The school halls were empty and dark. Puzzled, I made my way down the dingy corridors, clutching Ethan’s hand and wondering where everyone was. Perhaps it was the weekend, but that didn’t explain the dusty floors and lockers, the feeling of complete emptiness as we passed one locked classroom after another. Even on Saturdays, there would be at least one extracurricular class going on. It felt like the school had been empty for weeks.
The front doors were closed and locked, so I had to open a window. After hoisting Ethan up, I wiggled out after him, dropping to the pavement and gazing around. No cars stood in the parking lot, even though it was the middle of the day. The place looked completely deserted.
Ethan gazed around in silence, round blue eyes taking everything in. There was a wariness to him that seemed terribly out of place, like he was older now but his body remained the same. It worried me, and I gently squeezed his hand.
“We’ll be home soon, okay?” I whispered as we started across the parking lot. “Just one short bus ride, and you can see Mom again, and Luke. Are you excited?”
He regarded me solemnly and nodded once. He didn’t smile.
WE LEFT THE SCHOOL CAMPUS, following the sidewalk until we reached the nearest bus stop. Around us, cars sped by, weaving in and out of late-afternoon traffic, and people milled around us. Some older ladies smiled and waved to Ethan, but he paid them no attention. My concern for him knotted my stomach. I tried cheering him up, asking questions, telling him little stories about my adventures, but he just stared at me with those mournful blue eyes and didn’t say a word.
So we stood on the corner, waiting for the bus to come, watching the people surge around us. I saw faeries, slipping through the crowds, entering the little shops lining the street, following humans like stalking wolves. A fey boy with leathery black wings grinned and waved to Ethan from an alley across the street. Ethan shivered, and his fingers tightened on mine.
I turned at the sound of my name. A girl had come out of the coffee shop behind us, and was staring at me in amazement and disbelief. I frowned, shifting uncomfortably. She looked familiar, with her long dark hair and cheerleader-thin waist, but I couldn’t remember where I knew her from. Was she a classmate? If so, I think I would have recognized her. She would have been very pretty, if it wasn’t for the huge, distorted nose marring her otherwise perfect face.
And then it hit me.
“Angie,” I whispered, feeling the shock punch me in the stomach. I remembered then: the cheerleader’s mocking laughter, Puck muttering something under his breath, Angie’s horrified screams. Her nose was flat and shiny, with two large nostrils that looked very much like a pig’s. Was this faery vengeance? An awful sense of guilt gnawed at my insides, and I tore my gaze from her face. “What do you want?”
“Oh my God, it is you!” Angie gaped at me, nostrils flaring. I saw Ethan staring unabashed at her nose. “Everyone thought you were dead! There have been police and detectives looking for you. They said you ran away. Where have you been?”
I blinked at her. This was new. Angie had never spoken to me before, except to mock me in front of her friends. “I…How long have I been gone?” I stammered, not knowing what else to say.
“More than three months now,” she replied, and I stared at her. Three months? My trek to the Nevernever hadn’t taken that long, had it? A week or two, at most. But I remembered how my watch stopped while in the wyldwood, and a sick feeling rose to my stomach. Time flowed differently in Faery. No wonder the school was locked and empty; it was summer vacation by now. I really had been gone three months.
Angie was still staring at me curiously, and I floundered for a reply that wouldn’t sound insane. Before I could think of anything, a trio of blondes heading for the coffee shop stopped and gaped at us.
“Oh my God!” one of them screeched. “It’s the swamp slut! She’s back!” Shrill laughter rang out, echoing over the sidewalk, causing several people to stop and stare. “Hey, we heard you got knocked up and your folks shipped you off to some military school. Is that true?”
“Oh my God!” one of her friends yelled, pointing to Ethan. “Look at that! She’s already had her kid!” They collapsed into hysterical giggles, shooting me subtle looks to see my reaction. I gazed at them calmly and smiled. Sorry to disappoint you, I thought, seeing their brows knit with confusion. But after facing homicidal goblins, redcaps, gremlins, knights, and evil faeries, you just aren’t that scary anymore.
But then, to my surprise, Angie scowled and took a step forward. “Knock it off,” she snapped, as I recognized the blond trio from her old cheerleading squad. “She just got back to town. Give her a break already.”
They shot her evil glares. “I’m sorry, Pigface, were you talking to us?” one asked sweetly. “I don’t believe I was speaking to you at all. Why don’t you go home with the little swamp bitch? I’m sure she can find a place for you on the farm.”
“She can’t understand you,” another piped up. “You have to speak her language. Like this.” She broke into a chorus of oinks and squeals, and the other two took up the cry. The street echoed with high-pitched grunts, and Angie’s face flushed crimson.
I stood there, stunned. It was so weird, seeing the most popular girl in school standing in my shoes. I should’ve been happy; the perfect cheerleader was finally getting a taste of her own medicine. But my instincts also said this treatment wasn’t new. It started the day Puck had pulled his cruel joke, and all I felt was empathy. If he were here, I would twist his arm until he changed her back.
If he were here…
I quickly pushed those thoughts away. If I kept thinking about him, I would start to cry, and that was the last thing I wanted to do in front of the cheerleaders. For a second, I thought Angie herself would burst into tears and flee. But, after a moment, she took a deep breath and turned to me, rolling her eyes.
“Let’s get out of here,” she whispered, jerking her head toward a nearby parking lot. “Have you been home yet? I can drive you, if you want.”
“Um…” Shocked again, I glanced down at Ethan. He gazed up at me, his face wan and tired. Despite my hesitation, I wanted to get him home as soon as possible. Though I still had my doubts, Angie certainly seemed different now. Briefly, I wondered if it was great adversity that made a person stronger. “Sure.”
SHE ASKED A LOT OF QUESTIONS on the drive home: where I had been, what made me leave, was it really a pregnancy that drove me off. I answered as vaguely as I could, leaving out the parts with the homicidal faeries, of course. Ethan curled up beside me and fell asleep, and soon his faint snores were the only sounds besides the hum of the engine.
Angie finally pulled up alongside a familiar gravel road, and my stomach twisted nervously as I opened the door, pulling Ethan out with me. The sun had gone down, and an owl hooted somewhere overhead. In the distance, a porch light glimmered like a beacon in the twilight.
“I appreciate the ride,” I told Angie, slamming the car door. She nodded, and I made myself say those two little words. “Thank you.” Guilt stabbed me again as I looked at her face. “I’m sorry about…you know.”
She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to a plastic surgeon in a couple weeks. He should take care of it.” She went to put the car in gear, but stopped, turning back to me. “You know,” she said, frowning, “I don’t even remember how it got like this. Sometimes, I think I’ve always been this way, you know? But then, people look at me weird, like they can’t figure it out. Like they’re scared, because I’m so different.” She blinked at me, shadows under her eyes. Her nose seemed to leap off her face. “But you know what that’s like, don’t you?”
I nodded breathlessly. Angie blinked again, like she was seeing me for the first time. “Well, then…” Slightly embarrassed, she waved to Ethan and gave me a brisk nod. “See you around.”
“Bye.” I watched her pull away, her taillights growing smaller and smaller, until they rounded a corner and disappeared. The night suddenly seemed dark and still.
Ethan took my hand, and I looked down at him in concern. He still wasn’t talking. My brother had always been a quiet kid, but this complete, brooding silence was disturbing. I hoped he wasn’t too traumatized by his ordeal.
“Home, kiddo.” I sighed, looking up the long, long driveway. “Think you can make it?”
Relieved, I looked down at him. “Yeah?”
“Are you one of Them now?”
I sucked in a breath, feeling as if he had punched me. “What?”
“You look different.” Ethan fingered his ear, gazing up at mine. “Like the bad king. Like one of Them.” He sniffled. “Are you going to live with Them now?”
“Of course not. I don’t belong with Them.” I squeezed his hand. “I’ll live with you and Mom and Luke, just like always.”
“The dark person talked to me. He said I’d forget about Them in a year or two, that I won’t be able to see Them anymore. Does that mean I’ll forget you, too?”
I knelt and looked him in the eye. “I don’t know, Ethan. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, we’re still a family, right?”
He nodded solemnly, far too old for his age. Together, we continued walking.
THE OUTLINE OF OUR HOUSE grew larger as we approached. It looked familiar and strange all at once. I could see Luke’s beat-up truck in the driveway, and Mom’s floral curtains waving in the windows. My bedroom was dark and still, but a night-light shone out of Ethan’s room, flickering orange. It made my stomach churn, to think what slept up there. A single light shone in the bottom window, and I picked up my pace.
Mom was asleep on the couch when I opened the door. The television was on, and she held a box of tissues in her lap, one twisted up in her fingers. She stirred when I shut the door behind me, but before I could say anything, Ethan wailed, “Mommy!” and flung himself into her lap.
“What?” Mom jerked awake, startled by the shaking child in her arms. “Ethan? What are you doing downstairs? Did you have a nightmare?”
She glanced up at me then, and her face went pale. I tried for a smile, but my lips wouldn’t work right, and the lump in my throat made it hard to speak. She rose, still holding on to Ethan, and we fell into each other. I sobbed into her neck, and she held me tightly, her own tears staining my cheek.
“Meghan.” At last, she pulled back and looked at me, a spark of anger warring with the relief in her eyes. “Where have you been?” she demanded with a little shake. “We’ve had the police looking for you, detectives, the whole town. No one could find any trace of you, and I’ve been worried sick. Where have you been for three months?”
“Where’s Luke?” I asked, not really knowing why. Maybe I felt that he didn’t need to hear this, that this was between me and Mom alone. I wondered if Luke had even noticed that I was gone. Mom frowned, as if she knew what I was thinking.