Lost and Found

Chapter Four: Suffer the Little Children

The little girl wandered the streets of July.

It had been two weeks since it had earned its status as a "lost" city. The wind was terrible that day: it made short work of many of the buildings that were still standing, causing them to crumble to the ground, denying shelter to those who suffered the wind's ill effects. It whipped through the girl's hair as she shuffled, zombie-like, through the city, sent it flying into her eyes and nose, but she took no notice of it. Instead, her spindly arms hugged her body in an attempt to ward off the cold. All around her a ghoulish, washed-out patina had settled over the city landscape, so that it resembled a page from a coloring book that had been filled in solely with dull, dark-hued crayons.

In an absurd appeal to normalcy, she reached down with trembling fingers and attempted to straighten her dress. This was, of course, a useless gesture – if not only because of the wind, but because her dress was now nothing more than a haphazard patchwork of dirt stains and gaping tears – but it helped somewhat to put her in mind of her former life, even if it couldn't truly draw her thoughts away from the day the city had fallen.

It had been a terrifying transformation. One moment the city stood before her, an eternal monument of beauty and strength, and the next it was reduced to a pile of skeletal remains, the blackened, half-collapsed buildings leering out at her like hungry creatures of the night. Her home was in shambles. She had cried and cried that day, and Mommy and Daddy had just held her, trying to calm her; but she only cried harder in response, because she could tell they were just as scared as she was, and that was the worst thing of all.

From within the the hollowed-out shell of their home, the little family watched in increasing shock and horror as the inhabitants of the city turned on one another. Looting, fires, and outright brawls were a common sight for the next several days, until finally there was no one left to heap abuses on each other. Her parents tried to eke out an existence as best they could on the paltry amounts of food, water, and clothing that remained, but each day spent trying to stitch together something approaching a normal life was more of a struggle than the last.

Then one day they went to sleep, and they didn't wake up.

For hours she tried to rouse them, but they never responded to her frantic nudges, never answered her tearful calls for them to rise. Later, the girl would learn what death was, and wonder what it was that had killed them in the end, but for now the world was still – or was still supposed to be – a good place, a magic place. Her parents slept on, their bodies stiff as planks of dry wood, their faces drained of all color.

The girl wondered if they dreamed of her.

She would have stayed there with them if she could, reciting every chant she had learned from the fairy tales she'd been read in her short life: spells and incantations that were supposed to return those who were asleep to the waking world. But a strange man had stormed into the house's remains one day, scaring her badly enough that she ran away, before winding up in a section of the city that she did not recognize. She had been wandering in circles forever now... in reality, it had only been a few days, but as the girl was only three years old, she had little understanding of time.

She had not slept or eaten in all that time. Her eyelids fluttered intermittently, and a bothersome pressure began to build up in her skull, but she resolved never to succumb to her body's call for rest. After all, there was no guarantee that she would ever wake up; and should such a thing happen, who would be there to wake up her parents? Similarly, she had no desire to eat. The girl's stomach ached terribly from the lack of nourishment, but she felt no hunger at all – only a tremendous need to keep moving, to find her way home. Even if she looked for food, she wouldn't have found it.

It was only when a shadow fell over her that she looked up.

The shadow's owner was a figure without a face. Ordinarily the girl would have put it down to a monster and fled, but her survival instincts were very muted and instead she just stared at it. After a few uncomprehending moments, she realized that it was human-shaped, with traces of light hair blowing around the area where its face was supposed to be. Yet she did not feel a great deal better for knowing that she was looking at a person and not a creature from her nightmares.

Her arms wrapped around her body tighter, as she shivered with fear as well as cold. Meanwhile, the figure continued to stand there, like an imperturbable force of nature, solid and unassailable. It also remained utterly motionless: the only movements to be found on its person were those of the torn sheets that covered it, which simultaneously fanned out from its back. As the sheets twisted every which way in the wind, the girl saw that the figure had broad shoulders and was tall like her Daddy... so "it" was probably a "he." She wasn't completely certain, however, as the sheets kept the figure's face covered.

The object of her musings made a forward movement just then, causing her to step back, cringing; but the movement had only consisted of slowly kneeling down on one knee. The person extended a hand towards her, held it there. The hand was as heavily adorned with bandages as the person was with sheets. He said nothing, but that was probably for the best – the wind was so fierce that he wouldn't have been heard unless he yelled, and that would most certainly cause the girl to bolt in terror. She stood before him, undecided.

Don't talk to strangers, Daddy had told her. Don't ever go anywhere with someone you don't know, Mommy had said. Even after they had gone to sleep, she continued to abide by their words, running and hiding whenever she saw someone approaching. The girl knew she should probably run now, but something kept her rooted to the spot.

The stranger's hand was still extended towards her. It seemed that he would wait there forever if he had to, until she either took his hand or turned and fled.

If she went with the stranger, bad things would happen, she knew – but then, maybe she didn't care if bad things happened to her, not when she was all alone in the world and Mommy and Daddy were still sleeping, perhaps forever. And yet, at the same time, she longed for some kind of human company, even if it was a longing she didn't fully understand.

Motivated by these contradicting desires, she reached out and took the stranger's hand.

Whatever will be, will be. That was another thing Mommy liked to say, and it was this phrase that danced through her head as the stranger slowly drew her closer to himself, until finally she was pressed up against his body. It had the same effect as curling up next to a crackling fireplace in the dead of night; warmth instantly flooded her body, and she instinctively huddled closer to the source. She was vaguely aware of a sheet being drawn over her, of an arm wrapping around her shoulders, completely shielding her from the chill.

If the girl had had any more tears left in her, she might have wept; but she had shed them all when she lost her parents. Instead, her eyes – overbright with grief and red from the strain of trying to stay awake – began to close.

Elizabeth slept.

There was a tap on the door. Miriam rushed to answer it.

It was an effort to swing the door upward, as the winds were strong enough that they kept it more or less anchored to the floor. A miracle the entire church was still standing, really. The last time she'd seen wind this bad was when a sudden sandstorm had accosted the monastery. She had been in the inner courtyard, following the patterns of a prayer walk that had been traced in the sand, when it was suddenly blown away by gale force winds. She had raced inside before one of the bricks could come loose from the church's structure and strike her in the head.

The wind today had arrived just as suddenly, and she was sick with worry. Alex had gone out to try and find supplies that they needed, such as batteries and blankets. (Miriam had also asked him to bring back a mattress if possible, but she doubted Alex would honor her request, as the mattress was supposed to be for him; the nun was well and truly tired of watching him sleep on the floor night after night.) She had long since stopped asking if she could accompany Alex on these trips. He always insisted on going alone.

She regretted her decision now. It was shortly after he left this morning that the weather had turned inclement, and she had not seen him all day. Who knows what might have happened...

She got the door fully open, and a booted foot plunged down and held it in place before it could swing closed again. She opened her mouth to yell at its owner – through yet another miracle, things had grown comfortable enough between them that she could level snarky remarks at him without fear of retribution – but the howling of the wind drowned out any admonishments she might have called forth. Instead, Alex merely stood and waited for Miriam to move aside. She did so, grudgingly, and he smoothly descended the staircase.

"So what took so long, anyway?" she said, as he began to shrug off the heavy robes that he used as cover whenever he went scavenging. "I was worried half to death that something happened."

"I got held up," Alex replied vaguely.

Miriam looked over at the duffel bag that he had set down before disrobing. "I don't suppose there's a mattress stuffed in there, is there?" she said, only half in jest.

"Shh," Alex said, stopping long enough to place a finger to his lips. There was an uncharacteristic maternity to the gesture. "You'll wake her."

"Her?" Miriam walked over to the bag and peered inside. "Oh, goodness, Alex. Don't tell me that you brought back a pet – oh!" She had pulled back the opening flap all the way and was amazed to see a child nestled comfortably inside, sleeping. In a whispered but frantic voice, she said, "Where did you find her? Was she alone? Where are her parents?" Then, lifting the child out and placing a hand to her forehead: "Alex! She's freezing! I'm going to set up a hot bath for her."

She hurried to the bathroom, suddenly a perpetually put-upon matron. Supporting the child in the crook of one arm, she used the other to draw bath water. The child stirred slightly, but was otherwise dead to the world.

"Well, to answer the first of your many questions," Alex sighed, following her, "I found her in the industrial district. When the winds started up, I was on my way back here. I was running the buildings – " running was the term he and Miriam used to describe his newfound penchant for leaping from building to building to avoid being seen by enemies – "and I happened to look down and see her. She was alone and suffering from the cold – "

Miriam glared at him, and he went on to add in an injured tone, "Not my fault. Anyway, she was by herself. As for where her parents were..." He looked away. "I'm pretty sure she's an orphan."

The nun's glare turned into an expression of open sorrow. She clutched the child tighter to her bosom. "How did you get her to come with you?" she asked slowly.

"I didn't really think about it," he replied, just as slowly. "I just kind of... walked up to her, and she came with me."

There was silence but for the running of the bath water. After a moment Alex sighed again and turned away.

"I'm going to turn in," he said, resuming his customary sleeping position on the floor. He added: "Sorry I couldn't find anything we could use."

"You've done more than enough," she told him. "You've managed to save a life."

Alex gave a slight inclination of his head, but did not look especially proud of himself. He closed his eyes.

"At least use my bed," the nun said, chagrined, but Alex was already asleep. Or maybe just pretending to be asleep. His chest rose and fell with silent breaths, as his head rested in the crook of his single arm. Miriam had no idea how he could be comfortable in that position.

Once the tub had finished filling, Miriam undressed the child with deliberate slowness, hoping that she would come around. After a few moments, the girl's eyes fluttered open, and she leveled a flat stare at the nun. Miriam evinced some surprise at this, remembering that a few weeks – now a lifetime – ago, she had been charged with taking care of children just like this one. The possibility that she might not truly be up for the task flitted through her mind, but she put it down. Her old insecurities were irrelevant now. It would just be plain selfish to let them take hold.

"Hello," she said quietly. "What is your name?"

The girl said nothing. Miriam tried again.

"Where are your parents?" she asked, picking up a bottle of soap and pouring its contents into the tub, creating a bubble bath.

The girl averted her gaze. "They said never talk to strangers," she mumbled.

"That's very good advice," Miriam said. It was advice she wished she had heeded over ten years ago, in fact. There was a pregnant pause, as she found herself unable to go on. Then: "But we aren't strangers. We're your friends."

"You are?" the girl said, raising her head now. "There's more o' you?"

"Yes." Miriam smiled at her. "It's me and Alex here."

The girl looked past the open door, saw Alex sleeping on the floor. She tipped her head to one side.

"He was the one wh'got me. Did he brung me here?"

Her childlike speech fascinated Miriam. She had not heard its like for years now. She nodded. "Yes, that's Alex. And my name is Sister Miriam."

The child's reply was automatic. "But you're not my sister," she said, her big green eyes wide with puzzlement. "I don't have no sisters or brothers."

"Well... it's sort of a title, actually," Miriam said, and then she kicked herself mentally. Idiot! She can't be more than three. "I'm... sort of like everyone's sister. I guess. You can call me Sister, if you want. Now what's your name?"

With a pride that would be absurd if it were not coming from a child, the girl clearly enunciated: "E-liz-a-beth."

"That is a very pretty name, Elizabeth," Miriam said. She gestured to the wall, where she had hung up the girl's dress. "And those were very pretty clothes you were wearing. I saw a lot of bows on them. Do you like bows?" As she spoke, Miriam made a note to clean and patch up the clothes on the morrow.

"Uh-huh." Elizabeth nodded, her face tight. Then something like desperation shone in her eyes. "Nee-san, my Mommy and Daddy fell asleep. They wouldn't wake up. Can you tell me what happened to 'em? ...Nee-san, why are your eyes all wet?"

Miriam swallowed hard, brushed away the tears that stood in her eyes. It was just as Alex had said... "We'll talk more about that later," she said. "I promise. But for now, just eat and let me clean you up."

The girl was quiet. In another lifetime she might have thrown a fit until she got the answers that she wanted, but the last few weeks had taken a terrible toll on her body and soul. She mutely consumed the juice and crackers that Miriam gave to her, before the nun set to work softly scrubbing her hair and skin, casting off every inch of dirt that covered her body. While the child had suffered enormously, the nun swore that she would do all in her power to make sure she was safe and comfortable here.

When the bath was over, Miriam put one of her own shirts on the girl. Oh, Lord, Miriam thought as the girl tried to walk in it without stumbling. That shirt was too big even for me. It looks like a tent on her. She was going to have to ask Alex to get some clothes for her on his next trip out. She placed the girl in one of the many child-sized chairs scattered around the basement and knelt down, began to brush out her wet hair with a fine-toothed comb.

"Nee-san," Elizabeth said. "Can we talk 'bout my parents now?"

Miriam stiffened, but continued to comb the girl's hair. "Your parents are..." How could one put such a terrible truth to her gently? "Your parents are in Heaven," she said finally, firmly.

"What's Heaven? How'd they get there?"

"Well, when someone goes to sleep and doesn't wake up, their... their souls fly there," Miriam said. "Heaven is a place in the sky that they go to. It's too high up for you or me to follow." When you put it that way, it sounded ridiculous. Miriam blanched. Nuns weren't supposed to have thoughts like that. "Someday you will go to Heaven too," she said, trying to placate the child with gentle reassurances.

"But... what is Heaven?" Elizabeth pressed.

How did one describe Heaven? Miriam didn't really know herself, beyond stained glass depictions of golden harps and pearly gates; and she had never put much stock in those. She was about to reply, when Alex's voice suddenly interjected.

"Heaven is the land of angels," he said, sitting up slowly. He closed his eyes. "Someone told me that a long time ago... I don't remember who, though."

"Nii-san! You're awake!" the girl said, something like happiness showing in her voice for the first time. She tried to get up and go to him.

"Oh, honey," Miriam said, keeping a hand on the girl's shoulder. "I think he's tired. He's been out and about all day."

"It's okay," Alex said mildly. "I'm pretty much awake now, anyway."

Miriam had her doubts. But at that moment, a voice as soft as a desert breeze seemed to whisper in her mind. Suffer the children. Without another word, she released her hold on the girl.

Elizabeth clambered into Alex's lap, and to Miriam's surprise, he did not stiffen or seem uncomfortable in any way. "Can you tell me more 'bout Heaven?" she asked.

"Heaven is a place where people never steal, or hurt each other, or tell lies," he said with an equally surprising deftness. He was certainly much better versed on the subject than she was. "There is no desert, and the land is covered in green grass. There is food and water for everyone. In Heaven, there are nothing but peaceful days."

"So... am I gonna go to Heaven when I go to sleep?" Elizabeth asked, sounding both fearful and excited.

Alex briefly hesitated. "Hopefully, not for a very long time," he said. "All good girls go to Heaven eventually," he added, as an afterthought.

"But what if I'm bad?" the girl asked, her eyes growing watery. "I won't get to see Mommy and Daddy?"

"You shouldn't worry about that. I think you're a very good girl," Alex said, and he placed his hand on her head.

Miriam rose to her feet, astonished. She had never witnessed this side to Alex. It was as though another piece of the puzzle that was him had just fallen into place. Her heart warmed considerably. Maybe this will help him remember. From the way he's acting, I wouldn't be surprised if he had children of his own...

Then something happened to completely break the mood.

Elizabeth was openly goggling at Alex's stump. "Nii-san," she breathed, awed. "Where'd your arm go?"

Ohhh, dear. Miriam had no idea how to address the question; and even less idea of how Alex would deal with it. Therefore, she was completely shocked when he replied, in a complete monotone:

"A sandworm ate it."

"Really? A san' worm?"

"Yep," he affirmed quietly. "There I was, standing in the middle of the desert, minding my own business, when he just tore out of the ground and started chomping on me." And then his face twisted into an expression that Miriam had never seen on him before. He was pretending to be a sandworm. His eyebrows came together and he bared his teeth and weird – snarfling – noises came out of his mouth. He looked totally ridiculous.

Elizabeth was eating it up. She pressed two fists against her mouth in horror. "What'd you do, Nii-san?"

"I did what any man would do. I started punching him in the nose until he dropped my arm." He delivered an impressive right hook into thin air. "But then I saw that it was all icky, so I just let him have it. He slunk off, totally beaten." He sat back and nodded, as though satisfied with himself.

"Wow," Elizabeth said. "Was there lots of blood n' stuff?"

"Oh yeah," Alex said, and Miriam thought she would faint. "But it all turned out okay in the end." He smiled at her.

Really smiled. It was another expression Miriam had never seen on his face. Today was just full of surprises, it seemed.

He looked so beautiful when he smiled like that.

Elizabeth yawned.

"I guess you're ready to go back to sleep," Alex said, and the smile faded from his face. He was all business again, the nun noted with dismay.

Elizabeth rubbed her eyes. "Yeah... sleepy..."

Without another word, Alex lifted her up like a sack of flour and put her in Miriam's bed. For a child who had seen and suffered much, she dropped off to sleep quickly enough. Alex went over to join the nun, who stood with her arms crossed.

"I think I'll cook," Miriam said after a moment, and she abruptly turned and walked into the kitchen area. Alex followed her.

"But you don't cook," he said. "If I recall, all you do is live on that coffee of yours."

Was that supposed to be a joke? Miriam scoffed. "This is a special enough occasion, don't you think? And for your information, buster, I happen to be a very good cook." She began pulling several canned ingredients out of a pantry below the stove. "I don't mince words: just onions." There. Let him try to top that one.

Alex groaned.

Miriam put the stove on, drew her hair back into a ponytail, and washed her hands. "So..." she said, watching the precious water spill over her fingers. "Did you mean those things you said?"

"What things?"

"You know," she prodded, and she turned the faucet off. "About Heaven."

Alex looked pensive, and at first the nun was convinced that he wasn't going to say anything. Then: "I don't know. Maybe. Not really." He shrugged.

Miriam blinked at the non-answer. "Well," she said, trying a different tack, "is anything about your old life coming back to you? You mentioned a person."

"The harder I try to remember, the more faded the details become. I think it was..." Alex closed his eyes, his brow furrowed in deep concentration. "A woman. Like... my mother, but... also, not like my mother." He opened his eyes, looking genuinely distressed; and Miriam was saddened. She began opening the cans of food and mixing the ingredients together in a large pan that sat over an open flame.

"What are you making, anyway?" Alex leaned over to take a closer look at the pan, uncomfortably invading her space; and Miriam almost knocked the pan over as her hand, which had reached out to grasp a spatula, suddenly swept off course to avoid brushing his own.

"Could you please not do that," she said tersely, and Alex immediately backed off. "Sorry, sorry," he said, raising his one arm in mock surrender. Miriam almost grew angry, but realized that he wouldn't have any clue why she didn't want to be touched, since she had not deigned to tell him anything about the Bad Days.

And, with luck, never would.

"It's hash," she said, as in apology. She nodded at an assortment of spices on the counter. "Could you bring me those, please?"

An hour later, and the meal was done. Miriam roused Elizabeth and the two of them went to sit at the child's table – or at least, Elizabeth sat, while the adults knelt. She obediently closed her eyes and clasped her hands together as Miriam said a prayer of thanksgiving. Then, they began to tuck in. Elizabeth ate as if she hadn't eaten in weeks – which, the nun reflected, was probably pretty close to the truth.

Alex paused after one bite. "This is really good," he conceded. "It's amazing what you did with all canned ingredients."

"Thank you, Nee-san," Elizabeth added, her mouth full.

Miriam was gratified... and she felt something else, as well. For long moments she could not put a name to it, and then she realized what it was. Happiness. It was something she hadn't felt even when she was living with the nuns, devoting herself to her prayers and her domestic duties and (in secret, of course) her reading. And now here, in this broken city, living in a basement, she had found it. The feeling was so strong that it was almost uncomfortable. After all, social interaction – normal, human interaction – was something that had been denied to her, even though she never felt that God owed her that. It was enough that He had rescued her from...

Enough. She was going to start thinking about the past if she went down that route. She spoke to interrupt the voice that was beginning to drum itself up, loud and insistent, in the back of her mind.

"The winds seemed have died down a bit," she said, affecting a smile. "Maybe I should go upstairs and see if that grand piano is tuned. Then I could play you some music when dinner is through."

"Cooking and playing," Alex said, bemused. "Are there any other secret talents I should know about?"

"I suppose that's for me to know and you to find out," Miriam returned good-naturedly.

"I wanna hear songs, Nee-san," Elizabeth said. She had finished her plate and held it out to the nun. "But c'n I eat more first?"

"Sure," Miriam laughed softly, taking the plate and scooping more hash onto it. Then she rose, placed her own plate in the kitchen sink, and went upstairs.

The first thing she became aware of upon rejoining the outside world was the terrible red light that filtered down from the sky. She only knew that evening was drawing near because her watch told her so. However, the winds had indeed died down: they blew her clothes around only to a marginal degree. Ignoring the red sky – or trying to, anyway – she kept her head down and went over to the grand piano, situated in a corner of the sanctuary. There were multiple chairs surrounding it, meant for the likes of a church choir; but Miriam guessed (not quite correctly) that they would never serve that function again.

She examined the piano. It seemed to be in tip-top condition, but she wanted to try it out first. She sat down and began to play a rushed medley of her favorite songs, songs that she'd been drawn to during her time at the monastery: "His Eye is on the Sparrow," "The Gift of Love," and "The Lord of the Dance." (The sheet music for "The Lord of the Dance" she had discovered and learned in secret, as the nuns did not approve of dancing, or songs that advocated dancing.) That done, she stood up.

For absolutely no reason that she could think of, she did not go back downstairs. Instead, her eyes were drawn to the darkening shadows cast by the looming figure of the motorcycle that she had stolen from the Shadows. It lay idle on its side, taking up a good chunk of space along one of the church pews. "Angelina," she said aloud, walking over to it. She knelt down and moved her hands along the smooth surface of the bars, marveling. She could still remember the feelings of exhilaration – muted as they were beneath those of terror – that first time riding it. No, not it – her. Even now she could still feel them swell in her breast. There had been a sense of power there that she'd never possessed before, and she didn't want to let that go.

Alex had wanted to junk the motorcycle for fuel and scrap parts, but Miriam had forbid it. Maybe that was stupid. After all, she was a nun; and before that, a helpless, helpless (doll) girl. How could someone like her ever commandeer such a vehicle? She didn't even know what kind of motorcycle this was.

Regardless, she wheeled the motorcycle out into the aisle, sat astride it.

She closed her eyes. "Fly," she whispered.

Meanwhile, down below, Alex and Elizabeth had finished eating and were playing hide and seek.

As could be expected when one of the game's participants was a grown man, Elizabeth was the one who did the hiding. There was a surprisingly high number of places to hide in the church basement: especially with Miriam's most recent furnishings and renovations. Still, Alex was able to find her more often than not, mostly due to the fact that the ends of Elizabeth's shirt protruded like puppy tails wherever she chose to hide.

This time, however, he was actually stumped. She wasn't hiding under the table where they'd taken their dinner, or in the bathroom, or in the kitchen pantry. Nor had she squeezed herself behind the massive bookcase, as she'd creatively chosen to do on her first hiding attempt. He was about to declare his intention to give up when –

"There!" he yelled, whirling around and pointing. He had sensed the girl's tip-toeing movements behind him, and she froze like a deer that had been elected for target practice.

"N-no! Nii-san!" Elizabeth sputtered when she realized she'd been spotted, but her protestations were no use: Alex pounced on her with a speed and strength that belied his gaunt appearance. She employed the typical three-year old tactics for evasive action – namely, kicking him in the face and then rolling away like a dodgeball – but he recovered quickly, knocking over an endtable full of books as he lunged forward to grab the neck of her shirt. Crowing with triumph, he used his remaining arm to hold her aloft, while Elizabeth continued to struggle vainly.

"Why'd you leave your hiding place?" he asked her, laughing, still not surrendering his grip on the neck of her shirt. "I was about to give up, you know."

Elizabeth stopped squirming just then, and her face grew beet-red.

"B-because," she said, her voice contrite, her head lowered as though in shame, "I h-had t'pee..."

Upon hearing those words, Alex was suddenly, sickly aware of a damp warmth coating his leg. Willing himself to keep his gaze from traveling downward – but unable to comply, all the same – he soon confirmed his suspicions of just what it was that had spilled on him.

Elizabeth's voice was barely audible. "...Sorry, Nii-san..."

With a shriek of horror, Alex fell backwards, striking the floor with enough force to make the whole place shake. Seconds later, Elizabeth landed on top of him harmlessly.

Hide and seek was over, but the clear loser of the game had emerged.

The two adults sat side by side, tension crackling between them like an electric current. One wore a stony expression and slowly turned her rosary over and over in her fingers, as though contemplating the spiritual consequences of murder, while the other tried not to look guilty and failed. Inside the bathroom, Elizabeth was as happy as a clam, maintaining an eternal tenor of giggles as she liberally splashed water out of the tub she was sitting in.

"I go upstairs for five minutes and already you start a ruckus," Miriam sighed, wearily running a hand through her hair. "First you two make a complete mess of my home playing your silly games, and then the girl manages to – to urinate on you – "

Alex looked sheepish.

"But, you know." Miriam drew her hand away just then, turned to look at him. The anger had faded from her face somewhat. "I guess I'm kind of glad for that."

Alex blinked at her owlishly, surprised beyond measure. "Huh? You mean that?"

"I always had you pegged as such a serious young man," she said, smiling. "But you're really just a big goof, aren't you?"

"I don't know," he said, looking away, shrugging. "I just like kids is all."

"But that's not something you knew about yourself before, right?" Miriam pressed on. "Admit it: meeting Elizabeth has helped you rediscover a part of your identity."

"I guess you're right," he said after a moment, turning back to her. "But what does that mean? That I was some kind of circus clown before all this?"

"You said it, not me," she said, laughing. "Besides, it would certainly match the acrobatic profile." Then her face grew serious. "I think I just realized something."

"What is it?"

"Well... you know how that gang was made up of kids?"

"Yes," Alex replied warily. Any mention of the Shadows invariably served to darken his mood.

"Well," she said again, trying to bring her thoughts in order. "Have you ever seen another living adult in this city? Anywhere at all?"

At first he stared at her, not getting it. Then he said, "Oh. ...No, I haven't."

"This city is like a graveyard. No matter where either of us went, we never saw anyone like – like us. But we've both seen children." She brought a hand to her forehead, pushed sweaty bangs out of her face. "I'm starting to think that most of the adults really did get away on the sand steamer, back then. The rest of them could have easily ended up like... Elizabeth's parents." She brought her train of thought to its logical conclusion. "I think... I think it's the children who have inherited Lost July."

An uneasy silence passed between them. "We have to save them," Alex said at last. "We can't let them fend for themselves. This city will eat them alive."

"I agree with you," Miriam said. "But we need to have a plan." She drew out her map of July, placed it on the floor between them. "I've cordoned off each district of the city here," she said, pointing to her notes in marker. "We need to thoroughly investigate each district. Most of the kids may have joined gangs by now, but I bet a lot of them haven't. A lot of them are probably staying hidden, just trying to survive." Her voice lowered. "Alex, you're the only one who can get around without being seen. Would you be willing – ?"

"Of course," he said instantly, fiercely. "Of course I would."

"It's asking a lot of you, I know. I'll have to make preparations here so we can accommodate as many children as possible."

Alex nodded. "Just tell me where to go. I'll set off first thing in the morning."

"Then it's settled," Miriam said. "A rescue mission."

The two of them fell silent again as they pondered the grave implications of her discovery, and what they had to do. Alex's face was flushed and tight, while Miriam stared off into a distance that stretched far beyond the walls of the church. So many innocent children would be preyed upon – in more ways than one – if they did not act as soon as possible.

Elizabeth chose that moment to walk out of the bathroom, dripping wet and as naked as the day she was born. Both adults started; and Miriam quickly fetched a towel for the child while Alex found another shirt to put on her.

"It's bedtime for you, I think," Miriam said, as Elizabeth once again found herself waddling around in clothes that were too big for her.

"What 'bout songs?"

"I'll play for you tomorrow," Miriam said. "There's been too much excitement today."

Elizabeth didn't argue. The nun tucked her into her own bed, then changed into a set of clean, long-sleeved night clothes in the bathroom. The dirty dishes could wait until morning, she decided. Alex declined the use of the generator when Miriam asked if he wanted to wash up, and she turned it off. A set of matching flashlights on the nightstand next to her bed kept the room from being completely plunged into darkness. She gave one of the flashlights to Elizabeth to sleep with.

"I'm not 'fraid of the dark," Elizabeth declared, but the beam of the flashlight revealed uncertainty on her face. "...Nee-san'll sleep with me, won't you?" she asked.

"Yes, of course," Miriam said immediately, and she was surprised at how readily she had agreed to such a motherly gesture – she, whom had never laid eyes on a female under the age of forty for the last ten years. Taking care of children, she had discovered, seemed to be as natural as breathing. She crawled into the bed and placed her arms around the child, who in turn clutched the flashlight to her chest. Miriam murmured a soft prayer into her hair, and the two were asleep within a few minutes.

Alex watched them, his knees drawn up to his chest, reveling in the exchange. He felt that, whatever had transpired in his earlier life, it had never involved such sweet, simple scenes as this. The scars seemed to be rock-solid proof of that. Trying to fend off such dark reflections, he curled up on the floor. He felt the pangs of exhaustion that he had so far kept at bay suddenly sweep over him. His eyelids were heavy and he seemed suddenly as weak as a child. As he drifted off, he tried to remember the woman who had taught him about Heaven... the not-mother.

He fell into a thin, haunted sleep.

Two things he knows. His left arm is nothing but a wisp of air – gone, but certainly not forgotten – and the boy's eyes are wrong.

The aforementioned eyes regard him with contempt, blazing out of a sallow, skin-stretched face. A wall of ice seems to descend upon him, and he realizes that he is in pain. Horrible pain. He does not even have the strength to moan. The boy – a teenager, judging from his lithe but solid build – merely stands over him and watches, makes no attempt to ease his condition. He feels himself fading in and out of consciousness, as though as he is being intermittently submerged beneath black tidal waves. Beneath all this, he dimly registers a low flutelike sound – almost as if someone is humming. It's the boy.

Eventually his consciousness gains an uneasy foothold, and more details bleed into the picture in front of him. He is finally aware that he is lying on the ground. It used to be a floor, but no longer: now it is a bed of dirt, and mud, and broken glass, and other things that his mind cannot yet grasp but which are certainly better left unconsidered.

He tries to lift his head, but a jolt of pain shoots down his neck; and now the pain is so bad that he really can make a sound: a faint gurgle that bubbles out of his throat, but which does not quite pass his lips.

"You poor thing," the boy says.

His voice is as contemptuous as his eyes: eyes that are glowing a strange... what? Yellow? Bronze? No, that can't be right...

"I would like to say that I feel some measure of pity for you," the boy goes on to say in a soft, lilting voice. "And yet I can do nothing other than to wish that you had suffered the same fate as my Master."

Despite the gentleness of the boy's voice and his own detached, barely-there assessment of the reality unfolding before him, horror blossoms in his heart. The boy's eyes are unblinking, cold, even as that impossible color continues to burn in them – the color of pure, burnished gold. "Behold the destruction that you have wrought, then. You monster." The humming continues, even as the boy is speaking; and yet, indisputably, the boy is the source of that sound. He knows this.

He is terrified.

The humming grows broader, morphs into an infinitely more menacing sound – the harsh buzz of a colony of insects – as shapes begin to rise in the air. There are three of them. They look – they look – what's the word –

"Human?" the boys says, an eyebrow arched in amusement.

Yes. That's right. Human.

He instinctively accepts that the boy is able to perceive without hearing, to manipulate without touching; and yet that is not even the worst part. As the shapes rise higher into the air, silhouetted against a maroon sky that bears down through the holes of the exposed roof, he can see that two of them are –


– women. They are naked and shivering, but alive and as full of terror as he is. Their eyes, wide and black and screaming, seem to take up their entire heads. Around their prone, floating bodies, an assortment of feathers slowly furls and unfurls.

"I'm taking them with me," the boy says firmly. "You are not to poison them with your blasphemy. And..." His eyes close, and for the first time he looks close to mourning. "I am taking my Master with me."

The final shape, previously obscured by the bodies of the women, comes into full view now. And he knows that if he could scream, he would be doing so – screaming until blood poured from his throat and his own eyes fell out of his head. The shape is unmistakably human, or human-esque; but it is covered in festering wounds, and a torrent of black slime remains in suspended animation around its body, like a child's crude imitation of the outline of a person. Charred tufts of hair continue to fall from its scarred, balding scalp. The high stink of rotted meat exudes from its porous skin. What is left of its chest rises and falls with rattling breaths. It is still alive.

"But I promise you this," the boy says, and the buzzing increases exponentially with the force of his anger. "One way or another, you will be punished for what you have done to your brethren. Some day, I will see to it that you experience eternal suffering."

And then he says his name. Relishes it, as only a person who desires to take vengeance upon another can. But he cannot even hear it, because the buzzing is loud – so loud – and it seems to take up residence in his entire head, until he must crash into a million little pieces, no different from the living corpse that descends on him now, screaming its soundless fury, its eyes transitioning from green to blue to golden green blue golden golden golden golden

He awoke as though struck by lightning. His chest, which had been tightly drawn and bringing him closer to suffocation with every minute that he slept, exhaled a tense whoosh, and he bolted upright. He was surrounded by darkness on all sides, and for once, he was grateful for it.

He. Alex. Not a true name, but a name nonetheless; and he clung to it like a lifeline, as a means of separating the blessed now from the horrid then. Knowing he was Alex meant that he was just one step further away from the product of his tortured mind: a dream where he had not even known who he was, a nightmare in which he was at the mercy of a merciless boy.

"What the hell was that?" he whispered, still shaking. He placed a sweaty palm to his forehead, tried to calm the beating of his heart. The dream... it had been so vivid. Like something that had really happened. There'd been talk of destruction, and punishment, and he'd seen women with wings –

Plants? There were plants in my dream?

But then, there was also that psychic boy, or something... damn it. He was already beginning to forget the details. What had seemed like a vision piped directly into his brain from hell moments before was now beginning to become all jumbled up in his mind, like a ruined puzzle.

He'd heard of sleeping rough, but this was pretty damn rough.

He made a fist and smacked it against his temple. "Who the hell am I?" he asked himself in a fierce whisper. Then he remembered just where exactly he was – in a church, with a nun and a three-year-old – and that he probably shouldn't be using such language, even if they were asleep. He definitely didn't want to receive another tongue-lashing from Miriam in the morning. The girl may have been sweet, but he could plainly see that there was steel in her, too. There were other things that he wondered about her, but he supposed those mysteries would be resolved in due time.

Furtively, he peered across the dark room. Even though the flashlights had all been turned off, he could still see moderately well. Which only served to remind him of what a freak he was. Great. He saw Miriam lying in the bed in the corner, sound asleep. And Elizabeth was –

– not there.

He stared into the crook of Miriam's arms, puzzled. His exceptional ears picked up a sound at that moment. It was so faint as to be nearly imperceptible; but with a little straining, he could definitely make out the sound of a child's soft whimpers. Without another thought as to what had transpired, he arose and headed for the source.

Moments later, and he had found her. She sat in a corner of the darkened room, clutching the flashlight Miriam had given her to sleep with, still dressed in the nun's overlarge shirt. Soundless, pitiable sobs issued from her throat, while her eyes were squeezed tightly shut, holding back the floodgate of tears that still yet remained in her – tears she had been unable to shed before, but which she could hardly stop herself from producing now that the gravity of her circumstances had truly sunken in.

"N-nii-san..." she said when he had drawn close enough for her to take notice of him. "I m-miss... Mommy and Daddy..." Her face was twisted into an expression of utmost agony, as though her body were being assaulted with physical blows, leaving bruises that were invisible but no less indelible.

He knelt in front of her, spoke in soothing tones. "It's okay to cry, you know."

With an enormous effort, she shook her head. "Don't w-wanna wake... Nee-san..."

Watching her struggle to stay taciturn, Alex felt a lump rise in his throat; whatever the cause of the impressive network of scars that had been carved into his body, it couldn't be more painful than what he was seeing now. He took the flashlight from her and placed it on the floor next to her, before sitting down on the floor himself, his back braced against the wall. "Come here," he said gently; and when she began to stumble toward him, he drew her into his lap, just as gently, with his remaining arm.

"Put your head here," he said, tapping his chest. Elizabeth obeyed: the moment her cheeks, hot and fevered and wet with the tears that she had not been able to conceal, came to rest against him he could instantly feel them soaking his sweatshirt through. His arm encircled her tiny form protectively, his hand covering the top of her head.

"There," he told her. "Now, you can cry as much as you want, and I'll be the only one who hears. Okay?"

For a moment there was silence. Then Elizabeth began to wail: long, little-girl howls that shook her entire body, created a darkly expanding puddle of tears on his shirt. Alex patiently held her, understanding that it could take hours for the grief to run its course; and even then, the hurt would always still be there, threatening to swallow her whole in moments when it was hardly expected. He rubbed her back, not saying anything, just letting her cry. Occasionally she would drop off to sleep, only to rouse herself and begin the cycle all over again. When at last it seemed she would stay asleep for the remainder of the night, her fingers still clutching helplessly at his shirt, he shifted her weight in his arm and tried to decide what to do next.

While he certainly had no intention of leaving her there on the floor alone, Alex was surprised to find that he didn't want to return her to Miriam, either. Somehow, at some point, he had fully accepted the role that she had thrust upon him in her childlike trust and acceptance of him. And he realized something else, too: he loved her, just as a brother loves his sister. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth," he said in a pained whisper, feeling responsible in some way for the terrible loss she had suffered.

Presently, Alex nudged the flashlight away with his foot, then stretched the full length of his body out on the floor, using his arm to cushion Elizabeth, who snuggled against him in response. Keeping it firmly wrapped around her, he then proceeded to turn to less fitful – or what he hoped would be less fitful – dreams.

A/N: Headcanon strikes again. Yes, it's that Elizabeth. Since almost all the principal characters are going to be OC's, I decided to include another canon character in order for the story to bear more of a resemblance to the world of Trigun; and it still fits in anime canon, anyway. (Although it makes it really weird when Vash hits on her in Episode 6, but I didn't really think of that when I first wrote this [almost a year ago now, wow]. Still, a lot of Vash's actions in the early episodes are so cryptic that I think a case could be made that he already knew Elizabeth was from July and was acting like a perverted idiot to throw her off his track.)

The "suffer the children" bit comes from Matthew 19:14, where Jesus admonishes the disciples for forbidding the children to come to Him to be blessed: "But Jesus said, Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."