Chapter One

It first happened during English class.

The teacher, fifty-something with graying hair and no neck, was going on and on about the importance of reading books while the students were looking longingly out the window. It was a hot day; summer had not yet given way to fall and the blazing sun poured through the windows. A few students fanned themselves idly with paper, and cursed the failing air conditioning. Natalie Winters was no exception. Sweat pearled upon her brow and she wished she was lying on the beach rather than being locked in a class room. Pen in hand, she doodled idly in her notebook when she noticed the words:

‘You are powerful.’

She frowned at the words because she could not remember writing them. Perhaps she had been more out of it than she thought. Amongst the stick figures and flowers, these three words stood out. They weren’t written with her hand writing.

She cast a fleeting look at the other students. Perhaps they’d written it. Still, the words were odd for some random stranger to write on a new student’s paper. On top of that, none of the others were looking at her – had it been them, Natalie was sure they’d be giggling and pointing at her by now.

Figuring she would find out soon enough if it was some sort of weird joke, Natalie sat back. The teacher’s monotonous voice soon had her thinking of things completely unrelated to English class.

Then she saw, out of the corner of her eye, rather than felt, her hand move.

When she tensed her hand, it stopped.

She frowned deeply at the first words that had been written – what was going on? Her heart beat quicker than usual in her chest and a drop of sweat made its way down her nose to splatter on the paper. She glanced around at the class again, but no one was watching her.

Natalie raised her hand. Her teacher, Mrs. August, nodded to her.

“Yes, Miss—” she looked into her papers to find the last name, “Miss Winters?”

“Could I please have a bathroom pass?” asked Natalie.

A minute later, she was hurrying towards the bathrooms, not caring about the class’ stares. Her heart thumped rather loudly now, as she thought more of the image of her arm moving without her making it. Natalie reached the bathrooms and skidded to a stop in front of the mirrors. An image of her wide blue eyes and strewn blond hair stared back at her.

“Get a grip,” Natalie mumbled to herself. “It’s nothing.”

She splashed cold water onto her face. It felt nice but did little to calm her quick-beating heart. Had it been real, or was she imagining things? Perhaps she had just fallen asleep and dreamt that the words had appeared. Certainly, there must be a rational explanation.

A part of her knew it was not true. It had been real.

She had brought the notebook. It laid beside her on the sink and with she looked at it, frowning deeply. The doodles were still there – and so were the words.

You are powerful.

Just below those three words, was another ‘You’ written. It must have been what she had started to write before she’d stopped it. Now, she wondered what it would have said if she had not stopped but she was scared to find out. ‘You are powerful.’ – what did that mean?

She shook her head. This was a fabulous way to start her freshman year at Lake Sunflower High School, she thought sarcastically – going insane and writing things without knowing it. Next, she would be hearing voices and rambling incoherent things and then they would lock her up in a nice, padded room and with pretty white clothes to wear.

Her hand suddenly rose into the air again and she stared at it wide-eyed, but did not fight it.

Because she had not brought a pen with her, her hand landed on the mirror instead. Natalie stared wide-eyed as her finger made marks in the grease and dust on the mirror. By the time words were formed, her knees were shaking so badly she almost for got to read the words. Almost.

“’You are not insane’.” She snorted and a nervous giggle followed. “Yes, I’m a perfectly normal girl, watching my hand write on a bathroom mirror. Perfectly normal.”

Natalie jumped when the bathroom door swooshed open. A girl entered, walked over to stand by the sink next to Natalie, and studied herself in the mirror. The girl was dressed in all black: military boots, a skirt, a belt of chains and a t-shirt. Her short, curly and very red hair was pulled back with a diadem, also black.

“Playing hooky too?” she asked, barely even glancing at Natalie as she added dark lip-gloss to her lips.

“I— no! I— needed to go to the bathroom.”

The girl raised an eyebrow. “Jeez, are you always this uptight over a simple question?”

“I’m not!” Natalie said.

“Whoa, relax,” said the girl with a smirk. “I’m not going to rat you out. We all need to get out sometimes.”

“I should go,” Natalie said. “Bye.”

The girl merely chuckled. “Nice to meet you too.”

Hurrying back to the classroom, Natalie prayed there would be no more strange words written by her without her realizing it. If any of the other students saw it, they would certainly peg her as crazy.

When Natalie noted that the red haired girl was in her math class, she sank down and tried not to be seen. The red haired girl did not care; she sat alone and looked wholly uninterested in the subject, just as the rest of the class appeared to be. The teacher tried valiantly, but failed to gain their interest.

At lunch a couple of hours later, Natalie sat alone in the cafeteria. She had brought lunch and was only just unwrapping her sandwich when someone sat down right in front of her.

“Well, if it isn’t Bathroom Girl.”

The redhead began eating her own sandwich without another word.

“Uh, hi.”

The girl was odd. Natalie could not quite decide if that was a good thing or a bad one.

“Hi,” the girl said with a fleeting look at her.

As the girl seemed more interested in the music coming out of her Ipod, Natalie shrugged to herself and began eating. She wondered if she would be making friends any time soon – though the redhead had now spoken to her twice, she did not seem the least bit interested in befriending her. Still, it was more than anyone else had done, as no one else had spared her so much as a glance.

“You’re not very social, you know.”

The redhead’s voice brought Natalie out of her reverie. She noted that the song in the music player was over – she had been able to hear it rather well as the volume had been loud to say the least.

Natalie cocked her head to the side. “I wasn’t aware that you wanted me to be social. You seemed to be enjoying your music.”

“I did, but now the song’s over. So let’s talk.” She held out a hand. “Regular people start with an introduction, so I suppose I should try to pretend that I’m regular. I’m Ava Simonsen.”

“Natalie Winters, it’s nice to meet you,” Natalie replied, taking Ava’s hand.

“So where did you come from?” Ava asked. She chewed on her sandwich. “I mean, you’re new here, aren’t you?”

Natalie nodded. “I’m from New York. We just moved here a couple of weeks ago.”

Ava nodded and, after finishing the last bite of her sandwich, wiped her fingers. “An Apple girl, then. Sounds better than Bathroom Girl. People get weird ideas sometimes.”

“You could just call me Natalie. But I suppose you’re the one with all the right ideas?”

“Oh no,” Ava said with a quick grin. “I’m far worse.”

Natalie could not quite get a grip on the girl before her – the best word she could come up with to describe her was quirky. Ava spoke quickly and with conviction.

“So what teachers do you have? If you’re new, you obviously don’t know then well enough to know which ones to avoid.”

“I have Mrs. Miller in math, Mrs. August in English, Mr. Hensley—”

“Oh, Mrs. August. What do you think of her?” Ava asked, interrupting Natalie before she had to try to remember the rest of her teachers. Really, she had only been to Lake Sunflower High for two days and names were not her strong suit.

“She seems fine to me. She told us we’d be reading a lot this year and she said we should read a lot outside of school as well.”

Ava nodded slowly. “Yeah, she always tells us that.”

“What do you think of her? Is she good?”

“Oh, I like her. She’s very good,” Ava said and gulped down some water. “But watch out for Mr. Hensley. If he decides he doesn’t like you, he won’t give you a good grade no matter what you do.”

“Right,” said Natalie and wondered what else she could say. The silence felt rather awkward, but she was saved from having to speak again at all. The bell rang signaling that it was five minutes until class would start again.

Ava stood up. “Nice meeting you again, Bathroom Girl. See you around.”

Then, without another word, Ava turned and disappeared into the large crowd of students now moving towards the classrooms. Natalie emptied her trash into the trashcan, grabbed her bag and headed towards her next class.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Natalie wondered if there would be any more strange writings but she made it through the two afternoon classes and all the way home without incident. Loneliness stabbed at her as she walked home. Save for Ava and two of her teachers, no one had spoken to her all day. Everyone seemed to be paired off or belong to groups already and there was not enough room for her to fit as well.

“Hello?” said Natalie when she returned home but there was no answer. It was not surprising; the others were at work and would be so for another couple of hours. Natalie was glad; it meant some time to herself.

Dumping her school bag next to her bed, Natalie sat down at her desk. It was a rather small, simple wooden desk that nonetheless served its purpose. Grabbing a pen and a piece of paper, Natalie took a deep breath.

“All right, let’s pretend this isn’t crazy…”

She closed her eyes and counted slowly from ten to zero before opening them again.

The paper stared emptily back at her.

Natalie repeated the procedure but with the same the result. She sighed to herself. In the middle of class, her hand flew around by its own accord but now that there were no people around, of course nothing happened. Perhaps she should feel relived.

She put the paper and pen away and went about her chores. It was never a good idea to leave them undone until Emmanuella came home.

Hours later, the Turners’ car pulled up in the driveway and Richard and Emmanuella Turner exited. Richard stood a tad shorter than his wife, with granite colored hair and blue eyes. He looked older than his forty years. Beside him, the beautiful Emmanuella with long dark hair, curves and chocolate eyes. She knew she looked good. She wore expensive clothes and most of her salary – and some of Richard’s – went to days at the mall.

Unsure of what the Turners saw in each other, Natalie still had hopes it would not last. They had only been married for two years, after all.

She had prepared roast beef, potatoes and vegetables and while Emmanuella barely spared her a glance, Richard placed a hand on her shoulder.

“It looks delicious,” he said. He handed her not one but two wrapped gifts. “Happy fifteenth birthday.”

She stared with surprise at the two gifts. Ever since Emmanuella came into their lives, Natalie had only received one birthday gift a year. Natalie smiled at Richard.

“Thank you.”

“Could we possibly eat today? I’m famished,” Emmanuella sneered rudely to ruin the moment.

Natalie barely managed to hold back the eye-roll. Sometimes she would swear that Emmanuella was a five-year-old in a grown up’s body; it would explain her childish behavior.

Emmanuella talked to Richard throughout the dinner and ignored Natalie, like she always did. Natalie had never been able to figure out what it was about her that annoyed Emmanuella so much – perhaps Natalie’s mere existence in their lives made Emmanuella irritated. Emmanuella did not see why Richard had to take care of his niece and Natalie suspected that if she had gotten the chance, she would have shipped off Natalie to boarding school. Luckily for Natalie, Richard would not let that happen.

Natalie glanced at the presents curiously. They sat there, invitingly, both neatly wrapped and rather small. The blue one had silver ribbons and one red had golden ones. The red package appeared older than the blue one, as though it had been wrapped for a long time. The ribbon would not get as dull, and the edges not as worn, if mere hours had passed since Richard wrapped it.

After dinner, Natalie did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. A few years ago, there would’ve been cake and singing but Emmanuella claimed cake ruined her figure and Richard was, for the lack of a better word, whipped. His wife’s wish was his command, at least most of the time. Natalie shook her head at this.

She returned upstairs to her room once done but she had only barely shut the door behind her when the phone rang.

“Natalie!” screeched Emmanuella a moment later. “It’s for you!”

Natalie’s heart skipped a beat. No one here knew her number which meant it had to be her best friend from New York – her only reason for not wanting to leave.

She picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi Natalie, it’s Ava.”

Natalie swallowed her disappointment. “Uh, hi.”

“I’m not stalking you,” Ava said quickly.

“I did not think you were, but where did you get my phone number?”

“The school likes to keep records of these things,” Ava said. Natalie could almost hear the shrug that followed the statement.

Natalie did not push further though she doubted the school would just hand out the phone number to a student. She suspected that Ava did not always follow protocol when going after something she wanted.

“By the by, happy birthday,” Ava said.

“Did they give you all my registration info?” asked Natalie, more amused than irritated.

“I can be very persuasive,” Ava said happily. “Did you get any good presents?”

“I don’t know,” Natalie said. “I was just about to open them when you called.”

She fingered the red gift. It was more interesting to her than the blue one.

“You can open them now, with me. Gifts are fun. Though last year, my brothers had wrapped a spider up – I really didn’t appreciate that.”

Natalie wondered if she ought to remind Ava that they did not really know each other. Twenty-four hours earlier, the two had never spoken and Natalie still did not know anything beyond Ava’s name. Ava obviously knew more about her, though it was merely basic information such as her address and phone number – but for some reason, it did not feel right to say no to Ava. She was the first nice person Natalie had met at Lake Sunflower High School and something about her quirky personality appealed to Natalie.

“All right,” said Natalie. She picked up the blue present and made quick work of the wrapping. “I got a cell phone!”

As she described the phone to Ava, she read the note on the back of the carton.

‘Don’t tell Emmanuella. Happy birthday, my dear.’

Natalie could not help but giggle at this and then she had to explain the note to Ava.

“Who’s Emmanuella?” asked Ava.

“My uncle’s master. Well, she’s his wife, but really, in this case, it’s the same difference.”

Ava giggled with her.

When she had studied the phone and had figured out at least some of the finesses it had, Natalie put it away and reached for the other gift. Ava kept talking but Natalie toned it out. Carefully, she peeled off the tape from the red wrapping paper and pulled out a small box inside. It was a black, thin jewelry case.

Natalie flicked it open and gasped.

“Ava, could you call me later? I have to—” she trailed off.

The silver necklace in the box glimmered.

She hung up the phone without waiting for Ava to finish talking. Then she stretched over her desk and picked up a picture frame. The picture frame held a single picture, a bit bigger than a regular photograph, and quite old. Fifteen years old, to be more accurate.

A beautiful woman with hair the same color as Natalie’s, her eyes closed, rested in the picture. Just below her chin, a newborn baby was tucked in, sleeping soundly. The woman’s hand rested on the baby’s back. Around the woman’s neck hung a necklace – the same necklace that was now lying in front of Natalie in a simple jewelry box.

“Mommy,” whispered Natalie. She traced the contours of the woman’s face gently with her finger.

She picked up the necklace and it glittered in the late evening light. The chain was thin but seemed strong and on it hung an ornate piece of jewelry. It had a crystal base, an opaque and glimmering stone shaped in a form that reminded Natalie of a woman’s curvaceous body. Around the crystal ran threads of silver in a beautiful pattern. It was exquisite.

Natalie hung it around her neck, her hands trembling. When she looked in the mirror, she thought for a moment that she could see her mother. She hoped it was not just her imagination.

When she sat down once more, her heart felt heavy. It always did when she thought of her mother.

There was a soft knock on the door.

“Come in,” Natalie said.

Richard entered. He stood in the doorway for a moment, gazing softly upon her. Natalie smiled back. She loved Richard. They were only uncle and niece by blood, but Natalie had lived with him for as long as she could remember and she had always looked upon him as a father.

“I see you’ve opened your gifts.”

Natalie nodded. “Thank you for the cell phone. I can’t believe you actually bought me one.”

Richard grinned. “I figured it would come in handy at some point. Just don’t ruin me by talking on it all day long.”

“I’ll only call in emergencies,” Natalie promised. She doubted she would have trouble keeping the promise – after all, who would she call? Her one friend still lived in New York and she would only call him at night anyway. Ava was, perhaps, looking promising as far as friendship went but seeing how they would be in school together, she saw no reason for them to call each other.

“Good,” said Richard.

Silence spread. They both knew what they would bring up next but Natalie felt both her own and Richard’s reluctance. Speaking about Natalie’s mother always reopened the hurt. Sometimes Natalie wondered if it was actually worse for Richard – after all, she had never known her mother as Richard had. She had been his sister. Where Natalie only had the picture; Richard had memories of a real person.

“She wanted you to have it,” Richard said finally. “I don’t know what was so special about your fifteenth birthday, but today was the day she wanted you to have it.”

Natalie spoke quietly. “I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it before.”

“Perhaps.” Richard smiled. “You look more and more like your mother every day. You know, she wore that necklace for as long as I can remember. Our mother gave it to her on one of her early birthdays, I think.”

Natalie smiled at this. Though the idea of looking the same as her mother was lovely, sharing something with the mother she never knew was what truly appealed to her.

“It’s beautiful.”

Richard stood hesitantly and produced an envelope from his pocket. The paper was creased but it had not yet been opened. Natalie got the odd feeling that Richard had taken it out many times and looked at it.

“What is it?”

“It arrived this morning,” Richard said, studying the letter. “It seems to be a letter from your—”

He trailed off and handed the letter to Natalie. She took it and turned it over to see the sender’s name.

Madeline Turner.

“Your mother? My grandmother?”

Looking a bit concerned, Richard nodded.

It was probably not odd for a grandmother to send a grandchild a letter on his or her birthday, thought Natalie, but in this case it was very strange. Natalie had never heard from her grandmother, in her whole life – because she had been missing since mere days after Natalie’s mother had died in a terrible accident.

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