Author’s Note: I told you they’d be back.
by H. M. Snow
“Eirian,” began Peter in a subdued voice. “Bertie wants you to come to town with us.”
Eirian finished polishing the mirror he held before he bothered to look up at his old friend. Even when he finally looked, he said nothing.
“Bertie and Rhonda decided,” Peter continued, “that Rhonda and Lew should go down to spend some time with Faina in the town.”
“No, no, not at all,” Peter hastened to say. “They’re taking him with them, but as he’s still encased, he didn’t have much to do with the decision. Dil has always been a bit slow anyway, bless him. So we’re driving them down today, this very morning.”
Eirian set aside the polished mirror and picked up an unpolished one. “And what has this to do with me, Pedr?”
“You ought to know,” added Peter’s wife Bertie as she wedged herself into the doorway of the workroom. “Get yourself up, Eirian. It’s past time you saw something besides mountains.” She snatched the polishing cloth from his grasp. “Don’t you grunt at me, Eirian; I won’t have it.” Then Bertie rolled out a barrage of Welsh that brought a dour frown to Eirian’s face. By the time she had finished, however, she had Eirian standing and ready to follow her out the door.
They found Rhonda, Peter and Bertie’s daughter, outdoors on the plateau beside a gray minivan. She smiled up at Eirian so winsomely that not even he could scowl at her. At her feet sat a bowling bag with a wide clear strip along the top. Seeing Eirian looking at this, Rhonda said, “Isn’t it clever? Faina found it for me.” She tapped the bag’s sole occupant, which had the appearance of a mottled gold-leaf ostrich egg. “This way, Dil can get sunlight while we transport him!”
“Do you have everything?” asked Bertie.
“Checked it three times, Mum.” Then, with a touch of her mother’s stern voice in hers, Rhonda shouted, “Lew! Stop playing! It’s time to leave! Ah, look at you— you’re filthy already!”
A boy just a bit smaller than Rhonda came trotting up to the minivan. “But Mum—”
“Don’t you ‘but Mum’ me, mister,” warned Rhonda. “I may only be a little bigger than you right now, but I’m still your mother and I’ll grow a lot quicker than you, since its my second go-round. I told you to keep yourself tidy!” She took out a handkerchief and scrubbed at the streak of dirt that marred the boy Lew’s cheek. “At least there’s time yet. I can put you back in order on the way.” She dragged her son into the back seat of the minivan. From there, she asked, “Eirian, can Dil sit with you on the way? I’ve enough on my hands with this one.”
Eirian took up the bowling bag and set it on the middle seat before climbing in after it. Peter took the front passenger seat while Bertie squeezed in behind the steering wheel. With everyone buckled in, she set off down the mountain tunnel road at a reckless clip.
When the van skidded to a halt, it was in a visitor’s parking spot in front of Tenney Elementary School. Peter opened the side door and slung Dil’s bag over his shoulder so that Eirian could climb out. Then he lifted his daughter and his grandson down to the ground in that order. Rhonda took Lew firmly by the hand so he could not dash about and inspect everything.
“You do not intend to take Dil in among the humans in that state,” said Eirian.
“We can’t very well leave him in the van,” Bertie countered. “He’s safer with us.”
“What’s more,” Peter added, “we’re meeting with Dr. Wade. He’s one of our contacts here. He already knows a little about us.” He led the way inside the school. To the lady behind the front desk, he said, “We have an appointment with Dr. Wade for pre-enrollment.”
“Welcome to Tenney,” beamed the secretary. “I’ll just call Dr. Wade and let him know you’re here.” She took up her phone and had a hushed conversation. Hanging up, she declared, “He’ll be with you in a moment.”
And, as promised, within only a few seconds they were approached by a compactly-built African-American man. “Hello…” His eyes went to Eirian first, and then to Peter.
Peter put forth his hand. “Peter Brown. We meet again, Dr. Wade.” They shook hands.
“Come to my office. My assistant has put all the paperwork together.” Once inside his office, Dr. Wade said, “I barely recognized you, Peter.”
“That’s understandable. When I was here last, I was no bigger than Rhonda. This is my wife, Bertie; my daughter, Rhonda; and my grandson, Lewelin. We call him Lew. And this—”
“—must be Eirian,” said Dr. Wade as he finally approached the final member of the family. “I’ve heard about you from Miss Brown, sir. I’m honored to meet you.” He held out his hand and waited until Eirian at last accepted it. “So! According to Miss Brown, we have one going into second grade and one into kindergarten.” He looked from Rhonda to Lew. “I hope you enjoy your time here. Miss Rhonda, you must be on your first renewal. That’s what you call it, right? Renewal? If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re very young to have started that already.”
“It wasn’t part of the natural cycle,” said Rhonda. “I got caught in battle with an enemy head and a swarm of offspring. I took too much damage. The renewal cycle served as a life-saving method.”
Dr. Wade nodded gravely. “I’m sorry to hear that. Your husband must have had to take up a lot of the slack, raising your son while you were incapacitated.”
“Not at all. Dil was beside me in battle.” Rhonda nodded toward the bowling bag sitting at her father’s feet. “My mother took care of Lew for us.”
“May I?” When Peter unzipped the bag, Dr. Wade leaned forward to examine Dil. “Well! I never expected to see one of Miss Brown’s folk in that stage of renewal. Amazing. But, if you were hurt at the same time, why is he still…?”
“Dil was hurt much worse than I.”
“Well, I hope he gets better quickly. But I shouldn’t delay you just for my own curiosity. Here are the papers.” Dr. Wade returned to his desk and led them through the business of enrolling Rhonda and Lew, commenting only, “Miss Brown requested to have Lew in her class, since its his first time out in the world. Mr. Johnston will be your teacher, Miss Rhonda. He’s not acquainted with the children of the light, but he’s really laid-back. I think you’ll enjoy being in his class.”
“Is Mrs. Jorgenson still here?” Peter asked.
“No, she retired last—” The phone rang. Dr. Wade apologized before he answered it. He listened for a few seconds. “Again, huh? Send him down. I’ll talk with him.” When he hung up, he said by way of explanation. “Walter. You’ve met Walter, haven’t you? He has some rough days. I don’t blame him. I remember how hard it was, back when I was like him.”
Walter made his entrance in a clamor of protests. The middle-aged woman who herded him seemed glad to turn him over to the principal and retreat. “I just wanna see Faina!” Walter yelled.
“Walter,” said Dr. Wade, “remember you’re supposed to call her ‘Miss Brown’ when you’re at school.”
“She said I could call her Faina, ‘cause I’ve seen them!” Walter froze. The presence of visitors had broken through his outrage at last, surprising him into silence. Then he studied Eirian with intense focus. Recognition came to him. “I’ve seen them! They’re here again.”
“Where?” said Eirian.
Walter pointed through the wall of the principal’s office. “Outside.”
Dr. Wade picked up his phone and dialed. The intercom tone sounded. “We are having a practice lockdown with security team in place. I repeat: we are having a practice lockdown with security team in place.” Once off the intercom, he said to his guests, “Don’t worry. We have protocols set up for this.” He picked up his two-way radio and a mirror from the windowsill.
“Walter, you stay here with me.” Bertie patted her ample hip so that Walter wandered over to stand beside her. “This is my daughter Rhonda, and this is Lew. They’ll be coming to school here with you.”
Peter and Eirian followed Dr. Wade out into the corridors. “It sounds official to say ‘security team,’” said the principal with a laugh, “but really it just means I patrol the hallways with the mirror Miss Brown gave me while she handles the threat herself. We’ve installed a mirror at each intersection, as you can see—” He pointed to a small convex mirror high on the wall at the corner. “Most of the staff use them to avoid collisions with the custodial carts, if they notice them at all. Only a few of us can actually use them as they’re made to be used.” Dr. Wade paused near an emergency exit. Checking the playground through the window, he said, “There’s Miss Brown now. I’ll bet you want to join her.” He unlocked the push bar and let the pair outside.
Eirian started forward, but Peter grasped his elbow. “No. Wait and watch. You need to see what she does here,” he said in answer to the hard glare he received from Eirian.
Clouds skimmed over the sun, throwing the town into light and shadow alternately. The wind tossed the tree branches and raised a ceaseless hiss from the leaves. On the wind-blown playground, one figure made leisurely progress toward the fence. Faina wore gloves and picked up rubbish to put into a plastic bag. She appeared to have no set destination, but her steps tended always toward the darkest corner of the playground, where the old trees cast the deepest shade. Light flashed off a metallic chip bag as she scooped it into the bag she held.
The wind howled as if stung by the flash.
“There’s a lot of them,” Peter observed.
“The offspring always run wild,” said Eirian, “until the head that controlled them regenerates.” He spoke in a neutral tone, but his body remained tense.
Faina picked up a dented soda can, causing another flicker of reflection to pierce the shadows beneath the trees. The shadows squirmed and writhed. Only the children of the day, or a human who had survived the enemy, could have seen the mass of offspring undulating there in a towering viscous tangle. When the heavy clouds covered the sun, the mindless offspring oozed out into the open, only to recoil when the clouds passed. Meanwhile, Faina drew nearer to them in her casual manner.
An especially broad and rain-heavy cloud slid across the sun. The offspring broke free from their corner like an oily wave, sweeping toward Faina. Her stride never faltered. At the last possible moment, light flashed beneath the cloud, quick and sharp as a blade. Heat flared and vanished, leaving behind it the thunderous explosion of superheated air. In a moment, the offspring disappeared. In the next, greasy shadows coated the ground, to be dispersed by the sun as it emerged from cover.
Faina tied the plastic bag shut. When she turned, her expression was for a few seconds fierce rather than cheerful. Even when she caught sight of the two awaiting her, her eagerness had a bloodthirsty edge to it that softened as she ran to them. “You’ve come!”
“You have a little…” Peter tapped his finger against his cheek. “Just there.”
Faina took a tissue from her skirt pocket and wiped shadow spatters from her face. Then she presented herself before Peter for inspection. “Better?”
“You can check for yourself.” From the side pocket of the bowling bag, Peter produced two hand mirrors. “They’re finished.”
“здорово!” she exclaimed.
“What is wrong?” said Eirian abruptly.
Faina gave him a blank gaze.
“You only lapse back into Russian when something is wrong.”
But Faina waved a hand in dismissal of Eirian’s concern. “I’m still tense from battle. Nothing is wrong. These are beautiful! I must find something special to show Marta my thanks.” She handed one to Eirian. “That’s yours.” Her eyes gleamed in challenge.
Contrary to all expectation, Eirian accepted the mirror. “You gave my last away.”
“Walter needs it, poor child. He must be upset now. His room is next door to mine, so I’m sure he could see all that.”
“He’s in Dr. Wade’s office with Bertie,” Peter offered. “He was the one who told Dr. Wade what was happening.”
“I wondered who gave the warning. I’d better get back to my class. Oh!” She unclipped a set of keys from the lanyard around her neck. “This is the front door key. You can settle Rhonda and little Lew without me, I’m sure. Don’t leave before I get home, though.” She used one of her remaining keys to let them back into the building. “Oh! Let Dr. Wade know it’s all right to end the lockdown, please, Peter.”
As they returned to the principal’s office, Eirian said, “Something is wrong.”
“Why would you think that?”
“She ignored me. She never does so, to the point where it’s irritating.”
Peter shrugged and did not reply. His wife was not so tactful later on, when the subject came up on their way to Faina’s house. “I expect she’s annoyed with you. She can cover it up well when she’s calm, but she wasn’t calm, was she? But why do you mind? You don’t want her attentions; you make that clear every time you meet.”
“She lives apart,” said Eirian. “I worry for her. I am responsible for her.”
“Then you’ll have to find a better way to worry for her than the way you usually choose,” said Bertie in triumph. “You can start when she gets home.”
Eirian did not respond. He slouched in the middle seat of the minivan, using his shirt hem to polish to exquisite brightness the mirror Faina had given him.