Splintered Page 34

As I’m about to surrender to unconsciousness, it dawns on me that the weight is coming from my skirt pocket. Numb, I pull out the sponge I picked up at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

What was once the size of a bite of cheese is now as big as a golf ball and growing. It glides down toward the bottom of the ocean, dragging the water with it, creating a whirlpool.

I’m free.

Holding on to each other, Jeb and I surface long enough to fill our lungs before the suction of the funnel captures us. The sponge is the size of a grapefruit now, and I can see the bottom of the ocean far beneath us.

I scream, clutching Jeb for dear life.

My eyes squeeze shut as we slam into something solid.

“Al,” Jeb says, and that’s when I notice I can breathe.

I gasp hungrily for air, open my eyes, and blink away the wetness. The ocean is gone. Flattened sea grass and piles of wet sand surround us. Puddles of water glimmer in places, reflecting the sun. In the distance, I spot our backpack. The island’s black sands tower like a cliff above us—a climb we can’t possibly make.

A few yards away, among the debris, the giant clam sits next to a mossy, decomposing trunk and smacks its bloody lips. I guess the octobenus ended up finding his artisan friend again, after all.

A breeze stirs, scented with fish and salt. I expect the sponge to be the size of a mountain. But there it is, next to my soggy boots, no bigger than a basketball. I pick it up. Hard to fathom that an entire ocean is contained inside.

Jeb helps me stand, and I drop the sponge. It lands with a splat.

Even though I’m weak and battered, a sense of accomplishment rushes through me. “We did it,” I mumble, hardly able to grasp the meaning of the words. “We drained the ocean. Just like the flowers wanted us to.”

“You did it,” he answers. He pushes hair from my brow. “And you almost drowned in the process.” Before I can respond, his warm, soft mouth touches my forehead, my temple, and then my jaw. Each time, his labret gently grazes my skin. He stalls at my jawline and bends to gather me close for a hug, nose tucked against my neck. “Never scare me like that again.”

It doesn’t matter that we’re wet; heat radiates through our sopping clothes. I weave my gloves through his hair. “You came back for me.”

He nuzzles closer in the crook of my jaw, and a powerful wave of emotion pulses through him. “I’ll always come back for you, Al.”

A tiny knock of caution drums in my chest, reminding me of Taelor, of Jeb’s determination to go to London without me to be alone with her. But adrenaline surges even stronger. I touch his ear with my lips, tasting Alice’s leftover tears on his skin. “Thank you.”

He tightens his arms. His nose roots through the hair at my nape, like he’s losing himself in the tangles. Our heartbeats thunder between us. Nervous shivers assault me until my limbs quake.

“Jeb,” I whisper. He mutters something indecipherable, and my trembling hands clutch his neck.

A groan escapes his throat. I catch my breath as he clenches my hair in his fingers and draws back, eyes intense. He’s about to lean into me when a cacophony of clicks and clatters interrupts.

We turn in circles. Thousands upon thousands of clams tunnel out from the sand. I clutch Jeb’s hand, worried they’re going to attack us for destroying their home. Instead, high-pitched cheers break loose.

Glancing over Jeb’s shoulder, I gape. “Behind you.”

Beside the clifflike wall, tons of shells pile one on top of another— tumbling in and out, over and over—to form a living escalator.

“We defeated their enemy,” I whisper. “They want to help us.”

Jeb doesn’t hesitate. He takes my hand and leads me toward the ascending steps, snagging the backpack on the way. Together, we ride toward the sparkling black sands of the island.

Once we reach the top, I wave to the clams as they disappear into their ocean bed far below.

Jeb opens the backpack to check on our things. “Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing’s wet in here.” He opens the pencil box before I can stop him. His jaw twitches. “What’s this?”

“It’s my . . . savings.” Great. Not only did I throw myself at Taelor’s boyfriend, but now I’ve lied about the money I stole from her.

Jeb looks up from counting it. There’s something unreadable behind those thick lashes.

“You look different,” he says, stashing the money back in the box and shaking wet droplets from his hair.

“Do I?” I rub the skin around my eyes. Are all my secrets blinking across my face like neon signs? “My makeup must be running all over the place.”

“You’re sparkly—everywhere.”

“Oh. Probably just salt residue.” I slip off his tux jacket, wring out the water, and hand it over.

“Huh,” he says, still intent on me. “So . . . should we talk about it?” He shoves the jacket into the pack.

“About what?”

“What happened down there, between us.”

Heat prickles my cheeks. He regrets it. Or maybe he’s afraid I’ll tell Taelor. Either way, I end up looking like a jerk. “It was the adrenaline. That’s all. We were just happy to be alive. No worries. What happens in Wonderland stays in Wonderland, right?”

He doesn’t even crack a smile. Just holds my gaze, then shakes his head. Lips drawn into a tight line, he puts all his attention into zipping up the backpack.

I want to believe he felt what I did . . . these things that I shouldn’t be feeling at all. But how can that be true? I’m not the one he’s going to be living with in another country.

I try to concentrate on something else, like how the water in my boots squishes between my toes, or how I have gaping rips the size of silver dollars all over my leggings.

“Where to now?” he asks.

It’s possible he’s talking about more than our physical destination, but I’m too scared to take a chance I’m wrong. Instead, I focus on our whereabouts.

The shore stretches as far as I can see . . . an endless, inky desert of shimmery soot. It’s not at all what I expected the heart of Wonderland to look like, if that’s what this really is. There’s no flora or fauna anywhere except for a lone tree standing taller and wider than a redwood just a few feet ahead of us.

Intense familiarity lures me closer. Jeweled bark covers the entire tree, from the gnarled trunk to the branches that twist hundreds of feet into the air. It glimmers in the sun like a million white diamonds. At the end of each branch, rubies well up like liquid and dribble to the ground, as if the tree is bleeding jewels, the way elves do when their skin is pierced. With the black sands as a backdrop, the scene reminds me of my cricket mosaic back home—a beauty both mesmerizing and bizarre. I tamp down a surge of panic, remembering how the crickets seemed to be alive and kicking the last time I saw it on my wall.

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