Jared couldn't move from the doorway. He heard the clanging of swords and cheering, but the sounds seemed to come from far away. He watched in horror as the coach confronted his double. The man got red in the face, and some of the other players looked at Jared's double in shock.
"Great." Jared grimaced. There was no way he could explain this.
The coach pointed toward the large gym door, and he watched Not-Jared stalk toward it - and toward him. As Not-Jared got closer to Jared, it smirked. Jared clenched his hands into fists.
Not-Jared passed Jared without a single glance, slamming through the double doors. Jared wanted to find some way to wipe that smile off its face. He followed after it, into a hallway lined with lockers.
"Who are you?" Jared demanded. "What do you want?"
Not-Jared turned to face him, and something in its eyes made Jared go cold all over. "Don't you know me? Am I not your own self?" Its mouth curled into a sneer.
It was strange to watch it move and speak. It wasn't like watching Simon, with his tidy hair and the smear of toothpaste on his upper lip. And it wasn't quite himself either - the hair was messier, and the eyes were darker and ... different. It took a step toward him.
Jared took a step back, wishing for any kind of faerie protection, and then he remembered the pocketknife in his jeans. Faeries hated iron, and steel was at least part iron. He opened one of the blades. "Why don't you all just leave us alone?"
The creature threw back its head and laughed. "You can never get away from your own self."
"Shut up! You're not me." Jared pointed the knife at his double.
"Put that toy away," Not-Jared said, its voice low and harsh.
"I don't know who you are, or who sent you, but bet I know what you're looking for," said Jared. "The Guide. Well, you're never going to get it."
The creature's grin widened into something that still wasn't really a smile. Then suddenly it shrank back as though frightened. Jared watched in amazement as the Not-Jared's body shrank, its dark hair paled into a sandy brown, and its now blue eyes went wide with terror.
Before Jared could fully comprehend what he was seeing, he heard a woman's voice behind him.
"What's going on here? Put that knife down."
The vice principal rushed up, grabbing Jared's wrist. The pocketknife clattered to the linoleum floor. Jared stared at the blade as the sandy-haired boy ran off down the hall, his sobs sounding a lot like laughter.
"I can't believe you brought your knife to school," Simon whispered to Jared as they sat together outside the vice principal's office.
Jared shot him a look. He had explained several times - even once to the police - that he was only showing the kid the knife, but they'd never found the other boy to confirm the story. Then the vice principal had asked Jared to wait outside. Their mother had been in the vice principal's office a long time, but Jared couldn't hear what was going on.
"What kind of faerie do you think that thing was?" Simon asked.
Jared shrugged. "I wish we had the book so I could look it up."
"You don't remember anything that could shape-shift like that?"
"I don't know." Jared rubbed his face.
"Look, I told Mom it wasn't your fault. You'll just have to explain."
Jared gave a short laugh. "Yeah, like I can tell her what happened."
"I could say that kid stole something from Mallory's bag." When Jared didn't respond, Simon tried again. "I could pretend I did it. We could switch shirts and everything."
Jared just shook his head.
Finally their mother emerged from the vice principal's office. She looked tired.
"I'm sorry," Jared said.
He was surprised by the calm tone of her voice. "I don't want to talk about it, Jared. Get your sister and let's just go."
Jared nodded and followed Simon, looking back just in time to see their mother sink down in the chair he'd vacated. What was she thinking? Why wasn't she yelling? He found himself wishing that she was mad - at least that he would understand. Her quiet sadness was more frightening. It was like this was all she expected of him.
Simon and Jared walked through the school, stopping to ask fencing team members if they'd seen Mallory. None of them had. They even stopped Chris-the-captain. He looked uncomfortable when they asked about Mallory, but he shook his head. The gymnasium was empty, the only sounds the echo of their steps on the glossy wood floor. The black mat had been rolled up, and everything from the meet had been put away.
Finally a girl with long, brown hair told them she'd seen Mallory crying in the girls' bathroom.
Simon shook his head. "Mallory? Crying? But she won."
The girl shrugged. "I asked her if she was okay, but she said she was fine."
"You think that was really her?" Simon asked as they walked toward the restroom.
"You mean, was something impersonating her? Why would a faerie turn into Mallory and then cry in a girls' bathroom?"
"I don't know," said Simon. "I'd cry if I had to turn into Mallory."
Jared snorted. "So, you want to go in there and look for her?"
"I'm not going into the girls' room," Simon said. "Besides, you're already in so much trouble, there's no way you can get into more."
"I can always get into more trouble," Jared said with a sigh. He pushed open the door. It looked surprisingly like the boys' room, except there were no urinals.
"Mallory?" he called. No answer. He peered under the stalls but didn't see any feet. He pushed open one of the doors gingerly. Even though there was no one in there, he felt weird, jumpy and embarrassed. After a moment he darted back out into the hall.
"She's not in there?" Simon said.
"It's empty." Jared glanced past the line of lockers, hoping no one had seen him.
"Maybe she went to the office looking for us," Simon said. "I don't see her anywhere."
A feeling of dread uncoiled in the pit of Jared's stomach. After the vice principal had caught him, he hadn't really thought about anything but how much trouble he was in. But that thing was still running around the school. He remembered how the creature had looked through Mallory's bag at the match.
"What if she went outside?" Jared said, hoping that they could still find her before it did. "She could have gone out to see if we were waiting by the car."
"We could look." Simon shrugged. Jared could tell he wasn't convinced, but they walked outside anyway.
The sky had already deepened to purples and golds. In the dimming light they walked past the track and the baseball field.
"I don't see her," Simon said.
Jared nodded. His stomach churned with nervousness. Where is she? he wondered.
"Hey," Simon said. "What's that?" He walked a few feet and leaned down to pick up something shining in the grass.
"Mallory's fencing medal," Jared said. "And look."
On the grass large chunks of rock formed a circle around the medal. Jared knelt down beside the largest stone. Engraved deeply in the rock was a word: TRADE.
"Stones," Simon said. "Like from the quarry."
Jared looked up, surprised. "Remember the map we found? It said dwarves live in the quarry - but I don't think dwarves can shape-shift."
"Mallory could still be inside with Mom. She could be in the office waiting for us."
Jared wanted to believe it. "Then why is her medal out here?"
"Maybe she dropped it. Maybe this is a trap." Simon started walking back toward the school. "Come on," he said. "Let's go back and see if she's with Mom."
Jared nodded numbly.
When they got back inside, they found their mother in the school entrance, talking into her cell phone. Her back was to them, and she was alone.
Although their mother was speaking softly, her voice traveled easily to where they crouched. "Yeah, I thought things were getting better too. But, you know, Jared never admitted to what happened when we first moved here ... and well, this is going to sound strange, but Mallory and Simon are so protective of him."
Jared froze, both dreading what she was going to say and unable to make himself do anything to stop her from continuing.
"No, no. They deny he ever did any of those things. And they're keeping something from me. I can tell by the way they stop talking when they come into a room, the way they cover for one another, especially for Jared. You should have heard Simon tonight, making up excuses for his brother pulling a knife on that little boy." Here she made a choked noise and began crying.
"I just don't know if I can handle him anymore. He is so angry, Richard. Maybe he should go and stay with you for a while."
Dad. She was talking to their dad.
Simon jabbed Jared in the arm. "Come on. Mallory's not here."
Jared turned dazedly and followed his brother out the door. He could not have said how he felt at that moment - except maybe hollow.
Excerpted from The Ironwood Tree by Tony DiTerlizzi Copyright © 2006 by Tony DiTerlizzi. Excerpted by permission.
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