Where's Phil? James wondered. Doesn't he always turn up when the world goes to hell?
For the world had unquestionably gone to hell. Even the terrible chaos when Sammy was born hadn't been as bad as this - back then, it had only been James's life that started to come apart at the seams. Now, it was everyone else's life.
Sammy toddled across the room to retrieve her giraffe from the settee. Only a couple of days ago, Claire had marvelled how sure-footed she was at just thirteen months; it seemed like a lifetime ago. Sammy's early walking was now the least incredible thing about her.
The world's children had vanished, in an instant and without warning. The television news was full of nothing else, and neither government nor scientists had anything that sounded remotely like an explanation. Everyone under the age of thirteen was mysteriously gone.
"Why...?" asked Claire, staring at Sammy as if she expected her to join the rest at any moment.
"No-one knows why everyone else has vanished," James said. "Maybe if we knew that, we'd know why Sammy hasn't."
Claire nodded vaguely - it was the first time in years that she'd been anything less than completely in control. He'd imagined she would be the one to leap into action, handing out brisk advice until everyone was pulling together again, but she was as shell-shocked as anyone else. Maybe the fact that her useless brother still had his daughter was too much for her to take.
"Can you do me a favour?" he asked. "We're nearly out of milk, and there's not a lot else left either."
"I've only got enough for myself," she said. It sounded like an automatic response. "And the shops are ... I won't go for you."
He shook his head. "I was going to ask if you could stay here while I went. I don't think it would be a good idea to take Sammy, do you?" They would probably tear him apart for not suffering what they'd suffered, then tear her apart because they all wanted her so badly. On his own, he could probably fight his way through the crowds like anyone else who hadn't lost children personally.
"No. I suppose not."
"And ... well, I don't suppose you've got any cloth nappies lying around in the loft? Only, buying nappies probably isn't such a good plan either."
That was enough to pull her back to the surface. "Yes, I've got a box somewhere. Get some food, and I'll go and fetch them."
There was no fresh milk: nothing fresh at all. A wild-eyed woman was loading the shop's entire stock of UHT into a bag, and when James tried to take a couple of packets, she turned on him. "Leave them alone. I need them for my baby."
For a second, he thought he'd met someone else who had been mysteriously spared. Then he noticed the carrycot beside her. Tucked up in the blankets, like a parody of a baby, was a cat. "Let me have a couple," he said. "I've got a baby at home too."
"You have?" The hope in her eyes was so terrifying that he mumbled an excuse and ran towards the soup aisle. There was almost nothing left, but he took a few tins of oxtail, which had to be better than nothing, and found a single tin of Sammy's favourite Cream of Mushroom half-buried behind some discarded boxes. The boost that gave his hopes soon vanished when another mad-looking girl tried to grab his packet of milk, crying something that sounded like a child's name. He stuffed everything into his bag and got out, before it could get any worse.
"Someone was here," Claire told him when he got home.
"What do you mean, someone?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. They banged on the door, but I took Sammy upstairs and hid. There are bad people around."
"What else is new?" muttered James. Unhinged parents with nothing left to lose couldn't do any worse than Piconus's cronies had already tried when Sammy was a baby, but it was no use trying to tell Claire that, especially now. "I didn't get much. I hope she'll eat oxtail soup."
"You're hopeless," said Claire, sounding almost like her old self. "I'll fetch the nappies."
Five minutes after she'd gone, someone banged on the door. James weighed up the possibilities: bad people, or Phil? He squinted through the spyhole, and saw the unmistakeable features of Sammy's uncle. Weak with relief, he unlocked the door. "I knew you'd come. You always come when things go to hell."
"I was with the Heart," said Phil. "I didn't even know that anything had happened until I set out into the human world again."
"How could you not notice the children vanishing?"
The look Phil gave him was almost reassuring: one thing, at least, hadn't changed. "Our children, few though they are, have not vanished."
"Why...?" He looked down at Sammy. "I suppose that's why she's safe."
"It seems to be a logical deduction," said Phil. "I explained to you once that Sammy is more elven than human, and this seems to confirm it."
James imagined a whole community full of children, untouched by whatever had taken their human counterparts. "Aren't you worried that your children will vanish as well?"
"Are you worried that adults will begin vanishing?" asked Phil.
"I ... hadn't really thought about it. If I did, I'd probably crack up."
Phil nodded. "Just so."
"But ... Do you think Sammy would be safe now, with your people? The Heart said she was special and everything..."
"She wouldn't be physically harmed," said Phil. "But old taboos take a long time to die. She wouldn't be received with warmth either."
James sighed. "I don't think she'd be safe here at all. Everyone who's lost children - I suppose it's like Melly a million times over."
"It has to be your choice. You are her only living parent."
He could give Sammy to Melly, and not worry that he was handing her over to certain death. In fact, it sounded like things were ticking over just as normal in the elven world, so he would probably be sparing her a lot of pain. Did she know him by now, well enough to miss him, or was it just that he would miss her more than he could bear?
Rather than confront the question, he asked, "So what's caused it?"
"I don't know."
"I know you aren't certain, but you've got some ideas, haven't you?"
Phil shook his head gravely. "You think that just because it's incomprehensible to you, I must know all about it. But this is not an elven thing. The only elves it touches are me and Sammy - and it touches both of us indirectly. Whatever it is - and its nature is strange and shadowed - it is a human thing."
"In other words, not your problem. Oh, Jesus Christ. What a mess."
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