“No,” I muttered again, backing away toward my room. “That’s impossible. Puck is a legend, a myth. I don’t believe it.”
Robbie gave me that eerie smile. “Then, princess, by all means, let me assure you.”
His arms rose from his sides, as if he might levitate into the air. From downstairs, I heard the front door creak open, and I hoped Mom and Luke weren’t home yet. Yeah, Mom, Ethan’s turned into a monster and my best friend thinks he’s a faery. How was your day?
An enormous black bird swooped into the hallway. I yelped and ducked as the raven, or crow or whatever it was, made a beeline straight for Robbie and perched on his arm. They watched me, the pair of them, with glittering eyes, and Robbie smiled.
A rush of wind, and suddenly, the air was filled with screaming black birds, swooping in from the open door. I gasped and ducked as the cloud of ravens filled the hallway, their raucous cries nearly deafening me. They swirled around Robbie, a tornado of beating wings and sharp claws, tearing at him with talons and beaks. Feathers flew everywhere, and Robbie disappeared within the swirling mass. Then, as one, the birds scattered, flying out the open door as swiftly as they had come. As the last bird swooped outside, the door slammed behind it, and silence descended once more. I caught my breath and glanced at Rob.
Robbie was gone. Only a swirl of black feathers and dust motes remained in the place where he’d stood.
It was too much. I felt my sanity unravel like frayed cloth. With a choked scream, I turned and fled into my room, slamming the door behind me. Flinging myself under my bedcovers, I put the pillow over my head and shook, hoping that when I woke up, things would be normal.
My door opened, and the sound of wings fluttered into my room. I didn’t want to look and pulled the covers tighter around me, willing the nightmare to end. I heard a sigh, and footsteps padded over the floor.
“Well, I tried to warn you, princess.”
I peeked out. Robbie stood there, looking down at me, a pained smile on his face. Seeing him, I felt relieved, angry, and terrified at the same time. I threw off the covers and sat up, narrowing my eyes as I stared at him. Robbie waited, hands in the pockets of his jeans, as if daring me to contradict him some more.
“You really are Puck?” I said finally. “The Puck? Like in the stories?”
Robbie/Puck gave a little bow. “The one and only.”
My heart was still pounding. I took a deep breath to calm it and glared at the stranger in my room. My emotions churned; I didn’t know what to feel. I settled on anger; Robbie had been my best friend for years, and he never saw fit to share his secret with me. “You could have told me sooner,” I said, trying not to sound hurt. “I would have kept your secret.” He only smirked and raised an eyebrow, infuriating me even more. “Fine. Go back to Faeryland, or wherever you come from. Aren’t you supposed to be Oberon’s jester or something? Why were you hanging around me so long?”
“You wound me, princess.” Robbie sounded anything but hurt. “And after I made up my mind to help you get your brother back.”
My anger vanished instantly, replaced with fear. With all the talk of fey and faery lords, I’d nearly forgotten about Ethan.
I shivered as my stomach twisted into a tight little ball. This still felt like something out of a nightmare. But Ethan was gone, and faeries were real. I had to accept that now. Robbie stood there, gazing at me expectantly. A black feather dropped from his hair, spiraling down to the bed. Gingerly, I picked it up, twirling it in my fingers. It felt solid and real.
“You’ll help me?” I whispered.
He gave me a shrewd look, one corner of his mouth turning up. “Do you know a way into Faery by yourself?”
“Then you need my help.” Robbie smiled and rubbed his hands together. “Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve gone home, and nothing ever happens here. Storming the Unseelie Court sounds like fun.”
I didn’t share his enthusiasm. “When do we leave?” I asked.
“Now,” Robbie replied. “The sooner the better. Do you have anything you want to take, princess? You might not be back for a while.”
I nodded, trying to stay calm. “Just give me a minute.”
Robbie nodded and walked into the hallway. I snatched my bright orange backpack and tossed it on the bed, wondering what to take. What did one need for an overnight trip to Faeryland? I grabbed jeans and an extra shirt, a flashlight, and a bottle of aspirin, stuffing them into the pack. Walking down to the kitchen, I tossed in a Coke and a couple of bags of chips, hoping Robbie would know where to find food on the journey. Finally, not even knowing why, I grabbed my iPod, zipping it into the side pocket.
Mom was supposed to take me to the DMV today. I hesitated, biting my lip. What would Mom and Luke think when they found me gone? I’d always followed the rules, never sneaking out—except that one time with Robbie—never staying up past curfew. I wondered what Rob meant when he said we’d be gone “awhile.” Luke might not even notice I’d left, but Mom would worry. Grabbing an old homework sheet, I started to write her a quick note, but stopped, my pen hovering over the paper.
What are you going to tell her? “Dear Mom, Ethan’s been kidnapped by faeries. Gone to get him back. Oh, and don’t trust the Ethan that’s here—he’s really a faery changeling.” It sounded insane even to me. I hesitated, thinking, then scrawled a quick:
Mom, there’s something I have to take care of. I’ll be back soon, I promise. Don’t worry about me. Meghan
I stuck the note on the refrigerator door, trying not to think that I might never see home again. Shouldering the pack, feeling my insides squirm like a nest of snakes, I climbed the stairs.
Robbie waited on the landing, arms crossed over his chest, wearing a lazy grin. “Ready?”
Apprehension tickled my stomach. “Will it be very dangerous?”
“Oh, extremely,” Robbie said, walking up to Ethan’s bedroom door. “That’s what makes it fun. You can die in so many interesting ways—skewered on a glass sword, dragged underwater and eaten by a kelpie, turned into a spider or a rosebush for all time—” He looked back at me. “Well, are you coming or not?”
I noticed my hands were shaking and held them to my chest. “Why are you saying these things?” I whispered. “Are you trying to scare me?”
“Yes,” Robbie replied, unabashed. He paused at Ethan’s door, one hand on the knob, and stared at me. “These are the things you’re going to face, princess. I’m giving you fair warning now. Still think you want to go? My previous offer still stands.”
I remembered the taste of the mistwine, the desperate longing for more, and shivered. “No,” I said quickly. “I won’t leave Ethan with a bunch of monsters. I’ve lost a father already—I won’t lose a brother, as well.”
And then, something occurred to me, something that left me breathless, wondering why I didn’t think of it before. Dad. My heart pounded, recalling half-remembered dreams, where my father vanished beneath a pond and never resurfaced. What if he’d been kidnapped by faeries, as well? I could find Ethan and my dad, and bring them both home!
“Let’s go,” I demanded, looking Robbie in the eyes. “Come on, we’ve wasted enough time here. If we’re gonna do this, let’s get it over with.”
Rob blinked, and a strange look passed over his face. For a moment, it seemed like he wanted to say something. But then he shook himself, like he was coming out of a trance, and the moment was gone.
“All right, then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He grinned, and the gleam in his eyes grew brighter. “First things first. We have to find an entrance to the Nevernever. That’s Faeryland to you. It’s not a place you can just walk to, and the doors are usually very well hidden. Fortunately, I have a good idea of where one is lurking.” He grinned, turned away, and pounded on Ethan’s bedroom door. “Knock, knock!” he called in a high, singsong voice.
For a moment, silence. Then came a thud and a crash, as if something heavy had been hurled at the door. “Go away!” snarled the voice from within.
“Ah, no. That’s not how the joke goes,” called Rob. “I say ‘knock, knock,’ and you’re supposed to answer with ‘who’s there?’”
“Nope, that’s still wrong.” Robbie seemed unperturbed. I, however, was horrified at Ethan’s language, though I knew it wasn’t him. “Here,” continued Rob in an amiable voice, “I’ll go through the whole thing, so you’ll know how to answer next time.” He cleared his throat and pounded the door again. “Knock, knock!” he bellowed. “Who’s there? Puck! Puck who? Puck, who will turn you into a squealing pig and stuff you in the oven if you don’t get out of our way!” And with that, he banged open the door.
The thing that looked like Ethan stood on the bed, a book in each hand. With a hiss, he hurled them at the doorway. Robbie dodged, but one paperback hit me in the stomach and I grunted.
“Please,” I heard Rob mutter, and a ripple went through the air. Suddenly, all the books in the room flapped their covers, rose off the floor and shelves, and began dive-bombing Ethan like a flock of enraged seagulls. I could only stare, feeling my life get more surreal by the second. The fake Ethan hissed and snarled, swatting at the books as they buzzed around him, until one hit him smack in the face and tumbled him off the mattress. Spitting in fury, he darted under the bed. I heard claws scrabbling against the wood as his feet vanished into the crawl space. Curses and growls drifted out from the darkness.
Robbie shook his head. “Amateurs.” He sighed as the books swooping around the room froze midflight and rained to the floor with echoing thuds. “Let’s go, princess.”
I SHOOK MYSELF AND PICKED MY way over fallen books, joining Robbie in the middle of the room. “So,” I ventured, trying to sound casual, as if flying books and faeries were something I encountered every day. “Where’s this entrance to Faeryland? Will you have to make a magic ring or cast a spell or something?”
Rob snickered. “Not exactly, princess. You’re making it too complicated. Doorways to the Nevernever tend to appear in places where there is a lot of belief, creativity, or imagination. Often you can find one in a child’s bedroom closet, or under his bed.”
Floppy’s afraid of the man in the closet. I shivered, mentally apologizing to my half brother. When I found him again, I’d be sure to tell him I believed in the monsters, too.
“The closet, then,” I murmured, stepping over books and toys to reach it. My hand shook a bit as I grabbed the doorknob. No turning back now, I told myself, and pulled it open.
A tall, emaciated figure with a narrow face and sunken eyes stared at me as the door swung open. A black suit clung to its rail-thin body, and a bowler hat perched atop its pointed head. It blinked wide, staring at me, and bloodless lips pulled back in a grimace, revealing thin, pointed teeth. I leaped back with a shriek.