A sudden flash of light and heat struck Beelo in the face. He blinked and held his hand up. The light was soft, like the amber rays from the second setting of the sun but he had been in darkness for so long that it burned his eyes as if he looked into the sky at noon. The heat was nearly as powerful as the light. The warm air pushed against the hand Beelo held in front of his face and he could feel it bringing feeling back to his extremities. With feeling came pain and his fingers felt as if pricked by a hundred needles.
Beelo realized he was on his knees. He hadn’t noticed it until he felt hands under his arms and he looked up to see Kintu. He watched as she struggled to drag him through the doorway. Disoriented, Beelo felt like a child. His mind reeled and he was suddenly very little. He had fallen asleep in the living room while his father talked to his uncle. This happened often. Every time, Beelo would awaken slightly to the feeling of being lifted by someone larger and stronger as his father carried him up the stairs to bed.
Kintu managed to pull Beelo up to the entry way and she propped him up against the wall. Since she was no longer holding open the door, it slid shut with little noise until a solid click sounded from the latches as they were driven into place by the door’s mechanisms.
Kintu knelt in front of her husband and reached up to push the hood back and remove his mask. The hide was frozen stiff and would not move. Kintu went to work undoing the toggles that held the coat closed. After the last fastener was free, she opened the front and carefully slid the frozen shell from off of his shoulders. Beelo’s arms came free and fell lifelessly to his sides. She reached up and carefully lifted the mask from Beelo’s face. She felt resistance and realized the mask adhered to Beelo’s face and hair with frozen sweat and exhaled moisture.
“You were out much too long, my love,” Kintu said. Her voice cracked with a mixture of relief and worry.
Beelo squinted against the light and winced. The pins and needles of the awakened nerve endings mingled with the pain from the skin and hair that were pulled off with the mask. He had never been so tired. The effort required to hold his head up became too much and his chin slumped to his chest. Beelo’s eyelids dropped slowly and he began to snore.
Beelo awoke to the gentle sound of someone humming. He opened his eyes slowly and he was greeted by the dim light of his fireplace. All the other lights in the room were extinguished. In the glow of the firelight, he could see Tara in the rocking chair. She watched him, expressionless and motionless.
Beelo took a deep breath, the scent of tea and flowers filled his nostrils. He felt something brush his face like a fragrant feather. He looked up to see Kintu’s face framed with her long, bronze hair. Her mouth smiled as she continued to hum but her eyes were filled with worry and ringed with red from crying and lack of sleep.
Beelo looked down and noticed he lay on their couch. Kintu had a pillow on her lap where Beelo’s head rested. There was two heavy blankets over him and Kintu ran her slender fingers through his scruffy hair. Beelo tried to sit up but Kintu put a gentle hand on his chest.
“Please,” she said. “Rest here some more. Everything is okay, we are all safe now.”
Beelo let his head sink back into the pillow and Kintu resumed stroking his hair. Beelo listened to the humming and the whispering sound of the fireplace.
The next time Beelo opened his eyes, the living room was more brightly lit. The sun had risen. In Beelo’s doma, there were special ducts that ran from the upper branches to each living space. The top of the duct was fitted with a glass dome that collected light. The inside of each duct was polished to a mirror shine. The bottom end of each duct ended in a glass bulb filled with water and shiny metallic flakes, which scattered the sunlight over the room. The effect eliminated the need for candles or lanterns in the day time and made the doma feel open and airy.
This innovation was one of Kintu’s ideas. She and Beelo were due to help build some of these ducts for other domas this summer. Early last fall, Beelo and his brother made measurements and took careful notes so the right amount of materials could be obtained and some of the work could be prefabricated.
Beelo carefully sat up. The muscles in his back and shoulders ached. He tried to lift his hands to rub his eyes, but the weight of his arms was too much. Instead, he scrunched his eyes shut and blinked rapidly to displace the sleepy film that made everything blurry. The room was so quiet that Beelo thought it was empty. However, as his eyes cleared he could see Tara. She still sat in the rocking chair. She still watched him with a blank expression.
Beelo managed to sit up straight and stretch his aching back. Some of the strength returned to his shoulders and he managed to lift his arms above his head to continue the stretch. He yawned and looked around. Kintu was nowhere to be seen. Neither were the children.
Beelo stood on shaky legs. He took a halting step forward, then turned to look at the door. The two automatic latches were closed, but the third one was not. The third latch could only be done manually from the inside. He shifted his gaze to the coat hooks next to the doorway. One of them was always empty, since it used to hold his brother’s coat. Only this time, both hooks were empty.
“She waited for you.”
Beelo was so surprised to hear the words, his head spun around to see who spoke. The pain in his neck and shoulders was so intense he nearly had to sit down.
“She waited for you,” Tara said. “I thought you were gone. Gone like Baro. I told her you were gone. She didn’t believe me.”
Her words were toneless. Each phrase was spoken as if someone were reciting a list.
“She waited for you,” Tara continued. “I’ve been waiting, too. For Baro. But he is gone.”
Beelo opened his mouth to say something in return but he was interrupted by a noise. Someone tapped twice on the small window and then three times on the heavy, wooden door.