Lonely This Christmas – Chapter 2

“No”, Emily said so firmly her words could have carved themselves in stone. “No, no, no…

“Was there ever any time when this seemed like a bad idea?“, Ryan asked his son. “If so, maybe you should’ve paid a bit more attention to that feeling, young man! Surely you must realise how long your mother has been planning this… how long we dreamed of being a family again at Christmas…”

Not much had been said on the subject, but Tony had been getting the impression that this festive season was some kind of big deal. He just didn’t see that his family’s particular circumstances made them that special. He didn’t think so, he knew so – and maybe now was the time for Mom and Dad to know, too.

“Some people don’t get any more Christmases”, the young man began…

“This isn’t about anyone else“, Ryan tried to intervene, but Tony wouldn’t let him get a word in.

“When I was… in my ‘coma’, it wasn’t long before I started ‘hearing voices’”, Tony told them. “There were hundreds upon hundreds of other sick people there, some of them really, really sick. I didn’t know what ‘terminally ill’ meant, being just five years old, but I soon found out.”

There were no interruptions now, only stunned silence. “I didn’t know I could communicate with anyone, telepathically”, continued Tony. “I didn’t even know the word at the time, and all I could do was receive. Children feared never seeing their parents again, parents were terrified their children would grow up without them, old folk tried to convince themselves they’d lived a full enough life, but still begged for one more day – or begged to be set free from their pain.”

For a time, the Fulcher family forgot they had an unexpected guest. Brighthawk stayed in the hallway, listening. She had received no indication that she might have been unwelcome at the Fulchers’ festive gathering until Tony’s parents caught sight of her, and the trouble started – yet she felt that “Sorry, I’ll leave now” was not going to help things at all, and Tony did seem to be working towards a point…

“Thing is, I couldn’t do anything for those people, but now I can. Brighthawk is alone now, and helping her this way, even if for just one day, goes some way towards repaying the debt I owe to Darkhawk, who came all the way from across the stars – beyond the stars – to help one lost boy whose cries for help she happened to hear.”

The silence was brought to an end by Mrs Fulcher. “Is-is Darkhawk… dead?”, she murmured. “Is that what this is about…?”

“She lives”, said Brighthawk, stepping into the living room doorway. “It’s just a kind of life none of us can ever hope to understand. Just as The LifeStar is the heart of Dominion, Darkhawk is now the heart of The LifeStar… maybe The LifeStar is, and always was, the heart of Darkhawk…”

“So close, yet so far away”, mumbled Emily. “Oh… oh, you poor girl – just like we were…”

“This doesn’t begin to compare with what you went through”, assured Brighthawk, shaking her head. “And that’s why I really shouldn’t stay. Tony meant well, but my place… well, it’s not here, intruding upon your special day…”

“Nonsense”, declared Emily, taking Brighthawk by the arm and leading her into the warmth of the living room. “Tony, this was all your idea – so get to it, and set another place for dinner…”

- o ( O ) o -

Across Town…

Phoebe Richards had had another fight with her mother. Mrs Richards had wanted her daughter to “look nice” for the family Christmas get-together, but Phoebe had resolutely refused to betray who she was inside, and it didn’t matter that Mom thought that made the girl look like “a refugee from a bad Eighties horror movie”. If there’s an Eighties horror movie, it’s this place, Phoebe had thought as she stormed off to her bedroom to seethe in the dark, and her mother retreated to hers to try and turn the emotional screws by sobbing into her pillow…

Phoebe fired up her laptop, and tried to get in touch with The Dark Crowd, but no-one was online. An hour or so of fruitless surfing ended up with the girl watching videos of that Japanese cat that loved boxes…

…and then Phoebe was wide awake again, the computer in her lap powered down and cold. The skin on her upper chest was prickling fiercely, and the girl’s first thought was that her secret tattoo had somehow gotten infected. The image of the black eagle-like bird, made from tongues of black flame and depicted with wings spread wide, had seemingly healed up without any problems, but when she held her hand over that area, not quite touching her clothing, she could feel heat.

“Oh no – no, not now…!

This was the dictionary definition of “worst case scenario”. Mrs Richards had no idea that her child had gone under the needle, and would hardly be in the mood to rush Phoebe to hospital on Christmas Day…

Phoebe hurried, as quietly as she could, to the bathroom, and took off her black sweatshirt. There, emblazoned on her chest, was the proud form of her “Darkhawk”, and the tattooed skin appeared swollen, blistered like a bad case of poison ivy, although the flesh around the tattoo appeared quite normal. “This… this is weird”, Phoebe murmured to herself. “Weird… and bad. Gotta get someone to look at it…!”

Phoebe crept downstairs, grabbed her coat and a scarf, and sneaked out into the night. No matter how rebellious she felt, she always let her mother know she was going out… almost always, for tonight was different. It had to be.

The snow was still falling as the girl ventured outside, but she didn’t feel the cold. It was almost as though the snow was evaporating before it could touch her.

- o ( O ) o -

The Fulcher house…

The meal began almost like a formal diplomatic function, carried out in respectful silence, but Brighthawk knew that, sooner or later, the silence would crack like thawing pack-ice. She half-expected Tony to be the one, carefully trying to build bridges, but instead it was Mister Fulcher who crossed that particular no-man’s-land, quite innocently. “Are you sure you won’t have any…?”

“The people of Mystalorn don’t eat meat”, Brighthawk replied. “The forest gives us everything we need, and the animals – well, they’re as Mystalornan as the people. They just have… fur, or feathers.”

Ryan Fulcher looked down at his dinner plate, with an expression betraying not a little guilt. “It’s all right”, begged Brighthawk. “You-you’re not insulting or offending me, or anything. Please, carry on…”

“So, you’re not from this Dominion place, then?” This time, it was Mrs Fulcher, of all people.

“Darkhawk was born on Ealvonhai, the world that later became Mystalorn, and so I was ‘born’ there too”, answered Brighthawk. “We’re not ‘sisters’ in the normal sense – we’re more than that. Two parts of the same soul, I suppose you could say…”

An idea came to Brighthawk, and she stopped herself. “I believe it’s traditional to bring gifts on this day”, she said, sweetly. “Also, the gifts are supposed to come after we eat.”

Once the meal was done, Mr Fulcher leaned over to Brighthawk and whispered “Hope you don’t mind, but we’d like to deal with Tony’s presents first – and he has quite a few to open…”

The Fulchers had been buying gifts for their son every year during his coma, not knowing when he would “wake up”. Brighthawk had done a good deal of of research into the Earth festival of Christmas, from its religious origins right up to its more modern incarnation – thought by many to be merely a celebration of material indulgence masked by a paper-thin veneer of “family togetherness” – and as Tony began opening the gifts, the young Mistress of Dominion started to understand the meaning of the phrase “all your Christmasses coming at once”.

The gifts could have been the perfect candidates for a Top Ten List Of The Decade’s Must-Have Toys For Boys, but instead, the presents were both suitable for a child of the age Tony was when they were originally wrapped, and chosen to be special for both child and parents. There was some amusement when Mr Fulcher brought in a child’s bicycle, bought so that Ryan and Tony could undergo that age-old ritual of father-and-son bonding that was teaching teaching the child to ride such a conveyance…

“Another thing your accident took from us”, sighed Tony’s father. “How did you learn to ride a bicycle, when you were stuck in a hospital bed? More of that ‘telepathy’ stuff?”

“One of my doctors was an avid cyclist, did triathlons and the like”, Tony answered. “I guess his enthusiasm ‘rubbed off’ on me, like all the other stuff I learned.”

“I’m surprised you still want to carry on with school, given all you’ve learned”, said Brighthawk, who immediately regretted her choice of words. They sounded as though she was trying to coax Tony back into working for Dominion. “Oh, I… I…”

“I might not need to go to school to learn”, Tony intervened, sensing her unease, “but I need to go to school to find out what it is to become an adult, find my place in the world again. “I probably know enough to breeze through college, but I’ll still take my time – if Dominion can survive without me.”

“We’ll do fine” assured Brighthawk. “Now, I think you have several years’ more presents to open…”

- o ( O ) o -

Outside, in the street…

“This-this isn’t right”, Phoebe muttered to herself. “Did I take a wrong turn…?”

The girl had been walking for about half an hour, too nervous of confined spaces and strangers to risk a taxi ride, but seemed to be getting nowhere. She was as far from a hospital as when she first set foot outside, and to make matters worse, she wasn’t entirely sure where we was any more.

Phoebe pulled off one of her woolly gloves, and reached inside her jacket… for a mobile phone that was still lying on her desk, in her bedroom… “Shi-

The expletive died on her lips, as her heart almost burst from her chest. It was as though her tattoo had grown talons, sunk them into her heart, and was now trying to break free from her body, taking that vital organ with it…

Phoebe toppled over onto the snow. As consciousness slipped away, she felt sure she could hear singing. A single female voice – so beautiful… and as it sung, it brought such vivid images to her mind. Crystal mountains, soaring into the clouds, endless forests, as far as the eye could see…

- o ( O ) o -

The Fulcher house…

The last of Tony’s gifts opened, the Fulchers sat, transfixed, as Brighthawk did something she had not done since Darkhawk became one with The LifeStar. She sang.

The very air condensed into an image of somewhere else as her wordless music gently altered reality. Where previously she had conjured abstract, hypnotic patterns of light, she summoned up images of Mystalorn, with its sea of tree-tops, broken only by the conical spires of Core-Stone reaching up to the stars from the very heart of that incredible, impossible planet. The tree-tops rustled in the breeze, and that same breeze stirred the strings of tinsel on the walls and shelves of the Fulcher residence, caused the flames in the living room fire-place to dance – a brightly-coloured bird seemed to flutter overhead, so real that Mrs Fulcher almost expected it to land on her raised hand…

Next, Brighthawk showed them Dominion – the blazing LifeStar with its precious shell of life-bearing planets, vessels of the Dominion Star-Fleet weaving between those jewel-like worlds. One of those vessels – a great, bird-like Battlehawk – became the centre of attention, swooping inside the shared orbits of Dominion’s planets and approaching The LifeStar, becoming a blurry silhouette against the radiant disk of Dominion’s life-preserving stellar hub…

Suddenly, the song ended, and the images evaporated into the air. Tony blinked – had he seen what he thought he had seen? Was that Darkhawk’s face he had seen, smiling from the heart of The LifeStar…?

There were tears in Brighthawk’s eyes when she looked towards the Fulcher family. “I have a better idea”, she sniffed. “There’s nothing better than seeing things for yourself…

- o ( O ) o -

Elsewhere…

…and then, Phoebe was awake again. She was lying on her bed, dressed for the outdoors, clothes completely dry. She distinctly remembered going outside, and recalled finding she had left her phone at home – and there it was, on the desk…

“What the hell…?“, she gasped, utterly bewildered. At least her tattoo wasn’t bothering her any more. It felt as though whatever had been aggravating it had gone…

…to be concluded…

707-02

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