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rosemarywisdom

Singapore

February 18th, 2022

cause all my thoughts run astray
and I'm a walking cliché

“If you want your life to be a kickass film, then
begin by realising that you are the director, screenwriter, producer and lead actor.”

Message to Readers

WHOOO SURPRISE UPDATE #2

Unspoken

December 6, 2018

FREE WRITING

6
I don’t want to talk about it.

Maybe someday, in the near future, after you finish reading this, that line might just be considered something short of funny.

Maybe someday, if ever I come to terms with my horrible, crazy, depressing, straight-up tragic past, I’ll talk about it.

But for now, I’ll stay silent.

Later on, I might have things to say. But not now.



                                                                -=+ Chapter One +=-

I shuffle into my seat, two and a half minutes after the bell. The teacher, Ms. Abbott, shifts her glasses on her nose, and peers down at me, a kind of malicious enthusiasm in her cold green eyes.

“Late again, Gamora?” she asks. There is a not-so-silent whisper and some snickers at the sound of my name. I grimace at the modern, ahead-of-my-time name I hated. And before you ask, no, my parents were not Marvel superfans.

“It’s Autymn. Autymn Halloran.” I mumble, taking out my notes.

“Well, Autymn Halloran, I suggest that you owe us no more interruptions in the near future. I’ll see you this evening, in detention. Good morning, all! Sorry for that… interruption. Now, I assume you all did your homework? Pull it out of your bag and bring it to my desk.”

“Yes, Ms. Abbott.” I inwardly groan. Detention! Great. Just great.

I pull out my math homework. It is a mess of numbers and crossed out lines. There is a rough sketch of a phoenix on the top left corner. I flatten it and place it gently on Ms Abbott’s desk. She looks it over and gingerly picks it up by the corners, eyeing the phoenix drawing, a disgusted frown on her face as if the paper is coated in nuclear debris. I got that same frown when I was working at the vintage coffee shop and I served coffee. She sniffs at it as if she expects it to be coated in dirt or even sewer waste. Ms. Abbott dusts it off with her hand and sets it down on the homework pile, frowning at me. “No doodling on homework,” she says sternly. I scowl, but Ms Abbott doesn’t notice. Thankfully, she doesn’t comment any more on the state of my homework. The girl behind me is not so lucky, though.

“Wynter? Just waiting on you, now!” Ms. Abbott says impatiently. Wynter, huh? Interesting. And no, I had no idea that was her name, and that is not why I chose Autymn. Wynter bites her lip and walks up to the teacher’s desk. She stiffly holds out the ruined, empty homework and looks at her feet. Ms Abbott arches her eyebrows disapprovingly and drops it in the recycling bin.

“Back to your desk, Ms Warlen. I expect more next lesson. Detention, after school, Friday.” Wynter walks back to her desk and buries her head in her bag, dejected. I feel bad for her.

                                                                                 ***

Class finishes all too quickly. I gather up my belongings and am the last to file out of the classroom. However, I’m not alone. Someone’s following me! I get annoyed very easily, so I narrow my eyes and whirl around, face to face with my pursuer.

It’s a guy! A guy was following me. He had dark brown hair that swept into his deep blue eyes, and the sort of roguish smile that made most girls swoon.

Yeah… I’m not ‘most girls.’

I scowl, not even aware of the fact that my own burgundy hair flopped into my eyes. I brush my side fringe away, annoyed.
Ack!

“What do you want?” I ask angrily.

He puts both of his hands in the air and backs away slowly, as if cornered by an attacker, or perhaps an angry lioness.

“Hey, you’re Gamora, right?” he asks, scratching the back of his neck.

Wrong. Wrong thing to say.

“Don’t call me that!” I hiss. “It’s Autymn.”

He tilts his head to one side. “Autymn isn’t short for Gamora. Is it like your middle name or something?”

“Maybe I would tell you if you stopped asking annoying questions!” I roll my eyes.

He is silent for a couple of minutes, but continues to follow me like a very annoying puppy (I didn’t even know it was possible for puppies to be annoying until now)and runs a hand through his hair, messing it up.

He pauses. “So… are you gonna tell me?”

I scowl again. “I changed my mind. No.”

“Please?” he begs.

“Why is it so important for you to know anyway?!” I ask, a touch of asperity to my words.

He looks sheepish. “Um… I guess… I don’t really know.” He runs a hand through his hair again. “I’m awkward, I guess.”

I soften a bit (not enough, just like 0.1% of my persona) and roll my eyes at his annoying antics. “What’s your name, jughead?”

He shrugs and runs a hand through his hair yet again. Why does he keep doing that? “Chris,” he says finally, “Chris Levy.”

“Well, Chris Levy, would you kindly explain the obviously important reason why you have targeted me as your outlet mall this morning?”

He brightens. “Can I call you Gam?”

I huff, now extremely annoyed. “No, you may not. And you are missing the point here. Why are you following me? What exactly is in it for you?”

“I… I wasn’t following you.” Chris says, apprehension dawning in his eyes.

“Oh, ha ha,” I say, making it clear that I am NOT AMUSED. “Now why were you following me, really?”

“I just… you know… wanted to make sure you were ok. After Ms. Abbott targeted you, I meant. I mean, we’ve all been there.”

Um, what even was this reason? I’d honestly rather him rant at me for asking.

“Yeah, thanks but no thanks. I can take care of myself.” I say.

“I noticed,” he says, a touch of veneration to his words.

“And just so you know, that Wynter girl got detention, too! You totally noticed how Ms. Abbott targeted her for the whole homework thing!” I say, now very annoyed. When was it that this Chris Levy guy would get some perspective? He ignored me twice, purposely changing the subject. Never, in my life…

“Hey Gam?” he asks, and I want to explode and maybe set one of the sewer alligators on him. Can I do that? I ponder this so I’m not really listening to what he says next.

“Don’t call me Gam, jughead.” I snap.

“So, do you?” he asks at the same time.

“What?!” I ask.

“Know where the assembly hall is. Because if you don’t…” Chris starts.

“I’m sure I can figure it out.” I say, exasperated. This Chris Levy guy just would not let me BE!

“Ok then,” he says, and shoves his hands in his pockets. He bounces on his toes.

Oh for heck’s sake, LEAVE ALREADY!!!

“Do you want to head there now? If we get there early, we won’t miss anything in the assembly.” Chris says, looking hopeful.

“Yeah, I think I might,” I say absently, before adding “Alone.” scathingly in my mind.

“Ok, then!” Chris says, and bounds after me, like an excited puppy trying to keep up with my walking speed (I’m a super fast walker, especially when I’m trying to shake off annoying jugheads like this Chris Levy guy.).

Ack.

I sigh, still very exasperated and annoyed. What did I do to deserve this? I ask myself.

But then suddenly I hear something very, very strange. I hear a peal of high, tinkling laughter.

I know that laugh. I would know that laugh anywhere.

“Oh, Autymn,” says a disturbingly familiar voice. “What have you gotten yourself into?”

“Wh-what?” I ask, my voice trembling. “Vicky?”

“Vicky who?” asks Chris. ACK! Why oh why does he have to but in to everything?!

“Nothing.” I snap, regaining my I-am-the-lioness-and-you- are-just-an-annoying-jughead-puppy face.

He inches closer to me and awkwardly places a hand on my arm, as if he’s afraid I’ll sprout fangs and attack him, or perhaps self-combust.

Hmm. Not a bad idea.

I whip around and stare at him with a menacing gaze that makes guilt-ridden-puppy Chris Levy shrink away, embarrassed.

Aww. He’s intimidated by me.

I walk to the assembly hall. With purpose. I hope in my heart of hearts that Chris Levy does not follow.

No such luck, as I can still sense him behind me.

What is it with this guy?

                                                                    -=+ Chapter Two +=-

The assembly hall is deserted when I arrive, Chris Levy trailing behind me.

“What time does the assembly start?” I muse.

“9:45.” Chris pipes up.

“I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to me,” I snap.

“But I’m right.” Chris smiles smugly. “I know I am.”

I roll my eyes. Boys.

Before I can respond, the loudspeaker crackles to life. “Gamora Halloran, please report to the principal’s office.”

Chris annoyingly jumps at the chance. “Do you know where it is?”

“Yes,” I lie, to get him off my back.

“Well, maybe I can go with you! You know, because it might be helpful to have a friend with you there!” Chris smiles, looking triumphant.

“We are not friends,” I say.

He pretends to not have heard me. Or maybe he really didn’t hear me. Or he didn’t want to hear me. Either way, no reaction whatsoever.

“Let’s go!” he says, his face bright.

I’ll go,” I say. “You have an assembly you need to get to.” Thank heck for that.

“I’ll skip,” he says, a kind of new fire in his eyes that I didn’t see before. Someone gave the puppy a knife.

“No, no you won’t. You’ll stay here.” I say, my mind made up. Honestly, what did I have to do to get this Chris Levy off my back?

“Take him with you. You can try to shake him off on the way there.” said that same voice. Vicky’s voice.

I could still see her so clearly in my mind: sweet, caring Vicky with her big blue eyes, pale skin and wavy blonde hair. I’d loved and protected her since she was five years old. Though I was only nine at the time, when my mom died, leaving Vicky and I to be evicted, I understood how important it was that Vicky and I stayed together and protected each other. I trusted her with my life.

“And I trust you with mine,” Vicky says.

She would be so upset if she saw you now, chides a voice in the back of my head that is neither mine nor Vicky’s.

Shut up, I tell it. You know nothing about Vicky.

“Don’t listen to what it says, Autymn,” says the voice that sounds like Vicky. “I will always love you, and will always be happy
for you. Mom and Dad would be so proud if they saw you now.”


Oh Vic, how can you bear it? I ask, directing these thoughts towards Vicky. You were only thirteen!

“Shh…” Vicky’s gentle voice reaches out, enveloping me in a mental hug. Then she laughs. “I think your boyfriend is trying to say something.”

He’s NOT my boyfriend!  I argue. He’s not even my friend.

“Hello? Gam?” Chris annoyingly interjects, interrupting my train of thought. I narrow my eyes at him, and the Vicky in my mind continues to laugh at either him or me. I’m hoping it’s him.

“Don’t call me Gam.” I say out loud. “If you want to come along so badly, fine. Just don’t bother me.”

He happily follows me out of the assembly hall and toward the principal’s office. Of course my mind is swirling with unanswered questions, most of which are Vicky’s.

“Why’d you get sent to the principal’s office in the first place?” she asks.

I don’t know, Vic. I say in my mind, trying to be brave. How could I not be? I couldn’t exactly tell people that the spirit of my dead sister was living in my head. If that’s what was even happening. Maybe it was all happening in my mind. Maybe Vicky’s voice was just a figment of my imagination.

Maybe I’m going crazy.

“Gam, we’re here.” says Chris.

“Don’t call me Gam, and don’t wait up either.” I snap. I head through the double doors leading to the principal’s office, slamming them behind me.

“Gamora Halloran?” asks the secretary.

I wince. “Um, no. It’s Autymn.”

She doesn’t look up. Instead, she directs me to a door labeled PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE.

The principal, a tall, slim woman with dark brown hair tied in an elegant updo, peers down at me.

“Gamora?” she asks. “There’s been some urgent news.”

“Um, Principal…” I start.

“Levy. Principal Levy.” she says.

“Levy?” I blurt out. “As in Chris Levy?”

She folds her hands and sighs. “I see you’ve met my nephew.”

“Um, yeah.” I stare at my feet. Well, this was a plot twist. I wanted to mention to her that her nephew was one of the most annoying jughead puppy-eyed boys alive on this planet, but I was about 100% sure that wouldn’t go over well.

She massages her temples. “I can assure you, my nephew is no easy feat to live with.”

I laugh. “You’re telling me.”

She smiles at me. I bet she’d be a cool aunt. “Gamora, something popped up at the… foster home that pays for your education.”

“Um, Principal Levy? It’s Autymn, actually. I was never that fond of Gamora.”

“You go by your middle name?” she asks. Like aunt, like nephew, I guess.

“Autymn’s not my middle name. It’s a childhood nickname. My sister gave it to me when we were little. She was Mayple and I was Autymn. I used to go by Gamora, actually, up until about a year ago. I took Autymn when Vicky...” I manage, staring at the ground.

She smiles. “That’s sweet. Well, Autymn, something happened at the foster home. Something that concerns you and your… sister.”

“What about us?” I ask tentatively.

Principal Levy (ok, that’s still a bit weird!) sighs. “Last week, there was a… tragic accident concerning the fate of Miss Aurora Vanderfort.”

“Miss Vanderfort?” I bite my lip. “She took Vicky and I in when no one else would. She could afford to.”

“Well, apparently, she could afford to do anything. But she… last week, there was a terrible accident. The foster home caught fire. Miss Vanderfort didn’t make it.” she finished.

Immediately I know what this is about. I experience a sudden sinking feeling in my stomach. I’m going to be kicked out.
They’re going to expel me now that Miss Vanderfort isn’t there to pay my fees.

“Miss Vanderfort died with a large sum of money to her name. According to her will, she wants all of it to be divided amongst the orphans that she cared for. Unfortunately, none of the orphans that were staying at the foster home got out in time. Only you and Vicky were staying abroad. So technically, the money goes to both of you.” Principal Levy concludes.

“But Autymn,” says Vicky’s voice in my head. “I’m long gone. Which means…”

“The money goes to me?!” I ask in surprise.

The principal nods. “That’s why I called you here today. Because now you have over 70,000 dollars to your name. School fees are only a small percentage of that money.”

At first I’m shocked. Then I just feel disbelief. Denial takes over that disbelief, which is replaced by the feeling that finally, I can make my own choices. I have the freedom, the time and the money to do so.
“Really?” I ask.
“Really.” she smiles.

                                                                       ***

Chris Levy is waiting for me outside his aunt’s office.

“So how’d it go, Gam?” he asks.

“Don’t call me Gam, and none of your business.” I snap.

He shuffles next to me so he can walk beside me. “That’s okay. I’ll just ask my aunt later.”

Oh yeah. Like I could forget that tiny little detail.

“Well, it was fine. I didn’t get kicked out, if that’s what you were wondering.” I say, my hands in the pockets of my ripped jeans.

He relaxes his stance. “Good.” he says.

We awkwardly stand there for an agonizing three and a half seconds, avoiding looking at each other.

“So.” he says.

I clear my throat. “So.”

I bounce on my toes. Chris Levy stares at me expectedly.

“So… what?”

“I don’t know.” I reply, now confused. Um. This is very awkward.

“I’d best be getting back… you know, to my new dorm.” I say, hinting heavily for Chris Levy to LEAVE ALREADY.

“Do you know where it is?” he asks.

“Um, yes,” I say, exasperated, “and even if I didn’t know, I could probably figure it out.” The‘by myself’ part is implied.

“Oh,” he says. “Okay. I’ll leave you to it, then. See you around, Gam.” he says, smiling that roguish smile at me again.

I roll my eyes, but smile back despite myself.

                                                            -=+ Chapter Four +=-

I drop my black leather school bag on the floor of my new dorm. I unzip it and pull out my sketchbook.

“Autymn?”  Vicky’s voice asks in my head. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I answer out loud.

I sigh and start to sketch the same person I’ve tried to sketch for the past year now.

I start with her face. Clear skin, pale complexion, vivid blue eyes, small, pixie nose with a flick at the end. Long, black eyelashes and thin eyebrows. Full lips curved into an innocent smile, dimples showing. Long, blonde hair curled into princess waves. Then I sketch her neck and thin build, wearing the light blue dress Miss Vanderfort made for her. Thin, small legs wrapped in silk stockings and tiny feet enclosed in polished shoes. I stare at the drawing of my sister on my sketchbook page.
But there’s something… off about it. The drawing doesn’t look like Vicky. It just looks like pencil on paper. So I rip it out and chuck it in the trash can, despite Vicky-in-my- mind’s protests.

“You’re such a good artist!”  Vicky protests. “If I were still here, I’d want to keep it!”

No, Mayple. I reply silently this time. It wasn’t good. It was just like the other ones I did of you. They don’t look like you, Vic.

“Well, maybe you need a new subject. Someone you can actually see.” I can feel Vicky smiling.

“Who, Mayple?” I ask out loud. “If not you, then who do I draw?”

“I don’t know,” I get a miniature headache as I can feel Vicky shaking her head. “Someone you know perhaps, eh Gam?” I can’t see Vicky smirking, but if she were sitting next to me, she would be.

I roll my eyes. “You are so annoying. And anyway, you shouldn’t be eavesdropping, even if you persist in being inside my head.”

“Don’t you have a date with detention, right about… now?” Vicky asks.

I check the clock. “Thirty minutes, Mayple. I can still make it.”

“Oo-kay then.” Vicky rolls her eyes, and I get a wave of nausea. “I just don’t want you to get in trouble… the detention room is on the other side of the campus.”

I lean my head back and massage my temples to clear the nausea. I take deep breaths to block out Vicky’s complaints.

I pull out a fresh sheet of drawing paper and one of my pencils. Before I can rethink this idea, (Vicky’s, by the way, not mine) my pencil is already gliding its way across the paper.

I start with the hair, dark brown and swept carelessly across the forehead. Then the face shape, and the features. Deep blue puppy eyes, freckles across the nose. Full lips curved into a roguish, cocky, and fully arrogant smile. Chris Levy stares back at me from the page, a gleam reflected in his dark blue eyes.

I roll my eyes at the picture. “Jughead.” I say, before rolling the picture up and placing it carefully in my bedside table drawer.

I can hear Vicky laughing in my head all the way to detention.

                                                                 -=+ Chapter Five +=-

After detention with Ms. Abbott, I start to head back to my dorm for a well-deserved rest.

I shiver. The corridors are drafty at night.

“Autymn?” Vicky asks timidly. “I’m scared.” I can feel her mental presence curling up into a tight little ball.

“It’ll be ok, Mayple.” I say, with more confidence than I have. “It’ll be ok. We’ll get back to the dorm and settle down for the night.”

A storm is brewing outside. Lightning flashes and thunder booms. Vicky’s mental presence curls up tighter, and I can hear her sobbing. Poor Mayple. She never liked thunderstorms.

I never liked them that much either, for that matter.

When we lived in the sewers, some nights the storm winds would be so strong, they would threaten to blow the grates off the top and expose us. Vicky would cry, and it would be my job to protect her.

Up until recently, I never actually realised how much responsibility was on my shoulders.

I trip over something and fall to the floor. Vicky screams, and my migraine intensifies.

I look to see what I’d tripped over. I’d tripped on a loose tile, drenched from the rain.

“It’s okay, Mayple.” I say, taking deep breaths to calm Vicky down. I can hear her sniffling.

As the lightning continues to flash, and the thunder continues to boom, the storm exacerbates.

Then something really weird happens. When the lightning strikes a spot very near the window, it illuminates a strange door.

Which then creaks open.

Intriguing.

“Um, Autymn?” asks Vicky timidly. “The dorms are that way.” I feel an instant pain in my head as Vicky turns it sharply to the left.

Yeah, well, I wanna go this way, I think scathingly.

I wait for Vicky to retort, but she doesn’t. So without even thinking about it, I step inside the door, which slams shut behind me.

No turning back now.

I can hear Vicky whimpering like a sad puppy in my head. Trying to shake the pounding it gives me in the back of my head, I try to find the walls. If I find the walls, I can find the direction I’m supposed to go and avoid hitting any… obstacles.
When my eyes adjust to the light (or lack thereof), I can see a winding staircase that leads down.

“Down where?” sobs Vicky.

Just down, Mayple. I guess we have to find out, I think to her.

“You were always the adventurous one, always the amazing one, always wanted an adventure like in the movies. You really lived up to your name. No one came near me to try and harm me because of how fierce and formidable you became.” I can feel Vicky smiling sadly. “You always protected me.”

“And I’m gonna do that now, Mayple. I’m not gonna let anything happen to you-er, me… us.” I say out loud, not sure who to reference anymore.

I find the walls and carefully make my way down the winding staircase. Vicky curls up tighter, and soon her heavy breathing makes it clear she had fallen asleep.

I creep down the staircase, not wanting to wake her, when my hand touches something that feels like a button.

I press it, totally oblivious to the consequences.

Well, that was about the stupidest thing I could have done all day. Maybe all week. Maybe even all year. Maybe in my life.

The stairs turn into a slide. Thankfully, not a slippery one. Just when I think it’s going to be all right and I can find a way past this obstacle, I hear water rushing, like I’m near a waterfall.

Before I can react, water is rushing out of all of the walls at a mile a minute. It crashes together like one gigantic tidal wave and suddenly I am riding down the world’s fastest, longest waterslide. I am drenched, it feels like there’s a tsunami behind me, Vicky’s woken up and is screaming at the top of her lungs, which does NOTHING to help my headache, and yet some small part of me, that isn’t screaming “terror!terror!terror!scared!scared!run!” is screaming “THIS IS AMAZING!!!”

My head goes under and I see my life rapidly flash before my eyes. The terror part takes over and I kick to the surface, gasping for breath, when I am pulled under again. I plough into walls and am generally thrown around before I realise one very important detail.

“The water is rising!” moans Vicky. “You’re going to die! You’re going to die down here and no one will ever know! They’ll find your dead body down here years later, when-”

“Thanks for making me feel a lot better, Vic.” I say, annoyed.

I have to paddle ferociously in order to stay afloat. The water continues to rise until I stop sliding and my head goes under once more. For good.

Then suddenly the water stops rising. That’s it. It’s reached the ceiling. I’m so dead. I start to wonder if these will be my very last thoughts.

Uh-oh. I suddenly feel the need to breathe.

Well, goodbye world.

NEED AIR!!! CAN’T BREATHE!!! LUNGS EXPLODING!!!

Then suddenly, like someone had just pulled the plug of a giant drain, the water level starts decreasing.

Rapidly.

My head breaks the surface. Air! Air! I’m breathing air! I’m not dead!

“You’re not dead!” Vicky cheers.

I take several deep breaths, and size up my surroundings. I’m in some sort of pool, and there are over a million brightly colored crystals fused to the walls. The room is ablaze with light, a beautiful contrast to the dark staircase of before.
There are four large pillars in the very middle of the pool. They are like stalagmites and stalactites on end, almost touching, one crystal coming out of each of the stalagmites. Each pillar has a different colour crystal, and they glow with an eerie light. One is a vivid coral orange, one is a bright aqua, one is a light blue, with swirls of deep purple, and one is a shade of deep scarlet red.

I feel drawn to the scarlet one, and start to move toward it.

“It must be a ruby,” says Vicky, her voice dreamy. “Only rubies are that sparkly.”

But then Vicky’s voice goes away, and is replaced by a new one, a commanding one.

Go. Get it. You do want it, right? You have to go get it.

I don’t know,  I reply to the new voice in my head. It doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before. It could be dangerous.
You have to get this one. It is important! the voice continues. This could be the difference between everything. Think of how astounded everyone will be when you bring a centuries-old scarlet crystal up from a secret passage in the school! Think how they’ll all finally want to talk to you and be your friend.

Shut up, I continue to resist. SHUT UP!

Think about the glory you’ll get. Think about who might be interested in such a treasure. Come on, Autymn. You’re a nobody. You talk to your dead sister in your head, for goodness sake. I know why you wanted Chris Levy to go away when he was talking to you. You didn’t see how someone like him would ever talk to someone like you.

SHUT UP! I scream, hoping it’s enough.

“Autymn!”  I can hear Vicky calling. “AUTYMN!”

Before I know it, an invisible force inside me slams into my side. Like a magnetic force, I’m pulled over to where the scarlet crystal is.

But then I’m suddenly realizing how stupid this all is. I mean, who wouldn’t go get it? I had to get it, before it goes away for good!

I reach my arm out, and my fingers rest on the scarlet crystal.

At first, nothing happens for about three and a half seconds. Then the crystal glows with an eerie red light, getting brighter and brighter until it is almost white. It blinds me for a couple of seconds and I fall to the floor, trying to shake the light. As I fall, I accidentally dislodge the crystal with my hand. The whole room shakes, and crystals everywhere start falling into the shallow water. Afraid one will impale me, I curl up into a tight little ball.
Pain shoots through my body and I want to be submerged in the water to ease the pain. Well, if I wasn’t going to die before, I am now.

“Fight it!” Vicky cries. “Come on, Autymn, FIGHT IT!!! You’re a fighter! You have to fight the pain! Whatever you do, do not let it destroy you!”

I try to fight the pain, but Vicky’s constant screaming in my head only adds to it. I try to scream, but my mouth is paralysed in fear and pain.

I… can’t… fight… it, I manage. I can’t, Mayple. I’m… I’m sorry.

I hear voices, incomprehensible to me, around me.

“Take her.” one of them says.

Then I black out.
                                                                                                     ***

I’m dead. I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.

I’m still submerged in the pool, but I’m floating, completely dry and somehow breathing. There are no pillars, no crystals anywhere and no creepy voice in my head. No anything. The cavern is open to the sky, and I can see bright light flooding in from above.

I look down at myself. I’m wearing a simple white, flowy knee-length gossamer dress. No shoes. My burgundy hair is out, and for some reason, long and wavy. Yeah, it’s always wavy, but I cut it with a pair of old kitchen scissors someone threw out when I was eleven, and it’s stayed uneven ever since.

What are you doing in there? chides a voice somewhere up on the surface. Come on, do you plan on staying in there all day? The voice sounds more amused than angry.

I get closer to the surface, and I can hear it clearer now.

“Hold on, Gam.” says Chris Levy’s voice. “Come up.”

I break the surface, taking deep, calming breaths of air. Fresh air, unlike anything I’ve ever breathed before.

I see him standing there, barefoot, wearing a burgundy shirt and jeans. His dark brown hair is carelessly swept across his face, and his deep blue eyes gleam mischievously at me. He smiles that roguish smile again, trying not to laugh.

“Come on, Gam.” He smiles. “Take my hand.”

I grin back at him from the water. “Jughead.”

I reach up and take Chris Levy’s hand.

                                                                                             ***
When I come to, I am lying down in an uncomfortable position. I open my eyes and look around. I’m lying in some sort of hospital bed.

Uh-oh. I’ve been hallucinating. After detention, I must have been struck by lightning on my way back to the dorm and have been having crazy visions ever since. Or I must have passed out. Yes, that must have been it.

“What did I miss?” asks Vicky’s voice, and I want to explode with joy when I hear it.

Nothing much, Mayple, I think, reassuring myself rather than Vicky. Nothing at all, actually.

“Gamora Halloran?” asks a voice. The same voice I heard before I passed out.

I open my mouth to say the familiar “It’s Autymn!”, but no words come out.

Hmm. Strange. Maybe my mouth is still paralysed or something.

I turn over to see the school nurse and Principal Levy hovering over me.

“Shh!” says the principal. “I think she’s waking up.”

I groan (thank goodness I can still do that) and stretch. Then I start to feel around. I still have all the right limbs in all the right places. Phew. All my teeth in place? Check.Ten fingers and ten toes? Check, check. Two eyes, two ears and one nose? Check, check, check. I reach a hand up and run a hand through my hair. Uneven, as per usual. I knew the wavy hair of my hallucination was too good to be true. And I was assuming that my face still looked the same, because otherwise the principal and nurse would be looking at me all weird.

“She’s coming to. She’s currently in a steadfast state.” says the nurse solemnly.

I start to sit up, but the principal won’t have it. She sets me back down on the bed.

“Oh no,” she says. “You need a good rest.”

I open my mouth to ask what happened, and how they found me, but no words come out again.

Hmm. Very strange.

The door bursts open and I crane my neck to see who it is.

“Gam!” says a familiar voice.

I roll my eyes, but can’t help but smile.

“Chris!” chides the principal. “You shouldn’t be in here. You’ve still got homework to do!”

“I’m sorry, Aunt Arcadia, but I just had to check that Gam- um, Autymn was ok.” My nickname sounds strange in his mouth.

I secretly wanted him to keep calling me Gam, but I couldn’t tell him that for two reasons: 1, my pride. I hated to admit I was wrong.

And 2, I wasn’t entirely sure I was able to tell him.

I also wanted to tell Principal Levy that he could stay, but I wasn’t able to do that either.

Now I was beginning to get very worried. What if my mouth was paralysed forever?

Ok, I’m worried now Mayple, I direct my thoughts toward Vicky’s mental presence. What if… what if touching the crystal made this happen?

“Made what happen?” asks Vicky.

I… can’t… talk.

As soon as those words were brought to light, I knew it was true. I can’t talk. I can’t talk. I can’t talk. I CAN’T TALK.

I wanted to shout those words as loud as I could, but… oh yeah! I. CAN’T. TALK.

I sit up suddenly. Principal Levy tries to get me to sit down again, but I violently shake my head no.

Chris smiles when he sees I’m ok, and starts to leave.

More head shaking. I put my hand on his arm and mouth the word no and then the word stay.

I bite my lip. Something’s wrong, I mouth.

The three of them look confused. I sigh, and mime a pencil and paper.

The nurse comes back with something better. A whiteboard!

I take the marker, board and eraser she gives me and write in big letters:

I CAN’T TALK

Chris makes a strangled sound, and the principal and nurse look very concerned. Some other patient starts crying, but I ignore the noise.

“You didn’t...“ the principal begins, then lowers her voice to a whisper so that her nephew and the nurse don’t hear, “touch anything underground, did you? You can just nod or shake your head.” she adds.

I pause, and give a tiny nod.

“As in you did or you didn’t?” she asks, still whispering.

I nod, and mouth the words I did.

Her eyes widen and she utters a small squeak. She gulps and taps the nurse on the shoulder. “May I speak with you in private, please?”

The nurse meekly nods and follows the principal out of the room.

Chris and I are left alone. We awkwardly stand there for about two seconds before Chris gets over his shock of the news.

“Oh, god, Gam,” he starts. “How did this happen?”

I take a deep breath. Then I take the whiteboard and start to write down everything that happened to me, with heading back to the dorm after detention, the storm, the door, the button, the slide, the water. I even write about Vicky’s voice in my head. Then I start to write about the pool, the cavern, the crystals, the pillars and the creepy new voice in my head. How it told me to take the red crystal, and I did. I quickly finish writing.

And then… I blacked out.


Chris frowns. “That’s it? No aftershock? No denial? No anything?”

I gulp, and shake my head. Nope. No anything. No anything that he’ll ever know, anyway.

He sighs. “Gam, this is a lot to process.”

I exhale. I know, I mouth.

“Ok, this is going to make a few things difficult… but, we’ll figure something out. Together. I promise you, we’ll work this whole thing out.” he says, and reaches for my hand. I instinctively pull away, but his hand brushes mine anyway. I feel an electric current race its way through me, but I try to shake the emotion. I couldn’t be in love. What was I thinking?

“You weren’t thinking,” says Vicky, and I can sense her smiling. “You were feeling.”

Shut up, I say (yes, I can call directing my thoughts towards Vicky’s mental presence talking now).

“Something up?” Chris asks.

I smile, tilt my head to the side and gently shake it. I write:

Sister issues. Nothing major, though.

“Oh, right. I’m still getting used to the idea that Vicky’s living in your head and all. And the fact that you can’t talk.”

I shrug, and mouth Yeah, but what can you do?

He smiles. “That’s why I like you, Gam. You’re always cool in the face of fire.”

My heart beats a little faster at these words despite myself. I’m suddenly glad I can’t talk, because otherwise I would be
stuttering right now.

All I can do is nod and smile, because I have nothing to say, so I don’t write anything down.

God. This ‘no talking’ thing is making me seem like a very insensitive person.

The nurse and the principal both come back inside. I quickly stare out the window and subtly make sure there were no words left on my whiteboard.

When they reach me, I mouth So, what are we going to do? and tilt my head to the side.

The principal shakes hers. “Autymn, we’ve decided something. You can’t head back to school if you can’t talk. We’ll notify the teachers and set something up in here for the time being.”

I sigh. That meant it was permanent, then. For now, at least.

Then I get an idea. I start to ferociously scribble down words on my whiteboard:

What if this is like a curse of some kind? When I touched the crystal it activated and now I can’t talk. But with every curse there’s always a way to break it. So… what if we can?

The principal’s eyes go wide and the nurse grips the edge of a chair, knuckles white.

“You… you touched a crystal?” asks the principal. Her eyes look like they’re welling up with tears.
I exhale, and grimly nod.

“Oh. Oh my. This changes things. Autymn, this isn’t good. Not good at all, my dear.”

Why? I mouth.

The principal turns to the nurse and Chris. She politely asks them for a private word with me, and they head out of the room.
When they were gone, Principal Levy stares at me, a kind of fire in her eyes not unlike her nephew’s.

Except her expression reads: I am so, so sorry.

“Which one did you touch?” she asks with a desolate voice, like she was watching a loved one die right in front of her.

I sigh, and point to my red shirt. Red, I mouth.

“Oh. That explains it. That explains a lot.” Her face falls again. “Did you hear voices of any kind?”

I nod gravely.

“What kinds of things did they tell you?”

I take a deep breath.

Bad things. Stuff I didn't want to hear. Stuff I could’ve gone my whole life without hearing.

“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry.” Principal Levy says, and pulls me into a sympathetic hug, like I was the loved one she’d watched die.

I shake my head violently. WHAT HAPPENED? I mouth. WHY?

She wipes a tear from her face. “All right,” she says sadly, “I’ll tell you.”

I move closer and wait patiently to hear the rest of the story.

“When the founders first had plans to build this school, they wanted to find the perfect spot. They searched all over the world, but couldn’t find anywhere suitable for the school. One day, they stumbled upon the very land we tread on now, and decided that it would be the perfect spot to build their school. What they didn’t know was that this land was sacred land, blessed by generations of a tribe that thrived on this land long before we did. The tribe begged and begged and told the founders to reconsider. But the founders were greedy, and wanted to make a lot of money off of applications. So they killed off all the tribespeople and built this school that you are standing in right now.”

I gasp, my eyes wide. Even though it sounds like a whole lot of fairytale inanity, the very fact that I AM UNABLE TO UTTER
WORDS kind of proves it a little bit.

Ok, a lot.

I nod, and motion for her to continue.

“After the founders killed off all the tribespeople, they made measurements to start building the school. But the tribe elder materialized in front of them, and told them that if they stopped now, no one would have to suffer and they could leave in peace. But the founders laughed and said they wouldn’t. The elder sighed and shook his head and said that they left him no choice. This scared the founders, and they threw their weapons at him. But he escaped. He disappeared into thin air.”
What happened next? I mouth.
“After the elder left, the founders searched and searched but they could not find him. So they resumed their progress. At first, everything was fine. Until one fateful day when the four founders had had a busy morning of building, they started to settle down for a little break. The first founder decided to explore. Winding his way around the side of the (now very tall) building, he found a secret tunnel leading into the catacombs underground. Curious, he lit a torch and descended into the depths. He found a cave where wonders awaited him. Crystals as far as the eye could see! There were five pillars in the middle with five different crystals: one, with an aqua so bright it could disintegrate the darkest of shadows, two, coral as orange as new blood, three, a purple and blue one that reflects the tears of the saddest of souls, four, a scarlet deeper than the darkest heart and five, a sparkling diamond shining with all sorts of vibrant colors. The founder knew that if he took even one of these back to his friends, they would know that he was the true hero and should be recognized as the only founder. He grabbed the diamond, and pulled it off the stalagmite. What he didn’t know was that all four stones were cursed differently. You’re very lucky you only touched the crystal. He tried to bring it out of the cavern. Once his arms closed around it, and he dislodged it from the stalagmite, he fell to the ground, dead, shattering the diamond into a thousand pieces.”

My eyes widen. I’m suddenly very glad I didn’t try to take the crystal.

I motion for her to continue.

“When the other founders noticed that their friend and co-founder was missing, they looked everywhere for him. They found him in the catacombs, where his dead body was still clutching the shattered pieces of the diamond. He wore an expression of absolute terror, and the other three founders were freaked out. They ran out of the cavern, and tried to forget about it. But their friend’s dying face still haunted their nightmares, and they decided to bury the cavern even deeper underneath the school where no one could ever find it again.” She clears her throat. “Up until now, at least.”

“Every principal who has worked at this school knows the truth of its hidden secrets. I have a key to the doors, which will appear for only a week in a year, and only noticeable during lightning storms. Now, I have to use that key to lock them again.”

The nurse rushes in. “Principal Levy, another one. The coral one.”

“Another?” Principal Levy looks anguished. “We can’t keep letting this happen. Next electrical storm, you’ll take me to the door, and I can lock it until the next year. Until then, we have to make sure no one touches the last crystal… I’ll do everything I can. Put out warnings. Make sure that every single person is safely inside their dorms during electrical storms.”
“But for now, stay in here. You’ll be staying here in the hospital wing until we can find another place.” she says.
                                                                           
                                                                                                 ***

Early that evening, another girl is brought inside, accompanied by a boy who is reassuring her. She’s crying… or at least I think she is. Her tears are blood red.

I shiver and turn over in my bed. The nurse brought me some tomato soup about thirty minutes ago, and I haven’t touched it. I am suddenly not so hungry for tomato soup. The longer I stare at it, the sooner it becomes the same color as that girl’s tears.

I shiver again. Vicky sighs, which is unusual, as I haven’t heard from her since early this morning.

“Autymn, what are you going to do? You can’t exactly call for help, and the school is in a secluded area surrounded by forest. So, what’s the plan here?” she asks.

I wish I knew, Vic, I say, directing my thoughts towards her. I wish I knew.

Vicky sulks. “Well, let me know when the plan is ready to launch into action, then. If there are no more interruptions, I’m going to bed.”

Interruptions? I ask her, feeling irritated. Interruptions? I’m the one who can’t talk here!

But she ignores me. Soon I can tell by her heavy breathing that she is asleep.

The rest of the night goes quietly.

The girl with the blood tears lies down on the hospital bed next to me. Her face is free of blood, and she’s smiling at the boy next to her(her brother, I’m assuming, since he looks just like her.) She settles down onto the bed.
Soon, she’s sleeping too. Her brother curls up next to her and strokes her short, black hair.
I toss and turn. The hospital wing is freezing. I try to shake the frigid feeling from my skin, which feels like frost is slowly creeping over me. I wrap the threadbare blanket tighter around me, but it does nothing to help the cold.

Suddenly, there is a rapid banging on the door like someone is trying to force it open. I sigh, annoyed and slam my pillow over my head in the hope that it’ll block out the noise. It works, and the noise stops, for a couple of seconds, at least, until it COMES BACK, and much louder this time. Whoever is knocking at that door is really in a hurry to get in. When no one else comes and lets whoever that is inside, I slam my pillow on the ground, grab my whiteboard and tread heavily to the door, very, very annoyed with whoever that was who thought they had a right to be banging on hospital wing doors this late at night and waking everybody up.

(Credit, I was already awake, and the blood-tears girl and her brother still seem to be deep in sleep.)

I write:

ARE. YOU. SERIOUS?! WHAT DO YOU WANT AT THIS HOUR OF THE NIGHT???

Then I wrench open the door, my hair askew and my face in an annoyed, tired scowl.

Chris Levy is standing there, holding a crumpled piece of paper in one hand. I roll my eyes and show him what I’d written.

He looks sheepish. “Um, sorry Gam, but I had to get in. I had to show you something.”

Show me what?

I write, confused.

“I had to show you the one part of the story my aunt didn’t tell you.” he says.

Oh. OH! This is news! I immediately rouse the Vicky-in-my-mind and get her to listen as well.

Mayple, I say. Looks like there’s a part of the story we missed.

“Ooh, good!” says Vicky. “Finally, something we can do! I’m so sick of lying around in this hospital wing all day.”

I tilt my head and shrug as if to say, Well, go on! What’s the story?

He takes a deep breath. “Ok. I’m really not supposed to be telling you this, because it’s actually top secret. My aunt didn’t intend on telling me, either, but I overheard her talking about it to the vice principal. Apparently, the vice principal was saying something about a map, and my aunt said that she kept it in her safe. I knew the password to said safe, so I unlocked it, as I was curious to see what map they were talking about. And, um, I found this.”

He holds out the crumpled piece of paper. “But it’s blank,” he continues. “And it was the only thing in the safe.”

I crane my neck to see the blank map. And to my astonishment, I can see an actual map of the school. The passages shift and turn, revealing a large section of underground catacombs. Someone had hastily drawn an X where the catacombs met forest, and had scrawled the words, ‘START HERE’ next to the X. Then, they’d drawn a trail leading deep into the forest, ending finally with another X, this one in red marker. They’d put an arrow next to it, along with the words, ‘WHEN WHAT’S SHROUDED IS REVEALED, THE ELDER ONE SHALL BRING AN END TO YOUR SUFFERING.

Whoa. So. Not. Blank.

I violently shake my head, and write:

What do you mean, blank? It’s not blank. I can see it!

He freezes. “You… you can see it? What does it say?”

I roll my eyes. Clearly, ever-oblivious Chris Levy will never change. The fact that I can’t talk means more writing for me.

Joy.

All right, then. So the map is a map of the school, and the underground catacombs. There’s a trail, leading into the forest, with an X marking where we need to go. They wrote: “When what’s shrouded is revealed, the elder one shall bring an end to your suffering.”

His face breaks out in a smile. “That’s… that’s great, Gam! Let’s go!”

I raise an eyebrow. What, now? I mouth.

“Yeah, why not now? You want to be able to talk again, right?” he asks.

I nod. More than anything.

“So let’s go!” he says.

I shake my head. We can’t, I mouth.

I write:

That girl with the blood red tears… your aunt said she touched a crystal, too. We have to bring her along as well.

“Ok!” he says, his face reminding me of an enthusiastic puppy.

I sigh.

Would she be willing to tag along?

“She’s cursed too, right? So presumably she wants to… not be cursed? So I’m sure she’ll come.” he says.

I sigh again.

Look, why don’t we sleep on it? If we are both still game in the morning, and the girl and her brother are willing to come along, we’ll go. Okay?

He reads it, then smiles. “Okay.” he says. “You need rest. Sorry for disturbing you earlier.”

I shake my head. It’s ok, I mouth.

He half-smiles. “No, it’s not ok. I’m sorry. But… I brought you something that might help with the temperature in here.”

He tosses me a burgundy hoodie. My burgundy hoodie. I breathe in the familiar smell of pine trees, hot chocolate, cinnamon and better days.

I pull the hoodie over my head. I know I should be wondering how he got it, but right then I was too warm, cozy and tired to care.

He pulls up an armchair and sits next to my bed. My eyelids flutter, but I don’t protest. He brushes the hair off my face and my eyes close again.

This time, they don’t open until early the next morning.

                                                                         ***

Early the next morning, the door opens, rousing me. The nurse comes in, holding a pet carrier.

Chris Levy is still sleeping on the armchair. I tilt my head gently to the side and smile.

The blood-tears girl from earlier is awake, though. Her brother is gone. She is rubbing her eyes, and her cheeks are smeared with dried blood.

She and I look towards the pet carrier, both wearing confused expressions. “What’s that,” she asks, “is it a pet?” She seems to be annoyed that she has to be the one to speak.

“No,” the nurse says. “This is your new roommate.”

The blood-tears girl says quietly, while smiling, “So we get a pet roommate?”

The nurse opens the pet carrier. Inside is… the tiniest person I have ever seen. I mean it. She’s so tiny!

I write:

Why is she the size of a doll?

Even as I write it, I know that the word ‘doll’ doesn’t quite fit. Dolls were much bigger than this tiny person. Maybe I should have written dime or Polly Pocket.

But wait. She looks kind of familiar, but I couldn’t quite tell from where. As I leaned closer to study her tiny face, I realize where I recognized her from. It’s that Wynter Warlen girl from math class! The one who didn’t turn in her math homework.

Well, almost. Her hair color has changed. It was black, but now it is a whitish color, like mythical creatures or elves in fairy tales.

Maybe we should leave her alone for a while.

The nurse nods. “This is all obviously… shocking.”

We get up and leave her alone. I start to ferociously scribble on my whiteboard:

WHAT. HAPPENED. TO. HER?

The nurse looks scared. “Another crystal. The blue one. We can only hope the last remains untouched… at least until we can find a way to lock the door until next year.”

Another crystal? Wow, these curses are pretty… creative. No talking? Blood tears? Tiny… curse? I can only shudder to think of the final one.

The blood-tears girl’s eyes widen.

“How did you know about the crystals?” she asks.

The nurse sighs and turns to her. “You touched the coral orange one, didn’t you?” she asks.

She nods. The nurse turns and looks at me.

“Autymn touched the scarlet one. And as I said before, that girl, Wynter,” she says, gesturing to the pet carrier, “touched the blue and purple one.”

Blood-tears girl and I look at each other.

“Each crystal is cursed differently,” the nurse continues. “But even though you do know about them, we have to ask you not to share this with anyone else.”

We can only glance at each other and nod. I bite my lip.

When the nurse leaves, the blood-tears girl smiles at me.

“Hey,” she says. “I’m Symmer.” She pronounces Symmer like Summer.

“Gamora, wasn’t it?” she asks. I violently shake my head and start writing on my board.

But, you want us to call you Autymn?”

Finally.

“So, Autymn, you can’t talk?”

More head shaking.

“As in you can or you can’t?” Symmer asks.

I scowl. That’s like the second time something like that happened in two days. I notice her lips twitch a bit.

I can’t, I mouth.

“At least I don’t cry all the time. Just when I’m feeling particularly sad…” her voice trails off, and she looks at the picture on her nightstand. It’s of her and her brother, arms around each other.

So I was right that he is your brother, then?

She nods. “Jay. Jake. Jacob. What ever you wanna call him.”

I smile and put a hand on her shoulder.

I never had any brothers. I had a sister, but she died a year ago.

Her eyes go wide. “Oh… oh my… I’m so sorry. Oh, I must seem so insensitive to you.”

It’s okay. Not many people know about Vicky, anyway.

“Hey!” Vicky says. “I’m still in your head, you know! So not 100% dead!”

I know, Vic, I direct my thoughts toward her. I’m just not ready to share the whole dead-sister-living-in-my-head thing yet.

“You shared it with Chris.” Vicky complains.

That’s different.

“Different how?”

I don’t know Symmer very well yet.

“You don’t know Chris very well yet either.”

She’s got me there. No! I will not let her win this!

I’ve known him longer than Symmer. I’ll mention-er, write it. When I’m ready.

“Fine.” finishes Vicky.

But Symmer’s eyes are already welling up with tears. Blood-red tears. The blood starts spilling down her cheeks  and she wipes it away.

It’s ok. Don’t cry. I’m sorry!

I write, and she shakes her head.

“It’s not your fault. I know I shouldn’t cry, because of the curse, but sometimes, I can’t always help it. I lived in foster families my whole life. I know how you feel.”

Yes, you can. I’ll help you. I hardly ever cry.

“Thanks, Autymn. But ever since the curse, it seems harder to control my tears. Whenever I’m feeling like, a tiny bit sad, I just start crying.” she smiles a little sadly. The blood dries, and she starts to wipe it away with a moist tissue.

When her face is clean, we turn back to the tiny Wynter. She is crouched on the bed, barely ten centimeters away from the box.

“Hi,” says Symmer. “Remember us?”

The tiny Wynter meekly nods.

You okay?

I write, and she nods again. I lean in closer, and sure enough, I can make out her words, even though they are quiet and very faint.

“Yes, I do remember.” she says. She turns to me. “Autymn, right?”

You got it! First try, too. I applaud you.

“And you’re Symmer.” She turns to face Symmer.

“That’s right.” Symmer smiles. “Wynter?”

“Yep.” She smiles, and tries to walk forward. But she trips over and lands flat on her face.

“Being so small really sucks,” she starts. “I can’t even walk properly anymore.”

Symmer nods and glances at me as if daring me to argue. Instead, I try for humor.

You can’t walk, I can’t talk,

I write.

What else is new?!

Wynter laughs. “You’re funny, Autymn.”

I grin and nod. Funny when I want to be, rather.

                                                                                    ***

Later, the nurse brings in a breakfast tray. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve eaten, but I finish an entire tray of breakfast plus a berry smoothie the nurse brought from the cafeteria.

Incredible, considering I hardly ever eat breakfast. For me, it’s all usually about lunch or dinner. Breakfast never seemed that important.

Symmer doesn’t seem to be hungry, though. She just picks at her bacon sandwich.

Wynter’s scrambled eggs were served on a coat button and chopped up so finely I could barely see them, but she seemed to enjoy them. She had some milk in a tiny doll’s thimble. I don’t even know how they found a knife and fork that tiny.

Chris stirs. Stretching out in the armchair, he rubs his eyes and runs a hand through his hair.

“Morning, Gam.” He smiles. “Breakfast?”

I roll my eyes and nod.

“You can have mine,” Symmer offers. “I’m not that hungry, anyway.“

She passes her tray to Chris, who devours it like nobody’s business.

“So,” he says, after taking a bite of his bacon sandwich. “What’s the plan here?”

“What plan?” Wynter asks, her voice faint, peeking out of the door on the pet carrier, where she slept. It now has a cotton ball, which serves as a mattress.

Chris looks to find the source of the voice, and finds the tiny Wynter inside the pet carrier.

“What… the… who is that? Is that even a person?” he asks.

Wynter puts her tiny arms on her hips. “Um, yes it’s a person! It’s me, for goodness’ sakes! Wynter Warlen, from math class?!”

Chris looks puzzled for a few seconds, then nods as if he gets it. “Oh… so you’re that Homework Girl, then. The one who didn’t hand in the assignment.”

Wynter sulks. “Seriously? You really wanna go there? After all I’ve been through, you really think I can take someone calling me Homework Girl?!” She turns to me. “Is he always this oblivious?”

I raise an eyebrow, grin and nod.

Yes. He is.

“Hey!” he says. Then he pauses. Running a hand through his hair, he stares at me as if contemplating something. Finally, he says “Am I really that oblivious?”

I laugh gently and nod.

In the best way.

That must be enough because he smiles at me and reaches for my hand again. I pull away and stare at him, wondering if he
would win in a fight against that sewer alligator.

Maybe I’d give him a really weak one.



                                                                -=+ Chapter Six +=-

Later that day, we hear a sharp knock at the door.

“I’ll get it.” Symmer says, after nobody stands up, annoyed. She proceeds to do so.

She gently opens the door, and gasps.

Her brother is standing there, a sweatshirt in his arms. He shrugs, and smiles at her. “Miss me, Sym?”

She smiles. “Nah. Not that much.”

“Aw,” he smiles. “Well, then it would be a waste of my time to have come from Mum and Dad’s to just give you your sweatshirt back, then.”

Her eyes widen. “You came from Bianca and William’s?”

He shoves his hands in his pockets. “Well, yeah. They would kill me if they found out I was here, though.” He takes her hand.
“But I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

“All right, I did miss you. A lot. And you totally know that. Are you going to stay now?”

Jay smiles. “Whatever you want. Trust me, I’m in no hurry to get back either.”

“Thanks.” Symmer says.

“Jeez, kid. Your hair looks messed up.” He ruffles her hair.

She smiles. “Like I care.” I’ve never heard sarcastic Symmer before. This came as a surprise? She seems to be so much open with her brother. I purse my lips.

Jay enters the hospital room, and Symmer introduces him to everyone.

“This is Wynter,” she says, gesturing to the pet carrier. Jay leans in. At first he looks shocked, but then he shakes it off and smiles.

“Nice to meet you, Wynter. I’m Jay.” he says.

“And this is Gamora, who prefers to be known by Autymn. Don’t ever call her anything else.” she says, nodding toward me. “But she… um… she can’t talk right now.”

I snort.

Try ever. Jay, you won’t be hearing my voice anytime soon, I can promise you that.

He laughs. “Autymn, Symmer, Wynter… is there some other season person I should know about?” He turns to Chris. “Is your name Sprying?”

Chris laughs. “Nah. It’s Chris. Chris Levy. Nice to meet you.”

Jay fist-bumps him, and grins at us.

“Maybe I should change my name to Sprying. So… what’s everybody up to these days?” Jay asks.

Chris and I exchange a look. We should tell them, he mouths.

I glare at him. Not yet.

The map, Chris mouths. Don’t you think they should know about it?

I don’t know, I mouth. I mean, what if it only works for one person?

It won’t, he nods. I promise it won’t.

Hold on, I mouth. It was time to speak to my sister.

What do you think, Vic? I ask. Should we tell them?

“I don’t know, your call.” Vicky starts. “But… I agree with Chris that they have a right to know. I mean, they’re cursed too.”

I know, Mayple. I just…  it just doesn’t feel right.

“Oh COME ON, Autymn! I know what this is about! This isn’t about it only working for one person at all, is it? It’s about your… trust issues.”

Oh, I do NOT have ‘trust issues.’

“Yeah. You do. When you live inside a person’s head, you kind of start to understand their thoughts and feelings. And you, Gamora Halloran, have trust issues. You avoid telling people things and sharing information with them because you don’t trust them. You don’t know how to let your guard down and you convince yourself you don’t share things with people because you don’t ‘know them very well.’ Come ON! Do you know what I think? I think that you should let your guard down JUST THIS ONCE, if that’s not too hard for you to do, and TELL THEM about that map because chances are, it may be the only way you’ll get to talk again, or that Symmer girl could cry real tears, or that Wynter girl could go back to being normal-sized. Tell them about that map so that you all can follow it to wherever it leads and you can get rid of these stupid curses! Maybe it’ll fix your trust issues too-”

Okay, OKAY! I’ll tell them! Just admit I don’t have trust issues.

“Can’t. Because you do.”

I so don’t.

“You do.”

Don’t.

“Do.”

Ack, fine! I’ll tell them! Just quit annoying me!

Vicky smirks. “I knew you’d come around.”

I exchange another look with Chris, and give a small nod.

That must be enough, because he nods back and pulls the piece of (supposedly) blank paper out of his school bag. He spreads it out on the table.

“Yesterday, while you were asleep, I snuck into the hospital wing with a new piece to the story my aunt told Gam the other day.” Chris recounts the story of the founders to them, and they listen attentively.

“So, this new piece of the story. I heard my aunt talking to the vice principal the other day…” he starts.

“You shouldn’t be eavesdropping.” Wynter says.

“I know. But this is important, I promise. So my aunt was talking to the vice principal, and he was telling her something about a map, and she said that she kept it in her safe. I knew the password to the safe she mentioned, so I unlocked it and found this.” he says, gesturing to the map.

“I don't get it,” Jay says. “It’s blank.”

Symmer’s eyes widen. “No. No, it’s not. I can see it! Jay, you can’t see it?”

Chris grins. “Gam and I already figured that one out. See, only people who have touched a crystal can see it.”

Symmer looks at me, asking me silently if I can see it.

I nod. Yeah, I mouth.

She turns to Wynter. “And you?”

She nods. “It’s very big, but I can see from here that it is most certainly not blank.”

“Gam recounted the words next to the X for me.” Chris continues. “‘When what’s shrouded is revealed, the elder one shall bring an end to your suffering.’” 

Wynter’s eyebrows knit together. “Yeah, I can see that. Does this mean… if we follow the map, we’ll find what we seek and the curses will be lifted?”

“That’s the thing. We… kind of don’t know for sure.” Chris says. “We were just going to follow it and see where it leads, because right now, this map is our only hope.”

“‘Our only hope,’” Vicky repeats dreamily. “I like him. For you, I mean.”

Ignoring her, I nod.

If ‘what we seek’ is a way to lift these curses, then I think the map is our best bet. Who’s game, then?

Chris grins, a fire aglow in his eyes. “As ever.”

Symmer smiles. “Count me in.”

Jay shrugs and smirks at his sister. “Oh, what the heck. Me too.”

Wynter nods eagerly. “Anything to be normal-sized again.”

Let’s do it then. Tonight, we follow the map. It may take a few weeks, so I hope everyone’s okay with that.

Chris pales. “If my aunt finds out I’m gone, I’m dead.”

Jay grins a lopsided grin. “I’m with ya, bro.”

I tilt my head to the side.

Does she have to find out? I mean, she hardly ever sees you, right? And your parents, Jay?

Chris shakes his head. “I live with her. My mom died when I was little, and my dad died three years ago.”

My stomach twists into knots. I’m sorry, I mouth. Then I sigh.

I’m a foster kid. My dad died when I was a baby, and my mom died when I was nine. Vicky and I were only children, and yet we were evicted from the apartment and had to fend for ourselves until I was sixteen and could get a job. We had no money and no place to sleep. It’s a miracle the foster home took us in eventually. When Vicky died a year ago… I don’t know how I was able to handle it.  

He takes my hand and I don’t object. “Gam… Autymn, I’m so sorry.”

I shake my head, and take a deep breath.

Call me Gam.


                                                           
                                                            -=+ Chapter Seven +=-

That night, we got ready to leave the school and follow the map into the catacombs.
Chris told his aunt that he signed up for one of the school trips, and would be gone for two weeks.
Jay told Symmer’s foster family that she was gravely ill, and he needed to stay with her until she got better, which was estimated to be in two weeks.

During the day, I got a large, clear plastic box from the art department and punched breathing holes in it. Then I packed up Wynter’s sponge, doll thimble and coat button into it, and show it to tiny Wynter. She says, “Can there be a door in it? So I can go in and out? That way I won’t be completely helpless.” So I cut a square door in the box. She seems to prefer it. The nurse spent time making tiny outfits for her, so that she doesn't have to wear the same clothes all the time. I fit curtains into the box that she can open and close, and duct tape up the top, leaving the breathing holes.

And finally, Symmer and I told the nurse where we were going, under the strictest instruction that she was not to tell anyone where we were, or to alert the principal. She was also to close off the hospital wing to anyone else, and ban all visitors. If someone got sick while we were away, they would head to the clinic, not to the hospital wing.

“Everyone all packed?” Chris asks.

Jay, Symmer and Wynter murmur agreement. I just nod.

“All right, then. Let’s start to head out.” he says.

All of us are nervous. We’ve never done anything like this before. To drown out the nerves, I pull out my most prized possession, a mixtape my dad made for me. I know, it’s outdated and all. But I would choose it over any smartphone. And besides, I like retro things.

I sigh in relief as I pull the headphones over my head and the familiar music starts to play out of my headphones. I let the music envelope me and take me back to better times.

Symmer holds the map out in front of her. Jay is carrying the box with tiny Wynter inside. Chris slings something over his shoulder that looks oddly like a guitar case.

I raise my eyebrows. Do you play? I mouth.

He looks at the ground and nods. I just smile.

We reach the first point on the map that is marked with an X and the words ‘START HERE’. It’s an old tree on the far side of the school grounds.

I take my headphones off, put them around my neck and carefully inspect the tree from all angles.

There is a streak of something dark red on the tree that looks like paint. Below that, there is a cluster of gold letters engraved into the trunk.

D
 E
   S
     C
       E
         N
           D

Symmer furrows her brow. “What does ‘DESCEND’ mean?”

“I think it means we start here.” Jay says.

“We go in the tree?” asks Wynter, doubtful.

Chris shakes his head. “Not in it. Under it.”

I realise everyone is looking at me for confirmation. I nod.

The map indicates that the catacombs begin under that tree. We have to, as it says, ‘descend’.

“But how exactly do we find these catacombs?” asks Symmer.

I run my hands around the trunk of the tree, looking for something unusual or out of place. My fingers rest lightly on the red streak of paint, and run over the letters.

Chris grabs one of the branches. “So, is there some kind of secret entrance, or-”

He accidentally tugs on the branch. A gaping ravine opens up in the ground. And we descend. And by descend, I mean plummet.

Honestly? After the whole almost-dying thing before I touched the crystal, I’m not that surprised this time.

Chris, Symmer and Jay all look petrified. Jay keeps a tight hold on the box containing tiny Wynter. Well, they all can scream.
For some reason, I can cheer, laugh, groan and sigh, but I can’t scream. This is weird.

I just sigh and shake my head. Well, if I’m going to die, this is the worst way to go. No reaction whatsoever.

All of a sudden, we stop falling. Like, literally stop about a couple of centimetres above ground level. We are suspended in mid-air, facing the ground. Then, we drop to ground level for those last couple centimetres, so the force is taken off. We’re safe… for now, at least.

Getting up, the four of us (plus Wynter in her box)size up our surroundings. It’s mostly dark, so I rummage through my leather sling bag and pull out a flashlight. Keeping my eyes on the dimly lit winding path in front of me and keeping the map in my peripheral vision, I shine the flashlight onto the path, leading the group into the catacombs.


                                                    -=+ Chapter Eight +=-
Following the path is a lot harder than we thought it would be. With only two flashlights and five of us (counting tiny Wynter) we have to stick close to the walls, at my suggestion.

My whiteboard and marker are tucked away in my leather sling bag, so I am stuck with being silent for now.

Sigh.

“How long does this path go for, anyway?” asks Vicky.

I smile slightly. At least I still have my sister.

Symmer keeps close to Jay. Jay takes her hand (with the hand that’s not holding the box) and gives it a comforting squeeze. I feel a sharp pang in my heart. Symmer and Jay reminded me so much of Vicky and I when we were fighting for survival.
Together. We got through it all together.

And yet only I pulled through.

“Autymn!” says Vicky. “The room’s getting brighter! There must be a source of light that way!” She turns my head to face forward again.

And she’s right. The room does seem to be getting brighter. I can see Symmer, Jay and Chris clearly and tiny Wynter is no longer a tiny dot in her box.

“There’s light ahead!” exclaims Symmer.

The five of us, me in the lead, excitedly follow the light. I stop to check the map and what I see there isn’t exactly what I want to see.

I want to see a little sign that says catacombs exit on the map. But what I do see… well, it unnerves me.

“Uh oh…” starts Vicky.

The map says the source of light is the entrance to the crystals cavern.

                                                                                  ***
What I have learned from my no-talking experience so far is that when you or another member of the group is in imminent danger, you really really want to shout to everyone to let them know.

So it is SUPER frustrating when you can’t.

I didn’t see the point of pulling out my whiteboard because
  1. the group’s attention was focused on the light coming from the crystal cavern.
  2. I had no way to get their attention to look at my whiteboard because I couldn’t talk.
  3. I really didn’t want to seem like the annoying person who goes around tapping people when she has something to say.
So I do what I know how to do.

I aim a light kick at Symmer’s shin. “OW!” she says, and finally, finally turns around. “What was that for?!”
I show her the map. Her eyes widen and she mouths oh no. She turns to Jay and asks if she can hold Wynter’s box. When Jay hands it to her, we show Wynter the map. It takes her a while to process it (obviously, since it must be the size of a football field to her)but when she does, she freaks.

“I don’t want to go back in there.” she says, but her voice is fainter than usual. She closes her curtains.

“We have to warn Jay and Chris.” says Symmer urgently.

Wynter’s tiny head peeks out from the curtains. “Uh, guys?” she starts. “It might be a little late for that.”

Both Jay and Chris are staring, mesmerized by the last crystal.

I try to swallow, but I can’t. My heart is lodged in my throat and it feels like I have a pit of writhing snakes in my stomach. I can’t move and I want to, I want to just scream but I can’t, so that’s cooped up inside of me along with all of the words I want to, I need to but I can’t say.

It’s all agony.

And somehow I know that all of this is not a side effect of the curse.

Symmer looks on the verge of tears and she’s whispering to herself “Hold it in, hold it in, Sym, you can do this, no tears…”
She’s biting her lip so hard I can see blood dripping down her chin and she calls out to her brother but somehow, somehow I am unable to hear it. I can only hear the blood rushing in my ears. Even Vicky’s voice has become mute. Everything seems to be in slow motion as Jay and Chris - Chris - both reach out to touch the crystal at the same time and I want to shout “NO!” but I can’t and I feel like I might faint.

A voice echoes through the entire cavern. Somehow I can hear it this time, though I may be unaffected by the trance that the last crystal has put on Jay and Chris and I can tell Symmer can hear it too. Wynter’s eye is peeking out from the curtains and she seems to be listening intently.

Look at this! Two of you, but only one crystal! Whatever shall we do?

Jay and Chris stare at each other, but their gazes are empty, like they aren’t really seeing.

I know… chides the voice, laughing a maniacal laugh. You could always fight for it…

I bite my tongue again and again until I taste blood. My gaze doesn’t waver. I try to breathe, but it seems I have lost the ability to do that too. I feel like I am stuck underwater, and there is something above me that’s preventing me from coming up for air, and slowly, slowly I am losing breath.

But Jay and Chris seem to think that whatever the voice is saying seems reasonable. They scowl at each other and appear like they’re getting ready to fight each other, and maybe kill each other in the process.

I hold on tight to a stalagmite, hoping it would keep me from doubling over.

Symmer is now crying and her tears are bright red. “NO!” she screams, dropping Wynter’s box on the ground and flinging her arms around her brother’s neck. “STOP! JAY, PLEASE!” She sobs into his shirt, making it all bloody, but he doesn’t seem to notice, much less care. His empty gaze is fixated on Symmer now.

Leave the girl, the voice muses. Fight him, but leave the girl. Her damage has already been done.

Symmer is really crying hard now. “No, p-please…” she stammers, but she’s in a weakened state with so much blood loss and she proceeds to sink to the floor.

Tiny Wynter is standing in the doorway of her box, the door open. She too is shouting things out, but I can barely hear them.

That’s when I think of how much pain I was in when Vicky died.

No. I can’t lose anyone else.

Just before Chris and Jay start to fight, I grab Symmer’s hand and pull her toward her brother. She’s still weakened, but when she stands, some of her strength returns. She limps toward Jay and sobs into his chest, hugging him. “P-please…” she cries.

“It… it’s me, Symmer...” Jay turns to her,  his gaze still empty, but his expression pained, like he was trying to fight whatever trance this awful place had him under.

I can only hear the voice laughing as I try to sprint towards Chris. Everything slows down, it seems, as I try to fight the intense pain shooting into me.

When at long last I reach him, I have to hold onto his shoulder, otherwise I’ll lose my balance and fall. I want to shout “SNAP OUT OF IT!” but I can’t.

So I did the only thing I could do.

I apologize in advance, I think desperately.

I slap Chris Levy hard across the face.

He looks shell-shocked for half a second, but the trance is broken. His gaze is no longer empty and unfocused. He looks at me, his eyes searching my face for some trace of what had just happened.

“Gam, you… you…” he stammers.

Saved you? I mouth. Yeah, that. A warm feeling spreads through me unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.

He looks like he could have kissed me. I quickly turn away, extinguishing whatever just happened there. I take a deep breath.

My heart has thankfully returned to its normal place and the writhing snakes are gone. Also, I can hear again.
I can see that somehow, somehow, Symmer must’ve broken her brother’s trance as well. So somehow, somehow, my crazy plan worked.

Symmer is also holding tiny Wynter in her hand. It finally sinks in. We’re safe. We’re all safe. The five of us look at each other, and for just a moment, laugh for a couple of seconds, though none of us really know why we’re laughing.

Our laughter is short-lived, however, because the whole cavern begins to shake. Crystals start to fall onto the ground and we have to dodge them as to avoid getting crushed by them.

No? the voice laughs. Well, well, well. This is an interesting group. Wynter Warlen, Symmer Wildt, Gamora Halloran, Chris Levy and Jacob Swanson. More spirit than the last group that was in here.

Chris inches closer to me and steps slightly in front of me, as if in an attempt to shield me from whatever threat is about to descend upon us. Of course, I don’t need the protection, but it’s still nice to know that there is someone who… well, cares about me.

I step forward so that I’m standing next to him instead of behind him. His deep blue eyes meet my light green ones. And he smiles a little. Had he always had that dimple on his left cheek? He’s only a couple centimetres taller than me, and I’m tall.
I turn my head sharply away from Chris Levy and instead face the aqua crystal.

No one? the voice goades. No one wants the aqua crystal? Come on, this could be the difference between everything. Your whole life will change!

Yeah, I think scornfully. Obviously.

No one? the voice asks again. Okay, then.

The cavern shakes and rumbles. Rocks start to fall as well.

Then this cavern will cease to exist, the voice laughs. And you with it.

I want to yell “run!” but I can’t.

Running won’t help you now,  the voice echoes, as if it could read my mind. You should know, Gamora Halloran. You’ve been
running your whole life.


Running from the truth.

I want to scream. I want to yell something, anything that would make it all go away. The world has gone mute again.

Suddenly I am nine years old again. I watch in horror as these policemen evict Vicky (who’s five years old) and I from the tiny apartment we’d spent our only happy days in. I see Vicky and I, wandering the streets alone at night, just the two of us. I see Vicky crying herself to sleep on an empty garbage bag. And I see myself, head in my hands, crying for my safety and the safety of my sister.

Then I’m thirteen again and Vicky and I have to live in the sewers for three years because they were our only shelter. No one would take us in, and we were too young to make our own money.

It flashes to almost exactly a year ago. I’m sixteen years old and Vicky and I turn up on the doorstep of Miss Vanderfort’s foster home. She takes pity on us, and accepts us in.

Then Vicky and I are sent to school abroad and we are finally happy for the first time in a long time… at least, until…

And there I was, reliving the moment I strolled into the dorm we shared one afternoon to find Vicky coughing and spluttering in a heap on the floor. I took her to the hospital wing, where the nurse said she’d suffered a severe infection to the lungs and being left untreated for so long, it could prove to be fatal.

She died later that evening, holding my hand, in the cold hospital wing.

I buried her the next day in a garden further away from the school. Laying a forget-me-not on her grave, I sat on the bench and let the tears come.

I haven’t cried since.

So lost in these flashbacks, these memories, that I barely notice the rocks falling around me. What do I care? I’m going to die alone in this cavern. Maybe an afterlife exists, and I can be with Vicky for real - not just a voice in my head.

I am brought suddenly and rapidly back to the present day when Chris grabs my hand and we run, Symmer, and Jay close behind us.

I spot Wynter lying on the ground, eyes glazed over. I bend over and scoop her up, handing her to Jay, who rolls her into her box where she lays silently.

We run until our legs can’t take it anymore. Not even sure where we are going, we run. We run just to get away from that cavern.

The crystal cavern collapses behind us and we can hear it as we slowly, slowly come to a stop.

Real light is ahead. Moonlight.

I check the map.

We are finally, finally at the exit.

Catching our breath, the four of us climb out of the catacombs, Symmer keeping a tight hold on Wynter’s box.

After all five of us are safely out, the exit to the catacombs caves in and disappears for good.

The catacombs section fades on the map.

We laugh. We can’t help it. We’re safe. For real.

                                                          -=+ Chapter Nine +=-
The five of us turn around and come face to face with a massive fir and pine tree forest. Looking into the distance, I can see snow-capped mountains.

I realise everyone is now looking to me, while Symmer tries to look at the map clearly.

“So,” asks Chris, smiling a little, “where to from here?”

After consulting the map, I point first to the forest, and then the mountains.

Pulling my whiteboard out again, I write:

The map says that our final destination is… on top of those mountains. But to get there we have to go through the forest. Who even knows how long that will take?

When Symmer reads it, she scrunches up her face like she is thinking hard.

“Four days, three nights tops.” she says.

We all stare at her.

“You must be a freaking genius, Sym. How did you figure that out?” Jay asks in shock.

Symmer blushes. “Um, it’s on the map.”

Consulting it again, I see that she’s right. Someone had written the number four next to a drawing of the sun, and the number three next to a drawing of the moon.

Chris looks at me for confirmation. (No wonder I didn’t see the drawings at first. They are tiny! Symmer must have crazy good vision.) I nod and mouth she’s right.

Jay shifts his bag on his shoulder. I know for a fact he packed three tents. They must be really heavy because of all the poles and stuff. I gently shake my head.

I think we need to find a place to stay for the night, seeing as it’s already late.

Chris reads this and nods. “She’s right, guys. I think the question is… where?”

The four of us (plus unconscious Wynter in her box) start to head into the forest. Symmer is biting her lip anxiously and Jay takes her hand. This seems to comfort her. I can kind of see why she’s anxious, though. The forest is ominous at night.

Wynter’s curtains shift and I can see that she’s slowly coming to.

Chris and I stick close together, though we’re not really sure why. We don’t need flashlights, seeing as the moonlight’s already so bright.

Finally, we stop at what looks like a small clearing. We set up camp there, and pitch all three tents. Symmer and Jay are in one tent, Chris is in another and I share a tent with tiny Wynter in her box.

I shiver. Reaching into my sling bag, I pull out my favorite burgundy hoodie and pull it on.

After setting the tents up, we say goodnight and head into our tents. I open the lid of Wynter’s box so she can have some air. She’s fully awake now, but looks kind of disgruntled. I roll out my sleeping bag and try to fall asleep.

“Autymn?” Wynter shouts, her voice just barely reaching my ears.

I sit up and groan. What? I mouth.

“Uh… the voice in the cave… it said some stuff to me that made me think a bit. I feel like… well, that I am kinda useless. I just sit around in my safe little box, unable to do anything, while you all walk around, in danger.” she says, her voice fainter than usual.

I sigh. Grabbing my whiteboard from its place next to my bag, I write:

Hey. You are not useless.

She rolls her eyes. “Really?” she says sarcastically. “List out all the things I’ve done that actually helped since I touched that crystal.”

Wynter. I know for a fact that you are not useless. That voice in the cave just said bad things to all of us. Well, at least to me, anyway. Stuff none of us wanted to hear, ever.

“I hated to admit it, but the voice really was right. I was thinking about the whole walk through the catacombs.” she says, frowning.

I shake my head.

Everyone felt useless during one point or another in that whole little “side trip”. Just before Jay and Chris were about to kill each other for that last crystal, I felt so useless because I just…

A part of me (a small part) wants to write about what I felt there in that catacomb, but the bigger part of me stops me from writing it, for some reason. Is it possible I am kind of… embarrassed? And why? I mean, that could have happened to anyone who saw two of their friends under some kind of trance, right? But I doubt I am making Wynter feel better by not finishing that sentence.

“Everyone has done something. Well, except me.” she sighs.

What else was there for me to write?

We will talk about this in the morning.

This seems to reassure her a little and she closes her eyes.

I don’t lie down again just yet. Setting down my whiteboard and grabbing a hairbrush, I braid my uneven reddish-brown hair into a short, messy braid.

Tossing said braid over my shoulder, I lie down again, staring at the ceiling.

Unanswered questions swirl around in my head.

Why didn’t I listen to my sister that night?

Why did I open that door?

Why did I end up touching that crystal, even though I’d resisted at first?

But there was one question that keeps coming back again and again for me to dwell on.

What would I have said in the catacombs if I could talk? And what would I have wanted to say?

                                                                     ***
I drift into a light, dreamless sleep. You know, the one where you’re totally and completely aware that you’re sleeping?
But I stir at what I assume is about midnight.

I don’t bother checking Wynter’s box. I unzip the tent, in need of some fresh air, zipping it back up behind me.

As I walk around the dark clearing, illuminated by the moonlight, I hear something strange in the distance. Voices, whispering, too abstract to contemplate. Strangely, these voices sounded familiar, like a childhood memory long forgotten. They filled me with melancholy and I had a strange desire to get closer to them.

So I follow them along a path that leads deep into the forest. There are so many stars out tonight. Fireflies flit about in the air, which is crisp and cold. Though I am wearing my burgundy hoodie, my regular jeans aren’t nearly as warm. My feet are enclosed in my favorite pair of galaxy combat boots. I half-smile. They had been kind of a joke gift from Vicky on my seventeenth birthday.

I don’t need a flashlight, because the moonlight illuminates everything.

I narrow my eyes and avoid stepping on a loose twig in my path. I don’t know why, but for some reason I don’t want to break the silence of the path.

Taking a deep breath, I close my eyes. I suddenly see flashes. Memories? Flashbacks? I have no idea.

Opening my eyes and grabbing onto the branch of a nearby tree, I close them again.

I see a girl with her back to me in a white gossamer dress with long wavy reddish brown hair and no shoes. She’s walking down a long hallway, but her steps are light, as if she’s afraid to make any noise.

Or as if she doesn’t know what’s at the end of that hallway.

I can only hear the sound of her breathing and the light footsteps her bare feet make on the cold floor tiles.

As if seized by a sudden idea, she stops. She slowly - very slowly - turns around. There are more flashes like strobe lights as she does so.

I lean in as I watch her come face to face with me.

It’s me.

It’s me but not me.

Anyone would have thought it was an exact likeness, but after almost a lifetime of sketching, I knew it wasn't. For one, her eyes are closed. Her head is slightly off-center, and the part in her hair is askew, and not like my side fringe. Her nose is wrong, too. It’s me… but not me. There’s something… off about her. Something that I can’t quite place…

She slowly opens her eyes.

They glow bright red.

I watch as she glides soundlessly toward me, her eyes the same color as the crystal.

She reaches both hands out, as if she wants to strangle me, but when she gets close enough, so that we’re eye-to-eye, she stops. She puts both hands to her face, and strokes it like she’s drawing war paint on her cheeks. Then she traces some sort of strange symbol in mid air.

Finally she whispers one word to me: “close.”

Then she sighs, her expression neutral, and gently shakes her head. She dissipates into thin air.

I open my eyes. No time has passed. I’m still holding on to the tree branch. I put my hand to my head, trying to make sense of what I’d just seen.

Close? What does that even mean? Close what? And what was that whole thing with the hallway, and the red eyes? And wasn’t… that dress she’d worn… that was the same one I’d worn in my last vision. If it even is a vision...

The trees rustle in the breeze, making a shhh sound. I pause. I want to continue along the path I’ve been following. A part of me wants to see where it leads, and another part of me just needs some time to figure out that vision before I have to go back.

So I follow the path.

“Autymn?” Vicky asks. “You… you do remember what happened the last time you followed a strange path not knowing where it leads, right?”

I ignore this comment. Instead, I ask:

Did you see that vision, Vic?

“What vision? Oh no, you’re not having weird visions again, are you?”

Um. No. I just… never mind. It’s probably nothing.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, Mayple.

“Good.”

It’s sweet of my sister to be concerned, but when we were younger, it was always me who protected her, and not the other way around. Maybe… maybe now she thinks that I’m the one alive, she wants to make sure I stay that way.

I frown. I didn’t need that. I never needed that. Ever. No one was once concerned about me in the duration of time Vicky and I spent alone in the streets. In my opinion, concern was for people who couldn’t be brave enough to face whatever was coming next. In my books, concern was equivalent to pity. And yeah, sure, it was nice to have Chris care about me in the catacombs, but even then I knew I didn’t need it. I never needed it.

I follow the path with a determined expression on my face.

Vicky has gone silent. I guess now that she knows I don’t need the concern, she’s headed elsewhere for now. Can she do that? All that time she’s spent cooped up in my head, and I’ve never thought to ask her these things.

I mentally send her an I’m sorry, but either she doesn’t receive it or she’s ignoring me.

                                                                           ***
The path is long and winding. Though I didn’t bring a watch, and my Walkman doesn’t tell the time, I’m guessing it’s been about an hour, judging by the moon’s position in the sky.

Weaving my way through the trees, I suddenly hear the sound of rushing water. No, not rushing water - trickling water. Gentle waves.

The path stops at a shallow pool with a small waterfall feeding it. The moonlight shines down on the pool, making shadows dance across the waves. Funny, those shadows look a lot like…

I stop dead in my tracks. Those aren't shadows. They’re people.

Well, not exactly people. Like ghosts. Transparent. Holographic, almost. Like a moonstone.

I lean in closer to get a better look at them. Wait a second… is that…

I lean in even closer until I am at the very edge of the pool, the toes of my galaxy combat boots barely touching the water.

It was! Seeing her… seeing them… seeing them all… it was all so weird…

I see my mom. My mom, and my dad. My real parents. Here. In transparent-holographic-ghost form.

And Vicky’s there too. I half-smile. Symmer’s there as well, along with normal-sized Wynter. With… is that Chris? My heart skips a beat, for a reason I can’t explain.

They all have deep scarlet eyes.

Just like that girl - me - in my vision.

Just like the crystal I touched.

My mom reaches out to me, smiling slightly. There is pride in her red eyes. She gently strokes my face, her touch feeling like a real human hand.

My dad also reaches out to me, his eyes twinkling just like they used to. He gently lifts my chin up, and I smile, remembering the times he would take Vicky and I to the park and the times Vicky and I would dance around the apartment to the mixtape that now belongs to me.

Symmer and Wynter grin at me, my only real friends in a long time.

Chris turns to me, and my heart leaps. He gently brushes my side fringe away. He smiles that roguish smile, and this time I smile back.

I face the Vicky one. She’s crying, her head in her hands. I tilt my own head slightly to the side. Why is she crying?

Something in me wants to comfort her. Ghost or not, she’s still my sister and I want her to be happy. I gently reach out to her, but the mist around her is like ice, and I withdraw my hand.

Mayple, I think desperately. Come on. Say something. Tell me this is all fake.

But she doesn’t answer, confirming my suspicions.

The Vicky hologram looks up, tears in her scarlet eyes. She smiles slightly and reaches out a hand.

Suddenly, Vicky speaks, but not like I’d hoped for. She speaks out of the mouth of this… this Vicky mirage. Her voice is strange, like six Vickys are talking at once.

“Come, take my hand.”

All the figures turn towards me, malice and hunger in their red eyes. A new voice laughs in the back of my head. Not the same voice I heard in the catacombs. A new voice, but equally as evil-sounding. A part of me feels like it’s the same voice I heard way back when I first heard Vicky’s voice in my head.

What a shame, it laughs. You know, I was really starting to like you, Gamora. You have a certain fire that no one else possesses. But no matter. You’ll die either way.

Okay, I have had it with these stupid voices telling me I was going to die. I am not going to die, and that is final.

Who are you?! I direct my thoughts toward it. What do you want from me?!

Whatever it is doesn’t answer and I’m not sure whether or not that’s a good thing.

I am NOT going to die! I think firmly.

This time it does answer.

Believe what you want, it chides. You cannot escape fate.

My eyes widen but I try to retain my neutral face.

But you can change it, the voice continues. You can have all this. All that you desire… all that you ever need… but it’s up to you. It all depends… which way you decide to go… and which choice you’ll eventually make.

All the figures turn to me again. Their eyes are no longer red. They look so, so real that it’s slightly unnerving.

I want to say something, anything. Make it stop.

Don’t try to sway me, I think-speak instead. It won’t work. Whatever you try won’t work because I know how life works! You put a little of yourself out there and life just chews you up and spits you out. But I refuse to be defined by my past! Do you know how hard I’ve worked to get where I am? You don’t know half the things I’ve been through! I won’t let you tell me what I need and don’t need because you just DON’T KNOW! I won’t play your little game! I won’t!

I know I sound a little hysterical, but that’s how I feel right now. I am SO SICK of people telling me I’m going to die, or what I need and want. I have HAD it.

Maybe Vicky’s right. Maybe I do have trust issues.

But this stupid voice can only laugh at my rant.

Gamora, it goades. You say you know how life works, but you truly know so little. You can’t even see what’s right in front of you.

You don’t even know me! I retort. Who are you to say-

But I do know you, it says. I know what you-

NO YOU DON’T! I yell. The sound echoes in my mind. My heart is beating a mile a minute and anger and rage courses through my blood. I am breathing heavily and I realise I have dropped to my knees.

The voice speaks again, but this time it comes out of the Vicky hologram’s mouth. And it speaks with the voice of my sister.

“Autymn. Take my hand.” she smiles. Her eyes aren’t red, but their normal blue.

I hesitate for half a second. For just a moment, I was really going to do it. I was really going to take her hand.

Logic tries its best to kick in. It’s fake, it’s fake, all fake…

I apparently hesitate a second too long. Her eyes glow red, and all the other figures’ (my mom, my dad, Symmer, Chris and Wynter) eyes glow red along with hers. They blink at me a few times, as if trying to analyze me.

Then they lunge.

I scream.

No kidding! I actually scream! I couldn’t before! How am I suddenly able to scream again?!

Does… does this mean I can talk again?

Run for life first, talk later.

Turns out I don’t have to run very far. They lunge, but then all the transparent figures swirl together, creating some type of vortex-type swirl, which then proceeds to disappear into thin air, leaving an eerie blue light.

A new voice (seriously, what was it with all these voices?!) echoes in the air around me. But this voice wasn’t evil-sounding like the others. It sounded more like a caring mentor, giving advice.

You show spirit, it echoes. And although you’re going to be tested on the journey to the mountains, you have passed this test by showing coolness in the face of fire.

Huh? I thought I did the wrong thing and met fire with fire.

As if reading my mind, it continues. Autymn, you have faced a great many challenges. Your choice will come. For now…

A strong wind blows through the night air, making tiny waves on the surface of the pool. I am sharply pulled back by what feels like two hands on my shoulders. I stumble and trip, closing my eyes before I hit the ground…

…and I open my eyes and sit bolt upright. I’m in my tent.

I am still wearing my galaxy combat boots, so I know that it couldn’t have been a dream. Well, I’m too tired to dwell on that teleportation right now.

Kicking off my boots, I settle down into my sleeping bag and drift into sleep.

                                                              -=+ Chapter Ten +=-
I wake up early the next morning to see threads of sunlight weaving their way through the tent zipper.

Tying my boots back on and grabbing my whiteboard, I unzip the tent and climb out, blinking at the sunlight now streaming into my eyes.

Chris is stoking a breakfast fire and Jay is collecting wood. Symmer is obviously still sleeping, and Wynter is on top of a tent for some reason.

Chris smiles that half-smile at me, the half-smile I have slowly grown to love, with one eyebrow raised. I roll my eyes, but smile back anyway.

Morning, Chris, I mouth.

“Hey, Gam.” he says. “Nice day, isn’t it?”

I look around. Yeah, I guess so.

Sitting down on one of the logs Jay had laid out (for sitting, obviously, not one of the fire logs) I eye the breakfast foods. Nope, not hungry.

Symmer wakes up and eats an entire plate, though. Clearly she is. She looks at me weirdly.

After Chris, Jay and Wynter eat, we start to pack up.

“You hardly touched your breakfast, Gam. Everything okay?” Chris asks, his voice laced with concern.

I sigh, shrug and gently shake my head.

Never usually eat breakfast.

I write.

“Oh. I just… never mind. It’s fine.” he says.

We stand there awkwardly for a few minutes. I try to look busy by kicking some leaves. Not exactly helping. Symmer saves me when she taps me on the shoulder.

“Autymn. Can we have a minute?”

I raise my brows. How do we exactly have a minute when I can’t talk?

I follow her anyway, over to the edge of the clearing.

“I know this is gonna sound crazy… but I thought I heard some sort of scream early this morning. It… it sounded a little like you. Are you okay?”

How does she… never mind.

I’m fine.

I write. She frowns and sighs.

“Okay. Sorry.”

We go back to the clearing. What she’d said reminded me of something. If I could scream, did that mean I could talk? I try to say something, anything, but no words come out. I knew it was too good to be true.

I scoop Wynter off of the tent she’d somehow managed to climb on and place her gently on a small log.

After packing up her box, I put it next to her log and Jay helps Wynter into it.

By the time the breakfast fire burns out, we’re all fully packed up, and except for the breakfast fire remains, which Symmer is taking care of, it’s like we were never there.

Wow. We are good at this camping thing. Maybe someday, when this is all over, we can actually do this for fun.

“So,” says Symmer. She looks happier than she’s been in days, our (well, mainly her) conversation forgotten. “Where to next?”
I size up our surroundings. After about a few seconds, I pull out my whiteboard again and write

Further into the forest, I guess.

The forest is massive and silent. I guess it’s silent because none of us are saying much to each other (I’m not writing much, either.) It’s weird. When we’re fighting for our lives, we feel like… well, almost like friends. But otherwise it’s just awkward.
We follow the map, but hiking takes a while. We’re all exhausted. Lucky for me, this gives me time to think about what happened last night at the waterfall.

Why did I suddenly see that girl - me - in my vision? What was she doing? Why was she walking down a hallway?

And that word she’d said… close. What did ‘close’ mean? Close what?

That strange symbol she’d drawn… I raise my own hand and subtly draw the symbol in mid air:

But I make it look like I’m deciding which path to take, as we have conveniently reached a fork in the trail. I then consult the map and take the path on the right.

Sometimes, my mind swirls with unanswered questions, so much that I just want to be left alone. This was one of those times.

But unfortunately, I had the map, and this group of people - who were about the closest to friends I think I’ve ever had - was expecting me to lead them into some kind of forest far away from any type of civilization.

So I probably wore some sort of scowl and continued to bite my lip. This was usually fine. I didn’t - I don’t - care a lot about how I look.

(Side note: This morning, I had changed out of my burgundy hoodie and ripped jeans into a worn out t-shirt, my slightly too-big red leather jacket and yet another pair of ripped jeans. My hair was still in the messy braid that I’d slept in. I wore my galaxy combat boots which - honestly - didn’t really match my outfit. But whatever, since when did I care? You may wonder why I’m telling you all this. Well… I guess it’s important later.)

The sun is high in the sky when we stop at some sort of river.

I wash my face in the water, which is clear as crystal, sunlight glittering off it.

“Guys,” Jay says, then points to something on the other side of the river.

I stare at it, trying to make out what it is.

There’s another person further upstream. Another person! I don’t care how that person got here, but I am glad they did.

(Just saying, that is the only time I will ever think that, regardless of the person.)

Whoever it is seems quite keen to meet us. As the person gets closer, I can see that it’s a guy, maybe nineteen or twenty years old. His hair is all messed up and his hands are bruised from what looks like some serious rock-climbing. At first I think he’s a tribesperson, but then (I feel a knot in my stomach) I remember that all the tribespeople were killed off.

He asks if we’re hikers, and I think Chris says we are. The guy offers his hand to me. I just stare at it. Never been one for handshakes, hugs or any other unnecessary gestures of affection.

He tells us his name is Oliver, but I zone out after that. Symmer and Jay are talking to him, and I want to shout “Are you sure you want to trust him?”, but even if I could talk, I’m sure everyone would look at me weirdly, seeing as he’s the only other person we’ve seen for about a day and a half. Maybe I really do have trust issues.

It takes people a lot longer to gain my trust than it might take for them to gain others’. To me, every person that I come across is untrustworthy, until they prove that they aren’t. Maybe Vicky’s right. It’s not that I don’t know how to let my guard down, it’s just that I… don’t like to.

Still, Symmer and Jay appear to like him, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. For now. It doesn’t mean I have to be friends with him, it just means I have to tolerate him.

I spend so long thinking about all of this that I don’t notice until the last second that everyone has finished talking and we’ve all started to hike again. Unfortunately, it appears that this Oliver is tagging along.

He somehow finds Wynter, but I don’t want to get involved in that. No way. It was hard enough getting Chris and Jay used to her, but this guy? This practically adult guy who has never seen anything like this in his entire life? I sigh. Poor, poor Wynter. It’s bad enough she thinks she’s useless, but to feel like a caged animal? Stared at through her box? To be treated like a precious doll, held and stroked and told she’s adorable? At least she can yell at them to her heart’s content.

Oliver seems oddly used to Wynter after the initial shock, but I’m honestly not that surprised. He looks like he’s spent a long amount of time in the forest, and considering the catacombs beneath our school are a maze of actual cursed crystals, I can only imagine the crazy things he’s seen in this forest.

Or maybe he thinks he’s hallucinating. That would explain a bit. Or maybe we’re hallucinating. Maybe this Oliver isn’t real at all. Maybe we’re all going crazy.

Maybe I’m starting to spend too much time in this forest. We need to keep moving.

Wynter is sitting on Oliver’s shoulder and they are deep in conversation. Jay and Symmer seem to be talking, but otherwise, our group plus Oliver is hiking at a steady pace.

Chris is hiking next to me. I don’t know when things stopped being awkward between us, but I am glad they did.

But even that seems to be thrown to the sewer alligators today, because Chris keeps looking at the ground, then at me, and running a hand through his hair.

Say something, I silently beg. You know I can’t.

But Chris chooses instead to stare intently at me (me, in that disgruntled outfit I described earlier)like I looked a million bucks.

Finally, he says:

“Um… uh… um,” and after a long pause, he eventually says: “clean… shoes.” He dropped his gaze and proceeded to stare instead at my galaxy combat boots.

What. The. HECK?!

Clean shoes? What even was ‘clean shoes’? Because my shoes, though nice, were smudged with mud and dirt from hiking. And why suddenly say this, out of the blue, with all the words you could possibly say, because you are- able to say them, you instead choose to say CLEAN SHOES, even though it has absolutely no context, or relate to anything we have ever discussed. Guys say really weird things that you cannot expect a girl like me to understand. Or, in the case of this particular thing, any living human being for that matter.

But even he appears to be cringing at what he had just said, which I take as a good sign. Maybe he hadn’t really meant to say clean shoes.

Vicky appears to have been seized by a laughing fit, which is seriously giving me a headache.

“Oh, god, I’m really screwing this up…” he says, running a hand through his hair again.

“Yeah,” chokes Vicky, in between fits of laughter. “He is!”

“It’s just…” he continues. “Uh… Gam. Your shoes are nice. There.”

If I could talk, I would honestly not have known what to say. Part of me wants to laugh like Vicky. That’s what he wanted to say? Why didn’t he just SAY THAT FROM THE START? Whatever. You really don’t expect me to understand this, do you? Why make things more awkward and complicated than they already are?

Thanks? I mouth.

He grimaces. “Ack, I know. I guess I just… I don’t know, never mind. Forget I said anything.”

Which, honestly, I would rather do.

I sigh, and walk to the front of the group, taking out the map again.
                                                                                   ***
In about an hour, we reach some kind of cliff. Well, it’s less of a cliff, and more of a viewpoint overlooking some kind of valley. There’s hills and lakes and rivers, and in the distance, I can see mist is swirling around the snow-covered mountains. While the cliff isn’t actually a proper cliff, it’s still quite high, so I guess… we’re going to have to try and climb down it.

Passing the map to Oliver, and trusting Symmer to explain its importance to him, I rummage in my bag for some rope. Pulling it out, I start to dig an anchor in the ground, shifting some large rocks so that they’re now on top of the small knotted ring of rope I have created. Now it looks like the thing at the top of a rock climbing gym, holding the rope. Except there’s no belayer at the bottom. Well… live first, dwell on the technicalities later.

I throw the rope down the cliff, letting the anchor support it. Thankfully, this works. Symmer digs out a few carebeners and a grigri from her own bag.

“This gonna help?” she asks. I violently shake my head no. That wouldn’t work, mainly because we would need harnesses and stuff.

“Nah.. we should just slide down.” Oliver tells her. If I could talk, I would have totally said that first.

Live first, complain later.

“I’ll go first.” Symmer says.

I shake my head again. I would never forgive myself if something happened to any of them, even Oliver, because of my anchor.

I motion for Chris to go after me. Then Symmer, then Jay, then Oliver would tie Wynter’s box and slowly lower it down. Then we would untie the knot and Oliver would slide down as well.

I take a deep breath. Okay. I can do this. I think.

Live first, think later.

I put both hands on the rope, holding on tight. Then, before I can re-think this pretty terrible idea to begin with, I launch myself down the cliff.

At first, it feels like I seem to defy gravity as limestone shoots past me, my legs choosing to sprint on the rock instead of hang uselessly, my hands letting the rope take over as I shimmy down. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, as the ground gets closer and closer at an alarmingly fast pace, I do something very stupid.

I let go of the rope, on purpose, thinking I’m close to the ground, realizing too late that I’m not.

Before I can brace for impact, my instincts kick in and I do a kind of gymnast-y flip in mid air before landing in a crouch position. Unharmed.

Unbelievable.

Before I could dwell on this, I had to make sure everyone gets safely down. Chris does, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief. Symmer gets down safely as well, which I’m also glad about.

I look back up to the top of the cliff. Wow. That is high. Even if it didn’t look it before, it does now. I try to motion for the next person to go, but Oliver is standing in the way, yelling down at us. Jay still gets on the rope.

“Are we close to… wherever we need to go?” he yells.

Okay. Stay with me, people. Remember the fact that crystals can curse people to be physically unable to utter words and the fact that weird, unsettling things seem to happen in this forest. I’m telling this all from my own memories, and though this part may seem like a whole lot of inanity stolen straight from some kind of fantasy story, it happened. Of course, I don’t know how it happened, but it did, and now we’re so, so dead.

Everything went pitch dark. It’s like someone went and switched off the freaking sun. There’s no moon. There’s no stars.

There’s no trace of light anywhere. I can’t see anything. I can’t see anyone.

Imagine going into the world’s darkest room, at night, and closing your eyes. That is half of what it was like.

“Um, hey, is it just only me? Or can’t anyone see? It’s like, pitch black.” Oliver shouts.

UM, HECK YEAH IT’S PITCH BLACK! IT’S SO DARK I CAN’T EVEN SEE MY OWN HANDS WHEN I HOLD THEM IN FRONT OF MY FACE!

“Oh.” Apparently Jay said something to him. Or Wynter. Wait a second. Was Jay… did he… is he…  ON THE ROPE?!

“JAY! Are you still on the rope?” Symmer screams, obviously fearing for her brother’s safety.

“Yeah!” Jay yells back. “But I’m climbing up, so, don’t worry.”

Don’t worry? He’s telling his sister to not worry? How can Symmer bear it? I mean, he could slip from the rope at any minute.

No more live first, worry later. Worry now, die later.

Okay, no. Don’t think that.

Um, Vicky, I kind of need your help right now!

Vicky doesn’t answer. What the… okay. Focus. Use your wits, Gamora, use your wits. What’s the one rule I always follow when I’m in some dark space, the one rule that will help me get my bearings?

Find the walls. I need to find the walls.

What walls? There are no walls! There are no -

Oh, wait. There’s the cliff face.

Reaching my arms out, I grasp at rock, cutting gashes down my hands, but I hardly notice. I’ve found the cliff face. Next step: find the others.

“Gam!” Chris yells. He panics. “GAMORA! Please, please be okay!”

“Chris. She can’t speak. Make a sound if you can hear us, Autymn.” says Symmer.
I quickly kick some leaves nearby, and groan in frustration.

Chris lets out a relieved sigh and I feel my throat tighten. I had to find a way to get to them.

“Okay. Okay, guys. Don’t move, stay where you are. Chris, say something.” Symmer says carefully.

“Uh. Yeah. Hi. I’m here.” Chris says nervously.

“Chris. Keep on talking.” Symmer continues.

“Yup. I will keep on talking. I’m totally not freaked out. I am just gonna stand here and… and… uh… okay. Just gonna say random stuff. Uh… you here? I’ll… put my arms out. Uh… anyone know why it’s suddenly pitch black? Any idea? I think-” Chris starts, and then interrupts himself. I guess - I hope - he found Symmer.

“Sym… Sym? Symmer? Is that you?” he yells.

“Yes, Chris, calm down.” Symmer says.

“Okay. Grab my backpack straps and don’t let go. Here.”

I need to find a way for them to signal to me. Wait. What if I use Morse Code?

I silently pray that one or more of them knows Morse Code, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a way to communicate with them.

I signal, banging on the (alarmingly hollow) cliff face. The sound echoes through the valley.

I’m okay.

Chris seems to also realize what that is, because he lets out a sigh of relief.

“Gam!” he says slowly. “I know Morse Code. Signal to tell us where you are.”

“How can she tell us where she is when she can’t see a thing, Chris?” Symmer asks.

Relax. I’m fine. Get familiar with your surroundings. Try and find the cliff walls. I’m already there.

“Okay.” Symmer says, who also must apparently know Morse Code.

I hear some shuffling.

“We’re at the cliff wall now. Stay put, Autymn. Signal.” Symmer finally says.

I knock against the cliff face again.

Guys, I’m here. Just follow the signals.

Chris blindly stumbles towards it. “Gam! You okay?”

I desperately bang the cliff face, signaling again.

I’m fine! Just-

Chris grabs hold of both my shoulders, and I hear him let out another relieved sigh.

“Gam? Is that you?” he whispers.

I mouth yeah, but then remembering he can’t see me, I go to bang on the cliff face again. But he takes my head in both hands, gently brushing my side fringe away. So I nod instead. He awkwardly puts his hands down, but doesn’t let go of my shoulders.

“Autymn, you still there?!” Symmer asks frantically.

“She is, she’s with me!” Chris yells happily.

I quickly knock the cliff face again.

Use the rope.

Symmer pulls the rope as I hear my anchor breaking. The rope falls to the bottom, where we are, and Symmer hands it to me.

Tying a knot around the strap of my leather bag, I quickly pass the rope to Chris, who lets go of my shoulders for a few seconds probably to tie it to his own bag. He puts an arm around me, but I sling it off. No time for that now.

Step three: analyze your surroundings. See what you have to work with.

Crawl. Let’s try and at least get out of here. Tell the others to circle back and go around.

“Circle back!” Chris yells. “Don’t go too close to the cliff edge! Go around! We’ll come to you!”

We start to crawl and I try my best not to lead them off another cliff, or into a lake, or down a waterfall. I think I saw one of those.

I stop crawling just as something very sharp scratches my knee. Huh? I gently run my (already bleeding) hands over it, only to get more gashes on them. It appears to be a thicket of very sharp thorn bushes.

I signal this to the group and tell them to spread out.

Symmer and Chris quickly fan out to the other sides, the rope lengthening.

“Here too!” says Chris.

Uh-oh. That can’t be good. Between the thickets(which appear to be taller than we are, once we stand up) and the cliff face, it looks like we’re…

“Guys.” says Chris, an element of fear in his voice. “I think we’re… I think we’re trapped.”

I bite my lip, thinking hard. He’s right. We are trapped. But also…

“If we can’t get out, that means they can’t get in.” Chris says, his mind obviously racing.

Okay. That too. Relax. Use your wits. Ack! I can’t remember step four! Guess I’m gonna have to wing it.

I think hard, taking my bag off and rummaging through it, keeping a tight hold on the rope tied to it. AHA! A FLASHLIGHT! YES! We’re going to live! We’re going to-

I click the flashlight on. It doesn’t light up. Hm, that’s weird. The battery must be acting up. I click it on and off a few times to make sure, but my fears are realized.

I curse in Morse Code.

I signal to them about the broken flashlight. Chris actually does curse, but I ignore it, continuing to rummage in my bag. Nope, no spare flashlight. I sigh in frustration. Come on, give me anything to work with, anything that’ll get us out of here -

I pull out a box of matches.

I open it excitedly and feel inside. But to my chagrin, it only has five matches. Oh, well, five is better than one, or none at all.

I strike one and hold it up, the flame illuminating my face and creating a large patch of light.

“See what I mean?” asks Chris, his face flooded with relief. “Always cool in the face of fire. Literal fire.”

I grin and nod, using the match to light a stick, which I use as a torch. I continue to search in my bag for something that would help us get out of here, anything-

My eyes quickly fall on my torch, then glance at the thicket. Nope, no way. Too dangerous. I could start a forest fire and kill all of us in the process. Unless…

I have a plan, I mouth. It’s crazy, but it works. Trust me.

“Always have.” says Chris, grinning at me.

I unzip another pocket in my bag, pulling out my old disposable camera, with the film I never used. I put the camera away, and hold the film tightly in one hand. If I could light a section of the film, and let in burn in one particular area, instead of just impulsively setting the thicket on fire, I could burn a gap through the thicket.

I pull out my water bottle and pour water on either side of the patch I was planning to burn down, just to make sure the fire didn’t spread. Then I light the film and toss it into the thicket.

Stupid? Maybe a little, but the point is that it worked.

The film burns pretty fast. The patch of thorns are burnt to a crisp in just about half a minute. But the fire is starting to spread. My eyes widen and I use more of my water to pour over the fire, which slowly steams out. Kicking dirt on it to make sure it doesn’t start again, I pull out the piece of burnt film and put it in my water bottle, to avoid any more danger.

There is a wide enough gap for us to get through.

I beckon for them to follow me, but we are interrupted by the rest of the group on top of the cliff.

“WYNTER!” I hear Oliver scream. “Gu-guys! Wynter’s gone! Oh my god! Th-the map! Where’s the map! I dropped it, it must be somewhere down there! They’re both gone! WYNTER! Wynter!” Oliver keeps on shouting.

Moral of this story: don’t trust anyone. Or maybe just don’t trust Oliver.

He lost Wynter. HE LOST WYNTER. My mind is going a million miles an hour. How can I-

I spot a piece of parchment pinned to some of the thorns, slightly singed from the flames, but otherwise okay. Sure, he LOST
WYNTER, but at least the map is fine.

Chris picks it up. “A piece is missing, Gam.”

My eyes widen. Please, please let it be a route we’ve already taken.

Chris shows me the map, and my fears are realized. The final piece of the map is missing.

We are so, so dead.

                                                                           ***
What happens next happens fast. Fast, and in unison.

Symmer’s face comes into view by the dim light of my torch. “Hello.” she says. She’s also gasping for breath. Where exactly... never mind.

She smiles. “I… found… found Wynter,” she says, clearly still out of breath. She holds out her hand and sure enough, there is tiny Wynter standing on her palm. “She… she fell off the cliff. She’s fine now, though.”

I breathe a sigh of relief, but then quickly cup my hand around the fire on my torch. I don’t want it to go out.

Her eyes widen when she sees the map. I can tell what she’s thinking. The piece… with the mountains… just gone.

“No,” she whispers frantically, searching in the brambles for some trace of it. She doesn’t find anything.

Then suddenly there is a burning white light, and I have to close my eyes. It looks (and feels) like our non-existent sun just went supernova. I blink rapidly a few times, and feel Chris, who is standing on my right side, reach for my right hand. The bright light gets a tiny bit dimmer as he stands in front of me as if in an attempt to protect me again. I step next to him, as if to gently remind him that I don’t need it. He reaches for my hand anyway, and I reach out to his. Our fingers barely touch.

Everything happened so fast that I honestly don’t remember much of what happened next, but what I do know is this: as soon as the bright light died down, I drop my hand and open my eyes.

The sky is clear. The world is normal again.

WHAT. THE. HECK?!

(Side note: When I asked these guys about this later, none of them could quite explain
  1. how this had happened in the first place.
  2. why everything suddenly went back to normal at that exact second.
Even I don’t know to this day, and that’s saying something.)

When I can finally see everyone (that is, when my eyes decided to stop seeing bright white every time I blinked), we just stare at each other. Even the rest of the group, who could talk were silent. No talking. Just staring and trying to comprehend what the hell had just happened.

Symmer stomps out her burning stick.

This is your fault, says a voice in the back of my mind that sounds disturbingly like my own. Well, at least, mine before I couldn’t talk. My own voice sounds strange and foreign to me. Like when you hear yourself on a recording and you wonder if you always sound like that.

If you hadn’t burned the film, none of this would have happened.

This is your fault.

                                                                      -=+ Chapter Eleven +=-
Apparently Oliver has rope as well, so the rest of the group climb down the cliff. As we try to find a suitable spot to settle down for the night, we don’t talk about the lost map, or about Wynter falling off the cliff, both of which are Oliver’s fault. But sure, rope. What an achievement!

Oliver’s fault. Not mine. This has nothing to do with me. If Oliver hadn’t lost the map in the first place, I wouldn’t have accidentally burned a piece off it when I was setting fire to the hedges.

But the uneasy feeling in my stomach remains.

We set up our tents on a little hill overlooking a moonlit lake, and we eat Oliver’s tuna cans, pretzels and hummus for dinner.

Well, they eat. I just stare at the fire. The sun has set, and it’s frigid, even in my leather jacket. We sit around the fire, the heat a relief from the cold air.

“Ooh!” Oliver suddenly says. “Who wants a s’more?”

“S’more!” Jay and Symmer shout at the same time as they scramble over to Oliver as he opens a bag of marshmallows. Sure, drop a TINY PERSON off a cliff, but once you have marshmallows all is forgiven!

I feel Chris’s gaze on me while I gently stoke the fire with a stick, not eating anything. I guess I’m just not in the mood for a light-hearted dinner right now.

I mean, that was our first real life-and-death experience since the catacombs, and it made me realize how fragile this all is.
How everything is.

After both my parents died, I grew up with nothing. I had to protect Vicky, even in the worst of times, because we only had each other. Now I have to protect this group.

Both times I blew it.

I stand up suddenly, taking off my leather jacket and leaving it on a log. I just want to be alone right now, alone in the cold.

Chris calls after me, but I don’t look back. I just sprint away, trying to shake my head of all the memories and bad feelings flooding back, crowding around in there. I was sick of it. Sick of this. Sick of everything. I’ve kept everything bottled up for so long, and I pushed everyone away, everyone who has tried to scale the walls I’ve built around myself.

This is my fault.

I spot Symmer coming towards me, her cheeks streaked with blood. When she sees me, her face contorts in anger and she stalks away in the other direction. I scowl, and without watching her disappear away into the forest, run towards the lake.

It is a peaceful and serene night, and would be almost beautiful if it weren’t for the biting cold. The moonlight almost dances across the glassy lake, and all I can hear is the sound of the gentle waves softly brushing against the bank.

I take my mixtape and Walkman out of my pocket and clip them to my jeans. Then I take my headphones from around my neck and put them on. I sit on a rock by the lake, not listening to anything, wanting very much to be alone with my thoughts.

After a few minutes of silence, I take a deep breath, stand up and take my headphones off, unplugging them and putting them around my neck again. I pick up a small, flat, round rock and skip it across the lake. The rock makes ripples, perfectly circular and moving at an almost calming pace.

I remember my dad teaching Vicky and I (well, mostly me, because Vicky might have been too young at the time) to skip rocks at the park when I lived in Nevada. I was about five, and Vicky was two. She would sit on the rocks while my dad made sure I was picking the right ones to skip.

“They have to be small,” he’d said. “And flat. Then you extend your arm out and throw like… I don’t know, like you’re throwing a very small frisbee.”

I laughed. “That’s funny.”

He smiled at me. “Come. You try.”

I did. The rock splashed into the lake and sank to the bottom.

I frowned. “It doesn’t work!”

“Try again,” he’d said. “This time, try gently letting go of the rock, after you get the momentum you need. Slowly, extend your arm and… release!”

I followed his instructions, and the rock skipped once… twice… three times. “I did it!” I yelled triumphantly, smiling at my dad.

He smiled again. “Yes, Gamora. You did! I’m so proud of you!”

I take a deep breath, returning to the present. Having a life like that, a normal life, just seems like a distant memory to me now. Or a vivid dream that you had, but when you wake up and try to remember it, there are bits and pieces missing.

I pick up another rock and skip it. Once… twice… three times.

I sit down on the rock again, looking up at the stars. I sigh, letting the cool, crisp lake air engulf my lungs. There are so many stars tonight.

Your stars, Vicky had once said to me. They are your stars.

My heart hurts. Everything hurts.

Why do I push everyone away?

“Hey.” a voice says. Chris. I look at him, and the corner of my mouth twitches. Well, not everyone.

I try to remember the time I was mentally willing Chris Levy to go away, back when we were in the school hallway, but even that seems like a distant memory to me now.

Hey, I mouth.

“You okay?” he asks.

I take another deep breath, close my eyes and nod slowly.

He smiles his half-smile at me, but this time it’s… a faded version of his usual smile. Like he’s reminiscing.

He takes a deep breath this time. “Gam, I know you might want to just be alone right now, but… I guess I just wanted to thank you. You know… for saving my life multiple times. When we were in the catacombs, on that cliff… if it weren’t for you, none of us would’ve made it out.”

My mouth curves into a small smile and I look down at my galaxy combat boots.

I stand up, unclipping my Walkman and setting it down on a rock.

Faint music suddenly fills the quiet night air; gentle, slow, romantic notes on a piano, the intro to a song I knew well. I must have accidentally hit the play button when I set it down.

A soulful voice blends gradually with the notes, softly fading into the calm wind. The night feels warmer somehow, and a soothing feeling washes over me.

Chris and I glance briefly at each other, locking eyes for half a second. I look away, trying to focus on something else, anything else.

I start to head toward the rock my Walkman is placed on, and reach out to turn the music off, but Chris grabs my hand before I can.

“Dance with me.” he says.

I sigh, and shake my head no, looking out at the lake, not meeting his eyes.

He takes my other hand. “Please.”

I sigh again, and face him. We lock eyes, and I relent.

We slow dance for a while, the world fading around us. It feels like we’re the only two people in the universe, and nothing else could matter if it all disappeared.

Gazing into his deep blue eyes, I want to thank him too. For being the only person stubborn enough to chase after me even if I push everyone else away.

As the song goes into its instrumental (most songs from the 80s have one), we stop, our arms still around each other. He brushes my side fringe away, smiling at me.

I don’t feel the cold. I don’t feel anything. All I feel are Chris Levy’s arms around me, pulling me close.

He closes his eyes and I close mine. We lean in and our lips almost touch.

We are interrupted by a loud crack, the sound of a campfire collapsing, from on top of the hill.

We pull apart, our arms dropping to our sides. The moment is gone. I take another deep breath, looking at a small rock on the ground. Chris clears his throat and runs a hand through his hair.

“I… I should probably, you know, go and get some more firewood.” he says.

I nod slowly.

“Gam, I… uh…” he starts, his voice trailing off.

I look at him, not quite meeting his eyes. I sit down on my rock again. The music is still faintly playing.

He steps toward me, takes off his own jacket (like mine, but brown instead of red)and puts it around my shoulders. He gently
brushes my side fringe away again, this time tucking it behind my ear.

He turns to go. Before he leaves, though, he looks over his shoulder at me. We lock eyes again. “Night, Gam.” he says, smiling his half-smile. I smile back this time, studying the moonlight reflected in his eyes, which are the same deep blue shade as the lake.

Night, Chris, I mouth.

He disappears back into the forest.

The song finishes and I click my Walkman off. I wrap Chris’s jacket tighter around my shoulders, breathing in his smell: pine trees, wood smoke, fresh summer rain and some form of tropical fruit all mixed together.

I bury my head in my hands.

Idiot! What did I think was going to happen? That he was going to wrap his arms around me and tell me everything was going to be okay? That he could actually love me, even after everything that had happened between us? No, I’m so, so stupid.

“Hey,” Vicky says suddenly. You of all people are not stupid.”

Vicky, I reply silently, without even addressing the fact that she had been absolutely nowhere when everything went pitch dark. How much of that did you-

“I saw enough,” says Vicky, “to know that what you feel right now isn’t something you can just push away.”

What? I ask. It’s not like I have feelings for him.

“No, Autymn.” I can feel Vicky smiling sadly. “You love him.”

I do not! I say, my face heating up.

“Yes,” she says, laughing a little. “You do. You don’t even want to admit it to yourself, but I know. I know by the way your heart skips a beat whenever he calls you Gam. I know by the way you look at him, like nothing else matters whenever he’s around. But I also know by the way you try and avoid his gaze, as if looking into his eyes will make you admit the way you really feel about him. And I know by the way he smiles at you… that he feels the same way.”

What? I ask again. But I-

“Stop it, Autymn. No more denial. You are in love, and the sooner you admit that to yourself, the better you’ll feel. I promise.”

I love you, Mayple, I say, my thought-voice wobbling a bit.

“Love you too, Autymn. I know, since you protected me when we were younger, you might think the reason I’m here - here, in your head - is that I just want to return that favor, but in reality? In reality… I’m just a little sister who wants to see her big sister grow up happy.”

Thanks, Vic, I say.

“Don’t mention it. And you do love him.”

I do not.

“So do.”

No I don’t. Stop.

“Yeah, you do! I know you, Gam!”

Don’t call me that.

“Oh, how the tables have turned…”

I laugh. I’m glad at least a part of Vicky’s still here, still here to perk me up when I’m down, because she always knows the right thing to say.

Well, mostly.

I look out at the lake one last time, enjoying a moment of peace, tranquility and… well, love.

Picking up my mixtape, Walkman and headphones and slipping my arms into Chris’s brown bomber jacket, I start to head back up the hill.

Sleep sounds good right about now.

                                                         -=+ Chapter Twelve +=-

Another morning waking up in an uncomfortable tent. I’m kind of missing those hospital beds.

I’d slept in my clothes, with Chris’s jacket wrapped around me. I try desperately to comb my knotted, uneven, reddish-brown hair (which was in the messy braid up until now) and attempt to make it look nice for a change: mostly out, with my side fringe swept to the front.

I pull on another pair of ripped jeans, these ones black, a dark red tank top and my galaxy combat boots. I pull on Chris’s brown bomber jacket, grab my whiteboard and unzip the tent, heading out.

Jay is starting the fire this time and passing out breakfast plates. I smile and accept one, actually eating breakfast for the first time in days.

Oliver is holding Wynter, who appears to have lost her voice. I’m honestly not surprised. She has to shout all the time, in order for the rest of us to hear her.

So that’s two out of six people unable to talk, then.

Great.

Chris smiles at me, and I smile back. I’m lucky I’m one of those few people who never blush. Thank god. Now things won’t be awkward between us for a while now.

Symmer grins at me and waves me over. “Hey, Autymn!” she says, her tears of last night seemingly forgotten.

I mouth a quick hi back.

“Sorry if I looked like I was mad at you yesterday. I wasn’t. It’s just… I was feeling… you know, a little bit moody. Yeah. I’m
sorry.” she says.

It’s okay. Happens to all of us, I guess.

I write. She looks relieved that she hadn’t upset me or anything.

She smiles at me again, this time a mischievous, knowing smile. “Is that Chris’s jacket?”

I look away.

                                                           ***
Our camp is packed up again. Of course, last time we did this, we had a goal and a destination.

This time, we’re going into the mountains with some small trace of a goal and absolutely no definite destination.

“This is going to be great!” Vicky says, positive as ever.

Funny thing is, I can never tell if you’re being sarcastic or not. I direct my thoughts towards her.

“I’m not!”

I smile slightly. It’s times like these when I’m glad at least Vicky’s still here.

There are six of us in total now: Oliver (who appears to be tagging along for whatever reason), Wynter, Symmer, Jay, Chris and I.

Now that my mind feels a lot clearer, I can actually enjoy this.

As we hike, using the trail as our guide, I let the sights and smells of the forest take me back to better times. Back in Sparks, with my family. With Vicky. A cool breeze gently brushes my cheek, and I savour the new, alien feeling of freedom. A faraway smile is etched on my face.

“You’re thinking about something,” Chris guesses. “What is it?”

None of your business, I mouth. My smile fades and is replaced with a scowl. Despite whatever - whatever this was between us - had happened between last night and now, I wasn’t about to let him see… I couldn’t. He doesn’t know me at all, he still doesn’t know the half of what I’ve been through. I bite my lip.

“You do that,” Chris notices. “Bite your lip. When you’re thinking especially hard about something.”

I raise an eyebrow. Oh? I mouth.

He nods. “Yeah. And… and when you’re nervous, your eyes dart around, like you’re trying to focus on every object you can see. Like you’re trying to analyze the situation and your expression tells me your mind is going a million miles an hour to try and think of a solution.”

I roll my eyes. I don’t do that, I mouth.

“Yes, you do.” Chris says, locking eyes with me. I quickly look away. “You’re doing it right now.”

I have to make a mental effort to stop my eyes from darting around. With a steely glint of determination in my eyes, I meet Chris’s gaze. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction.

He smiles sideways at me. “What?” he asks.

I shrug. Nothing, I mouth. Then a question suddenly springs to mind.

Holding up my whiteboard and marker (I have taken to carrying them in my hands instead of in my bag. Might be a problem if we ever have to fight something.), I scribble down the question and show it to Chris.

How are you able to read lips so well?

Chris looks flustered and almost drops the remainder of the map he’d been carrying. “W-what?” he asks, then realization seems to dawn on him. “Oh… oh. What you mouth, you mean? Well, uh… usually I can’t, see? But, you know, seeing as you can’t speak… seeing as it’s you… I guess, um… I don’t really know, Gam. I guess I can just read yours so well. Not that I… uh…”

Oh, please. I didn’t have time for this. Forget I asked, I mouth.

We walk in silence. Thankfully, the air of awkwardness that had come from whatever that was vanishes.

I feel Chris’s gaze on me. I look in his direction in time for him to smile that roguish half-smile again. “You’re still wearing my jacket.” he notices, his voice in a teasing manner.

I scowl again. So what if I am? It’s cold. And it’s not like any of my other jackets are clean.

“You’re wearing your hair out, too,” Chris notices, all serious this time. “It looks nice. Suits you.”

My scowl fades. Surprised by this sudden compliment, I smile slightly.

“And you have the nicest smile I’ve seen of anyone. I just wish you would show it more often.” he says, gently touching my arm.

An unfamiliar warmth shoots through my body, and I physically have to stop my eyes from darting around. What do I say to that? Suddenly glad I can’t talk, I bite my lip again.

But the rest of the group stops, and I see why.

Blocking our path to the foot of the mountain is an old ruin. Made of grey stone and covered in ivy and moss, it appears to be some sort of temple, judging by the pillars and the weird symbols carved into them.

I lean over to try and glance at the map in Chris’s hands, to see if this temple was anywhere on it. But Chris appears to mistake what I’m trying to do, and puts an arm around me.

Uh, not that, I mouth, making a physical effort for my eyes not to dart around. I’m lucky I don’t blush easily. I meant the map.

“Oh… oh yeah,” Chris says, embarrassed. He lifts his arm off my shoulders and gives me the map. “I knew that.”

Despite myself, I laugh a little. You’re so oblivious, Chris Levy, I think, but I don’t mouth it.

I can hear Vicky laughing. “He loves you,” she says in a teasing, singsong voice.

Whatever. I had more important things to think about. Rummaging through my bag, I fish out a ballpoint pen, flip the map
over, and begin to copy down the symbols, one by one.

I freeze when I get to the last one. The symbol the girl - me - drew in my vision. It’s a diamond with a line through it, and a
small triangle in the base of the diamond. Two lines jut from the tip of this diamond, forming a broken diamond.

I quickly copy it down, expecting something to happen. When nothing does, I shoulder my bag, placing my whiteboard inside, and carry the map and pen into the temple.

I look over my shoulder at the rest of the group as if to say: Well? Are you coming?

Almost reluctantly, they follow, and the six of us enter the ruin.

There are more symbols engraved on the inside of the crumbling stone pillars. I copy these down too and trace a hand over the symbols I have drawn on the map.

It’s some sort of code.

“This isn’t good,” Vicky warns. “Autymn, there’s something about this place… it doesn’t feel right. You… you should leave. Like, right now.”

I ignore her. Wandering around the ruin, I find more symbols carved into the stone floor, forming a circle. I copy these down in the order I see them.

Despite being open to the sky, the ruin is actually in pretty good condition. I gently run a hand over the intricate stone, tracing a symbol.

Then I hear it.

It sounds a little like a bloodcurdling scream, silent at first, but then it gets louder and louder until it seems to be on the other side of the pillar. I touch my head gently with my other hand as if to will it to stop. It eventually stops and I take my hand off the pillar.

I look around at the others, but no one else seems to have heard it.

Strange.

Chris trips over a loose stone tile, which gradually gives way. He steps to the side just as the tile falls through.

“Uh, sorry,” he starts, but I put a hand on his arm. Look, I mouth, pointing.

The tile appears to be some kind of trapdoor, and it reveals a dark, winding tunnel, leading far under the temple.

Another floor. Hmm…  interesting.

I lean over the edge. From the light streaming in, I can see the tile, where it had fallen after Chris tripped over it. It has another strange symbol carved into it. With a chill, I realize it’s the same symbol I saw before, the same symbol I saw in my vision.

I have to go down there. I have to at least see what’s down there. I don’t know why. I just know that it’s important.
“Nope. No way.” Jay says stubbornly, as if reading my mind. “I’m not going underground again after what happened in the catacombs.”

“What happened in the catacombs?” Oliver asks, but I don’t wait to hear Jay’s answer.

I jump.

                 ***
Landing in a crouch, I look back up at the group. Chris is calling down to me, but I hardly hear it.

Must… walk… have… to… be… here.

I shakily get to my feet, find the box of matches in my bag again and strike one. The light illuminates the tunnel, but the match is burning out quickly.

I feel on the ground around my feet and pick up what I hope is a stick and not a human bone, and light it as a torch. My survival skills are honestly getting so much better.

As I walk away from the exit, the light fades. But the distant noise behind me that tells me that the rest of the group followed me into the tunnel.

“Gam?” Chris asks. “You okay?”

I stare at them and nod. Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?

“I don’t like this,” Vicky says nervously. “I don’t like this at all. Autymn, it’s not too late to leave, is it?”

We aren’t leaving, Vic, I think. I have to see what’s down there.

“Why?” she protests. Her voice is scared.

I just… I don’t know. All I know is that it’s important, I tell her.

She is silent.

I continue down the corridor. Behind me, I can hear the rest of the group. But all words fade into nothingness. Only one thought is lodged in my numb brain: keep going.

Eventually, we reach a big stone door with a red stain on it much like the one we saw on the tree way back when.

Hoping very much that it’s not blood, I trace a hand over it. Another one of those diamond symbols is carved here. I trace that too, and push gently on the door, which creaks open, leaving a small crack.

“Autymn?” Wynter asks. Her voice is fainter than usual. “Are you sure we should go in there?”

“Your tiny friend is right,” Vicky moans. “You remember what happened last time you went through a strange door you weren’t supposed to go through, right?”

Ignoring both of them, I slip between the small crack in the door. I’m lucky I’m thin.

Warily, the rest of the group follow. I can see Symmer biting her lip, like she’s thinking hard about something. Maybe she does that, too.

As soon as we are inside, the door slams shut behind us, which I find slightly ominous.

We appear to be in some sort of circular room with a low, domed ceiling. More symbols cover the walls and floor and there is an odd chill in the air, like we’re being watched.

Something brushes my leg and I look down. Phew, only a mouse. It scurries back into the shadows.

As I gently run my hand over the symbols on the wall, I freeze. A strange, new voice echoes in my head.

You aren’t supposed to be here.

We have to leave.

But I realize that all too late.

My torch extinguishes.

                                                                       ***
I am in no way prepared for the biting chill that follows.

At first, it’s nothing but a cool, gentle breeze on the back of my neck, but slowly, slowly, the chill spreads to every inch of my being. I am shaking and fighting to keep my eyes open as the cold appears to be affecting my vision.

I can’t move. I can’t move at all. I want to crawl up in a ball and lie helplessly on the ground, in some half-hearted attempt to shield myself.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, my own voice whispers mercilessly in my head.

Please, make it stop, make it all stop for one moment, please…

I don’t know who I’m pleading with. I don’t know anything anymore. All I know is the fierce chill that I am now battling, viciously trying to stay alive.

I am submerged in silence, a silence that feels never-ending. Even if I open my eyes, my world is dark. Dark and silent and cold.

I half-wonder if this is how my story will end. Dark and silent and cold.

But then another voice illuminates my thoughts, bringing a burst of color to my dark, silent world. A gentle hand strokes my cheek as if to comfort me.

Everything will be okay.

But then I stumble, trip and fall into something that looks like bright light. Almost instinctively, I close my eyes, bracing myself before I hit the hard, stone floor.

                                                                  ***
But it never comes. When I open my eyes, I am standing in a lake, water up to my shins.

With a start, I realize that it’s the lake where I learned to skip stones with my dad back in Sparks. If I looked just past the trees, I could see the back of our apartment block. This park was where I spent the fleeting happy hours of my childhood, a patched-up past I’ll never get to redo.

Behind me, a voice says: “Well?”

“What?” I answer automatically, then immediately clasp a hand to my mouth. Ecstasy takes over, a bubble of happiness forming in my chest. I can talk again. Finally. There are so many things I need to say, so many people I need to-

“Don’t look so surprised,” says the voice.

I turn around and almost jump out of my skin.

It’s me, but not me. The girl I have been seeing in every vision, every dream since the curse. White gossamer dress, long, wavy burgundy hair, scarlet eyes. Barefoot. But in solid form; not like a ghost or a hologram. She’s really there, and so am I.

“You,” I say.

“Me,” she agrees simply. In my own voice. There is a slight edge to her words, but she covers it well. The sound is like my own voice poured over gravel. I can almost hear the suffering in her voice, everything she’s been through…

“You’re agreeing with me,” she says.

“You don’t know anything about me.” I retort.

“I know enough,” she says, and grips my wrist. Her grip is also surprisingly solid. I flinch.

“Why have you brought me here?” I ask. “Here, of all places?”

“Look around you,” she tells me. I do, and realize with a shock that everything is frozen. There’s no wind. No trees are moving. Even the lake, which should be rippled with waves, is still, like a sheet of glass. My feet are stuck in it like wet cement.

I see my parents, sitting on the lake shore, still as ice. My dad looks deep in thought, and my mom looks relaxed, years of worry gone from her face.

I see Vicky with them, but she is small and slight and two years old again. She is sleeping, her head resting against a picnic basket, her eyes closed in content, her blonde hair cascading down her shoulders.

I also see Symmer, Jay and Wynter, who is back to being normal sized. Jay has an arm around Symmer and the two of them seem to be laughing. Wynter is sitting cross-legged, smiling at them. They are all frozen, too.

And Chris. Chris is with them, his dark blue eyes fixated on the lake, his lips frozen in that half-smile I’d grown to love.

My heart is lodged in my throat as I stare at them all. All content, all frozen. Like statues. Even the shadows on their faces have disappeared. Everything is motionless. Nothing moves, as if the whole world is waiting to hear what I am going to say next.

“What’s happened?” I demand, my tone sharp. “What did you do?”

She just stares serenely at everything, as if she expected this. “I know your insecurities. What you hope for, what you dread. Your dreams, and the reasons you never look back, the reasons you stay guarded, behind your walls.”

The scene changes, and I’m standing alone in a small, narrow dark room with a high ceiling. Two glowing scarlet eyes stare back at me. The walls suddenly shift of their own accord, compressing me in. Air supply suddenly feels scarce, and I struggle to breathe.

The walls continue to close in until I have to practically force them from crushing me, my hands pressed up against them, using all my strength and willing it to stop.

Laughter echoes around me. “Oh, you are strong, Gamora Halloran.”

The walls contract, hemming me in. I am pressed into a tiny ball, my back against one wall, my feet against the other; anything to stop it from suppressing me.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” I yell, trying my best to sound brave and not get crushed by the walls at the same time. “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?! TELL ME! YOU HIDE-”

The walls fade and I am crouching in the lake again. I stand up, my legs shaking. Everything is still frozen.

“This form is the only way I can appear to you,” says my own voice from the girl in my visions. “This manifestation of your own soul.”

“Is this a part of the curse?” I ask, curious despite myself.

“You were cursed from the second tragedy struck your life at a young age,” she continues. “Your life has since been one - adversity - after - another.” With each word, her voice grows sharper, full of anger and contempt.

“And yet, you prevail. Even when there is no hope for you, you prevail. Even when your own voice is taken away from you, you still prevail. You are strong.” she continues on.

I clench my jaw.

“You keep the weak fragments of your soul guarded and locked away, of course.” she says, a sinister sort of smile playing at her lips. I suddenly see flashes of bad memories I pushed to the back of my mind, things I don’t want to dwell on. I see the life I left behind, the ones I abandoned, the ones I failed.

“I know,” she continues. “The moment your fingers connected with the crystal, the very moment your essence tainted it, I shared your pain and suffering. I saw your burdens and the darkest desires of your armoured heart.”
My hands ball into fists and I scowl. “You’re the one who’s been speaking in my visions,” I say. “And in the catacombs. You’re the one who encouraged me to take the crystal in the first place.”

She shrugs. “Perhaps.”

“Why?” I ask. “What do you want from me?”

She stares at me, her scarlet eyes searing into my light green ones. I get the feeling that she can see what I’m thinking.

“Perhaps you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she says, and from the tone of her voice, I can tell I have ventured into dangerous territory. “Or perhaps it was fate that you were in the corridors that night. You, and the others.” She flickers a hand towards Wynter and Symmer carelessly, as if they are insignificant. “Perhaps I am the very manifestation of the greed that the founder felt when he encountered the catacombs that day, because the crystals are so attuned to human emotions and chip away at human souls.”

I swallow.

“I am all that remains,” she says simply. Her form flickers. “And I apprised you that night at the waterfall that you can have all of this, all that you love and desire can be yours, your life no longer a string of tragedies, you will know only calmness and content…”

“What’s the catch?” I ask, my tone dark. “My soul? Will I cease to become a manifestation like you? And the others?”

“Since when do you care about the fate of others?” she chides. “Only when you are to blame, do you truly care about what will happen to the rest of them. Only when the lives of them rest on your shoulders, only when you have to be the heroine, do you care about anyone.”

I open my mouth to retort, or yell, or lash out at her, but she continues to smile her serene smile.

“You are afraid you bring hardship and tragedy on anyone who crosses your path. And you are afraid that your sister and parents are vengeful and angry and blame you for all that happened.”

“But my… my friends…” The word tastes weird in my mouth. Metallic, almost. I haven’t had friends in a long time.

“Your friends?” she laughs. “The others, who have chosen their paths and condemned themselves to a fate that is unchangeable? They risked everything to accompany you to the mountains, trying to lift a centuries old curse that is binding them and yourself to this very land you walk on. The boy? He is, as you know, oblivious to this. He is blinded by the love he harbours for you.”

“He knew what he risked, coming here,” I say fiercely. “They all did.”

“And yet you’re still afraid that if any of them were hurt, the blame would be shifted to you. You expect yourself to lead and to carry the rest of their burdens. Alas, you expect too much. Your quest is, as you may be realizing by now, impossible.”

Your fault. Your crime. Your retribution.

“You’re wrong,” I say, a fire suddenly alight in my chest. “I am not afraid.”

My fists clench tighter, as if to hold onto something I find solace in.

The scene shifts again, and I am standing on a cliff, mist obscuring the bottom.

Not afraid?” she says, her voice amplified. There is malice in her scarlet eyes. “You are not afraid?

I muster courage from the fire now alit in my chest. “I am not afraid.” I repeat. My voice echoes around me.

She lunges, her arms outstretched. She grips my wrist, and her grip hardens into iron. She throws me backwards and I am
launched off the cliff face.

And I fall.






 
SURPRISE AGAIN! As my SECOND surprise update, this was supposed to be a birthday update (mine's on 27th Nov) but I ran a little bit overtime because I wanted to make sure that this scene was absolutely 100% top notch. I edited it, but then I found a major plot hole I needed to fix. I have also been really busy with everything and whatnot. Exams are nuts. I'll keep you all updated, since I know what it's like to be left in the dark. Not nice! 
Keep on and PLEASE FOR FRICKEN FRICKS SAKE WATCH THE CAPTAIN MARVEL TRAILER AGAIN,
roses

(P.S: I think I'm getting dangerously close to reaching the "word limit" in a WtW piece with now more than 28,000 words XD)

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6 Comments
  • The Bubbling Pen

    I'm up to Chapter 7 and this is ABSOLUTELY FANTABULOUS!!!!! Need to keep reading right now =)


    6 months ago
  • catgirl_55555

    wow this is AMAZING !! this piece really caught me from the start and when you last updated this (the previous update i think??) i spent one day (seriously) binge-reading it because i really couldnt stop >o< (that cliffhanger tho) also YES i watched the captain marvel trailer like so many times that i lost count because i love marvel movies!! :> good job and im excited for the next updateeeee !!!!!!!!!!


    7 months ago
  • Bo

    Damn, that’s like a whole novella right there!
    I haven’t had enough time to read it all yet, but from the first chapter it’s really intriguing and I’ll definitely finish it soon. Good job!


    7 months ago
  • Luna Lemon

    Happy belated birthday! It feels like YOU'RE giving us a gift with an update for your birthday, lol;)
    This was such a good continuation BUT THAT CLIFFHANGER! WHY! It's almost similar to "Mark of Athena" which is the QUEEN of cliffhangers. You even end it on, "And I Fall", XD. This new arc with Gamora seems really interesting, I can't wait to find out who this "ghost" of her is and what her purpose is. And btw, your writing is as usual phenomenal. You know how to write without over detailing so it doesn't seem forced but still with enough description that we get such a full scene. I love how you wrote the ending: "She lunges, her arms outstretched. She grips my wrist, and her grip hardens into iron(etc)". It was so suspenseful and I'm left on the edge of my seat waiting for the next chapter!
    Great job as always and I can't wait for more!
    P.S. I did get your notifications! Sorry it took awhile, been a bit busy this week(mid-term preparing) and I haven't had a lot of time for WTW. But, Unspoken is totally worth it:) Congrats on 28,000 words!!!


    7 months ago
  • nezi_nes

    Yay rosemarywisdom!!! I'm so curious as to who exactly the ghost-Autymn is and what powers she has. As always, great writing and thanks for the update!


    8 months ago
  • f l o r a

    wooooaaaaah

    I barely have enough time in my day to write 1000 words, let alone 28,000

    this was wonderfully written, and though I don't know much about superheroes, I want to see more of this.


    8 months ago