"Wakey-dakey time?" James, standing overhead, gave her prey a gentle kick in the ribs.
Natalie opened her eyes just long enough to piece together that she was at the bottom of the stairs, and in more pain than she thought possible for a human being to experience without dying. Or maybe she was dead and this was just some excruciating preview of the afterlife?
Her eyelids floated shut again and she continued just lying there, her brain moving at frantic speed while her body, such as it was, remained perfectly, believably still. She felt the charge in the air as James crouched down and pressed her fingers into Natalie's neck. Though her hands were freezing-cold, James' touch burned like acid, and still Natalie didn't move an inch. It wasn't worth the risk, not before she'd figured out how to escape this godawful place.
"My, my, my," James was saying. "Look at all this blood. Someone could really drown in this mess—didn't your mommy teach you how to clean up after yourself?"
Natalie could smell it, the blood pooling up all around her, great rivers of red, her insides spilling out onto the floor.
And then somehow, without cracking open her eyes, she could just make out the tiniest sphere of light, hovering just beyond the anguish in her body and the confusion in her head. It was a glimmer of hope; she could see it. The glowing orb morphed into an infinity sign before it flickered out altogether.
Holy shit. It was Izzy. It had to be.
Dad, Natalie called into the void. Is that you?
I've got you, he told her. I've got my baby girl.
And that did it. In a single coordinated movement, Natalie shot open her eyes and rocketed to her feet. Her right ankle flared, and it took everything she had not to collapse back to the ground. She began hopping toward the door, but James was ready for her.
"Not so fast, missy." She grabbed Natalie by the shoulders. "Who gave you permission to go outside?"
"Whatever you're planning on doing with me," Natalie gasped, "it's not happening. Game over."
"Oh, but that's where you're wrong, sweetheart. Our game has only just started. You're what's over." Without releasing her grip on Natalie, James bent down to the floor and dipped her finger into the puddle of blood there. When she rose back up, she wiped her blood-wet finger all over Natalie's lips.
"What does it taste like?" she demanded. "Is your own death as delicious as it looks?" James made a clucking sound. "I mean, really, Natalie, it is such a shame, that along with our father's name and all his money and everything that meant half a shit to him when he was alive, you also got his pesky little bleeding disorder. I mean, it's just so tragic, isn't it, that what would be a minor accident for anyone else could land poor little Natty-Pants in the morgue? It's really just terrible luck."
Natalie didn't answer; she was too scared. All she could do was search the room with her eyes, what felt like the only undamaged part of her body, and that was when she noticed the umbrella stand a few feet behind James. With reflexes she didn't know she possessed, Natalie lunged forward and grabbed the most enormous of the umbrellas.
"From now on, I'm making my own luck," she said, swinging out her arm and stabbing the spike of the umbrella straight into the concavity of James' abdomen. Over the sound of ripping flesh James howled as Natalie pushed in the umbrella even harder.
James bounced off the wall by the fireplace and tried to regain her balance, but the pain was too much for her. She doubled over and fell to the floor. "You little fucking monst—"
Natalie didn't hear the final syllable. She had already pushed open the door and flung herself out into the screaming storm wind. She had no idea where she was going, no idea how far she could get on one leg.
She didn't think; she just moved, plowing forward as fast as her wrecked ankle would allow. All those track practices had been good for something. Her lungs were wide open, and she ran as if she were at the State Finals and neck and neck with Thisbe Grant for first place, oblivious not only to her ankle but to the muddy road, the slashing rain, the blackness corroding her heart. She just kept running and running and running.
And then, very suddenly, she came to a stop, for veering toward her from the top of the long driveway was the Subaru that had delivered her there. The Subaru that belonged to Owen. Owen who'd do anything for James, who'd surely been in on it from the beginning.
Behind her James' voice scraped over the raging wind. "Natalie! Goddammit, get back here!"
The car honked, then skidded to a halt a few feet in front of Natalie as the sound of James' feet sloshing through the mud got louder and louder. On both sides gigantic trees hovered like men, like tombstones. Natalie didn't know what to do, where to run, how to escape. She paused long enough to blink, and that was enough time for Owen to jump out of the car and hoist her into his arms.
"Don't—let me—stop it!" But her screams came out as inarticulate gargles; her throat was as useless as her ankle.
Without speaking Owen opened the passenger door and dropped her onto the seat.
"What the hell?" he looked truly dumbfounded as he slammed the door shut and got back behind the driver's seat. "What the fuck happened to you?"
Natalie inhaled hard, as if slowing her breath would do the same to time.
"Did she do that to you?" And before Natalie could answer, James appeared at the window, pounding her palms against the glass hard enough to break it.
"Please," Natalie croaked out. "Please just drive."
Owen was staring at the phantom outside the window. "She played me," he whispered to himself. "She played me just like she played everyone else."
Natalie didn't follow, didn't know what to believe or why it mattered. The rain was coming down harder and James was screaming something, banging and banging against the window. Only a few centimeters of oxygen and a thin pane of glass separated Natalie from her doom. "Please," she whispered, "I'm begging you. I'll do anything if you just go."
And so he did. Owen gunned the engine and reversed the car into the mud, throwing James off balance as he backed out of the drive. Shuddering back into the seat, Natalie glanced just once at the figure on the side of the road. Her last thought before that sweet freefall into unconsciousness was this: In spite of everything, James was still the most beautiful girl in the world.
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