Songbird Trilogy Book 1: The Maze Girl (complete)
Author: Julia R. West

Chapter 20

I slowly regain consciousness. When I wake up, I can feel the distinct pain of where the fire burned my legs and where my head crashed into the rock. I want to close my eyes and go away again; it was better when I was asleep.

Rory sees my eyes open and rushes over to me. That's when I realize where I am. I'm propped up on a pillow in a crisp, white hospital bed. Pictures on simple wooden frames line the walls, a door sits to my left, and a window to my right. But the shutters and curtains are drawn. I wish I could see outside, but it seems like a foolish request to make to Rory, let alone the nurse. "Elle, I was scared you wouldn't wake up!" I can tell he's not kidding.

I smile. "Thanks," I get out. "Who won the challenge?"

"You did."

"No...I didn't!"

He laughs, "Yes, you did. I picked you up and carried you to the finish. But you would have won the challenge anyways, so I just slid you over the finish line first. Aren't you happy?"

I shrug, but wince as it hurts. "So it was you...who picked me up."

He nods. I feel a wave of relief, but it fades after he tells me, "Well, Soren got to you before I did and put you out, but I caught up and carried you the rest of the way. To think about it, he probably saved your life. If he had waited until I got there to put you out, you'd be much worse of than you are."

"Oh," is all I say.

"What day is it?" I ask him.

"Saturday afternoon. Soren and I should have gone to the next challenge by now but we were told it will be postponed until tomorrow so we can be here for you a little while. You aren't going."

I shake my head. "I'm going! I have to win, Rory. For Teryn."

He replies, "No, the doctor specifically said you have to stay here. Remember the rule you asked about at the meeting?"

I nod. "But I'll be fine!"

"They don't know what kind of damage that rock caused to your head. It wouldn't be a good idea to be in the challenges again. They're dangerous, you know."

But I am determined to go. If I get hurt again they can carry me away and strap me down in a hospital bed for the rest of my life, but I would't care, because I won. My next thought is, why am I so intent on winning? Is this what The Drawing has turned me into: A self-centered jerk who only cares about winning?

"Besides. I will win this challenge, and then we'll be tied. They won't hold the tie-breaker until you're one hundred percent better and then I will let you win."

"How can you be sure you'll win tomorrow? This is your challenge after all!" I'm about to tell him that I know what it is.

"I know. You almost won your challenge. What makes you think I can't win mine?"

"Almost!" I yell. Almost. "When you slap 'almost' into a sentence it changes the meaning, Rory! It implies, "She needed help," or "She was so close," but it never implies, "She made it," or "She won," or even "She did her best!" Don't you see that?"

"I see that! But--"

"But what if that same thing happens to you?" I interrupt."I won't be there to help you! Soren hates you. I'm your only common thread with him. When my life isn't on the line, you two don't speak a word to each other! What makes you think he'll help you?"

"He'll help me," says Rory calmly after a long time of thinking, "Because he knows how terrible your life would be without me. He knows that I keep you going! Do you think you would have stopped at "I have to win this for him!" if I died? No, you wouldn't. You would have cried and gone home. Your life would fall apart without me!" he's almost shouting at me. Almost.

I have nothing to say to that except a giant sigh that hurts my head to make. "And," he continues reluctantly, "Mine would fall apart without you. I can't lose you." And he seals the argument with a kiss. His tears drop onto my face. His hands gently grasp mine and hold on tight, and I don't push him away. For the first time, I feel like I'm doing the right thing. Like we're meant to be.

He finally lets go. I decide there's one last thing to say: "I'm sorry." He gives one single nod of his head to acknowledge that he heard me, and that's good enough. He's crying as he leaves. I should never have yelled at him like that.

A blonde-haired nurse peeks through the doorway. "Ellery, Ellery, you're awake." I nod.

"All that yelling and arguing isn't good for you."

I blush. She heard me and Rory. "S-Sorry." She gives me a kind of pain killer for my head and spreads some kind of cream on my burns. It stings for a moment, but then the pain recedes and I feel almost peaceful. Almost. I despise that word.

Almost is the kind of word that you use to make people feel better. "You're almost better!" or "You're almost there!" But think about it for a moment the next time someone says almost to you. It may mean you're close, but it doesn't mean you will definitely get there!

The nurse leaves and tells me to get some rest. I fall asleep, never so happy to fulfill an order in my life. At first there are no dreams at all, or at least none that I remember.

But soon, good dreams flow into my head. I picture Rory carrying me over the finish line. I hear him speaking words to me that I couldn't hear when I was really there. It's like I am remembering things that never happened, even though they did. This obviously wasn't the exact way it happened, because I am dreaming, not remembering or experiencing, but it's close. I imagine Rory's lips pressed up against mine while he carries me, taking the chance he has that I will not push him away. Even if I had been awake, I am doubtful I would have longed for anything more comforting than that.


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