Unhinged Page 90

His faith in me, in the face of what I put him through, is so unexpected, I turn to thank him. But he’s already walking away, his back barely visible in the darkness. My wing’s membranes ache from his touch.

Jaw clenched, I head for my post, ducking around busy classmates in reflective costumes. I keep my sights on the phantasmal trees. Once I get inside the forest, my own dress, hair, and wings will blend with their glaring white trunks and branches. From a few yards away, some of the trunks look as if they’re frowning—an odd anomaly formed by the wood grains. The sight triggers a distantly familiar discomfort.

Mom’s voice comes through my radio. She verifies she couldn’t find anything out of place in the box of toys and that Morpheus didn’t find anything in the other box. People stare at my talking chest from behind beaked or glittery masks, their purplish blue silhouettes as unrecognizable to me as I am to them. I ignore them and keep moving toward the dance floor and mirrored wall.

Glancing over my shoulder, I spot Jeb in the distance, his silhouette dark against the citrusy orange skating bowl rising up behind him. A temporary metal partition has been placed on the shallow end—painted the same shade as the bowl and half as tall—to keep amorous couples from stealing inside for make-out sessions.

A shadowy princess stands beside Jeb in a red sequined dress and monarch wings that flare from her shoulders, as incandescent as flames. She places a hand on his lapel, caressing the fabric. I’d know that body language anywhere. Taelor has discovered Jeb, and she’s thrilled he came without me.

Remembering Mom’s words and Morpheus’s warning, I shake off the jealousy and continue toward my assigned destination. As I pass the arcade—a few feet from the white forest—I hear a rustle, like plastic flapping in the wind.

I backtrack and duck my head into the arcade. The dark room’s alive with bouncy music, eerie sound effects, and animated lights. The plastic crinkle continues and draws me in. I pass a line of arcade game machines. Bright colors and graphics streak in my peripheral vision as I focus on the rattle. It’s coming from the Skee-Ball section, where fifty or so prizes, wrapped in cellophane bags, hang from a Peg-Board on the back wall.

Minute movement inflates and deflates the bags, as if something’s breathing inside them. My pulse pummels underneath my jawbone as I creep closer, the prizes becoming visible through their plastic covering: teddy bears and stuffed animals, vinyl clowns and porcelain dolls—all moth-eaten or eyeless, with stuffing oozing from their necks, under their arms, and out of empty sockets.

The restless souls …

“Sneaky,” I whisper and pull out my walkie-talkie with trembling hands. Backing up, I trip over my train and drop the radio. It busts apart on the stone floor.

“Crap.” I bend down to pick up the pieces that are scattered beside a small potted flower I didn’t notice before. It’s a buttercup, strangely out of place here, yellow petals reflecting in the ultraviolet setting like a yield sign struck by headlights. There’s something glowing inside the pot, too, just atop the soil. I lean down and find a half-eaten mushroom, the freckled side gone.

“My child.” A husky purr erupts from the flower’s center. One of the leaves grabs a strand of my silver wig before I can pull back, holding me hunched in place. Rows of eyes open and blink on every petal.

“Red,” I whisper.

She starts to grow along with the pot, a slow and torturous transformation. The spiny teeth in her mouth snarl. “Let’s get a look at you,” she says, as tall as my thigh now and still growing. Her leafy arms and fingers stretch and knot through my wig, holding me close to her gruesome face. “What happened to your hair?” she scolds, obviously displeased. Her breath smells like wilted flowers. “How dare you despoil my vessel.”

“I am not your vessel.” I rip free, letting my mask, wig, and scalp cap flop off. My real hair cascades all around my shoulders—a mass of tangles. I take one step back before my crimson strand jerks against my scalp, dragging me toward Red, as if remembering she created it, as if wanting to let her inside again. I freeze, that fingerprint on my heart incapacitating.

“Ah, better.” Red’s spiny, slimy teeth curl into a smile as she grows tall enough to look me in the eye. “That’s the welcome I expected.” She catches the restless strand of hair with a leafy hand. “I’ll always be part of you.” My body feels the intrusion, as if she’s draining all my blood and filling my veins with hers.

Gathering my wits, I shove her stalk, and she topples, losing her grip on my hair as she hits the floor, pot overturned and leaves rattling. Her mental hold is broken.

“You’ll never be part of me again.” I shake off the attempted possession.

Growling, she rolls on the floor, then uses her vinelike arms to drag herself toward me. Soil spills out of the overturned pot, and she pauses, staring at it. Her hundreds of eyes glare up at me. “Help me or suffer my wrath.”

“Right,” I mutter sarcastically, the netherling in me taking over. The memory of my confrontation with the flowers last year in Wonderland returns. “You can pick up roots, but you can’t move unless you’re connected to the soil. Not the smartest choice, showing up in a cement cave.” I sidestep her attempt to grab at me, heartbeat hopeful. That must be why she didn’t bring the flower fae … why she chose the toys as her army. “I say you just lie there and rot.”

Seething, she lengthens her arms. The leaves protruding from her vines slap the floor next to my feet, an inch away from snagging me. I withdraw farther, watching, almost pitying her helplessness. But I know better. There’s nothing helpless about her, and mercy has no place on the battlefield.

I need to dispose of her, permanently—send her back to the cemetery to stay, although I’m not sure how to get her there. Maybe Morpheus has a plan. I’ll incapacitate her somehow … hold her here until he can help me.

Ripping an extension cord from the wall, I stand back far enough to stay out of her reach and guide the cord with my mind as if I were casting a fishing line. I catch her, then roll her up in it so she can’t move. It’s satisfying being on the giving end of this trick for once.

She growls, struggling in the binds. “Stubborn twit. I’m not the enemy. Do you not realize, I am the only way for you to keep the Red kingdom? Your mother wishes to steal it from you. She’s lied all these years. She wants the crown. Actually tried to win it once. You didn’t know that, did you?”

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