The Iron KingBy: Julie Kagawa
“Rob,” I murmured, pulling my headphones out, “look at tha—”
Robbie’s face was inches from mine, staring out the window, his eyes narrowed to green slits, hard and dangerous. My stomach twisted and I leaned away from him, but he didn’t notice me. His lips moved, and he whispered one word, so soft I barely caught it, even as close as we were.
“Ash?” I repeated. “Who’s Ash?”
The bus coughed and lurched forward again. Robbie leaned back, his face so still it could’ve been carved from stone. Swallowing, I looked out the window, but the space beneath the oak was empty. Horse and rider were gone, like they’d never existed.
THE WEIRDNESS KEPT getting weirder.
“Who’s Ash?” I repeated, turning back to Robbie, who seemed to be in his own world. “Robbie? Hey!” I poked him in the shoulder. He twitched and finally looked at me. “Who is Ash?”
“Ash?” For a moment, his eyes were bright and feral, his face like that of a wild dog. Then he blinked and was normal again. “Oh, he’s just an old buddy of mine, from long ago. Don’t worry about it, princess.”
His words slid over me strangely, like he was willing me to forget simply by requesting it. I felt a prickle of annoyance that he was hiding something, but it quickly faded, because I couldn’t remember what we were talking about.
At our curb, Robbie leaped up as if the seat was on fire and rushed out the door. Blinking at his abrupt departure, I put my iPod safely in my backpack before leaving the bus. The last thing I wanted was for the expensive thing to get wet.
“I have to go,” Robbie announced when I joined him on the pavement. His green eyes swept through the trees, as if he expected something to come crashing out of the woods. I gazed around, but except for some bird trilling overhead, the forest was quiet and still. “I…um…forgot something at home.” He turned to me then with an apologetic look. “See you tonight, princess? I’ll bring that champagne over later, okay?”
“Oh.” I’d forgotten about that. “Sure.”
“Go straight home, okay?” Robbie narrowed his eyes, his face intense. “Don’t stop, and don’t talk to anyone you meet, got it?”
I laughed nervously. “What are you, my mom? Are you going to tell me not to run with scissors and to look both ways before crossing the street? Besides,” I continued as Robbie smirked, looking more like his normal self, “who would I meet way out here in the boondocks?” The image of the boy on the horse suddenly came to mind, and my stomach did that strange little flop again. Who was he? And why couldn’t I stop thinking about him, if he even existed at all? Things were getting really odd. If it wasn’t for Robbie’s weird reaction on the bus, I would think the boy was another of my crazy hallucinations.
“Fine.” Robbie waved, flashing his mischievous grin. “See you later, princess. Don’t let Leatherface catch you on your way home.”
I kicked at him. He laughed, bounced away, and sprinted off down the road. Shouldering my backpack, I trudged up the driveway.
“MOM?” I CALLED, OPENING THE front door. “Mom, I’m home.”
Silence greeted me, echoing off the walls and floor, hanging heavy in the air. The stillness was almost a living thing, crouched in the center of the room, watching me with cold eyes. My heart began a loud, irregular thud in my chest. Something was wrong.
“Mom?” I called again, venturing into the house. “Luke? Anybody home?” The door creaked as I crept in farther. The television blared and flickered, playing a rerun of an old black-and-white sitcom, though the couch in front of it was empty. I switched it off and continued down the hall, into the kitchen.
For a moment, everything looked normal, except for the refrigerator door, swinging on its hinges. A small object on the floor caught my attention. At first, I thought it was a dirty rag. But, looking closer, I saw it was Floppy, Ethan’s rabbit. The stuffed animal’s head had been torn off, and cotton spilled from the hole in the neck.
Straightening, I heard a small noise on the other side of the dining table. I walked around, and my stomach twisted so violently that bile rose to my throat.
My mother lay on her back on the checkered tile floor, arms and legs flung akimbo, one side of her face covered in glistening crimson. Her purse, its contents scattered everywhere, lay beside one limp white hand. Standing over her in the doorway, his head cocked to one side like a curious cat, was Ethan.
And he was smiling.
“MOM!” I SCREAMED, FLINGING myself down beside her. “Mom, are you okay?” I grabbed one shoulder and shook her, but it was like shaking a dead fish. Her skin was still warm, though, so she couldn’t be dead. Right?
Where the hell is Luke? I shook her again, watching her head flop limply. It made my stomach turn. “Mom, wake up! Can you hear me? It’s Meghan.” I looked around frantically, then snatched a washrag off the sink. As I dabbed it over her bloodied face, I became aware again of Ethan standing in the doorway, his blue eyes now wide and teary.