- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
Orangey shakes her petals. “He was sent to escort her. He has emerald eyes, and the blood droplet beneath his lip has crystallized to a gem. He’s indubitably and undeniably an elfin knight of the White Court.”
I try to calm my racing thoughts enough to analyze their conversation. They think Jeb’s garnet labret marks him as one of the netherlings. I shoot a gaze toward him to see if he heard, but he’s no longer trapped by vines.
“Well, he hasn’t the uniform!” Pinky screeches. “Let us see if his ears are pointed.”
They turn around. “He’s escaped!”
They surge toward the sound of the backpack’s zipper, but Jeb already has the cake in hand.
In less than two blinks, he grows high above us. Body coiled and tense, he takes a swipe at the garden with one giant boot. The blossoms scream, grouped together in a bouquet of trembling petals.
He’s as graceful and majestic as a Greek god, lovely and appalling in his wrath. He lifts me so I hang from his fingers by strands of ivy, strung up in my cocoon like a helpless yo-yo.
Nervous energy courses through my limbs. I have to escape . . . the bindings are too tight . . . I can’t expand my lungs.
“Can’t breathe!” I struggle, but the effort only swings me faster. My stomach flops like a pendulum. The flower creatures cry out and grapple for me, but Jeb curls his fingers and nestles me within his fist—a snug, tender darkness.
“Shh. I got ya, Al . . .” His whispered breath rushes over me as he opens his palm.
My fear of heights battles a newborn claustrophobia. I roll along his warm flesh until his thumb, careful and tender, stops me. I freeze on my back to let him unwind the strands of ivy. His giant, callused fingers are gentle despite their size.
The minute I’m free, I catch his thumb—almost bigger than me—and nuzzle it. He tastes like grass and icing and all the flavors of Jeb, magnified. My heart hammers against his inner knuckle. “Thank you,” I say, knowing he can’t hear me.
Carefully, he holds me level to his face. His eyes are the size of teacup saucers, huge and framed with eyelashes like a thicket of moss and shadows. “Hang on,” he whispers.
He lifts me to his shoulder. I straddle the backpack’s strap. With one hand and both boots tucked under for security, I wave.
Taking my cue, Jeb kicks over the bucket of aphids, freeing them. He roars at our captors and they root themselves back into the ground, re-creating the flower forest that once surrounded us. He walks over them in one step. They’re lucky he doesn’t crush them.
We arrive at the rowboat and Jeb offers a palm to lower me onto the closest seat. The wood grains look like ripples of sand on a desert, and splinters peak like porcupine quills. I find a smooth spot and wait.
Jeb sets the backpack into the hull of the boat. He digs through it, and his hand reappears with a chunk of cake balanced on his fingertip. To him, it’s probably nothing but a crumb. I stand and eat from his finger, closing my eyes as my bones and skin strain and expand like rubber bands. When I look again, I’m perfectly proportioned, sitting on the seat, with Jeb crouched in front of me, watching anxiously.
“You okay?” He rubs his palms along my thighs.
I grip my stomach. “Yuck.”
“Yeah. Let’s hope we’re done playing musical sizes. It’s hard on the innards.” His jacket is crumpled in the bottom of the boat, and his bare arms sparkle with sweat. He rakes a hand through his hair, leaving it disheveled. “Those gloves saved your life,” he says. “What gave you the idea to wear them in the first place?”
I’m unable to put into words the fluttery feeling or the memory of a childhood here, so I try to downplay it. “Lucky guess?”
I can still see the flowers morphing into monsters before our eyes. Like Jeb said, this is not the Wonderland Lewis Carroll created. Yet somehow, my instincts have served us so far. Thanks to my absent netherling guide.
I have to find him. The longer I’m here, the more I feel drawn to him. We’ll go to the Caterpillar, like the flowers said. In his wisdom, he can help me find my guide and break the curse.
As if reading my mind, Jeb hops out of the rowboat and shoves the bow toward the expanse of glistening waves. Sand grates along the bottom and he leaps inside once we hit the water. “They said there’s a way out across the ocean. Guess that’s our only option.” Taking the seat opposite mine, he works the paddles, biceps straining.
“Do you really think these are Alice’s tears?” I ask. “That I’m supposed to make them go away somehow?”
“I’m the wrong guy to ask. I just saw a skeleton with antlers and a forest of aphid-noshing flower zombies.”
I prop my elbows on my knees. “I’m sorry I freaked back there, when I was wrapped in the vines.” I finally know what it’s like to be Alison, trapped inside a nightmare.
“Are you kidding?” Jeb says. “You threw yourself out as bait so I could escape. I’m not thrilled about your putting yourself in the line of fire, but those were great distraction tactics. Hey.” He nudges my boot with his. “Get some rest.”
I lean back to relax my aching muscles. The sound of lapping waves lulls my eyes closed. I’ve rested for less than a second when Jeb whistles.
“Look.” He gestures behind me.
Instead of the beach we just left growing smaller in the distance, there’s nothing. We’re surrounded by water in every direction. While I’m trying to make sense of that, the sun vanishes, as if someone flicked a light switch. I stiffen in my seat, fingers clenched on the boat’s edges.
“What just happened?” Jeb asks, his voice strained.
“It’s nightfall. There’s no twilight here,” I answer, as sure as I am that we’re going in the right direction to find the winged guy from my past.
Jeb just stares at me and keeps rowing.
Stars twinkle in the purple heavens, reflecting in the dark water that swirls all around us. We swirl, too, the boat turning in slow circles until it’s impossible to differentiate between water and sky.
Jeb sets the oars in their grooves. “My rowing’s not getting us anywhere. We’re going to have to leave it to the currents and hope for the best.” Starlight flashes across his labret.