Unhinged Page 31

I sob, and every muscle strains as I put my whole body into pulling at the fabric. Morpheus wedges himself between the console and the seat. First he tries to rip the skirt. When that doesn’t work, he yells at me to take it off.

“The zipper is part of what’s stuck—” I choke on the realization that we’re both about to die. “We don’t have time!”

Snarling, he grips his hand over mine and we push the button together, but it won’t give. “Use your magic, Alyssa!”

My mind races, trying to think of something to imagine that could get us out of this. But panic climbs my spine into my skull, blotting out all thought. I tremble and slam my forehead against his shoulder. “Just leave!” The shrill scream rips from my throat and over the whistle.

The train’s oncoming roar vibrates the car’s metal frame, and I scream again for Morpheus to save himself.

Then all sense and sensation fade. The train seems mere yards away, but the only sound I hear is my pulse racing in my ears. Even when Morpheus shouts the words, “Chessie-blud, a little help!” it’s like he’s talking underwater.

I squint to see the raccoon’s tail, now orange and gray, disappear into the rearview mirror’s glass. A loud clanging bursts from under the hood. The engine roars to life. My hands are locked in place on the steering wheel, but I’m too numb to move. The train is bearing down, only feet away.

Morpheus shoves his leg over mine and gives the car gas. The tires spin, propelling us off the tracks and onto the road on the other side. The train rumbles by, whistle still bellowing, missing us by mere seconds.

Morpheus eases his foot off the gas and pulls the emergency brake. The Mercedes idles quietly. Neither one of us moves. His body is still pressed against my right side, hands gripped over mine on the steering wheel, his rasping breath beside my ear. Sound, sensation, and light sweep back in increments, until everything is too vivid, too bright.

Emotions follow in the wake: delayed terror, confusion, regret … too much, too fast. I shake, unable to hold back my tears.

Morpheus puts an arm around me. “You’re all right, blossom,” he says, his mouth at my ear. “Can you drive?”

I nod and sniffle.

“Good.” He scoots back to his seat, then grabs my chin to force me to look at him. “Next time, I expect you to figure a way out. A netherling way.”

My tears gather around his hand, smudging his fingers with makeup.

“You didn’t leave me,” I utter in disbelief. “I thought you would leave me.”

He releases my face and looks out the opposite window while rubbing his hand on his jeans to wipe off my mascara. “Nonsense. I stayed for the car.”

Before I can respond, an orange mist seeps out from the vents. A smile I recognize from my Wonderland memories appears in the vapors.

“Chessie?” I ask. The rest of the hamster-size creature materializes, looking just as I remember: the face of a kitten, the wings of a hummingbird, and the body of an orange and gray raccoon. He flits to the dashboard and perches there, cleaning the oil and grease splotches from his fluffy fur with his tongue, like a squirrel taking a spit bath.

I shake my head. “Wait … so it was you? You crawled inside and fixed the motor?” He sneezes, then winks one of his wide green eyes at me.

“Chessie’s gift is delineation,” Morpheus says matter-of-factly, still looking through his window. “He can manipulate a situation by making a diagram in his mind and then mapping out the best way to solve it. He sees things the rest of us can’t, and then he fixes them.”

With a swish of his tail, Chessie scurries back into place on the rearview mirror. His top half vanishes, and he’s a counterfeit car ornament once more.

I wipe smeared tears from my cheeks. “Do you have any more surprise stowaways up your sleeve?” I ask Morpheus.

Pushing dents out of his hat, he scowls. “I’m starting to fear I didn’t bring enough. If there’s one thing netherlings are good at, it’s cleaning messes.”

“Yeah, well, they’re pretty good at making them, too,” I say.

“Agreed. Some are good at making very big messes.” He looks pointedly at me and buckles his seat belt. “Roadkill comes to mind. Use a little caution this time. We’ll be no help to your mum or to Wonderland if we’re dead.”

Although I’m shaken, I manage to get us to my house. When we pull into my driveway, I’m relieved to see that everything looks normal and peaceful, at least from the outside.

Once more, I try to tell Morpheus thank you for his bravery at the tracks, but he dismisses me like he did all the way here: “I stayed for the car.”

I know better. It’s not the first time he’s done something selfless for me. And I’m starting to suspect he didn’t let me hit the little boy at the stop sign because of the same soft side he doesn’t like to show.

If only he would be consistent—instead of always turning my image of him on its head.

I shut off the ignition and touch Chessie’s swinging tail. “You can come in, if you’ll stay hidden.” The tuft of fur wraps around my finger like a hairy snake, squeezes, then loosens. The gesture leaves me at peace and warm.

“He needs no invitation,” Morpheus scoffs. “If he wishes to go inside, no one will be able to keep him out.”

I start to take off my seat belt. “I’m still stuck.”

Morpheus eases closer and grasps my hand. “Shall we try to take the skirt off?” he says, his voice provocative. “We have the leisure of doing it right this time.”

I’m not sure if he intends all of the innuendos packed into that suggestion, but considering it’s Morpheus, I suspect he does.

“Forget it. I’ll take care of it myself.” I try to jerk away, but he guides my hand to the seat belt. Curling my fingers around the car’s key, he uses the teeth to dig my skirt out of the latch while working the button. After a couple of minutes, the fabric pops free, wrinkled but salvageable.

“Thanks,” I whisper.

“My pleasure.” Eyes meeting mine, he brings my hand up to his lips and flips it to expose my inner wrist. He breathes over my skin—so balmy and close, my veins ache in response. Then at the last minute, he unfolds my fingers, takes the keys, and drops my hand. Before I can even get my bearings, he’s back in his seat.

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