- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
Jeb slides on some shades and repositions the bandana’s knot at the back of his head. Sunlight hits the shiny, round scars peppered along his forearms.
I turn to the cars in the lot. Gizmo—my 1975 Gremlin, named after a character in the eighties movie Dad took Alison to on their first date—is only a couple of yards away. There’s a chance Alison will be waiting in the lounge with Dad. If I can’t count on Jeb to back me up about London, I can’t trust him to meet the biggest nut who’s fallen from my family tree.
“Uh-uh,” Jeb says. “I see that look. No way you can drive a standard with a sprained ankle.” He holds out a palm. “Fork ’em over.”
With a roll of my eyes, I drop my keys into his hand.
He pushes his shades to the bandana at his hairline. “Wait here and I’ll walk you.”
A burst of air-conditioning hits my face as the door to the complex slams shut behind him. There’s a tickle on my leg. This time, I don’t swish the grasshopper away, and I hear its whisper loud and clear: “Doomed.”
“Yeah,” I whisper back, stroking its veined wings and surrendering to my delusions. “It’s all over once Jeb meets Alison.”
BARBED WIRE & BLACK WINGS
Soul’s Asylum is a twenty-five-minute drive outside the city limits. Afternoon sun beats down, glaring off the car’s hood. Once you get past the buildings, strip malls, and houses, there’s not much landscaping in Pleasance. Just flat, dry plains with sparse growths of shrubbery and spindly trees.
Each time Jeb starts to talk, I mumble a monosyllabic response, then crank up the volume on the newly installed CD player. Finally, a song comes on—an acoustic, moody number I’ve heard Jeb listen to when he paints—and he drives in silent contemplation.
The baggie of ice he brought for my swollen ankle has melted, and I move my foot to let it roll off.
I fight drowsiness, knowing what waits on the other side of sleep.
I don’t need to revisit my Alice nightmare in midafternoon. As a teenager, Alison’s mom, Alicia, painted the Wonderland characters on every wall of her home, insisting that they were real and talked to her in dreams. Years later, Alicia took a flying leap out of her second-story hospital room window to test her “wings,” just a few hours after giving birth to my mom. She landed in a rosebush and broke her neck.
Some say she committed suicide—postpartum depression and grief over losing her husband months earlier in a factory accident.
Others say she should’ve been locked away long before she had a child.
After her mom’s death, Alison was left to be raised by a long line of foster parents. Dad thinks the instability contributed to her illness. I know it’s something more, something hereditary, because of my recurrent nightmare and the bugs and plants. And then there’s the presence I feel inside. The one that vibrates and shadows me when I’m scared or hesitant, prodding me to push my limits. I’ve researched schizophrenia. They say one of the symptoms is hearing voices, not a winglike thumping in the skull. Then again, if I were to count the whispers of flowers and bugs, I hear plenty of voices. By any of those measurements, I’m sick.
My throat swells on a lump and I swallow it down.
The CD changes songs, and I concentrate on the melody, trying to forget everything else. Dust slaps against the car as Jeb shifts gears. I glance sideways at his profile. There’s Italian somewhere in his bloodline, and he has a really great complexion—olive-toned and clear, soft to the touch.
He tilts his head my way. I turn to the rearview mirror and watch the car freshener swing. Today’s the first day I’ve had it hanging in place.
On eBay, there’s a store that sells customized fresheners for ten bucks apiece. Just e-mail a photo, and they print it onto a scented card, then snail-mail the finished product to you. A couple of weeks ago, I used some birthday money and bought two of them, one for me and one for Dad—which he has yet to hang in his truck. He has it tucked in his wallet; I wonder if it will always stay hidden in there, too painful for him to see every day.
“It turned out good,” Jeb says, referring to the air freshener. “Yeah,” I mumble. “It’s Alison’s shot, so it was bound to.” Jeb nods, his unspoken understanding more comforting than other people’s well-intentioned words.
I stare at the photo. It’s an image of a huge black-winged moth from one of Alison’s old albums. The shot is amazing, the way the wings are splayed on a flower between a slant of sun and shade, teetering between two worlds. Alison used to capture things most people wouldn’t notice—moments in time when opposites collide, then merge seamlessly together. Makes me wonder how successful she might’ve been if she hadn’t lost her mind.
I tap the air freshener, following its sway.
The bug has always seemed familiar—eerily fascinating yet at the same time calming.
It occurs to me I don’t know its history—what species it is, where it lives. If I found out, I would know where Alison might’ve been when she shot the picture and could feel closer to her somehow, but I can’t ask. She’s sensitive about her albums.
I reach behind the bucket seat, dig my iPhone out of my backpack, and open a search for glowing moth.
After twenty-some pages of tattoos, logos, Lunesta ads, and costume designs, a moth sketch catches my eye. Not a perfect match to Alison’s, but the body’s a bright blue and the wings shimmer black, so it’s close enough.
Clicking on the image turns the screen blank. I’m about to restart the browser when a strobe of bright red stops me. The screen throbs as if I’m looking at a heartbeat. The air seems to pulse around me in synchrony.
A Web page flickers to life. White font and colorful graphics stand out vividly against the black background. The first thing that hits me is the title: Netherlings—denizens of the nether-realm. Next follows a definition: A dark and twisted race of supernatural beings indigenous to an ancient world hidden deep within the heart of the earth. Most use their magic for mischief and revenge, though a rare few have a penchant for kindness and courage.