Unhinged Page 50

It’s 7:20 when I pull into the north parking lot, forty-five minutes before the first bell. I park Dad’s truck next to the Dumpsters where Morpheus waited for me after school yesterday.

The lot is abandoned except for two vehicles, both of which I recognize. One belongs to the principal, and one is Mr. Mason’s new car with the annoyingly ineffective alarm system.

Even though Morpheus stayed out of my head like he said he would, I can still sense him in the background, watching how I handle things. Just like when we were kids together. As mad as he was when he left, I’m confident he wants me to succeed. Not only that, he wants me to find him. He doesn’t do anything without a reason. It must be important for me to discover where he went on my own.

I just need to figure out what he meant by “hiding among lost memories.”

Before I go in, I try to call Jeb one last time. It’s not like him to be so quiet. I’m starting to wonder if he got my text last night at all. But if he didn’t, why hasn’t he called to check on me and Mom? Doesn’t he care? At least Ivy’s out of town, so I don’t have to torture myself worrying about her.

Jeb’s phone goes to voice mail again. This time I leave a message. “I’m at school. Text me. I need to talk to you.”

I stare at my phone. Something’s still bothering me: Nurse Terri.

Pleasance University Medical Center doesn’t have an employee directory online. On a whim, I do a search for nurse uniforms along with the name of the hospital. An announcement pops up, posted on the News page from a week ago:

During Memorial Day weekend, in tribute to fallen veterans, Pleasance University MC will be reinstating vintage nurse and doctor uniforms. Any employee who has lost loved ones in past wars and wishes to participate should contact Louisa Colton in human resources for available sizes and styles. Rentals paid for by Catholic Family Services Board and supplied by Banshee’s Costume Boutique.

I close the link. That explains Nurse Terri’s costume on Monday and possibly her desolate, sad eyes. Maybe I jumped to conclusions about her. She was so nice and helpful. But what about the clown and my stolen art from Mr. Mason’s car? Could there have been another netherling around that I didn’t see?

After zipping Rabid into my backpack along with my phone, I start toward the back entrance. The classroom windows glow yellow, muted by the closed blinds and that hazy light of post sunrise. The building looks just like it always does, even though everything is different inside, at least for me. Morpheus saw to that.

I skulk through the deserted breezeway and inhale the scent of yeast and sweet spices wafting from the cafeteria. The sounds of screeching zombies and annoying theme music drift out of my backpack. I made the mistake of showing Rabid how to play a game on my phone. Muscles tensing, I unzip my backpack, take the phone out, and mute it before handing it to him once more.

I duck into the dark gymnasium and use the flashlight on Dad’s key chain to find my way to the girls’ locker room, treading carefully so my boots won’t leave black streaks on our mascot—the giant blue and orange ram painted in the middle of the wooden floor.

As I curve around the partition entrance to the locker room, the stench of old socks and musty tile stings my nose. With a flip of the light switch, a fluorescent glow buzzes to life overhead, and I face a panel of full-length mirrors.

I unzip my backpack. Rabid clambers out, his mouth stuffed with cookie. He punches buttons on my phone in a last-ditch attempt to kill the zombies in his game. Gently, I pry the cell from his skeletal grip and tuck it into the backpack.

“Are you ready?” I ask, though it’s a rhetorical question. On the way to school I gave him direct orders to go straight to the Red kingdom and stay by Grenadine’s side until I return to help her.

Rabid fishes in his coat. His thimble clatters to the cement floor. He picks it up and starts to dig again for his key.

“It’s okay. I got this.” I hold mine up on its chain and stare into the closest mirror, picturing the Thames sundial trail in London. An image of the sundial statue boy that hides the rabbit hole from human eyes blurs in the glass—projected by my memory.

I wait for the mirror to splinter. As soon as the cracks appear, my heartbeat kicks into overdrive. I’m right where I was a year ago, standing at the doorway to madness. Only this time, I know exactly what’s waiting on the other side.

Pushing past my hesitation, I press the key into the juncture of crinkles shaped like a keyhole. The portal ripples open, and a cool breeze swishes through my hair, scented with grass and flowers.

I take Rabid’s craggy hand. We’re just about to step through, when I pause. The ground around the sundial appears to be moving, as if it wasn’t grass but a dark and angry sea, its waves thrashing against and underneath the sundial’s stand.

“What is that?” I mumble.

Rabid leans in, his bones clattering. “Fire pincers. Pinch you, Majesty.”

I lean closer and realize it’s a sea of fire ants—shimmering a deep black and red—invading the rabbit hole. There are enough to cover the ground for what looks like the length of a football field—thousands upon thousands of them.

I wonder if anyone on the sundial tour is seeing this.

I don’t have time to look around and find out; I need to get Rabid down the rabbit hole. There’s no safe place to step. It doesn’t matter that ants chat with me on a daily basis; they still won’t hesitate to attack with their pincers if they’re angry or determined, especially if I stand in their path. And these are fire ants. The most aggressive and painful of their kind.

If I didn’t have to be quiet in the locker room, I’d shout out to them. They can’t possibly defeat Red’s zombie-flower army. Yet it’s obvious they’re on their way to try.

Unexpected voices from the gym shake my concentration. I jerk free of the mirror, closing the portal. Then I shuffle Rabid into the backpack and scoot it into a locker.

“Stay hidden until I see what’s going on out there,” I say and hand him the bag of cookies. “When I get back, we’ll come up with some way to make peace with the ants.”

The locker door won’t latch shut with the backpack in the way, so I leave it open a crack. After turning off the light, I peer around the partition wall into the gym.

Multibulb fixtures beam down from the ceiling. I blink at the brightness, taken aback by the flutter of activity along the floor. A handful of students carry in white, glittery trees and doily lanterns. More follow with giant plastic tubs of lacy white tablecloths, crepe paper, and other party decorations.

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