Splintered Page 42

While he pours a cup for himself, I sip mine. The hot, sweet liquid soothes my throat. I slide a finger against the table beneath my saucer. The surface is a chessboard, black and silver. A glass sheet covers it to protect from spills and scrapes. Jade chess pieces—pawns, rooks, knights, and more—are arranged in an unusual pattern. Sentences hover over three of the silver squares as if by magic, in tiny glowing script. I lean in to read them, catching the words ocean and palm before Morpheus sweeps his glove across the glass and smears them.

“What was that?” I ask.

“It’s how I keep track of your accomplishments.”

“‘Accomplishments.’ Mind explaining?” I take another sip of tea.

His wings hang wide on either side of his chair as he sits opposite me, placing his hat on the table. “I would prefer to show you.”

He retrieves a small brass box from a drawer on his side of the table. Its hinged lid pops open, and Morpheus tilts it. The contents scatter onto the chessboard, a whole other set of tiny game pieces. These are also carved of pale green jade: a caterpillar smoking a hookah, a cat with a bold smile etched into place, a little girl in a dress and pinafore. There are other characters, too, all familiar. Morpheus and I played with them when I visited in my dreams.

I reach for the Alice figurine and hold her up, trailing a finger along the lines of her pinafore. With her marbled, green-tinged exterior, she looks different than in the pictures—more fragile. Precious and rare, like the stone she’s carved of.

Morpheus lifts his cup and regards me over the edge while drinking, then sets it on his saucer with a clink. “She always was your favorite.”

I’m both flattered and frightened over the expression of adoration that crosses his face. A nostalgic fuzziness swells inside my chest. “You used to tell me a story with these.”

“I did indeed. Or, rather, we used to watch it.”

“Watch it?”

The jewels under his eyes sparkle, flashing to a calming blue. “How are you feeling, Alyssa?”

Puzzled by the question, I frown. “Fine. Why do you ask—” No sooner do I speak, than the room starts to spin, the chess pieces along with it. My teacup topples, half of its contents spilling upward. I clasp both hands to my throat. “You put something in my drink . . .”

“Simply cleansing the palate of your mind. You must be relaxed and as light as a feather to channel your magic in the beginning stages. Otherwise, it will come in bursts and fits and be unruly, like it was at the asylum.” Morpheus’s disembodied voice floats around me as the chandelier blinks—dark to light, dark to light.

“Are you saying . . . ?” No, it’s not possible. “I was in control of that magic?” To think I had anything to do with Alison’s near choking makes my insides quake.

“Out of control is more like it,” Morpheus scolds. “You were too distraught for it to work properly.”

I struggle to find him amid the chaos, needing to see his face so I’ll know if he’s serious. “But how?”

“The moment your mind accepted the possibility of Wonderland being real, it released the vacuum of doubt that once held you trapped,” he says from somewhere above me. “Now, stop thinking like a human. Netherling logic resides in the hazy border between sense and nonsense. Tap into that logic, visualize the chess pieces coming alive; see it, and it will be.”

Skeptical, I twirl in a circle of weightlessness alongside everything else: the glass shelves, the hats, the table, and the chessboard. The bed’s watery curtain forms a funnel around us, swaying and swirling in an effort not to touch anything. The Alice carving slides from my grip as I try to keep my balance in the swimming room. Halfheartedly, I pretend she can reach for me, take my hand, but she falls out of my sight.

“There once was a child named Alice,” Morpheus says with a voice of soothing liquid. I still can’t see him. “She was innocence and sweetness, happiness and light. Perhaps her only flaw was that she was very—”

“Curious,” I finish for him, and in that instant, the chess pieces grow to human size. I try harder to imagine them alive: visualize blood pumping through their carved bodies like clear mountain streams, envision their lungs expanding and sending oxygen to beating hearts of stone.

I’m concentrating so hard that I’m startled when the caterpillar, his hookah smoking in one hand, snags my wrist. “You look like a girl I once knew. Her name started with an A. Perhaps yours does, too?” The greenish smoke stretches into a thick, fragrant sheet around me, matching his jade sheen.

The cat floats up beside us. He holds out the sheet of smoke and, using his claws like scissors, cuts eight vaporous letters to spell the word: Allegory. He spreads the letters out like a strand of paper snowflakes. The smile on his green-tinged face widens.

“Ah,” the caterpillar says, his tobacco puffs making clouds around us, “she’s a figurative figure. She shall play on my side, then, as I’m the academician.”

The cat shakes his head, his smile vanishing. They start a tug-ofwar, jerking me back and forth. I yelp, my arm sockets stretched to the limit. “Let go!”

“Tut-tut. The only things figurative here are you two idjits.” Morpheus breaks their hold on me, then folds one hand around my waist while snatching the caterpillar’s hookah with the other. “Now, take your places.”

At that, the animated chess pieces descend with the others through the funnel of water. Morpheus floats us up, up, up toward the huge chandelier in the domed ceiling—the one part of the room that’s still stable. The lightbulbs are as big as we are, and the dizzying height makes me nauseated. I wrap my hands around his neck and tuck my face against his smooth chest as he settles us on the brass fixture. “This isn’t happening,” I say. But it is, because I can remember it happening before, years ago.

“Find your courage. Look down. Your show is about to begin.”

I shake my head, eyes clamped tightly. “We’re too high . . . it makes my stomach kick.”

He laughs and inhales a puff off the hookah then blows the smoke over me, saturating me in the comforting scent. “That’s how you know you’re alive, Alyssa. The kicks.”

Before I can respond, a loud rapping makes me brave a peek.

The funnel of water forms a curtain, which parts to reveal a stage. Morpheus’s bedroom has transformed. The living chess pieces dominate the scene, their milky-green bodies vivid atop a glossy black and silver chessboard that stretches the length of the floor. Everything is arranged in a large circle that reminds me of a circus’s center ring.

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