- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
“I don’t want to end up in a straitjacket,” I say, holding back a sob. “With every memory I’ve made lost . . . or so meaningless it could belong to someone else.”
Jeb’s arms tense around me. “That’s not in your future, Alyssa Victoria Gardner.” He’s never called me by my full name. He says it like my dad would, loading power into every syllable, which is exactly what I need.
“What, then?” I ask, hungry for any crumb he can spare.
“You’re going to be a famous artist.” His voice is deep velvet—soothing and sure. “You’ll live in one of those artsy, upscale apartments in Paris with your rich husband. Oh, who just happens to be a world-renowned exterminator. How’s that for a twist of fate? You won’t even have to catch your own bugs anymore. That’ll give you more time to spend with your five brilliant kids. And I’ll come visit every summer. Show up on the doorstep with a bottle of Texas barbecue sauce and a French baguette. I’ll be weird Uncle Jeb.”
Uncle Jeb? I like the idea of him always being in my life. But as I stare at his ribbed tank and envision those circular ridges on his chest—a tragic dot-to-dot of each time he accidentally spilled a drink or left a toy out for his dad to trip over—I’m floored by how fast old feelings sweep in. Though fabric hides the scars, I know every one by heart. I’ve seen them countless times when we’ve gone swimming together or worked in his garage. I dreamed about them in sixth grade, about how it would feel to trace each one with my fingertip.
Right now, I’m wondering the same thing. How it might feel to heal his wounds with my touch.
“Not an exterminator,” I blurt against the pulse pounding in my neck.
I pause. “I’m going to fall in love with an artist. And we’ll have two kids and live in the country. A quiet life, so we can hear our muses and answer when they call.”
Tipping up my chin to meet his gaze, he gives me a tender, starlit smile—one that melts my insides. “I like your version better.”
His mouth is so close to mine, his breath warm, sugary, and tempting, but thoughts of Taelor and London resurface. I can’t let my heart get stolen by a guy who’s hot for another girl, or be the kind of person who steals another girl’s guy. I’ve already stolen money from Taelor and I’ve let this go far enough. I slip off his lap, my net skirts scraping his tuxedo pants.
As if waking from a trance, Jeb sits back on his palms and looks out over the rippling water.
“What do you think will happen tomorrow?” I ask, my voice as shaky as the rest of me.
“Whatever it is, don’t jump into things without me. We do everything together. Deal?” He lifts one of my hands, smooths the wrinkles on my glove, and curls my fingers into a fist while waiting for an answer.
“Deal,” I say.
“Good.” He bumps my fisted knuckles with his. I shiver—both from the chilly breeze and the sweetness of the gesture.
“Here.” Jeb picks up his tux jacket and helps me slip my arms inside. Then he puts everything into the pack. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”
He cradles my back against his chest, and we spoon in the hull of the rocking boat. His nose nestles in my hair. A spiral of white stars coils and uncoils in feathery sparks to one side of us. It looks like curls of lightning, just like the spider and beetle mosaic I worked on earlier today before I went skating at Underland. Another tremor rolls through me. I remember watching these same constellations with my netherling guide years ago. No wonder it came through in my art.
“I hope that’s not a storm coming,” Jeb whispers against my nape, arms tensing around me. “This boat won’t hold up to thrashing waves.”
Tucking my hand absently into my skirt pocket, I prod the sponge my guide wanted me keep.
“It’s only a constellation,” I answer, and Jeb doesn’t question how I know.
Without speaking, we watch the display overhead until it bursts into a thousand glittering colors, like silent fireworks. When it’s gone, nothing remains but common white stars.
“Wow,” we both say.
After a few quiet minutes, Jeb relaxes, and his breath rasps, slow and even, against the back of my head. Although it’s Jeb’s body keeping me warm, the last things I envision before falling asleep are inky black eyes and a spread of satiny wings.
The Alice nightmare finds me while I’m sleeping . . .
I’m not alone this time. Jeb carries the stolen sword, and we race down the path toward the Caterpillar’s lair. The thorns that once snarled and ripped my pinafore elongate into leafy eels. The serpentine strands wrap around our legs and carry us upside down to the chessboard. Our bodies freeze into game pieces. A hand appears, wearing a black glove, and moves us from square to square. It picks me up to claim checkmate, but Jeb comes alive, slashing at the fingers with the sword to free me. The bloody digits fall one by one and morph into caterpillars. Jeb and I race back to the path. The mushroom waits in the center, cloaked in a web. The caterpillars beat us there. They tunnel into the cocoon, filling it until it writhes—a living, breathing thing. A razor-sharp black blade slices from within the webbed casing. Whatever’s inside is coming out.
I awaken, startled, and blink against the sun’s brightness. My hands are clenched into fists. What woke me up? I was so close to unveiling the face in the cocoon—the one I’ve been waiting years to see.
Yawning, I focus on the here and now. Sometime in the night, I must’ve turned toward Jeb in the rowboat, and he pulled me against himself, tucking me under his chin. All I see now is a close-up of his tank. He’s still asleep. His heavy breath rustles my hair, slow and rhythmic. His arms clutch my waist.
Yesterday comes back to me in pieces: the rabbit hole, the mutant flower garden, the ocean of tears.
I snuggle into his neck, fingers curled within the sleeves of the tuxedo jacket, determined not to wake him so I can pretend things are simple and perfect for just a few minutes longer.
The boat rocks and I realize that’s what woke me. Not a gentle, riding-on-a-current movement. More a something-heavy-sloughedover-the-edge-and-is-watching-us movement . . .
I freeze—as rigid as the wood beneath us.
Guttural snuffles fill the air, like those of an asthmatic bulldog. The warmth of sun on my shoulders turns chilly as a shadow falls across us. My heart does a somersault. Before I can belt out a scream, Jeb snaps into action, rolling us toward the bow and jerking us to our feet. He was awake the whole time.