Unhinged Page 73

Jeb follows me, head cocked, a provocative intensity in his eyes. “Bet I can handle anything you throw at me.”

“Wouldn’t be so sure if I were ye, dream-boy.” A woman’s murmur comes from outside the door, dry and husky, like leaves scraping tombstones.

There’s a whoosh behind me, and I spin at the threshold. All I can see is web.

Sister Two.

I nearly choke on the pulse battering at the base of my throat.

Gossamer filaments shroud the entire main room—shadowy strands strung from ceiling to floor. It’s like looking inside an albino pumpkin before the membranes are scraped clean. The web coats clothes racks and the checkout desk, even the display window, cutting off the daylight. The result is an eerie, misty gray light, as if storm clouds have settled outside. I squint, unable to pinpoint where the spidery grave keeper’s voice originated.

“Morpheus!” I shout.

No answer.

“Who are you yelling at?” Jeb comes up behind me and touches my wing. A tingling sensation pulses through me.

I turn and shove him toward the bathroom. “You’re in danger. She can’t find you.” I push him inside. He stumbles over my backpack but regains his footing.

Questions fill his eyes as I slam the door between us.

“Hey! Let me out! Al!”

I hold the knob tight and look around the room, and pausing on Persephone’s prop skeleton. Taking a breath to calm myself, I coax him to move as if he were a marionette who requires no strings.

Creaking and rattling, he hops over on his one foot and sags beside me, awaiting my command.

We trade places, his bony fingers holding the knob as I look around dumbly.

“Don’t let him out or let anyone in but me,” I tell him over my shoulder, not even sure the bag-of-bones understands. I’m still getting used to this magic stuff.

Jeb’s door pounding grows louder.

I gulp down my fear and step again into the main room, stopping short of a drapery of webs.

“Welcome to my parlor, said the spider to the fly.” The whisper smells of fresh-dug dirt and is cold against my ear. My soul shrinks.

I look up. Sister Two hangs upside down overhead. She hisses, and I retreat, my breath rapid and uneven.

She’s not even trying to hide her gruesome form under a dress. Her top half is a woman—lavender lips, translucent face all bloody and scarred, a curtain of silvery gray hair hanging almost to my nose. Her bottom half—a black widow’s abdomen the size of a beanbag chair that could seat six people—balances on a strand of web connecting the ceiling to her spinnerets. Eight shiny spider legs curl around it, strangely graceful, like some grotesque circus acrobat dangling from a rope.

Snip, snip, snip. The sound is my only warning. I duck out of the way as her scissor hand slices the air inches from my face.

I dive to the floor and crawl behind the checkout counter, staying low to avoid dangling webbing.

“Morpheus!” Fear ices through me. “Where are you?”

“He won’t be answering, little fly.” Sister Two scurries down the wall behind me, the clawed, pointed tips of her legs tapping like raindrops. “He left ye, like the coward he be. It’s jest the three of us, here to settle yer mother’s debt.”

Her head tips toward the storeroom, where Jeb is still knocking and shouting.

“You’re lying,” I say, trying to ground her attention on me again. “Morpheus wouldn’t leave me.”

“I found him in the other room. He shrank to the moth, and I chased him here.” She lifts her normal hand, the one encased in a rubber glove, and waves it. “Then, poof. He doesn’t be here anymore, does he? He found a way out. Too bad for ye.”

I scramble backward from behind the counter, gaze locked on her gray-blue eyes, daring her to follow. I have to get her as far from the storeroom as possible, have to keep her focused on me as her prey. That’s the only way she’ll forget Jeb.

She scurries after me. I trip over the edge of a rack. While trying to right myself, one wing catches in a sticky web. I’m stuck. My heart thuds against my sternum.

Sister Two grows taller, her jointed, sticklike legs stretching up in one smooth motion. She leans over until we’re nose to nose.

I won’t let my panic get the best of me. If I’m going to keep Jeb alive, I have to stay the center of her attention.

“Why are you here? What debt does my mom owe you?” I ask, remembering how the same question was sidestepped by Ivory and Morpheus at the studio. I’m ready for answers.

“Aw, curious now, are ye?” Drawing back, she laughs—like a rusted screen door swinging on its hinges. Strands of hair hang over her eyes, and she brushes them aside with her garden-shear hand. Blood drizzles from a freshly made cut, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

“I should’ve killed her when I had the chance, and then ye wouldn’t have been born to steal the smile or release Red’s sprit. Like mother, like daughter. Though her thievery was more egregious than yours. She took the boy with the dreams.”

The boy with the dreams?

Gossamer said something about dreams when explaining the wraiths and borogoves—that they balance each other.

“The borogoves?” I ask. “You use them in the cemetery to soothe angry spirits.”

“Aye. Dreams don’t be a renewable resource, mind. And as our kind can’t dream, we steal humanlings, those young enough to still have an imagination. They provide the protection for the rabbit hole, and peace for me garden.”

My stomach drops. “You steal human children? You kidnap them?”

Sister Two’s eyes narrow. “Is that disdain I smell on yer breath, child? Yer mother was so like ye, disrespected the way things had to be. Rules are there for a reason. For the survival of our world, some have to suffer in yers. And vice versa, aye?”

I’m too stunned to respond. I want to love Wonderland with all my heart, but how can I love a place that takes children from their homes?

“There have been other humanlings since that boy,” Sister Two continues, her bloody face euphoric. “But he was different. Even as he aged, his dreams were magnificent. The ten years he was mine, I had such tranquility among me wards.” She works off her glove, using her teeth. The rubber sheath pops off, exposing scorpion tails in place of fingers and stingers in place of nails.

I suppress a gag.

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