Splintered Page 65

He nods, and I ease him down along the canyon wall, offering an anchor line from the sky, just like the times we went rappelling.

Lowering him is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not only because of the icy dread winding inside my chest, but because my wings have to alternate between the rigidness of a hang glider and the relaxed swoops of a bird to pilot us through the maze of rocks.

“How’re you holding up?” I attempt to sound lighthearted.

“Other than a colossal wedgie?” he squeaks out in a deliberately high-pitched voice. “My boxers have stretched five sizes.”

I snort halfheartedly. “Karmic payback for those Boy Scouts you hammered in seventh grade.”

He laughs, though it echoes hollowly in the chasm.

My wings stutter as I clench the chain with both hands to counteract his drag.

“We’re almost there.” His words have a serious edge to them now. “Am I getting too heavy?”

“I’m good,” I manage. Sweat dribbles from my hairline as I feed him through to the narrow opening at the bottom. He’s collected a few more scrapes along the way but doesn’t complain.

We’ve made it as far as we can go together. Even though there’s only a three-foot span between us, it might as well be a football field. We can’t touch. I can’t hover any lower without scraping my wings against the cliff walls, and he’s balanced between two rocks holding him centered above his drop. From here, the fall looks less intimidating. But it’s not the drop I’m worried about. What if I can’t find a way to pull him out?

“Al . . .” We meet gazes, and I see something new in his eyes. Astonishment mixed with reverence. He shakes his head. “Your wings are amazing. Do they hurt?”

“No.” Fluttering in place, I reach back and touch a shoulder blade through the blouse’s slit. “I’m not even bleeding. They just feel heavy. Like I’m wearing a huge backpack.”

“But you look like you’re in pain.”

I grip the taut chains, our one solid connection, wishing it could be his fingers interlocking with mine. My eyes sting. “Jeb, what if I mess up your rescue?”

“Not gonna happen.” He loops his fingers through the links on his end. “You remember when my father died . . . that night?”

I nod.

“We came over to your house. Your dad made us hot chocolate. He went to bed after a while. Jen and Mom fell asleep on the couch. But you and I sat up in the kitchen and talked until five in the morning.”

I’m not sure where he’s going with this. It’s not making me feel any better about leaving him. To be reminded of how much he was hurting makes my insides feel as heavy as bricks.

“You lifted me out of the darkest night of my life,” he says. “Even after, you were the one who kept me going. You went skateboarding with me every day, texted me all the time.”

“Came over to watch you work on your bike and paint.”

Our gazes touch in a way we can’t, and rough and sturdy Jebediah Holt looks vulnerable. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. Even if things get screwed up, you’ll still find a way to help me.”

His faith makes me sob. “I don’t want to do this without you.”

He glances at my wings, and his mouth tightens into a stern line. It’s obvious he’s fighting the urge to pull me down to him. “One thing Morpheus didn’t lie about . . . you can take care of yourself. I should’ve already realized that, since you’ve been taking care of me for years. So, be tough, Alyssa Victoria Gardner.”

My chest swells with hope. He actually makes me believe I can do it. “Okay.”

“And Al,” he says, his jaw tight. “No matter what happens, we’ll find each other again. You’re my lifeline. You always will be.”

The sentiment spurs the strangest reaction in my heart—breaks it and heals it all in the same breath. Before I can respond, he releases the chain. I’ve been flapping so hard to hold us both steady that, with the lessened weight, I catapult up from the chasm as if on a bungee cord.

The propulsion forces me against the wind. My braids whip around my face, bringing back the image of Alison fighting her hair in the asylum’s courtyard. But I won’t be the victim she was. I’ll embrace the power she kept running from. It’s the only thing that can keep me alive and get me back to Jeb.

I slap my hair aside and angle my wings to steer a turn toward the valley. My fear of heights returns, and I dip too low, too fast. The grassy ground races up to meet me, and I scream.

I squeeze my eyes shut. A jolting slam rocks my bones upon impact, and I roll into a ball to ride out the momentum. My wings and the chain twirl and tangle around me—so tight I can hardly move my limbs by the time I trundle to a stop.

Wiggling to make sure nothing’s broken, I splay my palms against my wings, straining to free my face. The very things that saved my and Jeb’s lives are now suffocating me like a straitjacket. Each breath pulls the milky membrane tighter against my nostrils and lips.

Air still filters through, but, smothered in a cocoon, I can’t see anything around me. A rank smell seeps in, as if I’ve fallen into a raw-sewage treatment plant. Hot puffs of breath circle my body. Something is surrounding me . . . sniffing me. Panic shrinks my lungs.

I play dead as ropes wrap my ankles and drag me. A scream struggles to break out. I smother it, and it burns in my chest.

I’m moving downhill, which means I’m being pulled away from the chasm, toward the cemetery thicket at the lower end of the valley.

Three things are wrong with this scenario: I’m trapped with no chance to fight or see what’s dragging me; I’m getting hauled farther away from Jeb; and, last but not least, I’m about to be alone, deep inside Wonderland’s garden of souls, with nothing but dead things for company.



Escape is futile. No matter how hard I concentrate on the chains and rope that bind me, I can’t animate them. I’m too distracted by the claustrophobia.

I try to tell myself I’m wrapped in a snuggly blanket, but my brain’s not buying it. When we finally come to a stop, my wings ache and my back and tailbone throb from the uneven terrain we bulldozed on the way here.

I breathe quietly as a strange argument takes place over me. “Stupidesses! Stupid, stupid! She usn’t smellum deadish!” “But she lookum deadses. She lookum it!”

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