled the whole tunnel entrance. The giant man— No. Charles, she said to herself. His name is Charles. He’s scared for sure. He looks shy and kinda ashamed, and his hands are bleeding. He looks like he’s gonna start crying.
Is Vincent right? Does he just need love?
She watched Father offer him a place here to live, but Charles said no.
The man with the scruffy face said, “Charles is coming with me.”
“Dev… doesn’t want… to be alone… anymore…”
Everyone looked really happy all of a sudden.
He really was just sad, like Mary said. He’s sick, and he walks funny, like Daddy did when he hurt his foot. And he looks different, like Vincent. But Vincent’s not scary. And Vincent has love, thanks to Catherine. Charles is just… different. Lots of us down here are different. He’s not as pretty as Vincent is, but, maybe he just needs… friends.
Lauren took her fingers out of her mouth.
Charles sat on the big chair by the octagonal table, feeling much better than he had in a long time. He had apologized to Mouse, and Mouse apologized back. Mary and Father had re-bandaged his back and tended to his cut hands and scraped knees. The big man called William had even brought him something to eat and drink.
Dev is so happy. I can help him. He helped me, and now I can help him. And neither one of us has to be alone anymore.
“Mr. Charles?” A sweet small voice came from somewhere off to one side.
“Me?” he answered. No one’s ever called me “mister” before. He looked around for the source of the voice.
“Hi, Mr. Charles.” The little girl was so close he could see the reflection of candle flames dance in the soft dark eyes staring up at him. She was so pretty, so doll-like and perfect, he was certain if he breathed too hard he would break her, fragile as she surely was.
She took his good hand and moved it off of his leg, then did the same to his lumpy hand – and she didn’t even flinch at the feel of his tumors. A moment later she was crawling right up onto his lap. He was too surprised – and far too delighted – to even think about objecting.
“I’m Lauren,” she looked up at him. “And I’m really sorry that I ran into you and scared you.”
“I guess… we scared… each other.” How easily he found his voice this time, despite the thousand fluttering wings taking flight inside his chest.
“Yeah, I guess we did,” she sagely proclaimed. “It was an accident.”
Charles found that all he could do just then was smile and nod.
Lauren cheerfully scrambled up to stand on his lap. She tilted over toward one side as she rose, and Charles automatically he reached up to steady her, but then he remembered how he’d hurt Father’s wrist and froze. She leaned against his outstretched hand a moment, then grabbed onto his shoulder and righted herself. Nearly nose to nose now, her smile shone bright and beautiful as a summer sun. She balanced herself by cupping his face between her hands and patted his cheeks with small, sticky fingers that smelled of cinnamon and apple cider.
“But we won’t be a-scared of each other anymore. OK, Mr. Charles?”
“Oh, yes… I’d like that… very much… Lauren.”
“You’re big. I’ve never seen anyone as big as you, not even Vincent. You’re about as big as a mountain. I’ve never seen a mountain, but I know a song about one.” She beamed at him. “Want me to sing it for you?”
Without even waiting for his answer –I wouldn’t say no for the world! – Lauren took a deep breath, and sang to him.
Over the mountain, over the sea,
I see the moon and the moon sees me.
Down through the leaves of the old oak tree.
Please let the light that shines on me
Shine on the one I love.
On the other side of the study, Catherine’s vision blurred with sudden tears as she watched the sweet tableau of Lauren serenading Charles. The little girl began playing with the huge man’s few scraggly strands of hair, attempting to twist them into braids to match her own.
Catherine gestured to Vincent at her side, but he and Devin had already abandoned their conversation to watch them, too.
Charles looked their way and silently mouthed the words, She likes me!
When her attempt at hairdressing inevitably failed, Lauren blithely smoothed his insubstantial wisps of hair down over the bulges of his skull. She was soon repeating lyrics at random and the tune had morphed into something resembling “Jingle Bells,” but both the performer and her audience were contentedly oblivious to any imperfections. Her small brown fingertips curiously traced the deep grooves that lined his cheeks.
Charles smiled so broadly that Catherine thought his face just might crack apart from the joy of the child’s touch. The elation and delight radiating from the giant’s face eclipsed all the candles in the room.
Catherine felt a vibration deep inside herself, something between a sob and laughter. She covered her mouth to stifle it, as if such a sound might break the spell of this moment.
“I don’t know if Charles can remember the first time he saw the moon,” she whispered, linking her hand with Vincent’s, “but I know he’ll always remember this first.”
“She’s...” Devin began as he crossed his arms and leaned back onto Father’s desk, affecting an air of casual indifference as he cleared his throat with a cough. The awkward catch in his voice caused Vincent to give his brother a sidelong, knowing glance. “She’s got the lyrics all wrong and mixed up…”
“No, Devin,” Vincent countered. He turned to look at Catherine and she knew what he was going to say before he even said it. “She’s got them right. She’s got it all absolutely right.”
Inspired by missing scenes in Brothers