The Last Science

by

Etzoli

B2: Chapter 11 — The Emerald City (Part I)

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Chapter 11 The Emerald City (Part I)

  Friday. Natalie just had to get through one more day of school. She hated every single class now, since she was bound to run into Quinn in most of them. Even the classes where he wasn't there, she spent every waking moment dreading her next encounter with him. He'd returned to school a week ago, and she'd quickly lost even the little bit of joy she'd found hanging out with the Glasses Gang.

  It wasn't even that he'd actually done anything yet. He was still nice to her, helped her out in all her classes, hung out with her, did the normal friend thing—but he knew. Quinn knew her real name. He'd known for weeks. It was the most important thing, one of the few things Rachel told her to keep absolutely secret, and she'd failed. She hadn't been paying attention, and her name had gotten out.

  The school was awash with excited conversation about Rallsburg yet again. Since it was in their home state, a lot of the kids seemed to want to take ownership of it—like it was their conspiracy, their special story. Anyone who'd managed to sneak into the quarantined area with parents or older siblings (mostly in the easy time before the case had gotten fresh again) was a minor celebrity in the school. They shared their stories of the decaying buildings, the ominous library, the burned forest, the exploded grocery store with hushed awe. Like they'd witnessed it themselves.

  Natalie wanted to shake them silly and shout in their faces. It wasn't exciting. It was terrifying. It was horrible and monstrous and it had ruined her entire life. She just wanted them all to shut up about it!

  But Hailey had been seen on TV, just for a second, covered in ash and diving out of a burning building, and that meant everyone wanted to talk about it again.

  Natalie had messaged her a dozen times whenever she got a chance, sneaking outside between classes so she could login to the website on her phone, but Hailey hadn't answered yet. She wondered if Hailey was in just as much trouble. No, Hailey's an adult. She doesn't have anyone to put her in trouble. I bet she still feels awful though. I wish she'd answer me.

  More than wanting to comfort her friend, Natalie needed advice. She had no idea what to do about Quinn at this point. Hailey hadn't covered what the next steps were if she had told him her secret. She didn't dare ask anyone else on the site. Hailey was the only one she felt like she could trust.

  Natalie had failed every test all week, too busy stressing out to concentrate on anything set down in front of her. After failing the make-up test too, her teacher sent her down to the principal's office. She sat on the too-tall chairs, kicking her feet anxiously and waiting. She felt like running. Anything would be better than going in to face the severe old woman.

  "Come in, Jenny."

  Natalie took a deep breath, like Hailey always told her to do, but it didn't seem to help much. She hopped off the chair, patting her purse for good luck (and to remind herself that it still held plenty of gemstones if she needed them). With the eye of the front desk lady trailing her, Natalie walked very carefully up to the office door and pushed it open.

  The principal was sitting behind her desk, doing her best to project a friendly look. Unfortunately, the woman's face just wasn't built that way, so it came off more like the principal was getting ready to eat her.

  Natalie grimaced, and the principal's face fell, returning to its usual look of impatient annoyance. It was a huge improvement. "Take a seat."

  She did, placing her purse on her lap, trying her hardest to keep her legs from moving. "Am I in trouble?"

  "I'm not sure." She sighed, pressing her fingers to her temples again. "Something happened, didn't it?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "I know you're friends with Quinn and his little group. After a scare like what happened to him, it wouldn't be a surprise if you got worried."

  "Yeah." Natalie felt like that was an easy way out. She'd been worried about him. Makes sense. It's also true. I really was worried about him…

  "But Jenny, you only started doing poorly after he came back. He was gone for over a week and you didn't slip up once in class. As soon as he came back, you started doing worse."

  "Oh." Oh no.

  "Is there something I need to know?"

  "I don't know," she said, too quickly.

  The principal shook her head. "Jenny, I've never been a fan of how you came to my school. It broke a lot of the usual rules. You've been a good student, but things just keep happening around you, right from your first day here."

  "But I didn't do any of that."

  "I know you probably didn't, but I have to think about all my students."

  Natalie frowned. "So what am I supposed to do?"

  "Make it stop?" The principal rubbed at her eyes, which Natalie noticed were bagged and exhausted. "I don't know what's going on with you, Jenny, and I feel like I'm not supposed to know. If that's true, and you have no idea what's going on, then don't tell me. But if there's something that you're doing, or something that's happening because of you, and it's putting some of my students in danger, then you need to tell me, so we can figure out what to do about it." She sighed. "We've had a reputation as one of the best, safest schools in the city for a long time, and it's done a lot to help our budget and volunteer hours. I can't lose that. I hope you understand."

  The principal stood up and walked around her desk. She knelt down in front of Natalie so that they were at eye level. "I'm sorry to put this on you, Jenny. I know it's not fair."

  "If you know that, then don't do it."

  "I don't really have a choice." She frowned. "Maybe nothing else will happen though. If nothing else happens, then we can just forget this whole conversation. How about that?"

  Natalie nodded slowly. She wondered if the principal thought her whole demeanor and actions were supposed to be friendly and comforting. Having the woman so much closer made her look even scarier, like she was getting ready to devour Natalie whole.

  She smiled, and it made everything even worse. "Good. Okay. Back to class, then."

  Without another word, Natalie hopped off the chair and did her absolute best to resist sprinting out of the office.

  
  


  
  

  "So what did the evil queen want with you, Jenny?" asked Tyler.

  "The evil queen?" said Mitch, raising his eyebrows.

  "I heard people were calling her that."

  "Pretty weak nickname. I bet I could do better."

  "Like what?" asked Kelsey, munching a fry.

  "How about the bi—"

  Mitch cut off as Kelsey slapped him on the back of the head. "Don't even think about it."

  "Oh come on, you cuss more than I do!"

  "Where's Quinn, anyway?" Steven interrupted. "Don't you two have like every class together?"

  "We switch off tech and gym," said Natalie. She pulled out her lunch from her backpack, and her face fell slightly. It had been crushed at some point during the day. She wished she'd put it in her purse and taken it out before lunch, but she'd forgotten amidst all the other things on her mind. "I haven't seen him since third period."

  "Oh. Well, I'm sure he's just taking forever to get out of gym. Don't worry."

  "I wasn't worried." Natalie started in on her lunch.

  "Don't you get tired of having the same lunch every single day?" asked Mitch. Kelsey slapped him on the back of the head again. "What?"

  "You're being mean. Stop it," said Tyler.

  "I just asked her a question, jeez."

  "She just wanted to talk about something to do with my weird registration. How I'm not a 'resident student' or whatever." Natalie shrugged. The lie came easily to her lips, building off phrases she remembered from her previous meetings with the principal. "I don't really get it, but she gave me something to give to Lily when I get home."

  "What does resident student mean?" asked Mitch.

  "Means you live close enough to be in the district," said Steven. "Jenny lives outside the district though. That's why she takes the city bus home instead of the school buses."

  "Right." Natalie went back to her lunch, feeling guilty that her friends knew as much as they did about her. Before Quinn had come back, she'd felt a sense of relief that they knew enough to understand what she was going through, but now that Quinn had crossed the line, every tiny detail seemed risky and threatening.

  "Is that because you—" Tyler started, before he remembered he wasn't supposed to ask. Even though they were at their usual table in the corner of the cafeteria, he'd been strictly instructed (and reminded countless times by Mitch and Steven) to never bring it up unless the rest of them said it was okay first. Natalie wished they'd never talk about her at all, but she knew that was a hopeless fantasy at this point.

  "Yes, Tyler," Mitch answered irritably. "It's 'cause of that."

  "Oh. That must really suck."

  "It's not that bad," said Natalie. "The living outside the district thing. I just have a longer bus ride home. I get to listen to more music."

  As she'd hoped, the conversation detoured immediately into a heated debate between Mitch and Kelsey about what music was best for bus rides, letting Natalie fade into the background. She could eat her lunch in peace and just enjoy listening to them throw shade over each other's music tastes.

  Steven snuck her a knowing grin, understanding her diversion perfectly. When their conversation started to lull, he dropped in an opinion about video games, sparking Mitch and Kelsey back into a roaring argument yet again. He did it so smoothly Natalie felt like laughing. She wished she was that clever. She wished the conversation would just keep going, that Mitch and Kelsey would keep arguing and Tyler would be split between laughing at their insults and trying to get them to stop, while she and Steven would egg them on from the sidelines.

  Unfortunately for them both, the diversions didn't last. No matter how many fun arguments they could incite, Kelsey and Mitch would always fall silent the moment their leader showed up. As Quinn weaved through the cafeteria, Tyler was the first to spot him. He waved exuberantly, like he were bringing Quinn in for a landing.

  Quinn's glasses flashed in the light reflecting from the windows as he strolled up, casual as could be. Natalie winced as he took the seat right next to her. She didn't move a muscle, even though he'd sat uncomfortably close. She could tell herself that he probably didn't realize what he was doing to her. He'd been sitting next to her for a while, even before the accident in the library. It wasn't new—and for a while, Natalie had felt a little thrill rush through her every time he sat close by—but it had taken on a much more uncomfortable meaning lately.

  "Hey guys."

  "Hi Quinn," said Tyler. "Why'd you take so long to get to lunch?"

  "Did you get yelled at by Coach again?" asked Mitch, grinning.

  Quinn shook his head. "Nah. I had to go to the principal's office after gym. She wanted to talk to me about something."

  "Ooooh, Quinn's in trouuuble."

  "Why's Quinn in trouble but Jenny was totally fine?" asked Tyler.

  "'Cause Jenny's a good person and Quinn's a troublemaker, duh."

  "Quinn's not a troublemaker!"

  "It's cool, Tyler, I wasn't in trouble." Quinn shrugged. He started to eat, but (unlike Tyler) made sure to clear his mouth before talking. "I dunno why she wanted to see me. We just kinda talked for a bit." Natalie dreaded what might have been in that talk, but didn't dare ask while the rest of the group was around. Quinn nudged her from the side, startling her. "You got called up too?"

  "Yeah, last period." Natalie tried to play it as casually as he did. "Just a form for Lily when I get home."

  "Did I mention how cool you sound when you call your mom Lily?" interjected Mitch excitedly. "My mom would beat me up if I ever tried that."

  "I didn't realize that was such a big deal," said Steven.

  "Oh man, you do not call my mom anything other than 'Yes ma'am' at our place."

  Kelsey grinned. "How many times you get smacked when you were tiny?"

  "I got scars on my ass."

  "Don't be gross, dude!" said Tyler.

  "What, did you wanna see 'em?"

  "Eww."

  Natalie grimaced too. She tried not to think about it and focused on finishing her lunch instead. Of course, Quinn wasn't about to let her get distracted. He had bigger things on his mind, and he was about to drop a new bombshell she definitely didn't expect.

  "So Jenny," he started, as casually as always, "when are we gonna finish our game?"

  "What?" Natalie looked up, genuinely surprised. They'd never actually started a game. She'd always just watched. What was he talking about?

  "You know. The game we started at the library."

  She still didn't know where he was going with this, but she didn't dare contradict him. "I… dunno. When did you want to?"

  "Today after school sound good?"

  Natalie desperately wracked her brain for any excuse she might have, but nothing came to mind. They all already knew she didn't really have anything on Fridays. She'd even told them it was the best day to hang out, after she'd realized how little attention Kendra and Lily paid her on Friday since there was no school the next day. Anything she might make up wouldn't be convincing at all, and might just make them more suspicious, or set Quinn off somehow.

  "...Sure. Today sounds good."

  
  


  
  

  The next class felt like entire years were passing by. Natalie swore she could see her desk aging, like they did in time lapses in end-of-the-world movies. She half-expected plants to start bursting out of the ground around her and start reclaiming the whole building for nature, like they always talked about in the books and shows she liked.

  That sounds better than dealing with this whole mess.

  She still had no idea what Quinn was thinking. Was he trying to bring up the brief moment she'd let magic slip in front of him? Or was it genuinely an invitation to play Conquest, and Quinn had completely forgotten they'd never actually started playing? Did he have ulterior motives? Was Natalie just making it all up in her head?

  "Jenny!"

  "What?" she spluttered, looking up at the board.

  "Can you tell me what the value of X in this problem is?"

  Natalie looked over the board, trying to focus her eyes on it. Everything seemed so hazy. Quinn was in the desk next to her, and she could see him surreptitiously writing the answer on a piece of paper beneath his desk.

  I know how to do this. Natalie forced her eyes back into focus. The problem wasn't actually that hard, once she remembered the order things were supposed to go in. She didn't even need scratch paper to solve it. Nice and straightforward. Rules to follow. No confusion.

  "X equals six."

  "Good. Does anyone need help knowing how she got to that?" The teacher still looked vaguely concerned, but moved on to the next problem after no one else spoke up. Natalie's eyes fell back to the desk again, forgetting the class entirely.

  "Are you okay?" Quinn asked later, once they'd switched to group work. The class conveniently split into groups of four that left only two extra, and—as her horrible luck would have it—that left just Quinn and Natalie leftover, in the corner of the room together. He scooted his desk around so that they'd be next to each other, dropping his voice low. "Did something happen?"

  "Nothing happened." Natalie looked down at her workbook and tried to start on the first problem.

  "You can tell me anything, you know. I'd never tell anyone."

  "Nothing happened," she repeated. She looked up and saw Quinn's eager eyes. He said he wanted to help and that he was there for her, but all she could see was a source of danger. "Let's just finish these, okay?"

  "Okay."

  He wasn't going to give up that easily. He knew it, and she knew it too. Natalie tried to focus, but she couldn't stop dreading every word out of Quinn's mouth. Her mind kept flashing through images of terrible things happening to him and his friends, and it would all be her fault. Because she couldn't keep one little thing secret. They'd only gotten through half of the problems when he spoke up again.

  "I was thinking. I'm pretty good with the internet. Maybe I could help you find them?"

  "Find who?" she asked, against her better judgment. Her hand gripped the metal bar on the side of her side so tight that her knuckles started to go white. She could feel the urge to push out magic into her hand, but that would lead to a permanently damaged desk and even more questions she couldn't answer. Natalie managed to control it, and the cold metal stayed intact.

  "Your real parents, duh."

  "My… what?"

  His voice was so low she could barely hear him, but since every other group was joking around by now and the teacher was barely paying attention, she doubted they'd be overheard. "I mean, Lily's not your real mom, right? That's why you call her Lily. She's who they assigned to you."

  Kinda right, but kinda wrong. Not dangerous information though. "...No, she's not my real mom. But I'm really not supposed to talk about it, remember?"

  "Yeah, I gotcha. No one else will know."

  That's not what I meant at all! "How are you gonna do that?" she asked. She wanted to figure out if she needed to be worried, and she knew Quinn loved to show off his plans whenever he could.

  "You can find out a lot if you know what to search. With your name and maybe a little more, we could get a ton of info." He winced. "Not that you need to tell me anything! I wouldn't do anything unless you told me to. I know that stuff is serious."

  "I don't think it's a good idea."

  He looked crestfallen. "Are you sure? No one would know."

  Natalie shook her head. "They can find that stuff out though. They watch all the computers."

  "I wouldn't use a school computer." He sounded offended. "I'm not that dumb."

  "No, they watch all the computers." She remembered the detailed post that Tezofarl had made. A lot of the technical details went way over her head, but Cinza's summaries made the dangers pretty clear. Natalie wished she knew as much as Cinza about how computers and the internet worked, but Cinza told her it had taken years to learn.

  Natalie didn't have years. Sometimes, she felt like she didn't have days.

  "I'd be okay. And think about all the stuff you could find out!" Quinn was getting excited. She felt nervous. What if he went ahead and did it without her permission, despite all her warnings? They were entering dangerous territory. Natalie felt like she was surrounded with no way out.

  Class was nearly over. She only had to get through a minute or two before the bell would ring.

  "Just say the word and I put it into action." He reached over, as if to pat her on the back. His hand brushed the metal bar that connected the side of the desk to the chair back.

  A loud snap-crack stunned the room into silence.

  Quinn pulled back from the chair, wringing his hand in pain. A thick black imprint of Natalie's palm marked the metal bar she'd gripped only a moment before. She stood up sharply, grabbing up her bag. Most of the class was watching Quinn, but the bell was already ringing. Natalie took the opportunity to bail as fast as she possibly could. She practically threw the worksheets at the bin on the front table, totally ignoring whether or not they made it in.

  Natalie could still feel electricity in her fingertips. The last time she'd felt so surrounded, she'd been with Rachel, and Rachel had ordered her to throw lightning. She'd summoned up the electricity from all around her and inside herself, tiny things rubbing together in space that created power in a way she didn't understand. All she did was tell it where to go, make a pathway for it to travel.

  She'd been making it go into her fingers without thinking, just in case she needed to stop anyone from getting near her. It had flowed from her fingers into the metal desk and back again, but her magic kept it moving through her without a problem. It was only once Quinn touched the bar that the electricity found a new path, and started getting violent.

  Natalie hurried into the hallway, where the rows of lockers waited. Most kids were already streaming through, grabbing up the textbook for their next class, chatting, going to the bathroom. As soon as she emerged, everyone was staring at her.

  No they aren't. I'm imagining it. Stop. Breathe.

  They might not be looking at her, but Natalie still felt like impending doom waited just a few steps behind. Quinn was going to come out of that classroom any minute. She could go to her next class, but what good would that do? She'd already screwed up. The principal would be coming for her any minute. She'd caused another incident.

  Natalie took one step toward the exit, then another. No one was paying any attention to her. She broke into a brisk walk, beelining for the doors outside. No running. Never running. Running makes people look.

  She chanced a quick look over her shoulder. Quinn had emerged from the classroom and was looking around for her, but he was looking in the wrong direction. He was looking towards her next classroom, but he wasn't in that class. He couldn't go in to check, since he was already late, and his class was in the other direction. As she'd hoped, Quinn turned away reluctantly and went into his next room.

  The next teacher wouldn't find her for attendance. Her friends wouldn't know where she'd gone. Nobody knew. By the time school let out for the weekend, Jenny Heshire was nowhere to be found.

  
  


  
  

  Natalie boarded the first bus she saw. She was desperate to get away. She figured she'd just hop buses a few times until it was close enough to the end of the day, then find her route and ride it back to the boarded up old store. So long as the timing wasn't too far off, she doubted Kendra or Lily would notice anything wrong. If they even notice I'm gone at all.

  She'd been gone for more than a day before, and the Laushires hadn't noticed at all. Besides, did she really want to just go back to the house? That wouldn't do anything for her. She'd just be trapped in another place, still wishing she were elsewhere.

  When the bus pulled up to the last stop she knew, Natalie didn't move a muscle. She let the music pumping through her ears block out the name of the stop over the bus intercom, watching the people bustle around outside with glazed eyes. The bus trundled away a few moments later, and soon enough Natalie was in unfamiliar territory.

  Anything that isn't the school or the house.

  She rode the bus for hours, until she realized it was traveling in a circle. If it was just going to keep showing her the same things, Natalie didn't feel like staying on any longer. She waited until it had gone deep into the city, in an area she was totally unfamiliar with, then took her leave.

  No one on the bus paid her any mind, which was exactly how she wanted it. Out here, she wasn't the tragic little kid everyone kept fawning over, tiptoeing around subjects like she didn't understand what they were talking about. Nor was she the object of obsession like at school, the mysterious troubled girl that everyone wanted to know more about.

  Being alone in the city was the same feeling Natalie usually got from being outside in the woods, but in this case she wasn't alone. There were people everywhere, but she was still anonymous. She could come and go as she liked. The best of both worlds, and in this place she actually knew how to make it do what she wanted. The city ran on money, and Natalie—for the first time in her life—had cash to spare.

  With her dad, she'd never really considered money much. Even on the one vacation she could remember, their trip down to California, she'd been paying attention to the rides and the cute characters and things way more than how everything actually worked. Only once she'd been abandoned and sent to live with the Laushires did Natalie really start thinking about the little pieces of paper that everyone just took for granted.

  Thanks to Lily, Natalie had a whole pile of bills stuffed deep inside her purse. The Laushire twins were rich—much richer than anyone Natalie had ever met. Where her dad might consider a twenty dollar bill a luxury jewel and take precious care of it, the Laushires wouldn't be even slightly concerned about losing wrapped stacks of a few thousand dollars, neatly packaged and stored away. In that way, when Lily had handed her a stack from the pile to keep on her 'just in case', she'd been unnervingly casual.

  To Natalie, it was more money than she'd ever seen in her life, by a massive amount. Even when she helped her dad count rent money a couple times, college kids usually paid in checks, so she'd never seen so many bills. Natalie took a handful, and then another, and then even more from the pile. It didn't stop coming, and soon Natalie had an entire section of her purse dedicated just to holding the sheer amount of cash the Laushires gave her. After she lost count, Natalie stopped growing her little stash.

  She supposed Lily trusted her since her purse wouldn't ever lose the bills. Nothing could ever fall out of it, after all, unless she let it fall or took it out herself. If she turned it upside-down, nothing happened. It had its own special law of gravity, as Lily explained it. No matter what direction she turned the bag, everything inside stayed upright.

  That same smooth faux-leather purse bounced against her leg as Natalie finally got off the bus. She stared up at the city, with buildings towering over her in every direction. Parking garages, offices, restaurants, buildings she could only guess what they were for. Natalie had absolutely no idea where she was—and at the moment, she was totally fine with that. She started wandering down the street. It started as a slow walk, until it became a happy skip as she felt so many pressures lift off her mind.

  No one was around to bother her, find out her secret, nag her, press her. No one even knew who she was. Natalie was free to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted.

  That's what I thought about the woods too, but then I almost died.

  Natalie pushed the frightening thought away. That had only happened because no one else was around. She was in the middle of a huge city, and there were people everywhere. There were hundreds of people just on her street. They'd help her if she got in trouble, right?

  What about the last time I was surrounded by adults on the street? I had to—

  "No," she said aloud. She wasn't about to let that memory ruin her day. She needed something to distract her. Anything would work. She skidded to a halt. Little marquee banners hung above the doors to every shop. She picked the first one that had an interesting sign, though she had no idea what might be inside, and ran right in.

  "Slow down there!" A man standing behind the register near the door shouted at her as she burst through the door.

  Natalie slowed down, embarrassed. She didn't reply, but she made sure to walk through the place calmly. There were trinkets and odd little things everywhere on shelves, as well as shirts with funny pictures and a lot of things about Seattle in some way or another. A 'tourist trap', as her dad might have called it.

  Her dad. Natalie tried not to think about him too much, but memories kept popping up—even more so now that she was alone in the city. Her earliest memories were of her mom and dad, back in Chicago. She didn't think about her mom much anymore, but what she could remember wasn't very pleasant. Her mom was a shrill woman, always whining about something or other. When she didn't get exactly what she wanted, she got mean.

  Natalie and her dad had escaped her, running all the way across the country and to the total opposite of the big city.

  She found a necklace she really liked, a shiny silver chain with a pendant of a tree on the end. The price tag was way beyond anything her dad would have ever let her buy. Natalie felt a tiny burst of glee as she walked up to the counter, pulled out the little stack of cash and counted out the bills. The cashier gave her a funny look, but didn't say anything as she put it on and walked out of the store.

  There. I bought it and nothing bad happened. No big deal at all. Natalie looked at herself in the big reflective glass windows on the front of the shop. She really liked the way the light caught on the carved stone tree, refracting through it in a neat pattern. Out of curiosity, she sent a tiny wisp of magic into the stone. It was a real emerald, and a pretty strong one too, if she understood the feeling right. Really pretty and really useful, too. Cool.

  So it went down the whole row, with Natalie popping into every store that looked remotely interesting. She found a new green jacket that looked a whole lot tougher than hers in a store of army stuff, which she swapped out for immediately. Even the smallest size was a little big on her, but she liked the feeling. She felt like she could disappear into it if she needed to. She stuffed her slightly ripped up older coat back into her purse. She also found a knife she wanted to buy, but apparently they wouldn't sell it to someone under eighteen.

  Sometimes, Natalie was really frustrated by how young she was. It felt like the world wanted her to be an adult already, with all the stuff it kept throwing at her, but it also kept telling her she was too young to actually do anything yet. She wished it would just make up its mind already.

  The next stop turned out to be a whole mall of stores, instead of just a single shop set into the wall. Natalie felt like she could get lost just in that building alone, much less the entire city. She set about trying to find replacements and upgrades for everything she used every day. She had so few opportunities to buy things, and she always felt weird asking Kendra or Lily to get her something.

  In an electronics store, she found new wireless earbuds that wouldn't get caught on things out in the forest, and a portable battery for her phone so she wouldn't get totally stranded again. She was too easily tempted into a fudge shop by the smell, and came out with enough to make her feel a little queasy. She stopped before she downed too much, since she didn't want to have to go home early.

  Browsing the smaller, specialty clothing stores, ones her father would have never stepped foot in, Natalie picked out a new scarf for the dropping temperatures. It was, again, too big for her, but she'd noticed she'd already grown a few inches just in the months since leaving Rallsburg. Measuring herself in the mirror, she'd finally made it over five feet, with inches to spare. She'd fit into her new clothes sooner or later.

  That also meant she wouldn't fit into some of her older clothes anymore. For most of them that wasn't a big deal, since her dad had tended to buy things too large for her anyway. Lily had actually gotten her measured and fitted for her nicer clothes, sending off the measurements to a tailor they knew. Those clothes were already a little too short, a little too tight. Natalie wanted new ones, and now she could afford them.

  In a store bursting with color and playing fancy music, she found some. Dresses that looked like as nice as they felt, with all sorts of designs from cute to cool, to elegant and graceful. Natalie started to resist, sorely tempted to buy one of everything, until she realized—she could. She took a pile of them into the dressing room and spent a whole hour trying them on, one by one, until she found the size that fit her best. With another stack of bills and a wide-eyed cashier, she left the store with a wide smile on her face and a bundle of new dresses and outfits. She quickly made her way to the bathroom so she could hide them all in her purse, before anyone started to wonder how she could be carrying everything around.

  When she stopped into one of the big clothing stores, to pick up some more practical clothes, Natalie had a bit of a shock. Back in the t-shirt area, looking for anything from her favorite shows, she spotted a shirt on a clearance rack with a worn-out band logo. Her eyes widened.

  It was the exact same shirt that older girl always wore—the sad older girl with grey eyes everyone was always so obsessed with. Natalie didn't really understand it, but apparently for normal people, that girl was how they got magic. She wondered what made that girl so special. Obviously not her taste in music. That band was so lame.

  Natalie ate in the food court, from the only fast food place she remembered. She ate slowly and carefully so she wouldn't get anything on her new dress. She could have taken it off, but it felt nice and she liked how it looked on her. Along with the makeup she'd tried on in another store, it made her look older and prettier than she was. Like a future Natalie she could be someday, if she made it that far.

  As she ate, a man in a uniform walked up. She stiffened up, looking straight at her food and avoiding the man's gaze. Boris said don't be memorable. Be totally normal. What's normal though? I don't know what I'm doing. I never learned normal.

  "Everything all right?" the man asked. He had a nice voice, even if he was kind of ugly. His moustache looked absolutely horrible.

  "Yes," she said, chewing her food very slowly.

  "Are you here with someone?"

  "No, just me."

  "Oh, okay." He shrugged. "Sorry to bother you." He pointed over to a corner, where she saw a desk with a woman standing behind it. "If you need help with anything, or if anyone tries to mess with you, come let us know okay?"

  "Okay."

  He walked away, and Natalie breathed a sigh of relief. As he rejoined the woman at the desk, Natalie decided to practice one of the spells Hailey had shared online. She murmured it quickly under her breath, and soon enough she could hear everything they were saying—as well as everything else between them, much louder than usual.

  Natalie winced, and tried to focus the effect on just them, but it was no good. She could only catch little bits of their conversation. Something about her being all alone, and being young, and lots of money.

  They'd noticed her. They'd remember her. She quickly finished her food and dumped the tray into one of the bins. A few minutes later, she exited the mall.

  Why is this so hard?

  She just wanted to breeze through without everyone paying so much attention to her. It wasn't so bad in the small shops, since she knew exactly where they were, but in the big malls and department stores they could be watching from the cameras all over the place. Natalie could pick them out with the spell she'd been practicing, but it didn't do her much good when they were everywhere.

  The sun was going down. Rays of warm light punched down the city streets in the little columns between the buildings where it could shine through from out over the water. Natalie had to shield her eyes whenever she looked out that way, but the warmth felt nice on her skin, especially as the city got colder. She pulled up her new jacket and scarf tight. A trickle of rain pattered her head, but it passed by quickly. Natalie started walking down toward the water, hoping to find a beach or somewhere nice to relax for a bit and read. She'd been walking around for so long by now that she was ready for a break.

  She didn't find any sand, but she did find a bench overlooking the water that seemed good enough for a rest. She pulled out an outdoor blanket and a book from her bag, wrapped up snug and began to read. Music blotted out the annoying noise of the city, leaving her in her own little world as everything else faded away.

  
  


  
  

  Natalie looked up with a start. The sun had gone down completely, but she hadn't noticed. The lamp above her kept her book nicely lit. There were suddenly a lot fewer people around, and most of the shops were closed and dark. She rubbed at her eyes, trying to get them used to looking at other distances again besides just her book.

  Night had fallen. She was hungry again, but she didn't really want to go back to the mall again. Not when that security guard might still be there. She wandered through the streets, looking around for any food she recognized. As much fun as she'd had exploring every store she came across, she didn't really feel like trying a new food at the same time. She needed something reliable to ground her.

  Still, the city didn't have many restaurants she knew. There was plenty of food, but nothing that looked like her type of food. She kept wandering, hoping something would come up. Luckily she wasn't too hungry, and she still had a couple granola bars in her purse somewhere. She'd be okay.

  Something about the area she was walking into felt off though. There were less friendly, helpful signs and brightly colored shops. It was becoming more plain and gray, more bland and boring. This was more like the sort of city she'd always expected to find from TV or her books. Everything looked a bit more worn down and dirty. Natalie wondered if she should be heading this way, but she still hadn't found anywhere to eat yet.

  Besides, it's not like I'm really in danger. I have magic, right? I'll be okay. They said if it's an emergency to go ahead and use it. But keeping the secret's super important too.

  She was getting nervous though, and that wasn't good. Natalie stopped halfway down a street, leaning against the wall. She took a deep breath. Calm down. Everything's okay. I'm Natajenny Somethingshiredricks. I can take care of myself. It's just a stupid city.

  "Excuse me!"

  She looked up sharply. There was a guy standing in front of her, looking at her strangely. She felt defensive immediately, tucking her hand into her pocket where she kept one of her gemstones at the ready. The new emerald pendant on her necklace was ready to go too, just in case, but she doubted she'd need either of them just to take on one guy. He looked a little funny, like his face was melting off. One of his eyes pointed in the wrong direction, and he had a messy beard.

  "Hi," she said cautiously.

  "Sorry. I was just wondering if you knew what time it was?"

  That's it? Natalie shrugged. It was a weird question to make such a big deal out of, but whatever. She pulled out her phone and unlocked it in one quick motion. "It's about ten—" she started.

  His hand moved. Way too fast. She scrambled forward, but he'd already snatched it out of her hands. Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no!

  The guy took off. At the exact same moment, just as she'd started to move, the strap on her purse slid off her shoulder. She twisted around, and the strap fell off entirely.

  Another guy grabbed it, sprinting away in the opposite direction.

  Oh my god. They—

  What do I do? He has my phone. That phone has so many things on it that no one's supposed to know. But the other guy has my bag, and it's magic. What if he opens it?

  What am I supposed to do?

  An image of the purse's contents flashed in her mind. Gwen's fur. Her dad's drumsticks. Her mother's old locket. The photo of Jenny. Her gemstones. All the things she'd bought that day.

  Natalie took off after the guy with her bag, throwing caution to the wind. Every step she ran, she flung herself forward in midair with magic to go faster. She stumbled a bit on the first few leaps, but soon enough she was starting to catch up with him.

  He looked over his shoulder at the loud impacts of her shoes on the pavement, and his mouth fell open. Natalie didn't care about being noticed anymore. She was getting her bag back.

  The guy bolted down an alley, and Natalie ripped around the corner after him. She was really angry now. After all of the stuff she'd run away from, when she'd finally found somewhere to spend a day without being bothered by anyone, this happened?

  He's gonna regret this.

  She flung out her mind, trying feel out for the bag, but she couldn't find it. The guy had turned another corner already. She kept running to catch up, but he was so much taller and her legs were just too short. Even with magic to help her, she could barely keep up… and she was getting tired.

  They darted through a twisting alleyway covered in rainwater and grime. Everything about the place made Natalie feel dirty and gross. She wanted to be out of there as fast as possible.

  In desperation, she created a couple fireballs in midair and threw them around the next corner in a wide arc, hoping to scare the guy. As she rounded the corner, she saw… nothing. The alley finally let out onto an empty street, without a moving car in sight for several blocks. She didn't see the guy anywhere.

  Natalie fell down onto the pavement, her arms and legs shaking. They'd taken all of her things. All she had left were her new jacket and dress she had on, the couple of gemstones and her new earbuds, which she'd never actually taken out. They weren't playing music anymore, with nothing to connect to, but she still had them.

  Everything else was gone. In the midst of a massive city that seemed more dangerous and foreboding with every passing minute, Natalie was stranded and totally, utterly alone.

  
  


  
  

  Natalie: are you there????

  Natalie: pelase answer

  Natalie: i need help

  Cinza: I'm sorry, it took me a moment to get to my computer.

  Cinza: What can I help you with?

  Natalie: i was trying to get hailey but

  Natalie: she didnt answer

  Natalie: do you know where she is

  Cinza: Something happened. Hailey needed help.

  Cinza: Most everyone went out to help her. It's just me and Nicole at home right now.

  Cinza: Is everything all right?

  Natalie: no

  Natalie: oh god

  Natalie: cinza im so sorry

  Cinza: What's the matter?

  Natalie: i did something bad

  Natalie: someone took my phone

  Natalie: and my bag

  Natalie: stole it i mena

  Natalie: mean

  Cinza: It's locked, right?

  Natalie: no

  Natalie: i unlocked it when i pulled it out

  Natalie: and he took it

  Natalie: im so stupid

  Natalie: i didnt need to unlock it

  Natalie: why did i do that

  Cinza: Where are you right now?

  Natalie: im in seattle

  Natalie: in a store

  Cinza: How are you on the website?

  Natalie: they have laptops out to try

  Natalie: i know im not supposed to but

  Cinza: It's okay.

  Natalie: i logged in because i didn't kno

  Natalie: it is?

  Cinza: This time, yes. There's more important things to worry about.

  Cinza: Where are you at exactly?

  Natalie: i dont know the address

  Cinza: Okay. I'm going to have Nikki try to scry you.

  Natalie: what

  Cinza: Find you using magic.

  Natalie: o

  Natalie: ok

  Natalie: should i stay here?

  Natalie: i cant stay here. theyre saying theyre closing

  Natalie: where do i go

  Cinza: What part of the city are you in? North/south/east/west?

  Natalie: i dont know?

  Cinza: Do you know which direction the sunset was in?

  Natalie: ya

  Cinza: That's west. To the right will be north, and the left is south.

  Natalie: o

  Natalie: im north?

  Natalie: i think?

  Cinza: What's the name of the store?

  Natalie: it's a buymore

  Cinza: I believe I know where you are.

  Cinza: There's a park near you, two or three blocks further north.

  Cinza: Go there, and on the west side you'll find a place where some people gather together to sleep every night. They aren't friendly people, but it's better than a dark alley.

  Cinza: Go there. Find a place where you can sit and no one can sneak up on you.

  Cinza: Wait for me there.

  Natalie: ok

  Natalie: youre coming here?

  Cinza: Yes.

  Cinza: I know Seattle.

  Cinza: I'll be there as soon as I can.

  Cinza: Don't talk to anyone, and don't let anyone near you. They are not friendly people.

  Cinza: Do you understand?

  Cinza: Natalie?

  Quit: +Natalie (Ping timeout).

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Amateur Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, student, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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Etzoli
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Etzoli @Etzoli ago

good news for avo fans: I’ll be getting back to it soon, I hope. I wrote a bit more, restructured a bunch of problematic parts, etc. I’m still dealing with way too much classwork to really invest much time into it, but it’s coming.

in the meantime, TLS will always be here for you, for better or worse. thanks for reading <3

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Dragrath @Dragrath ago

Ah Natalie she really is being driven over the top with fear huh... the ammount of psychological scars she has at her age is quite huge ands that is ignoring the weight of responsibility she feels. She really needs a therapist that she can actually trust as otherwise I fear things will get quite a bit worse due to her poor reactions under the weight of everything.

Thanks for the chapter!