East – Chapter 19

East – Chapter 19
by Pyr


“IS IT SOME SORT OF SEIZURE?”

“Asher says she’s never been sick before.”

“How can he possibly know that?”

“Trust me, that is not a story you’d want to hear.”

The pounding in my head, or is it my heart, my blood, my ears—or maybe it’s some sort of fire that’s erupted from my veins—

“Hold her down.”

“Where on earth did—”

“Stop,” I cry when hands touch my arms—they’re so hot, burning, branding into my skin—“I’m sorry,” someone says, and a female voice—“Shut up and keep her still”—“I can’t, I can’t, stop”—“What’s going on?”—“Is that East?”

“Enough.” Suddenly a pair of hands grabs me and pulls me upright. I see Callia’s red hair. Her skin doesn’t burn, I realize even as she slaps me lightly across the face. “Wake up!” She shakes me by the shoulders. “Wake up, look at me!”

I look at her, and her hair is so bright it sears through my vision. My eyes roll into the back of my head.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I wake up, and jolt off the bed and throw up, and someone says, “Shit,” and another voice—“Is she awake? East, stay awake, can you hear me?”

It’s so hot in the room, I’m suffocating, I try to throw the covers off—“Stop her”—I groan and try to move away, but Ian is speaking, saying, “East, I’ve seen this before, I can help you”; and a burning hand presses into he small of my back, then suddenly fire spreads up my spine—I hear a sickening crack—I scream—

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In between the blackouts and fits I have moments of clarity, though they’re fleeting, scattered, like cherry blossoms after a spring rain. I suppose somewhere deep in my head I must know they’re only hallucinations, however realistic they seem—Dennis, peering at me with worry; Ash with a DVD of 10 Things I Hate About You, saying, “I know it’s your favourite”; Callia pulling a brush through my hair; her and Ian working together, between giggles, to put it into a long braid.

Then there are the more twisted ones. Jem smiling softly as he shoves me out of the window; Parker and Andrew setting my room on fire; Maggie tiptoeing in, alone, wearing a chilling, macabre grin; the man from my last night at home approaching the bed, touching my forehead with one finger. “Your time will come, little girl. Wait for me.”

The last one makes me open my mouth to scream, but all that comes out is fire, fire, fire, and then all I see is black.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“How could you let her go that far?”

“I told her not to—I was trying to find her fire! I was trying to help!”

“You obviously fucking didn’t!”

I gasp out, “water”, and the voices stop yelling, and a cool glass touches my lips. I gulp greedily, drink, drink, drink. “Slow down, East, please,” someone whispers into my ear, but then his fingers touch my shoulder and burn through skin and bone.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I wake to an unusual sound, a sliding birdsong strangely reminiscent of jazz turns. I breathe carefully. I can feel each part of my skin against the smooth sheets, each breath of air as it passes through my nose, my throat, my lungs. And none of it hurts so much anymore.

“How long has she been out?”

It’s a woman’s voice. At first I think it’s the Professor, but that can’t be, can it?

Ash’s distinctive low voice sounds in reply. “Two days. Sometimes she wakes up, but almost immediately she’ll black out.”

“Has her fire manifested again?”

“No.”

A quiet sigh, then the cool touch of a finger traces my forehead. “Call me again when she wakes up,” the woman says finally. “I should go talk to the others. I wanted to check on her first.”

“What did you find while you were gone?” Ash asks mildly as she moves away.

I hear the door open. “Nothing that can help us, or her.” And then it closes, and I breathe in slightly, and recognize the scent of her perfume.

And then I can’t stop inhaling, breathing, trying to memorize it, desperate to take it deep deep inside me and let it ease this ache in my chest. She uses the same brand Mom used to use. Mom…

Callia’s words come back to me. Someone hidden away by her real parents in a town called Edgecliff…

Slowly, silently, the tears slide down my cheeks and soak the white sheets. There’s nowhere to hide anymore. Those people that Dad—that Jem’s dad had talked about, the couple who’d killed themselves alongside the real Winters girl… They were my parents. And they’re gone.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Callia is silent as she helps me sit up, propping a stack of pillows against the headboard for me to lean on. She shoos the others—Andrew, Parker, and Maggie—out of the room, barely acknowledging their protests, and picks up the tray of dinner and puts it on my lap.

“Eat,” she says shortly. “You need your strength.”

I fork a bit of steak, and chew obediently. Then a bit of the lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, more steak. My stomach turns.

She must’ve seen the expression on my face, because when all of that food comes back up again she’s already there with a bucket.

I cough, and choke, and when I’m done, she puts it away, and pours me a glass of water. I wipe my face with the napkin. My hands shake. She hands me the drink.

“Thanks,” I whisper hoarsely. I drink, drink, drink.

Callia nods at the bread. “Try a bit of that first. Or the fruit.”

“Why—are you—helping—me?”

She stares out the window at the violet seeping over the sky, the indigo shadows draped over the treetops. Her fingers play with the bracelets on her wrists. “I know how it feels,” she says finally. “To not be able to control the fire, I mean. I know it can be… Overwhelming.”

Something familiar tugs at the back of my mind, details I’d registered unconsciously and never seriously considered; but it’s too difficult to think right now.

She stays there with me while I finish the meal, only leaving once to get me more water. For some reason I’m endlessly thirsty; no matter how much I drink, my throat still burns and beads of sweat still dot my skin.

Once I finish with the food, she takes the tray and makes to leave.

“Wait,” I croak. “Tell me—is everything—okay? The ward—?”

Callia gives a small, short laugh. “You know it was part of the reason I suspected you, right? You broke that damn ward.”

“What?”

“When you ran through it like that,” she clarifies. “We checked the tapes. While Asher was busy lugging you back to the house, some sort of ripple effect went around the entire boundary. The whole wall just—solidified, kind of. We could see the webs of flame that it was made of. And then the entire thing just collapsed to the ground and winked out.”

“—oh.”

“Yeah, to say the least. But the Prof is back now, and I think she can fix it. Plus the house has its own traps. And Asher is hella powerful, and Ian… He’s got superpowers too.” Callia smirks as she says the last bit.

There’s a hint of wistfulness in her expression that I finally, suddenly understand. “You’ll see them sometime. Soon, probably, considering how close this psycho’s already gotten to our property.” Her face sobers.

The image of that clearing in the woods comes to mind again, and suddenly I remember the dream I’d had—no, not a dream, but something I’d actually seen. “About a month ago,” I try to say, but it comes out breathy and unclear. “The forest, I saw a cloud of red, about a month—” I break into coughs again.

She gets up, frowning. “Hey, slow down, maybe you shouldn’t be drinking that water so quickly—”

The coughs won’t stop—it becomes harder to breathe, I can’t gasp in enough air. Callia reaches for my shoulders, tries to thump my back, to help—she yells at the open doorway. It starts to hurt. I’m choking on nothing, I’m panicking, flailing my arms, grabbing at Callia—help me, help me—someone enters the room—I try to crawl off the bed, I just need to get to the window, that’s it that’s all I need just let me close to the window—

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A convulsive shock rips through me. My eyes fly open to meet a familiar pair of grey irises.

I stare at them, unable to speak, trying to convey with my eyes all the exhaustion and fullness I’m feeling, this sensation of being smothered, suffocated, as if I’m back at the old house again, back to that night, smoke in my lungs and fire in my eyes.

“East,” he whispers. He reaches out his hands.

Two pinpricks of fire touch my temples, and I open my mouth in a soundless scream as flames shoot into my skull, my brain, burning me from the inside out.

“No, not again,” I gasp, and I summon all of my remaining energy to shove him off of me. Ash tumbles back, shock in his eyes, and says, “We have to go. I have to save your…”

His voice fades away as the pain in my head throbs, thumps, thumps.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I’m being smothered in blankets. Sheets, so many sheets, wrapping around me, cocooning me. A hand pushes on my shoulder, forcing me to roll over, and I moan.

“Shhhh.” I hear Callia’s voice. “I’m helping you, idiot, let me help.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to call your patient an ‘idiot’, Cal.”

“You shut up, too.”

Their voices translate as noise, as white noise that is so loud it feels like it will burst my eardrums and hammer through my skull. I’m being pushed again, and, suddenly, dropped—I land in someone’s arms. I’m being picked up—my head spins, spins, as though there’s a 10-pound weight rolling around inside my brain…

A tiny sliver of flame makes its way up from my chin, across my cheeks, to my temples. “Rest,” a low voice whispers.

I recognize it and immediately I try to thrash about, to get out of Ash’s arms, but it’s too late, I feel lethargic, enervated…

“It’s creepy how good you are at doing that…”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

It’s cold. That is, my face feels cold, my nose feels bitten, though the rest of my body still feels unbearably hot. My face is buried in a stack of pillows yet somehow I still hear a steady thump-a-thump, like the beat of my heart, against the ostinato of steady taps of rain. And… Music?

I force my eyes open just a sliver.

I see a sky, white-grey with clouds. I see rain splashing and stretching along a small rectangular window. I see pine trees, tall, needled, almost furry, black and deepest green. Behind them rises the shadow of a mountain, made hazy by rainstorm clouds but still visible, sloping mildly up and then back down again…

It’s the forest, I realize, numbly. I’m going through the forest, in a car. It’s moving faster and faster, making the trees blur into barcodes. The engine is a comforting purr in beneath my cheeks. Finally I realize that the thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump, comes not from my chest, but from a windshield swiper.

Summoning all of the rest of my energy, an effort that in itself leaves me numb and shivering in heat, I turn my head to look towards the driver’s seat. All I can see is a tuft of blond hair.

There’s movement somewhere out of my peripheral vision. “She’s waking up,” a voice whispers. Ash turns around and meets my eyes, then looks away, and reaches his hand out to me without ever slowing down the car.

This time, I don’t even try to escape him. His fingers brush across the top of my head. My eyes droop shut.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“It’s still raining. She’ll die before you ever reach the cabin!”

“I can keep her warm.”

“Being warm is sort of what’s wrong with her, Asher.”

The car door opens, shaking the entire car. I try to uncurl myself as a blast of winter air slithers into the car, and then I’m being pulled out of the seat. Almost unconsciously, I smile when the first few splatters of rain kiss my lips.

Then—heat replaces them, but I can’t speak, can’t make a sound, can’t protest the loss of the cold rain. Something has cut them off although I still hear the droplets sprinting over the leaves and branches around us. Two strong arms gather me up against a chest so warm that it immediately dries away the remaining water on my cheeks; my head lolls to one side, and gets pushed back.

As soon as I settle into this new position, a sound catches my attention. A trickling sound, so overshadowed by the music of the rain so as to almost be totally inaudible, but somehow still loud. I strain my ears…

“It’s going to take almost two hours for you to get there if you’re carrying her like that.”

“I hike out here all the time. You know this.”

“Yeah, but can you maintain that little umbrella plus this cocoon-y blanket thing plus your own body temperature for two hours?”

…I hear each rush of current over rock and pebble, each splat as a raindrop crashes through the speeding surface…

“Yes.”

…it’s a stream, or a river, or maybe a xylophone or a marimba, I can’t tell…

“This is not the time to let your ego get ahead of—”

“My ego has nothing to do with this. I know what I’m capable of.”

“Fine. But what are you going to do if she breaks the ward on this boundary, too?”

“I can put it back together.”

I moan, and they finally stop talking. A hand briskly pushes my hair out of my face and drops something soft but heavy into my lap. “Callia,” a voice hisses sharply, and the chest against my cheek rumbles.

“I’m checking on her.” A pause, and once again I try to find that running stream, but suddenly the body beneath me starts to move and that trickling sound grows fainter, fainter, fainter… “You never told me you were this powerful.”

“I couldn’t tell anyone, Cal. I still haven’t.”

“Whatever. Just don’t die out here. Ian would never forgive me.”

“Hold him off, please.” More movement, a bit of jostling; the stomping of feet in mud and through bushes keeps cutting off my concentration. “I ne—East needs this. It might be the only thing that will save her life.”

“I’ll do my best, but it’s hard to say no to your mom.”

“Go to Edgecliff, then. It was the plan anyway.”

“You think she’ll let me follow the old plan when you’ve run away? I’m supposed to be ‘powerful’, remember? She’ll make me protect them, or something!”

“Tell Ian the truth, then.”

“What?”

Finally, finally, finally, he stops moving. I wiggle a little, trying to get back to where that sound came from…

“Don’t you think he deserves to know?”

“He’d never forgive me for this!”

A small sigh. “It’s your call. But I need to go; I need to get East to the cabin as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, yeah, go. Just… Be careful, will you?”

“Always.”

And then he starts to move again, and I lose track of the stream completely. His walk breaks into a jog, then into a run that rocks me up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down; all the while I can hear the rain, so close to me, yet still so far away, far enough that I ache to wake up, to touch it, to become a part of it…

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The first thing I notice is the sheets—or, rather, the lack thereof. Pressed against my chin is something soft and thick and… Hairy?

My eyes shoot open. Layered over me are two thick fur blankets, a big brown one that covers this entire gigantic bed, and a smaller, but still huge, white pelt nearer to my feet. My nose wrinkles; if it isn’t so stuffed already, I’d be sneezing nonstop.

But then I look around the room, and the unfamiliarity of everything has my heart jumping up to my throat. Only a faint memory of Ash and Callia’s conversation—“cabin”—keeps me from screaming my head off and sprinting out of here as fast as possible.

Which, I reflect grimly, wouldn’t be very fast anyway, considering the state I’m in.

The rough-hewn wooden wall directly facing me is completely taken up by a window that stretches almost from floor to ceiling, but there’s still enough room for two low shelves of CDs (or are they DVDs?). To my left is a crooked stone fireplace, in which there is currently no fire, I’m relieved to note. To my right is the door, and a writing desk cluttered with papers, pens, and a few keepsakes. One of which looks rather familiar.

I try to slide out from under the covers; this alone takes several long, hard minutes. Very gingerly, I rest each one of my feet on the floor, and stand. Almost immediately I collapse back onto the mattress. I try again with one hand tightly holding onto the wall.

That works. I make my way to the desk, and bend to take a better look at the photograph leaning against a stack of books near the back. It’s a picture of white and grey cliffs dipping towards a tiny stretch of white sand. Lapping gently at this shore is a pool of foam-streaked, greyish-blue water, clouds of bubbles visible beneath its surface.

Everybody knows this picture, because it was allegedly taken by a tourist to Edgecliff years and years and years ago—yet everyone knows it doesn’t exist. No one’s ever found this cove, not even me.

But I know this particular image for another reason. It’s a postcard that I bought one summer with plans to mail it to a friend, only he came back from his “trip to Europe” early and so I never sent it. He should never have found it. So how can it be here?

A door slams close somewhere across the hall—soft but quick footsteps—the door bursts open before I can even think about grabbing something to defend myself, and Ash barges in.

“I know your secret,” he says firmly. “You don’t have the fire.”