Chapter 32 — Paranoia
”Of the natural awakened, I rate one as the most powerful. Not Hector, though many would assume it so. Hector is the obvious choice, based simply on past events and not his true power. While I do not refute his abilities, I absolutely deny his alacrity of execution. Hector is a coward at heart, and even when surrounded by comrades at the turn of the storm, he would not stand his ground.
No, the true strength lies in conviction. ███████, though ███ might appear weaker than any among us, possesses great power equal to the rest of the natural awakened—and the conviction to use that power when pressed. See how ███ cleansed the fires of the riot, how ███ claimed a wolf as a mere mount! ███████ is the strongest and bravest of us all, and fie those who would speak otherwise. I know no other who, at any ███, could command angry mobs to a standstill simply by walking forward with head held high.
███ puts us all to shame.”
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
Natalie kicked the snow off her shoes before opening the door, trying to get as much as possible off. It didn’t help much though. She’d gotten completely soaked, especially after the second or third time sprinting through slush to get away from an imaginary threat chasing her down the street. She glanced around, and—seeing nobody—murmured a quick spell.
Snow melted off in a burst of steam. Her shoes were suddenly perfectly dry. Natalie grinned to herself, then pulled open the door and went inside.
”I’m home,” she called out, as Annette had asked her to do. They preferred it, and while Natalie really didn’t like shouting to the world exactly where she was, she’d do it for them. Anything to keep living here. I can’t even walk to the store and back without jumping at every shadow… I would’ve let Quinn come with me, but then he’d ask questions about the other thing I had to buy.
”Welcome back,” said Damian, emerging from the kitchen with a stirring bowl tucked into his arm. “Get what we needed?”
Natalie held up the plastic bag and pulled out the carton of eggs, praying Damian wouldn’t look too closely at the box underneath. “All here.”
”Excellent. Thanks, Jenny.”
Natalie heard a tiny squeak from inside the bag, but Damian had already walked away to start cracking the eggs. She hurried out before he heard anything more. Annette was in the living room watching the news, and Quinn was laid out on the couch reading a book. Natalie waved to him as she hurried past, heading for her room, but the news report caught her ears.
”The President of the United States announced plans to form a special Department of Thaumaturgical Affairs, which will be the principal agent for the government in handling all incidents and policy involving the so-called ‘awakened’, or persons with magical abilities. This act comes just one week after the events in Lakewood, Washington, where twenty-six people lost their lives to supernatural conflict between unknown parties. President Stafford has appointed Wesley Gatiss as the first Secretary of Thaumaturgical Affairs in recess—citing the War Powers Act as justification for creation of the new department—pending approval by the Senate next week when they reconvene.”
”What does thaumaturgical mean?” asked Quinn, glancing up from his book.
”Magic stuff,” said Natalie, who’d learned it from one of the Council meetings back home, nearly a year ago.
Quinn glanced over at her pointedly, but she slowly shook her head. His parents were still nearby, after all.
”The FBI also announced independent plans for a special task force to investigate crimes by awakened, which have been temporarily classified as federal in all cases. A challenge in the Supreme Court is expected.”
This affects you. You need to figure out if it’s a threat.
I don’t know anything about the government… I need somebody to explain this to me. “What does it mean if a crime is federal?” she asked, trying to sound as casual as Quinn.
Annette set aside the shirt she was folding—one of Natalie’s, as it turned out. “It means that it’s handled by the whole country, instead of by the state it occurred in.”
”Is that bad?”
”It depends.” Annette sighed. “It’s dreadful either way. Somebody discovers something new, and what’s the first thing they do with it? Hurt each other.”
That’s not what we did though… We made a council. I made friends. Cinza made pretty lights. Hailey learned to fly. Nobody died until people started trying to hurt us.
They will never understand you.
”In related news, Hailey Winscombe has been spotted over the Atlantic Ocean, flying toward the United Kingdom. At this time, her intentions are unknown, and attempts to contact her have been unsuccessful.”
A grainy video taken from a boat appeared on screen. Natalie squinted, and could just barely make out the dot in the sky she guessed was supposed to be Hailey. It sped past the camera like a rocket, briefly in focus long enough to make out her face, and the guy filming it could barely keep up before she disappeared again. Hailey, what are you doing?
Natalie and the others had been shocked to say the least when Hailey blasted her way out of the church after the funeral that morning. Hailey’s own parents sprinted fruitlessly after her, and her FBI friend was on his phone in an instant, but none of it really did anything. Natalie felt like she understood. She knew Hailey was in a lot of pain, and needed to find who was responsible. She’d been there.
The difference is, everybody who’s responsible for me is dead…
My dad’s different. I don’t know what he was doing. I have to talk to him.
Not your father. The other one.
Natalie shook her head, drawing another confused glance from Quinn. Nobody had said anything, after all—not out loud. She grabbed up the pile of clothes that Annette had finished folding and hurried back to her room, sealing the door behind her.
She wasn’t going to think about him, or the park. Every time she did, she felt like she was falling into a black pit, deeper every time, and she was never entirely sure she could make it back out again. She couldn’t think about him. She had to keep herself together. Every day, she was walking a tightrope just to stay sane.
And I’m not even sane. You’re in my head.
The voice didn’t answer, which only made her feel worse. She dug into the plastic bag and pulled out the tiny box with holes poked in it. Natalie had considered just putting it into her purse, but she wasn’t sure if the mice would survive in there when she closed it up. She popped it open and slid aside the door to the closet.
Percy fluttered off the coat rack she’d stuffed inside, landing on the bed. He’d been as lousy at hunting as he always was—and now that they were in the city, she couldn’t give him the time and space he needed to actually find a kill. She’d gone out to the nearest pet store to get some mice for him, and picked up a few groceries for the Kincaids as well. I hope Damian didn’t notice I put the money back in his wallet…
You should have used it. You may need your money later.
I have over eight hundred thousand dollars in my purse… That was twenty bucks. How much more could I ever need?
It’s going to get worse. You need to be ready.
Natalie lifted out the first mouse and set it on the bed. Percy snatched it up, tearing the little thing to pieces. To her surprise, it didn’t bother her. It was just who he was. She didn’t need to be ashamed of a hawk eating its dinner. Since Percy had been flying around for a whole day before finding her at the funeral, and since it was so cold out, Natalie fed him another mouse. She closed the little box and sat down on the edge of her bed next to him, watching him eat.
She shivered. To save money, the Kincaids didn’t turn on the heating very often. Another murmured spell took care of her, though Natalie had to be careful not to let it past her body into the house, or someone might come looking for a fire.
<Are you cold, Percy?> she asked. He swivelled his head around, swallowing down a chunk of mouse as he did. The little eye twitched, and he turned back to his meal, finishing off the rest in another bite. <Oookay then.>
As soon as he finished, Percy fluttered back up to her shoulder, which was always his favorite place. Natalie stroked his head. <I’m glad you’re back.>
She really was; feeling his weight and warmth made her feel so much calmer. Even with all the stress of the funeral and school and the huge battle and everything, having one of her friends back where he belonged meant a lot.
Not that Percy was exactly warm—he was still a hawk. Who she really wanted was Gwen, giving her a space to curl up, with Scrappy tucked in next to them. She’d known Scrappy since the day she awakened, and Gwen not too long after that. The two of them were the closest thing she’d ever felt to having a real family outside of her dad, even if none of them could really talk to her. Natalie needed them more than she needed talking though. Talking hadn’t done her any good.
When I try to talk my way out, I just get hurt more…
A knock at the door startled her out of her thoughts. “Jenny? Dinner in twenty minutes, okay?”
Natalie stroked Percy’s head again. She wasn’t too worried about them finding him; so far, none of the Kincaids had broken their promise and stepped foot in her room, even when she wasn’t around. Using one of the little tricks posted online by some guy named Jonathan, Natalie had set a spell on the door handle every time she left. If the handle moved, the little trace of magic would get pushed out of the way. She just had to focus and feel out that little bit of aura floating in the air.
Another knock. “Jenny,” said Damian, a bit quieter. “May I come in?”
<Perch, Percy,> she whispered. Percy, no stranger to her tone, fluttered across the room and landed neatly on the coat peg. Natalie flicked her fingers at the closet door to slide it closed. “Yeah,” she called back.
Damian pushed at the door, but it didn’t budge. Oh, oops. I sealed it. Natalie rushed over, muttering the spell to shrink the door as she did, trying to keep it as quiet as possible. She could hear the wood warp as it shrunk thanks to her ears, but Damian happened to speak at the same time and covered it up.
Natalie pulled it open. “Sorry! Something was in the way.”
To her relief, Damian didn’t look around for the barricade that wasn’t actually there. Natalie stood by the door awkwardly as he sat down on the corner of the bed. “Is everything okay?”
”…I guess so.” That sounded bad… “I mean, yeah. Everything’s okay.”
Damian frowned. “That thing this morning…”
Natalie winced. She’d been hoping he wouldn’t ask. “Thanks for taking me, Mr. Kincaid.”
He nodded, but the frown didn’t go away. “What was it about?”
Just the details are dangerous. It’s okay to say this. I hope. “…It was a funeral,” she said quietly.
His frown went away, his eyes softened. Natalie leaned back against the wall, staring at a spot somewhere between Damian and the bed, not quite meeting his eyes. “Was it a friend?”
”Yeah. She was my friend.”
”I’m so sorry…”
Natalie shook her head. “It’s not your fault.”
Damian smiled. “You’re a really brave kid, you know that?”
No I’m not. I’m hiding in your house because I’m too afraid to go confront my dad.
You are brave. You are building a bond and creating a home to come back to.
That makes me sound like I’m just using them…
”Thanks,” she said aloud, though she still didn’t believe it, no matter what the voice might say.
”How did it happen?”
”I don’t really know,” she said after a pause. It was true… mostly. Natalie was pretty sure she could piece it together from the news and what they’d said at the funeral, but nobody had actually told her the specifics.
Damian smiled softly. “Tell me about her.”
I uhh… how do I even talk about Jessica without explaining magic? Why is he even asking me this? “She was really nice,” said Natalie finally. “We grew up in the same place.” Okay, yeah, she was ten years older than me and her family wasn’t on my dad’s okay list, but it’s still true. “I…”
”It’s okay, Jenny.” He shook his head. “You don’t have to say anything. Just letting you know you can talk to me, if you want.”
Natalie nodded. I really can’t, but… thanks. “Okay.”
”You still like living here?”
That one I can say for real. She smiled. “Yes, I really do. Thank you, Mr. Kincaid.”
Damian smirked, throwing her a wink. “Q really likes you living here too.” Natalie blushed and looked away. He cackled. “You know you’re way too cool for him, right?”
I’m not cool… He’s got me all wrong. “Quinn’s way cooler than me.”
”Oh?” Damian shrugged. “Guess I don’t gotta disown him after all!”
Natalie giggled. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
”If he loses a few more games I might.” Damian grinned. “But seriously, Jenny… you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want. Don’t worry about it.”
”But what about your—” Natalie cut herself off just in time. She’d gotten too comfortable, let something slip she shouldn’t have. Something she wasn’t supposed to know.
Damian raised an eyebrow. “About our what?”
”Nothing,” she murmured. Her eyes fell to the carpet, avoiding his gaze.
”About our money problems?”
How did he know …? Natalie looked back up, very nervous. Did he find out I was spying on them? But how?
Damian didn’t seem to be bothered at all. “I noticed you never took the money for the groceries. I also noticed that time we bought you some school supplies, or how every time we order pizza, my wallet mysteriously has more cash in it.”
Natalie gulped. “I just wanted to pay for myself.”
Damian sighed. “Jenny, we’re happy to help you out. You save your money, okay?”
”But you have hospital bills and heating bills and you gotta pay for Quinn and—”
”We’re just fine.”
But I have so much money, and you need it more than I do… What if I just told him? Where the money came from, what I can do, everything? I could make their heating bill go away, for one. That’s super easy. And I could cover Quinn’s medical bills since they’re my fault… They shouldn’t have to pay for those.
It isn’t safe. You know what happens when you tell people.
But… telling Quinn lead me here. Telling my friends made my life at school easier. I think maybe Rachel was wrong.
”There is something you can do for me though,” Damian added, interrupting her conversation.
”When you go out, be careful, okay?” He glanced at the window. “There’s a lot of bad stuff happening out there right now, and all of it’s happening around here.”
”You mean all the magic stuff?” Because that’s really not the part I’m worried about…
”Yes.” Damian sighed, in much the same way as his wife. “Lakewood really scared a lot of people. One of my friends at work mentioned that people were getting attacked by that flying girl too. All over Seattle, beating people up with magic for weeks now. And there was that thing in Tacoma… It’s all bad with these ‘awakened’ people. I’m worried about what’s going to happen.”
But I’m one of ‘these awakened people’…
You cannot tell him. He will turn you in, or worse.
Quinn is on our side, but his parents don’t understand. You can’t trust them with your true self.
Natalie’s hope of telling the Kincaids deflated like one of the sad, punctured balloon at her birthday party in the Laushire house.
”I’m not saying don’t go out,” said Damian. “Just, if you see something that feels weird? Anything going wrong? Run. Don’t stop. Don’t call nine-one-one until you feel safe again. Nobody knows who these people are yet. I really hope I’m wrong, but I feel like they’re bad news.”
”Dinner!” shouted Quinn from down the hall.
Damian hopped off the bed. “Sorry about that, Jenny. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
”It’s okay. You didn’t.” Just… just made life a little bit worse in a way you can’t understand…
He grinned. “Like I said, you’re a really cool kid. Come on, let’s eat.”
Natalie followed him to the table, back to Quinn and Annette, back into hiding once again.
Natalie only had time to leave a single mouse out for Percy before she rushed out the door the next day. Her lunch nearly fell out of her hands as she ran after Quinn. They were late for the bus, and it was mostly her fault. She’d been trying to calm Percy down, who really didn’t enjoy being cooped up inside a tiny closet all day. Natalie had let him out at night, but come morning, she couldn’t take the chance that the Kincaids find him.
They caught the bus just in time. Natalie hurried past the driver—who still hadn’t stopped giving her the scar-stare—and made her way to the back of the bus as usual. To her surprise, the rear two seats weren’t unoccupied. A few kids she didn’t know had taken one side, playing some game on their phones. Natalie sat down across from them at the window in her usual spot, but it meant Quinn wouldn’t be sitting across from her.
Nor would Quinn be able to sit anywhere near, she realized with a shock. The next five rows were already full. Apparently, the back of the bus was suddenly way more popular than she’d remembered. Quinn glanced around, trying to figure out where to sit, but none of the other kids noticed.
”Sit here,” said Natalie finally, tapping the seat next to her.
”You sure?” he asked, glancing at her.
No, but I’d rather have you close than way up there. She nodded quickly, not meeting his eyes.
Quinn sat down, as close to the edge as he could, but between their bags and everything else, it wasn’t that far away. Their driver was a real stickler for legs in the aisle and staying in his seat, and Natalie didn’t want to draw any more attention to them. “Closer,” she murmured. “You’re sticking out.”
Quinn scooted closer, and Natalie felt a shiver travel up through her spine. The darkness was back, slithering into her vision, her heart pounding harder than before. She bunched herself against the wall of the bus, putting her backpack between the two of them.
I just want to sit next to him! she shouted inside her skull. Why can’t I just have that?
You must never let anyone near.
I hate you, she cried—and in fact, she did feel a tear in her eye. Natalie blinked furiously, trying to get rid of it without using her hand, so Quinn wouldn’t notice. She stared pointedly out the window, away from him. I want to go back. Just let me go back.
”Natalie?” Quinn whispered, so quiet that she wouldn’t have heard him without magic.
Hearing her name calmed her down, much more than he’d ever know. Natalie took a deep breath, and then another. She turned to Quinn and nodded. She knew who she was. She was here, with her boyfriend, on the bus to school, and she was going to be okay. Someday.
Right on cue, the bus grinded to a halt, and Blake Sinclair got on board.
Natalie didn’t pay her much attention at first. After all, she usually sat toward the front, even though she was an eighth grader. She never came this far into the bus. Except today was different. Natalie knew it even before Blake had made it halfway back. Today was not going to be okay.
”Jenny!” she called, still a few rows out.
Natalie jerked around from staring out the window, locking eyes with her. “Hi, Blake.”
”We were so worried about you.”
Fat chance. “Why?”
Blake smirked, though to the rest of the bus it probably looked like an honest smile. “When you missed school yesterday, I thought you might have, you know, tried again.”
What? What does that even mean? Natalie glanced away, not at all sure what Blake meant. “I had a family thing,” she said, giving the excuse they’d all agreed on. “I was excused.”
”Well, I’m glad you’re back. I bet Quinn is too,” she added, glancing at him. “You two are such a cute couple, you know?”
Quinn glanced up from his book. “What?”
”I was just saying, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple like you. Quinn, you must be the nicest guy ever, with how close you two are.”
Natalie flinched. She wondered if Quinn knew what Blake meant. She glanced over at him. It was only for a second, just a flash, but Natalie saw him wince. He got it…
Against every instinct in her body, with her brain screaming at her to stop, Natalie reached out and took Quinn’s hand. She wrapped her fingers in between his, each one like it was scorching her skin, but she held on. She held on tight, and glared at Blake straight in the eyes, trying to express every ounce of hatred she felt churning in her stomach.
Blake’s eyebrows narrowed, but she didn’t say another word. She turned in a huff and marched back down the bus to join her friend Lydia. Natalie turned back to the window, watching the sidewalk roll by, still clutching Quinn’s hand as tight as she could. He felt warm and soft, but anything she might have liked was overwhelmed by the trembling, agonizing pain of being so close to another person.
Let go. You’re only hurting yourself.
You’re hurting him, too.
I’m not letting go.
Natalie kept her grip, and Quinn didn’t say a word. All the way to school, right up until the bus thumped to a halt at the student exit, Natalie held on tight. Only once they stood up did she finally let go.
She didn’t look at Quinn once the whole way inside. He murmured a question, but Natalie didn’t hear it. Her ears were filled with a rushing sound, like a raging waterfall that wouldn’t stop flowing, and her stomach churned like a whirlpool.
The moment she was inside, Natalie bolted for her bathroom. She locked the door and clambered into her stall, heaving. Breakfast erupted from her mouth, barely landing in the toilet. Her heart was still racing, and every inch of her skin buzzed with energy. Her mouth tasted like acid. Natalie fell back onto the tiled floor, coughing hard. She wiped her face with a scrap of toilet paper, then curled up against the stall door, head on her knees, and rocked back and forth, hands pressed to her face.
She’d done it. She’d held Quinn’s hand, all the way to school. It hurt—it hurt so much more than she imagined it could—but she’d gotten through it.
Natalie made it back to class before the bell rang. She took her seat next to Quinn, trembling all gone. She was calm again. Quinn looked about to ask her a question, but the teacher started talking almost immediately, and he had to save it for later.
She couldn’t avoid it forever though. Quinn was in all her classes until gym in fourth period. As soon as they split up for group work, which left Natalie and Quinn alone as usual, she took the initiative and cut him off before he could even open his mouth to speak. “Uhh… sorry.”
For being me. For you being with me. For being so broken and screwed up that we can’t even hold hands properly. “If I grabbed your hand too tight.”
Quinn shook his head. “It was fine. But—”
”I can’t.” She couldn’t bring herself to explain it further, but she knew he’d get the wrong idea, so she forced herself to get a few more details. “It’s not a magic thing, it’s… I…”
”It’s okay, Jenny,” he murmured, as another kid walked by passing out the assignment. “You don’t have to sa—”
”I really like you, Quinn.”
The kid snickered. “Jenny’s got a boyfriend,” he smirked, handing her a paper.
”Yeah, I do,” Natalie snapped, glaring at him. “So what?”
He took an involuntary step back, cowering just from her cold gaze. “…Sorry,” he mumbled. He thrust the paper at Quinn and hurried away.
”…Boyfriend?” Quinn asked, glancing at her.
Why’s he asking me that? “…Yeah. I mean, isn’t that what we are?” she mumbled, feeling her face grow red.
Quinn blushed too. “I guess so.”
”Huh?” Natalie’s embarrassment fell away, replaced with confusion. “But, didn’t you call me that? Your parents—”
”My parents called you my girlfriend?”
When I was spying on them… “Yeah.” Natalie shrugged. “Do you… you know. Do you want to be that?”
He smiled. “Yeah, I’ll be your girlfriend,” he said, without an ounce of sarcasm.
Natalie giggled. A wave of relief finally washed through her, cleaning out all the awful feelings from the morning. She didn’t exactly feel great, but she felt a whole lot better than a few minutes ago. “Thanks, Quinn.”
He smiled again, but the teacher came by a moment later, and they quickly buried themselves in the assignment before they got in trouble. Natalie had missed so many classes that she couldn’t afford to fall behind another day, even with Quinn helping her out. Through English and then study hall in the next period, they sat close together, heads down, and worked non-stop. After study hall, Social Studies was pretty much the same, except that they didn’t have a chance to talk at all as the teacher was giving a lecture the whole period.
Finally, gym rolled around. Natalie had to wave goodbye to Quinn as he headed off for tech class. To her relief, as soon as she walked into the locker room, Kelsey was right there waiting for her.
”Hey girlfriend,” she said, smirking.
Natalie rolled her eyes. “You’re just jealous.”
”Of you? As if.” Kelsey sighed dreamily. “I’m going for someone way cooler than Quinn.”
Nobody’s cooler than Quinn. She’s hopeless.
Yeah, I kinda am.
Natalie hurried back to the corner of the locker room with Kelsey, who stood in the way while she changed clothes. Kelsey had started doing it without being asked, after noticing just how much Natalie shook even taking off her shirt in front of the rest of the girls. It still wasn’t great—and Natalie hated herself a little more every time she remembered how it never used to bother her—but having a friend nearby helped a lot. After the first few times, she didn’t even need Kelsey to be facing away, so they could actually hold a normal conversation while she changed.
It didn’t stop the voices, though.
”She did?” asked Lydia in an exaggerated whisper.
Blake replied in just as loud a whisper. “Totally! I swear she was going to, like, tear his hand off or something. It was crazy.”
I’m not crazy.
”Talking about you?” asked Kelsey, obviously seeing something in Natalie’s expression.
Natalie nodded. She pulled on her shirt and tucked her clothes back in her bag—no way was she going to trust a locker today, with how Blake was going on. Kelsey looked about to turn around and confront them, but Natalie just shook her head. She hurried out into the gym, but Kelsey couldn’t resist snapping one of Blake’s bra straps as she walked past, bolting out of the room before Blake could retaliate.
”Did you really have to—”
”Yes,” said Kelsey. “She’s a bitch.”
”It’s just words.” She’s right though. Blake really is that.
Just words, as you said. You don’t need to concern yourself with just words.
Natalie took a seat on the bleachers. The teacher came out after a couple minutes, just as the last couple stragglers from the lockers appeared. Blake and Lydia were still shooting her dirty looks, but they were quickly distracted by a chorus of groans.
The usual Friday Field Day was cancelled—it was snowing again—so they had to stay inside. Natalie groaned right along with the rest of the kids. She’d been looking forward to the fresh air and a chance to really get out and run. The teacher tried to play it off with a joke and a smile, but they all knew how much it sucked… until he rolled out a huge cage of rubber balls. Natalie’s eyes widened.
”I thought it was banned,” she whispered to Kelsey.
”It is.” Kelsey shrugged. “Maybe they’re for something else.”
”All right,” the teacher called out. “Today, we’re going to be playing Spatial Awareness.”
”What’s that?” shouted a kid up in the back row.
”Well, it’s simple. Everybody will split up until teams of six and take one of the courts. You’ll have six balls in the center of the court, and when I blow the whistle, you grab a ball and try to tag out someone on the other side. You aren’t allowed to cross the line, and if you get tagged, you’re out. If somebody catches a ball you threw, you’re out and one of their team is back in. Last team standing wins.” He glanced around. “Any questions?”
Nobody spoke for a full minute. One kid giggled. Finally, one quivering hand went up, very slowly—Lydia Jennings’ hand, in fact. Her voice trembled as she spoke. “But, isn’t that just dodg—”
”No, Jennings. This is Spatial Awareness.” He gave them all a very serious look. “Does everybody understand how to play?”
Natalie and Kelsey looked at each other, dumbfounded. Kelsey’s face twisted into a wicked grin. She was practically bouncing up and down in her seat.
”Thinking what I’m thinking?”
Natalie and Kelsey, along with four other girls, faced off against Blake and her hand-picked five. Lydia had somehow managed to persuade the teacher to let her sit out, but everyone else was in it, and eager. Natalie wasn’t so sure—the only dodgeball she’d ever seen was on TV, or a couple games with Rallsburg college kids that got really intense. She wasn’t allowed to ever join in those games… and after watching one, she didn’t want to.
This is my age though. It’ll be fine.
Don’t get hit.
Thanks for the obvious…
She tensed up at the far end of the line, hands planted on the wood gym floor. Her eyes were locked onto nearest ball. Blake was facing off against Kelsey at the other end. They were all waiting for the teacher to blow the whistle, but he was busy helping out some other kid way on the opposite end of the gym.
”Hey Jenny,” Blake called from clear across the court, just loud enough for Natalie to hear. “I heard you’re in trouble with the principal. Guess the school finally figured out you don’t belong here.”
”They let you in,” said Kelsey. “Shows how shitty this place is.”
”Nobody asked you, lesbian!”
”Me?” said Kelsey in a mocking tone. “That’s so kind! But I’m not nearly cool enough.”
”That was an insult, you idiot,” said one of Blake’s teammates.
Kelsey laughed. “In what stupid universe?”
Just ignore them. I can get them to shut up with a ball. As soon as that whistle blows…
”Besides, if anyone around here’s got a crush, I mean…” Kelsey glanced between the two of them. “Blake, are you sure you aren’t in love with Jenny?”
”Shut up,” said Blake.
”You just seem so obsessed with her!”
Huh… maybe that’s it. I have no idea why she hates me so much…
That isn’t love. You shouldn’t concern yourself with her feelings.
Yeah, but maybe I just don’t understa—
”Shut up!” Blake screeched. She bolted forward toward their ball.
Kelsey reacted a split-second later, sprinting just as fast. The whistle hadn’t blown yet, but nobody cared. Natalie blitzed for her own ball, and the rest of her team followed. Blake’s side was a bit slower, but they were in the game. Kelsey dove, skidding across the floor. Blake did the same.
A loud smack echoed through the gym.
”Screw you, bitch,” Kelsey grunted. She rolled off the court. Blake glared at Kelsey’s every step, no triumph in her eyes—only hatred.
Natalie snatched up her own ball. She flung it sideways at Blake, but the girl was too smart for that. She’d already backed away, and Natalie’s ball bounced harmlessly off of the wall. Natalie hurried back to the edge of the court, ducking a couple throws from Blake’s team.
They were really in it now. The teacher was shouting something, but nobody on their court cared anymore. Natalie snatched a ball up and twisted around in place. She chucked it and got a satisfying thunk as it slammed into the nearest girl, sending her off the court. A split-second later, Natalie had to dive to the ground, just underneath the next throw. Her enhanced reflexes and senses helped her see it coming, and move right out of the way—and into the path of the next throw.
Blake was ready for her. Natalie hit the floor—and as soon as she looked up, Blake pelted a red rubber ball at her face.
Without thinking, Natalie slammed the ball straight down using a burst of magic. It hit the floor a few inches from her head and bounced right over, sailing off into the wall behind them.
Blake cursed, barely ducking the next throw. Natalie scrambled back to her feet, just in time to catch a ball thrown too late, by a girl trying to copy Blake’s strategy.
”Aww yeah!” Kelsey shouted, rushing back onto the court. The moment she did, another ball sailed in, and Kelsey caught it easily. “Double kill, suckers!”
Three of Blake’s team were down, and Natalie had all six. She grinned, picking up a ball. This is actually fun. The gym teacher seemed to have given up on getting them to stop and just stood to the side, watching the game. As long as it didn’t get ugly, Natalie doubted he’d step in. The rest of the class was playing now too, after seeing their court explode into action.
Blake wasn’t going down easy though. She dodged a throw from Kelsey, and a second one right after. In return, she pegged one girl in the chest. Blake had real fire in her eyes now. Natalie was actually a little impressed. She’d always assumed Blake was all talk, but the girl on the court right now was genuinely frightening. I’ve seen people that crazy before…
Don’t get hit.
You know… sometimes you really aren’t that helpful.
”Jenny!” Kelsey called out. “Do a curveball!”
Does she mean magic? I guess… I can’t be too obvious though. Natalie threw her ball straight at the girl to Blake’s right, but as soon as it crossed the line, she spun it with her mind. It twisted in midair, but ended up going between the two of them, missing both.
”Weak throw and a weak girlfriend,” Blake taunted. “How’s it feel knowing you’re never even gonna get—” Blake cut off as Kelsey nearly got her, jumping over a ball aimed at her knees.
”Do you ever shut up?” said Kelsey.
”After you, bitch.” Blake punctuated the word with her own curveball, and hers hit the mark. Kelsey had jumped to the side, but the ball still caught her in the hip, glancing off and hitting another one of Natalie’s players. They both trudged off the court, leaving Natalie suddenly even with Blake, three on three.
Suddenly, it was two on two—one girl on each side had smacked the other in the face. Groaning, one clutching her glasses, they walked off. Natalie tried to catch Blake’s next throw, but it slipped past just outside her fingers. Well, it didn’t hit me at least.
”Melanie,” Blake called. “Go!”
The other girl on Blake’s team rushed forward, straight at Natalie. She waited, watching to see where Melanie would plant her feet—but something was wrong.
She’s not going for you!
The voice was a split-second too late. Melanie had already twisted on the spot. The ball sailed across the gym and struck Natalie’s teammate in the stomach. She fell down, groaning from the pain.
Well, it’s no wonder this was banned…
Natalie didn’t have time to think about it more, as Blake tried to hit her while she was distracted. Natalie dodged it, but she was suddenly alone, with only two balls on her side and two girls facing her down. Melanie smirked, tossing a ball up and down in her hand.
Blake glared at Natalie. “Go back to where you came from, freak.”
I want to.
Natalie didn’t answer aloud. She took a step toward the nearest ball, making them both flinch. Natalie took another step, still carefully watching them both. Melanie wound up to throw. Natalie tensed up. Her muscles were like strings pulled tight.
Natalie dove, just as the ball flew at her. She landed in a somersault, grabbing up a ball and twisting around on the floor to launch it away at Blake. Natalie felt real triumph in her veins—there was no way Blake could move out of the way in time. She was committed.
Another body dove into the throw. Melanie took it right in the chest, saving her friend. She gave Blake a high five as she walked off, leaving Blake to face off with Natalie alone.
”You got this, Jenny!” shouted Kelsey. Other words of encouragement for both sides filled the room. Even kids sitting out in other games were cheering one or the other on. Natalie heard a few more voices for her, but far more supporting Blake.
Blake was saying something. The shouting filled the room, but Natalie could still just barely hear her. She doubted anyone else could—not without ears like hers. “Can’t even hold hands. You’re never going to be kissed, freak. You don’t even know how. You’re just trash that got into our school. Get out. Get out of my school.”
Don’t listen to her. Remember, they are words. You don’t need to concern yourself with words.
Blake heaved another ball with all her strength. It whistled past her ear as Natalie dodged it, too worried to risk a catch. By the time she’d recovered, Blake already had another ball. Natalie threw her own, but Blake used hers like a shield to deflect it aside.
”Get her in the face!” someone shouted.
Natalie wasn’t sure who the instruction was aimed at, but Blake seemed to take it to heart. The next throw went sailing right for Natalie’s head. She ducked it easily, but she hadn’t had time to grab up another ball.
”No, hit her in the boobs!”
”She doesn’t have those!”
”All girls have boobs!”
”Maybe Jenny’s not really a girl!”
Okay, this got stupid really fast…
Blake smirked, still glaring at Natalie. “How about it freak?” she muttered. “Are you even really a girl? Or are you just too crazy to know what you’re supposed to be?”
Natalie threw, and Blake dodged. Blake threw, and Natalie dodged. Neither of them seemed able to get an advantage, and the crowd around their court was growing fast… and still arguing about whether or not Natalie was really a girl.
This isn’t fun anymore.
So end it.
”Would you just die already?” Blake shouted, punctuating it with her hardest throw yet. It missed Natalie by millimeters. She could feel it brush past her, but it wasn’t close enough to count. Blake’s voice rose to a fever pitch. “You insane psycho bitch!”
Natalie didn’t throw her ball—she launched it. Every ounce of strength, and a burst of magic beside, went into the rubber grip that slid out of her hand.
The ball shot across the gym like it was fired from a cannon.
Blake didn’t have time to react. The ball slammed into her face with a dry slap that echoed through the abruptly silent gym. She was hurled off her feet, plummeting to the gym floor with a thud.
The gym teacher rushed to her side. Nobody else in the whole gym moved. Everyone was staring—not at the fallen Blake and the teacher, but at Natalie. She could feel every single eye, every held breath like they were all pressing down on her. They were waiting to see what she’d do next.
Natalie just waited. She needed to see if Blake was okay, but she didn’t dare cross the line. The teacher was examining the back of her head, but she was awake at least.
Blake’s face was leaking blood: dark, red, and thick. Natalie took a deep breath, trying to keep herself calm, but it didn’t help much. Worse, Blake was glaring at her, even more hateful than before if that were possible.
The bell rang.
Natalie let out the breath. She turned and walked away, back to the locker room. Kelsey hurried to follow her, but not a single other kid joined them. They changed clothes in silence. Kelsey watched Natalie with a worried look, but she felt surprisingly calm now that she’d left the gym. Dressed in her normal clothes again, she felt like she was moving on.
”Jenny…” Kelsey started.
She paused. Natalie waited, and the worry returned. She didn’t care what the rest of the class thought, but she definitely cared what Kelsey thought. If Kelsey thought she was crazy, if Kelsey had finally realized just how dangerous Natalie was… What kind of person Natalie really was.
A murderer. That’s what I am.
You aren’t. You do not set out to kill.
I’m a killer, then. That’s not much better.
”…Nice throw,” said Kelsey weakly. She tried to flash her usual grin, but Natalie could see the reluctance. She’d scared her friend, and that hurt more than any word or dodgeball that Blake could ever hurl at her.
Natalie didn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. She couldn’t bear it, no matter how much Kelsey insisted they were totally fine. She hurried in just to say hi to Quinn and tell him she’d see him in fifth period. He looked surprised, but didn’t ask any questions, reminding Natalie just why she liked him so much. Quinn loved asking questions, but he was really catching on to when Natalie didn’t want to—or couldn’t—answer.
Instead, Natalie retreated back to her bathroom, yet again. She locked the door, she closed the window, and she took her stall, as usual. If any other girls wanted to use it, they’d have to go down to the next hall. She was going to be alone for the period.
You are hiding again.
No duh I’m hiding! she shouted in her head. You see everything I do, so why do you tell me that all the time?
Because you shouldn’t be hiding. You’ve done nothing wrong.
I think I broke her nose. That’s wrong.
You were provoked. You were still within the rules of the game. You aren’t at risk of discovery.
That doesn’t make it okay!
Natalie pulled out her lunch and started eating, trying to ignore the voice as it continued to reassure her. She didn’t want to be reassured. She didn’t want to think this was okay. As awful as Blake was, Natalie didn’t want to just hurt people and walk away like it was nothing.
You didn’t feel anything when you killed those gang members in the warehouse.
She bit into her sandwich. Natalie didn’t want to think about them. Natalie just wanted to eat, and go back to her friends, go home. Home. Rallsburg, not Quinn’s house. She wanted Gwen, she wanted the forest, she wanted her little castle in the woods where nobody would hurt her. Where she’d wait out the storm. She’d come back out one day and there would be her dad, waiting for her.
You didn’t feel anything when you fought the monsters.
They were monsters, Natalie shot back, finally giving in. They weren’t people.
You killed twenty five people in Rallsburg and you got past it.
Had she gotten past it? Natalie realized it with a shock: she couldn’t remember their faces anymore. Not a single face from the street in Rallsburg came to her mind. She could still remember the six gang members in the warehouse—the boss, Tattoo-face, his companion, Stutter, Door-guy, and Weasel-face—but the mob that faced her down in Rallsburg? Where Rachel had ordered her to kill, again and again?
Not a single one. They were gone, lost to whatever deep black pit that memories vanished into. Natalie could remember everything else from that terrible day, worst of all the sight of her father ordering golems forward into the forest, but the faces of the townspeople were gone.
What did you do? she asked, horrified.
I did nothing. You needed to forget, so you did.
Natalie shook her head, but no more words came out—or rather, no imagined words. She continued eating in silence, without any more interruptions from the voice. As she ate, she calmed down a bit more. It still bothered her that she couldn’t remember the people she’d… she’d killed, but what was she supposed to do about it? They were long gone. She’d never forget what she did, but… maybe the voice was right. Maybe forgetting the people was better for her in the long run. She couldn’t hold them all forever.
You do not ever need to apologize to me. I am here for you.
…Thanks, I guess.
A clicking noise. Natalie froze, still seated cross-legged atop the toilet. She waited. The click happened again, and then the door swung open. But I locked it…
Footsteps. The door swung shut, and the person locked it again. So they’ve got a key… A janitor?
The faucet turned on. She could hear splashing, and a faint sniffling sound. More footsteps, and then the stall door next to Natalie’s swung open. Natalie saw a pair of shoes step-step inside and close the stall.
Sniffling again, louder this time. It was definitely young, so it was another student. Another girl. Is she… crying? Natalie held very still, but something about it made her want to reach out. She’d come in here for much the same reason… maybe she could help this other girl.
”Hello?” she said aloud.
The other girl slammed against the door, as if she’d jumped away from Natalie’s voice.
”Oh god, sorry,” said Natalie, wincing. “I didn’t… I just— are you okay?”
”No thanks to you,” snarled a nasally voice. It was Blake… but her voice was all funny. Her nose must have been plugged up.
”I’m sorry,” said Natalie again. I don’t care what you think. Hitting her like that was wrong. “I didn’t mean to throw it that hard.”
Natalie took a sip of water, more to give Blake time to say something else than because she was thirsty. She had no idea what to say to the girl. Natalie had a lot of questions for her, but now probably wasn’t the best time for most of them.
”Where’d you come from, freak?” said Blake, after a few more sniffles.
”It’s not on any maps,” said Natalie. Which was true… until this year, at least. “I moved here with Lily in July.”
”You know it’s super weird to call your mom by her name, right?”
”She’s not my mom.”
Blake laughed, a harsh self-satisfied sound that Natalie didn’t enjoy very much. “Wait, you really are adopted? I thought I just made that up!”
”I’m not. I just… live with Lily.” Or I did, anyway.
”So what else am I right about? Are you really a hick town freak that talks to animals?”
Yes? “…Why do you hate me?” Natalie asked.
”You ruined my life,” Blake snapped.
”Nothing.” The stall door swung open again. Blake walked back across to the sinks, where the water was still running, and presumably started washing her hands.
”I never did anything to you,” Natalie protested. “I’m just trying to be normal.”
Without warning, Natalie’s stall door slammed open. Blake stood there, bandages stuffed in her nose and her mouth still caked with dried blood. Her dark brown eyes were lit up with fury. “Listen to me, you psycho freak. You will never be normal. You’re crazy and you don’t belong here. Go back to where you came from. Leave Quinn, leave my school, leave this whole city. Got it?”
Natalie shook her head. “I can’t.”
”Then find another way.” Her eyes flicked over to the scar on Natalie’s face. “You already tried it once, didn’t you? Just get out your knife and start cutting, freak.”
She… I… what? “I didn’t—”
”Oh, don’t even.” Blake rolled her eyes. “Everybody knows that’s what psychos end up doing. Either you’re gonna cut your way out, or you’re gonna come back to school and really hurt somebody. So do the right thing and just finish the job. Don’t screw it up like last time either.”
I’m not crazy. I’m not a psycho. I’m not a freak. “I won’t hurt anybody,” Natalie said, but it sounded weak to her own ears.
Blake didn’t let it stand for a second. She took a step toward Natalie, jabbing her fingers at her stuffed-up nose. “You already did, bitch!” she shouted. “Are you as dumb as you are crazy?”
”I’m not crazy.”
”Get it through your skull, psycho bitch! You’re crazy, your parents were probably crazy, and you’re gonna hurt somebody, so do us all a favor and make it you!”
”I’m not crazy!” Natalie shouted.
She leapt to her feet. Every stall door slammed open in unison. The window in the corner shattered in a hail of broken glass, and the bathroom door shuddered in its frame.
Blake’s eyes went wide. She took a step back, stunned into silence.
You must commit. You’ve revealed yourself. Do not hold back.
I can’t just—
Do not let her leave unless you are certain she will never tell.
”You’re—” Blake finally choked out. “You’re one of—”
What do I do?
Scare her. Make sure she knows exactly who she’s dealing with.
Natalie summoned up a wall of fire on both sides of Blake, hemming her in. The girl fell back onto the ground, scrambling to the space underneath the sinks. Natalie walked forward, right into the center of the room. The fire hissed and spat, but Natalie was holding the warmth down so it didn’t set off the alarm. It only flowed inward—showering Blake in sheer oppressive heat. The girl was already starting to sweat, pinned underneath the wide sinks.
Natalie lifted up a pool of water from the sink, floating it down in front of Blake. She knelt down behind it, right in front of the terrified girl, and let the water spin around her hand in a pattern like she’d once seen Rika do with fire. A moment later, she added a few buzzing streaks of lightning to it, just to complete the Rika effect—though Natalie’s electricity was purple instead of Rika’s blue.
”Don’t talk to me,” said Natalie. “Ever again. Don’t talk to my friends. Leave all of us alone, and I’ll leave you alone.”
Blake nodded frantically, clutching onto the water pipe under the sink for dear life. Natalie stood back up, letting the fire disappear again, though she still held the mix of water and lightning spinning in her hand.
”I’ll leave you alone,” Blake whimpered.
Natalie nodded. She turned away, picked up her bag, and walked to the door. Blake watched her in terror with every step, still trembling underneath the sink. Natalie clicked the lock open without even looking at it, and let the door open itself. She took one last look toward Blake, a vicious snake reduced to a quivering mouse, and felt guilt worm its way into her heart.
You didn’t hurt her, and there’s no way she can prove anything.
You had no choice. It worked. Take comfort in that.
Natalie walked away and headed to class, uncomfortably satisfied with herself.
To Natalie’s surprise—and relief—nothing else happened the rest of the day. Natalie wasn’t even called into the principal’s office, after waiting all day for a P.A. announcement or a phone call. On the bus home, Natalie asked Quinn to sit next to her again. It didn’t feel any better than the last time, and she still kept their bags between them, but Natalie didn’t want him any further away either. She was afraid of what might happen if she were alone around other people… as if Quinn could somehow keep her from hurting someone.
”What happened?” he finally asked, as soon as they’d stepped off the bus into the slush coating the sidewalk. The bus rumbled away, and Natalie started trudging through the icy-cold winter air toward the house. For a brief moment, she was annoyed he’d even asked, but it was quickly surpassed by an overwhelming desire to spill every secret to Quinn. She wanted to unleash a flood of emotion, let go of everything and finally reveal the monster he’d called his girlfriend.
”I hurt Blake,” she said quietly.
To her relief, Quinn didn’t react like the rest of the gang would—well, except maybe for Steven. He nodded, but he didn’t look happy about it. “That thing in gym? Kelsey mentioned something, but she didn’t get specific.”
”We were playing dodgeball. She was saying things, and I threw it too hard. I think I broke her nose.”
Quinn shook his head. “You didn’t. It was bleeding, but she’s okay.”
Natalie’s eyes welled up. “She’s not.”
”What do you mean?”
”I ran into her at lunch. I… she was saying something and I…” Natalie stopped walking. She dabbed at her eyes with a cloth from her bag.
”Natalie,” said Quinn. He took a step closer, but she couldn’t—as much as she desperately wanted to be hugged, she still couldn’t let him that close. “She looked fine at the end of the day,” he continued quietly. “You didn’t do anything permanent.”
”I scared her. I showed her what I can do.” Natalie looked up at Quinn, tears gone. She needed to be serious now, to tell Quinn everything so they could figure out what to do next. “She knows.”
Quinn glanced up at the sky thoughtfully. “…Okay. Well, there’s no scary helicopters coming yet, so…”
Natalie laughed, a painful sound that barely made it out of her throat. “I don’t think they’d use helicopters.”
”Well, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Nobody knows you live here, remember? Not the school, not the government, and definitely not Blake.” Quinn held out his hand. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
I can do this. I need to do this.
Natalie reached forward, pressing through the dark clouds, pressing through pain that swarmed over her like a host of angry insects, and took Quinn’s hand. She wrapped his palm in hers, and for a moment, she didn’t feel any pain. She savored the cold chill of his fingers, the way their fingers interlocked, the way he gripped her just the right amount.
”…Your hand’s really warm,” he murmured, and it didn’t break the moment. It helped.
She giggled. “Magic,” she reminded him with a small smile.
A siren started blaring somewhere, a few streets away. It was faint, but it was enough. The moment was broken, and the clouds surged back into her mind. Natalie fell away, her hand sliding out of his. Quinn tried to hold on for just a second longer, but Natalie couldn’t do it.
You will. Eventually.
I hate this. I hate everything about this. I just want to… What if she was right?
They started walking back, Quinn staying a few steps away from her as usual. He didn’t make any move toward her, even though she expected him to try again. Natalie wasn’t sure if she wanted him to try, but she knew she couldn’t if he did.
What if I can’t ever actually hold his hand? Or you know… anything, with him? What if I’m broken?
You are broken.
What is broken can still be fixed.
Natalie nodded. “Okay,” she murmured. Quinn glanced at her, but she didn’t say anything else, so he turned back to unlocking the door. Before he could open it, Natalie reached down and waved a hand over their shoes. Again, the burst of steam, and their shoes were perfectly warm once again.
”…Wow.” He grinned.
”Magic,” she said again, smiling.
Quinn opened the door. “We’re home!” he called out.
”Jenny?” called Damian. Natalie’s brief good mood petered out, like a light bulb flickering to black. He sounded concerned, and a concerned parent was always a bad sign in her book.
”…Yes?” she called back.
”I… well, just come here, please?”
Natalie shot a look at Quinn, who seemed as confused as she was. They hurried inside toward Damian’s voice. Her heart sank even more as soon as she saw him—standing in front of her door.
”I heard a scratching sound,” he said slowly. There was a bandage on his face, which boded even worse for Natalie. “I wanted to make sure nothing was in there, and, well…” Damian nodded at the door.
Natalie winced. “I can explain,” she started.
”Yeah,” said Damian firmly. “I think that would be good.”
Quinn glanced at her. “Do you want me to stick around?” he whispered.
Natalie didn’t bother to answer Quinn. Of course she wanted him to stick around. She just launched into it. “That’s Percy. He’s… well, he’s my pet hawk.”
Quinn gaped at her. “You have a pet hawk?”
Damian laughed. “That makes two of us.”
”I’m sorry he hurt you, Mr. Kincaid. He probably got scared when it wasn’t me.”
He frowned. “This hawk—”
”Percy.” Damian nodded. “He hasn’t been living here the whole time, right? I’m not that blind, am I?”
Natalie giggled. “No. I brought him home yesterday. He found me at the funeral.”
”He… found you?” Damian whistled. “Pretty good pet.”
”Yeah.” Natalie pushed open the door. Percy was fluttering around the room, hopping mad—but as soon as he saw Natalie, he fluttered right to her shoulder. Percy rubbed his head into her cheek, and his beak tickled a bit. She giggled again, stroking his head. “He won’t hurt you again.”
”Right…” Damian glanced at the open front door, and Quinn hurried to close it. “Well, our block isn’t allowed to have pets… I mean, I don’t think they listed hawks in it, but even so.”
Natalie nodded. “I’ll make sure he isn’t noticed.”
”Well, since you’re both here now…” Damian lead them back into the living room. Quinn and Natalie sat down on the couch, and Damian took the patched lounge chair nearby. He pressed his hands to his face and cleared his throat a few times before he started speaking. His half-jovial tone was long-gone. “I wanted to talk to you two about a few things.”
”Like what?” asked Quinn.
”Well, this whole magic thing,” Damian went on. He still said it like it was unbelievable, but every time the topic came up, Natalie felt stiff and uneasy. She hated lying to them, but after what Damian had said that morning, how could she possibly tell him the truth? “Apparently, there’s a lot more of them around than we thought. All over Washington. It’s getting worse, too.”
”Okay?” Quinn shrugged, playing it off as cool as always. Natalie let him do the talking, since she was too worried she might let something slip. Especially today, of all days, she didn’t trust herself to keep control. “Doesn’t really affect us though, right?”
”It might.” Damian sighed. “Quinn, I want you to promise me you won’t go anywhere after school anymore. You come straight home on the bus, got it? Same goes for you, Jenny.”
”But… what about game night? The Glasses Gang?” Quinn protested. “We can still hang out, right?”
”Not for now,” said Damian. “Tyler’s parents and Steven’s parents are telling them the same thing. You guys can still hang out at school,” he added, as if that made it any better. “Just… just until this blows over.”
”When’s that going to be?” asked Quinn angrily, while Natalie sunk even deeper into the couch. This is my fault too… Somehow, I know it is.
Damian shook his head. “We don’t know.”
”Look, that flying girl, Hailey Winscombe?” said Damian, cutting him off. “She just blew up a building in London.”
Natalie sat up straight, shocked. Hailey did what? “What do you mean, Mr. Kincaid?” she asked desperately. “What happened?”
”I don’t know. She flew out there, and some building blew up.” Damian shook his head. “The news is saying she’s committing a ton of crimes, and this is the fourth building to blow up with her in the area. She’s just one of these awakened people.”
”But—” said Quinn again.
”I don’t want you getting hurt again, Q!” Damian snapped, glaring at his son. “That was the scariest moment of our lives, do you know that? My phone lights up, says it’s the hospital, and the first words they say after they get my name are ‘your son.'” Damian shook his head. “I had no idea where you were or what happened to you. What if it was something worse? What if you hadn’t been found by a good Samaritan? You were out there all alone, doing God-knew-what, and you got hurt.”
Quinn didn’t say anything. He was staring at the floor, unable to look his father in the eye. Natalie looked between them, feeling torn apart—between the truth and her own safety, between Quinn and keeping her new home intact.
One look at Quinn’s pained face, one look at the friend Natalie knew would never betray her in a million years, even while his father berated him for something he didn’t do, and Natalie knew she couldn’t sit by.
”Mr. Kincaid,” she spoke up. “Quinn wasn’t there alone.”
”It’s my fault,” said Natalie. She took a deep breath, looking Damian in the eyes as she spoke, her voice surprisingly calm. It was nice living here, at least for a little while… “I was there with him. I’m the reason Quinn got hurt and had to go to the hospital.”
”You…” Damian faltered, opening and closing his mouth a few times. “Jenny, what do you mean?”
”I mean that I shoved him, and I knocked him out, and the back of his head started bleeding. It’s my fault.” Natalie stood up. Percy fluttered back to her shoulder from where he’d perched on the back of one of the dining room chairs. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I’ll go pack my things.”
”Now hang on—” said Damian, but Quinn leapt to his feet first.
”No, Jenny, you can’t go.”
”…What?” she said. She wasn’t exactly surprised Quinn leapt to her defense—of course he would, that’s why she liked him—but ‘can’t’ wasn’t the word she expected.
”Dad, she doesn’t have anywhere else to live,” said Quinn, turning back to Damian. “If you kick her out, she’s gonna be on the street all alone. You can’t.”
Damian hesitated. “I wasn’t going to kick her out.”
Natalie didn’t dare to hope, but she stopped moving. Waiting, just waiting.
Finally, Damian spoke up again. “Jenny, we’ll talk about this more tonight when Annette gets home, all right?”
She nodded, very slowly. “…I’ll be in my room,” she said quietly.
Damian nodded. “Okay.”
Quinn walked Natalie to her bedroom door, looking desperate. “It’ll be okay,” he muttered. “They’re just scared. They’ll let you stay. Don’t worry.”
Natalie smiled at him, but she already knew she probably wasn’t going to be living there much longer. No matter what Quinn might say, Natalie knew exactly how far a dad would go to protect his kid. If Damian saw her as a threat—and he should, if today was anything to go by—she wasn’t going to be welcome in his house. Not for one more second.
”See you at dinner, Quinn,” Natalie murmured. She held out her hand, and he took it. She squeezed his fingers, forcing herself through the pain in case she never got the opportunity again.
The door swung shut, and Percy fluttered over to the bed. Natalie laid down and pulled out her phone, scrolling through the news to see what was going on—to see what Hailey had done in Jessica’s memory, and to see how the rest of the world saw her. She needed to see how they felt about all the awakened, a number that included Natalie among them.
Yes. I’m one of them. Whether I want to be or not. I can’t get away from it, even when I try.
Do you want to?
Natalie shook her head. She held up her hand into the air, finger extended, and Percy fluttered over to perch. The old Natalie wasn’t strong enough to hold him up on just a single finger, but her new body didn’t have a problem with it. She stroked his little head, wishing both that she could be far away from it all, and that she could stay with Quinn and his parents.
I’m one of them. I’m awakened. I can’t change that, and I don’t want to.