The Iron KingBy: Julie Kagawa
“Mommy slipped,” he whispered, and I noticed a clear, slick puddle on the floor in front of the refrigerator. Hand trembling, I dipped a finger in the goo and sniffed. Vegetable oil? What the hell? I wiped more blood off her face and noticed a small gash on her temple, nearly invisible beneath blood and hair.
“Will she die?” Ethan asked, and I glanced at him sharply. Though his eyes were huge and round, and tears brimmed in the corners, he sounded more curious than anything.
I wrenched my gaze away from my half brother. I had to get help. Luke was gone, so the only thing left would be to call for an ambulance. But, just as I stood to get the phone, Mom groaned, stirred, and opened her eyes.
My heart leaped. “Mom,” I said as she struggled into a sitting position, a dazed look on her face. “Don’t move. I’ll call 911.”
“Meghan?” Mom looked around, blinking. A hand came up to touch her cheek, and she stared at the blood on her fingers. “What happened? I…I must’ve fallen…”
“You hit your head,” I replied, standing up and looking around for the phone. “You might have a concussion. Hold on, I’m calling the ambulance.”
“The ambulance? No, no.” Mom sat up, looking a little clearer. “Don’t do that, honey. I’m fine. I’ll just clean up and put on a Band-Aid. There’s no need to go to that trouble.”
“I’m fine, Meg.” Mom snatched the forgotten washrag and began wiping the blood off her face. “I’m sorry if I frightened you, but I’ll be fine. It’s only blood, nothing serious. Besides, we can’t afford a big doctor’s bill.” She abruptly straightened and looked around the room. “Where’s your brother?”
Startled, I looked back to the doorway, but Ethan was gone.
MOM’S PROTESTS WERE WASTED when Luke got home. He took one look at her pale, bandaged face, threw a fit, and insisted they go to the hospital. Luke can be stubbornly persistent when he needs to be, and Mom eventually buckled under the pressure. She was still calling out instructions to me—take care of Ethan, don’t let him stay up too late, there’s frozen pizza in the fridge—as Luke bundled her into his battered Ford and roared off down the driveway.
As the truck turned a corner and vanished from sight, the chilly silence descended on the house once more. I shivered, rubbing my arms, feeling it creep into the room and breathe down my neck. The house where I’d lived most of my life seemed unfamiliar and frightening, as if things lurked in the cupboards and around corners, waiting to grab me as I walked past. My gaze lingered on the crumpled remains of Floppy, strewn across the floor, and for some reason, it made me very sad and scared. No one in this house would rip up Ethan’s favorite stuffed animal. Something was very wrong.
Footsteps padded over the floor. I turned to find Ethan in the doorway, staring at me. He looked strange without the rabbit in his arms, and I wondered why he wasn’t upset about it.
“I’m hungry,” he announced, making me blink. “Cook me something, Meggie.”
I scowled at the demanding tone.
“It’s not dinnertime yet, squirt,” I told him, crossing my arms. “You can wait a couple hours.”
His eyes narrowed, and his lips curled back from his teeth. For just a moment, I imagined they were jagged and sharp. “I’m hungry now,” he growled, taking a step forward. Dread shot through me and I recoiled.
Almost immediately, his face smoothed out again, his eyes enormous and pleading. “Please, Meggie?” he whined. “Please? I’m so hungry.” He pouted, and his voice turned menacing. “Mommy didn’t make me food, either.”
“All right, fine! If it’ll shut you up, fine.” The angry words erupted from fear, and from a hot embarrassment because I was afraid. Of Ethan. Of my stupid, four-year-old half brother. I didn’t know where these demonic mood swings of his were coming from, but I hoped they weren’t the start of a trend. Maybe he was just upset because of Mom’s accident. Maybe if I fed the brat, he’d fall asleep and leave me alone for the night. I stalked to the freezer, grabbed the pizza, and shoved it in the oven.
While the pizza cooked, I tried to clean up the puddle of vegetable oil in front of the refrigerator. I wondered how the stuff had ended up on the floor, especially when I found the empty bottle stuffed in the trash. I smelled like Crisco when I was done, and the floor still had a slick spot, but it was the best I could do.
The creak of the oven door startled me. I turned to see Ethan pulling it open and reaching inside.
“Ethan!” Grabbing his wrist, I yanked him back, ignoring his scream of protest. “What are you doing, you idiot? You want to burn yourself?”
“Sit down!” I snapped, plunking him into a dining chair.
He actually tried to hit me, the little ingrate. I resisted the urge to smack him. “God, you’re being snotty today. Sit there and be quiet. I’ll get your food in a second.”
When the pizza came out, he fell on it like a wild thing, not waiting for it to cool. Astonished, I could only stare as he tore through the slices like a starved dog, barely stopping to chew as he gulped it down. Soon, his face and hands were smeared with sauce and cheese, and the pizza was rapidly diminished. In less than two minutes, he had consumed it all, down to the last crumb.