Read Splintered Online

Authors: A. G. Howard

Tags: #Speculative Fiction


BOOK: Splintered
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PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales

is entirely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Howard, A. G. (Anita G.)
Splintered / by A.G. Howard.
p. cm.
Summary: A descendant of the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sixteen-year-old Alyssa Gardner fears she is mentally ill like her mother until she finds that Wonderland is real and, if she passes a series of tests to fix Alice’s mistakes, she may save her family from their curse.
ISBN 978-1-4197-0428-4 (hardback)
[1. Supernatural—Fiction. 2. Characters in literature—Fiction. 3. Blessing and cursing—Fiction. 4. Mental illness—Fiction. 5. Mothers and Daughters—Fiction. 6. Hargreaves, Alice Pleasance Liddell, 1852–1934—Fiction.] I. Title. PZ7.H83222Spl 2013

Text copyright © 2012 Anita Howard Book design by Maria T. Middleton

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115 West 18th Street New York, NY 10011

To my husband and real-life hero, Vince, and to my two wonderful children, Nicole and Ryan. You embraced my dream as if it were your own and gave me the courage to keep flying until I grasped that beautiful shooting star.

. . . . . . .

I’ve been collecting bugs since I was ten; it’s the only way I can stop their whispers. Sticking a pin through the gut of an insect shuts it up pretty quick.

Some of my victims line the walls in shadow boxes, while others get sorted into mason jars and placed on a bookshelf for later use. Crickets, beetles, spiders . . . bees and butterflies. I’m not picky. Once they get chatty, they’re fair game.

They’re easy enough to capture. All you need is a sealed plastic bucket filled with Kitty Litter and a few banana peels sprinkled in. Drill a hole in the lid, slide in a PVC pipe, and you have a bug snare. The fruit peels attract them, the lid traps them, and the ammonia from the litter smothers and preserves them.

The bugs don’t die in vain. I use them in my art, arranging their corpses into outlines and shapes. Dried flowers, leaves, and glass pieces add color and texture to the patterns formed on plaster backgrounds. These are my masterpieces . . . my morbid mosaics.

School let out at noon today for the upperclassmen. I’ve been passing the last hour working on my newest project. A jar of spiders sits among the art tools cluttering my desk.

The sweet scent of goldenrod breezes through my bedroom window. There’s a field of herbs next door to my duplex, attracting a genus of crab spider that changes color—like eight-legged chameleons—in order to move undetected among the yellow or white blooms.

Twisting off the jar’s lid, I dip out thirty-five of the small white arachnids with long tweezers, careful not to squish their abdomens or break their legs. With tiny straight pins, I secure them onto a blacktinted plaster background already covered with beetles selected for their iridescent night-sky sheen. What I’m envisioning isn’t a typical spatter of stars; it’s a constellation that coils like feathery bolts of lightning. I have hundreds of warped scenes like this filling my head and no idea where they came from. My mosaics are the only way to get them out.

Leaning back in my chair, I study the piece. Once the plaster dries, the insects will be permanently in place, so if any adjustments need to be made, it has to be done quickly.

Glancing at the digital clock beside my bed, I tap my bottom lip. I have less than two hours before I have to meet Dad at the asylum. It’s been a Friday tradition ever since kindergarten, to get chocolate-cheesecake ice cream at the Scoopin’ Stop and take it to share with Alison.

Brain freeze and a frozen heart are not my idea of fun, but Dad insists it’s therapy for all of us. Maybe he thinks by seeing my mom, by sitting where I might one day live, I’ll somehow beat the odds.

Too bad he’s wrong.
At least one good thing has come out of my inherited insanity. Without the delusions, I might never have found my artistic medium.
My obsession with bugs started on a Friday in fifth grade. It had been a rough one. Taelor Tremont told everyone that I was related to Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s novel
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Since Alice was, in fact, my great-great-great-grandmother, my classmates teased me during recess about dormice and tea parties. I thought things couldn’t get much worse until I felt something on my jeans and realized, mortified, that I got my period for the first time and was totally unprepared. On the verge of tears, I lifted a sweater from the lost-and-found pile just inside the main entrance and wrapped it around my waist for the short walk to the office. I kept my head down, unable to meet anyone’s gaze.
I pretended to be sick and called my dad to pick me up. While I waited for him in the nurse’s office, I imagined a heated argument between the vase of flowers on her desk and the bumblebee buzzing around them. It was one powerful delusion, because I really
it, as sure as I could hear the passing of students from one class to the next on the other side of the closed door.
Alison had warned me of the day I would “become a woman.” Of the voices that would follow. I’d just assumed it was her mental instability making her say that . . .
The whispers were impossible to ignore, just like the sobs building in my throat. I did the only thing I could: I denied what was happening inside me. Rolling a poster of the four basic food groups into a cylinder, I tapped the bee hard enough to stun it. Then I whisked the flowers out of the water and pressed them between the pages of a spiral notebook, effectively silenced their chattering petals.
When we got home, poor, oblivious Dad offered to make some chicken soup. I shrugged him off and went to my room.
“Do you think you’ll feel well enough to visit Mom later tonight?” he asked from the hallway, always reluctant to upset Alison’s delicate sense of routine.
I shut my door without answering. My hands shook and my blood felt jittery in my veins. There had to be an explanation for what had happened in the nurse’s office. I was stressed about the Wonderland jokes, and when my hormones kicked in, I’d had a panic attack. Yeah. That made sense.
But I knew deep down I was lying to myself, and the last place I wanted to visit was an asylum. A few minutes later, I went back to the living room.
Dad sat in his favorite recliner—a worn-out corduroy lump covered with daisy appliqués. In one of her “spells,” Alison had sewn the cloth flowers all over it. Now he would never part with the chair.
“You feeling better, Butterfly?” he asked, looking up from his fishing magazine.
Musty dampness blasted into my face from the air conditioner as I leaned against the closest wood-paneled wall. Our two-bedroom duplex had never offered much in the way of privacy, and on that day it felt smaller than ever before. The waves of his dark hair moved in the rattling gusts.
I shuffled my feet. This was the part of being an only child I hated—having no one but Dad to confide in. “I need some more stuff. They only gave us one sample.”
His eyes were blank, like those of a deer staring down traffic during morning rush hour.
“The special talk they give at school,” I said, my stomach in knots. “The one where boys aren’t invited?” I flashed the purple pamphlet they’d handed out to all the girls in third grade. It was creased because I’d shoved it and the sample sanitary pad into a drawer beneath my socks.
After an uncomfortable pause, Dad’s face flushed red. “Oh. So that’s why . . .” He suddenly became preoccupied with a colorful array of saltwater lures. He was embarrassed or worried or both, because there wasn’t any salt water within a five-hundred-mile radius of Pleasance, Texas.
“You know what this means, right?” I pressed. “Alison is going to give me the puberty speech again.”
The blush spread from his face to his ears. He flipped a couple of pages, staring blankly at the pictures. “Well, who better to tell you about the birds and the bees than your mom. Right?”
An unspoken answer echoed inside my head:
Who better but the bees themselves?
I cleared my throat. “Not that speech, Dad. The nutso one. The ‘It can’t be stopped. You can’t escape the voices any more than I could. Great-great-gran never should’ve gone down the rabbit hole’ speech.”
It didn’t matter that Alison might be right about the voices after all. I wasn’t ready to admit that to Dad or myself.
He sat rigid, as if the air conditioner had iced his spine.
I studied the crisscross scars on my palms. He and I both knew it was less what Alison was going to say than what she might do. If she had another meltdown, they’d slap her into the straitjacket.
I learned early on why it’s spelled
. That particular spelling means
. Tight enough that blood pools in the elbows and the hands become numb. Tight enough that there’s no escape, no matter how loud the patient screams. Tight enough that it suffocates the hearts of the wearer’s loved ones.
My eyes felt swollen, like they might burst another leak. “Look, Dad, I’ve already had a really sucky day. Can we please just not go tonight? Just this once?”
Dad sighed. “I’ll call Soul’s Asylum and let them know we’ll visit Mom tomorrow instead. But you’ll need to tell her eventually. It’s important to her, you know? To stay involved in your life.”
I nodded. I might have to tell her about becoming a woman, but I didn’t have to tell her about becoming
Hooking a finger in the fuchsia scarf tied around my jean shorts, I glanced at my feet. Shiny pink toenails reflected the afternoon light where it streamed from the window. Pink had always been Alison’s favorite color. That’s why I wore it.
“Dad,” I mumbled loud enough for him to hear. “What if Alison’s right? I’ve noticed some things today. Things that just aren’t . . . normal.
not normal.”
“Normal.” His lips turned up in an Elvis curl. He once told me his smirk won Alison over. I think it was his gentleness and sense of humor, because those two things kept me from crying every night after she was first committed.
Rolling his magazine, he shoved it into the recliner between the seat cushion and the arm. He stood, his six-foot-one height towering over me as he tapped the dimple in my chin—the one part that matched him instead of Alison. “Now, you listen, Alyssa Victoria Gardner.
is subjective. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not normal. Because you are to me. And my opinion is all that matters. Got it?”
“Got it,” I whispered.
“Good.” He squeezed my shoulder, his fingers warm and strong. Too bad the twitch in his left eyelid gave him away. He was worried, and he didn’t even know the half of it.
I tossed and turned in bed that night. Once I finally fell asleep, I had the Alice nightmare for the first time, and it’s haunted my dreams ever since.
In it, I stumble across a chessboard in Wonderland, tripping over jagged squares of black and white. Only I’m not me. I’m Alice in a blue dress and lacy pinafore, trying to escape the ticktock of the White Rabbit’s pocket watch. He looks like he’s been skinned alive—nothing but bones and bunny ears.
The Queen of Hearts has commanded that my head be chopped off and stuck into a jar of formaldehyde. I’ve stolen the royal sword and am on the run, desperate to find the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat. They’re the only allies I have left.
Ducking into a forest, I slice the sword at vines hanging in my path. A thicket of thorns sprouts from the ground. They snag my apron and gouge my skin like angry talons. Dandelion trees tower in every direction. I’m the size of a cricket, along with everyone else.
Must’ve been something we ate . . .
Close behind, the White Rabbit’s pocket watch ticks louder, audible even over the marching steps of a thousand playing-card soldiers. Choking on a cloud of dust, I plunge into the Caterpillar’s lair, where mushrooms loom with caps the size of truck tires. It’s a dead end.
One look at the tallest mushroom and my heart caves. The place where the Caterpillar once sat to offer advice and friendship is a mass of thick white web. Something moves in the center, a face pressed against the filmy case, shifting just enough that I can make out the shape of the features yet see no clear details. I inch closer, desperate to identify who or what is inside . . . but the Cheshire Cat’s mouth floats by, screaming that he’s lost his body, and distracts me.
The card army appears. Within an instant, I am surrounded. I toss out the sword blindly, but the Queen of Hearts steps forward and snatches it in midair. Falling to my knees at the army’s feet, I plead for my life.
It’s pointless. Cards don’t have ears. And I no longer have a head.
After covering my starry spider mosaic with a protective cloth while the plaster dries, I grab a quick lunch of nachos and head over to Pleasance’s underground skate park to kill time before meeting Dad at the asylum.
I’ve always felt at home here, in the shadows. The park is located in an old, abandoned salt dome, a huge underground cave with a ceiling reaching as high as forty-eight feet in places. Prior to the conversion, the dome had been used for storing bulk goods for a military base.
The new owners took out the traditional lighting and, with some fluorescent paint and the addition of black lights, morphed it into every teen’s fantasy—a dark and atmospheric ultraviolet playground complete with a skateboard park, glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, an arcade, and a café.
With its citrusy neon paint job, the giant cement bowl for skateboarders stands out like a green beacon. All skaters must sign a release form and put orange fluorescent grip tape on the decks of their boards to avoid collisions in the dark. From a distance, we look like we’re riding fireflies across the northern lights, sweeping in and out of one another’s glowing jet streams.
I started boarding when I was fourteen. I needed a sport I could do while wearing my iPod and earbuds to muffle the whispers of stray bugs and flowers. For the most part, I’ve learned to ignore my delusions. The things I hear are usually nonsensical and random, and blend together in crackles and hums like radio static. Most of the time I can convince myself it’s nothing more than white noise.
Yet there are moments when a bug or flower says something louder than the others—something timely, personal, or relevant— and throws me off my game. So when I’m sleeping or involved in anything that requires intense concentration, my iPod is crucial.
At the skate park, everything from eighties music to alternative rock blasts from speakers and blocks out any possible distractions. I don’t even have to wear my earbuds. The only drawback is that Taelor Tremont’s family owns the place.
She called before the grand opening two years ago. “Thought you would be interested in what we’re naming the center,” she said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Yeah, why’s that?” I attempted civility because her dad, Mr. Tremont, had contracted my dad’s sporting goods store to be the sole supplier for the megacenter. It’s a good thing, too, considering we had been on the verge of bankruptcy because of Alison’s medical bills. Also, as an added bonus, I got a free lifetime membership.
“Well . . .” Taelor snickered softly. I heard her friends laughing in the background. I must’ve been on speakerphone. “Dad wants to call it Wonderland.” Giggles bubbled through the line. “I thought you’d love it, knowing how proud you are of your great-great-greatgrand-rabbit.”
The jibe hurt more than it should have. I must’ve been quiet for too long, because Taelor’s giggles faded.
“Actually”—she half coughed the word—“I’m thinking that’s way overused. Underland’s better. You know, since it’s underground. How’s that sound, Alyssa?”
I recall that rare glimpse of regret from Taelor today as I carve the middle of the skateboard bowl beneath the bright neon underland sign hanging from the ceiling. It’s nice to be reminded that she has a human side. A rock song pipes through the speakers. As I come down the lower half of the skating bowl, dark silhouettes swoop around me against the neon backdrop.
Balancing my back foot on the tail of the board, I prepare to pull up on the nose with my front. An attempt at an ollie a few weeks ago won me a bruised tailbone. I now have a deathly fear of the move, but something inside me won’t let me give up.
I have to keep trying or I’ll never get enough air to learn any real tricks, but my determination goes much deeper. It’s visceral—a flutter that jumbles my thoughts and nerves until I’m convinced I’m not scared. Sometimes I think I’m not alone in my own head, that there’s a part of someone lingering there, someone who chides me to push myself beyond my limits.
Embracing the adrenaline surge, I launch. Curious how much air I’m clearing, I snap my eyes open. I’m midjump, cement coming up fast beneath me. My spine prickles. I lose my nerve and my front foot slips, sending me down to the ground with a loud
My left leg and arm make first contact. Pain jolts through every bone. The impact knocks the breath from my lungs and I skid to a stop in the basin. My board rolls after me like a faithful pet, stopping to nudge my ribs.
Gasping for air, I flip onto my back. Every nerve in my knee and ankle blazes. My pad’s strap ripped loose, leaving a tear in the black leggings I wear beneath my purple bike shorts. Against the neon green surface slanting beside me, I see a dark smear. Blood . . .
I draw my split knee up, inhaling a sharp breath. Within seconds of my crash landing, three employees blow whistles and Rollerblade through the lines of slowing skaters. The workers wear mining caps, with a light affixed to the front, but they’re more like lifeguards— stationed for easy access and certified in the fundamentals of first aid.
They form a visible barrier with their bright crossing-guard vests to deter other boarders from tripping over us while they bandage me up and clean my blood from the cement with disinfectant.
A fourth employee rolls up in a manager’s vest. Of all people, it has to be Jebediah Holt.
“I should’ve bailed,” I mumble grudgingly.
“Are you kidding? Nobody could’ve seen that slam coming in time.” His deep voice soothes as he kneels beside me. “And glad to see you’re speaking to me again.” He wears cargo shorts and a dark tee beneath his vest. The black lights glide over his skin, highlighting his toned arms with bluish flashes.

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