Natalie’s mouth dropped open and she backed up, probably looking incredibly strange crawling on the concrete. She did not care. In fact, she had never cared less about anything in her life.
“A-Ava,” she stammered, eyes wide.
It was not possible.
“Yes,” Ava said, her voice as gentle as Cecily’s usually was.
Ava was standing there, before her. Her hair was red and her face was freckled and she was wearing the exact clothes she had died in, even the fishnet gloves. The only difference was that she had little or no makeup, for some reason. Natalie had never seen Ava before without makeup, but it was not quite what her mind was on.
“But—no, you can’t be here—you’re dead. I saw you die. I—I had to leave you.” Natalie stumbled over the words, her brain in overdrive.
Ava sighed. “I’m still dead. Like I said, neither of us can do anything about that.”
“But—you’re here,” Natalie said weakly. “You—I’m going insane, aren’t I? I’m imagining things. I’m imagining you, because I want so badly for you to be alive.”
Ava smiled slightly. “As flattering as that is, no, you’re not going crazy.”
Natalie squeezed her eyes shut again. “You’re not here, you’re not here,” she mumbled to herself. She tried to clear her mind, to think her away. The sidewalk was to be empty when she opened her eyes once again. Ava was dead, she had to accept that.
Hesitantly, she opened her eyes again.
“Still here,” said Ava.
Some part of Ava seemed to think this was fun, because she smiled and her eyes were glittering. Then Natalie looked again. No, it was not Ava’s eyes that were glittering – it was the grass beside the pavement, small droplets of water sparkling in the afternoon sun. Someone had been watering their front yard.
Natalie squinted her eyes at the image of her dead friend.
Her eyes weren’t the only things that was see-through. In fact, as Natalie looked at her, she realized that she could see the entire backdrop, if a bit hazily, through Ava’s body.
“You’re not real,” Natalie mumbled. “You’re just some figment of my imagination – why else would I be able to see through you?”
Ava rolled her eyes and shook her head with a loving smile at Natalie.
“I’m not a figment of your imagination. Am I really this sarcastic in your thoughts?” she asked.
“Yes,” Natalie responded, then realized that she shouldn’t talk to beings of her imagination. It would only get her an even quicker way to the mental ward.
“I’m a ghost, Natalie,” Ava sighed with another roll of her eyes.
Natalie had not expected that. Or perhaps some part of her had expected it, though she had thought it impossible. Still, with the things Natalie had lived through in the last few weeks – why shouldn’t it be possible? Then again, it might just be that she was going insane.
“A ghost. You know, dead with unfinished business or some such? That’s me.” Ava pointed at herself.
“Uhm—oh,” said Natalie, still staring and thinking herself to be quite nuts.
Ava sighed again. “Look, there’s nothing I can do to convince you. I mean, it’s not like I can tell you about something only you and I know about, because your imagination would know those things too. But it’s me. It really is. I’m just—slightly more see-through and slightly less breathing.”
Natalie did not know what to say. “You’re—dead.”
“And a ghost.”
“And I’m not crazy.”
“Well, I’m not entirely sure about that,” Ava said with a half-smile. At Natalie’s look, she giggled. “No, you’re not.”
“But you died over three weeks ago,” Natalie said, frowning. “Why can’t I see you until now?”
Ava looked suddenly uncertain. “It’s been three weeks already?”
Natalie nodded slowly.
“Well, I’m not sure,” Ava said hesitantly. “I didn’t know it had already been three weeks… I just – I think I remember seeing you once, just briefly. But I wasn’t strong enough back then and I had to collect more power to be visible for longer.”
Natalie stared again. “So it was you—in the bathroom? I really did see you?”
Ava nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry I couldn’t stay long. It was my first try and I just sort of—flickered into visibility. I guess I just wanted to see you so badly.”
“I was sure I was going mad.” Natalie stood slowly, her legs shaking. Shock did not even begin to describe the feeling she was having and she still was not entirely sure that she was not going on a one way train to the mental hospital.
Ava reached out. “You weren’t. You aren’t.”
Ava attempted to touch Natalie’s cheek, but her hand went straight through. It felt chilly as she did, like a cold wind. Ava’s face fell and Natalie’s eyes filled with tears.
“I—” she said, but found no words to continue.
Natalie noticed that Ava was not quite standing on the ground; rather, she floated just above it. She wondered if Ava was aware of it but decided that now was not the time to ask her.
“Look,” said Ava, “I have to go. I still don’t have this visibility thing down. But I’ll be back, I promise.”
“But—don’t go,” Natalie said, tears spilling down her cheeks. Even if it was just a figment of her imagination, it felt so good to see Ava.
“I have to,” Ava said. She moved closer to Natalie and placed a kiss on Natalie’s forehead. At least that’s what Natalie assumed she did; for a moment, it felt cool on her forehead. Natalie closed her eyes briefly.
“I—” she started when she opened her eyes again, her throat thick with feeling.
The street before her was empty. Ava – if it had indeed been Ava – was gone again, just like that. A breeze drew past Natalie, feeling surprisingly warm for the cool autumn day.
Arriving home mere minutes later, Natalie’s mind was numb. Her mind was filled with so many questions on what had just happened that, if she was not already going insane, she would soon go crazy. Question after question and not a single answer – was she imagining things? Was it really true that Ava had turned into a ghost? Where was Ava now, if she was a ghost? Was Natalie going mad? Had that really been Ava, three weeks ago in the bathroom?
Dazedly, Natalie began making dinner. She set the table for three and filled the glasses with ice and water. The smell of the food was not making her hungry, however, it was making her nauseous. It had been two very long days and Natalie would have loved to go to bed and sleep for forty-eight hours, at the very least. But she knew that once dinner was over and the dishes were in the dishwasher, she had homework that was waiting for her. She had ignored it in favor of going to Cecily’s but she would have to do it.
The front door opened as Emmanuella and Richard arrived home. Natalie saw Richard take Emmanuella’s coat and place it on the hanger, each move gentle and loving. She wondered dully what he saw in her.
“It smells delicious as always,” Richard said, walking into the kitchen.
He kissed Natalie’s forehead and Natalie was forcefully reminded of the cool sensation of Ava doing the same.
“Yeah,” said Natalie distantly. “Enjoy.”
“What is it?” Richard asked. Even before he asked, he placed a hand upon her forehead to feel her temperature. “Are you sick?”
Natalie shook her head. “No, I’m just tired. Long day in school.”
Emmanuella sneered but before she had time to deliver a scathing comment on how school was nowhere near as hard as work was, Richard said, “Okay. Well, just see to it that you get to bed on time today. You were up late last night.”
Natalie nodded. “I will.”
They ate in silence for a few moments. The food had little taste in Natalie’s busy mind. Still, even with the million questions running through her head, Natalie was soon picking up on the looks being shared between Richard and Emmanuella. Richard was hardly touching his food, his eyes on Emmanuella and a silly smile on his lips.
Natalie sighed inwardly. She suspected what this was all about, though she was not quite sure she wanted it confirmed. She was not sure what she would feel about it if her suspicions turned out to be true.
In the end, she decided to ask. “Is there something you’d like to tell me?”
Richard looked a bit like a deer caught in headlights for a moment, before the silly smile came back over his lips. He glanced at Emmanuella, who looked a bit less surly for once.
“Yes, actually, there is,” Richard said. He stumbled over the words, as though he had rehearsed them but they weren’t coming out quite right. “Really, Emmanuella and I have something to tell you, together.”
Then he stopped and did not continue for several seconds.
“Okay,” said Natalie to fill in the silence. “What do you want to tell me?”
“We—we’re having a baby,” Richard said, looking a bit worried but very happy all at once. Natalie assumed that the worry was only about Natalie’s reaction and nothing to do with the baby.
It was not surprising – in fact, it was exactly what Natalie had suspected. Still, when faced with reality, it hit her like a ton of bricks. Richard and Emmanuella were having a baby. A little, itty bitty baby of their own that they would pamper and love with all their hearts. Natalie felt selfish, but she wondered where that left her. Richard had loved her as her own – but would that change now that he was going to have a child that was truly his?
She swallowed her thoughts for the moment.
“Congratulations,” she said, hoping that it sounded more heartfelt than it felt. “So when—?”
“Em is nearly four months along,” Richard said, his eyes shining with happiness.
“The due date is in March.” Emmanuella spoke for the first time since they had seated themselves at the table. Natalie could not quite tell what her thoughts on the baby was – in her eyes, Emmanuella was always whiny and snippy. The idea of her being a mother seemed quite odd – she had never been any kind of mother to Natalie.
“We would have told you sooner,” Richard said, “but we didn’t find out until a couple of weeks ago and we wanted to know that everything was all right with the baby.”
“Oh,” Natalie said. She smiled at them, a phony smile. “Well, again, congratulations.” She stood up, leaving her plate half-eaten. She was nowhere near hungry anymore. “I have to go.”
She left the kitchen, rushing up the stairs. She did not care that she left the dishes for Richard and Emmanuella – instead, she threw herself onto her bed and buried her head in her pillow.
It was far, far too much. Nothing made sense anymore – the world as Natalie had known it for fifteen years had been turned upside down in the last two months and she had no idea of how to make anything work again.
She thought of calling Cecily, but decided against it. She did not really want to talk to anyone. She would have had no idea of what to say – her thoughts were too jumbled for even herself to make sense of them.
Natalie realized that she was crying. Her body shook with each sob and she wondered what it would have felt like to have a mother. A mother’s calm, warm arms around her, calming and comforting her.
The thought only made her cry harder.
After a few minutes, Natalie realized that crying would not get her anywhere. As she tried to be rational, the sobs became quiet tears, falling down her cheeks without a sound. Her head continued to spin with questions and thoughts and her heart was still heavy with feelings – but she quieted down. She tried her best to put it out of her mind. For now, she could simply concentrate on all the parts of her life that did not involve any heavy feelings. As that only left her with school, Natalie picked up her bag.
The heavy math book was the first one to be hefted onto the desk and Natalie began doing her homework. Natalie was mediocre at best at math and for once, she was thankful. Solving the problems laid out before her took all of her attention and she dove into the problems as though her life depended on it. After that she started on a paper for her history class that was not due for another two weeks, and a short paper on an artist of choice for her art class. She did anything that required her full attention.
Every now and then the paper was stained with a teardrop but Natalie ignored it.
Natalie had been planning on sharing both the news of the baby and, more importantly, the appearance of what might in fact have been Ava’s ghost – if Natalie was not going insane – with Cecily, but in the next few days, there seemed to be no time. Natalie’s teachers decided that it was time to start thinking of their midterm exams and grades, and as such they upped the workload for the students. On top of that, Cecily was gone every afternoon, leaving straight from school when her father picked her up.
A part of Natalie did not mind the excuse. She could not for the life of her figure out how she would start telling Cecily of Ava’s ghost. Cecily’s knowledge of magic’s existence did not matter – the leap from knowing of its existence to believing in the return of a dead friend’s incorporeal presence was quite huge. Natalie herself was not sure she believed it. She had been tired at the time; perhaps she had imagined it. Ava had not been back since, either, which only spoke in favor of the argument that she had been daydreaming.
When the weekend came around, Natalie decided that she had to talk to Cecily. If nothing else, she needed an excuse to get out of the house. Now that the secret was out, Richard suddenly behaved like Emmanuella was made of fine glass.
“I’m hungry,” she would whine and he would immediately be up, asking her what she wanted and if he could get it for her. If this was the way it was going to be for the next six months, Natalie thought she might move out. It was sickening.
A grey cat sat perched upon the Cordell mailbox when Natalie arrived. Its intelligent green eyes followed Natalie as she walked up and knocked on the door.
For once, Cecily opened.
“Hi,” she said. She looked cozy and tiny, wearing a sweatshirt that was far too large, and a pair of grey sweatpants. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail for once; usually, Cecily wore her long brown hair down.
Natalie was invited into the kitchen, where Cecily was just preparing a light snack consisting of a delicious-looking fruit salad.
“Would you like some?” Cecily asked and added, “it’s all high on vitamins and I need vitamins – or so the good doctor tells me.”
“Sure,” said Natalie, “it looks yummy.”
Cecily smiled and handed her a bowl. Once they had each filled their bowls, they sat down by the kitchen table, opposite each other.
They spoke idly for a few minutes of their classmates and homework but both could sense that the other one had something to talk about. Natalie wondered what Cecily could be sitting on.
Finally, they lapsed into silence, each eating their fruit salad and studying the grains of the wooden table. It was a beautiful, handcrafted table but it was nonetheless boring to look at after a few minutes.
Cecily spoke first. “They’ve been doing tests,” she said. She hesitated for a moment, then continued, “That’s were I’ve been going in the afternoons. And on Monday, when you faced Ramon again and I was called to the office. I’ve been to one of the bigger hospitals.”
Her voice was quiet and the sentences not as structured and together as usual. She was obviously upset. Cecily was usually very calm; now she fidgeted.
“They found—” She stopped, clasping her hands in front of her. “They believe I haven’t more than a few months left.”
She looked down, and Natalie felt the world come crashing down around them.
Cecily’s words cut like a knife straight through Natalie’s heart, zigzagging down and making her entire body ache. She swallowed hard to keep the tears back; they would do Cecily no good.
Cecily, her eyes trained on her hands, said, “My heart is showing signs of being affected, as well as my lungs. They can’t figure out why and nothing helps and nothing makes sense to them.”
Natalie reached out and squeezed Cecily’s hand. Her own eyes were filled with tears and when Cecily looked up, she saw the same in her brown eyes. Natalie had never seen Cecily cry for herself before.
“I’m scared,” Cecily said. “I don’t want to die.”
Natalie wished that she could say that she would not, that they would find a way around it, a way to cure her. Something nagged in the back of her mind, but she could not quite recall and now was not the time to try.
She moved around the table for she had no idea of what to say. I’m sorry? I know? She was sorry, yes, but it felt to cold and distant. I know – no, she did not know how scared Cecily must be.
Wordlessly, Natalie wrapped her arms around Cecily instead and Cecily cried with hiccupping sobs, wondering why this happened to her.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Seven: