Unhinged Page 13

Yeah, he cleans up nice. Too bad his appearance is the least of Mom’s concerns.

My finger traces his chin, and he watches me while I touch him. I pause at the brass labret under his lip. It’s about the size of a ladybug, but if you look close, it’s shaped like a brass knuckle. I gave it to him a few months ago for his birthday—teasing him that he needed some gangsta hardware to make him look tough.

Even though right now he looks like a little boy, he’s always been tough for me. He beat up a guy once just for calling me the Mad Hatter’s love slave. He was my rock every time I felt the absence of my mom. And when he followed me into Wonderland—leaping into a mirror without a second thought—he nearly gave up everything to save my life. I really wish he could remember that sacrifice, so he’d stop beating himself up.

“You don’t get to be sorry, either,” I say. “Dad said you rescued me. So I owe you a thank-you. Now c’mere.” Snagging his shirt collar, I pull him close and press my mouth to his.

His long lashes shut, and his free hand cups the back of my neck, fingers weaving through my hair. His closed-mouth kiss is so gentle, it’s almost painful, as if he fears I’ll break.

He draws back and rests his forehead against mine so the tips of our noses touch. “I’ve never been so scared, Al. Never in my life. Not even when my dad …”

His explanation stalls, but he doesn’t have to finish. I know what he lived through. You don’t share a duplex with someone and not bear witness to their pain. Unless you choose to ignore it.

“What happened in the storm drain?” I ask while holding his hand. “I can’t remember anything after the water came.”

He looks down at his boots. “When the strand of lights tangled around you, they caught one of my ankles, too, tying us together. I backstroked until I got into the shallower water outside the tunnel, then I reeled you in. But you were …” He winces, face paling. “You were so blue. And you wouldn’t wake up. Wouldn’t move. Wouldn’t breathe.” His voice catches as he glances at our hands, still entwined. “I tried to give you CPR, but it wasn’t working. I’ve never been so scared.”

He keeps repeating that, but he has been. There was another time I almost drowned … when he told me never to scare him like that again. Another time and another place.

“I keep seeing it, over and over,” he mumbles. “It’s like a bad dream I can’t wake up from.”

A dream.

“Wait,” I say. “I’m confused. You never lost me in the water? I didn’t go away somewhere and then drift back to you?”

“You were never out of my sight.” He bites down, causing a spasm in his jaw. “Why did I make you pick up the stuff? If I hadn’t left you there, you wouldn’t have gotten tangled up.” He curses.

“Jeb, stop it. You didn’t make me do anything.”

He studies my face intently, as if sorting through a mental checklist that every feature is still intact. “You must’ve hit your head when the water first knocked you down. I could see your clothes filling with air bubbles, ballooning around you.” His Adam’s apple swells on a swallow. “But your body kept sinking … I wasn’t letting you go.” His gaze intensifies on mine. “You know that, right? I would never let go of you.”

“I know.” I nuzzle his palm.

So what happened with Morpheus was a dream after all. Of course it was. He doesn’t have the ability to move the rabbit hole. No one does. I didn’t use my key to open it. I was floating unconscious in the water. I didn’t visit Wonderland, other than in my mind.

Which means what I saw wasn’t real. Which means things aren’t as bad as he made them out to be.

And best of all, he’s not here in my world like he said he was.

For once, I’m glad he was just playing me. I don’t have to feel guilty about Wonderland, because everything was a lie.

Is your artwork lying? Morpheus’s question buoys to the surface of my mind. My mosaics—are those lies, too? Is he behind them somehow?

I hear the doorknob turning. Jeb must, too, because he sinks back into the chair.

A nurse comes in, an attractive younger woman with auburn hair and jewel-tipped glasses. Instead of scrubs, she’s wearing a white nurse dress, like one of those Halloween costumes—although not as short and formfitting. It’s the first time I’ve seen an outfit like that in real life. If not for the American flag pin on her lapel, she could be every guy’s librarian and nurse fantasy rolled into one. She writes her name on the dry erase board and introduces herself in a soothing voice.

Jeb and I meet gazes and I smirk.

“Sponge bath?” he mouths in my direction, waggling his eyebrows. I roll my eyes and try not to burst out laughing. His teasing is a good sign. It means he’s trying to forgive himself.

Nurse Terri comes to my bedside. Her eyes are gray behind the glare of her glasses. There’s a sadness there that makes me want to do anything to cheer her up. Within minutes, I’m standing for the first time. The floor chills my bare feet. Every muscle in my body aches from my fight to swim against the flood. My legs tremble, and I hold the back of my gown, embarrassed about the tubes running in and out of me. Jeb winks, then goes into the hall to look for a courtesy phone.

After he’s gone, I use the bathroom, then brave a glance in the mirror. A part of me fears Morpheus will be behind me in the reflection. When he’s not there, I’m relieved, until I see the red streak that stands out like flame from the rest of my platinum blond hair—the one reminder of Wonderland’s hold on my life that Mom can’t ignore. We tried bleaching it, but it won’t fade. We tried cutting it, but it always grows back the same vivid hue. She’s basically accepted it.

But she would never be able to accept my emotional connection to that place. To accept that, even now, I sometimes miss the chaotic netherling world. If I told her, it would make her crazy with worry.

Fresh guilt simmers inside my chest. Morpheus may have tried to fool me with a fake crumbling Wonderland, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something very wrong going on. I can’t just turn my back on that world; I can’t let it fade to decay and ruin under Queen Red’s thumb. Yet I can’t abandon the people I love here, either. I don’t know how to follow one side of me without leaving the other one behind.

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