The headboard side-the figure was leaning over her from the headboard side. But there was a wall there. It was leaning out of the wall.

"Get away from me!"

Shouting broke the spell. She vaulted off the bed, landing in a tangle of sheets in the middle of her room. She kicked the sheets free and was at the light switch by the door in one movement.

Light filled the room, glowing off the ocher walls. There was no dark figure anywhere.

Tacked over the bed between an African mask and a length of embroidered cloth from Syria was a poster. A poster of Bruce Lee. It was just where the figure had been.

Dee approached it slowly, warily, ready for anything. She got close and looked at it. Just an ordinary poster. Bruce Lee's image stared out blandly over her head. There was something almost smug about his expression....

Abruptly Dee reached out and ripped the poster off the wall, scattering pushpins. She crumpled it with both hands and threw it in the general direction of the wastebasket.

Then she sat back against the headboard, breathing hard.

Zach had been lying for hours, unable to get to sleep. Too many thoughts crowding his brain. Thoughts-and images.

Him and Jenny as kids. Playing Indians in the cherry orchard. Playing pirates in the creek. Always playing something, lost in some imaginary world. Because imaginary worlds were better than the real thing. Safer, Zach had always thought.

Zach breathed out hard. His eyes fluttered open-and he shouted.

Suspended in the air above him was the head of a twelve-point buck.

It was hanging inches from his nose, so close his dark-adjusted eyes could see it clearly. But he was paralyzed. He wanted to twist to the side, to get away from it, but his arms and legs wouldn't obey.

It was falling on him!

His whole body gave a terrible jerk and adrenaline burst through him. His arm flung up to ward the thing off. His eyes shut, anticipating the blow.

It never came. He dropped his arm, opened his eyes.

Empty air above him.

Zach struck out at it anyway. Only believing it was gone when his hand encountered no resistance.

He got up and turned on the lights. He didn't stay to look around the room, though. He went downstairs, to the den, flipping on the lights there.

On the wood-paneled wall where his father's trophies hung, the twelve-pointer rested in its usual place.

Zach looked into its liquid-dark glass eyes. His gaze traveled over the splendid antlers, the shockingly delicate muzzle, the glossy brown neck.

It was all real and solid. Too heavy to move, bolted to the wall.

Which means maybe I'm losing my mind. Imagination gone completely wild. That would be a laugh, wouldn't it, to get through the Game and then come home and lose my mind over nothing?

Ha ha.

The den was as still as a photograph around him.

He wasn't going to get any sleep tonight. Normally, he would have gone out to his darkroom in the garage and done some work. That was what he'd always done before when he couldn't sleep.

But that had been-before. Tonight he'd rather just stare at the ceiling. Nothing else was any use.

"Hypnopompic hallucination," Michael said to Dee the next morning. "That's when you think you've woken up, but your mind is still dreaming, The dark figure in your room is a classic example. They even have a name for it-the Old Hag Syndrome. Because some people think it's an old lady sitting on their chest, paralyzing them."

"Right," Dee said. "Well, that's what it must have been, then. Of course."

"Same with you, Zach," Michael said, turning to look at him. "Only yours was hypnagogic hallucination-you thought you weren't asleep yet, but your brain was in la-la land already."

Zach said nothing.

"What about me?" Audrey said. "I was asleep-but when I woke up, my dream was true." She touched polished fingernails to the back of her neck, just beneath the burnished copper French twist. "I was wet."

"Sweat," Michael said succinctly.

"I don't sweat."

"Well, ladylike perspiration, then. It's been hot."

Jenny looked around at the group on the knoll. They all sounded so calm and rational. But Michael's grin was strained, and Zach was paler than ever. Dee's nervous energy was like an electrical field. Audrey's lips were pressed together.

In spite of the brave words, they were all on edge.

And where's Tom? Jenny thought. He should be here. No matter what he thinks of me, he should be here for the sake of the others. What's he doing?

"I heard there was a body found up in the Santa Ana foothills," Dee said. "A guy from this school."

"Gordon Wilson," Audrey said, wrinkling her nose. "You know-that senior with the cowboy boots. People say he runs over cats."

"Well, he's not going to run over any more. They think a mountain lion got him."

Tom had heard about the body yesterday afternoon, and his first irrational thought had been: Zach? Michael?

But they had both been safe. And Jenny was safe at school today-although maybe school wasn't so safe, either. Yesterday, she'd gotten herself sent home from computer applications after something -it was hard to figure out exactly what from the conflicting stories-had happened.

A brief thought crossed his mind that he might call her and ask-but Tom had already chosen his course. He couldn't change it now, and she probably wouldn't want him to. He'd seen her in the car, that look when the song came on. Scared, yes, but with something underneath the scaredness. She'd never looked like that at him.

It didn't matter. He'd protect her anyway. But yesterday, knowing she was home for good, he'd taken the afternoon off and gone to the police station. He'd used charm on a female detective and learned exactly where the body had been found.

Today he was skipping school completely. Teachers were going to start asking questions about that soon.

So what?

Tom found the dry creek bed. It wasn't too far from the famous Bell Canyon Trail, where a six-year-old had been attacked by a mountain lion. The air was scented with sage.

There was a crinkled yellow "crime scene" ribbon straggling along the creek bed and little flags of various colors planted in the ground. Tom scrambled down the slope and stood where tiny traces of a dark stain on the rocks still showed.

He looked around. One place on the opposite bank had seen a lot of activity. Cactus had been broken, pineapple weed uprooted. There were footprints in the dirt.

Tom followed the trail up to a slope covered with purple sage. Coastal live oak and spreading sycamores cast an inviting shade nearby.

Tom studied the ground.

After a moment he began to walk, slowly, toward the trees. He skirted brush. He came to three old sycamores growing so closely that their branches were entwined.

The air was heavier here. It had a strange smell. Very faint, but disturbing. Feral.

Like a predator.

Sometimes there were huge patches of poison ivy under these old trees. Tom looked carefully, then stirred the brush underneath with his foot. The smell came stronger. Something heavy had lain here for quite some time.

He turned and retraced his steps slowly.

Then he saw it. On a dusty rock directly between the trees and the place where the creek bank was disturbed. A splatter of black like tar. A thick, viscous substance that looked as if it had bubbled at the edges.

Tom's breath hissed in, and he knelt, eyes narrowed.

There was no sign that any of it had been scraped off. Either the police hadn't seen it or they hadn't cared. It clearly wasn't the blood of anything on earth. It didn't look like anything important.

It was. It was very important. Tom took out a Swiss army knife and scraped some of the gunk up to examine it. It had an odd, musky smell, and spread very thin it was not black but red.

Then he sat back on his heels and shut his eyes, trying to maintain the control he was famous for.

By Thursday Jenny noticed that Zach had dark circles under his eyes and Dee was jumpier than ever. Michael's face was blotchy, and one of Audrey's nails actually looked bitten.

They were all falling apart.

Because of dreams. That was all they were. Nothing really happened at night, nothing hurt them. But the dreams were enough.

Friday they were scheduled to go postering, but Jenny had to stop by the YMCA first, a few blocks from the Center. And it was there that something really did happen at last.

Jenny had been waiting so long, searching for so long, that she ought to have been prepared. But when the time came, she found she wasn't prepared at all.

She was inside the Y, talking to Mrs. Birkenkamp, the swim coach. Jenny volunteered every Friday with the swim class for disabled kids. She loved it and hated to miss.

"But I have to," she said miserably. "And maybe next Friday, too. I should have told you before, but I forgot-"

"Jenny, it's okay. Are you okay?"

Jenny lifted her eyes to the clear blue ones which looked at her steadily. There was something so wise about them-Jenny had the sudden impulse to throw herself into the woman's arms and tell her everything.

Mrs. Birkenkamp had been Jenny's hero for years. She never gave up or lost faith. She'd taught a child without arms to swim. Maybe she would have an answer.

But what could Jenny say? Nothing that an adult would believe. Besides, it was up to Jenny to do things for herself now. She couldn't rely on Tom anymore; she had to stand on her own feet.

"I'll be fine," she said unsteadily. "Tell all the kids hello-"

That was when Cam came in.

Dee was behind him. She had been waiting outside in her jeep. "He came over from the Center. He won't talk to anybody but you," she said.

Cam said simply, "I found her."

Jenny gasped. She actually felt dizzy for an instant. Then she said, "Where?"

"I got her address." Cam thrust a hand into the pocket of his skin-tight jeans and pulled out a grimy slip of paper.

"Right," Jenny said. "Let's go."

"Wait," Mrs. Birkenkamp said. "Jenny, what's all this about-"

"It's all right, Mrs. Birkenkamp," Jenny said, whirling around and hugging the willowy coach. "Everything's going to be all right now." She really did feel that way.

Cam directed them to the house. "Her name's Angela Seecombe. Kimberly Hall's big sister Jolie knows a guy who knows her. This is the street."

Filbert Street. East of Ramona Street, where P.C. lived, just south of Landana. Audrey and Jenny had been there, distributing flyers.

But not inside this yellow two-story house with the paint-chipped black iron fence. Jenny couldn't remember why they hadn't been let in here, but they hadn't.

"You stay here," she said. "I've got to do this myself. But, Cam-thank you." She turned to look at him, this tough kid with dandelion-fluff hair whose life had changed because his sister had gone to a party.

He shrugged, but his eyes met hers, grateful for the acknowledgment. "I wanted to."

No one answered the door of the yellow house. Jenny leaned on the bell.

Still no answer. But faintly, from inside, came the sound of a TV set.

Jenny glanced at the driveway. No car there. Maybe no adults home. She waved to Dee and Cam to stay in the car, then went around the side of the house. She unlatched the creaking iron gate and waded through thigh-deep foxtails to the back porch.

She grasped the knob of the back door firmly, Then she cast a look heavenward, took a deep breath, and tried it.

It was unlocked. Jenny stepped inside and followed the sound of the TV into a small family room.

Sitting on a rust-colored couch was the Crying Girl.

She jumped up in astonishment at the sight of Jenny, spilling popcorn from a microwave bag onto the carpet. Her long dark hair swung over her shoulders. Her haunted eyes were wide, and her mouth was open.

"Don't be afraid," Jenny said. "I'm not going to hurt you. I told you before, I need to talk to you."

Hatred flashed through the girl's face.

"I don't want to talk to you!" She darted to the telephone. "I'm calling the police-you're trespassing."

"Go ahead and call them," Jenny said with a calm she didn't feel. "And I'll tell them that you know things you haven't told them about the morning P.C. disappeared. You saw P.C., didn't you? You know where he went." She was gambling. Angela had threatened to tell in the beginning; in the bathroom she'd said she could prove P.C. didn't kill Summer. But she hadn't told-which must mean she didn't want to. Jenny was gambling that Angela would rather tell her than the police.

The girl said nothing, her slim olive-tan hand resting on the phone limply.

"Angela." Jenny went to her as she had four days ago in the high school bathroom. She put her hands on the girl's shoulders, gently this time.

"You did see P.C., didn't you? And you saw what he had with him. Angela, you've got to tell me. You don't understand how important it is. If you don't tell me, the thing that happened to P.C. could happen to other people."

The small bones under Jenny's hands lifted as Angela heaved in a shaky breath.

"I hate you____"

"No, you don't. You want something to hate because you hurt so much. I understand that. But I'm not your enemy, and I'm not a soshe or a prep or any of those things. I'm just another girl like you, trying to cope, trying to stop something bad from happening. And I hurt, too."

Dark, pensive eyes studied her face. "Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. Like hell. And if you don't believe it, you're not as smart as you look." Jenny's nose and eyes were stinging. "Listen, Summer Parker-Pearson was one of my best friends. I lost her. Now I've lost my boyfriend over this, too. I just don't want anything worse to happen-which it will, if you don't help me."

Angela's eyes dropped, but not before Jenny saw the shimmer of tears.

Jenny spoke softly. "If you know where P.C. went that morning, then you have to tell me now."

Angela shrugged off Jenny's hands and turned away. Her entire body was tense for a moment, then it slumped. "I won't tell you-but I'll show you," she said.

"Jenny? Are you in there?"

Dee's voice, from the back door. As Dee appeared, narrow-eyed and moving like a jaguar, Jenny reached out quickly to Angela. "It's okay. She's my friend. You can show us both."

The girl hesitated, then nodded, giving in.

To Jenny's surprise, she didn't head for the front door, but led them out back. Cam followed them through the foxtails. The backyard sloped down to dense brush; there was far more land here than Jenny had realized. Beside an overhanging clump of trees was a warped and leaning toolshed.

"There," Angela said. "That's where P.C. went."

"Oh, no you don't." Jenny caught Dee in mid-lunge and held her back. "This isn't the time to be yanking doors open. Remember the Game?" She herself was trembling with anxiety, triumph, and anticipation.

Angela was fumbling with a large old-fashioned locket she had tucked into her tank top. "You need this to open it, anyway. I locked it again-afterward. It was our secret place, P.C.'s and mine. Nobody else wanted it."

Jenny took the key. "So you saw him go in that morning. And then ... ?"

"Slug went in, too. P.C. climbed the porch and woke me up to get the key. That's my bedroom." She pointed to a second-story window above the porch roof. "Then he and Slug went down and unlocked the shed and went in. I could see everything from my room. I waited for them to come out-usually they just stashed stuff there and came out."

"But this time they didn't."

"No... so I waited and waited, then I got dressed. When I came down here, the door was still shut. So I opened it-but they weren't inside." She turned on Jenny suddenly, her dark eyes huge and brilliant with unshed tears. "They weren't inside! And there aren't any windows, and they didn't go out the door. And the key was on the ground. P.C. would never leave the key on the ground; he always locked up and gave it back to me. Where did they go?"

Jenny answered with a question. "There was something else on the ground, wasn't there? Besides the key?"

Angela nodded slowly.

"A..." Jenny took a breath. "A paper house."

"Yeah. A baby thing. It wasn't even new, it was kind of crumpled, and it was taped up with electrician's tape from the shed. I don't know why they took it. They usually took stuff like-" She broke off.

Dee cut a glance at Jenny, amused at the admission.

"It doesn't matter," Jenny said. "At least we know everything now. And it should still be inside if this place has been locked ever since that morning."

Angela nodded. "I didn't touch anything, even though-well, I sort of wanted to look at the house. But I didn't; I left it there on the floor. And nobody else has a key."

"Then let's go get it," Jenny said. Deep inside she was shaking. The paper house was here. They'd found it-and no wonder it had eluded them so long, sitting in a locked toolshed used by juvenile delinquents for hiding stolen goods.

"Monster positions?" Dee suggested with a flash of white teeth. She was clearly enjoying this.

"Right." Jenny took up a position beside the door. Dee stood in front of it in a kung fu stance, ready to kick it shut. It was the way they'd learned to open doors in the paper house. "Stand back, Angela. You, too, Cam."

"Now." Jenny turned the key, pulled the door open.

Nothing frightening happened. A rectangle of sunlight fell into the dusty shed. Jenny blocked it off with her own shadow as she stepped into the doorway. Then she moved inside, and Dee blocked the light.

"Come on in-I can't see-"

Then she did see-and her mind reeled.

The blank white box was on the floor, open. Beside it was the paper house Jenny had described to the police. A Victorian house, three stories and a turret. Blue.

Dee made a guttural sound.

When Jenny had last seen the paper house, it had been crushed flat to fit in the box. It was different now. It had been straightened and reinforced with black tape. But that wasn't what made Jenny's head spin and her breath catch. That wasn't what made her knees start to give way.

The paper house was exploded.

In shreds. Roof gone. Outer walls in tatters. Floors gutted.

As if something very large had burst out from the inside.

On the floor nearby, scratched impossibly deep into the concrete, was a mark. The rune Uruz. A letter from a magical alphabet, a spell to pierce the veil between the worlds. Jenny had seen it before on the inside of the box that had led them into the Shadow World. It was shaped like an angular and inverted U, with one stroke shorter than the other,

Right now she was looking at it upside-down, so that it should have looked like a regular U. But this particular rune was very uneven, the short stroke very short. From where she was standing it looked almost like a squared-off.

Like a signature.

Even as Jenny turned toward Dee, she felt herself falling.

"We're too late," she whispered. "He's out."

"Okay," Dee said, some minutes later, still holding her. "Okay, okay ..."

"It's not okay." She saw Cam and Angela peering in the doorway, and her head cleared a bit. "You two get back."

They came forward. "Is that it? What you've been looking for?" Cam squatted by the ruined house, his eyes as large and blue as Summer's. Light from the doorway made his dandelion hair glow at the edges. "What happened to it?"

Angela's dark eyes were huge-and despairing. "What happened to P.C.?"

Jenny looked at the house. It was gutted, every floor shredded. Her eyes filled again and she swallowed.

"I think he's probably dead," she said softly. "I'm sorry." The sight of Angela's misery cleared her head a little, brought her out of herself.

"Are you going to tell the police? About P.C. and me and this place?"

"The police," Jenny said bleakly, "are useless. We've learned that. There's nothing they can do. Maybe nothing anybody can do-" She stopped as an idea came to her. A desperate hope. "Angela, you said you didn't touch anything here-but are you sure? You didn't see anything on the floor, did you-like any jewelry?"

Angela shook her head. Jenny searched for it anyway. It had been inside the box; maybe it had just rolled away. It wouldn't make the police believe them, but it might just save her-if they could find it and destroy it-She looked in the opened box and all around on the concrete floor. She shook out the ruins of the paper house.

But it wasn't anywhere. The gold ring that Julian had put on her finger, the one she tried to throw away, was gone. Copyright 2016 - 2023