Ghost Lights

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 If Em was shocked by Rebecca's arrival, she hid it exceptionally well, doling out slices like it was just another day. Dinner was a tense affair laced liberally with an awkward undertone. No one possessed a strong enough conversational lure to break the charged silence, so they ate quietly and finished quickly.

Taking her usual seat in the living room, a mug of tea at her elbow, Rebecca repeated her instructions and waited for Alex and Lee to leave, the latter of the two's mood darkening as they struck out in the direction of the Echoes. No music filled the cavernous room today, the pipes turned away from their stages and the cage lights low, lending it a crypt-like feeling. It had the same mournful echo as a body with the soul scooped out, the magic gone, leaving behind a hollow, cold corpse.

Lee took a seat on one of the pillow mounds, looking off at something Alex suspected only she could see. Alex chose a seat further away, giving the woman space.

"Would you like me to go first or you?"

Picking at a loose thread on her pants, Lee let the question linger for longer than necessary. Does it matter?

"Not really."

Let's just get this over with so I can go back and try to keep the fragments of my family together.

Alex knew this bout of petulance had very substantial and understandable roots, but that didn't make it any less trying or hurtful. "I didn't come here to fight. We missed Christmas and —"

Yeah, on account my mother passed out and fell into a table due to some mysterious illness no one will talk about. Sorry about that. I'll try harder next year.

Alex felt every word like a physical blow. Try as she might, each barb hit home in its own awful way. "Be straight with me. Should I go home? Would it be easier if I wasn't here?"

The question struck a nerve. Looking up, Lee's expression quivered between angry defiance and indecision. No, she grunted, raking her hands through her hair. I want you to stay, I just...I'm angry, and I don't know what to do with the anger or where to put it.

"Talking it out usually helps."

Are you going to answer the question that needs to be answered?

"You know I can't."

Then we're at an impasse, aren't we?

That was it then. "I guess we are, so I'll make this easy. Open your gift, and then I'll let myself out." Setting the colorful gift box down at Lee's feet, Alex backed away to let her decide what came next.

Wedging her fingers under the edge of the folded wrapping paper, Lee peeled away the outer shell, revealing a cardboard box already slit open at the top.

"I had to add the batteries," Alex explained without prompting. Lee ignored the comment, digging through the contents until she retrieved the object inside and brought it into the light. Immediately, her body stilled, the clinical set of her features softening into something akin to wonder.

"I couldn't think of anything practical, so I decided on something a little more aesthetic," Alex said watching Lee gently handle the basketball-sized black orb. "It's a synthetic night sky. Turn it on, and the camera will project whatever constellations you want on the ceiling. I had the tech I bought it from program the sky right now."

Even in the low light, Alex caught the shine of tears welling in Lee's eyes — cracks forming in her spiny armor. Sliding to her knees, she fished out the base and set the orb on top, angling it towards the ceiling. A flick of a switch was all it took for the cavernous room to fill with the vastness of the night sky, blue-black and endless.

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