CHAPTER TWO (draft)

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CHAPTER 2


Charles Lark, my father, is sitting in the place previously occupied by the Atlantean crewman, framed by the same ship-board view, which for some reason comes across as bizarre and incongruous in my mind. . . .

At once I feel a stab of psychological vertigo at the strange sight of my Dad on an ark-ship, even before my mind registers the real life details of him—such as his unkempt wavy brown hair with more grey than I remember, the wrinkled beige shirt with a collar that's folded wrong on one side, the same exact pair of rimless glasses, his sickly pallor, or his exhausted grim expression—just before his face transforms into a beaming smile at the sight of me.

"Gwen! Oh, my sweet girl! My dear child!"

The familiar sound of my father's voice that on some level I've never expected to hear again, pierces my heart.

"Dad! Daddy!" I exclaim in a horrible voice that cracks again, and sounds squeaky and very "little girl" which would normally embarrass me, but not today. At the same time I start to rise in my chair, leaning forward with all my strength, so that I am facing the screen, and smiling and crying at the same time.

"So good to see you, sweet girl," Dad says, and his face draws closer to the screen also, so that I can really see his wrinkles, the unshaven greying whiskers on his cheeks, and the reddened eyes behind the spectacles. I realize now my father is crying also, his eyes full of moisture. He also looks thin and more frail than I remember. . . .

"Thank God, you are safe, oh, thank God," he says softly, and shakes his head, as though the act of speaking has robbed him of strength.

And then, in the next moment I see my older brother George.

A hand comes down to rest on Dad's shoulder, and then George leans in, so that he's taking up half the screen, and he cranes his neck to stare at me with a serious expression that softly blooms into a smile. George's dark hair is longer than I remembered, or maybe it just sticks up oddly, and he's got bed hair—after all, I woke them up. He's wearing an old black t-shirt that I recognize.

"Hey, sis . . ." George says in a steady, almost playful voice. "Good to see you! Didn't think that I ever would again, but great to be wrong." He makes a sound that's a chuckle or a smirk or something else that's typical charming George. And then, because Dad makes a choked sound of his own, George grows suddenly serious, like a shield slamming, and I see now that he is also thinner than usual, with harder lines and angles, and somehow older than I'd expected in just a year.

"George!" I exclaim. Another unexpected surge of emotion causes my breath to catch in my throat.

"So many things, my girl," Dad begins to speak. "So much has happened. . . . I hear you had to participate in some kind of terrible athletic Games—it is over now, right?"

"Oh yes, it's over," I hurry to say. "I survived and even won, Dad! Everything worked out okay. I will tell you all about it later, and about so many other things—"

"Such as you getting married?" George interrupts, and raises one corner of his mouth in a semblance of disapproval. Such a typical George facial tick. . . .

"Oh, my . . . about that—" Suddenly I feel a flush of embarrassment, an instant of panic, and cast a quick glance at Aeson who is sitting next to me, but off screen, invisible to Dad and George. Aeson's expression in that instant is both endearingly solemn and just a tiny bit uncomfortable—I can tell he's making an effort to maintain a calm, even relaxed appearance, but he's not fooling me. . . .

Dad makes a hollow whistling noise as he exhales a held breath, then clears his throat awkwardly. "Yes, well—your Aeson—this young man of yours seems very nice. He really does. . . . A handsome, well-grounded fellow, apparently in charge of everything. . . . Excellent command of English." And then he exhales again. "I'm a little stunned, I admit. . . . But I'm very proud of you—yes, of course. . . . Not sure how any of this happened, but we'll come to that. At some point later you will tell me everything, how you met—although George did mention your fellow was a Qualification officer in charge of all of you, and now Gracie tells me he's even grander . . . ah, it's such a strange thing, my Gwenie-girl—that already you're so grown up. . . . Getting married to an intelligent, accomplished young man from another world! Unbelievable to me—you're my little girl, you know, still my little girl. . . ."

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