The Iron King

By: Julie Kagawa

Dragging myself upright, I shuffled, zombielike, into the hall.

Robbie waited for me by the lockers, a soda bottle in each hand. “Hey, princess,” he greeted as I shambled past. “You’re out early. How’d the tutoring session go?”

“Don’t call me that,” I muttered, banging my forehead into my locker. “And the tutoring session went fabulous. Please kill me now.”

“That good, huh?” He tossed me a diet soda, which I barely caught, and twisted open his root beer in a hiss of foam. I could hear the grin in his voice. “Well, I suppose I could say ‘I told you so—’”

I glared daggers at him, daring him to continue.

The smile vanished from his face. “—but…I won’t.” He pursed his lips, trying not to grin. “’Cause…that would just be wrong.”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” I demanded. “The buses have all left by now. Were you lurking by the computer lab, like some creepy stalker guy?”

Rob coughed loudly and took a long sip of his root beer. “Hey, I was wondering,” he continued brightly, “what are you doing for your birthday tomorrow?”

Hiding in my room, with the covers over my head, I thought, but shrugged and yanked open my rusty locker. “I dunno. Whatever. I don’t have anything planned.” I grabbed my books, stuffed them in my bag, and slammed the locker door. “Why?”

Robbie gave me that smile that always makes me nervous, a grin that stretched his entire face so that his eyes narrowed to green slits. “I’ve got a bottle of champagne I managed to swipe from the wine cabinet,” he said in a low voice, waggling his eyebrows. “How ’bout I come by your place tomorrow? We can celebrate your birthday in style.”

I’d never had champagne. I did try a sip of Luke’s beer once, and thought I was going to throw up. Mom sometimes brought home wine in a box, and that wasn’t terrible, but I wasn’t much of an alcohol drinker.

What the hell? You’re only sixteen once, right? “Sure,” I told Robbie, and gave a resigned shrug. “Sounds good. Might as well go out with a bang.”

He cocked his head at me. “You okay, princess?”

What could I tell him? That the captain of the football team, whom I’d been crushing on for two years, was out to get me, that I was seeing monsters at every turn, and that the school computers were either hacked or possessed? Yeah, right. I’d get no sympathy from the school’s greatest prankster. Knowing Robbie, he’d think it was a brilliant joke and congratulate me. If I didn’t know him better, I might even think he set it up.

I just gave him a tired smile and nodded. “I’m fine. I’ll see you tomorrow, Robbie.”

“See you then, princess.”

Mom was late picking me up, again. The tutoring session was only supposed to be an hour, but I sat on the curb, in the drizzling rain, for another good half hour, contemplating my miserable life and watching cars pull in and out of the parking lot. Finally, her blue station wagon turned the corner and pulled to a stop in front of me. The front seat was filled with grocery bags and newspapers, so I slid into the back.

“Meg, you’re sopping wet,” cried my mother, watching me from the rearview mirror. “Don’t sit on the upholstery—get a towel or something. Didn’t you bring an umbrella?”

Nice to see you, too, Mom, I thought, scowling as I grabbed a newspaper off the floor to put on the seat. No “how was your day?” or “sorry I’m late.” I should’ve abandoned the stupid tutoring session with Scott and taken the bus home.

We drove in silence. People used to tell me I looked like her, that is, before Ethan came along and swallowed up the spotlight. To this day, I don’t know where they saw the resemblance. Mom is one of those ladies who looks natural in a three-piece suit and heels; me, I like baggy cargo pants and sneakers. Mom’s hair hangs in thick golden ringlets; mine is limp and fine, almost silver if it catches the light just right. She looks regal and graceful and slender; I just look skinny.

Mom could’ve married anyone in the world—a movie star, a rich business tycoon—but she chose Luke the pig farmer and a shabby little farm out in the sticks. Which reminded me…

“Hey, Mom. Don’t forget, you have to take me to get a permit this weekend.”

“Oh, Meg.” Mom sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of work this week, and your father wants me to help him fix the barn. Maybe next week.”

“Mom, you promised!”

“Meghan, please. I’ve had a long day.” Mom sighed again and looked back at me in the mirror. Her eyes were bloodshot and ringed with smeared mascara. I shifted uncomfortably. Had Mom been crying?

“What’s up?” I asked cautiously.

She hesitated. “There was an…accident at home,” she began, and her voice made my insides squirm. “Your father had to take Ethan to the hospital this afternoon.” She paused again, blinking rapidly, and took a short breath. “Beau attacked him.”