The doctors released Natalie the next day. With the severe concussion she had, she should stay off her feet, at least for the weekend, and she should be woken every couple of hours and asked questions. With these rules laid out for Richard, they saw no reason for her to remain in the hospital. Her head had been bandaged – white gauze covered both the side of her face and her chin, where her face had connected with the concrete. Her stomach looked rather like a chessboard with its black and blue bruises and white skin, but Eadan had not managed to break anything. The doctors instructed Richard to contact the hospital, should Natalie get worse.
Natalie stayed quiet throughout the discussion between Richard and the doctors. She did not want to move – her head felt as big as a balloon, but heavy and hurting. But more than the physical pain, she felt sick at the mere thought of returning to school on Monday morning. Bile rose in her throat when she thought of having to face Eadan’s smug face – she did not want to do it. If she never saw Chase Eadan again, it would be too soon.
The police had been there to speak to her. However, as soon as she uttered the name ‘Eadan’, they fell silent.
“We—we’ll see what we can do, Miss Winters,” said the man, a graying fifty-something cop with glasses.
His tone told her that no charges against Chase Eadan would ever stick. The Eadan family simply had far too much money.
The only nice thing about the day so far had been Richard’s warm hand stroking her hair, waking her up. It had been a lovely way to awaken, she decided, though the intense pain in her head and abdomen made it less pleasant.
“Good morning,” Natalie mumbled.
He smiled, a pinched smile that told her just how much he had worried for her. “Good morning, my dear. How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been pounded on by a bunch of angry unicorns.”
Tears sprang to her eyes at the flashing images of how she had come to be there. Her heart beat rapidly, the shock only just now hitting her. Richard sat beside her on her bed and hugged her tightly, holding her as she cried and whispering nonsense in her ear, making her feel safe. Never had he filled the shoes of a father more, than in that moment.
Arriving home, Richard quietly helped Natalie up the stairs. For once, Emmanuella refrained from commenting – perhaps she found Natalie’s bruised appearance to be so appalling, she could not come up with anything to say. Whatever the reason, Natalie felt thankful. Her body shook with exhaustion from simply climbing the stairs.
Her room was tranquil, the open window allowing a light breeze inside. Natalie wondered what about the room had made her want to flee so badly the day before – she would now give almost anything to not have gone.
“Can you—please, close the window?” Natalie asked once Richard had helped her settle beneath her covers. Her head hurt, a reminder with every heartbeat of what had happened. She would not be allowed to forget, not even long after the bruises had faded.
Richard gazed sadly upon her. “He’s not going to hurt you again.”
“I’m sorry, but you don’t know that.”
He did not have an answer and instead he closed the window and, after placing a kiss on her forehead, left the room.
She spent an hour reading some girly magazine Richard had bought her in the shop at the hospital. With her head throbbing dully, she could manage nothing more complicated. Finally, she gave into the tiredness that swept her mind and allowed herself to fall asleep. Her dreams filled with cackling, mad laughter and dark faces that taunted her. She tossed and turned, both in her dream and in her bed Richard woke her to ask her questions every couple of hours, and then she returned to the monsters hunting her. Her headache followed her, in and out of the dream worlds she unwillingly created.
The harsh morning sun filtered through Natalie’s eyelids and she winced before she had even woken up. Her headache had not yet given way.
The strong need to visit the bathroom drove her out of bed and she stumbled there. Swallowing back bile, she closed her eyes, trying to block out the light.
On her way back, she heard voices. They belonged to Richard and Emmanuella, lying in bed on the other side of the door, right across from Natalie’s room.
“It’s really showing now! Can you believe it, that’s our baby in there.”
“I know, I’m getting fat.” Natalie could hear Emmanuella’s pout, though in her ears it sounded more like the whining of a child.
“No, not fat – pregnant – gorgeous!” They shuffled about. “Hey, little one – it’s your father speaking. I hope you have a good time in there and just know that we can’t wait to meet you—”
Natalie could not stand listening to any more of Richard’s ridiculous baby voice. The puke she could taste in her mouth had only partly to do with her concussion, now. She crawled under her blankets again, pulling them over her head, and squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she had not woken up at all.
A few minutes passed. Natalie concentrated on her own breathing, trying to ignore the headache that pulsed in time with her heart. It helped a tiny bit.
“Natalie?” said a familiar voice suddenly. “Natalie, please tell me that’s you under there and that you’re okay?”
Ava sounded rather frantic. Natalie pushed down her covers and looked up at Ava.
“I’m okay. A concussion and lots of bruises, but I’ll be all right,” Natalie said.
Ava smiled widely. “That’s my girl!”
She ignored her status of ghost and threw herself at Natalie. Natalie smiled at the cold, tickling sensation that followed when Ava passed through her. It felt pleasant, like a spray of cold water cooling her hurting head and easing the pain of the bruises.
“I was so worried! I had to use all my energy to get to Lynn and then I had to go away and so I didn’t know if she’d gotten it or not and I didn’t know if you were all right and I’ve been fighting my way back here—”
“Lynn?” asked Natalie, thoroughly confused.
“My sister!” Ava said. “She found you, didn’t she? I tried to get her attention but being invisible and sound-proof, that’s kind of hard.”
Natalie remembered the girl who had looked rather like Ava just before she passed out. A slightly distorted version of Ava – it being Ava’s sister made sense. Natalie recalled Ava telling her and Cecily that she had several siblings.
“You—how did you get her attention, then?” asked Natalie.
“I don’t know,” Ava said, calmer now. “I just—I had to, you know. You weren’t looking too good and I just had to. All I know is that it took all the energy I had, so then I had to go away for a while.”
Natalie smiled softly. “Thank you.”
“Oh, it was nothing, I just—”
“You saved my life,” Natalie said. “That’s not nothing.”
She fell quiet, guilt washing over her – she had not been able to save Ava’s life.
Ava cleared her throat. “Well, you might not want to mention me to my sis’. She’ll think you’re nuts. Or that you’re keeping me prisoner or something, since they don’t know I’m—”
“Yeah,” Natalie said, knowing what Ava had been about to say.
Silence spread for a few moments – the same uncomfortable silence that always happened between them these days each time Ava’s death came up. They should simply try to avoid speaking of it, but it came up on its own accord.
“So are you all right?” Ava asked finally.
“Yeah,” Natalie said, “a concussion and a bunch of bruises isn’t enough to beat this Wielder. It’ll heal.”
Ava cocked her head to the side. “That’s the physical – what about the psychological?”
“I’ll be fine,” Natalie said softly. “I’d like to never see Eadan again, but that’s not going to happen, so I’ll just have to make it work. Back down, stop using magic on him.”
“Was that why he attacked you?”
Natalie nodded. “I don’t see any other reason, other than that I was simply in his way. But I kind of turned him purple earlier this week.”
“Purple?” Ava could not hold back a giggle. “Why?”
“He pissed me off when he was teasing Cecily and Nathan. I just—did it. He wasn’t in school for days, but he looked all right now so I guess it passed. Anyway, I guess—they’d been drinking, I think—and I was out there, walking—”
She closed her eyes and stopped talking. It felt too close, too hard to talk about. The headache started to return, as she became more distressed. Eadan’s face kept flashing before her eyes, and she flinched at the memory of him kicking her.
She felt a chill on her hand and when she opened her eyes, she found Ava floating next to her.
“You know, I was never good with the touchy feely stuff while I was alive and I don’t think I’m any better now, but if you need someone to talk to – I mean, Cecily’s probably better but I think I can still listen—”
A pained expression passed over Natalie’s face as she remembered Cecily and the fight. She had put it out of her mind for a moment.
“We’re not speaking to each other at the moment,” she said quietly.
“Why?” Ava frowned.
Natalie sighed. “Well, that turning-Eadan-purple thing? It didn’t go over too well with her. She said I was misusing magic, or something of the sort.”
“I just—” A knock on the door interrupted Natalie mid-sentence and she stopped. “Yes?”
Richard opened the door. He frowned at her and looked around the room. His eyes swept right over the spot where Ava was floating, but they passed it blindly. Recalling her grandmother’s words, Natalie could quickly deduce that Richard did not pass the magical test. It did not surprise her.
“Are you talking to someone?”
She felt a stab at the tone of voice. It sounded nothing like the way he had spoken to his unborn child. And although Natalie did not want him to speak to her that way, she still felt strangely jealous.
Natalie gazed up at him, trying her best to look innocent. “I’m just—reading out loud a bit,” she lied. “There’s this ringing in my ears and I thought I’d try reading the article aloud instead.”
She motioned at the magazine lying on her bed. Ava giggled and shook her head at the lie. “Reading out loud? Nice.”
Natalie ignored her.
Richard gave her an odd look but nodded. “Okay. Just so long as you’re not seeing things – that ought to fit the bill of you getting worse like doctor Vincent said.”
He worried about her, at least. Natalie gave him a shaky smile. “I’m not, I promise. I’d tell you.”
“Good,” said Richard. “Well, I’ll bring you up some breakfast in a few minutes.”
Natalie nodded, but regretted it immediately. Her headache certainly did not want her moving around. She managed to hold back the wince until Richard had left the room.
“You okay?” Ava asked.
Natalie made a face at her. “Just this headache. It won’t bulge.”
“I suppose there’s nothing I can do?”
Natalie looked up. “Actually—”
An explanation later and Ava floated beside her, her hands by Natalie’s temples and her fingers sunk inside. The chill of Ava’s fingers, gently massaging her, made her feel worlds better.
“This is so weird,” Ava said.
Natalie merely smiled. She closed her eyes, basking in the sensation of the now distant headache. The pain melted away, like snow off a mountain on a sunny day. The light spilling through the windows felt warm and nice on her skin, rather than bringing forth nausea. After a while, the world around her slipped away completely as she fell back into slumber.
She stood once more on the sand banks of the hot desert. The lovely pink flower grew right next to her still, pulling itself upwards towards the sun.
The figure did not appear. Natalie waited for several moments – she did not know how to count time in a dream, but it felt like a while – but the figure still did not come.
Natalie frowned. If she had not come there to speak to the figure, then what on earth was she doing there? The sandbanks stretched around her, climbing upwards to her left, and down into the valley to her right. A bunch of rocks had been strewn about in a haphazard way at the bottom of the valley. She stood on the slope, searching for clues as to what she was supposed to do.
Then it struck her – she had been sent there to search for something in particular.
The frown deepened. What? She bent down and ran her hand through the sand. It felt hot, like the sun, and a bunch of it stuck to Natalie’s hand. She brushed it off, but it reminded her of the sand she had brought back to her own reality.
Should she be digging around, searching for the stone? It seemed impossible that she was meant to find a single piece of a stone in the vast amounts of sand that surrounded her. Still, she started running her hand through the sand, hoping to stumble upon something of interest.
Much later – although she could still not even begin to tell how long, for the sun did not move from its position – Natalie sighed in defeat. She had found absolutely nothing. Now, she had sand all over and sweat pearled down her back. It felt unpleasant, even in her dream.
She returned to sit next to the pink flower, which had been her landmark throughout the search. All around, the sand was overturned – darker sand from below mixed with the soft, dry top sand. She had searched through quite a bit of land.
“What am I supposed to do here?” Natalie yelled at the empty sky.
She slammed her hand onto the ground, into the sand. Sand splashed everywhere.
Suddenly, she felt an odd tugging at her mind. She realized after a moment that she was waking up, in the other world, and as such, she would leave this place.
She could not have been brought there to find nothing, Natalie decided. She looked around urgently, searching the area once more, a deep frown etched to her features. She took in the stones once more and then her gaze fell upon the pink flower.
The tugging became strong.
Natalie shrugged to herself. It could not hurt.
She grabbed the flower and tore it up. More sand splayed over her but only for a moment, before she returned to her real body and her bedroom.
“Good afternoon, sleepyhead.”
Richard’s kind voice reverberated through her head. She still had a bit of a headache, though far less than before, she realized. Whatever Ava had done, it had helped.
“Yeah, hi,” Natalie sighed.
“I was merely wondering if you’d be interested in some dinner,” Richard said. “There’s soup waiting for you, if you only want something light, or chicken and rice.”
Natalie decided upon the soup, not quite feeling up to eating a full meal just yet. Richard left and she stretched her body. Only as she felt through her body did she realize that not only did she have quite a bit of sand with her from the dream – this time, the pink flower lay in her hand as well.
She smiled. She had a feeling something important had just happened.
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