There was a timid knock on the door, and Ethan’s head peeked inside.

“Hey, squirt.” I sat up on the bed, swiping at a few stray tears. A dinosaur Band-Aid covered his forehead, and his right arm was wrapped in gauze. “What’s up?”

“Mommy and Daddy sent Beau away.” His lower lip trembled, and he hiccuped, wiping his eyes on Floppy’s fur. I sighed and patted the bed.

“They had to,” I explained as he clambered up and snuggled into my lap, rabbit and all. “They didn’t want Beau to bite you again. They were afraid you’d get hurt.”

“Beau didn’t bite me.” Ethan gazed back at me with wide, teary eyes. I saw fear in them, and an understanding that went way beyond his years. “Beau didn’t hurt me,” he insisted. “Beau was trying to save me from the man in the closet.”

Monsters again? I sighed, wanting to dismiss it, but a part of me hesitated. What if Ethan was right? I’d been seeing weird things, too, lately. What if…what if Beau really was protecting Ethan from something horrible and terrifying…?

No! I shook my head. This was ridiculous! I’d be turning sixteen in a few hours; that was way too old to believe in monsters. And it was high time Ethan grew up, as well. He was a smart kid, and I was getting tired of him blaming imaginary bogeymen whenever something went wrong.

“Ethan.” I sighed again, trying not to appear cranky. If I was too harsh, he’d probably start bawling, and I didn’t want to upset him after all he’d gone through today. Still, this had gone far enough. “There are no monsters in your closet, Ethan. There’s no such thing as monsters, okay?”

“Yes, there are!” He scowled and kicked his feet into the covers. “I’ve seen them. They talk to me. They say the king wants to see me.” He held out his arm, showing me the bandage. “The man in the closet grabbed me here. He was pulling me under the bed when Beau came in and scared him off.”

Clearly, I wasn’t going to change his mind. And I really didn’t want a temper tantrum in my room right now. “Okay, fine,” I relented, wrapping my arms around him. “Let’s say something other than Beau grabbed you today. Why don’t you tell Mom and Luke?”

“They’re grown-ups,” Ethan said, as if it was perfectly clear. “They won’t believe me. They can’t see the monsters.” He sighed and looked at me with the gravest expression I’d ever seen on a kid. “But Floppy says you can see them. If you try hard enough. You can see through the Mist and the glamour, Floppy says so.”

“The what and the what?”

“Ethan?” Mom’s voice floated outside the door, and her silhouette appeared in the frame. “Are you in here?” Seeing us together, she blinked and offered a tentative smile. I glared back stonily.

Mom ignored me. “Ethan, honey, time to get ready for bed. It’s been a long day.” She held out her hand, and Ethan hopped down to pad across the room, dragging his rabbit behind him.

“Can I sleep with you and Daddy?” I heard him ask, his voice small and scared.

“Oh, I guess so. Just for tonight, okay?”

“’Kay.” Their voices faded away down the hall, and I kicked my door shut.

That night, I had a strange dream about waking up and seeing Floppy, Ethan’s stuffed rabbit, at the foot of my bed. In the dream, the rabbit was speaking to me, words that were grave and terrifying, filled with danger. It wanted to warn me, or it wanted me to help. I might have promised it something. The next morning, however, I couldn’t remember much of the dream at all.

I WOKE TO THE SOUND OF RAIN drumming on the roof. My birthday seemed destined to be cold, ugly, and wet. For a moment, a heavy weight pressed at the back of my mind, though I didn’t know why I felt so depressed. Then everything from the previous day came back to me, and I groaned.

Happy birthday to me, I thought, burrowing under the covers. I’ll be spending the rest of the week in bed, thanks.

“Meghan?” Mom’s voice sounded outside my door, followed by a timid knock. “It’s getting late. Are you up yet?”

I ignored her and curled up farther into the covers. Resentment simmered as I thought of poor Beau, carted off to the pound. Mom knew I was mad at her, but she could stew in her guilt for a while. I wasn’t ready to forgive and make up just yet.

“Meghan, get up. You’re going to miss the bus,” said Mom, poking her head in the room. Her tone was matter-of-fact, and I snorted. So much for making up.

“I’m not going to school,” I muttered from beneath the covers. “I don’t feel good. I think I’ve got the flu.”

“Sick? On your birthday? That’s unfortunate.” Mom came into the room, and I peeked at her through a crack in the blankets. She remembered?

“Very sad,” Mom continued, smiling at me and crossing her arms. “I was going to take you to get a learner’s permit after school today, but if you’re sick…”

I popped up. “Really? Um…well, I guess I don’t feel all that bad. I’ll just take some aspirin or something.”

“I thought so.” Mom shook her head as I bounced to my feet. “I’m helping your father fix the barn this afternoon, so I can’t pick you up. But, as soon as you get home, we’ll go to the license bureau together. That sound like a good birthday present?”

I barely heard her. I was too busy racing around the room, grabbing clothes and getting my stuff together. The sooner I got through the day, the better.

I was stuffing homework into my backpack when the door creaked open again. Ethan peeked in the doorway, his hands behind his back, a shy, expectant smile on his face.

I blinked at him and pushed back my hair. “What do you need, squirt?”

With a grin, he stepped forward and held out a folded piece of paper. Bright crayon drawings decorated the front; a smiley-faced sun hovered over a little house with smoke curling from the chimney.

“Happy birthday, Meggie,” he said, quite pleased with himself. “See how I remembered?”

Smiling, I took the homemade card and opened it. Inside, a simple crayon drawing of our family smiled back: stick figures of Mom and Luke, me and Ethan holding hands, and a four-legged critter that had to be Beau. I felt a lump in my throat, and my eyes watered for just a moment.

“You like it?” Ethan asked, watching me anxiously.

“I love it,” I said, ruffling his hair. “Thank you. Here, why don’t you put it on the fridge, so everyone can see what a great artist you are.”

He grinned and scampered off, clutching the card, and I felt my heart get a little bit lighter. Maybe today wouldn’t be so terrible, after all.

“SO, YOUR MOM IS TAKING YOU to get a permit today?” Robbie asked as the bus pulled into the school parking lot. “That’s cool. You can finally drive us downtown and to the movies. We won’t have to depend on the bus, or spend another evening watching VHS tapes on your twelve-inch screen.”

“It’s only a permit, Rob.” I gathered my backpack as the bus lurched to a halt. “I won’t have my license yet. Knowing Mom, it’ll be another sixteen years before I can drive the car on my own. Ethan will probably get a license before I do.”

The thought of my half brother sent an unexpected chill through me. I remembered his words from the night before: You can see through the Mist and the glamour, Floppy says so.

Stuffed rabbit aside, I had no idea what he was talking about.

As I walked down the bus steps, a familiar figure broke away from a large group and came striding toward me. Scott. My stomach twisted, and I gazed around for a suitable escape route, but before I could flee into the crowd, he was already in front of me.

“Hey.” His voice, drawling and deep, made me shiver. Terrified as I was, he was still gorgeous, with his damp blond hair falling in unruly waves and curls on his forehead. For some reason, he seemed nervous today, running his hands through his bangs and gazing around. “Um…” He hesitated, narrowing his eyes. “What was your name again?”

“Meghan,” I whispered.

“Oh, yeah.” Stepping closer, he glanced back at his friends and lowered his voice. “Listen, I feel bad about the way I treated you yesterday. It was uncalled-for. I’m sorry.”

For a moment, I didn’t understand what he was saying. I’d been expecting threats, taunts, or accusations. Then a great balloon of relief swelled inside me as his words finally registered. “O-oh,” I stammered, feeling my face heat, “that’s okay. Forget about it.”

“I can’t,” he muttered. “You’ve been on my mind since yesterday. I was a real jerk, and I’d like to make it up to you. Do…” He stopped, chewing his lip, then got it all out in a rush. “Do you want to eat lunch with me this afternoon?”

My heart pounded. Butterflies swarmed madly in my stomach, and my feet felt like they were floating an inch off the ground. I barely had the voice to squeak a breathless “Sure.” Scott grinned, showing blindingly white teeth, and gave me a wink.

“Hey, guys! Over here!” One of Scott’s football buddies stood a few feet away, a camera-phone in hand, pointed at us. “Smile for the birdie.”

Before I knew what was happening, Scott put a hand around my shoulders and pulled me close to his side. I blinked up at him, stunned, as my heart began racing around my chest. He flashed his dazzling grin at the camera, but I could only stare, stupefied, like a moron.

“Thanks, Meg,” Scott said, breaking away from me. “See you at lunch.” He smiled and trotted off toward the school with one final wink. The cameraman chuckled and sprinted after him, leaving me dazed and confused at the edge of the parking lot.

For a moment, I stood there, staring like an idiot as my classmates surged around me. Then a grin spread across my face and I whooped, leaping into the air. Scott Waldron wanted to see me! He wanted to have lunch with me, just me, in the cafeteria. Maybe my luck was finally turning around. My best birthday ever might just be starting.

As a silvery curtain of rain crept over the parking lot, I felt eyes on me. Turning, I saw Robbie a few paces away, watching me through the crowd.

Through the rain, his eyes glittered, a too-bright green. As water pounded the concrete and students rushed toward the school, I saw a hint of something on his face: a long muzzle, slitted eyes, a tongue lolling out between pointed fangs. My stomach twisted, but I blinked and Robbie was himself again—normal, grinning, unconcerned that he was getting drenched.

And so was I.

With a little yelp, I sprinted beneath the overhang and ducked inside the school. Robbie followed, laughing, pulling at my limp strands of hair until I smacked him and he stopped.

All through the first class, I kept glancing at Robbie, looking for that eerie, predatory hint on his face, wondering if I was crazy. All it got me was a sore neck and a brusque comment from my English teacher to pay attention and stop staring at boys.

WHEN THE LUNCH BELL RANG, I leaped up, my heart fluttering a hundred miles a minute. Scott was waiting for me in the cafeteria. I grabbed my books, stuffed them into my backpack, whirled around—

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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