Chapter Twenty-Six: Catching Fire

“So wait, let me get this straight,” I say. “First of all, that King dude that the super-mouse and I just saved and brought down here was not actually the King?”

“Oh no,” says Pixie Stick. “That was The King. It was just another The King. That was Pixie Elvis.”

“And we have to solve some dumb riddle presented to us by a frog in order to find theproper The King?”

“Not frog, stupid.” Pixie Stick crosses his arms like I’ve exasperated him with this. “Frogg. It’s a thing you call a person.”

“Oh, like a name?” I snap. Rose has to physically hold me back to keep me from strangling him, which is more than a little weird after her being a freaking ghost the entire time I’ve known her. “I don’t even care anymore,” I say. “I. Just. Don’t. Even. Care. Any. More.”

“As much as I’d like to agree with you,” says Rose, shoving me back a couple feet and staring over my shoulder, “I think you should probably try caring long enough to get us out of here.”

Her voice shakes, and I turn whiplash-fast to see what she’s looking at behind me. There’s something small coming towards us. It glides through the darkness with yellow eyes and glittering scales that reflect the moonlight that streams through the windows, a fluffy brown tail swishingalong in the breeze behind it.

“What the heck is that,” I say, staring.

“A squish,” Rose whispers. “They are the creatures that made me like a zombie. Her hand shakes on my arm. So quiet I can barely hear her, she says, “Run.”

We do.

We sprint down the hall, and around the corner, searching desperately for the exit. My legs ache and my lungs burn, and for the first time in a long time, I really consider starting to eat something other than ice cream for dinner every night.

No matter how quickly we go, though, the stupid little squish comes faster, its high-pitched cackle chasing us up the halls.

“Pixie Stick!” I gasp. “You can do magic-y things!Save us! I’m too alive to die!”

“But it is not yet time to leave!” Pixie Stick replies as he flutters along beside me, his wings beating as fast as they can carry him.

“What do you mean it’s not yet time to leave?!”

“You must first learn the lessons you came to learn,” he tells me in a chiding voice. “You uglies are always so impatient to reach the end of the story. You must first learn the lessons you came to learn.”

“Rose.” I spot her struggling to keep up out the corner of my eye. Every few steps she trips over her gown, or puts her foot down wrong, or something else stupid. She looks like a giraffe trying to learn how to salsa. “What in the world is wrong with you?”

“I haven’t had to deal with human restraints in over a hundred years, Mary!” she snaps. “It takes a while to get used to these things!”

“Great,” I mutter between gasps for breath. “It’s the one who is already dead who’s slowing us down.”

Pixie Stick slaps me across the face. “The lessons!” he cries, his voice going so high-pitched dolphins could hear it. “You must learn the lessons!”

“Yeah, and what are those?” On the last word, my junk food-fueled legs finally give out beneath me, and I collapse to the marble floor. Rose takes only another few steps before she realizes I’m lost and gives up as well, falling to the floor with a bang that makes my own butt throb in sympathy.

I am a squish, comes a squeaky, devious little voice from directly behind us. I must speak with you humans.

“Um, can I get a rain check on that? I’m feeling kind of under the weather right now…” I flop back and let myself sprawl on the floor. The cool marble feels good on my sweaty body. I open my eyes just long enough to make sure my skirt is covering the necessities, and then let them drift closed again. “I give up,” I groan. “I give up on all this crap. Why can’t anyone just leave me alone? All I ever wanted was the stop the bloody alien invasion, and now I’ve got a freaky flying squirrel-thing coming after me!”

“It’s a squirrel-fish, actually,” Rose corrects me. “A squish.”

“Quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a freaky flying squirrel-thing.”

Yes, I am a squish, the squish agrees with Rose. It sounds pleased. You are humans. I must speak with you humans.

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” I groan. “Just get it over quickly so I can take a nap.”

“You do realize once you’ve been infected by the virus, you cannot sleep anymore, right?” Rose asks.

“Crap. Let me take a nap first, so I can deal with these bags under my eyes—” I kneed at my face “—then you can turn me into a zombie-ghost-thing.”

I do not want to make you human dead, says the little beast. It’s closer now, so close I could reach out and strangle it if I just had access to a caffeinated drink. I want to warn you of what is to come.

“Yeah, and what’s that?” Then something metaphorically hits me. “Oh goodness. The lessons. The flying squirrel-fish is going to teach us the lessons.”

I am a squish, it says. It seems confused by the fact that I won’t call it that. I am what you want. You are a human-killer. I am what you humans call an aye-lion. You want to be aye-lion-killer.

“Oh, sweet cookies and cream,” I say. “The squirrel-fish is an alien. The dumb, blasted, stupid, idiot, horrible, obnoxious, bleeding, terrible aliens are actually real.”

Yes I am real, the squish says. Of course I am real. Are you real, human?

“Now it’s trying to play Inception mind-games with me. I do give up, I really do. Can this mess just be done and over with already?”

I must warn you of what is to come, the squish says, ignoring me. I can feel it staring at me with its beady little eyes. More squish are to come. More squish are to take over your world.

“Golly gee, didn’t see that one coming.”

The squish like fairness. The squish like rightness. This is your warning.

“Great. The aliens trying to destroy us might just be better people than we are.” I throw a hand over my face. “I’m so done with this!”

There’s the scuffle of shoes against the floor as Rose moves, shifting to face the squish. I peek out of one eye to watch. She’s getting to her feet, slowly but surely. “You believe in being fair?” she asks the squish.

I am a squish. Squish believe in fairness. Squish believe in rightness.

“What was fair in turning me into a zombie-ghost? In killing off the entire crew of my father’s ship?”

He made a deal. They made a deal. They broke a promise to the squish.

            “Oh grand,” I mutter.

“Shut it, Mary!” Rose snaps.

I receive a kick in the foot and let out a half-hearted, “Ow.”

“What deal did my father make with you that gave you permission to destroy not only our lives, but our ability to die normally as well?”

I have never heard Rose so angsty before in my life—and believe me, zombie-ghost-pirate-things get pretty darn angsty a lot of the time. Interested in what’s going on, I force my eyes open and drag myself into a sitting position. Rose stands a couple feet away, the squish flapping its flying-squirrel skin-fold-wing-things in order to stay level with her eyes.

“Rose, are you crying?”

Shut itMary!”

You were not part of the deal. You were not supposed to die. You are supposed to be not-dead, human.

“Fabulous.” It takes me an instant to realize both Rose and I have said it.

Find your heart, and you will be not-dead, the squish says. The closer to your heart you are, the more not-dead you are. I think I can hear a smile in its voice. Not-dead, not-dead, you will be not-dead.

            “Yeah, and where is her heart?” I ask. Rose is in too much shock to ask the question herself.

It was here, says the squish. Now it is not-here. Now it is there.

“So it’s not in Norland, the place ‘neither here nor there.’ And it’s not in Sebastian’s lovely little summer home castle here.” I tick them off on my fingers. “That leaves the only other reality Iknow of, which is Earth. Is the heart on Earth, fish-squirrel? Firrel?”

I am a squish. The squish is confused.

“Where’s her heart?” I ask.

But before the squish can answer, Pixie Stick pops up beside me and, with a grin, says, “You have learned the lessons you came to learn!” The castle and squish begin to fade from around us. “You may go home now! To London!”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I growl. “Right when we were actually going to learn something useful—you decide now that we’ve heard enough and it’s time to leave? And London is not my home! I’m NOT. BRITISH!”

I turn to wrap my fingers around his scrawny neck when suddenly—poof—Pixie Stick is gone. Instead, Rose and I stand in the middle of the hallway outside Booker Smith’s office. Rose collapses to the floor, struggling against the gravity.

“Yeah, I’d definitely say your heart is somewhere on Earth, then, if you’re still having these real-person issues,” I say, staring down at her. Then it hits me:“Ohmygosh, Randy! We need to get into contact with PWNBEIBER, warn them about the squishes—”

I fling open Book-man’s door and step into the office. Both Randy and Book-man jump, spinning to face me. They were staring at the spot I was standing before I disappeared.

“What happened to you?” Randy yelps. His teeth chatter out of fear.

“Ugh, seriously, Randy. You need to stop flipping out so easily. I’ve met Chihuahuas who were braver than you.” I step further into the office, check back around the corner to make sure Rose hasn’t for-real died on my or anything, and then turn back to the guys. “We called you,” I say, “from Ameri—” I stop. “Except that wasn’t actually real. That was in the alternate dimension or whatever. How long have we been away?”

“Been away?” says Book-man, stepping out from where he’d taken cover from me behind his desk. “You haven’t been away at all. You just disappeared a second ago. And then you walked through the door. Did you not just transport out into the hallway?”

“What? No.” My head begins to ache, my legs grow heavy, at the realization. “We were gone for days. In another dimension or something. But we finally escaped, and now we’re back, and—” A muscle spasms in my right eye. “We came back before we left. Time travel. Time travel just happened. What. Why. How.”

Rose steps into the room. “Okay, I think I’ve got this gravity thing figured—”

Randy jumps backward. “Whoa, who are you?!”

“You can see me?” Rose’s face pales and she looks like she just might fall over again.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Randy backs up a step, trips, and falls on the floor. He scooches back until his back is against the far wall, his fingers grasping at the floorboards, his skin even paler than hers. “You’re Rose? I can see Rose? Rose exists?”

“Indeed.” I glare. “You seriously didn’t believe me all that time? Even when Book-mancould see her? You really are a lousy excuse for a sidekick, Randy.”

Finally recovering what little of his dignity still remains, although that’s all a matter of opinion, he gulps and says, “You’re prettier than Mary described, Rose.”

“Oh goodness.” I walk over and slip my hand into his, pulling him back to his feet. “She’s still dead, you idiot. Don’t go getting any ideas about hooking up with her.” He towers over me, which feels strange after spending so much time around Pixie Stick. “We don’t know exactly what happened—why she’s visible now and has to deal with gravity and all that—but she’s still very much dead. We need to get her heart back.”

“You’re missing your heart?” Randy stares at her over my head. He gulps again.

“Pretty much,” says Rose. She speaks quieter now, more subdued since she knows people can hear her. More proper. She stands up straighter to say, “The aliens you have all been after? They are called squishes. They’re the ones who did this to me, to my father, to his crew.” Her tone is softer but angrier as she spits, “To Sebastian.”

“The aliens are real?” Randy asks. He somehow sounds even more incredulous about this than Rose.

“Of course they’re real, you dork!” I swat him across the arm. “But that’s not even the most pressing thing right now. We’ve gotta figure out about this Frogg fellow, and—”

Book-man interrupts me. “Frogg? As in Lewis James Frogg?”

“Um, I guess? Ya know him?”

“Not personally, no. But I’ve been researching on him. I thought he might be involved in the zombie-business.” Book-man pulls out a drawer and begins flipping through the files inside. “It seems the boy has developed certain, uh—shall I say abnormalities as of late.”

“‘Abnormalities’ how, exactly?” asks Rose. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, then leans back against the wall. She lets a small smile flit across her lips. Randy stares, and I kick him in the knee.

“Focus, you hormone-ridden teenager.” I turn back to Book-man. “What can you tell us about Frogg?”

“Not much,” he tells us. “The boy is very secretive.

“However,” he smiles, “I do know his location.”

THE END… of Book 1.

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