The Welcome Center was beautiful and nicely apportioned, and the chair in the waiting area was so comfortable that the lack of comfort it provided to my body was painfully noticeable. "There is no rest for you here," it seemed to scream at my aching muscles and bones. "You don't belong here." The long train ride on that damn wooden bench hadn't helped much either. I wanted so badly to stretch out and go to sleep, and the thought made me worry about Amy back at Dad's place. "She must be miserable," I muttered.
"Hello, how can I help you?" The voice was so sweet and pleasant, like I'd never heard it before. For me it had always been clipped and nervous. When I turned toward her, she looked exactly as I remembered her, maybe a bit younger. The habit she wore was more traditional and ceremonial than her more practical dress before, but the impression was exactly the same.
"Hello," I said, and I started to blush knowing that she didn't recognize me but that she soon would. "How are you, Sister?" I was overcome with the wish to be anywhere else.
"I'm well," she was still smiling, and squinting at me a little. The wheels were turning in her head. "I'm sorry, I can't remember your name."
"It's..." I had to swallow hard. "It's, Simon, Sister," I said. I started to hold out my hand to shake, but then I couldn't remember if that was appropriate.
"Simon?" There was the voice I remembered. Her mouth dropped open and I could see the tension grip her. She wanted to leave.
"I'm sorry to surprise you like this," I said. I sat down and decided to look at my shoes.
She paused for a few seconds, long enough to for me to notice, but then took the seat beside me. "No, please," she said. "Don't apologize to me. Please."
"I'm sorry," I said, at a loss for words. I glanced over at her, and she smiled a little.
"And don't apologize for the apology," she said. The fact that I was here dawned on her at this point. "Simon, I... It's been a long time."
"When did you get here?" she asked. I wondered if it was professional curiosity. Would she have know if I had arrived through the light? I was certain she hadn't put her name on the notification list for me.
"I've been here just a few hours," I answered her. I could tell by the look on her face that she was trying to figure it out. I shouldn't be here, dressed like this, obviously exhausted, after just a few hours. I really didn't want to get into it with her. "I came because Dad told me you were working here," I said. "He thought you could help me."
She wasn't smiling any more. "You've already seen your father? I hope he is well."
"He's fine, Sister."
"How could I possibly help you, Simon?" she asked. "I work here, with the Sisters in Waiting. I greet the new arrivals."
"Yes, I've heard," I said. A lump rose in my throat again, but I fought it down and continued. "Sister, listen. I understand that you are with the Sisters, and I understand what that means for you." I looked her squarely in the eyes. "And for me," I added.
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," she said, turning slightly away from me and staring at her hands folded on her knees in a way that told me she knew exactly what I was talking about.
"There's a little girl, Sister," I said, sensing that she was about to leave. "I'm trying to help her."
"What little girl?"
"She's with Dad right now," I continued. "I'm trying to help her find her mother."
"Well, Simon, we can certainly help her with that. Just bring her..."
"No, Sister. She's not... I just need to know if her mother arrives here or has arrived already."
She looked puzzled again. "Well, as was surely explained to you, she'll have to come and ask herself. Only family..."
"She's not dead, Sister. She's still alive."
Now she frowned. "I thought you said she was at your father's."
"I thought you meant your father's house here, in Waiting." The Sisters always called it Waiting, not Aphter.
She stopped talking at that point, and leaned in closely to look at me. Not everyone in Aphter knew that the living could visit. It wasn't something we advertised, those of us who knew the way. "Simon, what's wrong with you?" she asked. "You look strange."
"That's because I'm not dead, Sister."
She blinked, but the words didn't sink in yet.
"I'm still alive."
Her eyes went wide and she froze. "This can't be right," she whispered. "This is wrong."
"No, it's okay. Dad and I, we've always visited here. We're not the only ones," I said. "We don't talk about it much, though."
"I can't tell you that," I said. "But it's nothing weird. It's perfectly natural, if you know how."
"Simon, I'm very uncomfortable..." She stood to go.
"Please, Sister," I said with more desperation than I had intended. She stopped, and I started to stand, but I was just too tired. "There's a little girl, a sweet, little girl named Amy at Dad's place, and I need to know if her mother is here. We're trying to find her mother. She disappeared yesterday morning, and I have reason to think she might be in danger, possibly mortal danger."
She paused for a long time, standing in front of my chair and looking off toward the door. Finally she asked, "How old is the girl, Simon?"
"I'm not sure. Seven or eight, maybe," I answered.
"Tell me about her."
"Well, yesterday I got to her house..."
"No," she said. "Describe her to me."
"Uh... She's short." I indicated with my hand. "She's got brownish hair. She's mostly quiet, not too fussy. She's damn brave. She..."
"Okay," she interrupted, having come to some decision. She sat quickly in the chair beside me and looked me right in the eyes. "Tell me what you need."