Title: Citlalli and the Shards of Light
Author: Clea Saal
Genre: Fantasy/Pseudo Young Adult
Page count: 340 pages
Chapter 1: Grounded for Life
Upon her return from the Land on the Edge of the Wind Amelia was greeted almost immediately by an enthusiastically purring Tunguska. In a way that was particularly comforting, especially because she knew she was in for a rough couple of days, and knowing that at least her cat was happy to see her was more than a little reassuring. Of course, having Tunguska come to terms with her return was the easy part… the hard part was going to be getting her parents to do the same. Somehow she suspected that their reactions were going to be a lot more complicated than her cat’s.
The girl made her way to her bedroom door as quietly as she could, and then she peeked into the hallway, hoping that no one would see her. She got lucky as the hallway itself appeared to be deserted. Well, it wasn’t really deserted. Her brother was there, poking his head out of his own room, but then again she figured that under the current circumstances Eric didn’t really count.
Even though there was no one in the hallway itself the angry voices that could be heard coming from the living room belied the notion that there was no one home. In fact those voices served to make two things painfully obvious to her: her parents were home, and her parents were most definitely not in a good mood… not that she had been expecting them to be.
Not only could Amelia hear her parents arguing with each other, but she could also hear what it was that they were saying, and that was enough to let her know that they were bickering about something that had to do with their own disappearance. In a way she figured that that was not particularly surprising, but the fact that it wasn’t surprising didn’t mean that it wasn’t likely to make matters worse for them in the long run… make that a lot worse.
In her mind she could see exactly how things were going to play out. She could see how, even though for the time being her parents were busy yelling at each other, as soon as they walked into the room their anger would be redirected almost immediately. Yes, with a little luck they’d get a hug first, but other than that they were dead, and she knew it.
Sure, both she and Eric were incredibly proud of what they had been able to accomplish in the past few days, but that did nothing to change the fact that they had had no choice but to take off without any semblance of an explanation. That was something that was unlikely to be sitting well with either of their parents, and it was also something that was bound to give rise to plenty of questions now that they were back, but to make matters worse there was also the fact that they knew that the vast majority of those questions were bound to be of a kind they were not going to be able to answer. How were they supposed to tell their parents that they had run away because Amelia’s best friend —who had also run away a couple of months prior and was still deemed to be missing— had asked for their help to keep the magical realm in which she was currently living safe? It was all so unbelievable, and their parents were rational people! That was a problem, a big one, especially because the one thing Eric and Amelia knew for sure was that rational people and unbelievable stories don’t usually go well together, not even in those instances in which the unbelievable stories happen to be true.
That was something of an issue, but the truth was that even if that hadn’t been the case they still wouldn’t have been able to explain. The magical realm was separated from the human one for a reason, that was the lesson that had been drilled into their heads over the course of the past few days, and even though they had a unique connection to that realm because Citlalli —Amelia’s ‘missing’ best friend— had turned out to be a fallen star rather than a full-fledged human being, well, they knew that in that regard they were the exception rather than the rule… not to mention that they had promised to keep that realm’s secrets.
In other words, no matter how they looked at it, they were basically stuck. Knowing that there was no point in trying to put off the inevitable, Amelia let out a resigned sigh, took her brother’s hand in hers, and then —with Tunguska following close behind— the two of them made their way towards the angry voices that were coming from the living room, and then they waited for their parents to realize that they were actually there. They didn’t have to wait long.
Theresa Sanderson could hardly believe her eyes when she turned around only to find herself face to face with her ‘missing’ children. In fact she didn’t know what to do or what to say, she didn’t even know what to think. For almost five days she and her husband had been going over every conceivable scenario they could possibly imagine, and in spite of that they had been unable to come up with anything remotely resembling a reasonable explanation for their children’s disappearance. There had been just so many things that hadn’t made the least bit of sense about the whole thing, and her gut told her that their unexpected return was unlikely to make much sense either.
The children had vanished from school literally without a trace. As far as they had been able to retrace their steps on that fateful day, Amelia had been sent to the principal’s office, again, only she had never made it. Instead she had gone to her brother’s classroom and asked to talk to him for a moment… and from there the two of them seemed to have vanished into thin air. No one had seen them leave the school, though when she had come home Theresa had found a note left by Eric telling her not to worry, that they were fine and would be back ‘as soon as they could’.
That note had been one of the strangest elements of the whole thing and now, seemingly out of nowhere, there they were, standing in the living room as if nothing had happened, and with no possible explanation as to how it was that they had made it back in the first place. The whole thing had been puzzling from the very beginning, and it didn’t look like it was going to get better any time soon, far from it. Theresa went over the facts once more, trying to make some sort of sense out of them. She knew that the children hadn’t been home all along, and she was absolutely certain that they hadn’t come in via the front door either. Sure, Amelia was in the habit of sneaking in and out of her room through her window, but that window had been closed, and even if it hadn’t, she couldn’t really picture Eric doing the same thing.
Shaking her head, Theresa decided that she would have time to worry about all of those details later. Her children were home and that was the only thing that really mattered. For the time being she just wanted to hold them tight and never let go… she could always kill them later.
The children were more than a little relieved when their mother’s first reaction to their return was to run to them, and to hug them so tightly that for a moment they feared that they were about to be hugged to death, while their father managed to appear just a little bit more composed and waited until after his wife had let go of them to do the same.
Yes, they had enjoyed their time in the Land on the Edge of the Wind, there was no denying that, but that did nothing to change the fact that they had missed their parents, and the truth was that —in spite of the fact that they knew it wasn’t really going to last— it felt good to have them react as they did. Sure, Eric and Amelia knew that, as soon as they were done reacting to their sudden reappearance, their parents were bound to react just as strongly, but far less pleasantly, to their equally sudden disappearance, but for the time being they could most definitely use a break.
Once they were done hugging their children within an inch of their lives, and not knowing what else to do, Jason and Theresa led them to the kitchen, sat them down on a couple of stools, and before they knew it the children found themselves faced with some rather heaping portions of scrambled eggs and a couple of muffins, while their father called the police to inform them of their return.
Even though food hadn’t exactly been scarce in the Land on the Edge of the Wind, Eric and Amelia had been a little too preoccupied to even think about eating while they were there, in fact they hadn’t even realized just how hungry they happened to be, but as soon as they smelled the food that had been placed under their noses their stomachs began to grumble, and a few seconds later they found themselves all but inhaling their respective meals.
Seeing the way in which their children were wolfing down that food did very little to reassure their parents of the fact that, in spite of their rather sudden reappearance, their children were unharmed. They each had about a gazillion questions they wanted to ask but, as they saw them eat —and as the realization that they were home, safe and relatively sound began to sink in— all their previous concern came back to them, only this time around that concern was quickly turning into anger.
It didn’t take long for Eric and Amelia to notice the sudden drop in the room’s temperature so they shared a look, swallowed hard and pushed their plates aside, feeling a lot less hungry than they had been just a few seconds prior… and not just because of everything they had just eaten. They knew that their parents were over their initial reactions, and that meant that things were about to get loud, very loud. By silent agreement they decided not to try to put off the inevitable… better to just face the consequences as soon as possible and to get it over with, so, without uttering a single word, they got up, marched themselves right out of the kitchen and waited for the fireworks to begin.
As their parents escorted them back to the living room and ordered them to sit down on the couch while they paced in front of them, the children couldn’t help but to feel like a couple of prisoners helplessly awaiting their executions. Shaking their heads at that thought, and already knowing what was to come, they turned their attention back to their parents.
The first few minutes weren’t really all that bad, seeing how that particular stage of the proceedings had more to do with their parents trying to get them to understand how worried they had been —and telling them how selfish it had been of the two of them to take off like that— than with their parents demanding some sort of an explanation, and telling them what their punishment was going to be. Unfortunately both Eric and Amelia knew that that second part was coming, and that, once it did, things were bound to get nasty… especially because they were almost painfully aware of the fact that their hands were essentially tied.
The way they saw it there was no way they were ever going to get their parents to believe that they had been trying to protect a magical realm from a human attack, so their choices were either to get yelled at for lying —which was what was bound to happen even if they were to tell the truth— or to get yelled at for saying nothing, and neither one of those options represented a particularly pleasant scenario.
In the end it took about fifteen minutes for their parents to run out of steam, and when they did they shifted to asking them to explain themselves instead, even as they let them know in no uncertain terms that, as far as the two of them were concerned, there was no acceptable explanation possible. It was then that Eric and Amelia first became aware of the fact that they had made a serious tactical error: they had failed to agree on just what it was that they were going to tell their parents, and that in turn left them in a fairly vulnerable position. Silently Amelia asked her brother to keep quiet and to let her speak for both of them, hoping that their parents wouldn’t notice what was going on. It was a desperate move, and they knew it, but they figured that it was also their only real option if they didn’t want to dig themselves any deeper.
Realizing that their top priority had to be to avoid contradicting either themselves or each other, the girl decided to try to keep it short and to the point… and she also decided to try to keep it as close to the truth as she possibly could without revealing more than their parents were allowed to know. She knew that, considering how much she couldn’t say, trying to pull that one off was going to be a balancing act, one that wouldn’t really give her much room to maneuver, but in spite of that she figured that the fewer details she and her brother had to trip over, the better.
Trying to abide by that basic principle, Amelia told her parents that someone she couldn’t really name had asked for their help, and that they had been unable to refuse. That hadn’t gone over particularly well, but luckily she hadn’t been expecting it to. Their parents seemed to be torn between their complete disbelief, and their demands that she name that mysterious someone… not to mention ordering her to tell them once and for all just where it was that the two of them had been. Of course, as soon as she told her father that those were only two of a very long list of questions she was not about to answer, things started going downhill fast… well, faster.
“You will answer my questions, young lady, and you will answer them right now! You will tell me where you’ve been, and you will also tell me why you saw it fit to drag your brother along with you to wherever it was that you felt you had to go,” said Amelia’s father, towering threateningly over his sitting daughter
“First of all, dad, no, I won’t tell you where we’ve been no matter how much you yell at me,” said the girl, refusing to allow herself to be intimidated. “It’s not my secret to tell. And second, Eric came along willingly, I didn’t ‘drag him along’, end of story.”
“He may have agreed to follow you, but I am fairly certain that it was your idea in the first place. We have spoken to both of your teachers, and we have reconstructed the sequence of events leading up to your disappearance. Ms. Parker told us that the last time she saw you was when she sent you to the principal’s office for disrupting her class again. Next you went to Eric’s class, got him out, and then the two of you vanished without a trace… or so we thought until we encountered Eric’s note here at home telling us not to worry. What did you think we were going to do with the two of you missing?”
“Do I even have to point out the fact that it was Eric who left that note, not me, so your blaming me for the whole mess doesn’t even begin to make sense?” asked Amelia who, even though she really wasn’t trying to get her brother in trouble this time around, was not exactly willing to take the blame for both of their disappearances either. She shook her head before going on. “Yes, dad, I got Eric out of class, and I told him what was going on, I won’t deny that, but he chose to tag along, I didn’t make him, and you know what? I’m glad he came with me ‘cause he really saved our asses out there!”
“I will not tolerate that kind of language in my house, young lady!”
“Fine! He saved the part of our anatomies we tend to sit on, if it makes you feel better,” said Amelia, rolling her eyes and knowing that she was digging her own grave with her attitude, but hoping that it would be enough to distract her parents from the more awkward questions having to do with their recent activities.
“Amelia Alexandra Sanderson, I’m warning you…”
“Oh, goody, we are into full name territory, I’m in big trouble now… no, wait, I was already in big trouble!”
“You will can that attitude, young lady, and you will can it now!” ordered her father.
“Or what? You’ll ground me for life? News flash, dad, you are going to do that no matter what I say, we both know that, so you may just as well get some new threats,” she pointed out.
In despair the man shook his head and threw his hands up in the air. He knew his daughter could be difficult at times, and he knew she didn’t usually react well to threats, but this time around he was at a loss when it came to how to handle her. She had never reacted quite that badly before, she was being unusually stubborn, and he knew that trying to push her further would only cause her to dig her heels in even deeper. Seeing the dilemma faced by her husband, Theresa decided that, given that threatening the girl wasn’t working, a different tactic was called for, so she took it upon herself to intervene.
“Amelia, please, do you have any idea of just how worried your father and I have been in these past few days?” asked her mother, trying for guilt rather than an open confrontation. “All we want is for you to tell us where you’ve been, I don’t think that’s too much to ask under the circumstances, is it?”
“Actually, mom, it is. We can’t tell you where we’ve been ‘cause it’s not our secret to tell, and we kind of gave our word on that one, that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along. It’s not that we don’t want to tell you, it’s that we really can’t.”
“No, mom, that’s not fair,” her daughter interrupted her, already knowing what it was that she was going to say. “You’ve always told us that once we give our word to you about something, that’s final. You’ve always said that that’s supposed to be sacred, and you always hold us to it. Do you remember how you told us what grandpa used to say to you when you were little about how a person’s real worth is not determined by what they own, but rather by what their word is worth?”
“I remember,” Mrs. Sanderson reluctantly admitted, “but this is different.”
“No, it’s not. I gave my word, and so did Eric, and I for one intend to keep it. I don’t think it’s fair for you to ask me to go back on it now just because it suits you, or to punish me for refusing to do so.”
“But I’m your mother!”
“Yes, but I don’t really recall any exceptions to the ‘always keep your word’ rule. Believe me, mom, if we could tell you about it, we would. It’s not like we want to get grounded for life, but we really, really can’t, and it’s not just ‘cause we gave our word. It’s because there’s someone else involved… someone who could be in a lot of trouble if we were to tell you.”
“Is it really that serious?” asked Mrs. Sanderson, looking into her daughter’s eyes.
“And you, Eric, you’ve been very quiet up until now. What do you have to say for yourself?” she asked, turning to her son, who had remained oddly silent up to that point.
“I chose to go with Amelia, she didn’t make me, and I gave my word too, just like she did… I won’t go back on it either, sorry mom,” said Eric, trying hard not to show just how nervous he really was.
“I see,” said Mrs. Sanderson, carefully studying her children. She collected her thoughts for a moment before asking. “Is it safe to assume that the person the two of you are so intent on protecting is Citlalli?”
Amelia’s head shot up at that, and Eric went suddenly pale, though neither one of them seemed to be willing to answer her question, at least not in so many words, so Theresa went on. “I thought so.”
“Please, mom, let it go,” pleaded Amelia, knowing that her mother could be really scary when it came to figuring things out based on nothing but their reactions, and she was already a little too close to the truth for comfort… though luckily just this once the whole truth was something that was a little too unbelievable for her to guess.
“So it is about Citlalli then, and I take it that you’ve known where she is all along, am I right?”
Amelia was secretly relieved by the way in which her mother had phrased her question because it made it possible for her to give her an honest answer.
“No, I haven’t known all along.”
“But you know where she is now, don’t you?”
“Sort of, but that doesn’t mean I can tell you. I gave her my word. She’s safe now, and even though things did get kind of hairy there for a while, she’s doing just fine. She’s happy where she is, and she doesn’t want to come back.”
“You really won’t tell us, will you?” asked Theresa, shaking her head.
“Okay, I guess I’ll have to respect that, even if I don’t like it, however that doesn’t mean that the two of you are getting home scot-free for that stunt you pulled with your little vanishing act,” their mother reminded them, glaring at both of them.
“That’s fair,” said Amelia, knowing that they really had no way out of that one, and hoping that by not trying to fight it they might make things just a little bit easier for themselves.
“Then I guess I don’t have to tell you that you are grounded, both of you, do I?” asked Mrs. Sanderson, though it was mostly a rhetorical question.
“No, ma’am,” replied both children, almost as one.
“May I ask for how long?” dared to ask Amelia.
“I’m not sure, not yet. I think we’ll make it one month for starters, then whatever we decide after that will be based largely on your own behavior. Now let’s go over the rules once more,” said her mother.
“I think I remember, mom,” said Amelia, trying hard not to roll her eyes. “Let me see, house arrest, no friends coming over, no going out with any of my friends either, and no phone or TV privileges. Having fun is strictly forbidden and we are only allowed out of the house to go to school… or to the dentist if we really have to. Nothing new there, I mean, it’s not like it’s brain surgery or anything like that.”
“And what about you, Eric, do you understand those rules? I know you are nowhere near as familiar with them as your sister,” said Mrs. Sanderson, trying hard not to smile at her daughter’s casual recitation of the rules that she’d be expected to follow for the foreseeable future. The truth was that sometimes she didn’t even know why she bothered, seeing how used Amelia was to living by those rules… and ignoring them whenever it suited her. She was all too aware that for her daughter it was not being grounded that represented an unusual state of affairs, and the truth was that that fact hadn’t made one lick of difference as far as her behavior went.
“I understand them, I just have one question: what about the library?” asked Eric, who was anything but happy about the ‘no TV’ part.
“I think the library would be an acceptable exception, within reason, however in your case I think we may have to add no computer or video games to those rules… I’d say no computer time altogether, but I know you need it to do your homework, so we won’t go that far,” said his mother.
“Hey, that’s not fair, how come the brat gets an exception?” asked Amelia.
“Because I know you well enough to know that you’d never ask to go to the library in the first place… in fact I think you’d much rather go to the dentist,” her mother pointed out.
“So? I mean, I still think it’s so not fair,” grumbled Amelia. “After all, it’s not my fault that he is so much of a freak that he actually likes it there.”
“Don’t worry, dear, you are free to go to the library too… as long as you are truly going to the library, and not just using it as an excuse to go do whatever you want.”
“Fine,” huffed Amelia.
“So that’s settled, now off to your rooms with the both of you. I don’t want to see either of you before dinner.”
“Wait, mom, just one question,” said Amelia, placing a hand on Eric’s shoulder to keep him from leaving just yet.
“What is it?”
“Can we hang out together in each other’s rooms? I mean, I know no friends and no visits are part of the rules, but each other’s room had never really come up before.”
“You actually want to spend time together?” asked their mother, totally taken aback by that particular request. “I really can’t believe that. I just wish you’d tell me what happened while you were gone. I mean I have only been trying to keep the two of you from killing each other for the past ten years or so, and now all of a sudden you are disappearing together, and standing up for each other? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy about the fact that the two of you are now misbehaving in tandem, but yes, you are allowed to spend time together while you are grounded. I won’t keep you apart… not unless you give me a reason to.”
“We won’t,” promised Amelia as she all but dragged her brother out of there, and then the two of them headed back to their respective rooms, relieved by the fact that that one was over.
They knew that they had gotten off relatively easy, even if they weren’t really sure of how long they were going to be grounded. One month didn’t sound too bad under the circumstances, though the fact that it was an open ended deal that was described as ‘one month, and then we’ll see’, one their parents could basically hold over their heads for as long as they lived, was not particularly reassuring.
Later that night, unbeknownst to those around it, reality shifted slightly, and an old house that had been abandoned ‘ever since anyone could remember’ suddenly appeared out of nowhere right next door to the one inhabited by the Sanderson family.