I don’t know exactly when Daniel stopped chattering, but it was near the third act of the movie. When the credits started and I looked in his direction, he was fast asleep on the blankets beside me.
“Whoa. When did that happen?”
“Not sure,” Robin said, nudging his son with his foot. “Daniel? Hey Daniel? Nope. He’s out.”
“Should I… I should probably go then?” I whispered.
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about waking him,” Robin said, not bothering to lower his voice. “You’d think a life full of danger would make a kid too jumpy to rest, but once this one crashes, he’ll sleep through anything.” He reached out to ruffle Daniel’s hair fondly. “Just like a toddler. I tell you, this is a kid who can sprint twice around a small town without tiring, but trying to fit in at a new school really seems to take it out of him.”
“He has to do that a lot, huh?” I asked quietly.
“Yes,” Robin said with a loving, strangely heartbroken smile, “thanks to his obsessive madman of a father. I never meant to, but I suppose I’ve turned him into quite the fighter.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
“Anyone can throw their fists around; it takes a special kind of resilience to get up and go back into uncertainty over and over again with a heart as open as Daniel’s.”
As Robin moved some of the candles nearer to his son, I looked down at Daniel’s sleeping face with new consideration. I had only ever moved schools once and I had protected myself and my secrets by avoiding contact with anyone. Daniel had secrets to keep too, but that didn’t stop him from smiling at the people who approached him, talking to them, speaking his mind with them.
It had never even occurred to me that I could be friendly with others, but it seemed like it had never occurred to Daniel not to be. Maybe that was an admirable thing. Okay, I still thought Daniel was a bit of a dope with no sense of self-preservation, but he was a likeable dope, which was more than anyone would ever say of me.
Suddenly, the yellow-orange glow of the living room was replaced by a flash of white light. A thunderclap split the sky outside, shaking the candles on their shelves. Daniel didn’t stir, but just for a second—and it might have just been the flicker of the lightning—I thought I saw Robin flinch.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
Something in his voice wasn’t quite convincing and I had to ask. “Robin… I know you said not to worry about it—but the storms these past few days, do they have anything to do with the guy you followed here?”
“Not that I can tell.”
“Really?” I wanted to believe him, but the presence—the personality—behind the storm last night had been so strong. “Are you sure?”
Robin looked at me for a moment in the wavering candlelight, his expression unreadable. “I believe Daniel has already told you that there are no theonites powerful enough to control the weather.”
I opened my mouth and then closed it again, pressing my lips together. “Is that what you told him?”
Robin raised his eyebrows at me, but he didn’t seem angry. “It’s what most people on Duna believe.”
“But not you.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, you obviously know about things that other people don’t, like how to get to parallel dimensions. It’s part of your job.”
“Well, aren’t you a regular Xamanxulle.”
“A regular what?”
“Xamanxulle. She’s a famous fictional detective on Duna.”
“What?” It was Robin’s turn to look confused.
“Sherlock Holmes,” I repeated. “That’s what you would say on Earth, to tell someone they were a good detective.”
“Good to know.” Robin smiled. “So far, I’m really enjoying this planet’s fiction.”
“But I’m right, aren’t I?” I pressed, refusing to go along with the change of subject. “About the storms. There’s something about them, something in them that’s—”
“Joan,” Robin said sternly, “I know this is all new for you, I know that you are curious, you are worried, but I have been fighting these evils since before you were born. You need to trust me when I say that I will handle this.”
And I couldn’t argue with that. Robin was the expert. So, even though I was aching to demand more answers, I bit down on the impulse and nodded. For a moment, the only sound was the wind blowing waves of rain against the side of the house.
Despite the circle of warm candles, I sensed cold seeping in through the walls. Robin must have felt it too because he pulled another blanket out of one of the cardboard boxes and draped it over Daniel. Actually, it wasn’t a blanket, I realized as Robin tugged it up to cover his son’s shoulders. It was a long, hooded, black coat.
Intrigued by the ethereal sheen of the fabric, I reached out with my powers to see what it was made of, only to find a confounding jumble of material. There was that unfamiliar glass-like fiber I had felt in the forontunu bag, layered with a thin mesh of material I couldn’t identify, and laced with the buzz of metal wiring. From where I was sitting, the garment felt more like a computer chip than a piece of fabric.
“Firebird coat,” Robin explained when he saw my puzzled expression. “It has a built-in heating and cooling system for extreme environments, makes a good blanket.”
“That’s what you wear to fight crime?” I asked, looking down at the garment with new excitement.
“I know it doesn’t look like much, but it might be the handiest article of clothing in this dimension or any other. It has everything: littigi color-changing cells, a cloaking device, micro-armor, a communications system… I’ll show you sometime—or Daniel can. He loves playing with it.”
“So, this crime-fighting, Firebird thing you do, what exactly is it?”
“It’s not too complicated,” Robin said. “I find bad people who are too powerful or too manipulative for the regular authorities to handle, I investigate them, I track them, and I stop them.”
“Like—you kill them?” I asked in a hushed voice.
“No. Firebird doesn’t kill,” Robin said, and I noticed that he referred to his alter ego like it was a separate person.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why do you do this whole crime-fighting thing? Like, how did you become Firebird in the first place?”
Robin’s smile grew sad in the candlelight. “That’s a long story, my friend. I have no objection to giving you the short version… if you’re sure want to hear it.”
“It’s not a pleasant story,” he warned.
“Please?” I said again, more softly.
“Well, Firebird wasn’t even an idea until my late teenage years, but the pyre was set a long time before that.” Robin looked away from me, swirling the flame of one of the candles around a fingertip.
“What?” What did that mean?
“I spent a little over a year of my early childhood in an active war zone. I saw countless people—including my nine-year-old sister—killed in a bloody but ultimately meaningless border dispute between the Ranganese Union and my home country of Disa. Of my entire extended family, my twin brother and I were the only two who survived long enough to be rescued.”
“Oh,” I whispered, suddenly sorry that I asked.
Robin’s tone was light enough, but memories like that couldn’t be erased with a simple smile. My grandpa had been in his early twenties when the Nazis marched on France and, half a century later, the memories had still clung to his features like a shadow. I couldn’t imagine what a war like that would do to a little kid.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It was a long time ago,” Robin said with a dismissive shake of his head that didn’t make me feel any better. “After the Jamuttaananu pulled us from the thick of the carnage, my brother and I spent two years as nationless refugees, first in Yamma and then in Carytha. I thought when we left Disa that the nightmare must be over, only to discover that children were suffering the same horrors, even right in the middle of the richest, most developed countries in the world. Behind the doors civilized people didn’t care to open, in the dark back alleys between nice neighborhoods, there were as many dead bodies and shattered lives as in any warzone.
“Peace, I learned, only exists for those in power. As I grew up in the orphanage in Carytha, I watched a lot of news, watched how it conflicted with the reality around me. I saw a lot of powerful people throwing their words and fists around in the name of big countries and abstract ideals. I didn’t see anyone standing up to defend the legions of lost children caught up and crushed in the messes they’d made.
“So when chance turned me into one of those people with power and influence, I decided that I would use it to help those children. I would be a voice for the silenced, a shelter for the defenseless, a pair of fists for the powerless. That was my mission statement when I set out to change my world. Those simple goals took form in Firebird.”
“Wow. And that—being Firebird—brought you here somehow?” I said in bewilderment.
“And that brought me here somehow.” Robin smiled, but didn’t elaborate.
I didn’t know why a story about wars and suffering suddenly made me want to see Duna more than ever. Robin was just so much more fascinating, and powerful, and compassionate—just so much more—than anyone I had ever known. I wanted to know all about his life, and his ideals, and the crazy world that had made him. I wanted to be part of it.
I fiddled with the drawstrings of my sweatshirt. “So, if you just came to this dimension for this one job, that means you’ll be going back sometime,” I said tentatively.
“Sometime. Hopefully soon,” Robin said. “As soon as I stop Mohan.”
“Right,” I murmured, suddenly aware of how hard my heart was beating as I struggled to broach the subject. “So, um, right before that lightning almost hit us, Daniel said that… He said maybe I could go with you?” My voice got very small at that last part.
“Come with us?” Robin repeated and I recognized that sobered ‘I was afraid you would ask that’ tone. “You want to go to Duna?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice quiet but decisive. “I want to go to Duna.”
“Joan, I’m not sure Duna is the right place for someone like you.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded. How could Duna not be the right place for me? People there had powers. They were like me.
“Well, for one thing, 0n Duna, people of your background are not respected the same way they are here.”
“My background?” What was that supposed to mean? I was educated in all different kinds of literature and history. How could that background not be respected?
“And culture shock won’t be your only setback,” Robin continued. “You’ll also have to deal with your race.”
“My race?” Why would that be a problem?
“On this planet, I understand that your skin color is something of a privilege. On Duna, I’m afraid it will be just the opposite.”
“What? You mean, like, white people are discriminated against?”
“To put it gently, yes.”
“Why? Because they don’t have powers?” That wouldn’t be a problem for me.
“In part, but it’s more complicated than that. It won’t be easy for you to live on Duna.”
“It’s not easy for me to live here!” I burst out.
The second I realized how loud my voice had gotten, I shrank back down, embarrassed. “Sorry,” I said, glancing at Daniel to make sure I hadn’t woken him. “I’m sorry, I just… You’re worried that I’m going to get to Duna and feel different, but I already am different. I’ve been different for my whole life. I have more in common with you than I’ve ever had with anyone here.”
“Is that true, Joan?” Robin raised his eyebrows. “Or is it just that we are the first people with whom you have this one thing in common?”
“It’s not just one thing,” I said fiercely, “It’s everything.”
Robin considered me for a long moment and I held his gaze, determined to show him that I meant what I said. I needed to go to Duna.
“Please,” I said, fighting to keep my voice from shaking. “I’m never going to get another chance to meet other people with powers like mine.”
“You don’t know that,” Robin said. “With your track record, you might run into another crazy coincidence.”
“Coincidence?” The word made me pause. I hadn’t really thought about it before that moment, but the odds of the only dimension-hopping Dunians coming into contact with the only theonite on Earth had to be infinitesimal. “You’re telling me we just met by chance?”
Robin gave a noncommittal shrug that only made me more suspicious.
“As far as I know, I’m the one person on this whole planet with these abilities,” I said, “and you told me you’re some of only a few people who’ve ever crossed over to this dimension. How can us crossing paths be just a coincidence?”
“Many things are coincidences,” Robin said without really answering my question. “Some would say it can all be attributed to nyama.”
“You remember how I told you that nyama holds all realms of the universe in alignment?”
“Yeah, but—what does that have to do with us?”
“It has everything to do with us,” Robin said. “That universal alignment may be what brought us together. You see, in Dunian religious philosophy, the nyama that we humans tap into has its own current that is more powerful than any single person, country, or planet. This cosmic flow of nyama carves invisible channels through the universe. That network of pathways is the same in every realm of reality: the past, the present, the afterlife, the not-yet-life and, some people would say, any parallel dimensions that might exist.”
“So, you’re saying ‘cosmic flow of nyama’ shaped our worlds to be similar to each other?” This was all sounding dangerously like the religious nonsense I tried to avoid. “How does that work?”
“No one can say for certain, but my friend, Koli, uses the metaphor of terrain and weather to explain it. The shape the nyama makes of the universe is a stone landscape of riverbeds. The specifics of human existence—such as language and historical events—are water. The activity of sentient creatures is weather. Every realm, every dimension, has the same landscape of hills and valleys, predetermined by the nyama of the universe. The only difference from one realm to the next is the weather.”
“So, what does that mean?”
“It means that, even though the rain and snow may fall in different places, at different times in your dimension, one way or another, the water in both our worlds takes the same course. What is only a trickle in your world might be a waterfall on Duna, and what is still dry valley on Duna might be a centuries-old river on Earth, but trickle or torrent, we are all flowing in the same patterns.”
“And you believe that?” I said, my opinion of Robin’s intelligence wavering for the first time.
“There is evidence in favor of the theory.”
“Like what?” I asked, deeply skeptical.
“The fact that you and I are speaking to each other, for one.”
“So, you’re saying we couldn’t possibly have met for some reason other than your mystical, cosmic—”
“I was referring to the language we are speaking,” Robin said.
“What about it?”
“Think about it for a moment. Despite our planets’ vastly different histories, your English and our Lindish are so close to identical that we can speak to each other without confusion.”
“Oh…” I supposed it was strange that a planet with a completely different history from Earth’s going back thousands of years—a planet with no United States—had come up with a perfect parallel to English, right down to its slang words.
“From what I’ve read, I understand that the variety of English spoken in this country is the result of its colonization by an old global super-power known as the British Empire?”
“That’s right.” I nodded.
“No such empire exists or has ever existed on Duna.”
“Wait, you never had a British Empire?” I thought for a moment. “So, how did this language get created?” No matter how I bent my brain, I couldn’t think of a way to arrive at modern American English without the British Empire.
“Well,” Robin said with a smile, “either it’s an insane coincidence, or there is some unseen force that drove Dunians and Earthlings to create the same language under entirely different conditions.”
“You’re trying to tell me that the nyama keeps our worlds connected in a way that made both our planets make up the same language… just in two different ways?”
“So, there’s, like, a particular path—or riverbed—in the universe that leads to the creation of this language we’re speaking. And, in both of our dimensions, some water reached it, and so the language was created?”
“Exactly,” Robin said. “On Duna, the water might have come in from a different source than it did here, but—”
“But both of us ended up with a river,” I said, enchanted with the idea, in spite of my better judgment.
“Well, Earth ended up with a river,” Robin corrected me. “On Duna, it’s little more than a backwoods stream.”
“What do you mean?”
“English may be a widely-spoken language, but Lindish is not. This dialect of Lindish that mirrors your American English so well is only spoken in a few Carythian cities and towns.”
Robin shrugged. “Same riverbed, different weather?”
“Wow.” That actually was pretty compelling evidence.
“And our identical languages aren’t the only way our worlds mirror one another,” Robin said just as I was about to ask about other uncanny similarities between Earth and Duna—and from the light in his eyes, I realized that he was just as excited as I was. “Even with historical events playing out so differently, some of Earth’s landmark advances in technology and ideology seem to have coincided with Duna’s.”
And Robin went on to list all different instances he had picked up on his recent trip to the library. Apparently, the political ideas behind the Thulanist Revolution in Ranga mirrored those of the Communist Revolution in China, even though the two drew inspiration from different places and resulted in different outcomes. Trains had come into major use around the same time on Duna and Earth, even though the innovation occurred in different places and utilized different energy sources. The Keleba or ‘Great War’ between Duna’s ruling powers had occurred during the same timeframe as our World War I. And the list when on.
“You know, I wish you could have met my grandpa,” I said when Robin had finished. “I think you guys would have gotten along.” I felt a smile turning the corner of my mouth. “He also liked to go on skimble skamble tangents instead of actually answering my questions.”
“Oh?” Robin laughed. “You think this is just a tangent? Have I not answered your question about coincidence?”
“Well, only sort of. This whole universal nyama thing explains why our dimensions’ languages and historical events are similar, but it actually doesn’t explain why you ended up moving in down the block from me.”
“It could,” Robin argued. “We don’t know. Many believe that the flow of nyama causes an attraction between like beings.”
“Okay,” I said, not quite buying it. “So, your final answer is that the Nyama works in mysterious ways?”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“I’m not very religious.”
He sighed. “You know, you’re much harder to distract than Daniel.”
“I know.” Another thing I had learned from my grandpa. He used to say, ‘follow a tangent as far as you like as long as you don’t lose sight of the path.’ But I liked Robin’s tangents, as I had liked Grandpa’s. And when thunder rumbled and I cast a wary glance back to the path, the questions I found there were frightening.
Robin’s voice was more serious as the thunder faded. “The truth is, the more I consider this situation, the more I think that our ending up in your neighborhood might not be a coincidence at all.”
“What do you mean might not be?” I asked.
“I mean I’m not sure yet.”
Just beyond the warmly lit living room curtains, I could feel cold rain hitting the window, making dribbling tracks down the glass. I was afraid to ask the question rising from the shadows of my mind. But Grandpa had said ‘don’t lose sight of the path. It’s not worth having a conversation if you can’t get back around to the point.’ So I made myself ask.
“Daniel said that Mohan came here looking for something, and that you were trying to get to it first.”
“That is true.”
“It… it’s not me he’s looking for, is it?”
As chilling as the thought was, it made sense. I was the only thing out of the ordinary in this boring little town. According to the Thundyils, I had powers even Dunian theonites didn’t have. That could easily be something a supervillain wanted to get his hands on.
Robin was quiet.
“Is it?” I pressed.
“I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I’m not ready to answer that question.”
“Not ready?” I repeated. “Does that mean you don’t know the answer or you just won’t tell me?
“It means that, whether or not I know, it would be unwise of me to tell you.”
“Now you see why Daniel gets so frustrated with me,” Robin said with an apologetic smile.
“Why can’t you just tell me?” I demanded, having trouble keeping my voice down in my frustration.
“In my line of work, I handle a great deal of sensitive and dangerous information. Because so much of what I know has the potential to alter and end lives, I’ve made it my policy to only tell people what they need to know. That rule applies even to my closest friends and my own son.”
“But I do need to know!” I protested. Whether or not a dangerous killer might be after me seemed like kind of essential information to have.
Robin shook his head. “It doesn’t matter if Mohan is after you or not.”
“Why would that not matter?”
“Because, either way, you will want to stay hidden from him, and either way, I will keep you safe.”
“But—what do I do?” I felt my voice rise in panic. “How do I stay hidden?”
“Go about your life as though nothing strange has happened. Stay inside when you can and do not use your nyamaya.”
“What?” I wasn’t supposed to use my powers?
“I know it’s hard to resist, but you’re going to have to control yourself.”
“Okay, but why? Why do I have to?”
“You and I aren’t the only theonites adept at perceiving nyama in other people. That sense that allows you to detect a human presence behind wind and hail; another theonite could easily use that to find you.”
“But that was a whole storm,” I said. “I barely use my powers. I always keep them under control.”
“Which is probably why you’ve managed to stay off our killer’s radar as long as you have.”
“So, he is looking for me?” I pressed.
“Regardless of who he is looking for, he will be scanning for signs of theonite nyamaya. If he picks up even a trace of yours, it will give him reason to investigate further and you do not want that. Do you understand?”
“Yes—but I—Wait, then why did you have me use my powers just now?” I demanded. If Mohan was scanning for nyamaya as we spoke, why would Robin want me to demonstrate mine?
“A theonite’s personal nyama grows in scope and intensity as they age. Your nyama may be strong, but I am much older than you. While you are with me, my energy eclipses yours, masking it. That’s why I needed you to come home with us, so that I could have a chance to explain all this to you before you went home and unwittingly gave yourself away to Mohan by using your nyamaya without the cover of mine or Daniel’s.”
“Okay.” I looked around at all the candles as they glowed, filling the room with Robin’s aura, subtly rising and receding with Daniel’s steady breathing. “But how come it’s okay for you to use your nyamaya? Won’t he find you?”
There was a faint jingling sound and I realized that Robin was clutching the bracelet he had pulled from Daniel’s backpack, rolling one of the tarnished bells between his fingers.
“He already knows we’re here.”
I felt my heart drop. “What? Then—why aren’t you doing something? How are you so calm?”
“If he could attack us now, he would have done it already.”
“Wait, but didn’t he?” I asked. “With the lightning on the swings? Wasn’t that him?”
“That was a warning,” Robin said softly, “meant to tell me he knew where I was, and that he was willing to hurt my son.” His fingers stilled, tightening around the tiny bell. “That’s why I didn’t want Daniel out by himself.”
“So you think it was Daniel he was sensing, not me?”
“I have no doubt. Your nyama is so repressed and carefully controlled, it barely registers even as I’m sitting here next to you. Daniel has never had to hide his nyama, so he doesn’t know how. It blazes like a beacon wherever he goes. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
He was right. I had noticed the moment Daniel set foot in Ms. White’s English class, and I hadn’t even known what nyama was at the time.
“Besides,” Robin continued, “if Mohan had been after you, he wouldn’t have waited until I was within sprinting distance to make his move. Daniel was his target; as far as he was concerned, you were just a random friend my son met at school.”
So, that sense I had had all day that the overcast sky had been waiting for something—I had been right. It had been waiting for Robin.
“Okay, so he—Mohan—saw us on the swings, but he still doesn’t know where you guys are staying?” I asked in confusion. “Couldn’t he have watched us walk back to this house?”
“I have my ways of throwing him off,” Robin said, “hence the sweeping rage storms. He hasn’t figured out which house we’re in yet.”
“But he will,” I said anxiously. “If he saw us in the park, he’s really close. Sooner or later, he’ll find you, won’t he?”
“That’s why we have to leave.”
“I’m sorry,” Robin said as I felt the light of the living room grow colder. “I originally planned on staying in this location for a few weeks, but it’s clearly not safe anymore. Daniel and I will be gone by morning.”
Robin might as well have punched a hole my chest. “Then… when will you be back?” I asked, unable to bear the idea of Daniel and Robin, and all they had brought with them just disappearing from my life.
“Within two weeks, if all goes as planned. But the truth is that I don’t know. We are working around the schedule of a super-powered mass murder,” Robin said with a wry smile.
Two weeks? Realistically, I knew that wasn’t that long, but the thought of enduring two weeks of school, and my house, and my parents before I got to see the Thundyils again was torture.
“While we’re gone, I have three tasks for you,” Robin said, “and I’m afraid none of them are going to be easy. First, as I said, you must avoid using your nyamaya for any reason. It won’t feel good, but your life will be in danger if Mohan detects you.”
“Your second task is to have a talk with your parents.”
“What?” That one took me by surprise. “About what?”
“Well,” Robin smiled, “if you’re going to come to Duna with us, you’ll need their permission.”
For a second I couldn’t breathe. “Y-you—you mean I can go?”
“Make sure you sort it out with your parents,” Robin said firmly. “If they allow it, I would be happy to take you with us.”
I felt like I was floating. I had no idea what I was going to say to my parents to get them to agree, but there would be time to figure that out later. I was going to Duna! “I…” I wasn’t normally an affectionate person, but it was very hard to resist the urge to throw myself at Robin and hug him. “Thank you.”
“I don’t know exactly when my work on this planet will be done, but I promise that before Daniel and I leave this dimension, we will come back for you.”
“Okay,” I nodded fervently. Much as I hated the idea of the long wait, I could be patient, I could tamp down on my powers, I could even have an honest conversation with my parents if it meant I could get just a glimpse of the Thundyils’ world.
“This brings me to your third task,” Robin said. “While we are gone, I’d like you to start learning Yammaninke. It’s the most widely-spoken language on Duna, so if you hope to find answers to your questions in our dimension, you’ll have to know it. You have the alphabet I wrote down for you. That should be enough of a guide for you to sound out everything you find on that info-com device.”
“And you think there’s enough on here for me to learn it?” I asked, looking down at the little piece of Dunian technology.
“To get started. I don’t expect you to become fluent.”
“But you’ll be able to teach me more when you get back,” I said hopefully.
“Yes, when we get back. I’ll leave my Earth number with you.” He took the alphabet he had written for me and quickly jotted down the number at the bottom of the page. “If you’re in trouble, I want you to call me.”
“Okay.” I took the paper from him.
Outside, the rain had grown softer. A wash of wind moaned against the side of the house and the candles flickered.
“It’s late,” Robin said. “You should get home.”
I clutched the info-com device between my hands and looked at the floor.
“Is everything alright?”
“When I wake up, you’ll be gone.” The thought filled me with a horrible, empty ache.
“It won’t be forever.”
“Can’t I come with you?” I asked in a small voice.
“I’m afraid not. Wherever we go, our enemies will follow. I can’t put you in that kind of danger.”
I had anticipated the answer, but hearing it still made me feel like crying.
“Besides,” Robin said, “you should be with your family. You should make sure everything is right with them before you leave.”
Robin didn’t understand; nothing was ever right with my family. But I doubted whining about my oblivious parents was going to change his mind, so I just swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded.
“We will be back for you,” he said, “as soon as it’s safe.”
Before I could reply, a shuddering draft swept into the room, seemingly out of nowhere. A few candles guttered out and thunder boomed through the blackness outside.
“What was that?” I asked, looking around, strangely unable to place the source of the sudden cold.
“You should go.” Something in Robin’s voice had stiffened. “I would walk you to your house, but…” His eyes flicked downwards and I noticed that his hand had moved to grasp Daniel’s shoulder. “You’ll be safer without me. My nyama draws too much attention.” Standing up, he pulled back the living room curtains. “I’ll watch from the window to make sure you get home safely.”
“What if—what if he knows… what if something happens?” The sky didn’t seem angry anymore, but it was dark outside and the threat of thunder still rolled through the clouds.
“I will be faster,” Robin said, and I had no choice but to trust him.
After packing everything into my backpack, I stood in the dim light of the few remaining candles. “I guess, I’ll see you in two weeks then.”
Robin nodded. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Joan Messi.”
“Thank you… thank you so much for all of this.”
“No need to thank me,” Robin smiled as I reach the living room doorway. “This is my job.”
I walked down the hallway quickly and felt a chill creep into my skin. The air was growing colder—or maybe it wasn’t the air. There was something about the way Robin had smiled at me as I left the room… something tense and sad, that seemed to have sucked the warmth out of me. The candles lining the hallway had mostly gone out and the flames that remained were wavering weakly on their wicks. When I opened the door, frigid wind rushed in past me and when I looked back, the hallway was as dark as a tomb.
I hurried home huddled into my sweatshirt, doing my best not to look at the rumbling black sky pressing down over the neighborhood. I couldn’t understand the uneasiness that had begun building inside me when only moments ago I had been the most content I had ever felt. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe Robin when he said everything would be okay, but I couldn’t erase the image of that last, painful, smile. Something was wrong.
Reaching the door to my house, I pulled it open and stepped inside to silence. Mama had left the lights on for me, but she had already gone to bed. I didn’t remember ever having felt so horribly alone, having to change into my pajamas and crawl into bed without a ‘goodnight.’
I settled under the covers, but I couldn’t sleep, not with all the curiosity, the excitement, the loneliness, and that inexplicable underlying dread twisting themselves into a thrashing frenzy in my stomach. After what felt like hours of my thoughts racing around in my head as my sheets got progressively more tangled up around me, I must have worn myself out and slipped into a fitful half-sleep. My semi-conscious dreams were filled with the roll of thunder, with laughter, candles and the shadows that whispered behind them.
I don’t know if the thunderclap that woke me was real or part of the dream, but I suddenly shot upright in bed. Strangely, it was what I saw next that made me scream. Silhouetted in my bedroom window, just distinguishable against the dark sky, was a human figure. It was hooded and draped in a black cloak that swallowed up any features that might have been discernable. But even as I drew in a terrified gasp and clutched my covers to my hammering heart, the figure vanished, melting into the darkness behind it.
I was out of bed in an instant. Tripping over my twisted sheets and stubbing my toe on my cello case, I stumbled to the window and fell against it with my hands to the cold glass. But there was no one there. My eyes darted around the room and then squinted into the rain-drenched blackness outside. No one. Only a faint orange light down the block, blurred by the condensation on the windowpane. Using the sleeve of my pajamas, I wiped the fog from the window and peered out, my nose pressed against the icy glass.
The glow was coming from the Thundyils’ house—from their living room. That explained the fire-like quality of the light, but why were the candles still lit at this time of night? And why were the curtains still wide open? As I watched, a person appeared in the window. From the height, I assumed it was Robin. But then another figure strode into view, also of adult height.
The two appeared to be talking about something, one very animatedly, the other standing still, but that was all I could make out through the rain no matter how I squinted. I drew back and rubbed furiously at the window with my sleeve, hoping to clear the view, but when I lowered my arm, the house and the street were dark.
The candles had gone out.
I turned to see Mama standing in the doorway in her nightdress.
“Is something the matter, mon ange? I thought I heard you yell.”
“I just—I had a nightmare,” I said, not even caring how stupid that sounded. I just needed attention, sympathy, reassurance of some kind, even if it was only from my weepy, unstable mother.
“A nightmare?” Mama said with an incredulous laugh. “You had a nightmare?” But the smile faded from her face when I didn’t return it. “Oh, Joan.” She held out her arms. “Come here.”
I surprised myself with how eagerly I ran into her embrace.
She doesn’t understand, a small, cruel part of my brain reminded me even as I buried my face in her shoulder, she can’t protect you.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Mama murmured into my hair as she wrapped me up in her soft arms. I returned the embrace, though as always I had to be careful not to squeeze too hard.
“My poor baby. I can’t remember the last time you woke me because of a nightmare. Is it something you want to talk about?”
Yes. More than anything. “No. No, it’s stupid.”
“Well, do you want to sleep with me tonight?”
In spite of myself, I nodded.
We went into my parents’ room and I curled up under the covers beside Mama even as danger continued to thunder in the sky outside. I knew that she was no defense against supernatural storms, or evil theonites, or any of the problems I was facing, but she held me in her tender embrace and stroked my hair with her delicate fingers and I found myself relaxing.
Just for that night, I snuggled into my mother’s warmth and made believe that her strength was as great as her blind, dumb love. Just for that night, I was an ordinary child whose mother could protect her from anything. And I slept soundly.