Ensnared Page 18

“Looks like you won’t be lying after all,” I say.

She throws down her duster and gives chase. The robe floats like a magic carpet with Chessie propelling it underneath. The maid has to get on all fours to catch up.

As soon as they turn a corner, I grab the transparent coveralls and race the opposite direction toward an intersection of three halls. I have a passing thought of Chessie and send him a soundless thank-you. I’m not worried for his welfare. He won’t be captured unless he wants to be.

I round a corner and bump into Dad.

“Whoa there.” He catches my shoulders. “Where have you been?”

“Trying . . . to find you,” I fib between gulps of air. The fabric billows in my arms but can only be felt, not seen.

Dad wouldn’t condone stealing. That will change once we’re in AnyElsewhere, where his conscience will take a backseat to self-preservation.

Jeb pops into my head. He’s like Dad in so many ways. Protective, moral, and kind. Has he lost his strict sense of black-and-white, of right and wrong, to adapt to a world of netherling criminals? He’s had to. He’s a survivor. His childhood proves that.

I just hope he hasn’t forgotten how to forgive. And I hope Morpheus will forgive me, too.

Even if they have, things will still be complicated, because of the vision the Ivory Queen showed me before she went back through the rabbit hole on the day of prom, and what a life with Morpheus could mean to Wonderland.

That puncturing sensation jabs inside my chest, reminding me again of Red. Of what’s important now. Any decisions about my future will have to wait until Red has corrected whatever she put wrong in me and I destroy her.

“This way.” Dad holds my elbow. “Bernard’s waiting for us in the mirror room.”

Ignoring the sting behind my sternum, I drag the duffel from Dad’s shoulder. He’s so busy watching room numbers that he doesn’t notice me rearrange water bottles, protein packets, trail mix, fruit, first aid supplies, flares, and assorted iron weapons so I can tuck the stolen fabric beneath them.

Borrowed fabric. When I get back, I’ll return the enchanted clothes with an apology.

My breath stalls as I realize there’s no “when” in our scenario from this point on. Before Dad and I can face the looking-glass world and rescue the guys, or help Mom and repair Wonderland, we have to first make it through the portal and the gate.

Everything—our lives, our loves, our futures—hinges on one word alone: IF.

Dad takes the duffel bag back as we step into room 42.

He’s filled me in on what will happen once we enter the gate of AnyElsewhere: how we’ll jump into an otherworldly funnel of ash and wind that carries prisoners to the center of the realm and the guards from one gate to another.

First, though, we have to take the mirror portal to the gateway.

I expected the chamber’s walls to be covered with mirrors. Instead, it has cushions. The circumference is larger than our private room, and there’s no furniture, only a circular, enclosed contraption in the center of the floor. It’s so tall, it nearly touches the ceiling.

Bright colors shimmer on the metal exterior, and lines of fat white bulbs dot each separate panel—extinguished and lifeless. It resembles a small version of a Gravitron ride. That was always the first line Jenara, Jeb, and I would hit when the county fair came into town.

A sharp twinge of longing echoes through me with the taste of cotton candy and the smell of corn dogs. It was like magic, the way we’d stand against the inside of a cylinder and the ride would spin fast enough for the floor to drop out, yet we’d stay in place against the walls. I know now it wasn’t magic that held us up; it was centrifugal force. I also know now what real magic is—and that it comes with a cost.

The ache for simpler times with my two best friends is so acute, I step forward and run my fingers along the cool, slick panels to distract myself. A loud whirring sound activates as the motor kicks on and the lights start to blink—bright and garish. Dad jerks me back.

“What did I do?” I ask.

“Nothing. It’s okay. Right as rain.” He’s smiling with a faraway look on his face. His eyes glisten with boyhood wonder in the blinking lights.

“Dad, you never told me . . . how did you end up going through the gate that leads to Wonderland?”

His fingertips take over where mine left off, stroking the metal panels. “Uncle William was teaching me how to open it, just the two of us, when he fell to his knees. He was struggling to breathe. I was too small to drag him to a wind funnel, and I knew if I took one for help, he’d be dead before I got back with someone.” Dad purses his lips, as if the confession has a distinctive flavor—sour and biting. “He started turning blue. I panicked. I’d heard stories about Wonderland. That the creatures had healing powers. I let myself through the gate . . . thought I could get help faster that way. I knew they could be evil, but I’d also heard some were kind. Unfortunately, I met with evil first.” He presses his forehead to the machine, lights flashing along his skin as he squeezes his eyes shut.

I put my hand on his shoulder, haunted by the image of him trapped inside Sister Two’s lair, wrapped in web with glowing roots attached to his head and chest. His dreams were being siphoned away to feed the restless dead. He’d been Sister Two’s prized dream-boy for ten years before Mom rescued him. This isn’t the time to tell Dad that he might be facing that same evil again once we get to Wonderland. That Sister Two might have Mom in her webby clutches, unless she was able to escape somehow.

“Dad, you were just a kid. You made the only decision you could. You were right, too. If your uncle’s skin was blue, he wouldn’t have lasted until you got back with someone.”

Dad sighs and lifts his head. “He’d had a stroke. Bernie told me they found him dead by the gate, and me missing.” Squinting, he eases his thumb into a space between two panels and pushes. He steps back before a door flings open and a set of motorized metal stairs drops down.

Uncle Bernie pokes his head out of the ride’s entrance. He’s wearing a fresh White knight’s uniform. “So, you do remember how to get inside. There’s a good sign.”

Just like that, Dad’s sadness melts away. He smirks and hands up the duffel bag.

I stare at him in disbelief. First, I saw him fence like an expert. Now, he’s the master of secret doorways. How can this be the same man who raised me? The man who read picture books in funny voices, who packed my lunches and never forgot that I liked graham crackers with my applesauce?

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