Unhinged Page 20

“Look at that,” he taunts. “Your box seems to have shrunk.”

I look behind me but can’t back up without falling into the sink’s basin.

“If you truly wish to protect those you love,” he continues in the same taunting tone, “you will pay heed to what I’m saying. Is your comfort worth more than their safety?”

A realization slams into me, harsh and bitter. “You weren’t talking about Finley, were you? I’m the soul you’re willing to sacrifice for Wonderland. Right?” My eyes meet his, and the resolution there validates my fear.

Playing with the scarf at my neck, he pouts. “War is never pretty, Alyssa.”

I suppress a sob. Mom’s warning from the flowers and bugs was right. Morpheus is hanging me out to dry. “So, you know I don’t have a prayer, and you’re still sending me after her!” I shove him, but he won’t budge.

“Either you go to her or she’ll come to you. Better you contain the fight in Wonderland, where you have the advantage of keeping your family and friends out of the line of fire.” He studies my neck where Jeb’s heart locket and the key rest atop my scarf. “Remember what almost happened to your boyfriend the last time he got involved, how close he came to—”

“Don’t say it,” I plead.

Morpheus shrugs. “Simply making a point. Were he to face Wonderland again, he mightn’t be so lucky this time.”

The sink’s edge bites into my hips. “Let me down.” Though soft and even, my voice echoes in the hollowness of the bathroom.

Expression serious and intense, he pulls me off the sink, then spins me around, lifts my backpack, and arranges the straps over my shoulders like a mother prepping her child for kindergarten.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to prepare you for your confrontation with Red,” he says, his breath warm against the back of my head. “You are not equipped to fight her yet. But you will be. You’re the best of both worlds, lest you forget. All you need is to have faith in yourself.”

Without another word, he steps out. The door swings shut behind him.

I look at the waving cobwebs in the window. Considering the less-than-stellar parlor trick I did with my hair earlier, I know he’s right. I’m unprepared for any sort of magical battle.

But what if he’s wrong, too? How can being half of something be better than being whole? No amount of work or faith can prepare me for facing Queen Red and her heightened powers.

Foreboding creeps into my heart: This trip to Wonderland will be the end of me. By sticking out my neck again, I’ll lose more than my normal, everyday life.

This time I will lose my head, along with everything attached.

Dad says I can have whatever I want for dinner as a reward for acing my two tests today. Considering this could be our last meal as a family, I request his famous maple pancakes and a tall glass of ice-cold milk.

After changing into comfier clothes—navy checkered leggings and a silver tunic sweater—I sneak into the living room to watch from around the corner as my parents cook together, just like they do every evening. Mom sneezes while holding a cup of flour. White dust ends up all over Dad’s face, and a food fight breaks out. Before it’s over, they’re both laughing and covered in pancake ingredients. Dad draws her close and tenderly wipes her lips with a damp washcloth before kissing her.

I ease back into hiding, wanting to smile so much it hurts. Seeing them flirt like kids in love breaks my heart into so many different pieces. They’ve earned it after all the years they missed together. I just don’t want this to be the last time I see them so happy.

When we sit down to eat, the pancakes are light, spongy, and dripping with syrup. They taste like home and comfort and security. I swallow it all down, drowning in the sweetness.

While my parents do the dishes, I escape to my bedroom and feed my pet eels some chopped boiled eggs. Aphrodite and Adonis perform a graceful dance, entwining their bodies, capturing the food as it floats down like they’re lovers catching snowflakes on their tongues.

The scene reminds me of the snow globe the clown held in my hallucination today, and just like that, I’m hit with a Wonderland memory; it crashes over me, so vivid I feel like I’m there again: my five-year-old self, glaring at my eight-year-old netherling companion and competitor, driven to near tears as he held a snow globe out of my reach.

It was the time Morpheus and I visited the Shop of Human Eccentricities. He always brought me to Wonderland in my dreams, but we didn’t often interact with other netherlings. Unless Morpheus let them, they couldn’t see through the veil of sleep standing between us. We could observe them, though, like watching fish swim in a tank.

But that day there was something Morpheus wanted me to learn, so he had temporarily dropped the veil.

“I’m busy,” Morpheus teased in his young, cheeky voice, shaking the snow globe in front of me again. “You want a toy of your own? Find a way up on your own.” His black wings brushed across my bare foot as he turned his back to explore the store.

“But you’re the one who can fly,” I grumbled, poking the end of my braid through the space where I’d recently lost one of my front teeth.

When he glanced over his skinny shoulder and rolled his inky-patched eyes, I knew his mind was made up. I looked at my red pajama top. The matching pants were mud stained from an earlier game of tag beneath some giant mushrooms. Morpheus had won that game without even dirtying his white satin shirt and black velvet pants. I was tired of him always winning.

I pouted and strolled around the shop. A woven canopy of branches and moldering leaves made up the ceiling; the floor and walls were decaying stone, and moss peeked through the cracks. It smelled damp and felt cold to my feet.

Solid wooden shelves stood back-to-back to form aisles. The shelves were lined with sparkling new plates, silverware, lamps, toothbrushes, combs, and thousands of other items from the human realm. Our ordinary artifacts were prized collectibles in Wonderland.

A top shelf in the back of the store caught my eye, too high for me to reach. A cheerful muslin rag doll slumped over the edge, eyes the color of cornflowers and a smile kissed with pink glitter. On the seven shelves stacked beneath her, other shiny new novelties sat: a silver Christmas ball; a magnifying glass; a stuffed yellow canary in a cage—so lifelike, I questioned if it were really dead; white crockery jars with happy, smiling ladybugs painted on the front; fancy perfume bottles; a doorknob; and candy keepers made of converted kerosene lamps whose lids were topped with vinyl doll heads. But none of those things intrigued me like the rag doll.

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