A SECOND CHANCE
by KG Morgia; Tamgn
There were many times over the long years when she had knelt before this chest and opened the lid, only to close it again without touching its contents; tonight was different. Tonight she had good reason to want to find something that was held within the confines of the wood, leather and brass box that might mean much to a silent, lonely child. Oh, but the memories...the memories held within that box could still cause such pain; and though she had tried to forget those times, memories sometimes return whether we will them to or not.
It had been many years ago...
Married at 17, a mother before her first anniversary, Mary Frances McKnight had a life not to be envied. Although she loved her husband, Terrence James Wilcox, fate had not dealt her a winning hand. Terry tried to make a good home for his wife and child, but a global conflict does take precedence over personal problems, and the Wilcox family was no different.
Terry enlisted in the Army in 1941 and was shipped overseas leaving his wife and two-year-old son, Simon Anthony. Mary got by with difficulty, but managed to take night classes while a neighbor watched Simon, and earned a certificate in practical nursing. After graduation she was able to find a job at a hospital not far from where they lived and working gave her needed experience. When Terry returned from the Pacific in 1946, she hoped they could resume their life together as it had been; but it was not to be.
Before leaving for the war, Terry had been a gentle, caring father and loving husband; on his return, however, he had changed...the things he had seen, the things he had been ordered to do had scarred him beyond all recognition. Drinking and verbal abuse were the first signs of trouble, but when Mary informed her husband that there would be another addition to their family, the physical abuse began. It was only with the greatest of luck that young Brian Patrick was born at all.
Simon was seven when his little brother was born in 1947 and they became inseparable. Simon would hear his father clomping up the stairs to their fourth-floor apartment after work, usually drunk, often abusive, and would creep into Brian's room where they would cuddle while their mother was slapped and knocked around; but, though Terry often took his frustrations out on Mary, he loved his sons dearly and never touched them.
The winter of 1952 was when Mary's life changed for all time. It was Sunday, Mary had gotten ready to go to work at the hospital and Terry was on his fourth beer, reading the Sunday funnies to the boys.
"Hey!" he yelled, getting Mary's attention.
"Yes, Terry? What is it? I have to get to work."
"Me an' the boys are goin' out dis evenin'. I'm gonna take em to see Ol' Man Saint Nick."
"I don't really think that's such a good idea, Terry. The roads are really bad and the radio says the storm is only going to get worse. I'd feel better if they stayed home. I can take them later in the week. We've got time, yet, before Christmas."
"Aw, Mom," pleaded Simon. "Dad and I can take care of Brian. He's never met Santa before. Please?"
"No, Simon. I don't want you boys going out in weather like this. I don't think it's safe."
"What's wrong? Don't you think (hic) I can take care of my own boys?" Terry slowly rose from his chair and staggered menacingly toward her.
She cringed away from him and took a step backward only to run into the doorframe. "Terry, please...I have to get to work." She looked at her sons nervously, not wanting them to see what their father might do next. When he didn't approach any nearer, she sighed in relief and stooped down to give her sons a goodbye hub, but they wouldn't come near, they were too angry about not being able to see Santa Claus.
"I hate you!" five-year old Brian yelled. "You're mean," he pouted. He turned away from her and was gathered into a comforting hug by his older, protective brother.
"Simon? Come tell Momma goodbye?" Simon wouldn't approach either, just stood still, glowering. Resigned, Mary stood and said, "All right...I'll see you boys in the morning. I've got to get to work. I love you, Brian...Simon. Good night, boys. You be good for your father." Not wanting to leave her sons in their present state of mind, but realizing there was not enough time to defuse the current situation, she left the apartment the tears she had been holding inside finally brimming over to course down her cheeks. Angrily she brushed them away, silently blaming Terry for the unhappy incident.
Sitting back from the chest, Mary caressed the object of her search. The fuzzy piece of fabric looked much the same as it did when she'd locked it in the chest. She held it in a tight embrace and burying her hands in its softness, raised it to her nose to inhale the scents still present after all the years. She was unaware of the tears falling in droplets to be absorbed by its downy weave.
Two a.m. is a lousy time to have to be working, but when it's cold, icy and storming outside it's nice to be inside where it's warm. It had been a quiet night on the ward; patients were calm or asleep as Mary walked quietly down the hallway making her hourly rounds; only two hours more and she could head home, catch a couple hours of sleep before she had to get up to get the boys ready for school. Next week was Christmas and they were getting anxious for vacation. She was not as prepared for the circumstances for the next few hours as she thought.
Mary finished her shift and planned to stoop by an all-night grocery for a gallon of milk for breakfast, then head home. As she left the breakroom, however, after retrieving her coat and purse, she was stopped by two police officers at the nurse's station.
"Mrs. Wilcox? Mrs. Terrence Wilcox?"
Mary clutched the small blanket tighter as memories long buried raised their ugly heads. She wept for her lost little ones and for a love betrayed. Even after all these years the thoughts still brought forth agony she had long thought resolved. Sobbing, she moaned, "Please, no more. I can't go through this again." But the memories would not be silenced.
What the officers told Mary Wilcox that night, stopped her life. There was no way to go back to change what had happened, to somehow make certain that it did not occur, but there was no reason to go on with life without the ones who made that life worth living.
The obituary that was printed in the newspapers was very short and to the point...Terrence Wilcox, along with his two sons, Simon Anthony and Brian Patrick, died in a car accident last evening while on their way to Macy's Department Store to visit Santa Claus. They are survived by their mother, Mary Frances Wilcox, a practical nurse at St. Vincent's Hospital. It has been reported that Mr. Wilcox may have been drinking. Services will be.....
Not much to say for so many years of love and caring...so much pain and heartache. Mary buried more than her husband and sons that day, she buried her heart along with them. She lost her will to live and just shut down both mentally and physically...no longer caring about anything or anyone.
In the weeks that followed the funeral Mary began to withdraw more and more from her friends, her job performance suffered, and she suffered in silence, but always the ache was present. The one and only thing she could remember of that fateful night was that her boys had said they hated her and her heart bled from the guilt.
Finally the day came when she could not be found. She hadn't reported to work in days and no one had seen her. Her co-workers began to fear that perhaps her grief had become too much for her to bear and they reported their suspicions. The proper authorities were notified and the report was checked.
When the manager of the building opened the Wilcox apartment for the police, everything was as it should be. Everything was clean and dusted; dishes washed and put away; clothes washed, ironed and hung in the closets. All the toys belonging to the Wilcox boys were neatly arranged in their bedroom as if they had just cleaned their room. The apartment looked as though the family had just gone out for a while. Of Mary Wilcox there was no sign; she had simply vanished.
Her friends ran ads in the papers, put flyers around in the area hoping that someone had seen their friend, but it was to no avail. It was as if Mary Wilcox just stepped off the edge of the Earth.
As time went by the people who had worked with Mary began to talk of her as if she were dead; with fond thoughts but with voices filled with sorrow at her passing. One or two held to the hope that some day they might run into her gain, but over the ensuing years even that faint expectation became nothing so much as a wish to say good-bye to a friend.
As she clutched the blanket to her heart, Mary wished that the memories flooding into her mind had been kept dammed behind the wall of years where she had barricaded then; but there was another power at work here over which she had no control...a power which decreed that she remember what had gone before so that she would be ready for the task that awaited her. She sighed in resignation and allowed the memories to flood through the gap in the mental wall of her mind.
The days of numbness slowly drifted into weeks, then into months as Mary's life ceased to have any meaning from the night she learned of the death of her sons and husband. With no conscious thought guiding her actions she ceased to be an individual of feelings and emotions and became only another of the nameless throng who wander aimlessly along the streets and alleys of the teeming city, the ones who have no identity and no hope.
The alleyway was dark, damp, and dirty, but there was a small bolt-hole at the end that led to the basement of an abandoned hotel, the lower level of which was dry and reasonably warmer than the outside during inclement weather. It was possible to find a fairly safe haven among the derelict boilers and steam pipes long ago forgotten in the mad rush to raise buildings of glass and steel higher and higher into the sky. Those who constructed such modern monstrosities looked at the beauty of the six-floor brick and mortar edifice with its elaborate inlay work, carved moldings and ornate decorations from the turn of the century—the nineteenth century—as nothing so much as an impediment to progress. The forgotten ones of the street, however, looked at it far differently; for those many overlooked masses, such abandoned buildings were a gift to be jealously guarded. A place to call their own for however short a time they might have before someone bigger and stronger would bully their way in and take over.
The woman once known as Mary Wilcox, however, did not worry about being forced from her ramshackle corner of space. She had located a warm site far below the basement where the others rarely ventured. There was no schedule for her to keep so she rose when she woke and went to bed when she was sleepy. In between there was only the constant search for food to keep her mind occupied. She would wander from one trash bin to another in the alley which was the boundary of her world. On the days when the pickin's were lean, she would wander mindlessly searching for a scrap here, a crust there in an effort to sustain herself.
One day her wanderings were interrupted by a sudden downpour which forced her and many others, commuters and homeless alike, into the subway. Once safely below she found her attention drawn toward a middle-aged man dressed nattily in a clean but threadbare white shirt, black bow tie, and black tuxedo. His graying head was topped by a brushed, black bowler hat which she saw him remove to lay upside down at his feet. He appeared to be one of the many amateur entertainers who haunted the city streets, and often the subway platforms, striving to make the humdrum daily lives of the City's masses just a little brighter by bringing them few moments distraction in their mundane lives.
He was a magician. His slight-of-hand and never-ending prattle broke through even the stone-cold shell that Mary had painstakingly constructed around herself. She found her steps leading over to watch his tricks and was surprised to find a smile on her own face as he concluded his delivery and moved to another section of the platform.
Over the years of being a street entertainer, Sebastian had developed a skill for reading the faces of the people who surrounded him during his 'act'. It had become more-or-less second nature to read the crowd and determine how they were receiving his tricks and how much he might be able to collect in 'contributions'.
As he scanned the crowd on the subway platform that day, one face in particular drew his eye like a magnet. She was a handsome woman with soft, brownish hair lightly sprinkled with gray, which she wore piled atop her head in a raggedly bun. Her clothes were typical of most of the street people who haunted the unwanted spaces of the city, bits and pieces of castoff garments cobbled together to make an outfit of some warmth; but it was her eyes that captivated him. They were beautiful, and brown, but of, so sad. There was such sorrow emanating from her as to break his heart.
Periodically over the next few weeks, Sebastian would notice the 'Sad Lady', as he called her. He had asked some discreet questions of the other homeless in the area, but had learned little of her history...only that she was completely along and seemed to have suffered some great loss. Having learned all he could from others, he decided to do a little investigating of his own. He was almost certain that Jacob would approve of his bringing her Below to heal whatever would had so crushed her spirit and broken her heart.
The Sad Lady was missing. Sebastian hadn't noticed her hanging around the boundaries of his magical space in more than two weeks and he was beginning to worry. He had looked for her every day on the subway platform, but she was not to be found. He asked around of some of the other street people, but no one else had seen her either. It was not all together unusual for someone who lived such a hard life on the streets to come up missing...or dead, but there was a vulnerability about this woman which called to him. Sebastian had always pictured himself as a self-styled Knight of the Round Table; someone who fought for what's right just like King Arthur. In that world damsels in distress needed to be protected; more often than not, in this world, they were preyed upon by the 'wicked'. He was determined that such a fate would not await this damsel and set about trying to find her by enlisting the aid of some of the children form Below who often went Above to glean castoffs from the alleys and trash bins of the City.
It was while searching through an alley that Samuel, one of the original members of the world Below, found the lady in question heaped in a trash bin behind a deserted hotel. Her clothes had been torn, her lip split and still bleeding, and there was a large lump on her head. Afraid that the worst had happened to this delicate beauty, Samuel endeavored to lift her from the bin without harming her any further. As he reached for her, however, she opened her eyes and seeing a strange man reaching for her...screamed, groaned, and fainted. Samuel wasted no time in lifting her from the trash bin and laid her gently on the ground.
Recalling her first glimpse of Samuel's astonished face looking at her from over the edge of that trash bin caused Mary to smile. The poor man had been so startled when she'd screamed. He was such a gentle man. Sometime later she had apologized profusely, but he never quite forgave himself for frightening her so badly.
Upon regaining consciousness, Mary realized that the strange man was endeavoring to aid her, not attack her. He introduced himself so she wouldn't be so afraid and, when he voiced his belief that she had been mugged, she smiled and explained.
"No, kind sir; I was not mugged." She reached up and unconsciously brushed a strand of graying hair away from her face, tucking the end back into her bun. "I saw something in the bin that I needed, but when I stretched over the edge to reach for it, the lid slammed shut. I must have banged my head." She determined, rubbing at the sore spot on her head. She picked up the corner of her garment, noticing the torn hem for the first time, "It looks as if I damaged more than just my pride." She trembled almost unnoticeably and Samuel knew that her pride had reasserted itself. She straightened her shoulders resolutely and stepped toward the entrance of the alley only to be halted by the man's voice.
"Hey! Wait!" he called.
She stopped and turned to face him. "What is it?" she asked, puzzled.
He walked over to her slowly, not wanting to frighten her again. "Do you remember the magician from the subways? Well, he's a friend of mine. His name's Sebastian and he kinda asked me and some of his other friends to keep an eye out for you. He figured you were kinda down on your luck and maybe you could use a friend. Anyway, we have these other friends who live in a safe place...really safe. No one will bother you if you want to be alone. They always have plenty to eat; you can have your own...room...and everything. It's warm and dry, and I thought...perhaps...you might want to move in with the rest of us."
That had been three years ago and Mary had never regretted making the decision to move below the teeming City streets to a much safer environment...one of caring, and friendship, and love. It had been hard on her to be surrounded by children, however, but eventually the wounds of her heart had healed and she had become the only mother many of the children had ever and would ever know.
Still, distrustful, Mary looked all around as her companion led her down a cold, shadowy rock-lined tunnel. "What's that sound?" she asked nervously, becoming aware of an incessant tapping noise that seemed to follow them from tunnel to tunnel.
He listened for a moment and smiled before answering. "That's our communication system. The tapping sound is people talking back and forth on those pipes you see along the walls." Before long, however, another sound came to Mary's ears...a sound which made her heart ache and tears to cascade from her sad gray eyes...the happy voices of children. Her progress toward the sound faltered as her pain made itself felt. She moaned silently at what may be waiting ahead, but gathered her courage and proceeded down the tunnel. She continued walking silently beside her companion until the voices and laughter had been left behind. Her sorrow was short-lived as her progress was halted at the entrance of a small chamber.
"This is your place," her companion directed. "If you'd care to get situated, I'll be back to get you later...to introduce you to everybody. They're all very anxious to meet you." He smiled and gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Don't look so worried. You're quite safe here. No one'll bother you if you don't want 'em too."
Those first weeks had been very difficult ones for a woman who had lost those she cherished above all others. To be surrounded by the gentle, joyful faces of children, though hard, proved to be just the healing that Mary needed. Their acceptance and freely-given affection was the balm that soothed her wounds and proved to be her salvation. To be the caregiver of so many children over the ensuing years was her life choice; but her destiny was to be the surrogate mother of one very special child... a child that had never been before, nor will be again; a child who needed special care, and for that reason she chose to re-open her own personal Pandora's Box.
Clutching a scrap of blanket that had been shared by her sons, Mary smiled and gentle closed the old wooden chest...patting its lid affectionately as she rose to her feet. Over the years, the old box had well-protected both her past joys and sorrows. Now was the time to put away the sorrow of the past and, by caring for the child now sleeping in the nursery, Mary had come to believe that it was possible to give her heart once again.
She left the chamber that housed her past and traveled down the tunnel that led to the children's dormitories...two chambers carved out of living rock that safely cradled all that the community held dear. One chamber housed the older children, those aged seven and older. The chamber next to it protected those most cherished...children six and under. Some had been born to the tunnel community, some abandoned, some had simply run away, and some, like the child who drew Mary's personal attention this night, had been just thrown away.
He was unlike any child she had ever seen and, at a year and a half old, was already showing the promise of a strong will and caring heart. There were times, however, when any child's sleep can be disturbed by shadows and monsters and Vincent's dreams were no different. He had cried out in fear as Mary held a nightly vigil over the little ones.
Returning form her task, Mary became aware of a whimpering coming from the back of the chamber and hurried between the beds. Each child's sleeping area held a bed, a chair, and a small bedside table. On the table beside each bed stood a lit hand-made candle to chase away nightly shadows. The candle beside Vincent's bed, however, had burned low and gone out. Somehow, even in his sleep, the child had sensed this and become anxious...fretful...crying out softly in his sleep.
Mary softly brushed aside a stray strand of amber hair and gazed into his beautiful, little, cat-like face...such a sweet, charmed, sad child. No one knew where he came from, other than the fact that he had been found behind St. Vincent's Hospital. No one knew who or where his parents were. No one had ever tried to find the strange-looking waif...the Helpers had kept a close eye on the papers. The only person who showed any affection for him was one of the leaders of the community...a man everyone called "Father".
But Father had so many other things to see to Below, that even he was not able to five a growing child what he really needed...a mother's love. The child whimpered once more...
"Shhhh. There...there now," she whispered, not wanting to wake the other children. A pair of startlingly wise, cornflower blue eyes slowly cracked open and looked up at her. She sat down in the chair beside the bed and bent to kiss Vincent softly upon his brow. "I won't let anything happen to you, little one. Why don't you come over here?" and she held out her arms to invite him onto her lap. He blinked, smiled sleepily and wiggled out from beneath his covers to crawl into her lap, where he was immediately wrapped in loving arms.
Mary remembered the feeling of another small body nestled trustingly in her embrace and, as the young Vincent returned to sleep cradled in her arms, she wrapped her lost son's favorite blanket around his sleeping form and gazed into his strangely beautiful, little face...all the lonely years seemed far away. Once again she held a small, precious life in her arms. Her gaze traveled over the heads of all the other little ones sleeping safely Below and knew that she had come home at last.
Written November 1997. Submitted/published in "A Beauty at the Beach: To See the World in a Grain of Sand." 1998 International 'Beauty and the Beast' Convention Zine, March 27-29, 1998 by the Dreamseekers, P.O Box 64681, Aeredale Station, Virginia Beach, VA 23467.