Below the Surface

1

Gennine was in Grandma Tracy's sitting room, curled up like a tabby on a soft armchair, her latest manuscript in hand. She was reading to the old lady from chapter 12 of 'Soft Possession' , her newest romance novel. (Quite unbeknownst to Alan, Gennine had found modest success as a writer, under the pseudonym "Veronica Locksley"; garbage, most of it, but bored and lonely housewives ate it up, and Gennine was actually rather proud of herself.)

Victoria Tracy listened as she sat in the worn old rocker that Grant hadmade so long ago, and in which she'd hushed and comforted four very different boys. She was working on a cross-stitched sign for the upstairs bathroom, using silk thread of vivid blues and greens: "If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie, and wipe the seatie." A useful proverb, in a house filled with men.

Cindy had popped in briefly, but couldn't sit still with Scott away on a dangerous mission. Giving the two former wives a nervous smile, she'd gone off to wait in the control room with Brains. So, now it was just the two of them.

The muted television flickered away in one corner, self absorbed as a mental patient. Gennine had just reached the good part (Violetta was about to reveal her secret identity and undying passion to Hunter Trace), when Alan burst into the room, a scowl on his soft, round face. That her son was angry was obvious; he'd come straight from his morning shower, having forgotten even to gel his blond hair..., and why wasn't much of a secret, either. Setting down the half-finished novel, Gennine composed herself for battle.

"Mom! You gotta let...!"

"Alan Tracy!" Grandma cut in sharply, leaning forward, cross stitch abandoned in her lap, brown eyes snapping like firecrackers. "You weren't born in a barn, nor raised by wolves! Is that how you talk to your mother, young man?"

Alan flushed. Head down, he kicked at the flowered carpet, muttering,

"No, Ma'am, Grandma... I'm sorry Ma'am."

Gennine sighed, pushing a blue plastic bandeau further back through her smooth, gilt hair. Sometimes, it seemed as though absolutely everyone had greater control over her son than she did. But, why? She'd read all the childcare books...!

"Alan," she began, modeling what she hoped was a calm and respectful tone. "I know why you're here, and while it's perfectly understandable that, as a growing young man, you'd want to join your brothers, I believe that at fourteen you're still a bit young to be risking your life on a daily basis... Wait, Alan! Hear me out, please...?"

She took a deep, steadying breath, mentally savaging Jeff for placing her in this awful position.

"I can't control what Gordon does, or the others, either. They're... not my sons."

This last was said a bit thickly. After all these years... the hope and joy of marriage, the disappointment and failure of divorce... that most primal of rejections still hurt tremendously. Gordon had grown fond of her, though (after an initial boyish crush), and that was something. But she mustn't lose focus, Gennine reminded herself, arrowing back to her point.

"...But you are mine, and it's my job to see to it that you live long enough to start making your own decisions. Smart and safe ones! Sixteen years old, Alan. That's the bottom line."

She'd have sounded a good deal more impressive if she could have kept the quiver out of her voice. It was painful, refusing her only child the one thing he wanted most in the world. She felt like an utter and complete failure.

Breathing hard, fists clenched, Alan started to rage and yell. He excelled at throwing tantrums. Always had. They weren't alone, though, and that colored his thinking, clearing the emotional fog to suggest an alternate strategy. Instead of going to pieces, he appealed to a higher authority. Lower lip out and trembling, Alan whirled to face Victoria Tracy.

"Grandma, please...? You understand, don't you? Can't you talk to her? I mean...," He ran a shaking hand through his hair, in a gesture startlingly similar to Jeff's. "...They're my brothers. Gordon and them are out there, maybe fighting for their lives, and maybe they need just one more guy to help out, only they don't have him... and... well, what if something went wrong, and I wasn't there to help?"

He spread his hands, pleading with the old woman.

"Grandma... I don't know what I'd do, if something happened and I was stuck back here, smart and safe and helpless! Please, Grandma, tell her!"

The silver-haired lady glanced over at Gennine, who was alarmingly close to tears herself. Folding her knobby white hands in her lap, Victoria said,

"Child, I ain't one to stick my nose in anyone else's business. I ain't lived to be eighty years old by messin' where I don't got leave to be. But... I'll say this much; you can shelter someone, and worry yourself cross-eyed and half-witted, and have 'em run off screaming like a snipped piglet, just as soon's they're old enough to bolt. And then, outta sheer cussedness, they'll try each and every damfool thing you warned 'em not to, just because it was you that said it."

She laced her fingers, dark eyes behind their spectacles moist and sad.

"You could take care of someone, thinkin' you was doing the best in the world by 'em, and have 'em carried off after fifty-two years together. And, Jenny-Girl, it hurts just as bad as if it happened two days after you said your 'I do's. Believe me, I know."

The old woman cocked her head to one side, adding,

"That's a voice I'll never hear again, till the Lord sees fit to call me home... But I keep listening for him to come in, stomping snow off his boots 'n hollering for coffee."

Victoria seemed to give herself a little shake, as she pulled free of longing and sorrow.

"Tell you a story, Jenny. There was a little boy, Billy Hardy, as fell into an old cistern catchment drain. Three years old, he was. This was back awhile ago. Let's see..., April of 2054, I believe it was, on the spread next to ours. Anyways..., playin' outside, he fell into this narrow little bore hole, and got stuck. Everyone come from a hundred miles around, just as fast as they could scurry, to help get him out. Grant went, and Scotty, Teddy, and John. I was there, too, to help feed the crowd and care for Mary Hardy's other little 'uns, as she was busy talkin' down the hole, keeping Billy awake. Well, they dug a slanting kinda tunnel just under where Billy was. Used that remote borer thing. Teddy was best at guiding the balky contraption, so he set up the board and run it, while Scotty and Jake Ross hauled-ass to the cistern mouth, meaning to get down in there and catch the little fellow,if he fell through. Diggin' had to go slow, so's not to collapse the tunnel, nor shake the baby loose, and when they finally broke through, the only one skinny and flexible enough to wriggle along that worm hole and reach up the drain for Billy... was John."

Victoria shook her head fiercely, her mouth a grim, tight line.

"I tell you right now, Jenny-Girl, I didn't like it one bit. I could see in my mind's eye that tunnel collapsin' and burying 'em both alive. But I just told him to mind the harness didn't catch on anythin', and sent him on in."

She gave Gennine a long glance of pity and understanding.

"It runs in the family, Girl. Through all of us. If I'd been a little younger, I'd 've gone in myself. I'm small enough. Anyways, they made it back alive, both of 'em; dirty, scratched up and cold, but safe. Thing is, John was fourteen, too. Grant asked my permission, like Jeffery asked yours, and it about tore me up to give it... but Billy and his folks needed us, so I did. Didn't make no fuss, neither. Didn't want to embarrass the boy. But, there; you're his mother, and can't nobody make that decision but you."

Gennine bit her lip, glancing from Grandma Tracy to Alan's hopeful face. Tears began slipping from her wide blue eyes. Then, slowly, she nodded her head.

Alan whooped aloud, leapt three feet into the air, kissed his mother and grandma, and ran from the room, shouting,

"She... said... yes!"