This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine TunnelCon II, in 1992. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans.
The Guest of Honor
by J. Patterson
A persistent, angry January snow was layering down on the busy pavement of Fifth Avenue, churning into watery grey mush under the perpetual flux of traffic. Gina Visser started down the steps of the New York City Public library, letting out a surprised exclamation as her running shoes slipped on the slick stone surface. Just once, just one time I'd like to remember my boots on a snowy day, she thought to herself as she regained her footing. She jerked her tote bag a little higher on her shoulder, holding it against her body with her elbow while she tucked her gloves into the cuffs of her coat sleeves and tightened her woolly scarf around her neck. For all the good it does, she told herself, looking down at her stockinged legs and sneakered feet. The cold slush was already starting to seep in around the soles of her shoes. It's going to be a long ride home.
She hurried around the corner onto West 42nd Street, scanning anxiously for her bus. Considering the traffic, hopelessly snarled as a result of the ongoing storm, the bus would probably be at least an hour late. And then it would sit in traffic for the better part of another hour before it even cleared the streets within sight and began the actual ride home. Gina sighed. She could imagine Rachel, sitting patiently cross-legged on Mrs. Sandtonyo's sofa, singing "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and chattering about how she was going to build the biggest snowman ever.
Rachel. Just thinking about her daughter made Gina smile. Seven going on forty, practical and adorable. So much of Andy in her. The blue eyes, the wide, dimpled smile, the lanky ranginess that was awkwardly coltish at seven but was destined to develop into a flexible, confident grace.
As she passed Bryant Park, the excited shrieks of a half dozen children involved in the fierce volleys of a snowball fight caught her attention. She paused to watch them, imagining Rachel in the midst of the fracas, her dark curls bouncing around her face.
The bus was nowhere in sight. Determined now to get home before nightfall to have the opportunity to take Rachel out for some playtime in the snow, Gina angled across to Times Square, hoping to catch a crosstown bus that could get her out of the worst of the downtown traffic. Her feet were sodden icicles by the time she climbed aboard the crosstown. Gratefully, she found a seat near a heating vent and pressed her wet sneakers against the weak flow of warm air. The bus jerked out into the sluggish stream of traffic and promptly stopped moving.
To avoid exasperation, Gina dug in her tote bag and sorted through the latest pile of cast-off books from the library. Lots of children's books this time, some of them stained and dog-eared, but readable. working as a shelver wasn't exactly the glorious career her father wanted for her, but marriage to Andrew Visser and mothering Rachel would have been more than enough. Not that a degree in English Literature had promised her any kind of a bright, corporate future.
Selecting Green Eggs 'n' Ham from the collection in her bag, Gina rested her head against the icy glass of the bus window and began to read.
Gina squelched up three flights of stairs to Mrs. Sandtonyo's apartment, pausing to set down her tote bag before knocking on the door. She was cold and weary and wishing desperately for dry, warm feet, but she smiled and braced herself. She heard the muffled squeal that was her daughter's prediction of who was at the door.
"Mom! It's Mom!"
She imagined the little form hurtling off the couch, could picture plump Mrs. Sandtonyo leaning out from the kitchen, drying her hands on a brightly colored towel and keeping a close eye on Rachel as the child flung open the door.
And then, as she was every day, Rachel was in Gina's arms, her fingers locked behind Gina's neck, legs around her waist, rattling excitedly about the snow and ginger snaps as Gina bent to retrieve her tote bag and stagger into the apartment.
"You're getting heavy, kiddo," Gina laughed, kissing her daughter's soft, rounded cheek. Rachel's blue eyes squinted in delight as she enthusiastically returned her mother's kiss.
"Can we go out in the snow, Mom? Can we? Before it gets dark? I want to build the biggest snowman. Can we?"
Gina set the girl on her feet and looked up at Mrs. Sandtonyo, who stood framed in the kitchen doorway, smiling.
"Mrs. Sandy has ginger snaps for us, like I said, and they're wonderful, but can we please go out?" Rachel was fairly dancing around her mother in anticipation.
Gina shrugged helplessly and rolled her eyes at Mrs. Sandtonyo. The older woman chuckled as she came out from the kitchen, a covered tin in her hand, flour dusted across her checkered apron.
"The sprite helped me bake these. They're yours to take home."
The older woman pried the lid off the tin to reveal a fine collection of perfect golden cookies, still warm. The spicy aroma of ginger rose to caress Gina's nose, and she couldn't resist picking one off the top of the pile and popping it into her mouth.
"How are they, Mom?"
Rachel was sitting in the middle of the floor, pulling on her red boots.
"They're heaven. Just heaven." Gina thanked Mrs. Sandtonyo and gave the woman a quick hug.
"I'm going to be a baker when I grow up. Mrs. Sandy says I can. I'll make puffy pastry and big loaves of bread and wedding cakes, and lots and lots of ginger snaps. Can we go out now?"
Rachel was tugging at her coat, which was hung just out of comfortable reach on the brass coat tree. Gina lifted the coat for her daughter and helped her into it, then thanked Mrs. Sandtonyo again before Rachel dragged her out the door.
"See you Monday, Mrs. Sandy," Rachel called, tugging Gina down the hall.
Gina convinced the girl that the best idea was to go home first. Rachel balked at this suggestion, not wanting to lose a minute of possible play in the snow, but Gina pointed out that she herself needed jeans, dry feet, and boots. Rachel reluctantly acquiesced to her mother's needs and stumped up to the fourth floor behind Gina, verbally planning her giant snowman.
A few hours and a large, lumpy snow-being later, Rachel was still going strong. She was twirling under a streetlight, catching snowflakes with her tongue and giggling, when Gina suggested it was time to head home. Rachel tried the obligatory "Aw, Mom..." ploy, but her mother cut it short with two words.
"Oh, yes, please! And ginger snaps," Rachel said decisively. She slipped her snow-crusted mitten into Gina's gloved hand and skipped along beside her mother for the two-block walk home from the small neighborhood park.
The storm continued a steady downfall of wet, heavy flakes, turning streetlights, fire hydrants, and parked cars into swollen, abstract sculptures. The lights of the city caused the white landscape to glow with an eerie, faintly bluish cast. It was a fantasy land, and Gina told her daughter an impromptu story about snow elves and a golden princess as they made their way home.
While Gina was stirring the frothy contents of the saucepan, Rachel pulled out spoons, mugs, and napkins, and carefully distributed an arrangement of ginger snaps for herself and her mother. As Gina reached for the cinnamon--Rachel's "favorite taste" in hot chocolate--her foot bumped her tote bag and she remembered its contents.
"I have more books, Rachel. In my bag. Pick out the ones you want to keep, and I'll see that the rest get Below."
Solemn blue eyes regarded her from the dining room.
"They should all go Below," Rachel proclaimed. The little girl loved books in all shapes and contents and sizes, but her concern for the people in the secret tunnel world below the New York streets overrode even this special passion. It was a common argument.
"We've been through this before, kiddo. You get first pick."
"Then I pick that they go Below."
"There are a couple Dr. Seuss books," Gina offered, coming into the dining room to pour the steaming chocolate into the mugs.
"Horton?" Rachel asked, momentarily interested.
"No, not Horton. But the Grinch is in there, and Green Eggs 'n' Ham."
After a wistful glance toward the tote bag, the little girl steeled herself with a small sigh. "They should go Below," she said.
"Let's do it this way. You pick out the ones you'd want to keep, if they weren't going Below. Keep them for just a few days and read them, then we can send them down. How's that?"
It was an acceptable--and honorable--compromise. Rachel slid off her chair and retrieved the bag, dragging it back to the dining room and plopping it on the chair beside her.
The child exclaimed over each book, tracing the cover illustrations with a small finger, pausing between books to swallow some cocoa or select the next ginger snap to eat. After the pile was sorted and the chocolate and cookies nothing but dregs and crumbs, Rachel had claimed four books and built a pile of the other dozen to go Below.
"I'll keep these for now," she stated, placing a proprietary hand on the smaller pile.
"You're sure?" Gina asked.
"Daddy always said books were real important. That when you can't see the sky and the stars and trees and grass, you need something to look at. The kids Below need something to look at. Because I can see the sky and everything."
Although part of her wanted to see her daughter keep more of the books, Gina had to smile at the girl's generosity. So much like her father, who had grown up in the tunnels. Everything there was community property, everything was shared and used to its fullest extent. But Andrew Visser had met Gina Cambrelli in Central Park, and it was fairy-tale love at first sight. Without a backward glance Andy had left his home Below to make a life with Gina, becoming a New York City firefighter and working part-time as a bricklayer while Gina finished college and gave birth to Rachel. The baby was the light of both their lives. Andy had made certain that she was introduced to the community that had been his home, that she was able to play with the tunnel children and feel a part of this group of "secret friends."
When Andy had died in a fire, crushed by the collapse of the ceiling already mostly destroyed by the conflagration which engulfed the structure, Gina had taken the first job she could find and concentrated on building a life without him. And although she could never forget the outpouring of sympathy and love she and Rachel had received from the tunnel community--including an offer to join them Below--she steadfastly insisted on carrying on the life she and Andy had started together.
". . . birthday, and 'cause tomorrow's your day off?"
The question in her daughter's voice brought Gina abruptly out of her thoughts of Andy.
"I'm sorry, kiddo, I wasn't listening."
Rachel gave her mother an exasperated look and repeated her question.
"Since I'm going to be a baker and I need practice, can we please bake a cake for Vincent tomorrow because tomorrow's his birthday, and 'cause tomorrow's your day off?"
"I suppose we can do that, yes."
"And invite him to come and eat it with us?"
"Rachel, you know the tunnel people will probably be having a big party for Vincent's birthday. Would you want to leave your own birthday party to go somewhere else for cake?"
"Then when it's done, can we take it to the party?"
Gina realized she was being maneuvered into a corner.
"I don't think so. This snowstorm is supposed to continue all night and most of tomorrow. It's a long walk to the nearest tunnel entrance, you know that, and with the snow and trying to carry a cake and all...."
Gina could see the disappointment writing itself across her daughter's face. "All right. I'll see that he's invited to come, but don't get your hopes up, okay? When the weather's better we can visit and you can wish him a Happy Birthday then."
"You'll invite him?"
"I'll call Sada right now and see that he's invited."
"Then he'll come. I know it. Can we make chocolate cake?"
"Yes, we can make chocolate, but remember what I said..."
"He'll come," Rachel said decisively. She climbed off her chair, her four books firmly tucked under one arm, and carried her mug to the kitchen, reaching to set it in the sink with a firm thump. She waited then, expectant, until Gina went to the phone and called another helper, Sada Cameron, and asked her to get a message to Vincent.
"Tell him I have more books. And tell him that Rachel is baking a birthday cake for him tomorrow, and he's invited," Rachel interrupted Gina at this point with a tug on her arm.
"Tell him," Rachel stage-whispered, "that I'm inviting him."
Gina nodded to her daughter.
"Sada, tell him that Rachel is inviting him here for the cake."
Assured that her invitation would be taken Below within the hour, Rachel cheerfully agreed to a bath and bedtime. Once she was clean and dry and tucked in with her Raggedy Ann, she requested a reading of Green Eggs 'n' Ham. Gina granted the request, reading the story with great emotion and dramatic interpretation. Rachel giggled frequently during the reading, silently mouthing her favorite parts along with her mother.
When the book was finished, Gina set it aside and tucked the covers more securely around her daughter.
"Go to sleep now," she said, kissing Rachel's smooth forehead.
"I will, Mom. They were good ginger snaps, weren't they?"
"And the cake tomorrow, for Vincent, that'll be good, too."
"Better than good, I'm sure. But remember what I said about the snowstorm and the party Below--," Gina warned.
"He'll come," Rachel interrupted, her eyes already closing. "He will. I know it."
"I hope so," Gina whispered, rising to turn off the light.
Moving through the darkened apartment, Gina made herself a cup of herbal tea--Andy's favorite--and picked up a book from the pile Rachel had set aside to send Below. She considered settling in to bed to read, but the thought of the empty bed made her hesitate. She sighed, then padded into the living room, pulled an afghan from the couch, and curled up in the bay of the room's large window. The streetlights combined with the accumulating snow made the evening eerily light, but not quite light enough to read. Slipping the book in under her legs, she wrapped both hands around the mug of tea and studied the street four stories below.
If she tried hard enough, Gina could take herself back in time. Rachel was five-going-on-six, and Andy was out on a fire. No. Out to the store, to get coffee ice cream and hot fudge sauce. He'd be home soon. Gina was watching for him. Any second now he'd come around the corner and stop and look up to the window to see if she was watching, then do a ridiculous pantomime. Perhaps he'd be a quarterback, the grocery sack his football. Stuffing the sack securely under his arm, he'd rush down the street, dodging phantom linebackers until he reached the front of the building, where he'd pretend to spike the "ball" and high-five an imaginary teammate. Or a ballet dancer, executing clumsy, exaggerated pirouettes, plies, and leaps, embracing the groceries as if they were a graceful, long-legged ballerina. Always something to make Gina laugh.
If Andy was later than expected and Gina began to fret, Rachel would appear at her mother's side, saying confidently, "He'll come." No matter what Gina's worries, Rachel's conviction that her father would return always won out. Tonight, Gina knew if she waited long enough, Andy would appear at the corner, look up to catch her eye, and launch into a silly act on his way to the door.
"No." The small syllable caught as a sob in Gina's throat. She took a mouthful of the aromatic tea and swallowed it slowly, trying to deny the passing of her reverie. If she just waited long enough, Andy would come around the corner, perhaps pushing an illusory shovel through the deepening snow.
Inexorably, like a horse unbridled in a lush field, her mind wandered to the night Andy didn't come back. She had been sitting here, in this window, Rachel curled up between her knees. Each time Gina would feel her apprehension building the little girl would reach to pat her mother's face and say, "Don't worry, he'll come home." But he hadn't, and Rachel was long in bed and asleep when the phone call came through.
Almost in a dream, Gina remembered the details of that endless night in snapshot fragments. The compassion on Mrs. Sandtonyo's face as she climbed the stairs to watch over the sleeping Rachel, the dark, silent cab ride to the hospital, the battalion of medical staff she spoke with before she was ushered to the Emergency Room, Andy--what they said was Andy- a sheet-covered form on a hospital gurney.
Gina shook her head and became aware of the tears cooling on her cheeks. She dragged them away with her fingers, focusing again on the empty street below. I should've looked at his face, she chastised herself. Then she looked once more to the street corner. Please, Andy, just once more. . .
The half-full mug of tea had lost its warmth. Gina stood from the windowseat, folding the afghan and throwing it back on the couch. She dumped the tea into the kitchen sink, letting the routine chase away the fruitless memories. She paused in the doorway of Rachel's room and saw that her child was sleeping peacefully. She could hear the little voice saying, "He'll come. I know it." Just as she had for weeks and weeks after Andy's death, no matter how many times Gina tried to tell her that her Daddy wouldn't come home again.
"Yes, he will. He will. I know it."
Please, Vincent, Gina thought, I'm sorry about Andy. But please, don't disappoint his daughter.
The snow was falling in fits and starts but promising another steady downfall when Rachel woke Gina by bouncing onto the bed.
"We have to bake Vincent's cake," she announced.
Gina opened one eye and grinned at her sleep-tousled daughter.
"You have to bake Vincent's cake, Miss Baker-to-Be," she answered, grabbing the girl and dragging her under the covers to tickle her into pealing giggles. "I get to supervise. But first, we need to get dressed and have breakfast. Okay?"
"Okay!" Rachel agreed, squirming away from her mother and galloping back to her room.
"What am I going to do with you?" Gina mused fondly to her daughter's retreating back.
The kitchen was a borderline disaster area by the time the cake was mixed and ready for the oven. Like her own mother, Gina always took the time and made the effort to bake from scratch, but as she stood with floury hands resting on her hips and surveyed the countertops and floor, she began to understand the advantage of prepared mixes.
"What now?" Rachel asked, a large wooden spoon raised in one hand like an orchestra conductor's baton.
"Now we bake it," Gina answered, slipping the cake pans into the warm oven.
"And then we frost it?"
"It has to cool first, kiddo, and that takes a while. And someone has to clean up this kitchen a bit."
"I'll do it," Rachel volunteered.
"I'll do it," Gina replied, visions of gallons of soap bubbles joining the virtual drifts of flour and cocoa and sugar vivid in her mind's eye. "Bakers always hire a cleaning staff to take care of the messy parts of the job. Why don't you get washed up and put on a video?"
"Okay," Rachel answered. Before she left the room, she came over to give Gina a tight hug around the waist. "This is great, Mom. This is so much fun, and I know Vincent's going to love it."
"If he can come," Gina warned again.
"He'll come," Rachel answered, exasperated at her mother's lack of faith, then abruptly changed the subject as if the case was already closed. "Can we watch Field of Dreams again?"
"Anything you want," Gina answered, turning to tackle the mountain of pans and bowls in the sink.
The warm, sweet fragrance of the cooling cake combined with the storybook precision of the large, lazy snowflakes drifting past the apartment windows made the afternoon very close to perfection for Gina. The one thing missing, the one thing that would always be missing, was Andy. Gina tore her thoughts away from his sad absence and looked down at her daughter's dark head, resting on her lap where the girl was curled up under the russet-shaded afghan. The credits were rolling up the television screen when Rachel turned onto her back and looked up at her mother.
"Can we frost it now? And decorate it?"
"I think we probably can," Gina replied, pushing an errant lock of hair off Rachel's forehead.
Rachel bounced off the couch and darted into the kitchen, reaching to pull her apron off the counter and wind its long ties around her waist. Gina fell into the role of supervising baker's assistant. After many false starts, quite a few sneaky bits of frosting into her mouth instead of on the cake, and a long, serious discussion about how to blend what had to be Vincent's favorite colors with the shades of food coloring available, Rachel was satisfied with her masterpiece.
"That's it. Oh, Mom, it's so beautiful!" Rachel enthused, her eyes wide as she gazed at her creation.
"It's just perfect," Gina had to agree, overlooking the varying thicknesses of frosting on the sides of the cake and smiling at the neon-pink roses that glowed in a small clump just above the dark purple "Happy Birthday Vincent" message. "What would you say to a nap after all this effort and exertion, kiddo?"
"I don't want to miss Vincent," Rachel answered.
"It's not dark out yet. If you take a nap now, I'll wake you up when it's getting dark, and then we can wait for him together. How does that sound?"
"Okay. But wake me up as soon as it gets just a little dark."
"I already promised," Gina reassured her daughter. She took the girl's shoulders and steered her toward her bedroom. "I'll clean up the kitchen again and have everything ready. Deal?"
"Deal," Rachel agreed.
The snow sifted to a stop just as darkness started to fall across the city. The outside world seemed suspended, like a snapshot, quiet and white; the few sounds that rose from the street were faint. Gina went through the motions of cleaning the kitchen and setting the dining room table for three with plates, tumblers, and pastel napkins. She found a handful of balloons, white and yellow, in a drawer and inflated them, then hung them with curling ribbons from the ceiling light over the table.
She stood back then and surveyed the setting. Everything was perfect for the small party. But she couldn't shake the feeling from 18 months ago, waiting for Andy to come home, the growing, breath-catching certainty that things wouldn't happen as expected. That she'd be spending the night comforting her daughter, explaining that sometimes plans just don't work out, that it isn't the end of the world.
But it is. It always is, whispered her dark voice of doubt, and tears sprang to her eyes as Gina wrapped her arms tightly around her own waist. Vincent, I'm sorry I took Andy away from his home. But I loved him. I know you understand that. I didn't know he would die. Please. . .
She shook her head to clear it, a sigh hitching in her throat.
"It's getting dark," said a sleepy voice, and Gina turned to see Rachel standing in the doorway, rubbing at one eye with a small fist. She yawned, then looked at her mother inquiringly.
"I. . . I was just on my way to wake you. How does this look?" She indicated the dining room. Rachel scuffed towards the table, brightening as she saw the decorations.
"It's beautiful, Mom. Vincent will love it."
The waiting began. Gina challenged her daughter to a lively game of Go Fish as the evening shadows wrapped around them. Any mention of time and the absence of the guest of honor were carefully avoided. Finally, after trouncing her mother soundly for several long rounds, Rachel scooped the cards into a pile and sighed.
"It's late, isn't it?"
"It's not too late, kiddo."
"It is. It's late." Gina held her breath, knowing and not wanting to hear her daughter's next words.
"He's not coming, is he?"
The unwavering faith that the little girl had carried throughout the day exhausted itself in her one small question. Her blue eyes sparkled with checked tears. Gina choked back her own disappointment.
"Well, you know, honey, it is a long walk from the tunnels, and with the snow and all...."
"He's not coming," Rachel said again. Miserable, she looked up at the balloons which were bobbing slightly in the room's air currents. "And we had decorations and everything."
"We could have some cake anyway, if you'd like." Gina reached out and put her hand over Rachel's. "We could pretend that Vincent is here." Gina was grasping at straws, but the sorrow in the girl's eyes was almost more than she could bear.
"No, that's okay. I really wanted him to be here. It's his birthday."
"I'll call Sada again in the morning. We can invite him for the-day-after cake. Okay?"
"Okay," Rachel replied, agreeing without any spirit to her mother's suggestion, "but it's not the same."
"I know," Gina answered.
Rachel slipped off her chair, dejected. Head down, she started toward her bedroom, then paused to give a backward glance to the festive dining room. Gina rose to follow her, words of consolation and encouragement chasing each other around in a useless tangle in her head. What could she say to her daughter, with her own faith still blankly numb?
Rachel had kicked off her shoes and was sitting on her bed, tugging at her socks. Gina leaned against the doorframe, still unsure of what to say to her child. Rachel drew in a short, shuddering breath and looked up at her mother, a certain resolution building in her eyes.
And suddenly, there was a quiet knock at the door.
Rachel's blue eyes widened, and Gina saw every muscle in the small body tense, an echo of her own response.
"I knew it!" the girl gasped, rocketing past her mother and down the short hall. "I knew it! It's Vincent!"
Before Gina could stop her or caution her--a frequent occurrence--about opening the door to a potential stranger, Rachel had pulled the door wide. She stood with feet planted far apart, hand on the door knob, looking up into the hooded face of a tall, broad figure.
"Vincent!" Rachel squealed, flinging her arms around his legs.
A dry rustle of a laugh answered her exuberance, and two furred, claw-tipped hands emerged from the blackness of the cloak to wrap around the girl's waist and lift her effortlessly into the air. The figure stepped into the apartment as Rachel pushed the hood back, releasing a spill of coppery golden hair.
Gina quickly moved behind their guest and pulled the apartment door shut. She turned to see her daughter giving him a fierce hug, her fingers tangled in his thick hair. Gina found herself blinking to clear the tears from her eyes. She scrubbed the back of her hand at one that escaped down her cheek.
"Can I take your cloak?" she asked, hesitant, stepping back around to face the tall figure.
Vivid blue eyes sparkling with mischief, Vincent disentangled himself from his young admirer and set her carefully on the floor. Rachel danced in place, hopping from one foot to the other, while Vincent bowed slightly to Gina.
"I was told that you had some books which need to be transported Below," Vincent offered with a light twitch of a smile.
"Ah. . .yes," Gina answered, nodding. "Just a minute. I'll get them for you." She hadn't finished gathering herself to take a step when Rachel erupted with pent-up excitement.
"No! It's not just the books. It's your birthday, Vincent. And I baked you a cake. All by myself almost. Chocolate. And we have balloons, and you have to stay and eat some cake with us." She grabbed one of his large hands in her two and was tugging unsuccessfully at his arm as her words tumbled out. "You can't just leave. Not now. Please?"
Gina had to put one hand over her mouth to hide her amusement.
"My birthday?" Vincent answered, feigning surprise. "Now that you mention it, Rachel, I suppose that it is. I've had such a busy day. . ." His voice trailed off.
"No one else remembered?" Rachel asked, incredulous.
His only answer was a smile. He freed his hand from her grip and stroked it gently through her dark curls. Removing his cloak with a graceful gesture, he draped it over Gina's outstretched arms.
"As long as the lady of the house has extended the invitation . . .," he said formally, raising one eyebrow at Gina.
"She has," Gina answered, nodding toward her daughter, relief lighting her face. She hung the heavy cloak, cold and fragrant with candle smoke, fresh night air, and new-fallen snow, on the coat tree just inside the door.
"Then I must accept," Vincent replied. Rachel grabbed his hand again, and he allowed himself to be led into the dining room. "Thank you."
"Thank you," Gina whispered. Vincent turned and caught Gina's eyes, inclining his head in recognition of the depth of her gratitude. Smiling, Gina motioned for Vincent to continue with his impatient hostess and followed the two of them toward the small celebration.