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According to the text, in their truest forms, netherlings can look like almost anything—they can be as small as a rosebud or larger than a man. Some can even emulate mortals, taking on the likeness of existing humans to deceive the people around them.
An uneasy knot forms in my chest at the next line of text: While wreaking havoc in the mortal world, netherlings stay connected to their kind by using plants and insects as conduits to the nether-realm. My breath catches. The words dance around me, a dizzying rise and fall of broken logic. If this were true and not just some Web weirdo’s fantasy, it would mean Alison and I share the traits of some creepy, mystical creatures. But that’s not even possible.
The car bounces over a bump and I drop the cell. When I pick it up, I’ve lost the website and any signal. “Crap!”
“Nope. Pothole.” Downshifting gears, Jeb sidles a lazy gaze my way—Mr. Cool behind those shades.
I glare at him. “You should probably keep your eyes on the road in case there’s any more, genius.”
He shifts back from third to fourth gear, grinning. “Fierce game of solitaire?”
“Bug research. Make a right here.” I drop the phone into my backpack. I’m so uptight about going to Soul’s, I probably read the words wrong. Even though I’m almost convinced of that, the kink in my stomach won’t loosen.
Jeb turns onto a long, winding road. We pass a faded sign: soul’s asylum: offering peace and rest to the weary mind since 1942.
Peace. Yeah, right. More like drug-induced catatonia. I roll down the window and let in a warm breeze. Gizmo idles while we wait for the automatic wrought-iron gates to respond. Flipping open the glove compartment, I dig out a small cosmetics bag along with the hair extensions that Jenara helped me make out of shimmery blue yarn. They’re strung together and clip in for a dreadlocks effect.
We cruise toward the four-story brick building in the distance; it stands out bloodred against the clear sky. It could’ve been a gingerbread mansion, but the white shingles on the gabled roof look more like jagged teeth than icing.
Jeb finds a parking space next to my dad’s Ford pickup and cuts the engine. The motor grinds to a stop.
“Has the car been making that sound long?” He tosses his shades onto the dash and concentrates on the panel behind the steering wheel, checking out dials and numbers.
I lift my braid over my shoulder, sliding the elastic band from the end. “About a week.” Hair hangs across my chest in platinum waves just like Alison’s. Per Dad’s request, I don’t dye it or cut it because it reminds him of hers. So I’ve had to find other creative ways of ramping up my style.
I bend at the waist until my hair flows like a stream over my knees. Once the dreadlocks feel secure, I flip my head upright and catch Jeb watching me.
He jerks his gaze back to the dashboard. “If you hadn’t been ignoring my calls, I could’ve already taken a look at your engine. You shouldn’t drive this until it’s fixed.”
“Gizmo’s fine. Just a little hoarse. Maybe he needs to gargle some salt water.”
“This isn’t a joke. What are you going to do if you get stalled out in the middle of nowhere?”
I twirl a strand of hair around my finger. “Hmm. Show some cleavage to a passing trucker?”
Jeb’s jaw clenches. “That’s not funny.”
I giggle. “Oh, come on. I’m kidding. All it would really take is a little leg.”
His lips curve slightly, but the smile is gone in a blink. “This from the girl who’s never even had a first kiss.”
He’s always teased that I’m a mix between skate glam and American sweetheart. Looks like I’ve just been downgraded to prude. I groan. It won’t do any good to deny it. “Fine. I would call someone on my cell and wait safely in my car with all the doors locked and Mace in hand until help arrived. There, do I win a cookie?” He thumps a finger against the dash. “I’ll come over to look at it later. You can hang with me in the garage. Just like we used to.” I pull some eye shadow out of the cosmetics bag. “I’d like that.” His smile makes a full appearance—dimples and all—a glimpse of the old, playful, teasing Jeb. My pulse quickens at the sight of it. “Great,” he says. “How about tonight?”
I huff. “Right. Taelor would have a litter of kittens if you left prom early to tinker with my car.”
He drops his forehead to the steering wheel. “Ugh. I forgot about the dance. I still have to pick up my tux.” He glances at the clock on my dash. “Jen said some guy asked you but you didn’t want to go. Why not?”
I shrug. “I have this character flaw? Called dignity?” He snorts and picks up a bottle of raspberry-flavored water wedged between the emergency brake and console and drinks what’s left.
I open my compact and apply a smear of kohl eye shadow atop what’s already there, and then elongate the outside corner like a cat’s eye. Once I finish both eyes with a sweep along the bottom lashes, my ice-blue irises stand out against the black like a fluorescent shirt beneath the UV lights at Underland.
Jeb leans back in his seat. “Well done. You’ve managed to destroy any resemblance to your mom.”
I freeze. “I’m not trying—”
“C’mon, Al. It’s me.” He stretches out a hand to bat the air freshener. The moth spins, reminding me of the website. The pinch in my sternum tightens.
I drop my eye shadow into the bag and fish out some silver gloss to spread over my lips, then stuff the bag back into the glove compartment.
Jeb’s hand rests next to my elbow on the console, his warmth seeping over to me. “You’re scared if you look like her, you’ll be like her. And end up here, too.”
I’m speechless. He’s always been able to read me. But this . . . it’s like he’s crawled inside my head.
My throat dries, and I stare at the empty water bottle between us. “It’s not easy to live in someone’s shadow.” His face darkens. He would know. He’s got the scars to prove it, deeper than the cigarette burns on his torso and arms. I still remember after they first moved in: the blood-chilling screams next door at two in the morning as he tried to protect his sister and mom from his drunken dad. The best thing that ever happened to Jeb’s family was when Mr. Holt wrapped his truck around a tree one night three years ago. His blood alcohol level was at 0.3.