Unhinged Page 77

The conductor points to the first door on my right. There are brass brackets on each door with removable nameplates. Jeb’s is marked Nameless. I reach for the knob, but it’s locked. I try to force the door open, leaning in with one winged shoulder.

“Now, we’ll have none of that.” The conductor grabs my wrist with his spiny leg, and I shudder from the cold, prickly sensation.

I pull away and frown. “I need to make sure he’s okay.”

“He’s about to be.”

“Shouldn’t you at least put his name on the door?”

“His memories can find him on their own now that he’s here. They’ve been waiting for him, after all. But since you are to view memories that aren’t yours, we needed a name to coax them in.”

I look over my shoulder at Jeb’s door as we walk down the aisle. I don’t want anyone else’s memories; I don’t need to know any more secrets; I just want to make sure my boyfriend’s all right. My throat tightens as we come to the last room on the left. I force myself to look at the name in the bracket: Thomas Gardner.

Even though a part of me suspected as much, I gasp, holding my hand at my numb lips.

The conductor opens the door and leads me into a small, windowless room that smells like almonds. On one side, an ivory tapestry hangs above a cream-colored chaise lounge. An ornate brass floor lamp stands beside it, casting a soft glow. On the other side there’s a small stage complete with red velvet curtains that appear ready to part at any moment to show a silent movie on a silver screen.

“Have a seat, and the show will begin shortly,” the beetle instructs.

“Right. The show.” I settle into the chaise, arranging my wings on either side of me. There’s a small table to my left holding a plate piled with moonbeam cookies on a lace doily. My mouth waters as I grab a handful. I scarf down three before I realize the bug is staring at me with his compound eyes.

“Sorry,” I say between gulps. As I speak, silver beams radiate from my mouth, reflecting around the room. “I was hungry.”

“Yes, well, that’s what they’re there for. Just expected royalty to have a bit more couth is all.”

I cover my mouth to hide a hiccup. Light flashes from between my fingers.

The beetle clears his throat. “You get to choose which head to ride in.” He looks at his passenger manifest. “Would you prefer your mother or your father?”

“My mother? I thought this was my dad’s memory,” I ask, confused.

“It’s a memory they share. So there’s a residue of your mother’s insights imprinted on his. Whomever’s eyes you watch it through affects the perspective.”

I bite my lip. This is my chance. A unique opportunity to understand what took place all those years ago, why Mom made the choices she made. Everything will be the truth, because memories don’t lie.

“I want to see it through my mom’s point of view.” I croak the answer, not sure what’s about to happen or how it’s possible to step into another person’s past.

“Noted.” The conductor scribbles something in his journal, then punches a button on the wall with his spindly leg. The stage curtains open, revealing a movie screen. “Picture her face in your mind whilst staring at the empty screen and you will experience their past as if it were today.”

He turns a dial that snuffs out the lamp and then closes the door, leaving me alone. I do as instructed, envisioning Mom’s youthful face, picturing her as she looked in photographs from years ago when she and Dad were dating, when she was sixteen, the age she was when she went to Wonderland.

An image comes to life on the screen in vivid color, but instead of staying in its place, it stretches toward me … reeling me in. I feel my seams fraying—my cells and atoms breaking up and floating apart, then re-forming on the screen. I’m looking out of my mother’s eyes, sharing all of her thoughts and sensory cues.

We’re in the garden of souls. She’s alone, following Morpheus’s instructions, only two squares away from becoming the queen.

I had no idea she ever made it this far …

“Harness the power of a smile,” she whispers to herself. “Where are you, Chessie?”

I recognize the surroundings, although they’re new to her. She took a wrong turn and hasn’t realized it yet. A stale-smelling chill hangs on the air, and snow blankets the ground. Everything is silent—not at all like the cries and laments I remember from my visit. Dead weeping willow trees, slick with ice, are hung with an endless array of teddy bears and stuffed animals, plastic clowns and porcelain dolls, clinging to the branches on webby nooses. Each one holds a restless soul, yet all of them are sleeping peacefully.

Mom’s on a mission to win the crown. It’s all she’s been thinking of for the past three years. The determination in her pounding heart overpowers her fear as she treks farther into Sister Two’s lair than I ever went, far past the trees and slumbering toys. She’s seeking the source of the glowing roots that connect every tree and branch. The light pulses with a steady rhythm, like a heartbeat.

She’s led to a shelter of ivy. Inside, there’s a thick sheath of web alive with light and breath. She draws closer, morbidly intrigued by the humanoid form wrapped inside. The glowing roots are attached to its head and chest, siphoning the light from the creature.

Glancing over her shoulder to be sure she’s alone, Mom peels gossamer threads from the creature’s face. Her breath freezes in her lungs. It’s not just humanoid, it’s an actual human. A boy who looks close to her age.

My dad.

But she has no idea she’s going to love him. Not yet. All she knows is, he’s beautiful.

She traces his features with a fingertip. His lashes tremble, and his eyelids open to reveal soulful brown eyes. He doesn’t seem to see her. To see anything.

But in his eyes she sees the same loneliness she’s faced her whole life, bouncing from foster home to foster home while struggling to hide her differences from those around her. Here in Wonderland, she feels like she could find a place, be accepted, although it’s not the same for him. He’s lonely and afraid, even if he’s in a trance and doesn’t realize it. One can’t hide loneliness like that.

Snow crunches behind Mom, and she turns to face Sister One—the good twin.

The netherling’s translucent skin is flushed, and she’s out of breath. Her long, peppermint-striped hoop skirt is soaked with snow at the hem. “You weren’t to come here,” she scolds Mom between breaths, shoving tendrils of silvery hair off her face. “You must wake the dead in my gardens. I was to get the smile for you.”

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