She looked in on Tom's business law class first, but he wasn't there. She headed downstairs. Then she began to forge her way across campus, weaving around fellow students who were staking out their favorite benches. She could hear paper bags rustling and smell other peoples' lunches.

Jenny's group hadn't been eating together these last two weeks-it caused too much talk. But today they had no choice.

Audrey next, Jenny thought. She passed the amphitheater with its blistered wooden benches and looked into one of the home ec rooms. Audrey was taking interior decorating, and-of course-acing it.

Jenny just stood in the doorway until Audrey, who was lingering with the teacher, looked up and caught her eye. Audrey shut her folder, dropped it in her backpack, and came.

"What is it?"

"We've got to get everybody," Jenny said. "Do you have your lunch?"

"Yes." Audrey didn't ask why they had to get everybody. She just shook spiky copper bangs out of her eyes with an expert toss of her head and pressed her cherry-glossed lips together.

They cut across the center of campus toward the girls' gym. The sun shone on Jenny's head, sending a little trickle of dampness down the back of her neck. Too hot for May, even in California. So why did she feel so cold inside?

She and Audrey peered into the girls' locker room. Dee wasn't even dressed yet, snapping towels and snickering with a couple of girls on the swim team. She was naked and completely unself-conscious, beautiful and lithe and supple as a jet-black panther. When she saw Jenny and Audrey looking at her significantly, she hiked an eyebrow at them, then nodded. She reached for a garnet-colored T-shirt and joined them a minute later.

They found Zach in the art block, standing alone outside the photography lab. That wasn't surprising -Zach was usually alone. What surprised Jenny was that he wasn't inside the lab, working. Zach's thin, intense face had always been pale, but these days it looked almost chalky, and in the last few weeks he'd taken to wearing black cotton twills and shirts. He's changed, Jenny thought. Well, no wonder. What they'd been through would have changed anyone.

He saw Jenny, who tilted her head in the general direction of the staff parking lot. The usual place. He gave a brief jerk of his head that meant agreement. He'd meet them there.

They found Michael near the English block, picking up scattered papers and books from the concrete floor.

"Jerks, porkers, bozos, Neanderthals," he was muttering.

"Who did it?" Jenny asked as Audrey checked Michael for bruises.

"Carl Vertman and Steve Matsushima." Michael's round face was flushed and his dark hair even more rumpled than usual. "It would help if you kissed it here, "he said to Audrey, pointing to the corner of his mouth.

Dee did a swift, flowing punch-and-kick to the air that looked like dancing. "I'll take care of them," she said, flashing her most barbaric smile.

"Come on, we've got to talk," Jenny said. "Has anybody seen Tom?"

"I think he cut this morning," Audrey said. "He wasn't in history or English."

Wonderful, Jenny thought as Michael got his lunch. Zachary was wearing Morbid Black, Michael was getting stomped, and Tom, the super-student, was cutting whole mornings-just when she needed him most.

They sat down by the parking lot on what was commonly known at Vista Grande High as the grassy knoll. Zach arrived and dropped first his lunch sack, then himself to the ground, folding his long, thin legs in one easy motion.

"What's happening?" Dee said.

Jenny took a deep breath.

"There's this girl," she said, and she did her best to describe the Crying Girl. "Probably a ninth grader," she said. "Do any of you guys know her?"

They all shook their heads.

"Because she said we killed Summer and hid her body, and that she knew that P.C. didn't do it. She sounded like somebody who really did know, and not just because she has faith in him or something."

Dee's sloe-black eyes were narrowed. "You think-"

"I think maybe she saw him that morning. And that means-"

"Maybe she knows where the paper house is," Michael said, looking more alarmed than excited.

"If she does, we have to find her," Jenny said.

Michael groaned.

Jenny didn't blame him. Everything about their situation was awful. The way people looked at them now, the questions in people's eyes-and the danger. The danger that no one but their group knew about.

A lot of it was Jenny's fault. It had been her own brilliant idea. Let's tell the police the truth....

There were two policewomen. One was Hawaiian or Polynesian and model-beautiful. The other was a stocky motherly person. They both examined the pile of fragments around the sliding glass door.

"But that doesn't have anything to do with Summer," Jenny said, and then she and Tom and Michael and Audrey explained it all again.

No, it hadn't been a UFO. Well, it had been sort of like a UFO-Julian was alien, all right, but he hadn't broken the door. He had come out of a game-or at least he had sucked them into a game. Or at least-All right. From the beginning again.

Jenny had bought the game on Montevideo Avenue, in a store called More Games. Okay? She'd bought it and brought it home and they had all

opened it. Yes, they'd all been here, the six of them, plus Summer. It had been a party for Tom's seventeenth birthday.

Inside had been this cardboard house. This model. They had put it together, a Victorian house, three stories and a turret. Blue.

Then they'd put these paper dolls inside that they'd colored to look like themselves. Yeah, right, they were a little old to be playing with paper dolls. But it wasn't just a dollhouse. It was a game.

The game was to draw your worst nightmare and put it in a room of the house, and then, starting at the bottom, work your way up to the top. Going through each different person's nightmare as you went.

It had seemed like a good game. Only then it turned real.

Yes, real. Real. How many different ways were there to say real? Real!

They had all sort of passed out, and when they woke up, they were in the house. Inside it. It wasn't cardboard anymore. It was solid, like an ordinary house. Then Julian had showed up.

Who was Julian? What was Julian, that was the question. If you thought of him as a demon prince, you wouldn't be too far off. He called himself the Shadow Man.

The Shadow Man. Like the Sandman, only he brings nightmares.

Look, the point was that Julian had killed Summer. He made her face her worst nightmare, which was a messy room. Piles of garbage and giant cockroaches. Yes, it did sound funny, but it wasn't....

No, none of them had read Kafka.

Look, it wasn't funny because it had killed Summer. She'd been buried in a garbage dump from hell, under piles of filth and rotting stuff. They'd heard her screaming and screaming, and then finally the screaming had stopped.

The body? For God's sake, where else would the body be? It was there, buried in rubbish, in the paper house, in the Shadow World.

No! The sliding glass door did not have anything to do with it. That had happened after they escaped from the Shadow World. Jenny had tricked Julian and locked him behind a door with a rune of constraint on it. When they got back to the real world, Jenny had put the paper house back in the game box, and then they'd called the police. Yes, that was the call made at 6:34 this morning. While they were on the phone, they'd heard glass breaking and come out to see two guys taking the box over the back fence.

Why would anybody want to steal the box? Well, these guys had been following Jenny when she bought the Game. And seeing the Game-it did something to you. Once you saw that glossy white box, you wanted it, no matter what. The guys had probably followed Jenny home just to get the box.


It was only after telling it that Jenny saw how crazy the story sounded. At first the police wouldn't believe that Summer was really missing, no matter how many times Tom demanded a lie detector test.

The police finally began to believe when they called Summer's parents and found that nobody had seen her since last night. By then Jenny and the others were sitting in the detective bureau around a large table with detectives' desks all around them. By then Jenny had picked out pictures of the two guys who'd stolen the game. P.C. Serrani and Scott Martell, better known as Slug, a name he'd chosen himself. They both had records for shoplifting and joyriding. P.C. was the one who'd been wearing the bandanna and black leather vest, Slug the one in the flannels with the bad complexion.

And it turned out that they were both missing, too.

The worst part was when Summer's parents came down to the station to ask Jenny where Summer really was. They didn't understand why Jenny, who had known Summer since fourth grade, wouldn't tell them the truth now. The kids finally were given a drug-screening test because Summer's father insisted their story sounded exactly like things he'd seen in the sixties. Like a very, very bad trip.

Mrs. Parker-Pearson kept saying, "Whatever Summer's done, it doesn't matter. Just tell us where she is."

It was horrible.

Aba was the one who finally stopped it.

Just at the point when the fuss got the biggest and noisiest, she appeared. She was wearing a brilliant orange garment that was more like a robe than a dress, and an orange headcloth like a turban. She was Dee's grandmother, but she looked like visiting royalty. She asked the police to leave her alone with the children.

Then Jenny, shaking all over, told the story again. From the beginning.

When it was over, she looked at each of them. At

Tom, the champion athlete, sitting with his normally neat dark hair wildly tousled. At Audrey, the ever-chic, with her mascara rubbed off from sobbing. At Zach, the unshakable photographer, whose gray eyes were glassy with shock. At Michael, with his rumpled head in his arms. At Dee, the only one of them still sitting up straight, proud and tense and furious, her hair glistening like mica with sweat.

At Jenny, who had looked back at her with a mute plea for understanding.

Then Aba looked down at her own interlaced fingers, sculptor's fingers, long and beautiful even if they were knotted with age.

"I've told you a lot of stories," she said to Jenny, "but there's a famous one I don't think you've heard. It's a Hausa story. My ancestors were those-who-speak-Hausa, you know, and my mother told me this when I was just a little girl."

Michael slowly lifted his head from the table.

"Once there was a hunter who went out into the bush, and he found a skull lying on the ground. He said, although he was really speaking to himself, 'Why, how did you get here?'

"To his astonishment, the skull answered, 'I got here through talking, my friend.'"

Tom leaned forward, listening. Audrey stared. She didn't know Aba as well as the rest of them.

Aba went right on. "The hunter was very excited. He ran back to his village and told everyone that he had seen a talking skull. When the chief of the village heard, he asked the hunter to take him to the marvelous skull.

"So the hunter took the chief to the skull. 'Talk,' he said, but the skull just lay there. The chief was so angry at being tricked that he cut off the hunter's head and left it lying on the ground.

"Once the chief was gone, the skull said to the severed head beside it, 'Why, how did you get here?' And the head replied, 'I got here through talking, my friend!'"

In the long silence afterward, Jenny could hear distant telephones ringing and voices outside the room.

"You mean," Michael said finally, "that we've been talking too much?"

"I mean that you don't need to tell everything you know to everyone. There is a time to be silent. Also, you don't have to insist that your view is the only one, even if you honestly believe it. That hunter might have lived if he'd said, 'I think a skull talked to me, but I may have dreamed it.'"

"But we didn't dream it," Jenny whispered.

What Aba said then made all the difference. It made everything easier somehow.

"I believe you," she said quietly and laid a gentle, knotted hand on Jenny's.

When the police came back, everyone was calm. Jenny's group now admitted that while they thought they were telling the truth, it could have been some sort of dream or hallucination. The police now theorized that something really had happened to Summer, something so awful that the kids just couldn't accept what they'd seen, and so had made up a hysterical story to cover the memory. Teenagers were especially prone to mass hallucination, Inspector Somebody explained to Aba. If they could pass a lie detector test, proving they hadn't done anything to Summer ...

They passed.

Then the police released them into the custody of their parents, and Jenny went home and slept for sixteen hours straight. When she woke up, it was Sunday and Summer was still missing. So were Slug and P.C.

That was how the Center got started.

The new idea was that Slug and P.C. had made off with Summer, or that someone else had made off with all three. The local shopping mall donated space for a search center. Hundreds of volunteers went out looking in stormpipes and ditches and Dumpsters.

There was nothing Jenny could do to stop any of it. Every day the volunteers did more, the search got bigger.

She felt awful. But then she realized something.

Summer's body wasn't in a Dumpster-but the paper house might be. It wouldn't do any good searching for Summer, but it might do some good to search for Slug and P.C.

"Because," she pointed out bleakly to Dee and the others, "they got into the paper house, all right. And that means they might get up to the third floor. And that means they might open a certain door and let Julian out. ..."

After that they went out every day with the other volunteers, looking for a clue to where Slug Martell and P.C. Serrani might have taken the Game. It was a race against time, Jenny thought. To get to the house before Slug and P.C. got to Julian. Because after what she had done to Julian, tricking him and locking him behind that door, and after what she had promised him-telling him she'd stay with him forever-and then running away ...

If he ever got out, he would find her. He'd hunt her down. And he'd take his revenge.

On the grassy knoll Michael was still groaning at the thought of finding the Crying Girl.

"She probably doesn't know anything," Zach said, his eyes gray as winter clouds. "She probably just wonders if maybe we did it. Deep down, I think everybody wonders."

Jenny looked around at the group: Dee sprawled lazily on the grass, dark limbs gleaming; Audrey perched on a folder to save her white tuxedo pant-suit; Michael with his teddy-bear body and sarcastic spaniel eyes; and Zach sitting like some kind of Tibetan monk with a ponytail. They didn't look like murderers. But what Zach was saying was true, and it was just like him to say it.

"We've got to go postering today anyway," Audrey said. "We might as well look for this girl while we're at it."

"It's not going to make any difference," Zach said flatly. Copyright 2016 - 2023