Years in the past but not far away, her younger self emerged from the tunnels and back into the forest. She didn’t lift her head into the sunlight, but into the dim glow of dusk, with the sun still painting the sky, but so faintly that it was just another shade of blue. Her heart thumped hard in her chest as she noted the sky, and noted that her family wasn’t calling for her – long since given up and instead waiting for her return in anxious patience, she would bet.
She wriggled her way free and clambered back up into the clearing, with feet on solid ground, and she started her trek back home at a swift pace. At the same time, she kept her ears on alert – it was the time of day when some of the sharper, nastier critters of the Tieke forests woke up, keen to take a bite out of someone like her, who wandered alone. They’d take smaller prey first, of course – anything that put up less of a fight – but if there was nothing else…
She walked a little faster, putting the tunnel swiftly behind her.
After a time, she saw light and she silently winced. It was her parents, for sure, and they were shining it like a beacon into the night, the flame flickering just for her. Her mother never liked to display their lights so brightly. She was always worried that someone out there, someone particular who she couldn’t speak of, would find them.
Halena moved even quicker, caring less about attracting attention with home so close at hand. Only the animals disliked fire more than her mother. The path was clear, and she crossed the distance in what felt like an instant.
And then she froze, paralyzed for the moment by an inability to picture the next scene. She’d walk in. Would they be angry? Scared? Would her father yell? Would her mother cry? How to stop it? Apologize first? Don’t apologize? Act like nothing was ever wrong?
She hesitated, hand on the wood of the door, and in the silence she could hear her father’s murmuring voice, but she still couldn’t make out the words or what waited for her inside. She couldn’t pick a path, couldn’t pick a face to wear. She pulled her hand back from the door again.
But she had to go in.
So she took a deep breath, and she took the choice out of her own hands. She knocked, once, twice, three times very quickly, and then she stood back to wait, leaving the composure of the scene up to them.
Silence fell inside. Then more murmurs, footsteps, quick steps, and the door flew open so abruptly that even with all of the warnings, she was caught off guard. She was caught, stiff and sheepish, staring into the wide eyes of her mother. The expression was completely not what she expected. Not fear or sadness or shock or horror but just… a kind of sharp scrutiny. Halena felt paralyzed under that look. She felt, in that moment, like there was a chance that she might not be who she thought she was.
And then her mother turned and made a gesture to her father. He went to the flame, snuffed it, cast the inside of their home into its usual dimness.
And in one movement, Halena’s mother seized her by the arm and pulled her inside, closing the door behind them both.