Unhinged Page 49

His words are so perfectly cut for me, they could be the missing pieces of my own thoughts and fears.

“I want you to work things out with her before you go to school,” he says, in a final tone. “And I want you to make a better effort to get along with her. She’s been trying so hard with you.” His jaw clenches. “Make me proud, Alyssa.”

Alyssa. He hasn’t called me by my first name alone since the time I came home in ninth grade with a C in geometry. It’s worse than if he’d yelled at me.

“All right,” I mumble.

“You better get ready for school,” he says. He stands and drops his keys on my bed. “You can drive my truck. I’ll call someone to take me to Micah’s Tire Repair. They’re supposed to be done with Gizmo this morning. Oh, and I parked the Mercedes in the garage last night to keep it safe. Bring your friend home after school to pick it up. Okay?”

“Okay,” I say, though I have no idea how I’ll accomplish that.

Dad looks like he’s about to leave. Instead, he stops to lift the dress bag from my bed. “Is this what I think it is?”

At first I have no idea what he means—I’m not even sure I remember what’s in the bag. Then I nod.

He opens the zipper, tugging out the mask and a corner of the dress.

“So you were serious about going to prom tonight?” He looks suspiciously close to happy again. He’s wanted me to go to a school dance since I was a freshman. He signed himself and Mom up to be chaperones the minute he heard I’d told Jeb yes, but it’s obvious he never believed I’d follow through until now.

He lays the bag back on the bed and glances at the flowery tiara pinned on the hanger. His famous Elvis smirk appears. “You’re going to wear a crown? Aw, Allie, you’ll look just like a princess. Just like when you used to play dress-up.” His goofy grin is pure nostalgia, and it makes me want to cry. He strokes the mildew-tinted lines of the mask. “Well … a princess who’s been through a bit of a rough patch. I like it.”

“Thanks.” I attempt a smile as I wrestle the dress back into the bag and zip it closed, hating that I’ll disappoint him yet again when I don’t show up for the dance tonight.

A worried wrinkle appears between his eyebrows. He catches my hand and drags me close for a hug, tucked safe under his chin. I snuggle into him, my daddy … my champion. And the love of Mom’s life. It’s amazing what she did for him, putting that photo journal together, giving him his past back. That doesn’t sound like a woman who resents her marriage. Maybe she really did choose Dad over the crown. Maybe there really was more to the story. I need to give her the benefit of the doubt and hear her out—if we ever get the chance to discuss it again.

“Listen, Butterfly,” Dad whispers against my head. “You haven’t seemed yourself, but I get it. It’s the end of school. You have tests, prom, graduation, and on top of all that, you almost drowned. It’s understandable that you feel a little unhinged. Maybe you need to talk to someone other than me or Mom.”

A burning sensation rises in my esophagus. I push back enough to glare up at him. “What, like a psychiatrist? No, Dad. I’m not going crazy.”

“That’s not what I meant. You could go to your school counselor. You just seem to be teetering a little. We can put you right again. Let us know what you need.”

My 6:45 alarm buzzes and we jump.

I crawl across my bed to shut it off. “Can we talk about this later? I should get ready.”

“Sure,” Dad says. He stalls outside my door. “There are scrambled eggs in the kitchen. And don’t forget to apologize to your mom before you leave. I’m going to take a shower, to give you two some privacy.”

I promise him I’ll fix things. I do want to talk to Mom, for so many reasons, but the instant Dad shuts my door, I know that I won’t follow through. Not this morning … but hopefully later today, after I take care of my royal advisor.

I cram Dad’s truck keys into my pocket, then throw open my closet. Rabid’s standing there with his skeletal hands intertwined, thimble dangling cockeyed from an antler prong and mismatched socks hanging off his ears. For one weird moment, he reminds me of the White Rabbit I always read about in the Carroll tales.

In spite of my emotional uproar, I can’t stop the smile that breaks on my lips. “Thanks for being quiet. You did good.” I pat his bald head.

He blinks bright pink eyes at me. “Rabid White, hungry be.”

Opening my empty backpack, I wave him inside, hoping netherling stowaways like eggs for breakfast.

Turns out netherlings do like eggs, at least the buttery kind my dad makes. After Rabid and I have breakfast, I scoop some extra into a Tupperware bowl. Along with a bag of Mom’s cookies and a bottled water, I put the bowl into my backpack to keep my royal advisor occupied on our way to school.

For such a small creature, he has a huge appetite, and a huge knowledge of the inner workings of Wonderland’s politics. During the drive, he sits out of view on the floorboards of the passenger side, head poking from the backpack zipper. He answers every question I ask as he gobbles up eggs.

According to Wonderland law, there are three ways the blood heir of a netherling queen can relinquish her throne once she’s been crowned: death, exile, or losing to another blood heir in a magical tournament. I turned my throne over to Grenadine, but that doesn’t count as an official abdication. She can only be a temporary substitute, since she’s not of our lineage. Now that the kingdom’s in trouble, it’s up to me to step back in, take up the crown, and defeat Red. It’s like Morpheus said while we were in the car: I’m the only one who can release and wield the magic that is now a part of my blood.

So I’m stuck for life, which is another fact Morpheus failed to mention before he placed that thing on my head last year.

Then again, now that I’m coming to terms with my netherling inheritance and responsibilities—and how they’re entangled with my mortal side—I’m not sure I would give up my crown-magic to just anyone, even if I could. The recipient would have to want what’s best for both Wonderland and the human realm.

If only I could divide myself in half and be two people: The human side could stay here with Jeb and my family, and the netherling one could reign over Wonderland, keeping the peace with an iron fist.

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