High From God's Heaven

by llamajoy

But high from God's heaven, a star's light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall

Not until after dinner did Billy first notice something was amiss. In truth, the kids had been restless all day, but that was more to do with the building wind buffeting the orphanage walls, and the feeling behind their ears that the pressure was falling fast. Night fell early now that midwinter was approaching, but the clouds had been darkening since morning, promising snow.

But now, with the meal cleared away and all the dishes washed, Billy realized that Shiro was drying the bowls alone. Someone else should have had dishtowel duty, but who? He glanced around the table, and poked his head into the main sleeping room. There was Yileen, who was often small enough to avoid detection; she was playing with Dani. And there was Micah reading his book in front of the fireplace, and Caleb playing with his bell. Eleven, twelve, thirteen...

Yes, he confirmed, the headcount was short. How had he not noticed sooner? Lord help us.

"Has Samuel gone to bed early?" he asked, already pulling his scarf from its hook, heart sinking. Today was no day to have a kid missing. Why did this sort of thing never happen in the summer?

Mirrin, the oldest dragon child, shook her head, pink ears wobbling. "He's not here, Brother B."

"And he wasn't at dinner, either," piped up Rachel Claire, though she fell silent again at Billy's look.

His gloves were just where he'd left them, stiff and cold as he worked his hands into them. "And why didn't anyone tell me this?"

"Sorry, Brother B," said three or four children in unison. Then Mirrin added, "He said he saw the UFO this afternoon, so he wanted to stay out to see it pass overhead again."

Billy blew air up through his bangs, mentally counting to ten. "And none of you told him to come back home?"

"Nobody believed him." Caleb said softly; Rachel Claire crossed her arms defensively. "None of us have ever seen his UFO, and we'd gotten tired of lying on our backs in the field."

"The field?" He couldn't keep the edge out of his voice, though he tried. Shrugging into his cloak, he picked up his gunbelts, just in case. Lord willing, he wouldn't need them. "You guys know the rules. Someone should have stayed with him, at least. Or told me about it. Nobody goes beyond the fence without a buddy."

"Somebody... did go with him." This was Micah chiming in, in his slow, careful voice.

"Who--" With a sick lurching in his belly, Billy already knew the answer. Sure enough, his bed was empty, though he'd last seen his sister fast asleep there, just that afternoon. She'd been napping all day, and Billy hadn't even looked for her at supper. "Primera."

Micah nodded, wincing a little, and a few of the kids looked bashfully at the ground. "Sorry, Brother B."

"All right, I will have words with you all later." Billy was too frightened to be angry, though he knew he could not let on. The children were his reponsibility and the blame lay with him alone. "First, I'm going out to find them. Mirrin, you're oldest-- you're in charge while I'm gone, all right? Make sure no one else leaves the house. Shiro, you heat some water over the fire, have some hot tea ready. Rachel Claire, you lead everyone in a prayer that I find them safely. I shouldn't be long."

A chorus of "yes, Brother Billy"s met his ears, and he turned to the front door.

Some time since the sun had set, the snow had already started. He stood on the threshhold for a moment, looking down at the lantern in his hand and striving for rational thought. The wind would be too strong for something so fragile as a candleflame, but surely he had something he could use to light the darkness?

Soon he was on his knees beside his bed, tiny Yileen bouncing on the mattress, looking down at him inquisitively. Fumbling in the dark, groping sightless beneath the bed, at last he found it-- his fingers closed around it, thumb on the switch instinctively. Dani clapped a little when the beam of brightness emerged, her eyes widenening in the light of it.

"It's Dad's old flashlight," Billy said, smiling with grim satisfaction that it still worked. Sure enough-- heavy, metallic, military-issue, the torch was dusty, but functional.

Yileen and Dani touched Billy's hands as he headed out of the bedroom. "Be careful," they chorused, and their eyes followed him through the door and into the storm.

The orphanage's island was not a very large one, their tilled fields and gardens fenced off from the grassy plain, the little woods, and the encircling sea beyond. Everything was strangely lovely in the snow, the silvered trees and the ivory fields, even the night sky a softer shade of black. It did nothing to ease the hard knot of tension below Billy's breastbone. He knew there was no time for guilt, or for blame, but he had plenty of the former and more than his share of the latter. If only he'd gone to wake up his sister for supper. If only he'd noticed the silence where there should have been Samuel's "Amen!" after he said grace. If only.

Even the brightness of his flashlight beam couldn't penetrate the snowy darkness, and recent snow obscured anything that might have been footprints. Billy had to admit to himself he didn't even know where to start. If he were a six-year-old going to look for a mythical "unidentified flying object," where would he go?

Probably the northern edge of the island, along the coastline. They'd gone star-gazing there, when he was a little boy, hadn't they? His father had said something once about the view of the sky, the horizon, a passing comet, and the promise of shooting stars. Billy struggled to remember: his father's hand holding his smaller one, and Primera, just a baby, in their mother's arms. That was the winter they'd all gotten new scarves. They were supposed to have been a surprise, but he'd caught his mother at her crocheting late one night, when he couldn't sleep. The memory was a warm one, and he clung to it as he picked up his pace. They'd been blue and green, the scarves. His favorite colors.

No chance of seeing a falling star tonight, though, he thought, tugging his scarf closer around his throat and peering up at sky--

His mouth fell open. Beneath the blanket of snow-heavy clouds, brilliant with its own internal light, there was no mistaking Samuel's UFO. Billy, wide-eyed, watched it cresting the sky above him, inexplicably huge and weightless, spinning silently. Snow caught in his hair, in his eyelashes, as he stared. It was a rueful sort of pride that he felt: he'd always taught the kids not to lie, and Samuel had been honest all along. There was a flying saucer after all, and it was magnificent.

And as he followed its path with wondering eyes, what did he see but /Samuel/, standing at the water's edge, exultant and red-cheeked, with Primera smiling beside him. With a shout, he sped through the snow towards them. Their breath smoked in the frosty air; their eyes were bright; they were blessedly, miraculously, real. The UFO spun out of sight, a phantom of snow and dreams.

"You saw it, too, Brother Billy? Wasn't it awesome?!"

Billy went to his knees in the snowdrift before them, hugging both of them close, one in each arm. "Oh, God," he said, not a bit blasphemous, and pressed a kiss to his sister's forehead. "Thank heaven you're all right."

Samuel tugged on his hat, slow realization dawning on his small face. "I'm in trouble, aren't I." It wasn't a question.

It was a little too soggy to be a chuckle, but Billy managed a smile as he nodded. "Mmhmm, both of you. You know it can be dangerous to leave the house, especially at night. We can talk about it tonight, though. For now I'm just glad you're okay."

"But I even wore my long johns, and my hat..." His protestations subsided at a glance from Prim, and he bit his lip. "Sorry, Brother B. Don't be mad at Prim; it was pretty much my idea."

"I'm not angry," Billy said, and it was true, now that his heart wasn't racing and the night no longer seemed so foreboding. Samuel was growing a little bit too big for him to carry; he'd put on an inch or two while Billy wasn't looking. He settled for hoisting Prim onto one hip, and taking one of Samuel's mittened hands in his own, letting the boy hop into the footprints he'd made on his way there. "Everyone makes mistakes. But you can both look forward to double chores for a week, just to make sure you learn your lesson. No going past the fence without a grown-up."


"No excuses," Billy said sternly. "Or it'll be triple chores."

To Billy's raised eyebrows, Samuel persisted. "But there was a grown-up," he said, and that earnestness (in spite of the threat of triple chores!) got Billy's attention. "She showed us where to sit, under the pine trees out of the wind. And she--"

"Samuel! Shame on you. What have I told you about making up stories! And talking to strangers?"

"She didn't seem like a stranger." Samuel wasn't usually the sort of kid to press his luck, but he was shaking his head sincerely. "And it's not a made-up story. We watched the UFO together! She left just before we saw you, said she had to go. She was such a pretty lady, too, with dark hair, and a blue and green scarf."

Billy's heart was in his throat, the cold and the wind and the evening's scare forgotten, the world eclipsing to just the three of them in the snow: a small boy's hand in his hand, and his little sister in his arms. He'd seen for himself that the impossible flying city in the sky was real. Perhaps the world had room enough for yet another wonder.

He cleared his throat, not quite trusting his voice. "All right, you two. There should be hot tea waiting for us. Let's get home."

Primera did not speak, of course, but her soft smile seemed to share understanding. She hugged him around his neck, and her eyes echoed his word: "Home."


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