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Jeb shrugs. “Well, maybe that’s how they talk in England.”
My pulse jumps. “England?”
“Yeah. After the ambulance left, the guy helped me drag my bike from the water. He’s a foreign exchange student, enrolling at Pleasance High. Seems pointless to enroll during the last week of school. But his parents insisted.”
My arms feel limp. “He told you he was from England?”
“He didn’t have to. He has the accent.”
Morpheus’s threat rings loud in my memory: By the time they find your body, I’ll already be there.
Heart pounding, I kick off my blankets. “We have to get out of here!”
“Al!” Jeb tries to keep me from sitting up.
Instead, I use his arms for leverage to stand. “Please, Jeb, take me home!”
“What? No, c’mon, you’re going to hurt yourself. Just lie down.”
When he attempts to guide me back into bed, my pleas escalate to shouts. I rip the IV from my skin before he can stop me. Blood drizzles out the back of my hand, getting on the blankets and sheets, slicking up Jeb’s fingers as he tries to stop the flow while pushing the nurse’s call button.
Mom and Dad return. Mom’s face pales to the color of my sheets as she takes over for Jeb.
“I think you need to leave,” she tells him.
I cry out, “No!”
What I really want to say is that my panic has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the netherling guy who played a pivotal role in her commitment to the asylum twelve years ago.
“Nobody needs to leave,” Dad interjects, the voice of reason amid the chaos.
Nurse Terri comes in, and her sad gray eyes coax me to behave.
She and Dad ease me back into bed. She mentions something about a delayed reaction from being in shock and comatose for three days. Then she reinserts the IV and sticks a sedative-filled syringe into it.
As I watch the needle appear on the other side of the clear tubing, I move my lips to ask her not to do that. Not to leave me vulnerable to my dreams. To please at least take the sinister clown away. But my tongue is frozen and my mind is racing.
I’m groggy within five minutes. Jeb kisses my hand, says he loves me and to get some sleep. Dad hugs me good night, and they both walk out together. Mom strokes my hair, folds down her cot, and goes into the bathroom. Then, despite all my efforts to hold them open, my eyelids droop shut.
I’m not sure what time it is when I wake up. I’m just glad to be awake at all.
The scent of disinfectant reminds me where I am. It’s dark. There’s no light coming through the blinds or seeping under my door from the hallway. I assume Mom shoved some rolled-up towels there. Sometimes she sleeps better if she seals herself in, a habit she formed while living at the asylum. Each night she’d check every crevice of her room—from the walls to the floors—for insects. Once convinced that none were there, she’d stuff the bottom of the door with her pillowcase.
It’s hot, like I’m being smothered by heavy air. I should move the towel away from the door for better ventilation. I kick off my blankets and inch my ankles toward the edge of the bed but freeze in place before sitting up.
The wind shakes the panes … louder than earlier. An eerie, vibrating hum that almost sounds like a song. Even the plants and flowers on the windowsill stay silent, as if listening to it. A sudden flash of light blinks across me. It takes a few moments for me to realize that it’s lightning. I don’t hear any rain. It must be an electrical storm.
The next flash illuminates my surroundings. Thick cobwebs stretch from my bed frame to the windowsill to the ceiling—a morbid canopy, as if a giant spider has laid a trap.
I sit up, and a sticky film suctions to my mouth. Next blink of light and it’s even thicker, suffocating me. I scrape webs from my face and scream for my mom, but I can’t see her; there are too many strands between us. I yank out my IV and leap off the bed.
Blood flows from my hand, different somehow. It floats upward, a solid strip, forming a glowing red sword. I take it instinctively, slashing at the filaments, cutting my way through the sticky fibers to reach Mom’s cot. A thick sheet of spider silk has engulfed her body.
The red glow from my sword reveals stuffed animals and dolls hanging in effigy on the glistening radials all around me, more toys than I remember seeing on my windowsill. They grab my hair and bite my skin as I hack my way and weave toward Mom’s cocooned form. An instant before I’m there, the clown drops down from a swinging thread. It plays the cello and laughs, taunting me. What I heard earlier wasn’t the wind at all … it was the instrument.
I lash out with my dagger of blood, and the toy drops to my feet, its song silenced, though its arm continues to move the bow across the muted cello strings.
Finally, I reach the cocoon. I slice open the white shell, afraid to look. As the sides fold back, it’s not Mom’s corpse staring dead-eyed at me.
Jeb’s face, gray and lacerated. Jeb’s mouth that opens and screams. I scream in unison, our combined wails so shrill I have to cover my ears.
In the resulting silence, a voiceless whisper slides into my mind.
“It will end like this, unless you fight back. Rise to your place. Wake up and fight. Fight!”
I wake up, gasping for air. Hair tangles around my face. I comb back the strands so I can see. Moonlight filters through the blinds. There’s not a web in sight.
My heartbeat settles as I see Mom sleeping peacefully in her cot. The stuffed animals sit in their places on the windowsill, all but one. The clown hunkers on my nightstand, staring up at me, its hand slowly moving the bow along the cello strings in time with the wind howling outside.
I stifle a horrified moan and shove the heavy toy to the floor. It lands with a strange jangling noise and slumps there, unmoving, yet the message of its muted song still resonates: Morpheus is here in the human realm, and everyone I love is in danger unless I find him, reclaim my throne, and stand up for Wonderland against Queen Red’s wrath.
The clown didn’t haunt me again after the nightmare. I stuffed it in the trash under some paper towels and magazines while Mom slept. The toy was more solid than I thought it would be—almost like a toddler—and seemed to wriggle in my arms. It was even more unsettling because, although I can’t place where, I’ve seen that clown before. I told Mom I gave the toy to a nurse for the children’s ward, since it was from a complete stranger.