Unhinged Page 59

That has to be how it happened, because Jeb would never betray me.

Morpheus was right about something else, too. I do hold him and Jeb to different standards. In the same situation, I would never give my dark tormentor the benefit of the doubt.

“Jeb!” I yell, struggling to suppress a sob. “Are you here?”

No answer, just the echo of my desperation.

Chessie weaves his way out of my hair.

“He’s in the loft … he has to be.” I say it aloud to comfort myself, although it doesn’t work. I climb the ladder. The rungs creak under my weight.

I stop once I’m high enough to see the upper level. The fruity, sweet scent is strongest here. There’s a large glass decanter turned over on the floor, droplets of what appears to be dark purple wine leaking from its wide mouth.

Jeb wouldn’t have been drinking. He almost never drinks, and especially not while painting.

Everything, including the barren wooden walls, is covered with thick, opaque webs full of bulges. There’s a minifridge and a floor lamp in the far corner. A box mattress sits next to the railing. I shake off the sudden image of my nightmare in the hospital, of Jeb’s body bound in web on a cot. This mattress might be dusty and old, but there’s nothing lying on top of it.

In fact, it doesn’t look like anyone’s been up here for years. I start to climb down, but then I spot something—the black polo and Japanese tie Jeb wore to his photo shoot yesterday—spread out in the corner closest to the ladder. Holding my breath, I return to the top two rungs, then reach out and grasp it. As I drag the shirt toward me, my three stolen mosaics come into view, hidden underneath.

I slap my hand over my mouth. The sound reverberates in the empty room and brings Chessie up beside me.

Just like at school, I can’t make out much, other than what appears to be a ravaged Wonderland and an angry queen. I wonder how Mom was able to read anything else into them.

Chessie buzzes around me, as if trying to tell me something.

Morpheus said the feline netherling’s gift is mapping out the best way to solve puzzles, then fixing them. Maybe that applies to magical artwork, too.

“Do you know how to read these?” I ask Chessie. “You were perched on Mom’s shoulder in my mirror—to help her read them, right?”

As if he’s been waiting for me to connect the dots, he dissolves into orange sparkles and gray smoke. He drifts like a cloud over the glass beads and acts as a filter, bringing clarity to the lines of the mosaics. Once he’s in place, it’s like watching a monochromatic film play out: First, there’s a giant spider chasing a flower; in the next mosaic, one Red queen is left standing amid a storm of magic and chaos; and in the last one, there’s a single queen whose upper half is wrapped in something white, like web.

Disturbing clues I can’t quite fit together.

Shaken, I descend the ladder, leaving the mosaics where I found them.

On the floor, I hold Jeb’s shirt up in the sun. Something dark is caked all across the front. The scent reminds me of blood. I suppress a moan.

“We have to find him.” I slap stray tears from my face and toss the shirt aside.

Chessie hovers around one of the covered easels. Maybe the remaining paintings will tell us where Jeb is now.

I nod, giving my netherling companion permission to do what I’m too scared to do myself.

Holding a corner of the cloth in his paws, he flits his wings and drags it away. Instead of canvas stretched over a frame, there’s a pane of glass streaked with red paint so fluid, it dried in drizzles. I study the runny lines, the image unmistakably more of Jeb’s handiwork.

The same coppery scent that was on Jeb’s shirt overpowers me. Following a hunch, I scrape off some of the red paint and touch it to my tongue. Nausea follows in the wake of the salty-metallic flavor.


My mind tumbles to a dark, terrible place, but I haul it back and hold myself steady. Jeb needs me to be strong. I can’t imagine him draining his veins for paint like he did last summer in Wonderland. But he survived it once. He will again. He’s okay. He has to be.

I look closer at the painting. It’s familiar beyond Jeb’s style. It’s an abstract version of one of my mosaics—one of the ones now hidden somewhere under a bridge in London. Chessie helps me remove the cloth from the second one. It’s also a glassy rendition of my artwork. The last easel holds a clean pane next to three empty plastic vials. The same ones Nurse Terri used to take samples of blood at the hospital.

My blood.

Morpheus pointed out that even if Red had access to my blood, she didn’t have the imagination to set the visions free. Since I’m partly human and an artist, creation is my power.

Jeb’s an artist, too. And he’s fully human. Morpheus was right about my blood being used as weapon against me. And Jeb unwittingly wielded the sword in the form of a paintbrush.

Once again, he’s caught in the middle of my identity crisis.

My eyes well with tears, but I don’t have the luxury of time to cry.

Chessie blinks at me, waiting, and I give him permission to help decipher the artwork.

He uses his magic veil again to animate the glass paintings: What was a stationary queen on a rampage in Wonderland becomes three fighting queens, just as Mom described. They move across the glass, using magic and wit to one-up each other and gain the crown. Another woman spies from behind a cluster of eight spindly vines.

Chessie rakes his paws through the residue left on the first pane of glass and smears it on the next glass painting, as if transferring his magic. This time, only two queens are left to battle for the crown, while the third is eaten alive by some vile creature. The mystery woman who was watching from behind the vines retreats. As she leaves, the vines go with her. They appear to be coming out of her bottom half. She’s not hiding behind a plant at all—the appendages are a part of her. And the top half is too humanoid to be a zombie flower, so it can’t be Red.

Chessie materializes and lands on my shoulder. I’m too numb to even thank him for his help. There’s little satisfaction in our discovery because I can’t understand what any of the mosaics mean. All I do know is that they’re proof that Red has used my blood to gain the upper hand in our battle. Even worse, Jeb has been in her clutches and is now gone.

My heart hurts—a pain that sucks the breath out of me. Unable to stand on my trembling legs, I sit hard on the floor, knees curled up to my chest. It’s like my sternum is caving in. All this time I was trying to protect Jeb from my past by hiding it. And now he’s been swallowed by my future.

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