I opened my eyes, and saw both my parents standing over my bed, peering down at me. I blinked several times, unsure of why I saw them, and my dad said, "Hey, honey. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I answered. I started to sit up, but three pairs of hands pushed me back down into bed again. I saw Jennifer standing to the side, looking worried.
"You hit your head earlier this morning," my mom explained. "For some reason, you were running away from the school building, and you fell down some stairs. The doctors say you're fine, though. You've just got a minor concussion."
"This morning?" I asked, remembering Kyle getting turned into an ostrich and the witch of Perimicaal and everything that had happened in the desert. My memories were so sharp, I could hardly believe they weren't real. "I had the strangest dream," I sighed.
My dad chuckled, then said, "Well, you're awake now. Good thing your sister found you so soon after you hurt yourself."
I glanced at Jennifer, who placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and asked, "Is it all right if I talk to Izzy a little bit? Alone?"
My parents looked at one another, but after a moment, my dad said, "Sure, Jenn. We'll be right outside if you need anything." Then, the two of them turned and left, and without my parents blocking my view, I could clearly see that I was in a hospital room.
Jennifer sat in a chair by my bedside, took a deep breath, then began, "I talked to Zack today- he has a lot of classes with Kyle. He said that Kyle wasn't in school today, and everyone assumed he'd gone home sick. I don't think anyone realizes that he's missing yet."
I adjusted the way I was lying, then looked to Jennifer, a sick feeling churning in my stomach. "You mean that wasn't all a dream?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not," Jennifer answered. "Kyle is still . . . you know. As for you and me, when we jumped through the gateway-thing, it dropped us off right where we would have been if we'd never gone to that other world. Nobody even noticed we were gone."
I sighed, then looked to the ceiling. "That's terrible," I breathed as guilt surged through me. "We left him there, then jumped right back into our lives as if nothing had happened."
"We did what we had to," Jennifer insisted. "There were no other choices."
"We just weren't creative enough to come up with any good options," I argued.
Jennifer sighed, then said, "I feel bad too, and I know a couple of phrases aren't going to make anything better. We just need to try to avoid feeling guilty." Conspiratorially, she leaned close and whispered, "You did great things there, Izzy. If not for you, I probably wouldn't have come home either."
I sighed, looked toward the ceiling, and although I knew she was right, it was a small comfort. "I need to think for a while," I complained.
Jennifer shook her head, then rose to her feet. I heard her walk across the room without looking at her, and heard her stop before she reached the doorway. "You know, it was probably too late for Kyle anyway," she began. "He'd already lost himself to that spell. And you know I almost lost myself, too. Frankly, you were the only person who remembered who you are in the desert. I've always admired that about you- that you're strong enough not to lose yourself."
I didn't respond, and a moment later Jennifer left the room. I laid in silence, and decided that I didn't like being strong; I didn't want to be strong any longer. Maybe I should lose myself in grief and guilt. I could start wearing only black, and paint my face white. I could pretend to be obsessed with death, and write bad angsty poetry.
I stared down at my fingernails, imagined them painted black, and decided that might be too much effort. Still, there were plenty of other ways for me to become something I wasn't. I needed to think.