Thereafter

*Movellas Advent Calendar 2014!* *NaNoWriMo 2014* *First Draft* ©Molly Looby There are always a host of flowers on the side of the road, whether brand new or shrivelled from weeks of rest. Their appearance, though sad, was never odd. So when another wave of flowers showed up on the outskirts of my home town, I didn't pay much attention apart from a deep aching sadness within. It was only upon mentioning it in passing I realised something was wrong. I spoke to everyone but to no avail. Maybe I was going crazy but . . . I was the only one who could see the flowers.

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10. Ten

Nathan ended up staying over as neither of us had an exam the next day and he was incapable of organising a way home. I knew the real reason he stayed. He wanted to make sure I didn’t do something stupid. I wasn’t about to run to Suddich in my bare feet.

Even so, he wouldn’t take his eyes from me. As we ate dinner and watched a film and played on the Xbox, his eyes were there, somehow making soft light blue a dangerous colour.

I awoke in the morning with a jump. I was sitting up and panting but the dream was gone. All I could remember was the flash of a light and a noise and I’d yelped, waking up. Though whether I made the sound aloud was questionable. If I had, it hadn’t been loud as Nathan was still snoring on the tiny blow-up bed in a sleeping bag that couldn’t hope to hold him.

I fell back against the headboard, puffing out a lungful of air, heart thumping hard. I couldn’t remember the last time a dream had awakened me. I guessed that meant it had been a nightmare, not that I could remember enough of it to know.

I peered down at my alarm clock, squinting so I could read it without my glasses. The light was shining 06:36 so I shimmied back down and tried to get comfortable again, shutting my eyes, counting Nathan’s breaths and matching them. I tried relaxing my body from the toes up. I let my mind run away from me. Sleep was as close as I was to finding out what was up with Zed and the flowers.

I huffed and reached for my glasses and my phone, deciding the light straining my eyes might be enough to make me drowsy again. I started off with my usual search for flowers and Suddich and deaths. I scanned the Suddich Standard page yet again. I then moved on to different hallucinogenic qualities of drugs and what people have claimed to have seen and done whilst under their influence.

There was weight to Nathan’s theory and the heavy burden of guilt plunged into my stomach. It seemed people were capable of seeing much weirder things than flowers. It would make sense for my rational brain to see something plausible in a sensible place.

Next I looked up vanishing. There were pages and pages of different lists of people who had apparently disappeared. Most of them looked like they’d run away and made a new life for themselves or been murdered or kidnapped. A few of them were unexplained and remain to be, such as Amelia Earhart, a woman I would be honoured to have been named after. Sadly not. My parents just thought Amelia had sounded like a pretty middle name.

Deciding to take a different approach, I started reading articles about magic and illusion. I watched countless videos but no one could vanish like Zed had. Not without some sort of box or distraction. He had been almost nose to nose with me and then nothing. That was no sleight of hand. Not even the world’s most famous magicians had disappeared right in front of someone. How on earth had he done that?

Light was peeking out of my curtains by the time I abandoned my search for a new one. Zed. He must’ve been somewhere.

I started off on social media sites, scanning through all the profile pictures of all the men called Zed. I knew there were going to be hundreds but I didn’t know there were going to be thousands. I’d never heard of anyone using that nickname. At least if he was somewhere searching for me he was having even more trouble. If there were this many Zeds I couldn’t imagine how many Amelias there were.

I was glad I hadn’t given him my real name. He could scan the list of Abias a whole lot quicker. The majority of those sharing my name were from the Middle East. Mum and Dad had thought they were being original when they stuck an ‘a’ at the end of Abi, not thinking about it much more than that.

I got bored and moved onto a different website, wondering whether knowing his real name would make any difference whatsoever. If he had a common surname it wouldn’t help a tiny bit.

By the time Nathan awoke, I was losing the will to live and my battery was almost dead.

“Hey,” he grunted. “How long have you been up?”

“Hours.”

“I had this ape-shit crazy dream.”

“Lucky you, sounds fun.” I sat up and my head swam a little from staring at my phone for so long. I pulled back the covers and grabbed for my slippers, jumping over Nathan to the door.

“Wait. Where you going?”

“I’ve been up for hours. I’m sick of these walls.”

I trotted downstairs and found Mum in the kitchen boiling the kettle like she could read my mind.

“You’re up early,” she said looking at the clock. “It’s not even nine.”

“I woke up at half six. Bad dream.” I grabbed a mug out of the cupboard and put it next to hers.

“Really? Me too.”

I narrowed my eyes. “That’s a bit weird isn’t it?”

She shrugged. “Not unless our dreams were exactly the same. So are you and Nay actually going to do any work today?”

Nathan shuffled into the kitchen in his clothes from yesterday shaking his head. “Every time we’ve tried, something’s cropped up. I’m clearly not meant to pass this exam.”

“Stop your whining. I promise today will be maths filled.”

He groaned.

“What now?”

“That sounded like the most boring way I could be spending my time.”

Though boring Nathan may have found it, we did get round to looking through the maths course. It calmed me, the predictability of numbers, of knowing how they worked. I couldn’t understand the generic hatred of maths. It was only difficult if you didn’t know how to do it. You only needed someone to explain it in the right way for everything to make sense all of a sudden. I guess that was true of most things.

I was hoping that’s what Zed could do the next time I saw him. Unlike after seeing him in the park, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Last time I’d been more interested in the flowers, though by this point I think I’d explored every avenue of that problem.

He was right about one thing. He had given me something else to think about. A lot, in fact. I was optimistic that he was right about more than just that. I needed everything that he said to be true.

Mum took Nathan to Suddich after lunch, resisting the urge to go to work earlier than she was supposed to, and I found myself alone. I started looking at my first physics book from the beginning for what felt like the two-hundred-and-fifty-seven-thousandth time. After turning the fourth page, I realised that I was reading the words but absorbing nothing.

I piled my books in my arms and took them back to my bedroom. Halfway through putting them away, my phone rang. I had no choice but to sit at my desk, unable to move back too far as it was on charge. The screen read ‘Angela’ and flashed up with a picture of her that was three years old now, though you’d never know.

“Hi, Abi, it’s Grace!”

A feeling of nausea wedged itself in my stomach. “Gracie.” I grimaced, swallowing the queasiness back. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to talk to you. I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“It was only yesterday morning that I saw you. How’s school? Any better?”

“No,” her voice dropped. “I don’t want to play games at lunch.

“Not even with Poppy? I’m sure she’s missing you if you’re sitting by yourself.”

There was no answer.

“Grace? If you just nodded or shook your head, I can’t see that from here.”

“Oh, yeah. I meant not even with Poppy. She’s making new friends.” She didn’t seem either sad or happy about this.

“Why don’t you invite her round for dinner tomorrow? I’m sure she’ll say yes.”

“I don’t want to talk to her.”

“Why not? She’s your best friend.”

“She doesn’t believe me.”

I clutched the phone tighter, a spring of hope blooming. “Doesn’t believe you about what, Gracie?”

“About Winnie.”

My heart dropped again. “Winnie?” I felt my nose crinkle. I’d never heard of a Winnie before.

“Yeah, I think that’s her name.”

“Is this girl new at school?”

Grace laughed. “She doesn’t go to school, silly.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t understand why that was a silly suggestion.

“I see her sometimes but yesterday she was at school with me.”

Relief made me laugh. “I see. Is she your imaginary friend, Gracie?”

“No. She’s real.”

“She’s real to you but that’s why Poppy can’t see her. Don’t be too hard on Poppy, Grace. You should explain it to her.”

“She’s not my imaginary friend, Abi. She’s real.” Anger, a sound I’d seldom heard come from Grace, was underlying in her tone.

“Okay, okay.”

“I thought you’d believe me. No one believes me.”

“I believe you, Grace, I just think that you made her up. That doesn’t mean she’s not real.”

“I didn’t make her up! I didn’t!”

“Then how come no one else can see her?” I felt the immediate stab of guilt. I was such a hypocrite.

“I don’t know! I thought you would know. You know everything.”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath. “How do you know she’s not imaginary? Your imagination’s stronger than you think, Gracie, especially yours.”

“Because she’s too . . . real. I could never think up a real person.”

“Is she with you now?”

There was silence on the other end for a moment. “No.”

“Okay. What does she look like?”

“I’m not sure. She’s more of a feeling and a voice than a person.”

“Right.” I felt my heart calm. “Okay. But I thought you said you see her sometimes.”

“Yeah but not with my eyes.”

I rested my elbow on my desk and my hand on my forehead. “It’s hard for people to believe in something they can’t see, Gracie, it’s okay.”

“Do you believe me?”

“Yes.” I said though I knew I was lying to her. She needed someone to count on. Someone to believe her. I knew that now more than ever.

“I would believe you too.”

I chuckled but there wasn’t much humour in it. “Thanks.” There was quiet and I drummed my fingers on the desk. “So why did you ring me, Grace?”

“Because I think something’s wrong.”

It felt like a brick had lodged itself in my stomach and a tennis ball had forced itself down my throat. I tried to swallow past it. “With what? Is it Dad? Is it Angela?”

“No.”

I sighed and shut my eyes.

“With you.”

My heart began to flutter in panic. “There’s nothing wrong with me. You haven’t seen me today, how can you think that?”

“I just had a feeling. Winnie had it too.”

“I’m fine. I’m not sick or anything. I’m home, I’m warm, I’m comfy. I’m perfect.”

“No,” she said. “No. There’s something weird going on.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not sure. Something’s happening, Abi. I’m scared.”

I had to suck air in through my teeth. “We talked about this before. There’s nothing to be scared about. I’m not sad. I promise. Everything’s okay.”

“It’s not. It’s not. Something bad is going to happen.” She was getting hysterical.

I shushed her. “Grace, Grace, it’s okay. I promise. Okay? I promise everything’s okay.”

“You don’t mean it. It’s not. I know it’s not. Something’s coming.” She wasn’t taking breath.

“Gracie, it’s just your imagination.”

“No! No! Abi, I’m scared, Abi!”

“Grace.” I could hardly breathe. “Grace. Where’s Mummy?”

“Downstairs,” she sobbed.

“Can you do me a favour?”

“Don’t go!” she begged. “Please!”

“I’m not going anywhere. I want to talk to Mummy, is that okay? I’ll talk to you again in a minute, I promise.”

“You promise? You’re not going anywhere.”

“I’m not going to move from this very spot at my desk. I promise.”

“Okay.” There was the sound of a door opening, someone thumping down the stairs like they were a lot heavier than they actually were and then I could hear Angela’s voice full of concern. There were some scuffling sounds and Angela’s voice was in my ear.

“What on Earth’s going on?”

“She’s hysterical.”

“I can see that! What have you said to her?”

“Nothing! She’s the one saying weird stuff to me.”

“She was fi–”

“Listen,” I cut her off. “She keeps saying that she’s scared.”

“What of?”

“I’m not sure. Something big. Something bad. Does that mean anything to you?”

“No,” her voice was small. “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

“Is she still there?”

“Yeah. She’s hugging me tight and she won’t stop crying. What on Earth is she scared of?”

“I have no idea. Has she told you about Winnie?”

“Yes, a bit.”

“She said she had a feeling something was wrong and Winnie had it too. I don’t think this imaginary friend is doing her any favours.”

“It’s so bizarre, she just turned up out of nowhere.”

“When?”

“Two weeks ago. Exactly I believe.”

No. It couldn’t be. Just because it happened on the same day did not mean that this was linked. This couldn’t be to do with the flowers. It couldn’t. That didn’t make any sense. But what about the flowers did make any sense?

I clenched my fist on the desk, trying to stop myself from trembling. I had to clear my throat before I spoke. “Ange? Can you pass her back?”

“As long as you don’t scare her anymore.”

“I didn’t scare her in the first place. She’s the one scaring me.”

There was crackling and then quiet.

“Grace?”

“Yes?”

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

There was no sound.

“Did you just nod again?”

She gave a giggle and it was like the weight of an entire building was lifted off of me. I felt like laughing too.

“Have you been out of Suddich in the last two weeks?”

I heard her ask Angela before she answered. “Yes. We went to see Gran the weekend you were with your mum.”

“Okay, good. Do you remember driving up that long road out of Suddich?”

“The one with the sign?”

“Yes, yes, the one with the sign.” It felt like my heart was skipping.

“Yeah. There was lots of traffic. Daddy got annoyed.” I heard Angela chuckle from the other end.

“So you spent a lot of time looking out the window?”

“Yes. Mummy didn’t want my Disney CD on.”

This time I could make out Angela’s words. “We have it every day, Gracie. Mummy needed a day off.

“Did you notice anything new or weird?”

“No.”

“Not even some flowers?”

The silence that followed was the longest of my life. I didn’t know what to hope for. What I did know, was that this was the last time I was ever going to ask that question.

“No . . .” It was elongated.

I dropped my head to the desk and let out a sob of breath.

“Wait. Flowers?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “It doesn’t matter. I’m like you it seems, Gracie. I have a huge imagination. Apparently.”

“No, I didn’t see them.”

“That’s okay.”

“But . . .” There was a pause. “Winnie . . . Winnie did.”

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