River’s Song – Michael Barron

River’s Song – Michael Barron

March 2023

Boxes form a solid wall in the back of the SUV, preventing me from getting one last look at our house. I squeeze myself against the seat, head resting against the cool November glass, hugging my guitar. I’ll never play the guitar again. After tonight I’ll never even hear a guitar again. They don’t have music where we’re going.

Dad and I spent the weekend packing, but that was all a show for the neighbors. Just before midnight tonight, everything in the SUV — my phone, my old American Girl dolls, both my high school yearbooks, even Dad’s precious tablet — is going in a furnace in New Jersey.

We pass the church where I attended Girl Scouts as a kid and then the train station where one January morning Emily and I huddled, trying to keep warm. The plan was to skip school and spend the day visiting comic book stores across Manhattan — because that’s the kind of rebels we were. But when the train rounded the corner, all our rebelliousness evaporated and we scampered off to AP Chemistry.

If I’d known this day was coming so soon, I would’ve climbed aboard.

As we cross the Pine River Bridge, officially leaving my hometown forever, Dad glances at me out of the corner of his eye. “If it were up to me, you could come back to visit. However, they cannot send someone on a whim. You know that.”

I do know that. Our civilization has generated faster than light travel, technology that can fling consciousnesses across the galaxy, artificial bodies in which to store those consciousnesses, and — according to Dad — breathtaking works of art, awe-inspiring architecture, and a flawless legal system. However, they still have a budget to consider.

I hold up my hand, wiggling my fingers. I’d never realized how much I adored my fingers until Dad delivered the news just a couple weeks ago. When he called me into the kitchen, I’d assumed he wanted to discuss the town’s new recycling schedule. Instead, he gave a smile that actually reached his eyes and said, “We are going home.”

Sitting at the kitchen table, a dull ache pressed against my side, nearly doubling me over.

“And it will not just be us. Uncle Trench and Coral are also being called back. We—”

“No.” The word leapt out with such conviction I startled myself.

Dad’s smile barely wavered. “River—”

“We’ve only been here eleven years. You said we’d have twenty-five.”

“I never said that.”

“Yes you did.” I leaned across the table, my elbow knocking over the black cat pepper shaker I’d set out for Halloween. “After I started second grade and all the kids were mean to me, you took me to the aquarium to cheer me up. You complained the whole time about how dull ocean life is here. I asked how much longer we had to stay and you said we’d be ‘stuck here for at least twenty-five years.’ “

Dad clearly doesn’t remember this. “You were not meant to take me literally.”

“How was I supposed to know that?” I press my back against the chair and cross my arms. “I’m not going. I’ll live with Emily or one of the other families, but I’m staying.”

Dad didn’t yell. He never yelled, the same way he never laughed, cried or got frustrated. He simply put the pepper shaker back where it belonged, scooped up the black specks until everything was nice and tidy and walked out of the room. “Families belong together, River. And neither of us belongs here.”

The night after dad’s big announcement, the nightmare came again. I knew it would. Whenever we talked about going back, my one memory of home always interrupted my sleep.

In my one memory, Dad and I swam upwards, faster than I’d ever swum before. Others rocketed past. A white tower loomed overhead. Half of Dad’s appendages — people here would call them “tentacles” but I hated that word — clung to me. The rest thrashed as we flew higher, toward the ocean’s surface. I’d never been to the surface before. The lack of pressure made me dizzy. Sunlight blinded me. Something far below wanted to kill us.

There was a flash of white light, not from the surface but from the tower. The structure began to crumble. Debris hurtled toward us. Dad veered to the left, but something struck my side. I thrashed in his arms. I was just a kid, barely old enough to form memories, but I remember thinking, this is how I die.

I woke soaked in sweat, still able to see the imploding tower in the darkness. The side of my human body ached.

Breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, I crawled from bed, crept down the hall, turned on all the bathroom lights — even the one in the closet — and pulled up my Joni Mitchell T-shirt. No blood. No shredded skin. Only a handful of moles and one fat nuclear-red pimple, nothing to indicate I’d ever been near a warzone. But the pain remained, crossing thousands of lightyears, passing black holes and supernovas just to stab me between the ribs.

When I was a kid, I’d ask Dad if my real body had been injured during the explosion. This was back when I still referred to my original body — the one waiting for me in storage on our home world — as my ‘real’ body. He always shook his head at the question. “After the Citadel was destroyed, I took you straight to the medical domes. I waited for news of your condition along with thousands of others who were waiting for word of their own loved ones. When they released you, you came swimming out, happy as can be, with only the tiniest of scars.” He’d hold up his thumb and forefinger to indicate how miniscule the scar was. Each time they’d be closer and closer together, as if my injury shrank with each retelling.

Dad had less to say when I asked, “Why’d the Citadel blow up?”

“It was a stupid, unnecessary tragedy caused by the Red Ocean Brotherhood, but don’t worry about them. They’re a joke.”

“Who are they?”

Dad always swatted that question away as if he were swatting a fly. He preferred to dwell on our home world’s brilliant architecture, glorious history, and yearly festivals in which every member of our species gathered together to create a single work of art. It sounded like a combination between a play and an unbelievably intricate live action role playing campaign.

It was my cousin Coral who told me all about the Red Ocean Brotherhood. She wasn’t my biological cousin, just the daughter of Dad’s favorite co-worker. One January evening when I was in the fourth grade, Coral and I were hanging out in the backyard, watching the snow fall, while Dad and Uncle Trench sat in the living room playing music on Dad’s tablet. Without any precursor I turned to her and asked, “What is the Red Ocean Brotherhood?”

Dad’s bosses had placed Coral’s consciousness in a body that appeared to be two years older than mine. She was more than happy to lecture me on things she thought I should know. “They’re an evil group that thinks everything involving dry land is ‘blasphemous’. A bunch of them used to be teachers or politicians, even some scientists, but they swam off into the deepest channels when we started moving to the continents. They think everyone who lives on dry land deserves to die.”

“Are they still around?”

“Of course they are.” Before I could ask any follow up questions, she began to lecture me on how I should give up the guitar and stop listening so much to music created by mammals, leaving me to wonder what the Red Ocean Brotherhood would do to someone who’d spent her whole life on dry land.

I sit in a Burger King off I-95 nursing a Pepsi and a box of chicken tenders. This is our last meal on earth and it’s fast food. Someone who doesn’t know Dad would think he’d go for a five-star restaurant, but he can’t tell the difference between Italian Cuisine and movie theater nachos. If it doesn’t remind him of the sea plants back home, it’s trash.

I stare at my fingers and wonder if my body will still feel pain when my consciousness leaves it. They recycle all the organic material after we go home. Soon my fingers might be a part of the inner thigh of a middle-aged man or the arm flab of an elderly woman.

The only other customers in the restaurant are a mother and her daughter, who looks like she might be about four or five. That’s how old my body appeared to be when I first arrived. They share a milkshake while the mother lists all the relatives and the relative’s pets they’ll see at Thanksgiving. The girl has a chocolate grin smeared across her face.

I’m lucky. I know I’m lucky. At exactly midnight tonight I’ll step through a door and my consciousness will be flung across the vastness of space. I’ll wake in a technological utopia where I’ll torpedo through our underwater metropolis in my new — ‘real’ — body, experience wonders I cannot imagine, and participate in the yearly festival that unites our species.

Of course before I’m able to speak with anyone, I’ll have to master a form of communication that involves seventy-eight appendages instead of one mouth. I’ll have to alter my perspective on what’s tactful, beautiful, and funny. By the time I’m hanging out with friends again, I’ll have to — for the second time in my life — become a member of an entirely new species.

The first of us arrived to this world in an actual craft. Apparently somewhere in the wilds of North Dakota, a silver sea shell lies in the middle of a field, marking our initial landing spot.

Sorry it’s not in Roswell, New Mexico.

Over the years our people — their consciousnesses transferred into human bodies, of course — formed a fake company that bought a derelict factory off the New Jersey Turnpike. In the factory’s sub-basements, they used parts of our original craft to construct vats where they grew even more human bodies as well as the gateway that sends and receives consciousnesses.

I remember nothing of what it was like to have my essence transmitted from one end of the galaxy to the other. After the attack on the Citadel, my next clear memory is of waking in a human body, ten fingers, and ten toes, and as far as I knew that was normal.

For months, Dad and I received lessons in how to walk, move objects with our hands, and communicate. They eased us in, first teaching us American Sign Language before moving on to verbal communication. Dad struggled; he never stopped struggling. After each lesson he’d go back to our room and sit hunched over on the edge of his bed, like a man who needed to scream, but had forgotten how.

I, however, was so young, I picked up these new languages overnight. By the time they moved us into the one-story bungalow that would be our new home, I was fluent in ASL, English, and Spanish. And of course I used these new communication skills to do what all little kids do: I asked questions.

“Where do the stars go in the daytime?”

“Why do we always have kale for dinner?”

“When can we get a dog?”

But my favorite question was, “Why’re we here?”

Dad always answered with, “We are here to observe a land-based society so we might study their infrastructure and spread civilization to the terrestrial regions of our own world.”

That answer never satisfied me. The aliens on TV were always flying around in spaceships, either destroying or saving the galaxy. Dad had traveled lightyears for a desk job.

But the job was his life. He exhausted himself studying highways, skyscrapers, communication networks, and sewers, complaining the whole time that the buildings back home were more ‘inspiring’. And at the end of the day, when his work was finally done all he wanted to do was play music on his tablet.

While I grew up watching Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars Rebels — which taught me how real aliens were supposed to act — the only entertainment Dad enjoyed came from an app Uncle Trench had programed himself.

When you opened the app, the bottom third of the screen was filled with seventy-eight gold symbols, our entire alphabet. Depending on which combination he pressed, different colors exploded, merged or swirled about. Our bodies back home barely detect sound, but we have enormous eyes that turn the ocean’s bioluminescent twilight into high noon. What Dad was doing was our equivalent of playing music.

The ‘song’ he enjoyed the most began with a midnight-blue fog and turquoise shimmers running along the edges. Silver flecks swam through accompanied by emerald tendrils. Eventually, a single blazing light appeared in the heart of the fog, filling the screen with a golden glow. This formation of colors was similar to a folk or gospel song, along the lines of ‘Amazing Grace’.

Every Sunday morning he’d sit me down at the kitchen table and watch me practice. The routine began on the very first Sunday after we moved into the house and didn’t stop until the day Dad told me we were going home. “This is far more cultured than that auditory trash the mammals hammer out on their instruments.” I’d nod in agreement, just to placate him.

Every once in a while he’d share a story about how before we came here he’d once played his favorite song in our medical domes’ waiting area. “Occasionally one of the doctors would emerge, take someone aside, and it would either be good news or bad. It was almost always bad. Eventually the waiting became unbearable, people became agitated, arguing with one another. And so, at last, I pulled out my…” He shakes his head. “This clumsy mouth cannot pronounce the word. I pulled out the musical instrument this app is based on. I sat in the middle of the crowd and began to play. People turned to watch. They stopped arguing and gathered together, focusing on my music, and after a while the crowd became one family again.”

Sometime in middle school I realized he was telling me a story about what had happened after the attack on the Citadel. But as a kid it was just another boring story.

Between his nostalgic ramblings and the musical instrument that meant nothing to me, it was a relief when, eighteen months after we first arrived, Dad’s bosses insisted that I attend public school.

On my first day of second grade, Dad walked me to the bus stop, wringing his hands, reminding me I could call whenever I needed to. Meanwhile, I skipped along beside him, confident that by the end of the day I’d be best friends with everyone at the school.

By lunch, I realized that most of the kids already had enough friends and didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Throughout that first week, I smuggled in candy to share with the other kids. This worked fairly well for a few days, but before long they’d just snatch the offered Milky Way bars and run off to whisper and stare at me from across the playground.

After school I’d look into the bathroom mirror while holding up photos of kids in magazines, trying to determine what was wrong with me. Did my skin look too artificial? Could they see something alien in my eyes? Maybe there was some kind of subliminal anomaly that clued people in that I didn’t belong, the way rats can tell when one of their own is diseased.

I got into the habit of leaving school through a side entrance, to avoid the other kids. Even their parents didn’t hide the way they stared at me. One day, just a couple of weeks before winter break, I was walking down the side stairwell, which I assumed was empty, when I heard giggling coming from one floor above me. I refused to look up, which was a good thing because an instant later something thick and slimy splattered against the top of my head, like I’d been hit by a pint-sized bird dropping.

Even when I saw that my hands and hair were bright green, I didn’t comprehend what had happened until the giggling turned to laughter followed by a stampede. There had to have been at least five of them. Five kids hated me so much they’d stolen a jar of paint, and lain in wait to ambush me. And the color they’d chosen…

It was the holidays. There had probably been some green paint lying around, but my mind leapt to: little green men. They knew what I was.

I ran. I didn’t know where I was running to but I sprinted as fast as I could, face stinging from tears. I reached the bottom of the stairwell, swung a left, and burst into the closest bathroom.

I tried to dunk my hair under the sink but it was too shallow. I cupped my hands and attempted to wash it out, convinced that if anyone saw me smeared with green paint they’d realize I didn’t belong on this planet. However, each scoop of water just spread the paint. Before long the walls, mirrors, and floor were splattered green.

The paper towel dispenser was empty so I hurried to the stalls to grab some toilet paper. That was when I noticed that one of the doors was shut.

Before I could decide whether or not I should just go, sprint all the way home, a girl’s voice quivered, “Go away.”

I almost did leave, but there would still be hundreds of people in the parking lot, ready to point and laugh.

“Please!” she said. “Just leave me alone.”

I dropped to the floor, dripping green water across the tiles, and peered under the stall’s door. I saw a pair of white sneakers and jeans splattered with mud.

“They’re all out of paper towels,” I told her.

“I know.” She started sobbing louder.

“What’s wrong?”

After a few minutes of prompting I got her to share her story. “I was carrying my art project — this giant painting I made of a robot dragon — down the gym steps when a gust of wind blew it out of my hands. I tried to catch it, but I slipped and fell into some mud in front of everyone. When I stood up Rodney Dickerson said I’d s-h-i-t myself. Even his mom laughed.”

“If it makes you feel better, some kids dumped green paint into my hair.”

“Really?” there was a tinge of curiosity in her voice.

“Yeah, that’s why the floor looks like a leprechaun puked all over it.”

“Gross!” she laughed.

We both grew quiet for a moment and then she asked, “Can I see your green hair?”

“Um…” I stepped back. “I guess.”

The stall door swung open.

She was a petite girl with long black hair. I recognized her from the other second grade class, but she was so quiet I’d hardly ever noticed her.

To her credit, when she saw my green hair she did try to stifle her laughter, but the more she kept it in, the pinker her face became, which got me giggling. At last we both burst into laughter, and kept on laughing while she took me over to the sink and helped me wash my hair.

Nine years later, Emily and I dyed our hair green to commemorate the way we’d met.

Six months after that, Dad called me into the kitchen to tell me we were going home.

We’re late for the rendezvous. Dad drives thirty miles over the speed limit, twisting the steering wheel with each turn like he’s going to rip it from the dashboard. I want to point out that we still have over an hour until midnight, but the only thing that’ll calm him is to get there.

When we finally reach the factory’s rusting gate, he crashes through, not caring what kind of damage he does to the SUV. The high beams illuminate the ancient building. The parking lot is covered in so much shattered asphalt we might as well be driving across a gravel road. About fifty of Dad’s colleagues wait for us on the far side. Everyone is there; even a few from the Hong Kong unit have flown in to give him a proper send off.

As soon as the SUV is parked, I expect him to leap out and get to work burning our possessions, but he remains in his seat, staring at the crowd.


He doesn’t look at me when he says, “We don’t belong here, River. Once we get home our real lives will begin.” Dad opens the door and climbs out. I remain where I am for several beats of my artificial heart. In his eyes, nothing that’s happened to me counts as ‘real life.’

But we’re here now. There’s nothing left for me to do but glance over my shoulder, give all of our boxed possessions, everything I’ve accumulated over the years, one last look, and pull myself out of the car.

As we approach the crowd, I take in the surrounding parking lot, the broken bottles, the cracked chunks of pavement, my final view of home.

Then my eyes fall on the others. Something’s wrong. They should be clustered together, applauding, cheering, peering through telescopes, searching for our star. Instead, they’re scattered. A few huddle in groups of two or three, but most are solitary.

Coral leans against the factory’s bay doors, her pale face illuminated by the sickly orange streetlights. She should be leaping up and down, spitting on the ground, shouting about leaving this ‘rock’ forever. Instead, her bloodshot eyes glare, as if she’s trying to crush me beneath her scowl.

Dad still hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. He walks with a skip in his step.

Uncle Trench meets us halfway across the parking lot. “I tried calling you.”

“I left my phone at a hamburger restaurant.” Dad grins, certain that nothing will ruin his day. “I never want to use that abomination again.”

Trench speaks so quietly it’s as if he doesn’t want to hear his own words. “We received a communication. There was an attack… The Red Ocean Brotherhood…” He falters, lowering his head. “Much of the city has been… We’ve lost contact.”

The sugary, acidic aftertaste of the Pepsi I had with dinner coats my tongue. The frigid night air is impossible to breathe. I can’t take my eyes off Dad.

He wavers back and forth, as if he’s about to tip over. “Red Ocean is a joke.”

Trench lowers his eyes. “It seems we may have underestimated them.”

“How much damage?”

“We don’t know, but…the storage facility, where they kept our bodies… It’s not looking good.”

Uncle Trench and I barely catch Dad before he tumbles to the cracked asphalt. Others step forward, but the only one who reaches us in time to help is Coral. As she takes his shoulders, she whispers to me, “Guess you got exactly what you wanted.”

“Your cousin’s kind of a bitch,” Emily said behind me.

“Yeah.” I rummaged through the fridge looking for the leftover tofu curry I was going to heat up for dinner.

We’d just run into Dad, Uncle Trench, and Coral in the driveway. Emily and I were coming back from the park where the small ragtag group of friends we’d accumulated over the years had been making plans to go to the New York Comic Con in October. Dad and the others didn’t bother telling us where they were heading off to. As they passed, Dad and Uncle Trench gave us cordial waves, but Coral walked straight through Emily, knocking her to the ground.

“My whole family is weird,” I said, pulling out the leftovers.

“Bet they’re not as weird as my family,” Emily said, wandering into the living room. “What’s this?”

Before I could turn, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Uncle Trench.

Your father left his instrument hooked up to the projector.
He wants you to put it away.

The leftovers splattered all over the counter as I sprinted into the living room.

A reddish orange glow reflected off Emily’s face. She gripped Dad’s tablet, pressing random characters, so the projector cast fireballs across the wall. “Is this some kind of art app?”

“It’s nothing!” I rushed at her so fast I slammed my shin against the coffee table. Stifling curses, I said, “It’s just some dumb game my dad plays.”

She pressed her palm flat against the keyboard, hitting all seventy-eight characters at once. The projection became a deafening cacophony of crimson, amber, indigo, violet, and silver. “How do you play?”

“You don’t ‘play’ it. It’s like a visual musical instrument. Never mind, it’s stupid.”

“It’s incredible.” She continued to experiment with the buttons.

I reached out to snatch the tablet away, but she was having so much fun I ended up lowering my hands and stepped back to watch her play.

One way or another I showed her how to play the first tune Dad ever taught me, our equivalent of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. Blue and silver sparks flashed across the screen. Emily got the hang of it soon enough and we moved on, messing around with the various chords Dad had taught me over the years, even his favorite, the midnight blue with a golden glow.

Within a couple of hours, I discovered a combination I was particularly interested in. Silver orbs rained down the screen. When one hit the bottom, it turned green and flew about. As I watched that little green drop twirl among the others, something shifted inside me, as if the colors and images had a voice, and I finally understood what they were saying.

Eventually, Emily’s mom texted telling her it was time to come home. I put the projector and the tablet away and we never played it again. However, at least twice a week for the next month, I’d crawl out of bed in the middle of the night and play the tune we’d discovered. I only stopped after Dad told me we were going home.

Uncle Trench, Coral, and I settle Dad onto the broken parking lot. Dad lays flat on his back, as if the gravity of this world pins him there. Everyone else stands apart in their little clusters. Eventually, they return to staring up at the stars, half of which are blocked by the factory looming overhead.

I don’t know which of the stars is ours, even though Dad pointed it out to me countless times. Ever since I woke in the factory’s sub-basement, I’d known I would someday return, that someday I’d see the underwater metropolis and all the art and beauty our people had to offer. Every time Dad described our civilization over kale salads or made me play songs on his tablet, he was promising I’d someday be a part of it. Now I might never swim among the towers or see the hundreds of miles of murals or any part of our world.

I don’t realize how silent the night is until Uncle Trench says, “They might be able to grow new bodies for us. But that will take years, decades if the facility has been severely damaged. And if they need to start everything over from scratch, they may need to send an actual craft to assist with our end of the gateway. I don’t even know if they have the budget for…” His voice drifts off as he shakes his head.

Dad pulls himself up and presses both hands against his face. “How many are dead?”

“We don’t know. The area they attacked was densely populated, they—”

“Red Ocean is a joke.” There’s a quiver in his voice, but there’s also an insistence, as if he’s trying to assert that this is an objective statement.

I rest a hand on Dad’s shoulder. He lowers his hands and turns toward me. I have to stop myself from looking away. There’s just enough light from the streetlamp for me to make out his features, and I’m not ready to see his red tear-streaked face. I don’t want to see the same accusation Coral shot me. “Guess you got exactly what you wanted.”

But his face is as emotionless as the factory’s brick wall. Without looking at me he says, “You need to get somewhere warm. These bodies are so delicate.” He pulls himself to his feet. “I’ll call Emily’s mother. Explain our travel plans have been… That you will be staying with them for a while.”

“Where will you be?” I stand up next to him.

“I’m needed here.”

“Doing what?”

He doesn’t answer, but I can already see him burrowed deep in the bowels of the factory, staring at our gateway, willing it to flicker to life and for all of this to be a silly misunderstanding. Dad walks toward the factory. “I’m needed here, River.”

I step back. Coral isn’t wrong. This is what I wanted. Within twenty-four hours I’ll be back at one of my friend’s houses, making extra spicy nachos while having unapologetically geeky conversations about music and comics. I should be performing a mental jig, struggling not to grin from ear to ear that my life will not have to change. However, instead I find myself staring at the others scattered about, and I feel the old pain press against my side. Right now, at this exact moment, the Red Ocean Brotherhood is reaching across the vastness of space and hurting us, just like they did with the Citadel.

I think of the Citadel and consider the story my dad told me. I burst into a run.

“Is she ditching us already?” Coral asks, loud enough for everyone to hear.

I run across the cracked asphalt until I reach the SUV. Dad didn’t bother closing the driver’s side door. I leap inside. Crawling into the back I work my way through a conglomeration of clothes, old toys, books, and everything else that made up our lives. At last, I find what I’m looking for in a small white tub.

By the time I pull myself out of the car, Dad has nearly reached the factory’s bay doors. He walks as if there is no life above his waist. He’s ready to slump over before the gateway and stare into the shadows beyond the dead gray metal, waiting for a response that will never come.

I open the white tub, place his projector on the SUV’s hood and flick it on, connecting it with his tablet. “Wait!” I shout. “Look!”

He turns as I open the app, illuminating his face with the two-story square of light cast against the factory’s wall. I hit a random gold character.

Colors explode.

For a moment all I produce is a mad cacophony of oranges, reds, and golds. Then I really begin to play, tapping the chords Dad had me practice every Sunday morning for eleven years.

It isn’t perfect. I’ve never been talented at playing Dad’s music. At first the blues are too light. Then they’re too purple. At last I find the perfect shade of midnight. A turquoise aura seeps around the edges. Silver flecks dart this way and that among emerald tendrils. A sunshine-yellow glow emerges from the heart of the deep blue fog.

One by one, Uncle Trench, Coral, and the rest turn. Red eyes blink in the projector’s light. Even more of us emerge from the shadows, making their way across the parking lot. Wrapping their arms around each other, they gather in close, as if the light provides actual warmth.

There are not enough silver flecks and the golden glow still holds a hint of mustard, but I play on. Soon there will be time for us to grieve, and for me to listen — really listen this time — to the stories of the home we may have lost forever. Soon there will be time to move back into my house. There will be time for school, guitar, Emily, and all of my friends. But for now, at this exact moment, we gather together, a family basking in the glow of my Dad’s favorite song.

The song ends, and I can’t help myself. I give a little flourish and add my own tune, the one I spent weeks fine-tuning. Raindrops fall from the top of the screen. Half become silver, the other half turn gold, but one turns a brilliant green, the same shade of green as the paint the kids dumped on me. The silver and gold raindrops drift to opposite ends of the screen, while the green one zips in, around, and among them, impossibly fast, becoming a blur, filling the screen.

I jump at a sound I’ve never heard before. Dad stands directly behind me. He’s laughing. But he’s also crying. In the projector’s fading light, I see his face streaked with tears. He pulls me into an embrace that’s as tight as the grip he held me in when he was trying to protect me from the Citadel’s collapse. Dad presses his face into my hair and sobs. Then everyone else is there, wrapping their arms around us, gathering in close to reassure each other our home still exists.

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