Ava Simonsen, age 15, disappeared on October 2nd. Ava has red hair and was dressed in a dark shirt with a dragon on, net gloves and camouflage pants. Have you seen her or know anything? Call us!
A telephone number followed, and a picture had been printed above the text. Ava Simonsen glared at the viewer, appearing to wonder why she had to smile at the idiot behind the camera. Frozen in time, she stood with her arms crossed across her chest and a single curl of hair falling in her face.
On the tree a couple of feet away sat another paper, exactly the same as this one. Tree after tree down the street, street after street. The Simonsen family had been around the entire town and had even been on TV, red-eyed and distraught, wondering where their second oldest daughter had disappeared to.
No one had been able to give them any clue. The last bit of sketchy information the police had received about Ava was that she had been seen running up the street towards the football field, but there all traces ended. No one had seen her since.
Well, that was not entirely true.
Natalie Winters sighed to herself and tore her eyes off the print. The tears had dried up and only a dark cloud of emptiness remained, hanging over her, never to leave.
Natalie had been the last person to see Ava. No one knew that, but then they did not know Ava to be dead either. They had not seen her crash into the wall head first – they had not heard the crack of her spine breaking. They knew nothing.
Natalie could never tell them. She had killed their daughter.
“I’m sorry,” Natalie said softly to the photo. “You weren’t supposed to be there.”
The lump in her throat felt familiar and Natalie started walking again. She did not want to cry any more. On every tree, the image of Ava stared back at her.
Reaching Lake Sunflower High School, Natalie stood still and looked at it for a moment. It loomed tall and pompous, a bit too big for a tiny town such as Lake Sunflower.
Students stood scattered around the entrance and the stairs. The gang of nerds, the black-clad and black-haired goths, the bunch of pretty cheerleaders hanging off the arms of muscular football players. Natalie saw Chase Eadan, the annoying rich boy of the school, standing in the middle of the crowd with his girlfriend Lindsay Weaver cuddling next to him. Natalie smiled contently; their faces were still specked with pimples and their hairdos would not stay nice-looking. The curse – she could not describe what she had done any other way – had lost some of its power but not all.
It could not make up for what they had said but they had not made a move towards her since. Eadan looked scared every time he caught sight of her and though the others in his gang mumbled ‘witch’ when they saw her, no one dared to do anything.
“You look deep in thought.”
Natalie turned around. Cecily Cordell stood behind her, looking like a doll in a long, light blue dress. She had braided her dark hair down her back. She wore the necklace she had received from Natalie’s grandmother.
“They’re not the least bit deep,” Natalie said.
Cecily followed her gaze to Chase and his friends. “Still not back to perfect, hm?”
“I don’t think they will be for a while longer.”
Cecily smiled. As with Natalie, it did not quite go all the way. The dark clouds of grief that still hung above their heads made it impossible as of yet to be completely happy. Natalie wondered briefly if they would ever be completely happy again.
They entered the school and continued up the stairs.
“Remind me never to make you angry.”
“I don’t think you could,” Natalie said. “Not that way.”
“Good to know,” Cecily said softly.
She rarely spoke any other way. Softly, gently – that was Cecily’s persona. The only thing that had changed about her in the last three weeks was that she was a bit healthier than before. Whatever magic Natalie had managed to conjure, it had helped Cecily. Some color had returned to her cheeks and the circles beneath her eyes were almost non-existent. It was unusual, at least for Cecily.
They passed the second floor bathroom and Natalie glanced at it. She had not been in there in three weeks. It had been too freaky and she preferred to run all the way down the corridor now, just to not have to go to that bathroom.
Cecily looked oddly at her. Not for the first time, she seemed to know that Natalie was having strong feelings about something.
“It’s just the bathroom door,” she said. “No need to shoot deadly looks at it.”
Natalie realized she had stopped to stare at the door. She shook her head to clear it.
Cecily’s eyes betrayed her curiosity but she did not say anything.
Ahead of them, a couple of students were working on fastening a banner for the Homecoming Dance so that it would hang over the corridor. They had decorated it with flowers, the theme of the year. Natalie thought they had incredibly bad imagination, considering the town’s name, but she kept this to herself. She would not be going anyway. She did not feel at all like dancing.
Cecily glanced at her. “Have you ever been to one of those dances?”
“I was at the junior high ones back in New York, but I never found them particularly entertaining.”
“We had a small Prom-like dance at the end of eighth grade.”
“Did you go?”
“Yes. I even had a date.”
Natalie raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?”
Cecily smiled slightly, her cheeks reddening. “We were fourteen, it was nothing like that.”
Natalie could not help but giggle and she had to admit to herself that it felt good to do so, but then the guilt came like bile in her throat. Ava was gone and she was laughing? She just barely held back a sigh to herself.
“You’ll have to tell me more about it sometime.”
Cecily smiled slightly. “Yes. Sometime.”
Natalie wondered what Cecily’s life had been like when she had lived in Los Angeles. Cecily rarely mentioned it at all. Natalie did not know if she had had friends, a best friend or if she had had a crush on anyone. Cecily had given it all up to come to Lake Sunflower to help Natalie.
“I’ll see you later,” Cecily said a moment later. The science classroom where Cecily’s biology class took place was a few doors away from Natalie’s history classroom.
Natalie nodded. She hoped she did not look as disconnected as she felt.
History was all right, unlike math an hour later. In math, it felt simply wrong to Natalie. Ava should be sitting there, right behind Natalie. Cecily to the left, Ava behind – the way it should be. But no. Natalie had to glance over her shoulder to look back at the empty seat behind her, as she had in the classes that had passed in the previous three weeks, just to make sure that Ava did not appear.
Cecily reached out briefly and squeezed Natalie’s hand. Natalie smiled back, a pained smile. Mrs. Miller, the math teacher who had made it a sport to ask Natalie questions when she saw that Natalie was otherwise occupied, chose another student to answer her question, only sending a concerned and sad look towards Ava’s seat.
Natalie did not quite listen anymore to any of her classes.
Just minutes before the class ended, Cecily received a note from the administration’s office.
Once class was out, Natalie asked, “What does it say?”
“I’m supposed to go to one of the administrators. They probably need to discuss my frequent sick leaves.”
Cecily did not look annoyed, as Natalie would have been. Anyone could see that Cecily was sick – what could there be worth discussing? She kept up with her school work and even excelled in several subjects, so what could they whine about? It only made her miss more of her classes.
“Relax. They do this once a week. I suppose it makes them feel good, to have their weeks scheduled.”
Natalie smiled but rolled her eyes at the same time. “It would be typical them. Administrators are morons.”
They had packed their bags and said a quick goodbye. They would meet up in English once Cecily was done.
Natalie opened the door to the English classroom and stepped inside. The other students were chatting and laughing, some yawning and one appeared to be asleep on his desk. Natalie sat down heavily in her chair and dumped her bag on the floor next to her. She wondered what they had be doing today – for the last week or two, they had had substitute teachers filling in for Mrs. August. The substitutes were rarely any good.
She doodled idly in her notebook, wondering if the ghost writer would ever make an appearance again. She felt it was a bit annoying to be called ‘worthy’ and then not get any sort of explanation.
“Good morning, class.”
Natalie’s heart stopped in her chest.
Her fingers became white around her pen as she gripped it hard – she knew that voice. It would never, ever, ever leave her again.
Slowly, Natalie looked up.
There he stood, standing up by the teacher’s desk, as though nothing had happened at all. As though the world was perfectly all right and he was perfectly normal. He had his hair pulled back into a ponytail and he wore a white shirt and black jeans.
The necklace around Natalie’s neck, her mother’s beautiful human-shaped necklace, began to vibrate. Natalie had not done magic since hexing Eadan and his group – it had been too painful, too much of a reminder – but now she felt it flowing through her blood as easily as anything.
“I’m Ramon Keys. I’ll be substituting for Mrs. August today.”
Natalie could not breathe.
She did everything she could not to lash out at him right then and there – hurl the strong burst of magic towards him and hopefully hurt him enough to get out of there alive.
Ramon was there. Standing before her.
She had known he would be back. She had not left him in his Mithridates to die and because of that, she had known he would return. He had obviously waited for a bit, collecting himself and his powers. The tight grip on her pen made Natalie’s knuckles go white.
“I study English at Sunflower Lake University and as I have to make a living somehow, I thought I’d try my hand at teaching.” Ramon smiled – smiled – and the girls in the class giggled, obviously thinking him quite handsome.
Natalie just saw a murderer.
The boy sitting next to Natalie shot her worried looks, as she continued to attempt to take deep, steadying breaths. She ignored him and kept her eyes glued on Ramon.
The more power she collected, the better.
She wondered what his plan could be this time. Why had he dressed so casually? Where was the jewelry he had worn and where had he hid the necklace? He could pass for a regular person now.
Natalie knew better.
She wished for Cecily to be there, though there she could not possibly do anything. Cecily did not have any powers, other than the occasional premonition, and that would not help now. Ramon stood right there, frighteningly real.
Suddenly she realized that more than the boy next to her was looking at her weirdly. The whole class stared at her – as did Ramon.
“Miss—” he said and looked at the seating charts, “—Winters, are you all right?”
He walked towards her and held out his hand to her.
“Don’t touch me!” yelled Natalie.
She stood from her desk and backed away quickly.
Ramon looked at her. Had she not known his true identity, she would have thought it was concern in his eyes. Ramon, feeling concerned for her? That was rich.
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed again, taking another step back.
She did not want to do magic, not in front of the whole class. They would think her a freak and she did not want to deal with that, or their questions. She had dealt with enough of their stares and whispers over the last few weeks, and the pitying looks they had sent her way. They did not need more to talk about, to giggle at behind her back.
“Miss Winters, perhaps you’d better go see the school nurse?” said Ramon. He made a good actor, Natalie thought. Ramon glanced at the seating chart again. “Mr. Davis, could you possibly go with her?”
Natalie barely heard. She was backed into the wall now and her hand touched her necklace – she would strike if he moved again. She hissed, “You won’t kill me like you did her!”
“Miss Winters, what are you talking about?”
Ramon looked utterly confused, taking another step towards her. The image of him looking equally confused, lying on the floor of his Mithridates as it came crashing down around them, flashed before Natalie’s eyes, but she pushed it away. He was playing her, though she did not understand the game. His skills far outdid hers anyway.
“I haven’t done anything to anyone,” Ramon said.
He tried to be gentle, he tried to lull her into some false sense of security. She would not fall for it, for this new plan. Had he a new Mithridates now? A new place to sacrifice her and bring forth Chaos?
Natalie could feel her own Chaos simmering in the panic rising within her but it would not come forth. She feared it, fighting it at the same time as she wished for it to take over, to make Ramon go away with the help of its power.
He raised his hand.
Natalie did not know what he was going to do but she felt certain he would hurt her, like he had hurt Ava.
Like he had killed Ava.
With a cry of anguish, Natalie released the power she had been holding onto. The flash was brief – Ramon stood quite close to her, and the magic smashed into him immediately. It felled him and he landed on his back, crashing down on the ground and into the chairs and desks of the students around them. He was writhing in pain and Natalie wondered dimly what kind of magic she had created this time.
The shouts of her classmates echoed around her, farther and farther away. They all moved, in slow-motion, calls passing over her head, someone asking her if she was all right. She did not answer. Ramon thrashed as the magic hurt him and Natalie could not take her eyes off him. Was it over? Would he die now?
Ramon stilled on the floor.
Had she killed him?
She sank to the floor as others rushed into the room. A part of her brain identified them as medical personnel but it did not really register. It was all too much.
Someone called her name but she could not find it in her to answer. The world became a dizzying swirl of colors and sounds and she could not quite make sense of any of them.Ever so briefly, she saw a red color that reminded her of Ava’s red hair. It was enough for her mind to shut down and for blessed darkness to take over.
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