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Jeb digs out two energy bars and a bottle of water, then steps over the oars toward me, rocking us gently. “You need to eat.” He hands off the backpack and the snack, then sits cross-legged in front of me.
I set the bar aside, open the water, and take a swig. Then I slide the Wonderland book from the bag. “They thought you were an elfin knight of the White Court.”
Jeb rips open his energy bar. “Yeah, whatever that is.”
I flip to the sketches. “Here.” The likeness could be Jeb’s twin: muscular build, square chin, dark hair, jeweled red dots lining the outer corners of his temples and lips. Eyes as dark velvet green as the underside of leaves. The only difference is the pointed ears.
Jeb studies the picture, chewing.
“They serve the Ivory Queen,” I explain, “in her castle of glass. Their blood crystallizes when the air hits it. That’s how they mark themselves, by piercing holes in their flesh so their blood can leak out and become jewels. They’re trained to be emotionless, to act only on instinct. Having so much self-control makes them fierce protectors, but it also makes for a very lonely queen.”
Swallowing, Jeb looks up. “You sound like you’re reading from an encyclopedia. How do you know all that?”
I turn the pages until I come to the skeletal rabbit. “The same way I know that Rabid White was tortured by an evil spell that was eating his skin from his bones. But Queen Red rescued him, stopping the bad magic before it could get to his face. He swore to serve her and no other until the day he died. So, why’s he serving someone named Grenadine now?”
I shake my head. “Nothing. Look, you saw me back there. I knew how to stop that dandelion creep. I knew how to walk through a mirror. It’s because I’ve been taught.”
Jeb crumples his food wrapper and stuffs it into the backpack, then waits for me to explain.
“I don’t know how, but before Alison left for the asylum, I came here. It must’ve been a lot of times—I’m remembering more and more. I think it was mostly at night. In our world, anyway. While my parents were sleeping.”
Jeb doesn’t budge, just stares up into the sky.
I slump. “You think I’m crazy, right?”
He huffs. “Have you taken a look around? If you’re crazy, I’m riding the banana train right alongside you.”
I let out a relieved laugh. “Good point.”
“Okay, it’s time you were straight with me.” He digs out the other recliner treasures and lays everything at my feet. “Start with your mom. Why she was really sent to Soul’s.” He pauses. “And what it has to do with your scars, since you obviously didn’t get them in a car accident.”
After another slow drink of water, I tell him my history, from the pruning shears to the bleeding daffodils. But I’m not ready to share details of the moth or my dark guide. Those memories feel private, somehow.
When I get to the part about the talking bugs and plants that Alison and I both hear, his gaze intensifies.
He plays with the laces on my boot. “So, you chose bugs for your art because it was the only way you could—”
“Shut them up? Yeah.”
He shakes his head. “And I thought my childhood was warped. No wonder you’ve been scared of ending up at Soul’s, too.” He leans back on his elbows. “Now I get it. That battle I always see in your eyes. Light and dark. Like my gothic fairies.” He’s studying me as if I’m a piece of artwork again.
“So the sketches you made of me . . . they’re the basis for your paintings?”
His eyebrows rise.
“All those times I caught you looking at me like I’m a palette of paint.”
Thumping his fingers on the boat, he frowns. “Not sure what you’re talking about.”
“I know about the sketches Taelor found.”
Something—either shock or embarrassment—flickers through his eyes.
I clench my fingers. “She’s right, huh? The morbid and revolting are such fascinating subjects.” It hurts to say it almost as much as it did to hear it.
“Is that what she said?”
I lift a shoulder in silent affirmation.
He sits up again and places a hand on my shin. “Look, she lashes out when she feels threatened. After finding the sketches . . . well, she kind of lost it. I mean, the guy she’s been dating has an aesthetic obsession with another girl. You can see her side, can’t you?”
“Maybe.” I never would’ve guessed I was anyone’s obsession, aesthetic or otherwise. If I inspire his art, then why is Taelor the one he chooses to have in his life? “Jeb . . . why do you put up with her?”
He pauses. “I guess because I’m the only stable thing she has.”
“And by fixing her problems, you hope to make up for everything your dad did to Jen and your mom?”
He doesn’t answer. That’s as good as a yes.
Hatred for his father’s weakness and violence flashes through me. “You’re not accountable for his mistakes. Only for your own. Like going to London with Taelor.”
“That’s not a mistake. It’s going to help with my career.”
I stare at my boots. “Right. Just like my ‘mortician sense of style’ will help with mine.” I attempt a laugh, but even to me it sounds false.
“Hey.” The insistence in Jeb’s voice makes me look up at him. “Tae was wrong, you know. About that. Do you think my paintings are ugly or freakish?”
I think of his watercolor paintings: darkly beautiful worlds and gothic fairies weeping black tears over human corpses. His depictions of misery and loss are so poignant and surreal they break the heart.
I twist my gloved hands together. “No. They’re beautiful and haunting.”
He squeezes my shin. “An artist is only as good as his subject.”
For one raw, drawn-out moment, we’re silent. Then he lets go of me.
I rub my knees, warming my leggings. “Can I see them someday?”
“Tell you what. We get out of this in one piece, and I’ll give you a private viewing.” He holds my gaze for a minute too long, and my blood runs hot. How am I supposed to figure anything out when I can’t even read my own body’s signals anymore?