Chapter 27 — A Voice In Her Head
"Three women are put before the jury of the court, having each committed grave crimes. The first of these is asked her motivation. She replies simply, money. Thus, she is taken away and sentenced. The second of these declares passion—and again, she is taken away and sentenced. But the third—the third woman claims insanity. What happens to this third woman? The jury cannot understand insanity. After all, the normal people who run such a court are perfectly sane.
The court believes they are somehow qualified to judge us, we on the fringes of society, we mad multitudes who dance on the cliff's edge every day, daring gravity to cast us down. A court of my true peers would consist of a single empty chair, lugged out of some trash dump—scuffed, beaten and with only three legs left, which should crumble under the slightest pressure, but still bears the load of an entire life upon its tired feet."
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
Natalie hadn't taken a step outside the Kincaid home since Friday.
She'd finally started paying attention to the news again on Sunday, after Quinn's parents been so kind to her—inviting someone they'd just met to live with them. She knew she couldn't just stay at their home forever, especially since Tuesday would mark the day where Cinza's book was made public. On Monday night, Natalie made sure everything was packed and ready to go, and she didn't sleep a wink.
It didn't matter, though. Come Tuesday morning, the news was all over the world. Kendra had stopped it. Or at least, she'd delayed it.
Natalie didn't know what she was supposed to do with that. Could she just go back to school? But what if it came out while she was there? What if she couldn't get away in time, since her phone wouldn't work inside the building?
Natalie was so scared of the possibilities, she hardly even left her room all day. Most of the week was spent cooped up in her new room, reading every single comment thread and news analysis of the Diaries. She only came out for meals, and to play Conquest with Quinn in a futile attempt to get her mind off of things. The Kincaids didn't bring up her skipping school, to her relief. She got a few sidelong looks at dinner that they did their best to hide, but not a single question. Quinn, of course, asked her tons of questions, but those were all strictly out of earshot of his parents.
"I don't know," she answered, as Quinn asked why it hadn't come out on Tuesday. She'd told him that she was probably in the book, and that she might have to go into hiding when it came out. "I guess Kendra did something to stop it."
"I don't know," she answered, when Quinn asked her on Wednesday when she was coming back to school. "It might not be safe yet. I don't know how long this whole injunction thing works. Legal stuff is really hard to read."
"I don't know!" she shouted, after Quinn asked if she wanted to hang out with the rest of the gang on Thursday. "I don't know, okay? I just don't! Sorry!"
He retreated after the last one. She felt bad, but she couldn't just go after him. What she said was true—she didn't know. She felt like she didn't know anything, and she was too scared to be seen by anyone she knew. Only Quinn had seen her new look: her eyes, her ears, her new body and everything. What would everyone else think about it?
Kelsey would probably say it was awesome. No surprises there. Natalie knew that girl, knew Kelsey approve of what she'd done. There was a reason they got along so well.
Mitch would think it was weird, but would get over it pretty quick. Pretty much as soon as Kelsey said a single word, so they could start arguing about it. Natalie laughed, imagining an argument between the two of them about whether pointy ears or round ears were cooler. She knew where she stood, having enjoyed the benefits for a while, but watching Kelsey and Mitch argue it out would be fun. They got really inventive with their insults.
Steven probably wouldn't say anything until she pressed him to talk. If she did, he'd say he thought it was a huge risk, but that it was up to her. He was the mature one in the group, after all. Always responsible and thinking about the bigger picture.
Natalie had no clue about Tyler. He was the one she didn't really get. He seemed to have a total hero worship for Quinn, and stuck to him like glue whenever he could. Half of the time, he ignored Natalie entirely, unless they were playing Conquest—and then he wiped the floor with her, just he did like everyone else. The rest of the time, he acted weird, like he was always annoyed with her for something. She didn't get it, especially with how quickly he seemed to switch between the two.
He was the first one to be nice to you, though. Without any reason to be.
Yeah, but if he finds out more about me, and he spills to the wrong person… it could get really bad.
You should call them back. You need supporters. You need your friends.
She shook her head, trying to clear away the hypotheticals. Making up conversations with her friends wasn't going to do her any good. She reminded herself of her promise to herself—she was never going without friends again. She chased after Quinn, who'd walked away from her bedroom door looking confused and hurt. "Hey, Quinn!"
"What?" he asked, sounding a little sullen.
"...Tell Kelsey we're having pizza tonight. That'll get her to come over."
He grinned. "Won't work on Mitch, he hates pizza."
Natalie rolled her eyes. "Of course he does, if she likes it."
Quinn laughed. "Don't worry. I'll get them all here."
"...Sorry," she added, as he turned away. "For, you know. Yelling at you."
Natalie waited in her room for them to arrive. Quinn greeted them one by one, making sure they knew she was going to look different and not to freak out, so they didn't alert his parents. She looked around her little space—the books she'd unloaded from her bag onto the nightstand, her laptop on the desk, her phone plugged into the charger, her clothes filling the racks (and the floor) of the closet. The bedroom had become something of a nest for her, and it felt way more her own than the perfectly neat and tidy room back at the Laushire house.
I miss Percy…
Natalie gazed out the window at the sky, imagining that the tiny bird in the distance was Percy. She could tell it wasn't though, with her improved eyes. The colors were all wrong, and it wasn't even a hawk. Looked more like a seagull.
"Hey Jenny! Pizza's ready!" Quinn called from down the hall.
"No shouting, Q!" shouted Damian at the other end.
"Got it, Dad!"
"Knock it off, you two!" called Annette.
As Natalie emerged into the main room, six pairs of eyes locked onto her. Annette and Quinn glanced away a second later, back to the pizza she was serving up with hungry looks on their faces. The rest of the Gang… weren't so quick.
Kelsey, true to form, just grinned and gave her a thumbs up. She mouthed something Natalie didn't catch, too distracted by the rest of the group.
Mitch's mouth just fell open, and stayed that way for a while until Steven finally elbowed him in the side. Steven, for his part, didn't look surprised—but he didn't seem happy either. He only glanced away once it was his turn to grab a slice.
Tyler… looked like… something. Natalie wasn't sure what. He couldn't take his eyes off her ears. She'd assumed at first he was looking at her scar again, but no, he kept bouncing between both sides of her head. She tried to ignore him, digging into the pizza.
Kelsey was the first to speak. "That's a sweet haircut, Jenny," she said with a wink.
Natalie, of course, hadn't changed her hair at all—just everything else. She grinned, scarfing down her slice with gusto.
"That's so coooooool," said Mitch, sounding hypnotized. He reached out slightly toward the sharp tip of her ear, poking out through her hair, but Steven pulled him away before he got close, rolling his eyes.
"Cut it out," said Quinn, though he too couldn't help from grinning. Annette had retreated from the room to deliver a slice to her husband—a quick bite before he headed off to work for the night—but she was definitely still in earshot.
"Does your mom know?" asked Tyler.
"Do I know what?" asked Annette, who happened to return to the room at the same time.
"That Jenny's been missing school," said Steven without missing a beat. He even managed to look uncomfortable—which probably wasn't hard, Natalie realized with a pang of dismay. He'd already looked uncomfortable the moment she turned up.
Annette nodded. "We know. Don't any of you go thinking you can start skipping school too. Jenny's a special case."
"Mrs. Kincaid, I—" Natalie started.
"Shh shh shh, it's all right. You don't have to explain." Annette smiled at the group. "Have fun. I'll be in my study all night with loud music on, so I can't hear a word you're saying about anything."
The moment her door closed and Damian left for work, Tyler turned to Natalie. "I'm sorry. That was so close."
"Yeah, we need a new way to ask that," said Quinn, helping himself to another slice of pizza.
"Dude… you're an elf," said Mitch, still staring at her.
Natalie shrugged. She reached up and moved her hair a little, deliberately making her ear more visible. Mitch's mouth fell open even wider.
Kelsey laughed. "Dude, you're a nerd."
He snapped out of it, rounding on her instead. "Excuse me for liking good fantasy games, unlike your poser crap MMOs."
"I really like your eyes," said Tyler, while Mitch and Kelsey got into another argument.
Natalie was surprised. Tyler hadn't ever really said much to her before, not like the other guys. She smiled. "...Thanks, guys. But this isn't why we wanted to get together tonight."
"Yeah," Quinn said, and nodded at Steven, who bodily pulled Mitch back down to his seat. "We gotta talk about why Jenny's been missing class."
"Is it safe?" asked Steven, glancing down the hall towards Annette's study. "What if she was just joking about the music?"
"She was, but it's okay," reported Natalie. "I can make us quiet so she can't hear."
"You can?" asked Mitch. "How?"
"Already did," she said. "You guys can't tell, but she'd have to walk back down the hall to be able to hear us. We're good." She didn't mention that she'd spent practically every evening all week trying to figure out how to do that, practicing with Quinn in his room until they could shout without Annette ever hearing.
"What can't you do…" said Mitch, awed.
"A lot," said Natalie quietly.
"Which is why this is important," said Quinn, bringing them back on topic. "She might be in big trouble."
"You guys know about the book, right?" Natalie asked hesitantly.
"What book?" said Tyler.
"The magic one," said Mitch. "The diary everybody's talking about."
"Oh. Yeah, guess so." Tyler used his inhaler before talking again. "What's that got to do with you?"
"It's about magic, so… oh," said Steven. Natalie wasn't surprised he'd already figured out it.
"Oh what?" asked Mitch.
"What's going on… ohhh." Kelsey had it too. She stared at Natalie with a strange mix of sympathy and awe. "You were there?" she whispered.
"You what?" asked Mitch, a little louder. "Somebody explain to me what's going on."
"Me too, please," said Tyler, looking between them rapidly.
"Rallsburg, moron," said Kelsey, punching Mitch in the arm. "She was there."
"When it blew up," said Natalie, looking down at the table. When everybody died and I couldn't save them…
You did everything you could.
"This is why she's been hiding," said Quinn. "Nobody can know she was there. Ever."
"Yeah, no kidding," said Steven, looking even more concerned than when she'd walked out looking like she did. "Is that why you… did this?"
"Not exactly," she said, feeling embarrassed. "This was… something else."
"Nobody knows who she really is though besides us, so we should be okay," Quinn went on. "It's just us five and Lily, and obviously Lily's never gonna tell anyone."
"Oh man, what did Lily say about the whole new look?" asked Kelsey. "I bet she was pissed."
"...She hasn't seen it," said Natalie. "I've been living here since Friday."
"You what?" asked Mitch, Tyler and Kelsey in unison. Mitch looked shocked, Tyler angry. On the other hand, Kelsey's face lit up like a Christmas tree. She glanced between Natalie and Quinn, beaming like she'd gone insane.
"Another thing we're not telling anybody," added Quinn, glaring at them. "If people figure out who she is, they at least won't have a clue where she's living."
"The address on my permanent record at school is fake anyway," added Natalie. "There's basically nothing there."
"Whoah," said Mitch. "So where do you live? That's not here, I mean."
"There's a magic door I usually go through to get home, but when I went there Friday… it wouldn't open." Natalie shrugged. She'd gotten over it by now, though she still hadn't heard from the Laushires since Friday. Truth be told, she didn't really want to anymore, especially since Kendra was in the public eye again. Natalie was way happier now than she had been. Everything at that house reminded her of what she'd done… who she'd become.
If she could just get Percy back, she'd have no reason to go to the Laushire house ever again. Everything else she cared about, she always kept in her bag or her backpack, and she had both of those here at Quinn's.
"A magic door? Awesome."
"So when are you coming back to school?" asked Steven, folding his hands under his chin. "People are already talking. I mean, they're talking way more about the book and Hailey Winscombe and that crazy stuff, but you're being noticed."
"Tomorrow," she answered firmly, before Quinn could speak. He glanced at her, surprised, but she just nodded. "I'll be back tomorrow."
"It's about time," said Mitch. "Lunch sucks without you there."
"It's true," added Kelsey. "He's been whining about it all week."
"Shut up!" said Mitch, elbowing her. She dodged it and elbowed back, harder. Mitch fell off his chair onto the floor, cursing.
"Hey, do you know Hailey?" asked Kelsey, turning back to her.
Natalie hesitated. "Yeah, I do."
"I met her too," added Quinn, grinning.
"Wait-wait-wait, when was that?" asked Kelsey, looking between the two of them. "You got to meet my hero without telling me?"
"Back in October," said Quinn. "When she uhh…"
"When I knocked him out," finished Natalie, grimacing.
"I didn't know it was her at the time. Her boyfriend carried me to the hospital."
"That's so badass," said Kelsey. "I bet she flew all the way there."
"She did." Natalie grinned. "She said she flew past a jet when she passed over the airport and had to dodge it."
"Oh my god." Kelsey beamed at her. "You have to help me meet her someday. Promise."
"Sure." Though she and I aren't really talking much anymore… and I'm still mad at her… "It probably won't be for a while though, you know."
"Yeah, totally, I got it." Kelsey nodded. "We gotta worry about you first."
"...Yeah," she agreed, looking down at the table.
"Don't worry, Jenny," said Steven. "We got this. It's what we do."
"...So are we done now?" asked Tyler. "Can we play some Conquest?"
They all looked at him like he was crazy.
Kelsey was the last one left after the rest of them got picked up (or took the bus, in Steven's case).
"I'm never gonna get into this," she groaned, while Quinn and Natalie continued their last game. Natalie had him on the ropes, trickling away cards and his general stuck in the aether. Either way, she'd probably win in just a few turns. He wouldn't have trouble resurrecting Ke'Lua, and he could still be annoying with the spirits he'd summoned, but Natalie's defense was entrenched and ready.
"It's not that hard," said Natalie mildly, watching as Quinn's hand kept switching between his piles on his kingdom. "And it's so much fun to lure people into traps," she added, just as Quinn started to move towards one of her territories.
"You're evil," he muttered.
She smiled innocently, fiddling pointedly with Linnethea on her back row.
You have him. He's got no escape. Move in.
Not yet, she replied. He could still have a way out, if he plays it smart. And Quinn is super smart.
"Oh man, I just got it," said Kelsey, leaning towards Natalie. She moved away as Kelsey got closer, but Kelsey didn't notice. "You turned yourself into her!" she exclaimed, pointing at the card.
"...Kinda?" said Natalie. She ran her hand through her hair pointedly. "It wasn't on purpose, and it wasn't totally."
"You did have the hair," said Quinn, laying out a card under his metal mine on his front row. Having a metal mine on your front's already weird, and playing cards directly to it? What's he doing?
He's stalling. Don't fall for it. You have him.
Natalie sighed. She double-checked the hallway, just in case, then—murmuring the spell under her breath—she flickered her hair back to the golden-blonde waves of the Huntress. Natalie held it there for a few seconds, annoyed by the extra effort, before letting it fade and uncurl to her normal straight brown.
"Nah, you look better without it," said Kelsey firmly. "I like normal Jenny."
"Normal Jenny?" she asked pointedly, while she moved Linnethea and her stack of elf warriors forward to her own front line forest, at the edge of her queendom.
"Okay, new-and-improved badass Jenny." Kelsey grinned. "Your eyes are super pretty too. How'd you do that?"
"There's stuff in your eyes," she started to explain. "It's what makes the colors—hang on," she murmured.
"...I send my scout forward." As Quinn started to reach, Natalie kept going. "With Fleet of Foot, so she can go diagonal and skip the metal mine."
The Elven Scout card stopped on the empty farm behind the mine. Quinn was playing a heavy economy deck, between his farms, mines and back line of markets, which let him buy and play a lot of nice cards—but also meant he was really prone to disruption, like she was about to do.
"She pillages the farm. You can't use it next turn."
Quinn groaned. He tossed down his cards. "You won."
Natalie laughed. "I knew it."
"...Wait, what? How'd you just win?" asked Kelsey, confused. She glanced between the two sides. "Doesn't he still have like two turns to bring his guy back?"
"She'd win next turn," said Quinn. "I tried to get her to scout the mine for traps even though there's nothing there, 'cause I just put worthless stuff on it. I needed to use the farm. She realized she could just block me from playing anything next turn since I'm loaded with gold, but I couldn't play any cards without that farm open."
"And with no cards to play, I can just walk right up to his castle and blow the whole place up with Linnethea," said Natalie. She started picking up her cards, very satisfied with herself.
You should be. You did well. You saw the better path to victory.
No thanks to you, she replied, annoyed.
I can only advise. You must lead the way.
"Okay, so I kinda get it," said Kelsey, still staring at the cards while they cleaned up each side. "I'd still rather play an MMO though."
"I've never played one," said Natalie.
"They're okay," said Quinn. "I don't really like them much though. I like turn-based things."
Kelsey shrugged. "It's kinda turn-based."
She shook her head. "Okay, spill the beans now that everybody's gone. You two living together—how'd that happen?"
Natalie's face got red hot again. She looked away. "You already know how. I texted you that night, remember?"
"You just told me you broke in."
"I didn't break in," Natalie shot back, annoyed.
"Okay, snuck in, whatever." Kelsey looked between them excitedly. "Whose idea was it?"
"My parents," said Quinn firmly, shutting her down. Natalie had warned him what Kelsey could get like, and he knew when she was going too far, like now. "They're just looking out for her. Nothing else is going on."
"Oh." Kelsey finally noticed how Natalie was refusing to look at her, and how embarrassed they both looked. "I'm sorry…"
"It's okay!" Natalie said quickly, turning back to her. "Just, you know… it's not really for fun or anything. It's kinda… scary, actually."
"Not living here," she added quickly, while Quinn smirked. "Everything else, you know?"
"Oh… yeah." Kelsey nodded. The doorbell rang. "Well, that's probably Mom. Mama never rings doorbells." She got to her feet. "Just a heads up, Jenny… Blake's been saying some stuff at school."
"Stuff like what?" she asked, surprised. She hadn't even thought about Blake or her sidekick in over a month now.
"Gossippy crap." Kelsey shook her head. "Just ignore it, it's all dumb."
Natalie nodded. "I don't care anyway. I've already got great friends, I don't care what the rest of the school says."
Kelsey grinned. "Yeah you do. Besides, I bet nobody pays attention to her anyway. It's just her and her stupid little friend Lydia." She hurried to the door as the bell rang again. "See you tomorrow!"
Natalie woke up in her new bed on Friday, and for the first time, she didn't panic about where she was. She finally remembered that she was supposed to be under this strange roof, in a scratchy but mostly comfortable bed—she was thinking about buying herself better sheets, but she didn't want to make Quinn's parents feel bad—with the faint sounds of someone making a real breakfast down the hall.
It still didn't feel like home, and she doubted anything ever would until she went back to her real home, but she finally felt comfortable here. So comfortable, in fact, that she actually wore her pajamas out of her bedroom for once. All week, she'd carefully dressed for the day before taking a single step out, making sure she presented the best possible image of herself to Quinn's parents.
Today, she wasn't going to be the weird one at the breakfast table.
As expected, Quinn and Damian were both in pajamas too. Annette was halfway dressed for the day, though she didn't quite have her full professional courtroom attire on yet.
"Unicorns. Very cool," said Damian, giving Natalie a nod. "I'm more of a pegasus guy, personally."
"Dear, please," said Annette, sliding waffles onto his plate.
"I'm going to school today," Natalie announced without preamble.
Damian nodded. "Glad to hear it. Do you need a ride, or are you taking the bus with Q?"
"...I can take the bus."
"Don't let those waffles get cold, Jenny," said Annette, coming back around with a glass of orange juice. "The bus will be here in about thirty minutes, and you don't want to miss it. Damian's driving might make you sick, and then you'd have to wait all the way til Monday again."
As Natalie and Quinn headed outside, school things in hand, her ears caught a snatch of their conversation down the hall before she closed the door.
"...another hospital bill?"
"It'll be fine. I can pick up extra shifts."
"But what about our—"
"We'll just have to put it off…"
The door clicked shut. Quinn hadn't noticed her hesitate. He'd already gone downstairs to the street level, so she hurried to catch up.
Riding the morning school bus was a whole new experience for her. The early city bus was a quiet affair, and even the slightest noise drew annoyed glares from everyone around. In stark contrast, the school bus was practically a party by comparison. In particular, the younger kids toward the front made a whole lot of noise. Natalie and Quinn were early in the route though, and she made it to the back row with only a few loud whispers and pointed fingers before the whole thing filled up. The whole ride would be a piece of cake, compared to packing into the tight city bus with the morning commute.
So she assumed… until she saw who had just boarded just two stops after theirs.
Blake Sinclair didn't notice her, already deep into a tirade over some sixth grader who'd strayed a bit too far into the aisle. Lydia Jennings, only a few steps behind, cackled mercilessly at her jokes. It was so typical of Blake, too—calling out her choice of clothes, her ragged backpack, her messy hair. Just surface-level things… but Natalie, whose eyes were now so much stronger than before, could see the girl's face in the wide mirror hanging just above the windshield.
The other girl was crying.
Why's she crying? They're just saying stupid things about nothing. I wouldn't care if they said stuff like that to me. Natalie had way scarier things to worry about than if Blake Sinclair thought her new pointy ears looked dumb. Which they totally don't. But still… that girl doesn't deserve that. She's just a kid compared to me. Blake's such a… b-word. Someone should say something.
Natalie watched and waited… but nobody moved. The kids in the nearest rows kept chatting or goofing off as if they hadn't heard Blake and her friend. Even the boy sitting next to the girl in the same seat didn't move, or react in the slightest. Quinn, sitting across the aisle from Natalie in the very back row, didn't react either, though it was easily possible he hadn't noticed. Except… he was watching Blake, and his eyes narrowed slightly… and he didn't do anything.
Nobody was helping her, even as they all saw Blake reduce her to tears in the middle of the bus with just a few words.
What if I—
But I could just—
What would you do?
Natalie frowned. The voice wouldn't let her budge. Blake deserves to be cut down a notch, doesn't she?
You aren't involved. Stay secret. Keep to yourself.
I can help her though.
No one helped you.
Natalie stayed where she was, and as the bus finally pulled into the school parking lot and the doors opened wide, she watched—along with the rest of the bus—as the girl bolted away and into the building, as fast as she possibly could.
Nobody mentioned it.
The whispers were back, but to Natalie's surprise, she welcomed them. Suddenly, it was exciting to have the whole school talking about her again. They weren't talking about her scars, her weird home life, or any of the many transgressions she'd made as a new student. They weren't talking about Rallsburg either, or the Awakened, or Hailey's disastrous interview. Nothing dangerous at all. In the perpetually surface-level discussions surrounding the new girl in school, they were finally talking about something she'd wanted to do.
Everywhere she went, Natalie could hear them talking about her ears first and foremost. Before the first bell even rang, she realized they were actually positive. They thought she looked cool. Ducking into the nearest bathroom, Natalie used a mirror and a deft bit of telekinesis to tie up her brown hair with short braids, exposing her ears just a bit more. When she returned to class, the whispers redoubled.
Nobody actually talked to her, of course, and Natalie was perfectly fine with that. She liked the idea of being someone mysterious and cool, but totally unapproachable. If her new appearance combined with the scars kept everyone away, that just made her life all the easier. A nagging memory of a lesson from Boris about staying totally unremarkable replayed in her head—but how much had that helped? She'd tried to stay out of everyone's way, and she'd ended up in situations almost as bad as Rallsburg's last days.
He couldn't have predicted where you'd end up. He might agree with your choice.
Yeah. Plus, Hailey and Cinza and Ryan all changed how they look all the time. It's gotta be okay.
The voice didn't always disagree with her, and when they spoke in unison, Natalie had never felt more confident and self-assured. Since leaving Rallsburg, she'd felt like she was on a topsy-turvy carnival ride like the one her dad had taken her years and years ago, except that she was holding on for dear life and could fall off any second. Up until the voice pushed her to run to Quinn's house, Natalie hadn't truly felt safe in months.
I am you. No need to thank yourself.
You aren't… You're her.
If you wish.
So far, nobody in the school seemed to be guessing the origin of her new look. Based on what she could pick out from the whispers (supposedly out of her earshot), everyone just assumed that she'd always hidden them underneath her long hair. Natalie felt relieved. She'd briefly panicked, just as she had with Quinn's parents, that they'd be suspicious of such a dramatic change—but they were more obsessed with the actual appearance rather than where the ears might have come from.
"So elf-girl," said Kelsey as they stretched on the track, waiting for the teacher to call the start. It was a special day in fourth period gym class, where every student had to run a full mile. Natalie hadn't ever run that far in one go before, but it didn't sound so bad. She had to remember not to use magic, but with how strong her new body felt, Natalie was plenty confident. "I'm still gonna beat you around. Just 'cause you got stronger on your vacation doesn't mean you're better than me yet."
Natalie grinned. "Vacation?"
Kelsey smirked back at her, before taking her spot on the line. "We had to call it something."
"That's a really dumb vacation…"
"Come on! You got to spend the whole week at your boyfriend's house, alone!"
She shook her head, face lighting up a bit. "He's not… oh, whatever." He said it, after all… And I actually said it first… I said I wanted us to be dating, and I do. But I don't even know what a date is. Should we like… go to the movies or something? Except I shouldn't be going out. Going to school was already a bad idea… I wish I knew what to do.
You are afraid.
I don't need your input on me and Quinn, okay? This is weird enough already.
Thankfully, the voice didn't respond. In its place, Natalie heard her name—or rather, Jenny's name, from a few groups behind them, in a not-so-quiet whisper. Blake and Lydia were talking about her, and they had sharper hearing than she'd hoped.
"Jenny and the nerd patrol?"
"Well, duh. They're the only ones who speak her language."
"Only ones who can stand to be around her. You know she ran away from home?"
Wait, how do they know that…?
"I bet her parents couldn't stand her either."
Kelsey whipped around. "Hey, Blake!" Blake looked around, livid that someone interrupted her in mid-flow. "How's your dad handle being around you? I bet he has to wear earplugs around the house so his ears don't bleed."
Her eyebrows arched up like bridges. "At least I have a dad."
Kelsey snickered. "Both my moms could kick your dad's ass any day."
Everyone is watching you now, and listening. You're drawing attention. The wrong kind.
"Kelsey…" Natalie murmured. Whispers were one thing, but this was way too much. She was okay being the odd one out, but she absolutely minded being the center. "Let's just go."
Her friend turned. "But..."
I want to get out of here now. No more Blake.
To Natalie's relief, the gym teacher returned at that moment, and told their group to run. Natalie exploded down the track, faster than she meant to, but she didn't care. She just wanted to get away from the crowd, and the track—which wasn't really a proper track, just a flattened path around the schoolyard that went under trees far away from the building—was her escape. Only nature around her, without a single kid in front. Kelsey fell far behind as Natalie hurtled around the track, her legs pumping hard and fast.
She wasn't getting tired. Despite sprinting full out from the start, Natalie didn't feel exhausted. She definitely felt the strain, but still, it wasn't much harder than the slow jog they'd encouraged everyone to start off with. Before long, and without even much time to think, Natalie was already halfway around the course they'd set up. The gym teacher watched her go, barely paying attention to the next group.
Well, I'm already this far…
As Natalie blew through the finish line, she had to avoid running into the last couple groups who hadn't even started running yet. Her teacher glanced at the stopwatch in a daze.
"Four minutes and thirty seconds…"
Natalie wasn't sure if she should say something.
Walk away. If you talk, you'll become the center again. Retreat.
Natalie hurried to the covered blacktop, while the rest of the kids had to be prompted back into running again. It took another minute or two for Kelsey to join her, panting hard.
"Okay…" she said, taking a drink from her water bottle. Natalie hadn't thought to bring one, but Kelsey had her usual bottle from soccer. "You didn't… have to show off… that much."
"Sorry," Natalie mumbled. "I just really wanted to run."
"What'd you get?" Kelsey was still walking around even though she was breathing so hard, which Natalie thought weird. In the distance, she saw Blake come in only seconds later than Kelsey's time, glaring at Natalie from afar even while she crossed the line red-faced. Natalie ignored her.
"Aren't you tired?" she asked Kelsey.
"Yeah, but coach says it's better to keep moving after a hard run, even if you're super tired. You don't get sore that way."
"Oh." She didn't feel tired at all. "I got four minutes and thirty seconds."
Kelsey stopped dead. "Holy… Jenny, that's like a world record."
Oh no. Natalie glanced around nervously. "I didn't think about it…"
Kelsey shook her head. "I don't know them, I could be totally wrong. But I know that's crazy fast. They're gonna want you to do that again."
"They asked me to when I got the district record for twelve year olds. They're gonna want to make it official." Kelsey looked worried. "Just tell them they were wrong or something. Run slower next time. But not like, too slow, or they'll know you're faking."
You can't show yourself like this.
I know, okay? I screwed up. I know.
Your friend is right. You must lie.
I hate lying… All I do anymore is lie, just in different amounts. I hate this.
It keeps you alive.
"Okay," she said finally. Kelsey looked very concerned about her, and it was making her uncomfortable. "What's left in class?"
"Nothing. Field games, whatever we want." Kelsey grinned. "Wanna destroy the boys in flag football again?"
Natalie didn't, not really. She worried that it might be exactly the wrong move, doing something else that could draw attention and set off her old fears—but she hadn't had an attack like the worst ones since those first few days of school. Besides, she could see the gym teacher still looking at her, waiting until all the kids finished running to come talk to her.
Natalie and Kelsey headed to lunch together, laughing. They walked a short distance apart, always, as Natalie's mind continued to reject even the slightest possible physical contact. Flag football ended up being incredibly difficult for the first couple plays, until Natalie asked to be quarterback. After that, no one could get close to her.
"What's up?" asked Steven, as they slid into their customary seats.
"Jenny's better than me at every sport," said Kelsey, without any malice.
"I'm cheating," said Natalie, but she grinned too. Kelsey had already made it clear that she didn't mind—so long as Jenny never entered her actual soccer league. Their shared secret in gym class was a chance to really mess with the school.
"Every throw, right on target."
Steven frowned. "Jenny…"
"Hey!" Mitch interrupted, leaping into the seat next to Steven's. "Is it true?"
"What?" asked Kelsey.
"That Jenny broke a world record last period."
"What?" asked Steven, eyebrows furrowed.
Natalie's face got red. "...Who'd you hear that from?"
Mitch shrugged. "Dennis, who got it from Lisa, who got it from who cares."
"Did you guys run the mile today?" asked Tyler, looking up from his book.
"It's not true," said Kelsey.
"What, are you saying she couldn't do it?" Mitch shot back.
"Of course she can," Kelsey snapped. "But nobody's supposed to know that, remember?"
"Yeah well," Mitch shrugged, "they already do."
Natalie tried to glance around surreptitiously. She saw more than a few faces looking their way. Uncomfortable again, she tried to shrink down a little behind Kelsey, leaning against the wall. The mini-braids she'd done over her ears weren't quite so fun anymore. "Where's Quinn?" she asked Tyler.
Tyler shook his head. "He had to talk to a teacher about some work he had to make up. He won't be here today."
"Want to play against me instead?" he asked, already reaching for the decks.
"...No, no thanks." At her refusal, Tyler looked crestfallen. Natalie winced. "Can we play after school though? I just… I need to go to the bathroom."
"Huh?" Tyler asked, confused.
Without another word, she hurried away. The guys all looked just as confused as Tyler, though Kelsey just shrugged and went back to eating. Natalie hoped they wouldn't chase after her again, since that would probably just cause more problems… though some small part of her still wanted them to.
She went straight to her old bathroom. There were two girls she vaguely knew, both seventh graders. They were talking about some bank robbery that had happened on Monday, way down in Tacoma. Natalie ignored them, heading straight for her old stall. As soon as the door was closed, she let out a breath she'd been holding since the cafeteria.
Why are you here?
I needed to get away from people for a bit, okay? I'm catching my breath.
This is not a retreat. This is flight. You're hiding.
Yeah, I am. I'm okay with that right now. Leave me alone.
"...heard it had something to do with those 'awakened'."
Natalie's ears perked up. With the faucet off, she could hear the other girls more clearly.
"Shut up! No way."
"Yeah! My brother said so! He said some freaky guy with magic powers robbed the place. He said someone's trying to keep it off the news."
"I thought they were supposed to be the good guys."
"As if! They blew up a town!"
The girls kept arguing as they left. Natalie sat stock-still on the seat, grabbing out her phone and diving through headlines. How'd she missed that? She'd been watching the news all week. She even read the stuff on Rachel's site, though she was pointedly ignoring the blinking message indicator in the corner. She knew by now that Rachel wasn't going to message her, and she definitely didn't want to read anyone else's anymore. Not after they'd all ignored and abandoned her so many times… If somebody really needed her, they could just come find her.
There wasn't anything about a robbery, though. Apparently, no one had noticed this yet. Natalie didn't know what to think about it. She wondered if the robbery had been someone she knew. Julian, maybe? I can't think of anybody else who might rob a bank. Rika's crazy enough, but she's rich. If she's even still alive… nah, she's probably alive. She can do electricity stuff too, and that worked on the golems. It's probably someone new…
The door to the bathroom clicked.
Was that a lock?
Someone's trying to trap you in. Move!
Natalie got up, tucking her phone into her bag and heading for the door. It didn't budge. She tried again, and nothing happened. She reached for the little bar on the door to unlock it, and… it wasn't there.
There was just a tiny round dot where it used to be attached.
Natalie stared at it, fearful. Someone laid a trap for me.
Escape! Get out, now!
She whipped around, looking to the high-set window she'd snuck out through last time.
They could be watching that. You can't risk it.
"So what am I supposed to do?" she asked aloud, hating the total silence in the room. She could hear faint whispering outside, but even now, she couldn't make it out.
They wouldn't expect you to go out the front.
"But it's locked, and I can't get it open."
You've beaten locked doors before.
Natalie shook her head. "Breaking it down would be way worse."
Not Rallsburg. Quinn's door.
Natalie's mental grasp, like a tiny indistinct hand extending from her mind, flew into the door. She felt for the lock mechanism, and found where the lever would have connected to the doorjamb.
She stopped, listening carefully. Nobody seemed to be on the other side anymore, though she couldn't be totally sure. She tried to feel out with her magic, grabbing at random. If there was a space she couldn't grab, then there was probably someone there.
"I think it's okay," she whispered. "I don't feel anyone."
Natalie nodded, reaching into her bag and picking up a couple of gemstones just in case. She still had the emerald tree pendant hanging around her neck, too, tucked away inside her shirt. She'd worn it because it fit with the whole elf idea, but she couldn't access it unless the stone actually touched her skin. Practicality won out, so she'd hidden it away.
She drew a tiny bead of energy out of all three to reassure herself. The little burst of power, really insignificant by any useful measure, felt like a warm friendly glow in comparison to the chilly bathroom in November. She felt it join with the fire of magical energy by her heart, kindling it stronger and brighter. Natalie set her feet, prepared for anything, and shoved the lock aside.
She hurled the door open, as fast as the resistor would allow it to move.
Nobody stood on the other side.
Natalie took a cautious step forward. She glanced down the hall to the left, and saw nobody all the way to the exit doors.
Someone running this way. Quick!
Natalie whipped around, and instinctively drew upon the burning magic inside her. She ducked low, a flame bursting to life just inside the bathroom door and out of sight. She was totally prepared to fling it at anyone who dared approach.
At her fierce glare, Tyler skidded to a fearful, trembling halt.
Tyler? Oh god, what if I'd…
Natalie dismissed the flame in a panic, releasing all the magic she'd summoned. She stood up straight, feeling embarrassed.
Tyler started coughing almost immediately. He fumbled for his inhaler. Natalie took the opportunity to walk over to him, leaning against the wall and waiting for him to speak. It gave her a chance to let the adrenaline pass out of her system, while her heart still pounded in her ears.
"I… was worried… about you," he huffed.
Natalie was surprised. "I'm okay," she reminded.
"I didn't want you to go away again," he mumbled.
…What? She shook her head. "I'm not… I just had to get out of the cafeteria for a bit."
Tyler nodded sagely. "Sometimes it's the worst."
Natalie smiled. "Yeah, it really is."
"But you like hanging out with us, right?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I really do."
Natalie glanced around, confused. She'd been so certain she was about to get attacked, or something at least, but there wasn't anyone in sight. "Tyler, you didn't see anybody else, right?"
"...Okay." Natalie shrugged. I don't want to scare him… and if it's not an attack, then maybe it didn't even have to do with me. Except they waited til I was alone… and they knew my bathroom. Only one person it could be.
"We should go back to the cafeteria," Tyler added, glancing around.
"You go. I'm just going to go to class."
Tyler looked nervous again. "But you didn't eat or anything."
Natalie shrugged. "I'm not really hungry." It's true, too… I should be, but I'm not. I feel like breakfast was enough for the whole day.
His eyes widened. "You're really her."
"They don't have to eat as much because of how their bodies work. They're more efficient and so on. Like, they use energy better."
Natalie frowned. "You mean—"
Tyler looked totally in awe. He almost bowed to her. "Linnethea."
"Tyler, don't say that—"
He shook his head. "It's okay. Your secret's safe. I've always been a friend to the elves."
The bell rang. Tyler had a class far from hers, and hurried away before she could get a single word in. Natalie felt rooted to the ground, while the halls began to fill up with kids all around her. Finally, she got swept away in the current, forced to move before anyone could run into her.
What was that? Does he really think I'm you?
I am you. The sooner you accept this, the sooner we can move forward.
I'm not listening to you.
But you are talking to me.
"Shut up," Natalie muttered, sitting down in her next class. "I'm trying to think."
"Huh?" asked Quinn, taking the desk next to hers.
"Nothing," she said quickly.
You have larger concerns. She's changing tactics. She's going to be a real concern.
Blake's just a stupid bully. It's not like she can do anything.
She could pose a threat. You should not underestimate her.
You're a voice in my head and she's a dumb girl who doesn't know anything about the real world. I can handle her. I'll just ignore her. Unless you've got any better ideas.
The voice didn't respond.
She shivered. Quinn glanced over. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly, while the teacher started into a lesson about quadratic equations.
"Yes," she whispered back. "I'm just cold." Except I'm holding a real conversation with a voice in my head. What's wrong with me?
"Steven said something about gym class."
"It's okay." She hesitated. "I got carried away."
"Oh." Quinn waited, giving her the chance to explain—or not.
Natalie didn't. She couldn't. Being noticed in gym was just one little thing. She could brush it off if she had to. The problem was how many little things were starting to stack up. Blake had decided to start causing problems for her personally. The students were all paying even more attention to her. Her friends were all treating her differently. Her teachers were noticing her more. If the principal got involved again…
You can deal with her.
Natalie shivered again. That was the scariest thing of all. She could hear a voice. An actual voice. Somebody else in her head. It wasn't her. It wasn't a voice she'd ever heard before. She'd first noticed it downtown, three weeks ago to the day—and every day, it got a little bit louder. A little bit stronger.
I'm only here to help you. You don't need to be afraid.
Except, she was afraid. This wasn't something to do with magic, unless Natalie had done it accidentally somehow. A voice in her head was more like… like she was crazy. Like she was starting to go actually insane—just like her mom, whom she could vaguely remember was always talking to herself, barely paying attention to the world. She neglected everything around her for something Natalie didn't understand. Her mom was exactly what everyone else would call crazy.
Just like her dad.
When you need me, I will be here.
Natalie shivered again, and it definitely wasn't from the cold.