by Debbie Ristick
(edited by Lynne Wexler)

The way was familiar, but different somehow as she slowly made her away along the grassy border toward the steep incline. There was no light to point her in the appropriate direction, no children playing outside in the safety of the sunshine to escort her the rest of the way. It was dark, and for now, she was alone. She would have to do this herself.

Stopping for a moment to catch her breath, she squinted her eyes, seeing the path narrow before her, leading to a door she knew she would recognize as soon as she saw it, but was unsure she remembered how to open.

"You find family, wherever people love each other....."

"Yes," she whispered to herself, then closed her eyes as a near-overload of emotions roiled inside her.

There was no choice. She had to go on.

With a strengthened sense of determination, she pushed away from the wall where she'd rested, and started down the incline toward the beckoning safety that called out to her in her dreams, her visions, her memories. She needed it around her, to protect her, to remind her, to renew her soul and give her back her hope. She'd been alone for so long now....

When her footsteps sounded hollowly around her, she paused for a moment, taking a quick glance around to insure no one followed; then, without hesitation she ducked into the drainage access, and disappeared into the darkness.

But inside, unbeknown to most, it was not unlit, nor dank, nor unsafe. Inside, as she moved quickly along the concrete path, she could hardly control the pounding of her heart, nor the excitement she felt rising in her like a tide. Her fingers reached out hesitantly as she entered a small alcove, and she choked back a sob as they brushed along the beginnings of a line of pipes -- pipes that would tell an entire community, hidden from the world she was escaping, that someone was knocking at their door.

An iron-barred door covered the access panel she'd walked through so many times in the past, and for a moment, she was seized by the panicky feeling that she would not be able to open that door. Yet it opened easily as she touched it, swinging slowly by her and exposing the metal one inside it.

Looking around, she frowned, pursing her lips. There was a switch to trip the door, but where? It had been so long....

With a gasp, she jumped back from the door as it began to slowly roll open, and supernatural light from the other side splashed onto her face, momentarily blinding her to whoever was about to come out.

"Who is it?" she asked suddenly, her voice breathless, her heart pounding.

No words were spoken, but as her vision cleared, she felt the touch of fingers entwining themselves around her own, and she looked up to meet the eyes of the man whose hand now held hers. "I never thought to see or speak to you again," she whispered softly, unable to hide the tear that began to trickle slowly down her cheek.

With a sigh, he nodded. "Yes, it has been far too long since you've explored our world and spoken for our community. We believed you had tired of us -- that you'd found all you once sought here in the world above. But now, looking at you, feeling your anticipation, I think we might have been premature. Perhaps you've thought of us from time to time as you've lived your life -- perhaps now it's time for you to return?"

"My life has been difficult in the past few years," she replied, "and there were times I wasn't sure I would make it through. But now, more than anything," she continued, "here is where I wish to be. Can you take me?"

"It would be my privilege, Debbie," he answered, then pointed a clawed finger toward the long tunnel that would take them to the world below. "The paths have changed, and the way is long, but with a determined heart, you will find your way home once more. Never doubt that."

I nodded slowly, and carefully crossed the threshold into a world I had not visited in far too long. Immediately, I felt the lump in my throat rise, choking me as sheer and utter joy filled my heart and mind. "Vincent," I said softly, turning back to look at him, "I have missed you so much. I've missed everyone....."

"I know," he replied gently, his hand giving my shoulder a loving squeeze. "And we've missed you as well -- missed your stories and your passions. But, enough for now. Come with me. Father will certainly wish to sit you right down and let you beat him in a game of chess....."

After exchanging a soft chuckle, I looked into the great man-beast's crystal blue eyes, and found myself resisting the urge to throw myself into the arms I knew would hug me back if I so desired. Yet, I did not, deciding to allow those arms to lie in wait for the one who made his life complete -- for I knew she was here as well, for in my mind, she never left.

It was good to be home....