“Coralie!” Aurora screamed, throwing her arms around her daughter. Tears streamed down her face in rivers, hands trembling uncontrollably with shock. “I thought I’d never see you again…”
Aurora felt the surge of gratitude, the flood of relief as it washed over her in waves. Her shaking hands gripped her daughter with surprising force. She’d lost Coralie once – but here she was now, flesh and blood, so close that Aurora could smell her hair, hold her hand. This time, Aurora was never letting go.
She sobbed, and reached up under the dark hood, but as she looked into her daughter’s blank, emotionless eyes, Aurora’s heart stopped. Time stopped. Something was wrong with Coralie. Very wrong.
Aurora froze, suddenly aware that they weren’t alone. She turned on the stranger, fierce and protective. When she spoke her voice sounded strange – shrill, animal, and increasingly louder with every word.
Aurora: What have you done to her?
She lunged at him, anger and hatred coursing hot through her veins. He’d done something terrible to her daughter, she was sure – a million awful scenarios ran through her head. Her fists made contact with his hulking form, but the stranger was bigger and stronger and he quickly restrained her. He clapped a hand roughly over her mouth.
“Shush, woman,” he hissed. “Get yerself inside!”
He didn’t wait for her to answer, instead shouldering his way through the door, pulling Coralie and Aurora forcefully in behind him. Aurora dove for for the baseball bat, her mind racing – her baby upstairs, her family in danger…
She raised the bat and faced him. The man only exhaled heavily, shaking his head, frustration and sadness etched into his face.
“I’m not gonna hurt ya, woman. Yeesh. Just put the bat down now, ya hear?”
Aurora hesitated, unsure. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Coralie wandering aimlessly through the living room. She seemed lost. Her eyes were empty – unseeing. She hadn’t spoken or reacted, or even made eye contact. Coralie was here…but she wasn’t.
“What have you done to my daughter?” Aurora growled, waving the bat in the air.
The stranger moved toward her cautiously, slowly.
He came closer, one step at a time, and looked her dead in the eyes. His voice was soft, gentle. He put a hand up, steadied the bat with his hand until Aurora lowered it.
“My name is Niko,” he said. Slowly. Calmly. “Niko Hasslich. I’ve come to bring your daughter home.”
Aurora eyed him suspiciously. Niko Hasslich? Who was this man? Could he really be who he said he was? It wasn’t possible….. or was it? And what did he have to do with Coralie?
There was a cacophony on the stairs as Palani rushed to her side, fear and adrenaline coursing through his body, with Tabitha at his heels. Palani charged, overtaking Niko in one swift motion.
Aurora: Wait, Palani! Let him go. I want to hear him out.
She turned to Niko, face set in cautious resignation.
Aurora: If you’re lying, I’ll know. Now tell me – who are you and what did you do to my daughter?
Coralie was sitting at the computer desk now, staring intently at the blank screen.
Niko: I didn’t do anything to your daughter! I brought her home…I smuggled her out, hence the disguises, ya see? I’m green, sure, but I’m sure I’m no alien –
Aurora: Home from where?
Niko: From Sixam, of course –
Aurora: And you say you’re a Hasslich?
Niko: Niko Hasslich at your service, ma’am. My mother is Elphie Hasslich…
Aurora: LIES! Elphie Hasslich has been dead for over a hundred years! Her son would be long dead by now!
Niko’s eyes flew open. Was that fear she saw on his face? Was he afraid of them?
Niko: Time is different on Sixam! I swear! It’s…slower, somehow. My mother is still alive, my brothers and sisters too… at least I hope they are… Ask Coralie when she wakes up! She’ll tell you everything!
Aurora: Wakes up? What do you mean by that?
Niko: Coralie’ll be fine, I promise ya that. We made a plan, her and I. A plan to escape, to get back here… But I had to drug her – she was afraid she’d get nervous and blow our cover. She took it willingly, afore you go accusing me, and the antidote is in a pocket in that hideous robe she’s got on….She can take it in the morning, after she gets some sleep. She’ll be good as new.
Aurora: Escape? You mean….you’re telling me Coralie didn’t run away?
Niko: No, ma’am. You’re daughter was taken. Just like my ma, and my sisters after that. It’s a mystery to me, why they took ’em exactly, except they wanted to destroy my ma’s legacy. First they took my ma – we thought she ran away, like you thought your Coralie did. But then Philomena disappeared – she was the heir, of course. And after that they came for the rest of the girls – my little sister Luna, and Bianca and Maisie too.
He hung his head despondently, and Aurora saw that he was fighting back tears. He pulled a worn and shredded photo from his pocket and laid it on the coffee table before them :
(Left to right: Luna, Bianca, Niles, Niko, Elphie, Maisie, Nolan, Philomena)
Niko: This is us, see….it was so many years ago – before I lost them all. We all should be dead by now, together in the Netherworld, with a legacy to carry our name, just the way my mother planned.
He paused, shaking his head.
Niko: Maybe they are dead, I don’t know. My brothers – well, we went together to Sixam to bring them all home. My wife too – she wouldn’t let me go without her, stubborn as she is. We split up, to find them faster, but I never saw my brothers again… And my sisters, and my ma….I searched high and low, but they were gone without a trace…
Niko signed heavily with sad nostalgia. And when Aurora looked into his eyes, she found she believed him.
Aurora: I’m sorry about your family. But what does all of this have to do with Coralie?
Niko: She’s a Hasslich, of course. I reckon it has everything to do with her, and with you, too, for that matter. I found her wandering around in the Quill Fields on her own. I felt bad fer yer girl. She didn’t know where she was, or how she’d gotten there. So I brought ‘er back to my wife. My Jazlyn – she’s a smart one. She’d been trying to invent a wormhole for – what, years? I don’t know how long. She wanted to go home, and understandably so. But I never wanted to leave without my family. It was a point of contention between us, in truth. But when Coralie came – well she and Jaz get along like gangbusters. And Coralie must’ve learned a thing or two from her auntie – Sylvie, was it? – because when those two put their heads together, next thing you know the plum wormhole is up and running. All we had to do then was get our disguises and sneak through the thing without any of them noticing.
Aurora: So…..you left your family behind?
Niko: I don’t rightly know if there’s anyone left to leave anymore…
Aurora remembered something Sylvie had said many years ago. Something she’d brushed off as fantasy, the result of an active imagination.
Aurora: Niko – a long time ago my Aunt Emmeline was involved in a rocket ship crash. The family didn’t talk about it much, but I could swear my sister said something about Elphie being involved. We thought it was funny at the time – we always thought Elphie’s disappearance was just a myth…. Something about a woman on the radio who said she was Elphie – and that she needed help.
The green flush drained from Niko’s face.
Niko: Then there’s hope, however small. Aurora, I need to go find my wife. Take care of Coralie and make sure she takes the antidote in the morning. I’ll be in touch.
He was walking out the door.
Aurora: But what do we do now?
Niko: Just keep your head down. Everything will be fine. They don’t even know we’re gone, so we’re not in any imminent danger. But if you see anything strange – anything out of the ordinary – call me immediately.
And then he was gone.
Aurora turned to Palani.
Aurora: We have to help him find his family, Palani. Our family! I don’t understand it, but I believe him – and if it’s all true, then that makes him family. We can’t just abandon him after he brought Coralie home to us.
Palani: Okay. I promise – we will do everything we can to help him. But you heard what he said, Aurora – for now, all we can do is continue our lives as usual. Coralie is home. Let’s just be grateful for that for the time being, and take the rest as it comes.
Aurora knew he was right. She needed to help Niko find Elphie. She could never repay him for bringing her daughter home safely – helping him in his time of need was the least she could do – but for now, all she could do was tuck her daughter into bed, kiss her forehead, and count her blessings. Her daughter was home.