Unhinged Page 58

I’d laugh if I wasn’t so worried about Jeb.

It takes twenty minutes to find the studio. It’s located at the end of a lonely dirt road eight miles south of the same housing development Morpheus and I passed yesterday.

I park on a dusty plot of land that doubles as a driveway. As soon as I kill the engine, Chessie reaffixes his head and flits to his perch on the rearview mirror, hissing.

I remove my sunglasses, scared enough to hiss myself. A half dozen dying mesquite trees surround a run-down cottage with a flat roof. Their trunks and branches are gnarled. A few of them appear to have grown into the cottage walls, as if they’re attacking the place. It’s not a welcoming sight.

Weathered wooden slats form the front and side walls. The only part of the cottage that looks new is the door, which is painted a deep red with shiny brass hinges and an oddly shaped knocker. The whole door seems out of place against the rotting background.

There aren’t any windows—at least from the front. How could there be enough light for painting in a windowless cottage? I’m starting to think I made a wrong turn until I notice Jeb’s Honda lying next to what might’ve been a rabbit hutch. It’s more like a pile of kindling and wire now.

Seeing his bike on the ground validates my worst fear: He’s been here all night. He’s either alone and unprotected, or not alone—and that might be worse.

Dread and guilt wrap around my heart. I should’ve told him the truth from the beginning. If he’d known since last summer, he would have been prepared.

My cell phone rings, startling me. It’s Dad. I turn off the ringer but send him a text:

I’ll be home soon. Try not to worry. I just need to be alone, to figure out some things.

He’ll be furious and will start looking for me immediately, but at least maybe he won’t worry as much.

I drop the phone into my backpack and turn back to the cottage. I shouldn’t feel intimidated by this run-down building after what I just faced at school. But there’s a possibility Red is here—one of the few netherlings even Morpheus fears. To think of Jeb facing her alone makes me shiver.

The wind kicks dirt across my windshield in a gritty scatter of brown. Chessie hisses again—a reminder that at least I’m not alone.

“I have to go in,” I say to him.

He grabs his tail and twirls, wrapping the appendage around his body and face to hide.

“Well, do you have any better ideas?” I ask.

He peers out, fogs the window again, and writes Find M with the tip of his tail.

I narrow my eyes. “We’ll find Morpheus after we take care of this. Now, are you coming?”

Chessie frowns, his fur puffed up like a frightened cat’s. He shakes his head.

“Fine. Stay out here by yourself, then.”

The instant I open my door and step out, Chessie’s fluttery wings touch my ear. He lights on my shoulder and ducks underneath my hair.

Relief rushes through me. He may be little, but he’s magic, stealthy, and adept at fixing things. It’s better than going in by myself.

I hold his tail for comfort as I walk to the door. Dirt clods and pebbles crunch under my feet. The bugs whisper all around. I can’t tell if they’re cheering me on or warning me; there are too many voices to pick apart.

After stepping onto the crumbling porch, I pause and stare at the brass knocker. It’s in the shape of a pair of garden shears.

Goose bumps erupt across my flesh. I look down at my scarred palms. Whoever put this knocker here knew I would come … they’re playing games with me. I grit my teeth. It doesn’t matter. I’m not leaving without Jeb, no matter how menacing his captor is.

The knob turns easily, and I push the door open but stay on the porch to look in. The place appears to be abandoned, and it occurs to me there’s one outcome that could be worse than finding Jeb here: not finding him at all.

I stick my head in farther. The scent of paint and a pungent metallic odor hit me first. Then something else … sickly sweet and fruity … familiar enough that it makes my mouth water, but I can’t place it.

Sun rays stream from the ceiling where skylight panels make up the roof, giving the place a greenhouse effect. Cobwebs flecked with bug corpses drape from the glass and hang to the floor in places, glistening like grotesquely jeweled wedding veils. There’s one big room—not counting the loft to the left and a bathroom to my right, where a tall chest with fifty or more minidrawers stands just inside the open door. The canvas-covered walls are taller than they looked from outside. There’s no furniture, other than the portable scaffolds propped against the walls, so the sun’s reflection hazes off a dusty wooden floor.

The result is bright and ethereal … almost heavenly. Now I can see why Ivy chose this studio. I tiptoe around some art supplies, leaving the door ajar behind me. Chessie tenses under my hair.

There are paintings everywhere—three on easels covered with drop cloths, others on the canvas walls. I spin to take them all in, the wooden floor slick beneath me.

My breath accelerates as the paintings’ subjects become clear: garden shears and a child’s bloody hand; an octopus being swallowed by a clam; a rowboat afloat on a romantic river of stars; two silhouettes skimming on boards down a cliff made of sand; bleeding roses and a box with a head inside. Memories that Jeb and I made in Wonderland. Memories that no longer belong to him. Yet I’d recognize that morbidly beautiful style anywhere. He painted perfect renditions of our journey. He had to be working nonstop all night.

Somehow he’s remembered everything.

I back up and hit a rolled piece of canvas with my heel. I open it, revealing a painting of Jeb breaking into Mr. Mason’s car in the hospital parking lot, a nurse waiting beside him in a white dress.

I rock in place, feeling dizzy.

So Nurse Terri did play a part in my stolen mosaics—and Jeb helped her?

I remember Morpheus’s words: “Do you honestly think I’m the only one with the ability to slip undetected into a car with its alarm on?” He was right. Even some humans have that ability, if they know enough about cars.

But there could be an innocent explanation. Mr. Mason’s car is new, and Jeb has never seen it. The nurse could’ve lied and told him it was hers … that she had locked herself out. Once he had her car unlocked, he left. Then she stole my art—maybe under the orders of another netherling. That might explain how I never saw a fae form through her glamour.

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