Unhinged Page 76

I catch up to the butterfly. Jeb moans and droops in her hold. As if choreographed, we descend on a current of air. I follow her into a crack in the brick foundation of the iron bridge. We maneuver through the hole and burst out into a deserted elevator passageway where arriving train passengers used to wait for rides up to the village. The muffled sounds of cars and people overhead drift in through vents. I hover in midair next to the butterfly, keeping Jeb in my sight.

The tunnel is lit with moving chandeliers, rolling like miniature Ferris wheels across the curved, stone ceiling. As they come closer, I realize they’re actually clusters of lightning bugs, harnessed together. Each rotation illuminates dingy tiled walls and faded advertising from the 1950s. The posters are giant compared to me—as big as buildings.

The train, on the other hand, is just the right size, and it’s now obvious what Morpheus meant about it not being a form of transport. In a shadowy corner, a rusted tin train set is tucked within a pile of toys—some wooden blocks, a pinwheel, some jigsaw puzzle pieces, and a few rubber jacks. The playthings were either forgotten or abandoned by children waiting with their parents at the elevator decades ago. A large sign hangs over the pile. The words LOST AND FOUND have been marked out and replaced by the phrase TRAIN OF THOUGHT.

Boxcars, flatcars, and passenger cars connect to an engine and caboose, perfectly scaled to our current size. Through the shadows, I can barely make out the title Memory’s Mystic Band painted in black letters across the red engine.

The butterfly deposits Jeb next to one of the passenger cars. I hurry after her, trying to remember how to land. The car door opens. Something that looks like a walking rug wearing a black conductor hat steps out and drags Jeb in. I skim the dirt with my boots to slow my momentum, dropping the backpack. I’m unable to thank the butterfly as she leaves, too busy keeping my balance.

I skate to a stop as the carpet creature shuts the door.

“Wait!” I cry, sprinting toward the train and clambering onto the car’s platform.

After I pound on the door several times, the shaggy creature opens it.

He blocks the entrance; I can’t see around him into the train. “State your name and your business.” His high-pitched voice crackles and snaps as he speaks.

The car’s amber glow illuminates his form: six sticklike legs—two sets serving as arms—compound eyes, crisscrossed mandibles that click when he talks, an oval-shaped thorax and abdomen hidden under a hide of shag carpet.

“Bug in a rug … is that it?” I ask.

His mandibles droop as if he’s scowling. “I prefer ‘carpet beetle,’ madam. Just because I stumbled into the tulgey wood and was swallowed and turned away at AnyElsewhere’s gate doesn’t give you the right to talk down to me. You think you’d fare any better as a reject?” He sniffs, or maybe huffs—it’s hard to tell with his many moving facial features. “You certainly don’t act like someone who wishes to board this train.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” In my Shop of Human Eccentricities memory, toys and objects were spit back out of the tulgey wood shelves in mutated forms. I had no idea the same thing could happen to living things, too.

“You act like I’m the queerest thing you’ve seen come out of those woods.” The carpet beetle drags a vacuum attachment from a holster at his side and flips it on. It whistles and hums, sucking dust from his carpeted coat. “Have you never met the carpenter ant?” He raises his voice over the noise as he cleans himself. “Her whole body is made of tools. She has a saw for a hand! Try making her acquaintance without losing a finger. Or the earwig? Entire body is an ear. Feeds herself through a dirty old ear horn. Least I’m pleasant to dine with. And that hornet fellow … blows out your eardrums with a trumpet call each time his wings flutter. I’m by far the most palatable of the looking-glass rejects. And the cleanest, to be sure.” Satisfied with his vacuuming job, he turns off the attachment and secures it in the holster once more.

Looking-glass rejects = looking-glass insects.

Another near-consistency with the Wonderland novels. Carroll mentioned bread-and-butterflies, rocking-horse-flies, and snapdragon-flies. Maybe they had all been spit back out of the tulgey woods in strange and awful forms.

“Now, last chance,” the carpet beetle says. “Name and business. Make it quick.” He turns the pages of a small journal with a spindly foreleg, cradling the book with two others. “I’ve passengers already on the manifest, waiting for their ride. Time’s a-wasting.”

“I’m Alyssa. I’m here with one of your passengers. The human boy you just pulled in.” I try to peer around the bug’s fluffed-out body to see where Jeb is, but he blocks me.

He closes the journal. “Did you say Alyssa? As in Queen Alyssa of the nether-realm?”

“Yes … that’s me,” I answer cautiously.

“Well, why didn’t you say so from the get-go? I’ve been expecting you. This way.” The bug moves, two of his forelegs gesturing me inside.

I step in. The passenger car is resplendent, ceiling aglow with more firefly chandeliers, although these don’t roll. Crimson velvet hangings line the walls. Red and black tiles cover the floor. The front section has rows of empty white vinyl seats like those on a typical passenger train. The back is divided into private rooms, outer walls shiny black with red closed doors—three rooms on either side with a narrow center aisle separating them. I follow the conductor down the aisle.

“Morpheus said you’d be coming on behalf of a mortal guest,” explains the beetle.

My heartbeat skips, hopeful. “You mean Morpheus is here?”

“Was here,” my host responds. “This morning. Haven’t seen him since.”

My hope fades. “But he told you I’d be bringing a mortal? How could he have known?”

“Nay. I didn’t say that. He told me you’d be coming on behalf of one. Told me the lad’s name, so I could ready his memories for transfer.”

“Jebediah Holt, right?”

The beetle stops next to the first two rooms and turns to face me, scratching the carpet under his hat as if puzzled. “Never heard that name.”

“He’s the boy who came with me. The one the butterfly dropped off a few minutes ago. Where is he?”

“The boy who came in before you … ah, yes. He’s in this room here.”

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