If someone had told me that when I left high school, it would be the last time I'd be able to form a complete thought - Anthony, put it down! I don't care! - I would have laughed... and then cried. Hang on a minute. You two, knock it off or I swear I will hog tie you and put you in the closet! Maybe we should go sit in another room...preferably one with a lock on the door.
Okay, so what were we talking about? Oh, yeah, school. About half way through my senior year, we all noticed that Mom was losing weight. I could understand them not saying anything to the younger kids, but I was practically a woman by then, at least to my way of thinking. They thought they were being kind. I'm telling you now, they weren't.
I knew something was wrong. It had been for awhile. I started taking over more and more of the household chores. We all pitched in, of course. When you have seven younger brothers and sisters, there's always something that needs to be done.
Finally, my Aunt Laura takes me off into a room and tells me that Mom is dying. Gee, how is that kinder than having told me back when she was just sick... sorry, I lose my train of thought easily these days. Anyhow, things went from bad to worse. Dad started drinking and the next thing I knew my brothers and sisters were being farmed out to relatives. When I protested, they pointed out that I was just a little girl and if I said anything to the authorities, the Child Protective Services would take them away from us. Surely it would be better if they were with relatives than strangers.
But even so, Aunt Agnes, Aunt Dorothy, Uncle Albert and Uncle Dolfus weren't going to rub Jerry's back until he fell asleep at night. Or cuddle Hector when his asthma got bad, brush out Annette's hair and help Elaine with her math. Right then and there, I decided I was going to do all it took to keep such a thing from happening to any other family.
It was a struggle, but at eighteen I was on my own. Dad drank himself into oblivion while I went to school during the day and worked at night. Then one night he grabbed me, thinking I was Mom, I guess, and I fought him off with one of Tony's baseball bats. I didn't protest when the cops took him into custody. I had to hope he would get the help he needed.
The next day, he was gone and I wasn't. I started taking in kids to make ends meet and taking classes when I could scrape the money together. My relatives, they helped where they could and when, but none of them were what I considered rich. It seemed like it took a million years, it seemed like it took no time at all, until I was walking across that stage to collect a shiny diploma and I went looking for a job.
But see, they didn't want people who were comfortable with kids and knew the ins and outs of the child protection laws. I either had too much or too little education. I was too white or I wasn't white enough. I was too poor or not underprivileged enough to know what poverty was - I would like to see them try and feed a family of eight on twenty dollars a week and still have enough to pay for the electricity. Whatever they wanted, I wasn't it.
I was about at the end of my rope. I was sitting and waiting for a bus when this little old man sat down beside me and asked me if this bus would take him downtown. I don't know what it was about him, but he was easy to talk to. The next thing I knew we were sitting on the bus and talking and laughing like we were old friends.
When I got home, I found forty dollars and a business card in the pocket of my jacket. I don't know how he put it in there, but he did. I did something truly and purely selfish. I went out and bought a pint of ice cream and ate every last bit of it myself. While I did that, I kept staring at the little man standing in front of a globe on the card. Under the logo, it said United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
I didn't know what UNCLE wanted with me, but I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained. First thing the next morning, I made a call and almost immediately things started looking up.
I won't bore you with details. For someone who'd barely even ridden to the other side of our borough, life got pretty wild, let me tell you. I was recruited into Section Three. We're the agents most like regular police. We don't wear badges or anything, but everyone seemed to know and respect us just the same.
My job was pretty easy. I didn't go out like the men. I stayed back at HQ and worked with any of the young people who were brought in. You wouldn't think there'd be many of them, but THRUSH, that's the bad guys, they love to target families. A scientist is more likely to be willing to do their bidding if their child's life is in danger. We tended to go into dangerous situations and whisk the kids away before THRUSH had a chance to grab them.
Within the first week, I'd consoled a six year old, blood splattered and in hysterics after watching her father shot down in front of her. I had an angry teen who didn't understand why she HAD to be there, she HAD a date, it wasn't fair. Another kid was a loud mouth punk that I had to knock down and sit on before he'd show me any respect. Hey, you don't raise seven younger brothers and sisters without learning a trick or two. I guess I did okay because they didn't fire me like I thought they were going to.
That was then, this is now. After five years, I'm a hardened professional now or at least I thought I was.
The place was a powder keg when I walked in. The news had been talking about some huge mishap, some building had collapsed or something. The minute I walked into the Employees Entrance I knew something was really wrong. The receptionist, a really nice girl my age, had tears streaming down her face and her hand trembled as she gave me my badge.
The first thing I do upon arriving each morning is head to my locker and exchange my street clothes for stuff that is a little more practical. I discovered that by changing into slacks and a loose blouse, the guys don't hit on me as much and the kids seem to trust me more. I happily left my high heels behind for a pair of socks and my Keds. Now I was ready for work.
I almost got to my office when my partner, Kyle, ran up to me and grabbed my arm, dragging me back the way I'd just come.
"Come on, Matilda, we have to go."
"Where?" I knew it was serious because he usually called me Mattie
"We have an agent and an innocent down." The fact that he grabbed me meant there was someone who was under twenty one involved.
"Have you listened to the news this morning?"
"You mean about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that Johnson just signed? Or the Civil Rights March on Washington? Beatlemania?"
"That building collapsing." We came out into the parking structure and Kyle waved his hand. A dark sedan pulled up in front of us and he opened a car door for me. Hey, being an agent didn't mean I had to stop being a lady.
The car squealed away before I had a chance to get the door fully shut. The motion slammed me to the back of the seat. "Damn it," I muttered. I saw some eyes flick up at me in the rearview mirror.
"Not their fault, we're fighting the clock."
"I was talking about THRUSH," I said, by way of an apology. "So what's going on?"
"They found our agent and the victim...
"Aren't they both victims at this point?"
"The kid is seven, so I'm thinking he's more victim worthy."
"If you found them, why do you need me?"
"They're trapped and... there are issues. You'll see."
The car cut through the traffic, a couple of times coming close to nipping a pedestrian or hitting another vehicle. At no time did the car even slow down. I was starting to get the idea that there was more to this than I knew.
We blasted through a police barricade and rolled to a stop in front of a pile of rubble that had once been a lovely art deco building. A sign advertising a palm reader dangled precariously from a piece of twisted metal and I wondered if the palm reader had looked at her hand that morning and known she was going to die.
I got out, coughing at the stink in the air. It was heavy with dust, smoke and the smell of roast beef. That's when they carried a stretcher by me and I realized it wasn't beef I'd smelled. A lesser person might have upchucked at that moment. God knows I thought about it.
Kyle wove in and out of the crowd, stepping over hoses and around gurneys and equipment. Then he paused by a hole - I think it might have been a doorway at one time. It was being guarded by a cop you could tell took his job very seriously.
"Is it okay for us to go in?" Kyle and I both brought out our ID cards.
The cop glanced at them and then us. "Like that would have stopped the other fella."
I felt a knot twist in my stomach. "Who?"
"Blond guy about yay high." The cop's hand stopped at my height. "No force in hell was going to stop him."
"Kuryakin," Kyle said, putting a hand under my elbow. "It's his partner in there."
A moment now to discuss the Dynamic Duo, as we tend to refer to Solo and Kuryakin down at headquarters. These two are as different as they come. Solo is gregarious and quite the ladies man. Kuryakin is quiet, as many Soviets tend to be until they get to know you, but he's also got a deadly sense of humor and doesn't lack in the ladies department either. They had a track record the rest of Section Two would kill for. They go in when it's deemed too dangerous or difficult for other agents... and that made me really nervous now.
Kyle took a flashlight out of his jacket pocket and led the way through rubble and twisted metal. I was glad I'd changed into flat shoes. High heels have to be a cruel trick played upon women by podiatrists and they would have made walking in here impossible.
There was the flicker of light ahead and as we drew nearer, I could see a small group of men huddled around something. That something turned out to be the very enchanting view of Mr. Kuryakin's behind and legs as they protruded out of a hole. They scrambled against the ground for purchase, but he wasn't getting any farther inside.
"Can you reach them?" One of the guys was shouting. We were still too far away to hear his response, but a moment later, another guy grabbed Kuryakin's ankles and pulled backwards.
Okay, so now I was ready to upchuck. Kuryakin looked like someone had put him through a meat grinder. He didn't try to stand, but someone helped him sit up and passed him a flash of something. His hand was shaking so badly most of the water ended up down the front of his red tee shirt.
"I can't reach them. I'm too big." He smiled ruefully. "I never thought I'd hear myself say that."
Kyle moved forward and knelt beside him. "What going on in there, Agent?"
There's a rumor that Section Two agents don't get along too well with us Section Three guys. We don't fight it because it's easier to just go with the flow and let folks think what they will. They didn't see the look of relief in Kuryakin's eyes as he studied Kyle's face.
"We have an agent trapped. He's unconscious and so far we have been unable to ascertain his injuries."
I think it helped him to talk as if it wasn't his partner in there, but some nameless stranger lying in there, possibly dead. God only knows the horrors that were playing through his mind.
"And the child?" It was as if he'd just noticed me and he smiled tightly.
"We did not know he was wired to an incendiary device. I went to get the car and when Napoleon attempted to take him from his cell, it triggered the initial explosion and the building went up." He was looking back at the hole, concern distorting his whole face.
"But is he okay?" I tried to put it as gently as I could. If they were both dead, our job was pretty much over.
"No way to tell. I can't get close enough to see much of anything. I think I can hear someone crying, but I can't be sure if it's them or someone else. They are tunneling through from the other side, but we don't know if trying to move him will trigger another explosion or not."
"Maybe you can't, but let me try. I'm smaller than you. Maybe I can fit." I was already pulling my hair back, braiding it quickly.
He nodded and stood, with a little help from the cops and Kyle. He pulled out a flashlight from his back pocket and wiped it off with a handkerchief Kyle handed him. It came away streaked with blood. I took it and walked over to the hole. It looked so very small and while I'm not claustrophobic, the thought of there being an entire building just ready to drop was a scary one. Still, Mama always said, 'When it's your time, it's your time and it doesn't matter if you're sky diving or sitting on the couch, God will have His way.' I just sort of hoped today wouldn't be my day.
I dropped to my hands and knees and slipped into the hole. It was tiny at the opening and I couldn't figure out how Kuryakin ever forced his body through it. It opened up a little. It helped that they'd spread something slick on the ground, so I could slide along on it. I got the flashlight on and pointed it down. Then I realized that Kuryakin's tee shirt had probably been white when he'd gone into the hole and I'd been sliding on the blood trail he'd made in an attempt to reach his partner.
This time I was sick, turning my head just in time to vomit into a pile of rubble. Believe me, it isn't easy to upchuck lying down and I whacked my head a couple of times during the process. It felt as if the walls were shifting down upon me, tighter and closer. I couldn't breathe and felt a pressure on my ankle.
"Hey, Mattie, you good?" I can't begin to tell you the strength hearing Kyle's voice gave me.
I spat and pushed some concrete rubble over the spot where I'd upchucked my morning's doughnut in case I had to come back this way. "I'm good."
"Can you see them?" Kuryakin's voice was so tight, I was afraid it would snap.
I aimed the flashlight straight ahead. "Nothing yet. Give me a minute."
I found the tight spot that had kept Kuryakin from moving forward. It was a tight squeeze and I could feel rebar and concrete pluck at my shirt and scrape my belly and back as I inched through. There was an open spot ahead about the size of a small closet and I shone the flashlight around, stopping as I spotted a little white face.
Gritting my teeth, I wiggled my butt through the crack - no more doughnuts for me! - and into the opening. I took a deep breath of relief. I turned back to the hole and shone my flashlight back through the tunnel.
"Is Napoleon okay?" That would have been Kuryakin. I carefully moved the light until I found the child. He was clutching the arm of an adult. I guessed it would have to be Solo, although I couldn't see much of his features.
"Hi there. I'm Mattie. What's your name?" The little boy was obviously in shock and he sat trembling like a leaf.
"I told 'em. I told 'em. I weren't to move. They told me not to move and I didn't, but he made me." He looked fearfully down at Solo. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for the building to fall down on him."
"It wasn't your fault, buddy." I got a little closer and started to check him for external injuries first. "Are you okay? Are you really hurt?"
"I throwed up." He looked over at a dark puddle not far away, his bruised brow furrowed with concern.
"Me too. It's pretty scary, huh?"
Now I noticed that all this time, he'd been sitting really still. "It's okay to be scared. What's your name?"
"I'm glad you're my friend, but what's your name?"
There was a ghost of a smile on his lips. "That's my name. Friend. My mama told me that way I'd be a friend to everyone and never lonely. I miss Mama. They killed her and Daddy too."
"I miss my mama too, Friend." I gave him my best smile. "Why don't you come over here and you can crawl out."
"No, they told me not to move. They said if I did something bad would happen."
I got a little closer to him and shone my light over him. On his ankle was a band with a blinking green light and three numbered dials. I heard Solo moan softly and reached out a hand to stroke his cheek. It was cool and felt like paper. Not a good thing. He was probably in shock and I suspected he was losing blood.
I crawled back to the hole and shouted through it. "He's got some sort of ankle band on."
"Are there any markings on it?" Kuryakin again.
"I'll have to look; it's got a green light and three tumblers through."
"Look to see is there are any markings on it, like a series of numbers, underneath the dials. Whatever you do, don't move it"
"Okay. Hey, Kuryakin, your partner's alive." I didn't add, 'for the moment.' If they didn't get some help in here soon though, I didn't expect him to stay that way.
Kuryakin said something I didn't understand and I moved back over to where Friend sat and Solo lay, huddled against the wall.
"I'm going to look at your ankle, Friend. Is that okay?" I've learned with kids, if you gave them a chance to feel in charge, they were more likely to cooperate with you.
"'Kay, but don't touch it." I twisted the flashlight around and squinted. It was hard to read the letters and I stared at them for a long time, checking and rechecking until I was sure I had them right.
I patted his arm. "You are doing such a good job. You're really brave."
"I'm not, I'm scared."
"Me too, honey." I got back to my pipeline to the outside. "Hey, Kuryakin, do the numbers 8901 4716 mean anything?"
"Are you sure about those?" He didn't sound as if he believed me.
"Yes!" There was a long silence, during which I went back to Solo and gave him a once over. He'd been coldcocked by something and had a mess of scrapes and cuts, as did Friend. The back of his shirt was wet and his pulse was a little thready.
"Miss Corren?" Kuryakin's voice was louder and I realized he was back in the hole. I flashed the light in and he blinked furiously. He'd gotten back to the narrow place.
"Sorry, didn't know you were in there." I redirected the beam.
"You need to listen to me very carefully now. You need to turn the center dial to '0', then the last dial to '4' and the first one to '9' and then go back and reset the middle dial to '2'. If you do it out of sequence, we will all die. Do you understand?"
But no pressure, right? I repeated his instructions and went back to Friend. He was terrified, poor little guy. Between what had happened and all the noise that seemed to be reverberating all around us, he was nearly in hysterics.
My hands were shaking and I was sweating so bad I could barely see the dials. It took every bit of concentration I had to keep from just setting the numbers left to right as you would normally do. I set the middle dial to '2' and held my breath. The green light started blinking furiously and I wanted to scream that I'd done it right and what the hell did it want from me. Then the silly thing popped open and Friend was free.
I scooped him up in my arms and held him until the firemen broke through. We were safe...
The rest of the day sort of blurred by after that. I was taken to Medical and patched up and then I was allowed to take Friend off to his very relieved mother and father. THRUSH had told him they'd killed them to keep the little guy from misbehaving. I wished for a nice little spot in Hell for them.
I was sitting at my desk, trying to read a study that was linking the intake of sugar to hyperactivity, like they needed a study for that. Ask any mother and she'll tell you what a bowl of sugary cereal did to her kid. My mind kept wandering back to the hole. I couldn't get the smell of dust and crud out of my nose and the sight of so much blood out of my mind. I felt as if I was still trapped in that stink hole. There was a knock on my door that shook me from the images and I was mighty glad to leave them behind.
"Come in." I stood up and grinned as Kuryakin limped through the door. He still looked a mess and his torso looked thick, I was guessing, from bandages. Both of his hands were wrapped and he had a sort of glassy look in his eyes, probably from pain killers. "You're looking a whole lot better than the last time I saw you." I can lie with the best of them.
"I want to thank you. If the firemen had broken through and tried to remove the boy... I don't like to think about 'what if's' in our line of work and that was a substantial one."
"In our line of work, it doesn't pay to think too much." I certainly agreed with him on that front. He stood awkwardly by the door, looking like he was ready to bolt or collapse or possibly both, but he seemed to need to say something else.
"The boy is okay?"
"He is. How about your partner?"
"I'm on my way down to Medical to retrieve him. It is amazing that for all of that, he was spared so much. He's very fortunate in that regard."
"Do you need anything?"
He smiled, a truly beautiful thing. "No, we are fine."
I let it slide that I asked him if he needed anything and he answered in the plural. Yet he was probably right, he was okay because his partner was okay. We all need someone to look out for and look out for us. Those two had each other. And me, I had all the crying children, just waiting to be held and comforted and made secure. It's nice to be needed.