Her grandmother’s reply awaited Natalie on her desk the next afternoon. Unfortunately, it was not quite the answer Natalie had hoped for.
I had hoped to be able to invite you for the weekend, but things have come up that need my tending to. I hope you understand.
Instead I wish to invite you next week, perhaps on Tuesday, if that is a convenient day for you. My carriage will be waiting for you. There are some matters that need to be discussed, and it sounded in your letter as though you have questions for me as well.
Natalie sighed deeply as she read. She would have liked to come during the weekend, as it was the only time she did not feel completely wiped out from school work and the early mornings. Alas, not much could be done if her grandmother had other things to do. In the end, she wrote a short note back – yes, I understand, yes, I would like to come on Tuesday, and by the way, I am bringing Ramon – and she left it on her desk, hoping that a wood elf would be by to pick it up.
She snorted, and wondered when it had become completely natural to have thoughts like that.
She headed downstairs and started cooking the night’s dinner. Her mind led her thoughts elsewhere, as she tried to remember everything she would have to speak to her grandmother – and Diophane McCoy if opportunity was given – about. A great many things, she decided.
Emmanuella and Richard arrived home. The pregnancy showed, but not too much – Natalie could still ignore it, and for that she felt quite grateful. Richard placed his hands upon her stomach enough times to remind her anyway. She could not decide upon her feelings towards the baby – she despised the unborn child’s mother, but the innocent baby could hardly help its parentage.
“Look what we bought today!”
Richard held up a yellow piece of fabric. It had happy ducklings on it.
“Isn’t it a bit early to be buying baby stuff?” Natalie asked, trying to keep the hostility out of her voice.
Richard smiled sheepishly. “Well, perhaps, but I simply couldn’t resist – a baby blanket for my son or daughter – I just had to.”
“What, are you jealous we didn’t get anything for you?”
Emmanuella rarely said anything aloud about the lack of new things in Natalie’s room. Natalie suspected it to be part of an agreement of some sort – Richard had begged Emmanuella to stop taunting Natalie. She did not know why Emmanuella had agreed, but she did know that since they had shared the news of the pregnancy, the rule no longer seemed to apply. Nastier than ever, Emmanuella seemed to use her pregnancy as a reason to attack Natalie.
Her voice dripping of sarcasm, Natalie said, “Oh yes, I’m very jealous that you didn’t get me a baby blanket as well. I so need one to hug at night.”
Emmanuella glared at her.
An hour later, Natalie had returned to her room. The letter for her grandmother had disappeared. Natalie sighed – she would have liked to catch another glimpse of a wood elf – but at least the letter had been sent.
She sat down to read but could not concentrate. Her thoughts went to Cecily, the Nebula Medeor, Ava—Natalie could think of a million things to occupy her thoughts, none of which Natalie particularly wanted to dwell on. She wanted her mind quiet.
She threw the book aside, frustrated with her own inability to steer her thoughts. She wanted to talk to someone, but who? Her fight with Cecily had not yet been resolved, Ava was—well, not there, and her grandmother lived in another dimension, or something like that, and Natalie could not get there.
Pacing for a moment, Natalie decided to head out. Perhaps the crisp, cool air would clear her head. She headed downstairs, grabbed a pair of shoes and headed out with a shouted, “I’m going for a walk!” to Richard. Perhaps he answered, but the door closed, effectively shutting it inside the house.
The air felt chilly and she wished she had taken a jacket. The weather had turned colder than she had thought. The skies had filled with heavy clouds, building up on top of each other, each trying to threaten the world more. She thought of warming herself with magic, but thought that no, cold fit her mood.
Natalie had not felt so alone since she had moved to Lake Sunflower.
She thought for a moment about where she wanted to go. Lake Sunflower did not offer many places of solitude, but she decided to try the town’s namesake.
It took only fifteen minutes to reach Lake Sunflower. The glittering of the lake spread out before her. It reflected the cloudy skies in its cold surface, and Natalie thought for a moment that perhaps there were two skies. One above, one below. She smiled at the thought of an upside-down world.
She sat down on the small hill where she had a perfect view of the lake. Almost as big as the city itself, Natalie had been told that if looked upon from above, the lake did have a certain resemblance to a sunflower – at least according to some genius back in the day, when the city had first been founded.
Whether or not it looked like a sunflower, Natalie left up to others to decide. For now, she felt content to simply sit and take in the serenity of the water. It might not be her element, but water had still always calmed her.
The sound of the waves, softly clucking against the small shore below, rocked her uneasy mind to rest. Her thoughts floated on top of each wave, coming and going but never strong enough to upset her or truly reach her. The chill of the wind made her body go quite numb and after a while, though her hands were shaking and her fingers had turned blue, she thought she could no longer feel it.
Two stars could be seen through the blanket of clouds when Natalie finally shook herself back to life and decided that she needed to be getting back. She had absolutely no idea of what time it was as she had not brought a watch or even her cell phone to her impromptu tour to the lake. Stifling a yawn, she could only assume the hour was late.
She hurried down the street, wind grabbing her hair and pulling at her clothes.
A car drove by her. At first, she barely noticed, but then it sounded as though it turned and came back. The engines roared loudly in the quiet night.
“Looky, looky, what do we have here.”
Natalie sighed at the sound of Eadan’s voice. They were not in school and he still had to try to torment her. Why could he not simply give up? She would not be intimidated.
The car rolled right next to her, moving at her pace as she walked on.
“Miss Winters,” hissed Eadan, and Natalie could see a bottle in his hand, “isn’t this a bit late for you to be out all by your lonely self?”
His cronies sniggered. Without looking, Natalie thought there might be three, perhaps four of them. Her heart beat a bit quicker but she pretended not to be affected.
“Ooh, she’s being sassy, boys,” Eadan said. “D’you see that – she’s trying to show us that she’s above us. Above us!” He broke out laughing, as though it was a huge joke. “She’s not, is she?”
“No!” said the other boys, and joining in Eadan’s manic laughter again.
“You’re dirt, Winters. Below us.”
He spat at her feet, just barely missing her left shoe.
“Go to hell,” Natalie said, sending them a scorching glare. Her heart pounded in her chest now – Eadan did not seem about to leave her alone this time. She quickened her pace although she knew that if they wanted to continue tormenting her, there were no hiding places ahead of her, not until she reached her house, a good ten minute walk. She thought of turning around, but decided that it would be giving in to Eadan and showing him that he could intimidate her.
Eadan shook his head. “I don’t think so. But that might be where you’re heading, witch.”
Before Natalie knew what had happened, Eadan slammed the door open and jumped out. His fist hit her in her stomach and she doubled over, gasping for air. Every nerve in her body screamed at the sudden attack and as she smelled the alcohol on his breath, she knew that whatever fear he had for her in school, had gone now. He forced her down, one arm around her neck, and the world around her swam as she tried to get oxygen into her lungs. Her chin smashed into the concrete and the metallic taste of blood filled her mouth.
The car’s engine still ran, but the boys had jumped out and now stood in a circle around her. Eadan sat atop her, one arm still around her neck and his face far too close to hers. He reeked of beer. Tears sprang to Natalie’s eyes.
“No one turns me into a joke and gets away with it.”
He slammed her head into the ground. Pain exploded in her head and black dots danced before her eyes, what little she could see through the tears.
For a moment, she thought of magic, her necklace—
Eadan stood up and then, before Natalie had a chance to protect herself or so much as think, he placed a well-aimed kick in her abdomen.
Each word was punctuated by a kick.
Natalie curled together, the taste of vomit and blood mixing in her mouth. She coughed, spraying the concrete with a mess of saliva and blood. Around her, Eadan and his friends laughed.
Another kick, another gasp, another pang of fear – would she get out of this alive?
She struggled for breath, her lungs burning and her body aching so badly she wondered if she would ever heal.
She felt Eadan grab her hair, his fist like cold, hard metal. He forced her head up, so that she could look at him through tear-filled eyes. Warm blood dripped from her mouth.
“Never ever cross an Eadan,” he hissed in her ear, his eyes mere slits.
He let go and she fell to the ground once more with an unceremonious thud, her head once more connecting painfully with the concrete. Eadan walked over her, his boot stopping to grind her hair into the dirt.
“We’re done here.”
They resumed their seats in the car they had arrived in, and a moment later, they were gone.
Natalie focused on trying to breathe. Everything hurt, and every other intake turned into a cough and she lay curled together, her knees below her chin. She fought unconsciousness, knowing that allowing it might well mean her death. She had no idea how badly hurt she was – she had never been assaulted before. Her body throbbed, but it came and passed as she wavered in and out of consciousness.
After a while – it could have been a minute, it could have been an hour – Natalie thought the pain abated somewhat. The pain in her head had dulled to a throbbing ache and she did not seem to be bleeding as badly anymore. She dried her mouth with the back of her hand. It came back red, stained with dark spots of dirt from the concrete. Her stomach was still in an uproar and she thought she might puke any minute.
She felt around her stomach but she did not seem to be bleeding there. The pain had lessened – perhaps she had been so lucky as to avoid internal damage. Still, everything hurt.
Slowly, she collected herself. She placed her feet on the ground and managed to sit up in a kneeling position. She sat there for several long moments, taking steadying, deep breaths, as her vision swam and spun in patterns that made no sense. She only just managed to stay upright, hardly knowing which way was actually up.
She swallowed back vomit.
“Oh my god.”
Natalie did not have the presence of mind to be frightened at the sound of Ava’s voice. Only dimly did she identify it and she had half a mind to laugh – why did a ghost have to find her, rather than a real person? In this particular case, the latter would have been much more helpful.
“What happened?” Ava asked.
Her horrified, slightly translucent body swam before Natalie’s eyes. Natalie winced as it made it even harder for her to be able to tell anything about the world around her.
“Eadan,” Natalie muttered, surprised she could get any word out correctly at all.
“Oh that—” Ava went off on a tirade with a string of swearwords that Natalie tuned out.
She fought her way through nausea and lightheadedness, to an almost upright position. She stumbled, but thankfully found a tree to lean against. She breathed heavily, trying to will the world to steadiness.
“Ava, I—need help.”
Ava stopped in mid-cuss, her eyes widening. “Of course, I’m sorry, I just—”
She looked around, taking in her surroundings for the first time since appearing before Natalie.
“We’re far from your place,” Ava said. “What are you doing out so late, anyway? Never mind. Go to my house. It’s only a block away, and mom can help you and—”
She trailed off, but Natalie nodded. A block seemed like an obstacle unlike anything else, but she would have to make it. There were other houses and she thought briefly of simply ringing the bell of the first house she could reach, but they were all silent and dark and Natalie did not want to disturb them. It sounded perfectly reasonable to her pain addled brain – she did not want to be a bother.
Ava led the way down the street. They walked slowly, Natalie stumbling between trees for balance. She threw up by the fourth tree and her body shook badly as they continued on. Ava cried but Natalie pretended not to notice.
“Oh, wait, I think I see—”
Ava rushed off suddenly, leaving Natalie panting by a tree trunk. She looked up to see one of the posters about Ava’s disappearance. The corners flipped upwards in the wind, but Ava continued to smile down at her from her picture.
She sank down. Her knees hit each other painfully as she shook. She closed her eyes, briefly, though she knew she should not. She forced them open again, but she could not manage to keep them that way. Natalie welcomed the blessed darkness and felt reality slip away from her.
Far away, she heard voices.
“Oh good god—”
“There’s a girl!”
“She’s bleeding – someone call an ambulance!”
Someone touched her. The hands were warm and nice, not like Eadan’s cold, hard fist in her hair.
“Hey, stay awake. No sleeping, okay?”
Natalie heard mumbling and realized after a moment that it was her voice. She forced herself to open her eyes once more. Several faces swam before her. One bore a striking resemblance to Ava, she thought, but looked real – it could not be Ava, could it? No, no, it could not – something was off, although she could not decide what.
In the distance, Natalie heard sirens. They made her headache worse but despite her wish for silence, they only grew louder.
“Hey, you, the ambulance is coming in a minute, so just hang on, okay?”
The girl did not appear to care that she could not answer. She continued to speak to her, and ask her questions. Natalie’s eyelids drooped once more – the darkness seemed so very lovely, in contrast to staring into a street light’s harsh brightness.
She felt a cool wisp of air on her forehead. At first, she did not understand it, but she opened her eyes briefly to find Ava’s face floating above her, one hand outstretched, and Natalie could only assume that it rested on her forehead.
“Ava,” she mumbled.
Beside her sat the other girl, the girl who looked like Ava. They really did look alike, Natalie thought lazily.
Then she was moved, ripped away from Ava and the other girl. She felt like someone had poured lead into her limbs – nothing worked as it should.
Her last thought before darkness took over was a fleeting, wry thought that she had managed to get her mind quiet tonight after all.
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