Tracy had half-expected some more notes from Neil on Monday, but nothing happened. She did not see him around, and in a way that was even more unsettling since she was aware that he might pop up anywhere. She decided to keep a weather eye open and tackle the other burning question – Julian.
Tracy went in search of Miss Jonker who did confirm that Julian had spoken to her about his admiration of Tracy’s performance, and his intention of inviting her to the Sunday concerts.
“Julian is always the perfect gentleman, so I didn’t think you’d mind if he called you. You didn’t mind, did you?”
“No, not at all, but I was so nervous that I think I need to talk to him again to just explain that I didn’t mean to be rude. Do you think I could get his number from you?”
“But if he called your cell, don’t you have his number there? Or did he block his number?”
Tracy did a dramatic slap upside the head. “I didn’t even think of it. Thanks Miss Jonker.”
“That’s OK – if you do want to go and watch some Sunday afternoon, just ring me and I’ll pick you up. That’s where I first heard them and got to be friends with him.”
“Thank you, thank you so much. I’d love to do that once I’ve checked in with my mom.”
Miss Jonker smiled. “It’s my pleasure – I love bringing talented people together and I’m sure you’ll love the place. You’d better run along right now, the bell is about to ring. See you later!”
Tracy ran along.
Lunchtime she finally spotted Neil. He was already sitting with the twelfth grade boys from the football squad, and despite not being a jock, was the life and soul of the party. In fact, now she came to think of it, he always seemed to charm people, excepting herself. Would her mom have been as insistent about the incident if she hadn’t been taken with him a little? Maybe that was his secret, that he could charm everyone except her and that was why he wanted to kill her, the one person who rejected him?
OMG Tracy, leave the pop psychology for another day! She got her tray loaded and headed for an open table. She was about halfway through her meal when Neil slid into the seat opposite her.
“Please don’t run or make a scene, just listen to me, OK? I know about the unknown land, and I sent you there.”
“I’d shut my mouth if I was you, flies might get in.”
She realized that she was indeed sitting with a dropped jaw. Neil was lounging in his chair, looking calm and friendly, smiling at her, yet his voice was urgent and low, certainly not carrying beyond the table.
“The only way you fall through the first time is if you feel as if you’re dying. I fell through when I was buried in an avalanche six years ago. Will you talk to me in private now?”
“I, I, I don’t know. I have to think. I’m going…” and she suddenly realized that her lunch was no longer settling in her stomach, “I’m going to be sick.” She barely had time to stand up before the salad and chicken and chocolate milk splattered onto the floor.
After the inevitable fuss, and when she was lying in the nurse’s office with a cold compress on her head and a warm water bottle on her stomach, she finally had time to think about what he had said.
He knew about the other land, what had he called it, the unknown land? And he claimed he had sent her there? Well, at least it answered one question that the backpack search hadn’t – the other world existed and was not just figment of her imagination.
But how did he know to send her there? And why? The revelation had opened up one area, and answered one question – what he wanted from her, and why he had tried to kill her – but now there were whole chunks of information waiting to be explored. She lay quietly, going over his words to her. And how his body language and voice and message were at odds with each other, almost as if he didn’t want people to think they were talking about anything serious.
The nurse came to check on her after a while and when she found no fever, and no tender abdomen, decided to let Tracy go. “Probably just the stress getting to you. Just relax and take it easy, OK. And come to see me if you feel anything peculiar again.”
It was time for supper, but Tracy did not feel like eating at all. Instead she walked to the dormitory, and was halfway there when Neil stepped out onto the path.
“Can we talk now?” he stood there, poised, sure, and she suddenly realized, supremely confident in who he was. That was his charm and that was also why she had reacted with such loathing. She barely knew who she was, who this person Tracy with the red hair and the need for risk was. How dare he, barely a year older, be so sure of himself? Where was the teenage angst, the bravado in the face of absolute chaos?
“Sure. But I’m going to ask the questions and you answer, right.”
“However you want to do it, but I think it would be easier if you just listened to my story first and then asked any questions you might still have.” He smiled. “It’ll certainly make more sense than if I simply answered your questions as they came.”
“I don’t care, I need to know first of all how you knew to send me there, or even that it would work. Don’t people die without crossing to this other land? And since you return here to the exact same moment that you left, don’t you die then? So what’s the point of crossing?”
“OK – I can see you’re all emotional about this, as girls usually are. Let’s sit down over there and I’ll see if I can answer those questions first, and maybe calm you down a little.” He indicated a bench next to the tennis courts. She stood for a moment, considering running. “I won’t touch you, OK? You can sit at one end, or even stand and I’ll sit down. That way you can run any time you feel in danger. Come on, just try it.” He certainly had experience in coaxing someone, and even Tracy felt that charm now as she reluctantly moved with him to the bench.
Once they were seated, him at the furthest end, he said: “How did I know to send you there? Why, I came looking for you Tracy. I mean, I didn’t know that you were the one, I’ve just been going from school to school looking for the redheaded girls of the right age, and on my first day here, there you were. You looked right and felt right, but it was only when I saw you with that ridiculous stuffed toy that I knew you were the one of the prophecy. Then I had to act fast, and the mirror maze was ideal.” He moved closer and took her hand, and she drew it away.
“How did I know it would work? It worked for me, and it usually works if the near-death experience is of drowning or choking or suffocating, at least that’s what Leman told me.”
“You know Leman?”
He nodded. “Yes, I know her. All otherworlders, that’s us, end up with her sooner or later.”
“What did she tell you about me?”
“See – here we are already, jumping all over the place and with some of your first questions not answered yet.”
“Look, I’m not in the mood to be lectured. In the past month I’ve worked my butt off for a show, shortly before that show I nearly got killed and spent what felt like three or four months in some weird strange place that I’m not even sure is real, where I’m like some kind of savior or something, got taught magic and how to pass from one place to another, got back here to find my killer is also someone who went there and came looking for me, and now the mission is suddenly real and how the hell do I find a sword…”
“Hush, shh, tula! You’re shouting and do you want everyone to hear?” Neil had placed his hand on her mouth, but lightly. The reaction was instinctive, she hit out with all her might, an unscientific, badly aimed blow, but her open hand smacked into his jaw and knocked him backwards. He fell off the bench and lay, dazed.
“Oh my god, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Hit me that hard?” He stretched a hand out to her. “Help me up please?”
She took the hand and pulled as he came up.
“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in, and all I can say right now is that I understand how overwhelmed you must feel. Remember this, I was only twelve when it happened to me.”
“Oh God, that’s right. You must have been so scared. I’m sorry. I’m just reacting instead of listening. In fact, I’m behaving exactly like the girls I despise, who squeal in reaction to everything, and don’t think about more than lipstick and bags. Just give me a moment to calm down, and then we’ll do this your way.” Tracy sat down on the grass, in the traditional yoga meditation pose, and started some deep breathing exercises.
Neil sat down opposite her, and in moments matched his breathing to hers. For five minutes the two of them sat, not talking, just breathing, and at the end, as they stood up, Tracy realized that they had become friends.
Neil’s story, once she allowed him to tell it his way, came down to this. On a skiing trip with his parents, an avalanche had struck and swept them and their guide down the valley. As he lay under the snow, crushed and barely breathing, he suddenly found himself on top of some weird white and gray plants, and with a strange creature looking at him.
He’d fallen into a farmed patch of canija, and the farmer was a halfperson named Faronpa. As with Tracy, he’d been taken in by a family of four, Faronpa and Apnoraf, and Katiron and Noritak, who’d sent for Leman as soon as possible.
Leman had explained to him about the otherworld, and the connections, and then had started teaching him the magic he could do. For him, that was absolutely the best of the whole thing, and he almost had forgotten about his other life. Dirondi and Idnorid, two former mercenaries, had started teaching him sword craft, and soon he was taking part in skirmishes against the DarkLord’s army.
Of course, such resistance had only fuelled the war, and the day came when Leman sat him down and explained the mechanism of the first crossing to him, and taught him about the soft places, and then sent him across with the mission of finding the girl from the prophecy.
He’d crossed back to the avalanche zone, but on focusing to be on top of the snow, and so was soon found. His parents were not that lucky, and died on the mountain. His father was the owner of the Juvay conglomerate, and so lawyers stepped in and started running it as a trust for young Neil, his father’s sole heir.
He let them know that he wanted to travel the world, spending time in various schools so that he could form an understanding of cultures and people before he took over the running of the business, and they had thought it a very good idea. And so he had travelled the world, spending no more than two months in any one school, searching for red-headed girls and watching them to see if they would fit the prophecy.
No-one had, until Tracy won that whale and he recalled the part about the fish and flower.
“I’m so sorry about your parents, Neil.” Tracy said when he finished the narrative. It was now almost dark and she knew they’d soon have to go inside, into study hall.
“That’s OK – it was long time ago. A final thing, I don’t know why everyone who drowns or chokes doesn’t cross over, maybe that’s something Leman can explain when we see her again.”
The lights were going up in the dormitory, and he stood up. “Come on, before they come looking for us.”
“Right, right. Only, before we go in, you don’t have something to eat with you, do you? I’m ravenous!”