The Iron KingBy: Julie Kagawa
With a sigh, I bent down and picked him up.
“What’s up, squirt?” I asked, brushing his hair out of his eyes. Mom would need to cut it soon; it was starting to look like a bird’s nest. “You’re awfully clingy this morning. What’s going on?”
“Scared,” Ethan muttered, burying his face in my neck.
He shook his head. “Floppy’s scared.”
“What’s Floppy scared of?”
“The man in the closet.”
I felt a small chill slide up my back. Sometimes, Ethan was so quiet and serious, it was hard to remember he was only four. He still had childish fears of monsters under his bed and bogeymen in his closet. In Ethan’s world, stuffed animals spoke to him, invisible men waved to him from the bushes, and scary creatures tapped long nails against his bedroom window. He rarely went to Mom or Luke with stories of monsters and bogeymen; from the time he was old enough to walk, he always came to me.
I sighed, knowing he wanted me to go upstairs and check, to reassure him that nothing lurked in his closet or under his bed. I kept a flashlight on his dresser for that very reason.
Outside, lightning flickered, and thunder rumbled in the distance. I winced. My walk to the bus was not going to be pleasant.
Dammit, I don’t have time for this.
Ethan pulled back and looked at me, eyes pleading. I sighed again. “Fine,” I muttered, putting him down. “Let’s go check for monsters.”
He followed me silently up the stairs, watching anxiously as I grabbed the flashlight and got down on my knees, shining it under the bed. “No monsters there,” I announced, standing up. I walked to the closet door and flung it open as Ethan peeked out from behind my legs. “No monsters here, either. Think you’ll be all right now?”
He nodded and gave me a faint smile. I started to close the door when I noticed a strange gray hat in the corner. It was domed on top, with a circular rim and a red band around the base: a bowler hat.
Weird. Why would that be there?
As I straightened and started to turn around, something moved out of the corner of my eye. I caught a glimpse of a figure hiding behind Ethan’s bedroom door, its pale eyes watching me through the crack. I jerked my head around, but of course there was nothing there.
Jeez, now Ethan’s got me seeing imaginary monsters. I need to stop watching those late-night horror flicks.
A thunderous boom directly overhead made me jump, and fat drops plinked against the windowpanes. Rushing past Ethan, I burst out of the house and sprinted down the driveway.
I WAS SOAKED WHEN I REACHED the bus stop. The late spring rain wasn’t frigid, but it was cold enough to be uncomfortable. I crossed my arms and huddled under a mossy cypress, waiting for the bus to arrive.
Wonder where Robbie is? I mused, gazing down the road. He’s usually here by now. Maybe he didn’t feel like getting drenched and stayed home. I snorted and rolled my eyes. Skipping class again, huh? Slacker. Wish I could do that.
If only I had a car. I knew kids whose parents gave them cars for their sixteenth birthday. Me, I’d be lucky if I got a cake. Most of my classmates already had licenses and could drive themselves to clubs and parties and anywhere they wanted. I was always left behind, the backward hick girl nobody wanted to invite.
Except Robbie, I amended with a small mental shrug. At least Robbie will remember. Wonder what kooky thing he has planned for my birthday tomorrow? I could almost guarantee it would be something strange or crazy. Last year, he snuck me out of the house for a midnight picnic in the woods. It was weird; I remembered the glen and the little pond with the fireflies drifting over it, but though I explored the woods behind my house countless times since then, I never found it again.
Something rustled in the bushes behind me. A possum or a deer, or even a fox, seeking shelter from the rain. The wildlife out here was stupidly bold and had little fear of humans. If it wasn’t for Beau, Mom’s vegetable garden would be a buffet for rabbits and deer, and the local raccoon family would help themselves to everything in our cupboards.
A branch snapped in the trees, closer this time. I shifted uncomfortably, determined not to turn around for some stupid squirrel or raccoon. I’m not like “inflate-a-boob” Angie, Ms. Perfect Cheerleader, who’d flip out if she saw a caged gerbil or a speck of dirt on her Hollister jeans. I’ve pitched hay and killed rats and driven pigs through knee-deep mud. Wild animals don’t scare me.
Still, I stared down the road, hoping to see the bus turn the corner. Maybe it was the rain and my own sick imagination, but the woods felt like the set for The Blair Witch Project.
There are no wolves or serial killers out here, I told myself. Stop being paranoid.
The forest was suddenly very quiet. I leaned against the tree and shivered, trying to will the bus into appearing. A chill crawled up my back. I wasn’t alone. Cautiously, I craned my neck up, peering through the leaves. An enormous black bird perched on a branch, feathers spiked out against the rain, sitting as motionless as a statue. As I watched, it turned its head and met my gaze, with eyes as green as colored glass.