And then I remembered.

“I need to call my mom,” I said, dropping back on the cot. Robbie frowned and looked confused. “She has to come pick me up,” I elaborated. “No way am I getting on the bus, ever again.” Despair settled on me, and I hid my face in my hands.

“Look, Meghan,” Robbie said, “I heard what happened. It’s not a big deal.”

“Are you on crack?” I asked, glaring at him through my fingers. “The whole school is talking about me. This will probably go in the school paper. I’ll be crucified if I show my face in public. And you say it’s not a big deal?”

I drew my knees to my chest and buried my head in them. Everything was so horribly unfair. “It’s my birthday,” I moaned into my jeans. “This isn’t supposed to happen to people on their birthdays.”

Robbie sighed. Dropping his bag, he sat down and put his arms around me, pulling me to his chest. I sniffled and shed a few tears into his jacket, listening to his heartbeat through his shirt. It thudded rapidly against his chest, like he’d been sprinting several miles.

“Come on.” Robbie stood, pulling me up with him. “You can do this. And I promise, no one will care what happened today. By tomorrow, everyone will have forgotten about it.” He smiled, squeezing my arm. “Besides, don’t you have a driver’s permit to get?”

That one bright spark in the black misery of my life gave me hope. I nodded, steeling myself for what was to come. We left the nurse’s office together, Robbie’s hand clasped firmly around mine.

“Just stick close,” he muttered as we neared the crowded part of the hallway. Angie and three of her groupies stood in front of the lockers, chattering away and snapping their gum. My stomach tensed and my heart began to pound. Robbie squeezed my hand. “It’s okay. Don’t let go of me, and don’t say anything to anyone. They won’t even notice we’re here.”

As we neared the cluster of girls, I prepared for them to turn on me with their laughter and their ugly remarks. But we swept by them without so much as a glance, though Angie was in the midst of describing my shameful retreat from the cafeteria.

“And then she, like, started bawling,” Angie said, her nasal voice cutting through the hall. “And I was like, omygod she’s such a loser. But what can you expect from an inbred hillbilly?” Her voice dropped to a whisper and she leaned forward. “I heard her mom has an unnatural obsession with pigs, if you know what I mean.”

The girls broke into a chorus of shocked giggles, and I almost snapped. Robbie, however, tightened his grip and pulled me away. I heard him mutter something under his breath, and felt a shudder go through the air, like thunder with no sound.

Behind us, Angie started to scream.

I tried to turn back, but Robbie yanked me onward, weaving through the crowd as the rest of the students jerked their heads toward the shrieking. But, for a split second, I saw Angie covering her nose with her hands, and her screams were sounding more and more like the squeals of a pig.


The Changeling

The bus ride home was silent, at least between Robbie and me. Partly because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, but mainly because I had a lot on my mind. We sat in the back corner, with me crushed against the window, staring at the trees flashing by. I had my iPod out and my headphones blasting my eardrums, but it was mostly an excuse not to talk to anyone.

Angie’s piglike screams still echoed through my head. It was probably the most horrible sound I’d ever heard, and though she was a total bitch, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. There was no doubt in my mind that Robbie had done something to her, though I couldn’t prove it. I was actually afraid to bring it up. Robbie seemed like a different person now, quiet, brooding, watching the kids on the bus with predator-like intensity. He was acting weird—weird and creepy—and I wondered what was wrong with him.

Then there was that strange dream, which I was beginning to think hadn’t really been a dream at all. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the familiar voice talking to the nurse had been Robbie’s.

Something was happening, something strange and creepy and terrifying, and the scariest part of all was that it wore a familiar, ordinary face. I snuck a glance at Robbie. How well did I know him, really know him? He’d been my friend for longer than I could remember, and yet I’d never been to his house, or met his parents. The few times I suggested meeting at his place, he’d always had some excuse not to; his folks were out of town, or they were remodeling the kitchen, a kitchen I’d never seen. That was strange, but what was weirder was the fact that I’d never wondered about it, never questioned it, until now. Robbie was simply there, like he’d been conjured out of nothing, with no background, no home, and no past. What was his favorite music? Did he have goals in life? Had he ever fallen in love?

Not at all, my mind whispered, disturbingly. You don’t know him at all.

I shivered and looked out the window again.

The bus lurched to a halt at a four-way stop, and I saw we’d left the outskirts of town and were now heading into the boondocks. My neighborhood. Rain still spattered the windows, making the swampy marshlands blurry and indistinct, the trees fuzzy dark shapes through the glass.

I blinked and straightened up in my seat. Deep in the swamp, a horse and rider stood beneath the limbs of an enormous oak, as still as the trees themselves. The horse was a huge black animal with a mane and tail that rippled behind it, even drenched as it was. Its rider was tall and lean, garbed in silver and black. A dark cape fluttered from its shoulders. Through the rain, I caught the barest glimpse of a face: young, pale, strikingly handsome…staring right at me. My stomach lurched and I caught my breath.

“Rob,” I murmured, pulling my headphones out, “look at tha—”

Robbie’s face was inches from mine, staring out the window, his eyes narrowed to green slits, hard and dangerous. My stomach twisted and I leaned away from him, but he didn’t notice me. His lips moved, and he whispered one word, so soft I barely caught it, even as close as we were.


“Ash?” I repeated. “Who’s Ash?”

The bus coughed and lurched forward again. Robbie leaned back, his face so still it could’ve been carved from stone. Swallowing, I looked out the window, but the space beneath the oak was empty. Horse and rider were gone, like they’d never existed.

THE WEIRDNESS KEPT getting weirder.

“Who’s Ash?” I repeated, turning back to Robbie, who seemed to be in his own world. “Robbie? Hey!” I poked him in the shoulder. He twitched and finally looked at me. “Who is Ash?”

“Ash?” For a moment, his eyes were bright and feral, his face like that of a wild dog. Then he blinked and was normal again. “Oh, he’s just an old buddy of mine, from long ago. Don’t worry about it, princess.”

His words slid over me strangely, like he was willing me to forget simply by requesting it. I felt a prickle of annoyance that he was hiding something, but it quickly faded, because I couldn’t remember what we were talking about.

At our curb, Robbie leaped up as if the seat was on fire and rushed out the door. Blinking at his abrupt departure, I put my iPod safely in my backpack before leaving the bus. The last thing I wanted was for the expensive thing to get wet.

“I have to go,” Robbie announced when I joined him on the pavement. His green eyes swept through the trees, as if he expected something to come crashing out of the woods. I gazed around, but except for some bird trilling overhead, the forest was quiet and still. “I…um…forgot something at home.” He turned to me then with an apologetic look. “See you tonight, princess? I’ll bring that champagne over later, okay?”

“Oh.” I’d forgotten about that. “Sure.”

“Go straight home, okay?” Robbie narrowed his eyes, his face intense. “Don’t stop, and don’t talk to anyone you meet, got it?”

I laughed nervously. “What are you, my mom? Are you going to tell me not to run with scissors and to look both ways before crossing the street? Besides,” I continued as Robbie smirked, looking more like his normal self, “who would I meet way out here in the boondocks?” The image of the boy on the horse suddenly came to mind, and my stomach did that strange little flop again. Who was he? And why couldn’t I stop thinking about him, if he even existed at all? Things were getting really odd. If it wasn’t for Robbie’s weird reaction on the bus, I would think the boy was another of my crazy hallucinations.

“Fine.” Robbie waved, flashing his mischievous grin. “See you later, princess. Don’t let Leatherface catch you on your way home.”

I kicked at him. He laughed, bounced away, and sprinted off down the road. Shouldering my backpack, I trudged up the driveway.

“MOM?” I CALLED, OPENING THE front door. “Mom, I’m home.”

Silence greeted me, echoing off the walls and floor, hanging heavy in the air. The stillness was almost a living thing, crouched in the center of the room, watching me with cold eyes. My heart began a loud, irregular thud in my chest. Something was wrong.

“Mom?” I called again, venturing into the house. “Luke? Anybody home?” The door creaked as I crept in farther. The television blared and flickered, playing a rerun of an old black-and-white sitcom, though the couch in front of it was empty. I switched it off and continued down the hall, into the kitchen.

For a moment, everything looked normal, except for the refrigerator door, swinging on its hinges. A small object on the floor caught my attention. At first, I thought it was a dirty rag. But, looking closer, I saw it was Floppy, Ethan’s rabbit. The stuffed animal’s head had been torn off, and cotton spilled from the hole in the neck.

Straightening, I heard a small noise on the other side of the dining table. I walked around, and my stomach twisted so violently that bile rose to my throat.

My mother lay on her back on the checkered tile floor, arms and legs flung akimbo, one side of her face covered in glistening crimson. Her purse, its contents scattered everywhere, lay beside one limp white hand. Standing over her in the doorway, his head cocked to one side like a curious cat, was Ethan.

And he was smiling.

“MOM!” I SCREAMED, FLINGING myself down beside her. “Mom, are you okay?” I grabbed one shoulder and shook her, but it was like shaking a dead fish. Her skin was still warm, though, so she couldn’t be dead. Right?

Where the hell is Luke? I shook her again, watching her head flop limply. It made my stomach turn. “Mom, wake up! Can you hear me? It’s Meghan.” I looked around frantically, then snatched a washrag off the sink. As I dabbed it over her bloodied face, I became aware again of Ethan standing in the doorway, his blue eyes now wide and teary.

“Mommy slipped,” he whispered, and I noticed a clear, slick puddle on the floor in front of the refrigerator. Hand trembling, I dipped a finger in the goo and sniffed. Vegetable oil? What the hell? I wiped more blood off her face and noticed a small gash on her temple, nearly invisible beneath blood and hair.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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