Chapter 23 — Like Father, Like Daughter
”I don’t have a father. I had a series of individuals who called themselves my father. It took me a long time to understand that none of them filled the role of ‘parent’. One tried his best, but what man could understand, nurture and guide a girl like me, when I didn’t understand me? A girl born in a land no one could locate, raised in a country no one could agree upon, brought to a city where no one spoke her language, with crimes under her belt no one could prove and weapons no one could find, sent to live in a home for children no one could want.
It’s a wonder I didn’t just go mad.”
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
”What’s going on in here?”
”Who is that?”
”She’s my friend.”
”…What’s your name?”
”Jenny, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to go home now.”
”I’m sorry sir. I didn’t mean anything bad.”
”Dad, it’s the middle of the night! Can’t she just stay the night?”
”It’s okay, I can go home. I live pretty close.”
Natalie ran at her father, throwing her arms around his legs. “Come on, Daaaaaaaaad!”
His stern expression didn’t waver for a second. “Jenny, I’ll walk you home. Get your things and I’ll be back in just a couple minutes, all right?”
”Yes, Mr. Hendricks.”
He left Natalie’s bedroom with the door wide open, but Natalie didn’t care. She was already fuming, and she wanted him to hear. “It’s so not fair. It’s just a sleepover. He’s being a jerk.”
Jenny shrugged, picking up her sleeping bag. “I told you we shoulda asked first.”
”But we were gonna have so much fun. What if…” Natalie glanced at the open door. “What if you sneak back in? I can prop open the office window and you can come in after Dad locks up. He doesn’t know I found the spare key. We could have a sleepover in there.”
”I dunno…” Jenny looked uncertain. She stopped trying to get the band around her sleeping bag, sitting back against the bed. “I think I should just go home.”
”I didn’t ask my parents either,” she confessed.
Natalie didn’t have anything to say to that. If neither of them asked their parents, they were probably both in big trouble. Jenny was going to get yelled at by her dad as soon as she got home. At least we’ll get yelled at together…
She clapped her hands together. “I know. I’ll ask for permission as a birthday present.”
”Really?” said Jenny, surprised. “When’s your birthday?”
”Next week. July fourteenth.” Natalie grinned. “I’m gonna be eleven!”
”Really?” Jenny smiled. “That’s so cool! That’s my birthday too!”
”Birthday buddies!” Natalie cried, hugging Jenny. “But aren’t you turning twelve?”
”Yeah, but so what? Close enough!”
”So we’re totally having a sleepover on our birthday,” said Natalie firmly.
”And we’re totally having it here,” agreed Jenny. “Your house is so cool.”
”Our place back in Chicago was cooler,” said Natalie. “It had better A/C so it wasn’t so hot. And I had way more books there.”
”I dunno. It was a big city. I don’t remember it really well. It’s far away though.”
Jenny shrugged. “The only city I know is Olympia. I hate going there. We only go there if we have to go to the dentist.”
A soft knock on the door. Natalie could just barely see her dad around the corner. “Jenny, it’s time to go home now.”
”Okay, Mr. Hendricks.”
Natalie gave her another hug, and Jenny returned it. “See you tomorrow.”
It only took about fifteen minutes for her dad to walk Jenny home and return. Most people in Rallsburg lived pretty close to each other, except for the farmers and a couple other people, like the Price family or mean old Robert Harrison. Not that Natalie knew many of them. She’d lived in Rallsburg for a whole three years, and she’d only really met two other people.
Mrs. Nichols was her teacher during the fall months when the university was in session. Natalie didn’t like her much. She was super strict and bossy, and she had that weird old person smell. Her dad’s assistant Neffie Bowman was much better, but Natalie never got to talk to her much. She seemed really cool, but Natalie only saw her when she came in to talk to her dad about business. The first time, she’d introduced herself and given Natalie a little toy, but every time after that it was just a quick wave and a smile. Natalie didn’t know why, but Neffie hadn’t ever really spoken to her since then.
So when Natalie found out, after three years living in Rallsburg, that there was actually another kid around her own age? She was ecstatic.
”Dad, she’s my friend!” she cried, as her dad took off his jacket and set it in the closet.
”How did you meet her?” he asked quietly.
Natalie hesitated. She expected him to be angry, not quiet. Quiet was way scarier. Then she remembered: she wasn’t supposed to be in that part of town. Still, Natalie couldn’t lie. Not to her dad. So she didn’t answer.
”…I thought so,” he said. He knelt down in front of her at eye level. “Natalie, I told you. It’s not safe to go out there alone. You could get hurt—or worse, and I might not be around to protect you.”
”It’s okay, Dad. Jenny knows the town really well, and she knows the doctor and the sheriff and everyone. They can help if I got hurt or whatever.”
”We don’t know that they’re good people.”
Natalie hesitated. She didn’t really follow his words. “What do you mean?”
He sighed. “Natalie, don’t go out there alone again.”
”I said no, Natalie.”
Natalie sat down on her bed, pouting. “Why?”
He shook his head. “Because you’re the most precious thing in the world, turtle, and I’m your father.” He got up. “I’m going to make some macaroni for dinner. Are you hungry?”
She was, but she still felt angry. “No.”
”Okay.” He paused before leaving the room, and glanced back over his shoulder. Natalie looked away, not wanting to meet his eyes. For the moment, she hated him. “Natalie?”
”What?” she said sullenly.
”I love you.”
”Love you too.” Natalie grabbed up a book from the shelf by her bed and clicked on the light. A little while later, she heard her dad walk away.
Quinn stood up between his dad and Natalie. She hadn’t moved, still holding her bag in her lap. Luckily, she’d closed it before he looked in, or he might have seen the inside expanding far beyond the dimensions of the little bag.
”Dad—” Quinn started.
”Honey, what’s going on?” asked Quinn’s mother, finally coming into view. She brushed brown hair out of tired eyes, her face pale and visibly exhausted even in the dim light. At the sight of Natalie in the bed, she dropped her luggage. “What on earth?”
”…Hi,” said Natalie. She glanced around, but again, there wasn’t anywhere to run to. Unless she wanted to barrel right through Quinn’s parents standing in the doorway, she was pretty much trapped. Unless I want to jump out another window… One was scary enough.
”She’s just a friend from school,” Quinn added quickly. Just a friend…? Natalie wondered, before she remembered that was silly. It’s not like they’d really said anything else. Yet. If he ever would after this mess.
”What’s she doing in our guest room?”
”I’m sorry,” Natalie murmured, though only Quinn actually heard her.
”What?” asked Quinn’s mother.
Natalie cleared her throat. She was still a bit wonky from only waking up a couple minutes ago, even with the huge burst of adrenaline. “I didn’t mean to be any trouble.”
”I told her she could stay here over the weekend,” Quinn lied.
His dad smiled. They have the same nice smile. “And you didn’t tell her when we’d be home? I’m disappointed. You should be better at planning than that.”
Quinn’s mom sighed with exasperation, glancing at her husband. “Dear…”
He nodded. His smile faded. “Q, you really should’ve asked us first.”
”I know,” said Quinn, shamefaced.
”It’s my fault,” Natalie cut in. “I didn’t give him a lot of time.” About thirty seconds, give or take…
His dad took a step forward, and suddenly the hallway light wasn’t blocked anymore. It hit Natalie full in the face, and she recoiled.
In unison, all three pairs of eyes jumped to the left side of her face. Natalie turned, but it was too late. They’d all seen the scar. Seen her.
”…Q, could you go wait in the living room, please?” asked his mother.
”We just need to talk to your friend for a minute,” added his father, after a glance at his wife. “Don’t worry.”
Quinn shot a worried look at Natalie, but he retreated from the room. Quinn’s mother approached and sat down on the edge of the bed—and Natalie tried her absolute best to inch away without being noticed. It didn’t work.
”What’s your name?” she asked, not unkindly.
”Jenny. Jenny Heshire.”
Natalie thought she saw a flicker of recognition cross her face, but she couldn’t be sure. “And you go to Jenkins with Q?”
”Yeah.” Natalie took a deep breath. “I didn’t ask him permission. I kinda broke in.”
Quinn’s dad laughed. “We know. Honestly, you actually solved a mystery for us. The security company our block pays for called when you broke in on Friday.”
”I kept worrying it might be something worse, but Annette insisted it was probably a glitch. Guess we were both wrong.”
Annette sighed. “Every single other time, it’s been a false alarm. I was going by statistics, Damian. Which was your favorite move on every single claim you ever worked.”
”Jenny,” continued Damian, dropping down to a crouch in front of her. Natalie managed to resist backing away for once, though it helped that he had pointedly stayed a fair distance away. They caught on quick. Just like Quinn does. “We’re not mad, okay? We just want to know what’s going on.”
”Nothing,” she answered automatically, to a synchronized eye-roll from both of his parents. Natalie realized she didn’t know anything about Quinn’s parents, which made trying to talk her way out of this little trap a great deal more difficult. She wondered again if she should just make a run for it, try her luck again.
You know what will happen if you try that.
”Jenny dear, we weren’t born yesterday,” said Annette. She reached out a hand to touch Natalie on the shoulder. Natalie could feel it coming like her hand was on fire. She tried to resist, but as soon as it was within a few inches, Natalie moved away again.
To her surprise, Annette didn’t look surprised, or upset, or confused, or any of the other emotions she usually saw. She had a sort of grim satisfaction on her face, something Natalie had seen on Rachel—and on her dad too, way back.
Damian spoke up. “Do you live nearby?”
”Do your parents know you’re here?”
Which ones? “No.”
He frowned. “But you’ve been gone since Friday, right? Don’t you think they’re out looking for you?”
Well, Dad might be… wherever he is. Natalie shook her head. “They probably haven’t even noticed. They never notice when I’m gone.”
”Do you want to go home?”
Yes. But you can’t get me there. “…No.”
Annette glanced at her husband, having another private conversation with only a few looks that Natalie couldn’t understand. He nodded.
Annette spoke up. “Jenny, you know that breaking in isn’t okay, right?”
She nodded. “I’m sorry. I just… I didn’t know where else to go.”
”Well, thanks for not breaking anything on your way in,” Damian added with a grin.
”Would you like to stay here for the rest of the weekend?” asked Annette. “No one sleeps in here, so you’re welcome to it.”
Natalie was too nervous to feel any kind of relief. Is this actually happening? “…Yes, please,” she whispered.
His dad stood up, a wide grin on his face. “We were going to have french toast in the morning. How do you feel about bacon?”
”I love bacon.”
”Do you need anything?” Annette asked. “Blanket? Toothbrush? More pillows?”
”No, thank you,” she whispered. She still felt too nervous to raise her voice above a whisper. It felt too good to be true. She sat up straight, and the light from the hallway hit her again, but this time it didn’t feel so harsh and revealing.
”You have beautiful eyes,” added Damian. “I’ve never seen anyone with purple eyes like that before.”
Natalie had totally forgotten about her new eye color in all the commotion. Now that his parents had seen them, she couldn’t exactly change them back, and she doubted they’d believe she was wearing those special colored contacts or something. Especially since she had just been asleep, in pajamas and everything. “…Thanks?”
”Don’t mind him,” said Annette, rolling her eyes again. “It’s his job to be nice to pretty girls.”
”Don’t forget the pretty guys, too,” added Damian.
”Huh?” asked Natalie, totally lost.
”My husband decided to waste his bachelor’s and his career by becoming a bartender,” said Annette, nudging him in the arm.
”You say waste, I say expand.”
”My neighbor was a bartender,” said Natalie, thinking back to John Bell. He’d lived in the house closest to theirs back home. “He was the nicest guy. He used to give me free french fries.”
”Tricks of the trade,” said Damian with a wink. “I know that move.”
”Dear, before you embarrass yourself, we really should let Jenny get back to sleep.”
Damian nodded. “Jenny, if you need anything, we’re right at the end of the hall, okay? Just knock on the door. Don’t worry about waking us up, either.”
”Thank you so much,” she whispered.
He glanced back over his shoulder. “Quinn!”
In an instant, Quinn appeared in the doorway. “Yes?”
”How far away is our living room…?” asked Annette pointedly.
”There’s no door, so it’s all one room, right?” said Quinn.
Damian laughed. “Jenny can stay the weekend.”
Quinn threw his arms around his dad. “You’re the best, Dad!”
His parents walked out of the room. “Lights out in ten minutes, Q,” he added. “And remember that you still have homework to do for Monday.”
”Yeah, I know.”
As soon as they were gone, Quinn sat down on the end of the bed with a huge grin on his face. “I can’t believe they said yes!”
Natalie’s eyes drooped. Now that the adrenaline and relief had both worked through her system, she was starting to feel the fatigue again. She tried to resist it, since she finally had a few minutes alone with Quinn and no one else around, and no huge pressing danger looming over her head like a storm cloud. It didn’t matter. The sandman was coming for her again.
Quinn noticed, too. “Natalie, you okay?” he said, his voice low.
She nodded. “Yeah. Just tired.”
”You changed… uhh, everything. What happened?”
Natalie glanced down—at her new golden-blonde hair, the muscles on her arms and legs, plus the changes she couldn’t even see like her ears and her eyes. “I dunno. I was trying out something new and I kinda got carried away.”
”You kinda look like an elf,” he whispered.
”I didn’t mean to do that, it just kinda happened.”
He grinned. “I think you look amazing.”
Natalie’s heart fluttered a little, but she had other concerns on her mind. “But what about your parents? Aren’t they gonna think this is weird?”
”I mean, they already mentioned your eyes and that didn’t change much right?” He shrugged. “It’ll be okay.”
”You were listening?” she said pointedly, grinning.
”‘Course I was. Wouldn’t you?” he said defensively.
”…Yeah.” Actually… Natalie wondered what his parents were saying right then. She was pretty sure they’d be talking about her, and she wanted to know what they were saying. Just in case. But I can’t just do that in front of Quinn. Spying on his parents… They’re such nice people, too. But I have to know. “Hey Quinn?”
She let her exhaustion show, even though a fresh burst of fear and trepidation had her awake again for a little while. “I’m really tired.”
”Oh!” He quickly got up and went to the open door. “Yeah. Sorry.”
”Thanks again. For you know. Everything.”
Quinn nodded. “Anytime.” He smiled slightly. “See you tomorrow, Natalie.”
She smiled back, and he closed the door behind him. Immediately, Natalie murmured the spell she needed, shifting the sounds around the house. She remembered where the master bedroom was, and soon enough she could hear the rush of water from the faucets as Quinn’s parents brushed their teeth, and the slight echoes from the bathroom tile. It took her a few tries to filter out the loud noise, but just as she thought she’d figured it out the noise stopped anyway, and she could hear their voices clearly. As she’d expected, Quinn’s parents were talking about her.
”…really just break in? They said nothing was damaged at all…”
”Well, Q has the only spare key, and it was still in the bowl. So you tell me,” said Annette, exasperated.
”Maybe we left the balcony door unlocked.”
”And she climbed up the wall, did she?”
”I’m just spitballing.”
”Does it really matter?” Annette sighed. “What matters is what we do about her.”
”Well, she can just stay here, can’t she?”
”For how long?”
”As long as she likes. I mean… you saw her face… My god…”
”Dear, we can’t legally keep her. And money’s tight enough as it is after this week…”
He sighed. “I know. We should call your friend… what’s his name—”
”David Hoskins, and friend is a bit of a stretch.”
”He’s done a few child abuse cases though, right?”
”Yes. I’ll definitely give him a call tomorrow. I don’t know anything about this, and it’s not like I have a firm to back me up.”
”When I saw her face—”
”Who does that to a little girl?”
”She’s not that little, Damian.”
”Who does that to anyone?”
They were silent for a couple minutes, as they finished getting ready for bed. Natalie heard rustling of covers, the click of a lamp, other noises she couldn’t identify. She was about to give up and give into exhaustion herself when Damian spoke up again.
”Well, she’s not what I expected.”
What? Did Quinn… did Quinn tell them things about me?
”We only ever saw the one photo.”
”And she had brown hair, didn’t she?”
”That’s really what you got stuck on, dear?”
”Well, it’s a pretty dramatic shift.”
”Hair coloring is still trendy. Don’t you get plenty of regulars with crazy hair colors?”
”Yeah, but they don’t usually come out that well.”
”Ah, so you just get the amateurs.”
Damian laughed. “She seems like a nice girl.”
”But at thirteen?” asked Annette exasperatedly.
”I went on dates at thirteen. It’s harmless.”
”Not if she’s suddenly moving in.” Annette made a strange noise, like a cough. “I don’t think you were living with your girlfriend at thirteen.”
”Oh, come on, it’s obviously not like that.”
”Girlfriend was his word, not mine.”
He… he what? Natalie lost track of the spell as her mind exploded. Confusion and so many other mixed emotions flooded into her. She felt like she’d just been pulled under the ocean by a tidal wave. He called me… and he told his parents? What? I don’t… He said what?
By the time she unscrambled her brain enough to cast it again and listen in, the whole house was silent. Only the faint sound of breathing and the hum of the electronics and appliances, along with the endless uneven chaos of the city surrounding them. Natalie lay awake staring at the ceiling for a very long time, listening to sirens and horns, the occasional incomprehensible shouting, the random thumps and drones. It was muffled at least, compared to the last night she’d spent in the city, but still it kept her awake.
Yup, definitely the city keeping me awake. And all the stuff about magic. And my dad. Not Quinn. Nothing about Quinn, or that I’m his… oh.
But he called me his…
But I… We’re…
Natalie pressed her face into the pillow and pulled another one over her head, pressing it against her ears, desperate to fall asleep. Her mind kept going in circles, over and over, rapidly switching between hatred, confusion, warmth, relief, joy. All the while, more than anything in the world, she wished she had Gwen and Percy there with her. She could talk to them without fear of screwing things up, and it wouldn’t be so horribly complicated and confusing.
When did my life get so crazy…? Natalie thought as she finally drifted into sleep, where the nightmares came again, as they always did—the one reliable part of her insane life.
The smell of bacon wafted through the room. Natalie’s eyes snapped open. Bacon. I like bacon. But why is there bacon today?
She got up and pulled on some socks, sliding across the wood floor to the door and pulling it open in one easy motion. She still had some momentum, and plowed right into the man on the other side, who had just been about to open it.
”…Breakfast is ready,” he announced, as Natalie bounced off and nearly fell over.
”Pancakes?” she asked excitedly.
Natalie skipped right past her father and down the hall, where a plate and syrup were waiting. The pancake even had a little smiley face drawn in it from the batter, just like she always loved, and the bacon was just the right balance of crispy and soft.
”Thank you,” she said through a mouthful as he sat down next to her at their little table. It was barely big enough for just the two of them, but she didn’t mind.
”Anytime,” he said, reaching up to dab off a bit of syrup with a napkin. Natalie took it out of his hand and did it herself, rolling her eyes.
”Did my new book come yet?” she asked, remembering to clear her mouth this time.
”It should be here by now. I’ll stop by the post office after breakfast, okay?”
”What book did you get this time?”
Natalie shook her head. “It’s a secret.”
He laughed. “What’s on the agenda for today, turtle? Heading out to Castle Hendricks?”
She rolled her eyes. “Stop calling me that.”
”Not in a million years.”
”Can I call you giraffe?”
”I wish I was that tall.” He leaned over and ruffled her hair. Sometimes that annoyed her, but right now she didn’t mind. “I made you a lunch. It’s on the counter in your bag.”
”Peanut butter and jelly?”
”I think you’ll be surprised.” He smiled cryptically. “Finish your pancakes.”
As soon as her dad left for the day, Natalie grabbed the lunchbox off the counter. She wasn’t about to head out to her fort without knowing what was inside. Sure enough, there was a peanut butter and jelly, as she’d expected, but underneath in the little pocket were a few packed up chocolates, along with a note.
The Birthday Fairy is coming. Leave her a wish and she’ll make sure it gets to you. But don’t wait too long!
Natalie rolled her eyes again, but she smiled anyway. Her dad hadn’t forgotten her eleventh birthday. He never did, even when she really hated him. She gathered up her jacket and her best shoes and set off for the day, through the backyard and onto the little path that lead into the forest.
She knew there was no such thing as a birthday fairy. Her dad was just being silly. But still, he’d always gotten her exactly what she wanted for her birthday. One year it was a bike and lessons on riding it, another was a particular book she’d been wanting to read for years (she really wasted her wish that year…). The best, of course, was the fort she’d wished for on her tenth birthday. Her dad always came through.
The fort came into view—a sort of half-treehouse, half lean-to built into a massive old oak that had tumbled over long ago. The lumberjacks had rejected it for one reason or another, so it had been left to settle into the ground, where it continued to grow in a strange sideways pattern. The main arch formed the second floor of her fort, while the entrance and the first floor filled the space underneath. Her dad spent a whole week designing it with her, and another week building it. Natalie even got to help, learning all about hammering in nails, staining and finishing wood, tools, what designs would work and what wouldn’t.
She climbed over the fence around the door and entered the cave-like bottom floor, where she had a little folding chair in the dry, dusty corner. Rain in the Olympic forest could come in huge downpours out of nowhere, so having a covered area was always important. Even though the second floor of the fort had a roof, the rain liked to blow in from the sides too, so the bottom was covered by a tarp she could raise and lower with a rope tied to the side. It was hard, but she was just strong enough to pull it off.
Natalie liked to think of it as her little castle. Sure, it didn’t really look anything like a castle—it was way too square and flat, without any cool turrets like the big abandoned library, and made mostly of wood and metal screws and stuff—but it was hers. Even her dad wasn’t allowed in without her permission.
She spent most of the day out there, since she didn’t really have anything else to do. Maybe she would have spent the day with Jenny, but she didn’t dare go out to that part of town again. Natalie knew better than to push her luck.
So she made up games alone. She climbed the trees, she worked on making the new extension to the first floor with some plywood she’d found sitting around unused. She practiced shooting her slingshot and her makeshift bow at water bottles and pinecones all around from the second floor. The bowstring kept snapping before she could really loose an arrow, and the stick she was using was warping too much to really work right.
Maybe that’s what I should wish for… Natalie had always wanted to learn how to shoot a bow, ever since she’d gotten addicted to stories with princesses in hiding that had to learn how to fight. She liked to pretend that was why they moved out to somewhere so far away, in the middle of nowhere. She was Princess Hendricks, living in her little castle on the other side of the world because someone had chased them away from Chicago, and one day she’d go back to find her mom and reclaim her home.
Not that she really wanted to go back to the city. The forest was way more fun. She wished her mother had come with them, but her dad insisted it was for the best—that her mom wasn’t ‘safe’. After the time Natalie had to spend in the hospital though, she believed him. It was her fault… wasn’t it?
At least it’s summer. No homework. No listening to Mrs. Nichols’ annoying voice all day. I can do whatever I want.
Which, as it turned out, ended up being games. Just games on her phone, since it started raining halfway through the day. She stayed camped out under the tarp, enjoying the sound of the rain pattering on the roof of her fort. She even turned off the sound on her phone, playing in silence while the storm moved in overhead.
Weird that it’s raining today though… If Natalie remembered right, it didn’t usually rain much in July. Sure, a huge downpour could always come out of nowhere—that was just one of the little exciting things about Rallsburg that Natalie loved—but this seemed more random than usual, and a lot heavier.
She checked the time on her phone, and to her shock, it was already past eight. Somehow, she’d been out all day without even noticing. The sun was starting to go down, but it was hard to tell from inside the thick canopy and her fort.
It was raining way too hard to go home yet though. Natalie could see an actual river starting to form nearby, as rainwater gathered up and rushed downhill. Luckily, thanks to the tree they’d picked out, the fort was safe from flooding, but it did make leaving a bit hard.
It’s almost like a moat, she realized, a grin spreading on her face. My castle had a moat the whole time!
She thought about calling her dad, but the signal was always pretty bad this far way. The cell phone tower was on the opposite side of the town, up north by the train station, and Natalie’s phone was an old used one that always dropped calls anyway. She sent a text, but it hovered at ‘sending’ endlessly.
A bright light flashed overhead, followed by a huge bolt of lightning and a roll of thunder. Natalie looked up, surprised. Lightning storms were pretty rare, too—especially compared to back in Chicago. She’d only seen one storm since they moved. She watched eagerly for the next crack of lightning, but she didn’t see it.
She heard it. Close. Way too close.
The flash nearly blinded her, as lightning whipped through the trees nearby. It struck the branch of an oak a few hundred feet away, and the whole thing exploded. A blackened stump halfway up the trunk was all that remained.
Natalie stepped back inside, afraid. Another lightning bolt shot by, and then another. Lightning doesn’t do that. It comes from the sky.
What’s going on? Where’s Dad?
She sent another text, but it was stuck just like the first one.
”Stop it!” someone shouted. “Please, Jack!” It was answered by another earsplitting whip-crack. Natalie took cover in the corner of her fort, pulling down the covering over the front so it was totally enclosed, and she waited.
A noise like a rushing wind. Footsteps, and the sound of a huge crash. Thumps. Another lightning crack.
Natalie stayed right where she was, imagining all sorts of monsters doing battle outside her little fort. It went on for half an hour while she watched her phone, waiting for it to finally get through and send the texts. But it never did, and as the sounds faded away, Natalie couldn’t wait any longer.
She pulled open the tarp, just an inch at first. The covering on the extension to her fort had fallen a bit, blown away by something. The rain was letting up, so Natalie took a few cautious into the open, wincing at the heavy drops falling off the edge of the second floor coverings.
Natalie twisted around. A stray cat hissed at her. It was cowering in the corner of the second floor, taking shelter from the storm and whatever else had just happened. She rushed to climb up, but it bolted away before she could get near, leaping off the side and landing in the underbrush. It slipped a little on the wet leaves, but in moments it had sprinted out into the forest.
Natalie paid it no mind, because she’d seen something else. A piece of paper, yellow-brown and ancient, was caught against the railing on the second floor. She picked it up, curious, using her phone’s flashlight to see it clearly in the dusk.
Her eyes caught the first word, and everything stopped.
The world froze in time around her. Even the raindrops seemed to be stuck in mid-air, but Natalie could only barely see them out of the corners of her eyes. None of it mattered. All that mattered was the page. It was like she’d stepped into a new world. Her eyes traced the letters, the strange curves that she couldn’t begin to describe, but somehow understood.
What’s going on? she wondered, but her eyes kept sliding across the page. Even if she wanted to stop, she couldn’t—and Natalie definitely didn’t want to stop. It was better than anything she’d ever read, and as she kept going, her mind felt like it was expanding outward. She was leaving her own body, watching herself hold up the page while she floated away into space, into the forest.
The animals were waiting for her. The owl sleeping in the tree above her. The hawk taking shelter from the rain. The squirrels and the rabbits searching for food, and the cougar hunting them. The black bear and her cub way down by the stream, looking for fish. The salmon that swam past unaware, and the osprey about to dive to catch one of them. The beavers building a home further up the stream. On and on, so many of them in every direction, living in a perfect cycle, totally unaware of Natalie’s presence watching them from afar.
She reached the end of the page. Her mind reeled in as if on a fishing line, yanked back through the forest to crash into her skull. She blinked rapidly, staring down at the page in her hand again, where sat words she still couldn’t read. But something was different.
Natalie could feel it. It was a warmth in her chest, close to her heart. Something had lit a little fire there, crackling away in a happy little dance—like something she was always supposed to have, but no one had ever bothered to light it until now. She’d been missing it and hadn’t ever known it was gone, until it suddenly burst into life.
What was that? she wondered. She went back down to the bottom floor and set the page into a dry spot near the base of the trunk, intending to look at it more and figure out what just happened.
The growl came out of nowhere. Natalie whipped around, but no one was inside. He was outside. It took a moment for her to remember the voice, but she’d definitely heard it before.
She picked up her slingshot, since her bow was still broken, and loaded a pinecone. Armed and ready, she leaned out cautiously.
Robert Harrison held up his hands in surrender, his brown eyes twinkling behind the huge bushy black beard. “Ye got me,” he joked.
”This is my castle,” Natalie said firmly. “Nobody’s allowed ‘cept me and my Dad. And maybe Jenny.”
”Pretty short list.”
”It’ll get bigger. I don’t have many subjects yet.”
”Subjects, eh? So this is your queendom?”
Robert’s thick beard crinkled up in a smile. “Queendom. Like a kingdom, but ye’re a queen, so it’s a queendom.”
Natalie shook her head. “I’m a princess. The queen isn’t here right now.”
”Ah, gotcha.” Robert shrugged. “Well, princess, ain’t it a bit late for you to be out here all alone?”
She wanted to say no, just to spite him, but it was late—way later than she usually stayed out, and her dad was probably worried sick. Plus, after everything that just happened… She lowered the slingshot and let go of the pinecone.
He nodded. “Come on. Let’s get ya home, alright?”
Natalie glanced over her shoulder at the inside of the fort, where the little page sat out of sight. She tied down the entrance cover, so that it wouldn’t blow away and none of the animals would get inside. “…Okay.”
By the time they got back to Natalie’s house, night had settled in. The front light was on, and as they approached, her dad sprinted out of the door.
She ran up and hugged him, and he gathered her up tight.
”Are you okay? What happened?”
”Storm,” she said. He was hugging her too tight, so she couldn’t get a whole lot out. “At my castle.” He finally realized what he was doing and let her down, crouching down to eye level. “I was really scared,” she whispered.
”It’s okay,” he said, gathering her up for a much nicer hug this time. “You’re safe now.”
”She weren’t scared at all,” Robert commented. “Held down the castle like a pro.”
Her dad glanced up. “…Harrison, right?”
”Yup. I happened on her little fort while I was out checkin’ for slides. Your little girl’s a fighter. Ain’t no freak storm takin’ her down.”
”Thank you.” He let go of Natalie. “Go inside, Natalie. Dinner’s on the table. Eat whatever you like, okay?”
As Natalie walked away, she paused for a minute just inside the door, listening in on their conversation. She wanted to know what Robert might say about her—and if he’d seen the little page of parchment she’d found and hidden inside.
”…Really, Brian, it was nothin’.” Robert paused. “But you’re lucky it weren’t some of the less seemly types ’round here.”
”What do you mean?”
”I mean that some folks ain’t all there in the head. Small town, you get those kind here. ‘Specially this time of year when there ain’t no college in session. University folks’re all arrogant pricks but at least they’re sane.”
”Relax. There’s plenty o’good men and women still, like Jackie. Just… be careful, y’hear?”
Natalie privately disagreed with Robert. She’d met more than a few people in town and never run across anyone ‘not there in the head’… but her dad was nodding along. He believed the gruff older man.
I’m never gonna get to have that sleepover… Natalie trudged inside, where dinner was waiting on their little table. A couple pieces of pizza, obviously cold. She went into the kitchen, got out the little stool and put it into the microwave to warm up.
Right around the time she was finishing the first piece, her dad came in. He warmed up his own slices and sat down next to her. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned in for the hug even though she didn’t really feel like it. Still, after everything in the forest, getting a hug, a warm meal and a safe house around her was comforting.
”You okay, turtle?”
”Yeah, dad.” She wanted him to see her as the tough kid, like Robert said. Maybe he’d loosen up a bit if he thought she could take care of herself. Let her have friends over, let her go wherever she wanted. Not that she didn’t already, but it’d be nice if she didn’t have to be so sneaky about it.
”Is the pizza okay? I tried something different with the dough this time.”
She nodded. Her dad was always nervous about his pizza, but it had turned out all right. “It’s really good, Dad.”
After dinner, to her delight, he sat down at his drum set in the corner and began to tap out a rhythm. Something about it was just so fun to listen to, and he could get really creative. Plus, since they weren’t next to other people like in the city, they could be as loud as they wanted without worrying about annoying anybody. She got up on the stool for the keyboard and tapped out notes to go along with it. It wasn’t a real song (though she did know a few), just whatever came to mind. Her dad always encouraged that, playing whatever she felt like playing. He said that was the real spirit of music, not just sticking to the notes on the page that people had figured out years and years ago.
Natalie didn’t exactly agree, since she really liked how those old songs sounded, but it was fun to make up something on the fly with her dad. Still, she didn’t last long. Something else was pressing on her mind, something she didn’t quite understand. Something inside her was changing, shifting, growing. She could feel it flickering back to life, like it had been hiding ever since Robert found her, waiting for her to feel safe again.
She turned the keyboard off. Her dad looked up, but she just waved at him to keep going, gesturing to her room. She left the door open to listen, and to drown out anything else that might happen—because she really didn’t know what was about to happen.
In the darkness of her bedroom, with only a tiny sliver of the moon shining in the window, Natalie tried again. She tried to recreate that feeling from the forest, how her mind had disconnected from her body for a moment. The flame inside her flickered and grew, a little larger, a little warmer. She flew out into the open, a part of her leaving her head and floating into the air.
There was a cat. Not any kind of cat, though—a cougar. She didn’t know how she knew it was a cougar, since it was way out in the forest. Natalie’s head whipped around to the window. She could see it, clear as day in the middle of the night. The rest of the forest may as well have been a completely black wall, but she could see the big cat, bronze-furred and prowling the thick woods for a last meal before it went back to sleep.
Natalie called out, barely audible under the drums from the other room. <Hi there.>
The cat twisted around and looked straight back at her.
It heard me! Natalie tried again, speaking in the way that the page had taught her. Letting her mind fly out and touch the cougar’s, making sure it understood her.
Her knees buckled at the strain. Suddenly, Natalie felt like she’d just sprinted the whole distance there, even though she hadn’t moved at all, but the big cat heard her. He began to pad through the trees, slowly approaching her bedroom window. She pushed it open.
<What’s your name?> she asked.
The cat just stared at her. She got a sensation in her head, a feeling. Like he had no clue what she was asking. How do I know it’s a he…? she wondered. She was absolutely sure, but still… <Are you a he?> she asked.
The mountain lion nodded its head.
Cats don’t nod…
<You understood that?>
It nodded again.
The cat looked down at the ground for a few seconds, then back up. She could have sworn its pale yellow eyes rolled at her.
<Sorry… but… You’re a cat.>
Natalie reached out of the window. She’d been warned about mountain lions, and this one was pretty big. Even so, she knew he wouldn’t hurt her. He leaned forward, and she scratched between his ears where she knew he’d like it the most.
The drumming stopped.
Natalie panicked. <Run!> Her new friend bolted, straight back into the woods. Natalie went over to her desk, just in case her dad was about to walk in. Sure enough, his shadow approached the door, and she realized she hadn’t closed the window.
But if I run over there to close it, he’ll see me.
In a moment of panic, she wished with all her might that it was closed—and with a loud snap, the window slammed down into place. Natalie’s mind released her grip on the edges just as her dad walked in the room.
He looked over at the window curiously, but since Natalie was on the other side of the room, she couldn’t have closed it. She smiled innocently. “Did my new book come?”
”Yeah.” He handed it over. Somehow, though, it just wasn’t that interesting to her anymore. He paused. “Did you make a wish for the Birthday Fairy yet?”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Not yet, Dad.”
”Well, don’t wait too long, or she might not be able to get it in time.”
He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Goodnight, turtle. See you tomorrow.”
”Goodnight. I love you, Dad.”
The door swung closed behind him, and in an instant Natalie was on her feet again. She tried over and over to open the window without touching it, but it wouldn’t budge. Still, she wasn’t about to let that stop her. She knew she could do it again.
The only thing she worried about was her dad finding out. Natalie didn’t think he’d let her keep this… whatever it was. Maybe he would. He was always okay with her learning to protect herself, or going out in the woods alone. He was scared of people, not things.
But even so…
Natalie shook her head. She just wouldn’t worry about it for now. It was fun, and it wasn’t hurting anyone, so she could just keep it to herself.
After a whole hour of trying, the window budged—just an inch, but she still had to stop herself from shouting in joy.
Natalie grinned. This is gonna be fun.
The smell of bacon and cinnamon swirled through the bedroom.
Dad’s making bacon and pancakes again…?
Her eyes drifted open, staring at an unfamiliar wall, in an unfamiliar bed. It took her a minute to remember where she was, and that she was safe there.
The door was closed tight. Apparently, Natalie had forced it to grow slightly to wedge into the frame overnight, in the same way as a spell she’d read about. She wondered if any of the Kincaids had tried to open it during the night. Hurriedly, she made it shrink again, as quietly as she could, then made the bed. She changed out of her pajamas and opened up her purse wide, trying to pick clothes they might consider normal.
She ended up wearing one of her nicer plain dresses, with shorts and warm leggings underneath to stave off the chill of Quinn’s place. In the mirror, Natalie still resembled a young version of the elf warrior—golden-blonde hair, purple eyes, pointed ears and everything… except for the scar she couldn’t change. Natalie thought about reversing everything, going back to how she looked before, but she felt like that would just raise more questions from the Kincaids—if she could even do it right.
She stepped away, about to leave the room, but stopped. Reluctantly, she grabbed out her thick green army jacket and threw that on too. One last glance around the room, and it looked like she hadn’t been there at all.
A soft knock at the door. Natalie slowly opened it, and found herself face-to-face with Quinn.
”Breakfast?” he asked.
He lead her down the hall into the living room, where his parents were waiting at the kitchen table, doling out pieces of french toast. A plate of still-sizzling bacon sat in the center, ready to go. Natalie felt another pang of nostalgia as she sat down, but brushed it away.
”So Jenny,” said Damian. “What’re you drinking?”
”Dear, please…” said Annette.
”Orange juice?” said Natalie hesitantly.
”Orange juice it is!”
”Jenny, you just moved to Seattle, right?” prompted Annette, while her husband went into the kitchen.
”Yeah. In June.” Because Kendra wouldn’t open a door for a whole month… “I was born in Chicago.”
Quinn raised his eyebrows, and Natalie remembered she hadn’t told him that part. He didn’t say anything though, thankfully.
”Ah, so big cities are business as usual for you,” said Damian, setting down a glass of bright yellow juice in front of her.
”Not… not really.” Natalie shook her head. “I haven’t lived in a city in a long time.”
”She and her dad lived in a small town,” said Quinn, jumping in. He’s trying to get them off me, she realized. He doesn’t even know how dangerous this topic is… “She was totally lost on her first day walking home.”
”Oh, you walked her home?” asked Damian, his eyes twinkling.
Quinn’s face got red. “Yeah, so? I was just being nice.”
”Of course. No other reason.”
”Would you stop teasing our son?” said Annette, exasperated.
He called me his girlfriend… Is that what I wanted? I like Quinn a lot, but… I don’t know.
He told them without asking you.
After a few mouthfuls, Damian spoke up again. “So Q, how much homework did you pile up for today?”
Quinn shook his head. “I got most of it done already.”
Annette looked up sharply. “You did? When?”
”…In California,” he said, shrugging.
Damian laughed. “So that’s what you were doing all day in your room?”
”Well I had plans today,” said Quinn, with a sideways glance at Natalie. Her ears got hot. She quickly dug into her french toast, not wanting to look up at anyone at the table.
”Slow down there, Jenny,” said Damian. “Don’t choke on it.”
Natalie slowed down, though she still didn’t want to look up at them. She wondered how long it would take Quinn to catch on to the teasing. Half of her just wanted to shout it out right away, but now that she knew he hadn’t actually said it, she was worried what he might think.
Of course, her fears doubled over a moment later as the topic shifted.
”You’re lucky we booked our trip back last week,” said Damian. “Apparently, getting a flight out here right now is impossible.”
”Is it now?” asked Annette mildly.
”I heard it from Phil. Said there’s such a huge uptick over the last couple days that they might declare a state of emergency. People are flooding in from all over the country. Some people even further away.”
”Oh, honestly,” sighed Annette. “What do they think they’re going to find?”
”Magic, duh,” said Quinn.
Natalie looked up, surprised. She hadn’t really understood what they were talking about. She hadn’t looked up anything on the news, too afraid of what might be there. About her, her father, about any of them.
”What do you mean?” asked Annette.
”It’s the big trending tag of the weekend,” said Damian, while Annette fished another piece of bacon off the center plate. “Supposedly, if you go to the Rallsburg site, you can learn how to do magic.”
Oh… oh no. That’s… not totally wrong. I mean, it’s not likely, but if someone finds a Scrap or something floating around…
”That sounds crazy,” said Quinn, with a straight face.
”That’s what I said,” agreed Annette, throwing Damian a look.
He shrugged. “Do you see me packing my bags for a road trip? I’m with you.”
”But people are gonna try anyway, right?” asked Quinn.
”Sure,” said Damian, nodding. “Probably won’t affect us too much up here. Most of it’s gonna be south of SeaTac. Olympia’s gonna be a mess though.”
”Thus the governor’s state of emergency?” asked Annette.
”Probably. I mean, Rallsburg’s right on the border of a national park. They’re not gonna be happy about people trampling all over. It was bad enough with the huge FBI sweeps.”
”It’s such a nice park, too,” sighed Annette.
”Yeah. I loved it there,” said Natalie.
They all looked at her, slightly surprised. Natalie shrunk in her chair a little. “Sorry,” she murmured.
Damian laughed. “Not at all, Jenny. Feel free to jump in any time.”
”If you don’t, my husband will never shut up,” added Annette.
”Isn’t that why you married me?”
”And I regret it every single day,” she sighed. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, before taking their plates into the kitchen to clean. “But really, dear, speak your mind at our table. We don’t mind.”
”I’m…” Natalie paused. “We don’t really have family dinners.” Kendra and Lily mostly just sit there on their laptops working all day… doing whatever it is they do. They just ask what I want to eat and make it.
”We have dinner every weeknight,” explained Quinn. “And breakfast instead on Sundays.”
”That’s the same as my dad always did.”
Annette looked curious, which made Natalie even more uncomfortable. She wished she could just keep quiet, but for whatever reason, being around Quinn and his family made her want to speak up.
”Jenny,” she started slowly. “Did something happen to your father?”
Natalie hesitated. She hated lying, but she couldn’t tell them the truth. “…Kinda. I don’t know where he is anymore.”
”And your mother?”
”We left her when I was seven. She… she wasn’t good.”
Quinn’s hand inched toward her, and she could tell he wanted to hold hers. A moment later, he moved away. She was grateful—both for the initial gesture, and for remembering that she couldn’t return it.
Damian noticed it too, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He had a towel in his hands and was wiping down a plate, but she saw his eyes flicker over to that corner of the table. They’re all like that. Just like Quinn. They don’t miss anything. “Do you need somewhere to stay?”
”Dear—” Annette started, but Damian kept going.
”Like we said before, that room’s always empty.”
Natalie had no idea what to say. On the one hand, the meal had been wonderful. Everything she’d been missing, without really understanding it. She’d missed having breakfast with a family, even if it wasn’t her family. Sitting down for dinner with her dad every day, talking about the whole day together, figuring out what had happened and what came next.
She hadn’t had that in so long, she felt like she was going to explode.
But this wasn’t her family. More importantly, the moment the news broke, they wouldn’t want her around anymore. Not with what she’d done. Who she was.
They’ll find out. Better from you than from anyone else, right?
”No,” she murmured. “Better never.”
”What was that, sweetie?” asked Annette.
You can’t avoid it. You have to face it or you’re never going to survive.
She just wanted the voice to shut up and leave her alone, but it made too much sense for her to ignore it. She had to tell them, so they knew what sort of person they were inviting into their home. How she didn’t deserve such kindness.
”Can I talk to you in private?” she asked quietly.
Quinn looked surprised. His parents, doubly so.
”Please,” she added, as if it somehow made a difference. She avoided eye contact with Quinn. She couldn’t tell him. That was too far. She’d tell his parents first. They seemed like they might know what to do—and in the worst case, she could run, and Quinn wouldn’t have to know.
”Q, give us a minute?” said Annette.
”And some actual privacy this time,” Damian added with a significant look.
Quinn nodded. He left the room, and Natalie could tell he was confused and a little hurt. She felt awful, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it in front of him.
Annette came to sit on one side of the table, while Damian took the other. They waited patiently, while Natalie worked up the courage to open her mouth again.
Visions of the men in Rallsburg flashed through her mind, and of her father with the golems. The town exploding and collapsing, the battles. The way it felt to force a bolt of lightning through a person.
”Jenny, are you all right?” asked Damian seriously, lowering his voice slightly.
”Yes,” she whispered—she lied.
Another memory burst onto the surface. John Bell. Golems. He’d been her neighbor. She’d found him in the rubble, pulled him free with her bare hands and magic. She lead him, bleeding and stumbling behind her, to the market door at the Kettle and Bones—or where it was supposed to be. She’d pounded so hard that her fist went through the wall, begging for help.
Natalie watched him die again, as she did in her nightmares. In her mind she screamed at herself to turn away. Screamed at him to run. Shouted for the whole world to do something. Anything to change his fate.
She couldn’t see the table in front of her anymore. Tears were filling her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she choked out.
”No, honey!” Annette leaned forward to hug her, but Natalie shrunk away, and that only brought on even worse emotions. She wanted to be hugged. To be held. But even someone she consciously knew was on her side was too much, too close.
Natalie bolted from the table. Quinn’s parents stood up too, but she had no idea what else they did, if anything. She retreated to the guest room, swinging the door shut behind her with a spell. The window swung shut, the blinds fell down. With just a thought, Natalie blocked out the door, the window, everything. The room fell into total darkness, where she couldn’t see the scars anymore. She couldn’t see herself, or anything else at all, and nothing could see her.
She sat down against the side of the bed, buried her face in her dress, and cried.
Natalie was on top of the world all week. It was real. Magic was real. She’d read about it in so many books, dreamed and wished for something like this. But she lived in the real world. Nothing like this ever happened in the real world.
She flicked on the lights in her room, then off again, then on again. From her bed. With her mind.
The rest of the week was spent exploring just what she could do. As soon as her dad left every morning, she called out to her new friend, and he came bounding out of the woods. She named him Scrappy, since she couldn’t think of anything else and it had been the name of the pet cat in the apartment next to theirs back in Chicago. He could understand her, and in his own way, he could even talk to her. Nothing like a real conversation, but in a lot of ways, she liked it more.
Natalie learned how to move things around more reliably, after the effort spent moving the window into place. She also learned how to choke out fire, using matches (that she wasn’t supposed to ever touch) as a source of fire. It was safer than the stove, she assumed, so it was probably okay. Her dad never noticed.
She still hadn’t told him. Every time they sat down to eat dinner, she started to, but something held her tongue. He just seemed off, and it made her reluctant. Something was wrong, and she wasn’t sure what, but she didn’t want to tell him about her amazing new discovery while he was sad. It should be a happy moment, so she waited.
She waited all week, until finally, her dad started a conversation over dinner.
”Your birthday’s tomorrow,” he said.
”Yours too,” she reminded him. They had the same birthday, just like Jenny, but he never really did anything to celebrate it. It was always about her. Natalie wanted to change that for once. She just wanted him to cheer up.
”You never left a wish for the Fairy.”
Natalie shrugged. She’d totally forgotten, busy with so many other things all day. She hadn’t even played a single game on her phone all week, and only opened her books to try and get more ideas for magic to try out. Most of it didn’t do anything at all, but then again, the way she did magic didn’t sound anything like those books anyway, so it wasn’t that surprising.
”Maybe if you tell me, I can still get it to her in time.”
”Can we have dinner with the Wilsons?” she blurted.
Natalie barreled on, heedless of however he might react. “Jenny’s parents are super nice. Her mom makes the best cookies, and you could be friends with her dad, and then we can hang out all the time and we don’t have to be alone anymore—”
She paused for breath. “Please?”
He sighed. “Is that really what you want for your birthday?”
”Yes. More than anything.”
”What about a new phone? I thought you said that one was having problems.”
It was, and Natalie was getting annoyed with it dying all the time when she was out in the fort trying to look up things on the internet. “…I can wait a year.”
He glanced around the room. “We don’t really have a big enough table to have people over for dinner…”
Natalie shook her head. “They’ve got a whole big dining table and everything. Her dad made it himself. He’s a woodworker with mean Mr. Harrison.” She stopped, seeing his face. “Sorry… I meant, Mr. Harrison.”
Her dad shook his head. “Natalie, what did I say about going into that part of town?”
”That I’m not supposed to,” she repeated under her breath.
”…I guess I’m going to have to go make sure it’s safe then,” he grumbled.
”Do you have their phone number?”
”Yeah!” Natalie smiled, pulling out her phone. To her annoyance, it died the moment she tried to turn it on. “Stupid thing.”
”Hang on, turtle.” He leaned over and plucked something out of a bag on the counter. “You got the Birthday Fairy confused, so she got you two things this year.” He handed her a shiny new phone, black with a pink case already on it.
Natalie grabbed it up and turned it on. “You got me—”
”Brand new, not used this time,” he said, smiling. “Go ahead.”
She turned it on. “…The signal’s being all stupid again,” she sighed. “I can’t login.”
He glanced over at the window. “Well… it’s still light out. Do you want to go for a walk?”
”Their house isn’t that far, right? We can just stop by.”
Realization dawned on her. She leaped off her chair and ran to hug him around the waist. “Thank you! Thank you thank you thankyouthankyouthankyou!”
”Slow down!” He ruffled her hair, and she laughed. “Finish your dinner first, all right?”
”Turtles are already slow,” she pointed out.
”Not in the water.”
”Clear your mouth before you talk, Natalie.”
She swallowed. “Sorry.”
Her dad smiled, and walked around to sit behind he, brushing her hair. “Turtles can swim faster than people. All the way up to thirty five miles per hour, if they really put their shell into it.”
”Happy birthday, turtle,” he added.
”It’s not the fourteenth yet,” she pointed out.
”Well, we’ll just call the whole week your birthday week, okay?”
”I can be silly.”
Natalie laughed. “No you can’t.”
He made a face with the chopsticks for his rice, but he wasn’t very good at looking goofy. She just shook her head and went back to her new phone, tapping through the settings to get it how she liked it.
He sighed. “Finish your dinner, and then we’ll go on that walk, okay?”
Her dad got up and started cleaning up the rest of the room. She glanced up again, and to her satisfaction, he looked a little less depressed. It was working.
”I love you.”
He smiled. “I love you too, Natalie.”
It took Natalie an hour to calm down. The place was quiet in the meantime. She could vaguely hear Quinn’s parents talking, and Quinn was in his room. She thought about listening in, but she felt like that would be a betrayal of trust. They’d let her in, even though she hadn’t managed to tell them anything. If she spied on them now, that’d be more fuel for the fire.
She could still tell when the front door opened and closed, though. The air in the whole place changed a little when that happened, and her new ears were picking up a lot more sound than they used to. Even without using any magic actively, she could tell that everyone had left.
But no one said anything to me…
She waited for a long time, but no one came back. Natalie reversed her spell on the door again, wincing as the wood cracked a little shrinking down to normal size. She inched it open, peering out into the hallway.
No one was home.
She looked around. On the table, a piece of paper was folded into thirds, so that it made a triangle propped up, with her name in big black letters so she’d spot it easily. Well, not my name, but still. Natalie made it fly over to meet her as she plopped down on the couch, curling up with the blanket she’d left there the night before.
We’ll be out for a couple hours at church. Help yourself to anything in the fridge (or cupboard) if you’re still hungry. There’s some bacon left too. Just heat it up in the microwave. (or the oven if you want it to taste good)
We’ll be back around 12:30. Make yourself at home! (but don’t go in Quinn’s room, it’s a nightmare in there)
-Annette (and Damian, the evil half of the household)
P.S. Here’s my number, if you need it (and mine, because she can never find her phone)
The asides were in a different handwriting. Clearly, Damian had gotten ahold of the note afterward and added a few touches. Natalie smiled and folded it back up, tucking it into her bag. They really did seem like good people, and she really wanted to stay there.
Natalie finally got out her phone again—the same phone her father had bought her for their eleventh birthday. The week she’d awakened. The week she’d finally gotten him to open up and come to Jenny’s house for dinner. The week he’d met Robert Harrison.
She quickly opened up Rachel’s website before she got too lost in memories.
As expected, not a word from Kendra or Lily. Natalie wasn’t even surprised anymore, and didn’t bother sending anything to them either. Hailey had finally replied, with a long-winded apology and an explanation that was so vague Natalie didn’t even finish reading it. There were a few warnings about the book from Josh and Cinza, but it was too little, too late really. Natalie already knew what was coming. Nothing from Alden or Hector either, since Alden was off on some crazy mission and Hector was who-knew-where.
Nothing from Rachel.
Natalie sighed and put her phone away again. She took a shower, imagining it was washing away all the invisible guilt hanging on her. Afterward, she did another quick ritual, almost rushing it. The moonstones rattled ominously before she remembered that it wasn’t supposed to be as easy as it seemed for her.
After some consideration, Natalie had decided she could reverse her hair back to her natural brown. She could say it was just temporary color. The ears and the eyes had to stay though, at least for now. Looking in the mirror, Natalie realized that the tips actually poked out of her hair just a little, and more whenever she turned. They had to have seen them, just like her new eyes.
At least I like the eyes. My eyes were always super boring. Purple looks so cool. The ears, Natalie wasn’t so sure of. She liked the look, and that they actually had a practical use too, but they were just too prominent. People would notice. She’d stand out.
You already stood out. The scar marked you to everyone. Embrace it.
She returned to the living room. Quinn’s family would be home soon. Natalie sat on the couch, hands on her knees, waiting, but she kept fidgeting around. She’d never been good at sitting still and doing nothing. Reading for hours, sure, though she had to switch sides or move around practically every few pages, contorting herself so that her eyes never left the page.
You are afraid of them.
”No,” she murmured, though she’d started to realize it hours ago as the memories kept assaulting her.
You saw what it does. Don’t let it happen to you.
”Am I dreaming again or something?” she muttered. She pinched herself, but nothing happened.
Talk to them.
”And they’re just gonna be okay with giving a room to a murderer?” she said aloud. It was the first time she’d said it, ever, and surprisingly she didn’t hesitate for a second.
You aren’t a murderer.
”I killed people. Lots of people.” She shook her head. “That’s what I am.”
You looked it up. It was self defense. That means it’s not murder, by your laws.
”That doesn’t make me feel any better!” Natalie shouted at the wall. She got up, pacing around the room. “Would you just leave me alone?”
I’m not real.
”No kidding,” she muttered.
The voice didn’t speak up again, to her relief. Natalie didn’t trust it though. She walked across the room to the keyboard, desperate for noise to drown it out if it came back. She started playing, first the songs she knew. After she exhausted all of those, she started making up notes on the spot, just like she used to with her dad. She turned it up to the highest volume it could go, and added a drum track with the little buttons, tapping the keys to the beat and losing herself in it.
Maybe this is what happened to Dad… Maybe he had a voice too, and it made him crazy. That can happen, right? ‘Cause I’m his daughter?
The thought scared her even more, and she played harder. She kept at it until she was practically pounding on the keyboard, until she realized what she was probably doing to the people on the floor below. Embarrassed, she turned everything down, but she didn’t stop playing. It had been so long since she got to play piano, and even though she couldn’t play along with her dad anymore, it still made her feel better.
She reached into her bag and fumbled around for his drumsticks, which she set on the sheet music rest. Then, just for fun, Natalie started having the piano play itself, tapping the keys without her hands. She messed with the electricity going to the speakers to get a different sound. She’d never tried mixing magic and music before. What if I could make music with just magic?
She kept playing, but she started to feel out the sound waves in the air as they moved, just like she did when she was listening in on people’s conversations. She tried to copy them, little by little. She’d play a note, feel it out, then make it again in midair with magic. It took her half an hour, but eventually she could do one note, then two. Soon she was playing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in midair, as if there were an invisible piano in the room. She turned back on the drum-beat, but this time, she used magic instead of her fingers to add a melody, since she could switch around so much faster and never got stuck on a key or flubbed a note.
The front door swung open.
Natalie dove for the power button on the keyboard, mashing it off just in time.
”Hello?” called Damian. He wandered in, dressed sharp. The other two members of the family were close behind. “Was that you playing?”
”…Yes,” she answered.
”That was some sweet jazz, Jenny. Where’d you learn to play like that?”
”My dad. He’d drum and I’d play piano.” She glanced up. Quinn was walking in too. She gave him a little wave.
”I’m glad someone’s getting some use out of that thing,” added Annette, setting her purse down and dropping a set of keys into the bowl on the kitchen counter. “Q gave up on it after only two lessons.”
Quinn shot his mother an annoyed look. “It just wasn’t my thing, okay?”
”Nah, that’d be card games,” said Damian, grinning. “I’m guessing you’ve been sucked into Conquest by now, huh Jenny?”
”Yeah!” She latched onto the topic, since it was safe. “I beat him, too.”
”Did you now?” Damian looked around to his son in exaggerated shock. “Is that how I taught you, Q?”
”She’s really good,” said Quinn, his face turning red.
”Well, Jenny, I think you might be our secret weapon at the next tournament then. If you’re interested.”
”You play too?” she asked, curious.
”Oh, the whole family does. Annette doesn’t much care for it, but she knows how.”
Annette sighed. “You two are addicted, and I don’t have the time to keep up.”
”Too many cases, Mom?” asked Quinn.
”The moment I put my name back in the hat tomorrow, the city’s going to have another case ready, with another poor soul railroaded through the system.” Annette sat down at the table and opened her battered laptop. “It’s a miracle I have any free time at all.”
”She’s a public defender for the city,” explained Damian to a confused Natalie. “A lawyer for people who can’t afford ’em.”
They’re all such good people. I don’t deserve this. What am I doing here?
”Well, I’ve still got the day off,” he added. “And I gotta see how you play, if you can take down my Q.”
”You know I’ve never beaten Tyler, right?” said Quinn exasperatedly, even as he got the decks out from a box on the bookshelves in the living room.
”He won the last five tournaments in a row,” said Damian with a shrug. “We’re all amateurs compared to him.”
Annette glanced over as they started dealing out the territory decks. “Dear, I’m sure she doesn’t feel like playing a silly game righ—”
”I want to,” interrupted Natalie.
Damian grinned. “All right then!”
”And…” Natalie hesitated. You don’t have anywhere else to go. Kendra and Lily still aren’t answering. You’re not taking advantage of them. Don’t be afraid.
”Yes?” Damian prompted, while Quinn finished setting up the decks.
”I wanna… stay with you guys. If it’s all right.” She looked down at the floor again, embarrassed.
”Of course it is!”
”As long as you need to,” added Annette firmly.
Natalie wanted to feel relieved, but it was still mixed. It’s alright now, but what about Tuesday, when everything comes out? What are you going to say then?
”There’s a few ground rules though,” added Damian, as he started looking through the territories, planning his draft. “First, winner picks what’s for dinner.”
Natalie giggled. That wasn’t at all what she expected. “Okay.”
”I hope you like salmon, because I’m not losing,” he added.
”Ugh,” said Quinn, rolling his eyes.
”Second, Quinn, you’re not allowed to go into Jenny’s room. Off-limits, got it?”
Natalie was a little confused too. She wondered what they meant by that rule. Was it what she thought, more to do with their relationship (whatever that is right now), or…
”It’s her space,” said Annette. “Nobody else’s. Even we aren’t allowed in unless she says so.”
Natalie’s throat swelled up with gratitude. She opened her mouth, but choked on her words. The amount of trust was overwhelming. She looked away again, feeling like she might cry.
”Although if it starts smellin’ awful in there, I might call in a hazard squad,” added Damian with a wink.
”I can clean up after myself,” she insisted, dabbing at her eyes.
”Good.” Damian looked across the board of territories, took a second to think, then picked up a market. “Third rule, no going in Quinn’s room with the door closed.”
”What?” asked Quinn. Natalie understood immediately though. Her face got very hot. She looked away again, embarrassed for an entirely different reason this time.
”Those are the rules.”
”Plus more if we need them,” added Annette.
”Does that sound okay, Jenny?”
”Yes.” She looked back up, and saw both Damian and Annette watching her. “Thank you.”
”Excellent,” said Damian. “Now pick your two, so I can show Q how it’s done.”
Natalie leaned forward. She had no idea how to play against him. Every other match she played, she picked based on the other person, since she had so much time to watch them play each other. Damian was completely unknown to her. She decided to play it safe, and picked up two forests. I hope you’re happy, she thought, looking at Linnethea’s card on the row of generals.
You should be happy. You got what you wished for, without having to tell them a single thing. You get to live with Quinn and his family, you don’t have to go back to the Laushire house, you still get to go to school, and no one found out what you are. Isn’t this what you wanted?
”No,” she murmured.
”What?” asked Damian, about to take a wizard tower.
”Nothing, sorry.” She waved at him to go ahead. He frowned, and changed his mind, drafting a mine instead.
I wanted to go home. But I’m not really any closer to that.
You have a plan. December. That’s what you decided. You’re going back in December. No matter what.
Natalie nodded to herself. This was just temporary. As nice as it was, as nice as Quinn’s family was, as great as Quinn himself was—she hadn’t forgotten her plan. There was a storm coming though. She could feel it this time, just as much as she could hear every click of the Annette’s keyboard perfectly through her new ears, or read the cards on the far side of the floor upside down with her new eyes. She knew for certain that even if she made it through the week, this couldn’t last.
You’re crazy. They like you. Quinn likes you. You’ll be fine.
I’m crazy? You’re the voice in my head.
”Jenny?” asked Damian.
”I’m sorry. I got distracted.”
”We can always play later, if you want.”
She shook her head. I can’t put things off forever. “I’m gonna win. Just watch.”