Zach was asleep when he first felt the creeping around his legs. Or half asleep, anyway-he hadn't really slept for days now. He hadn't dreamed. His daytime thoughts went on going even when he lay there with his eyes shut for hours.
He'd wondered what happened to you when you didn't dream for days. Hallucinations while you were walking around?
Tonight, though, he was definitely drifting when he felt the touch on his ankle. A smooth, rubbery feeling. For a moment he was paralyzed, and a moment was all it took. The rubbery feeling wound its way up his leg, his stomach, his chest. It tightened like a living rope, cutting off his breathing.
Zach's eyes flew open, and he saw clearly the head of the snake staring into his face. Its eyes were two dots of shining light; its mouth was open so wide it looked as if its jaw were dislocated. As if it were going to eat him. Out of that gaping mouth came an endless menacing hisssssssss....
Unable to move, Zach stared up at the swaying shape. Then, somehow, his perspective changed. His eyes ached from staring, but he couldn't see the snake's head anymore. The two dots of light looked more like two of the glow-in-the-dark stars he'd stuck on his ceiling when he was eight-he'd scraped most of them off when his father yelled, but a few remained.
He couldn't hear the hiss now, either. Only the shhshhshhshh of the air-conditioning.
His arms and legs were tangled up in the bedclothes.
God, he thought, and kicked the sheet and blanket off. He got up and turned on the light. Now he knew what happened when you went for days without dreaming. Of course there was no snake in his bed.
The last thing he wanted to do was lie down again, though. Might as well go out to the garage. Even if he couldn't work, it might take his mind off things.
When he got to the garage, the snake was waiting for him.
It wasn't like a real snake. It was a surrealist painter's idea of a snake-swirls of darkness that bunched and surged in a snakelike motion. Blue-white light connecting murky segments of body. A sort of combination between a snake and a lightning bolt in a storm.
It came toward him with the blind hunching of a tomato worm. It was at least ten feet long.
If I could get it over into the corner, Zach thought, his mind cold and clear ... He glanced at the corner
of the garage where his 6x6 SLR stood on a tripod. If he could get it over there, he was almost sure he could get a picture of it.
He wasn't stupid. He saw the danger he was in. But the idea of photographing this thing-seeing what it would look like on film-drove every other thought out of his mind.
It was the first time he'd cared about getting a picture since the day of the Game. All at once his artist's block disappeared, his creativity came rushing back. This was real unreality. It might be unsafe, but it was strangely beautiful, too. It was Art.
He was desperate to capture it.
Try the 35 millimeter first, his mind told him. It's closer. Eyes fixed on the wonderfully artistic monster, he reached for the camera on the desk.
The clock in Dee's jeep said 5:45. More than an hour later than it had been in Jenny's dream of Michael's room.
"Oh, God, we're going to be too late," she whispered.
And it was her fault. She hadn't woken up in time. Even with Julian's warning, she hadn't woken up in time.
"Hurry up, Dee! Hurry!"
Trees were silhouetted against a flamingo dawn when they reached Zach's house.
"Let's go through the garage," Tom said as they all jumped out of the jeep. "Last time I was here, the door was unlocked."
Zach wouldn't be so stupid tonight, Jenny thought, but there was no time to argue. She was following the others at a run to the side door of the garage. The door opened under Tom's hand, and they all burst inside.
The garage light was on. There was a sharp, strange smell to the air. A dark circle of soot on the floor.
In its center was a paper doll with gray eyes.
"I was too late," Jenny said stupidly, looking down at the paper-doll Zach she was holding. It stared back at her, the fine lines of its face shaded by Zach's artist's hand. The penciled eyes seemed vaguely surprised.
Dee was rubbing the soot between her fingers. Tom was standing in front of the corner where Zach's camera and a tungsten floodlamp lay knocked over.
"There was a fight," he said.
Michael just licked his lips and shivered.
"His parents must not have heard anything," Jenny said slowly, after a moment. "Or they'd be down here. So we'd better write them a note-from Zach, saying that he's gone to school already."
Michael's voice was subdued. "You're crazy. We can't keep this up. Eventually some of your parents are going to talk to each other-"
"What good is it going to do my aunt and uncle to know Zach's gone? What can they do?"
"Put us in orange coveralls," Dee said from the floor. "Too many disappearances," she added succinctly. "If we lose any more friends, we're going to jail. Now, come on, stop talking, and let's get out of here."
Jenny crept into the house and wrote the note before they left.
Back in the car Tom said, "I don't see how we can go to school ourselves. Not and stick together."
"Then we'll have to take the day off," Dee said. "Gosh, too bad."
Michael looked at her balefully from the front passenger seat. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
She gave him a distinctly uncivilized smile.
"We've got to figure out where the base is," Jenny was saying in the back seat. She'd controlled herself very well this time, she thought: no screaming or crying even when she saw the paper doll of Zach. But the rasping feeling of guilt was still with her. "I haven't been very good at figuring out the clues so far," she said, keeping her voice level so the others wouldn't think she was drowning in self-pity.
"Because Julian wants it that way," Dee said. Jenny had told them about the dream-leaving out the kiss-on the drive to Zach's house. "He's not playing this Game straight. We got the first clue in plenty of time, but it was too hard. The second clue was dead easy, but there wasn't time to do anything about it."
"I should have woken up sooner," Jenny said in a low voice.
Beside her, Tom started to reach for her, and Jenny saw his face, all planes and shadows in the early morning light. Tom Locke even looked good at the crack of dawn; he woke up looking that way.
Tom's hand dropped back to his side. Jenny knew what it was without asking. She was sitting on his right in the car, and her left hand, with the ring, was in between them.
She looked out the window fiercely and pretended she didn't mind.
"You know, there's one reason I did want to go to school today," she said. "To try and find out about Eric-the guy Audrey was with. See if he's okay."
"I could probably call his house and ask. I know him a little," Tom said, to show he was still talking to her, even if he wouldn't touch her. Oh, we're terribly courteous, Jenny thought. For all the good that does.
"We can call from the apartment," Michael said. "We should probably get some food first."
"No, I tell you what let's do," Dee said, her voice excited. "Ixt's go see Aba."
"Not everybody sleeps like you, Mikey. Besides, she'll give us breakfast."
In the back seat Jenny leaned forward. A heavy weight seemed to have lifted from her chest, at least for the moment. "You're right," she said to Dee. "Let's go see Aba. Maybe she knows what we should do."
Aba lived in a house beside Dee's mother's house. The two buildings were on the same property, but Aba's house had a distinctly different character. Dee and her friends always called it the Art Pavilion.
One entire wing was devoted to Aba's craft, centering around the studio where she did her sculpting. The large, airy room was all soaring asymmetrical walls and skylights.
Aba was at work when the children came in, taking moist gray clay from a bowl and slapping it on a wire armature.
"What's it going to be?" Dee asked, coming up behind her.
"Good morning," Aba said firmly, and when they'd all said good morning, she said, "A bust ofNeetu Badhu, your mother's manicurist. She has a very interesting face, and she's due here at seven."
"Then we'd better hurry," Dee said. "Is it okay if we use your phone? And get some breakfast?"
"There are caramel rolls in the kitchen," Aba said, "Get them-and then come back and tell me why you're here."
While the others went to the kitchen, Tom got on the phone.
"Eric's okay," he said when he hung up. "He was home from school today, but there's nothing really wrong with him. The police are interested in talking with anybody who saw the attack, though-which means Audrey."
Michael stopped eating his roll. "Which means they might be trying to track her down," he said. "Great."
"Don't worry about it, Mikey," Dee said comfortingly. "You'll probably be next, so you won't be here when our Great Deception comes crashing down."
"Dee," Aba said, "have you been telling lies?"
"Yup. Our whole life these last few days has been a tissue of fibs."
Aba shook her head and wiped her clay-smeared hands on her denim smock. "Now," she said to the group, "tell me."
And they did. They told her the truth about what had been happening since they'd been released from the police station; how they'd been looking for the paper house, how they'd found it, what Julian had said to Jenny about the new Game. And what had happened to Zach and Audrey.
Aba listened to it all, her beautiful old face grave and attentive. When seven o'clock came, she sent the manicurist away, covered the bust with a wet cloth, and kept listening.
When they finished, she sat quietly for a moment. fenny half expected her to say something about how wrong it was to deceive their parents-Aba was an adult, after all. She half expected Aba to say that Dee couldn't stay with the rest of them because it was too dangerous. And, although she didn't expect it, she wished passionately that Aba would say, "Here's the answer," and solve all their problems for them.
Aba did none of these things. Instead, after several minutes of quiet sitting, she said, "You know, last light I dreamed a Hausa story my mother used to tell me, It's been a long, long time since I thought of that story. I wonder if I didn't dream it for you."
"Yes. Maybe I was meant to tell it to you." She sat back and thought for a moment, then began, "The story is about a boy and a girl who were in love. But one day, as they were sitting on their mat together, Iblis came along and cut off the boy's head and killed him."
"Iblis?" The name sounded vaguely familiar to Jenny. "Who's that?"
"Ms," Aba said gravely, "is the prince of darkness, the prince of the aljunnu- "
"The genies," Dee said, her eyes flashing at Jenny.
"Yes," Aba said. "But in our folklore the aljunnu were not kind genies. They were powerful and evil pits, and Iblis was their leader. My mother never told me why he cut the boy's head off-but then Iblis always liked to do evil and mischief; maybe he had to particular reason. In any case, Iblis killed the boy, and the girl could do nothing but sit on the mat and
cry. After a while the boy's parents came along, and when they saw what had happened, they began to cry, too.
"Then Iblis came back. He waved his hand, and the ground rocked. In front of the boy there appeared a river of fire, a river of water, and a river of cobras. And Iblis turned to the boy's mother and said, "If you would like to bring your son back to life, all you have to do is swim through the three rivers to get him."
"Yeah, right," Michael muttered almost inaudibly. Aba smiled at him and went on.
"But," she said, "the boy's mother was afraid. She turned to her husband, but he was just as frightened.
"Then the girl jumped up. 'I'll do it,' she said. Naturally, she was terribly afraid, but her love for the boy was stronger than her fear. Without another word the girl dived into the river of fire. The ire burned her, of course-my mother always said 'the fire burned her like fire'-but she swam through it and leaped into the river of water. And the water choked her-like water-but the girl struggled through it and fell into the river of snakes. And the snakes struck at her-"
"-like snakes-" Dee put in, grinning.
"-but the girl managed to stumble through them, and the next thing she knew she had reached the boy.
"As soon as she touched him, the boy's head flew to his shoulders and he jumped up, alive and well. Iblis left, cursing, to do his mischief in some other part of the world. And I suppose the boy and the girl got married, although I don't really remember what my mother said about that.
"Well," Aba said, looking around at them. "That's the story as my mother told it to me. I don't know what meaning it has for you-maybe none. But you've heard it now."
"Maybe it just means that love can be stronger than fear," Jenny said softly.
"Maybe it means you can't trust your parents," Michael said, absolutely deadpan, and Aba laughed.
"I like Jenny's interpretation better. But as I said, there may be no meaning. Or possibly it's just a story about the relative powers of good and evil."
Jenny looked up quickly. "Do you believe in good and evil?"
"Oh, yes. Very strongly. And I believe that evil sometimes has to be fought-personally. Hand to hand. If you care enough to do it."
Michael stirred. "You know what they say about kids our age. That we don't care about right or wrong or anything. That we don't even care about the future."
"Yeah, like the Baby Busters," Dee said, grinning.
"Naw, we're too young even to be Baby Busters. We're the Busted Babies."
Jenny spoke seriously. "It's not true. We do care. You care, Michael, more than just about anybody I've ever known. You pretend you don't, but you do. And that's why Audrey loves-" She stopped because Michael was looking away, his sarcastic spaniel eyes filmed over. "We're going to find Audrey," she said, her own throat tight.
"I know," Michael said and rubbed at the bridge of his nose with his fingers.
"I wish I could help," Aba said. "But I'm an old woman. My fighting days are over."
"Well, mine aren't," Dee said, raising a slim arm to examine the hard muscle under velvet skin. "Mine are just starting." Aba looked at her and smiled slightly. For years she and Dee had fought about Dee preferring kung fu to college and insisting that she didn't want to do anything brainy like her mother or arty like her grandmother. But just then Jenny knew Aba was proud of her warrior granddaughter.
"It's our fight anyway," Jenny said. "He wont let anyone else into the Game. The original players, he said."
"I think," Aba said, looking directly at her, "that if anyone can find your friends, it will be you, Jenny." Her eyes were very gentle and very sad; they reminded Jenny of pictures of Albert Einstein. At that moment Jenny thought that Aba really was more beautiful than Dee.
"I'll try," Jenny said. As the old woman turned away, Jenny just caught the murmured words, "But I wonder what the cost will be."
Before they left, Aba let them raid the kitchen. They took cottage cheese and cold chicken breasts; cereal and microwave brownies and grapes and pippin apples.
On the way back they stopped by Audrey's house and picked up Audrey's car.
Michael's living room was beginning to look like the aftermath of a very long party, Jenny thought as they walked into the apartment. The furniture had been pushed to the extreme edges of the room to make room for the mattresses and sleeping bags on the floor. The plaid couch was a nest of rumpled blankets. Empty Coke cans were scattered everywhere, and most flat surfaces were crowded with books or clothes or stacks of dirty dishes.
"Okay," Dee said, coming in from the kitchen with Michael. "Now what about that base?" She sat down on a footstool with a bowl of cottage cheese and chopped apple.
"We don't have enough information," Jenny said. "He hasn't told me enough." Every time she said he, Tom walled up. There was no help for it, just as there was no help for the shining thing on her finger. It caught every glint of the spring sunlight coming in Michael's front window, and she swore she could feel the words on the inside of the band.
"I've been trying to think," she said, "about abandoned buildings or things-places around here he might hold them. But that doesn't seem right."
"In mysteries," Michael said thoughtfully, "things are always hidden in the least likely place. Or the most obvious place-because you always think that's the least likely. I guess it couldn't be the paper house."
"It was trashed," Jenny said. "I don't think it would hold anything. Besides, how could we get in on our own? It was Julian who brought us in last time." She knew, somehow, that Julian's base wasn't in the paper house. And she knew something else: Julian wouldn't find the Game amusing unless there was a chance of them finding the base. He would put it somewhere they could get to-if they were smart enough to figure out where to look.
"I guess the More Games store is too obvious," Michael murmured.
"Too obvious and gone," said Jenny. "It's just a mural now. No, Julian would put it somewhere clever."
"What is it, Tom?" Dee said. "You have an idea?"
Tom was wearing the look he wore mostly these days-one of abstraction. Just now he also seemed disturbed. He got up and walked toward the kitchen, fingers in his back pockets.
"If you think you know something ..." Dee said,
"No. Nothing." Tom shook his head and sat back down.
"Okay, let's go back to the beginning," Michael said.
But it didn't help. They talked uselessly through the morning and most of the afternoon, until an elderly woman came and rang the doorbell, demanding that Michael move Audrey's car because it was in her parking space.
Dee went down with him. Tom paced the hallway slowly while Jenny sat on the couch staring aimlessly out the window. They were stuck, no closer to figuring out where the base was than they had been two days ago.
And she was tired. She let her eyelids shut, seeing the golden afternoon sunlight on her closed lids. Then suddenly the light went dark.
Jenny's eyes flew open. Although it had been a bright, cloudless day, there was some sort of mist coating the window. Preventing her from seeing out. Jenny stared at it, pulse quickening, then she drew in her breath and leaned closer.
It wasn't mist-that would have been strange enough. But it was something stranger than that. It was ice.
Touched by the Frost King, Jenny's mother used to say back in Pennsylvania when the windows iced up like that. Jenny hadn't seen it since she was five years old. In those days she'd loved to trace things in the frost with the warmth of her finger... .
Something was appearing on the window as if traced by an unseen finger. A letter.
Jenny couldn't breathe. Her mouth opened to call for Tom, but no sound came out.
I. T. T.L.E....
Little. The letters appeared slowly as if a fingertip were tracing them on the icy window.
M. I. S. S. M. U. F. F. E. T. S. A. T... .
Jenny watched, scalp crawling. She couldn't seem to make herself move. It was too strange, to be sitting here in daylight and seeing something that simply couldn't happen.
0. N. A. T. U. F. F. E. T. E. A. T. I. N. G. H. E. R....
It's me, Jenny thought, gripped by an irrational certainty. This time it's me he's after. I'm Miss Muffet.
C. U. R. D. S. A. N. D. W. H. E. Y. A. L. O. N. G....
Still unable to move, Jenny's eyes shifted upward. A spider. She was afraid of spiders, and crickets, and all crawly, jumpy things. She expected to see a thread descending from the ceiling, but there was nothing.
C. A. M. E. A. S. P. I. D. E. R. A. N. D. S. A. T. D. O. W. N. B. E. S. I. D. E. H.E.R____
The Spider. The Spider, Jenny thought. Audrey's car.
"Tom," she whispered. And then suddenly she was moving, tearing her eyes from the letters that were still appearing. "Tom, come here. Tom!"
As she ran she almost fell over the footstool where Dee had been sitting earlier. Eating cottage cheese, small curd. Curds and whey.