I woke, kicking and screaming, babbling in that strange language.
“Stephanie! Stephanie!” Mom was shaking me by the shoulders.
It took me a while to remember who I was. A normal girl with no magic powers, who was not royalty, and was definitely not adopted. I sat up, gulping for breath.
“It was just a bad dream,” Mom soothed. “It’s ok. Here, let me get you a drink.”
I nodded, closing my eyes to try to calm myself. The man’s face reappeared in my mind. He didn’t say a word, but I saw hatred in the deep holes he had for eyes and I knew for certain he was coming for me. For a second time was suspended, feeling horribly similar to the nightmare. A painful pressure built up in my chest. I wanted to scream, but my lungs didn’t seem to work. Suddenly, a volcano erupted in my chest, lava gushed through my veins. There was shattering. Glass rained down from the lightbulbs. I had time to hope asylums had good food before blacking out. Except, the blackout was not black.
Rows of people were standing before me. Their eyes were glassy and empty, as if dead, but their mouths very much alive.
“Save us, please!”
With each moan, they stepped closer, their arms reaching out to me. I wanted to scream, wanted to run, wanted to tell them I wasn’t their princess. But I couldn’t feel my legs, couldn’t move my tongue. The talking corpses suddenly toppled over, making way for the woman who had been haunting my dreams.
“My dear, Tabitha,” she said. “You must come undo what you have done.”
I found my voice. It was floating right before my eyes, speaking in that language I didn’t know, but understood. Urging my arm to unglue itself from my side, I reached forward and grabbed the golden wisp. It dissolved in my grasp and settled in my throat.
“My name is Stephanie,” I said with as much conviction as I could. “I can’t help you; I’m just a normal girl.”
“You are wrong on many levels,” the woman said. “You are a princess, a sorceress, my daughter.”
I burst out laughing. “You’re crazy,” I told her. I’m crazy. This was all a hallucination. I want to wake up. I need to wake up.
It smelled like disinfectant. I blinked, my surroundings slowly coming into focus. I was in a generic hospital room, the thin sheet covering me wasn’t enough to block out the cold. There was a bouquet of flowers on the windowsill. On a chair, Mom was reading, or at least pretending to read. A tapping sound drew my attention to the hallway where Dad was pacing. He never liked being indoors for long periods of time. I exhaled. Here were my real parents. A throbbing on the side of my head slowly entered my consciousness and I groaned.
Mom jumped to her feet, book clattering to the floor. Dad rushed down the hallway—did I really groan so loudly he could hear me through the door?—and opened the door with a bang that hurt my head. “How are you feeling, Princess?”
“Don’t call me that!” I snapped.
He drew back, as though I’d hit him between the eyes with a hammer. Mom sent me a worried glance.
Dad cleared his throat. “Well, how are you feeling?”
“My head,” I said. It’s broken. I’ve lost my sanity.
“The cut will heal,” Mom said, for the first time in my life failing to read my mind.
The doctor walked into the room. I tuned him out as he gave a rundown of my injuries. “How did this happen?” He was looking at me. I opened my mouth, but the complaints, the ones that didn’t let me speak to strangers, started at once. Shutting my eyelids, I waited for the pain to abate. Mom answered for me.
“The window shattered.”
“A window does not spontaneously explode,” the doctor said patiently. “How exactly did it shatter?” He was talking to me again. I shrugged, grimacing as I upset a cut on my shoulder.
“Hmm,” the doctor turned to my father. “Any anger issues?”
What, did he think I had broken the window on purpose?
“Not that I know of, but…” Dad trailed off. He quickly shook his head, like a horse shaking away bothersome flies. “That’s not important. We just want to make sure Stephanie will be all right.”
The doctor must not have registered his words. “Anger can be associated with depression,” he told my parents. “In light of the fact that your daughter has been having a tough time in school.” I guess Mom and Dad hadn’t been fooled by the Jessica story. “I’ve prescribed some pills to calm her down some.”
I wasn’t depressed. I was going crazy. But there was no way I was telling Mom and Dad that. I pretended to take the pills, I attended the mandatory therapy sessions but never spoke, I put on a fake smile for Mom and Dad. They weren’t fooled, but at least they had agreed to pull me out of school for a while.
About two weeks into this new routine, I was curled up on my bed pretending to read so that Mom would stop being so infuriatingly positive. The therapist had proclaimed I should go back to school and my parents had agreed. Sulking hadn’t worked, arguing hadn’t worked. I was going back to school tomorrow. I tried to focus on the words on the page, but couldn’t.
Sudden yelling broke through the fog in my brain. It was Dad. That either meant someone was breaking into the house or the neighbor had let his dog do his business in our yard again. I stood to check it out, if only to get away from Mom’s sad smiles.
Dad was flapping his arms in the doorway. Shouting things like, “Get out, you servant of Nefron! We don’t want to get mixed up in your evil ways any more than we already are!”
A moment of humor broke through the fog in my brain. Insanity must run in the family. Dad seemed on the verge of throwing punches, I quickly went up to his side, ignoring my mom’s call of Stephanie don’t, and took hold of Dad’s arm. “What’s going on?”
The stranger turned his gaze on me. Except…he wasn’t a stranger.
It was him.
The man with the voids for eyes, the man from my dreams. Goosebumps sprouted over my body. I wanted to run crawl into my bed, plugging my ears and singing la, la, la, this isn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. He wasn’t here, he couldn’t be here! If he was here, then my nightmares weren’t nightmares. And if they were real…I squeezed my eyes shut, suddenly realizing that I might be hallucinating. White spots danced in my vision. This wasn’t real. I refused to accept it.
“Stephanie, go inside,” my father said in English. It was then that I realized that we had been speaking in that other language, the one from my dream.
“Let the girl stay,” the man said in a silky voice, which was incompatible with my memories—no, my hallucinations—of him. “She has the right to make her own decision.”
“Get out of my house!” Dad growled, in a voice so fearsome I hardly recognized it.
“Only if the princess orders me to,” the man said, his voice smooth as amber. He seemed to think I wouldn’t be able to do it.
Get out of here, you real-life-hallucination! I shrieked in my head. My tongue refused to move. I wanted to scream in frustration, but I couldn’t do that either. The man grinned, revealing missing teeth. He knew. He knew I was cursed.
Mom wrapped her arms around me from behind, protective. But she was trembling.
“Tell him, Stephanie,” Dad said crossly. “Just tell him to get lost and never come back.”
Too many words, but maybe I could manage one. “Go.” It was barely above a whisper, but at least I made a sound. The man scowled, but his voice remained silky and nonthreatening as he said,
“You shall see me again, little girl.”