Splintered Page 69

Soon we’re whirling in a circle like children. One scene in Lewis Carroll’s version of Wonderland comes to mind . . . when Tweedledee and Tweedledum danced with Alice to the tune of “Here We Go ’round the Mulberry Bush.”

But Sister One is partial to the rosy song—for obvious reasons. Though it’s a different version than I heard growing up:

Ring-a-ring-a-roses / The body decomposes.

Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! / You’ll all tumble down. Down, down, into the deep / Give the Twids our souls to keep. Silent slumber on a web / Ne’er to raise a restless head. If we wake the First will come / And sing us back to sleep as one. Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! / We’re all slumbered down.

We turn in dizzy circles beneath the bouncing web. I lift my chin and laugh, actually starting to enjoy the clamor around me. It’s so freeing, my wings whirling like clouds, soft and silky when they bat my head and shoulders. We spin and spin and spin until finally the roses stop their uproar and join our chant. Sister One releases me to face her spirit charges. I lean my elbows on my knees and catch my breath.

The flowers’ voices converge to finish the final verse. Sister One leads them, arms raised and snapping in time like a band conductor:

If we fail to find our rest / Sister Two will raid our nest. She’ll make us live as broken toys / Discarded by the girls and boys; And there will no more slumber be / For we’ll be locked in misery. Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! / We’ll all tumble down.

At the end, stillness falls over the garden. The only sound is the swish of grass slapping Sister One’s sticklike legs as she moves about the web to tuck the flowers into the clingy gauze.

Euphoria fades as I’m taken back to a time when Alison would tuck my blankets around me and kiss my head good night . . . moments before I’d drift off to sleep to meet Morpheus. The memory swirls to a blur, like food coloring dropped into water.

I can’t remember how long I’ve been here . . . minutes, days, weeks?

I have to find Jeb.

Sprinting for the archway, my bare feet crush the grass with each step.

“Wait!” Sister One screams from the tunnel’s far end. “You must get the smile I stole for you!”

Ducking my head, I leap over the chain and rope I dropped earlier and keep going. Fear has taken up residence inside my heart, and I don’t know how to send it packing.

Skirts rustle behind me as the spider gives chase.

I skid onto a pathway and pick up speed. My lungs ache from panting. The drag of my wings slows me down. I reach behind and draw them around me like a shawl.

Coming to the only archway left, I plunge through. One look around, and I fall to my knees.

Just like in the Alice nightmare . . . I’m as good as dead.



I kneel, too horrified to move.

I’ve stumbled into Sister Two’s lair of despondent souls. That’s the only explanation for the moans and wails rattling my spine. A chill hangs on the air and clings to me like a second skin—dry and stale, softened with a hint of snow.

Clenching my hands, I force myself to stand. The cries and laments silence. Every hair on the back of my neck grows rigid. Drifts of white powder, grainy with bits of ice, coat my naked feet and pack between my toes. It’s cool but not biting like the snow at home.

The passage widens to a vast hollow filled with dead weeping willow trees—branches drooping sinuous and thin, all the way to the ground, each one bare and slick with ice. The thicket’s roof reaches high and filters what little light there is. It gives the scene a brownish tinge. At first glance, it could be the front of a sepia Christmas card, complete with ornaments hanging from the serpentine branches.

Only these aren’t ornaments. An endless array of teddy bears and stuffed animals, plastic clowns and porcelain dolls, hang on the branches from webby rope. In the human realm, we’d call them loveworn and threadbare—playthings that were hugged and kissed by a child until the stuffing fell out or the button eyes popped off. Toys that were loved to death.

I reach up and tap the leg of a ragged stuffed lamb who’s missing an ear. The toy sways on a noose of spider silk. The movement is so silent and tranquil, it’s disturbing to my core.

Tranquil . That bothers me . . . the fact that the instant I stood up, everything hushed. Bone-deep quiet. After all those years of yearning for silence, why is it that I seem to feel more at home amid mayhem and noise now?

Finding a sleepy doll that’s eerily similar to one I loved as a little girl—complete with time-yellowed vinyl skin and moth-eaten lashes over eyes that open and close—I touch its foot. The leg swings, hanging by a thread to the stuffed body.

The doll’s eyes snap open, sucking my courage away. Something in its empty gaze begs for escape . . . something that’s trapped, unhappy, and restless, aching to get out. The toy is harboring a soul. They all are.

I wait, mouth drained of all moisture—for the doll to scream or to weep out all the pain I see in its eyes. But the movement slows, and her eyes close once more.

A rustle stirs behind me. Prickles of awareness clamber up my spine, spreading through my shoulders and all the way to my wing tips.

Maybe Sister One followed my footprints in the snow. Please be the nice one . . . please, please, please be the nice one. Reluctantly, I turn on my heel. A shadowy face bends down to mine.

“Why ye be standing on this hallowed ground?” The voice—like branches tap-tap-tapping a frosted windowpane in the dark of night—rushes over me. Her breath smells of freshly dug graves and loneliness, sending shivers of terror from my toes to my fingertips. “I can explain,” I whisper.

“Dandy that would be.” She draws back. Her clothes, body, and legs are duplicates of her sister’s. But on her face, scars and fresh lacerations dribble blood. On her left hand, a pair of gardening shears takes the place of fingers. She must have caused the cuts herself. Compared to her, Sister One is the sugarplum fairy. My odds of getting out with my head intact just plummeted to almost nil. “I—I took a wrong turn.”

“I’d say ye did.” Her other hand eases out from behind her hoop skirt, covered by a black rubber glove. She carries a trio of ragged toys on a web like fish on a line. Her scissored deformity edges close to my neck—snip, snip. Puffs of air graze my skin as the blades open and close. “Ye don’t belong here.” Snip, snip, snip.

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