Splintered Page 55

“No. But Gossamer was in yours when you were knocked out. And she saw you dreaming of another girl. When you kissed me . . . it was just to convince me to give this up and go home so you could get back to Tae.”

“What?” His fingers feel hot and tight even through my sleeves. “The dream I had was of Jen and Mom. I’m worried about them.”

“Right,” I say, wanting to be convinced but not quite there.

He jerks away and strides to the other end of the hall, silent and stoic.

My arms chill with the absence of his touch. The pain is crushing, but I’m glad I said something. I would’ve had that doubt forever, thinking I was stealing kisses meant for another girl. I drag the pewter hatbox toward me again, concentrating on the lid’s inscription to keep the hot tears behind my eyes from flooding out. If I focus and unfocus through the blur, the letters move, forming legible text. I trail it with my fingertip and whisper the words:

“Behold the box of jabberlock’s, the fairest rests inside. But free the dame and ease her pain to slip into her tide. An ocean red from bonds of love, and paint the roses’ hearts thereof, applied with wisps of finest strand and guided by an artist’s hand. One trade of souls will shut the door, and blood shall seal it, evermore.”

“It is the key to freeing the queen if you’re not the one who imprisoned her.” Gossamer’s chiming voice pulls me out of my meditation. “Individualized to the box’s inhabitant.” She lights on my shoulder so I can see her up close—a woman’s perfect form, dusted green and naked but for the strategic placement of glistening scales. Her hands rest on her hips. “An ocean red from bonds of love.” Her dragonfly eyes glitter. “The roses must be painted with the blood of someone willing to trade places with her for the noblest of reasons. Love initiates the transfer.”

The famous Lewis Carroll scene passes through my mind—the card guards painting the roses red in the garden to keep from being beheaded. How ironic, that in this Wonderland, someone could lose their head forever by painting the roses upon this box.

“So Morpheus wasn’t completely honest,” I say. “There’s another way to free her and open the portal. It’s not just up to the person who put her there.” Jeb is standing behind my reflection, his expression smug. I can almost hear the “I told you so” emanating through his eyes.

“It isn’t such an easy decision,” Gossamer scolds, then lifts off my shoulder, wings buzzing. “Once the trade is made, no one can ever free the replacement soul. The blood makes the seal permanent, eternally. One trade of souls will shut the door, and blood shall seal it, evermore.”

“So, what you’re saying”—Jeb steps up—“is that it has to be an unselfish love. Which Morpheus is incapable of giving. He lacks that kind of courage.”

Gossamer flaps her wings in midair, arms crossed over her chest. “My master has a great capacity for courage. He saved my life once.” She glances at the hall’s entrance and back again. “No one knows what he or she is capable of until things are at their darkest. That is why the key to opening the box is the essence of the heart. Therein lies the world’s most potent power.” Her cryptic words hang in the air.

She ducks beneath the table and drags out my dad’s army knife, leaving it by Jeb’s foot. He tucks the weapon into his pocket. I want to ask what the sprite means about a heart’s essence, about the dark. I want to ask how Morpheus and the solitary netherlings are faring downstairs. But my tongue is tied up in the jabberlock poem and Jeb’s reaction to my questions.

Gossamer has us face one of the mirrors, and she touches the glass with a fingertip. The moth spirits vanish from the in-between plane, flying into other mirrors along the walls.

Palm splayed over the reflective surface, the sprite initiates that same splintering effect I saw in the cheval glass in my bedroom. A long table filled with pastries and teacups appears in the mirror, sitting under a tree in front of a country cottage that’s shaped like a rabbit’s head—complete with chimneys for ears and a fur-thatched roof. It looks as if the sun has overpowered the moon this time, because daylight shimmers on the surroundings. With a key almost the size of her forearm, Gossamer unlocks the portal, smoothing the glass.

Pounding footsteps echo from the adjoining hall. The fight has made its way here.

“Just go!” Gossamer prompts.

Jeb won’t even look at me as he lifts the backpack onto his shoulder, his complexion almost as green as Gossamer’s. I leap through the mirror, more desperate to escape my hurt and confusion than anything Rabid White and the Red army could unleash.



My boots end up on a plate loaded with pastries. Once the dizziness subsides, I lift a foot and shake off some sugared crust.

Before I can explore the table I’m standing upon, something crashes into me from behind. I trip face-first into a pie filled with succulent purple berries.

“Al . . . I’m sorry.” Jeb lifts me by my elbows, pulling my shoulder blades into his chest. “You okay?”

I refuse to answer on the grounds that he didn’t specify physically or emotionally. With his help, I regain my footing between a plate of buttered bread and a bowl of candied violets. Some of the pie filling coats my mouth.

I lick it from my lips, then flap my fingertips, trying to get the sticky stuff off.

From our end of the table, the landscape we saw refracted in the mirror is in full view. The bunny-shaped cottage sits on a hill—a green and lush oasis smack in the midst of a desert. Sand dunes in the distance look like a chessboard—squares of black and white like the ones I’m always tripping over in my nightmare. I yearn for a canvas and raw materials so I can capture the warped vista forever.

A temperate breeze sways my braids, birds twitter in a mulberry tree overhead, and sunlight warms my shoulders. It reminds me so much of Pleasance that a wave of homesickness crashes over me. I wish I could talk to Dad; even more, I wish I could hug him.

It’s Saturday. At least I think it is. If I were home, Dad would be grilling steaks. I’d fix a fruit salad, because it’s my job to see that he eats well-balanced meals.

What if I can’t pull this off and get back home? Alison will blame herself forever and plunge into the deep end for real. Shock treatments will make her worse. Then Dad will be sitting alone in the kitchen eating cold cereal with nothing but his grief to keep him company. And then there’s Jeb’s mom and Jenara. His job at Underland helps pay the monthly bills. They rely on him. What will they do without him?

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