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“We’re done.” He’s not even listening to me now. “I’m getting you somewhere safe.” He slides one of the tasseled cords from the curtain behind me, and then drops it to the floor in a golden coil. “First, we get every rope and tie them together to make a lasso. Then we’ll use the furniture along the tunnel wall to get back up. It’ll be like that time we climbed rocks in the canyon a few summers back.”
I don’t know what scares me more: the fact that his plan’s so good it might work, or that I don’t want it to.
My guide’s voice returns, stern this time, almost angry. “I tire of these games. Drink from the bottle. One sip. Find me.”
I wrestle Jeb’s grip, but he’s too strong. He’s already drawing down his fourth rope when a gritty, grinding sound reverberates overhead. We both watch as the pinhole fades to blackness—the statue shutting us in.
Mouth agape, Jeb drops both the rope and my arm. I make a break for the corridor, grabbing the backpack and a candle from the wall on my way. I duck into the darkness with Jeb’s shouts ricocheting all around me.
After nearly tripping over my boot laces, I use my mouth to hold the candle so I can free one hand. I rummage in the backpack for the brown bottle. The candle’s flame casts flickers of yellow along the walls.
Jeb’s close behind. I don’t want him any deeper into my mess, but the only way I can keep him safe is if he’s with me.
I hunch down to keep going as the passage gets smaller. Lifting the chain off my neck, I wrap it on my wrist so the key dangles free at the end. Somehow I know that unless I want it to shrink, too, it can’t touch me. Far ahead, where the passage is smallest, the miniature door comes into sight.
With the backpack looped over one shoulder, I pull out the brown bottle and pop the cork, slopping a dash of liquid into my mouth opposite where I still hold the candle. The bitter flavor burns going down. I recork the bottle and tuck it away into the backpack, dropping it for Jeb.
“Just one drink!” I yell over my shoulder, and leave him the candle.
Muscles jerk—bones click. Every inch of my skin warms and tightens, as if I’m tumbling in a clothes dryer, growing smaller with each step. Nausea turns in my stomach while the corridor seems to grow alongside me.
When I look back, Jeb’s on his belly, snaking toward me with one arm outstretched to catch me in his hand. I weave between his fingers, stumble forward, and, struggling with a key now the size of my palm, I unlock the door and dive headfirst into Wonderland.
THE OCEAN OF TEARS
I scramble to my feet, as small as a cricket, just like in my recurring nightmare. Only this time I’m not Alice. And so far, I still have my head.
Climbing onto a mound of dirt, I take a look around. A flower garden towers above, casting enormous shadows. Between openings in the trunklike stems, a beach stretches along an endless ocean. An empty rowboat waits on the shore—gigantic compared to me. Salt and pollen season the air.
“It can’t be,” Jeb’s voice thunders.
I spin on my heel to face him, covering my ears. One huge eye peers out from the rabbit hole’s door.
“Drink from the brown bottle,” I answer.
“I can’t hear you.” His mumble shakes the ground under my feet. I mime drinking something and hold out a forefinger, signaling
the number one.
Then he’s gone.
I hope he wears the backpack for the transition. Judging from
the current size of my clothes, everything touching him will shrink.
In a matter of seconds, Jeb plunges through the opening with the backpack in tow. The door snaps shut behind him, with the key on the other side.
Catching me around the waist, he pulls me against him. “What were you thinking?”
“‘Sorry’ won’t fix this mess. We’re the size of bugs and locked out of our only exit.”
“Well, you’re the one who left the key!”
His face flushes. “What are we supposed to do now?”
“We eat a bite of cake and get big again.”
He slaps his brow in feigned shock. “Of course. We’re just going to eat a piece of hundred-year-old magical cake.”
“You can stay this size if you want to. I’ll carry you in my pocket.”
Snarling, Jeb slips the backpack from his arms. “Whatever. Let’s just do this. We’re smaller than the stinking flowers, for crying out—”
“The boy thinks we stink, Ambrosia.” A craggy, witchlike voice erupts out of nowhere. Movement sweeps along the garden, as if wind blows the blooms.
Jeb and I edge backward, nearly tripping over the fallen pack.
One of the giant daisies bends low, casting a long blue shadow. A distorted mouth widens in the flower’s yellow center, and rows of eyes blink on every petal. “That he did, Redolence. The nerve,” she says. “After all, if anyone stinks, it would be him. We haven’t any sweat glands.”
Jeb drags me behind him, reversing our direction. “Um, Al? I’m not the only one seeing a talking flower, right?”
I clutch his waist, my heartbeat pounding into his spine. “You get used to it.” I try to suppress the panic stabbing me.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I don’t have the chance to answer, because Jeb crashes us into a huge stem.
A nasturtium leans down, snarling. A hundred gray eyes nestle on her bright orange petals. “Watch where you’re going, would you?”
Several dandelions bob the fuzz on their heads, scolding. Tiny eyeballs protrude from their tufted seeds like snails’ antennae.
I swallow a scream as they all start talking at once:
“How long has it been since we’ve had such delectable visitors?”
“In our living-backward years or their moving-forward years?”
“Doesn’t matter, really. I was more just making a point.”
Jeb eases us into a small clearing in the midst of the chattering creatures and turns me to face him. “Did they just call us ‘delectable’?”
Behind us, a dandelion sneezes. Her seeds burst from her head in tufts, leaving bald spots. “My eyes! Someone catch my eyes!” She reaches out with her leaves to try to grab them.
Two places down, a geranium bends at midstem and opens a bucket on the ground. The word Aphids glitters on the side in red paint. Fishing out a pinkish bug the size of a mouse, the flower pokes the writhing victim into his mouth and chews, drool oozing down the petals that make up his chin. His eyelids close underneath the slobber.