LAWS OF GRAVITY
At last, everything was sorted out.
Her clothes had finally found their way into the right drawers. Books lined their new shelves in alphabetical order, and her computer’s tangled mop of cables had been subdued with rubber bands into a thick ponytail. The moving boxes were out in the garage, folded flat and wrapped with twine for Monday’s recycling truck. Only one last box, labelled CRAP in black marker, sat in the corner of her room, filled with a dozen boy-band posters, two pink sweaters, and a stuffed dinosaur, all of which seemed way too childish for her new life.
Jessica Day wondered if she’d really changed that much since packing the box in Chicago. Maybe it was getting arrested that had suddenly made her feel older. (Okay, officially she’d been “detained and transported to parental custody.” Whatever.) Or maybe it was having a boyfriend. (Although that wasn’t official yet either, come to think of it.) Or maybe it was the secret world that had opened up around her here in Bixby and then had tried so hard to kill her.
But everything was organized now, she told herself again.
For example: thirteen thumbtacks were lined up under each window in her room, and thirteen paper clips rested on the lintel of the door. She wore a thirteen-pointed star around her neck, and in a shoe box under her bed were Anfractuously, Explosiveness, and Demonstration (also known as a bicycle lock, a highway flare, and a heavy flashlight). All their names had thirteen letters, and all three objects were made of bright stainless steel.
Looking at her bedside clock, Jessica felt the flutter of nerves that always came at this time of night. Excitement, an anxiousness to get started, and a suddenly dry tongue, as if she were about to take a driver’s test at a hundred miles an hour.
She took a deep breath to calm herself and sat down carefully on her neatly made bed, unwilling to disturb anything. Even taking a book down from the shelf might unbalance the whole night. The room’s neatness felt precarious, though; it could only go downhill from here.
Jessica got that feeling a lot these days.
Cross-legged on the bed, she felt something in the front pocket of her jeans. She fished it out: the quarter she’d found in the closet while cleaning up. The previous tenants must have left it behind. Jessica flipped it in the air, the metal flashing as it spun.
On the third flip, at the top of the coin’s arc, a shudder seemed to pass through the room…
No matter how carefully she watched her clock, the exact moment of change always startled Jessica, like the jolt of the L train back in Chicago when it began to roll. Color bled from the world, the light turned cool and flat and blue, and the low moan of the Oklahoma wind fell suddenly silent. Suspended in the air before her, the quarter shone softly, a tiny and motionless flying saucer. She stared at it hard for a while, careful not to get too close and break the spell.
“Heads,” she finally declared, then reached under the bed to free Explosiveness and Demonstration from their shoe box. She stuffed them into the big front pocket of her sweatshirt and crawled out the window.
Out on the front lawn, Jessica waited again. She didn’t bother to hide, although she was still grounded for another two weeks (one result of the whole getting-arrested thing). The houses around her glowed with a faint blue light. No one was watching, nothing moved on the street; even the scattering of falling autumn leaves hovered motionless in the air, trailing from the dark trees like long dresses. The world was Jessica’s now.
But not hers alone.
A shape grew against the cloudy sky, arcing from rooftop to rooftop, gracefully and silently bounding toward her. He hit the same houses every night, like a pinball following a familiar route down the bumpers. Just like Dess said she could see numbers in her head, Jonathan claimed he could see the angles of his flight, the most elegant path appearing before him in bright lines.
Jess touched the reassuring weight of the flashlight through the sweatshirt’s cotton. They all had their talents.
As Jonathan softly corkscrewed to the earth before her, Jessica’s nervous energy began to turn into something more pleasurable. She watched his body coil, knees flexing and arms spreading, absorbing the impact of his scant midnight weight against the grass, and felt herself pack the last threads of her anxiety away in a box labelled CRAP at the back of her brain. Fear had been necessary for her first two weeks here in the secret hour—her survival had depended on it. But she didn’t need it anymore.
“Hey,” she said.
Jonathan swept his gaze around the horizon, checking for anything with wings. Then turned to her and smiled. “Hi, Jess.”
She stood still, letting him cross the lawn to reach her. His steps carried him in soft arcs a foot high, kind of like an astronaut taking a stroll on the moon.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Just watching you walk.”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s harder than it looks, you know. I prefer flying.”
“Me too.” She leaned forward carefully, not reaching out with her hands, gently closing her eyes. As her lips brushed his, gravity lifted from Jessica, a familiar lightness flowing through her body.
She pulled away and sighed, her sneakers settling back into the grass.
His long, dark lashes blinked. “You’re in a funny mood.”
Jessica shrugged. “I’m just… happy.” She turned around, taking in the softly glowing houses, the empty sky. “This all seems safe, finally.”
“I get it. So you don’t need me to protect you anymore?”
She whirled to face Jonathan. He was smiling broadly now.
“Maybe not.” She patted Demonstration again. “But we do need to study for that physics test.”
He held out his hand. Jessica took it, and the lightness filled her again.
Flying with Jonathan had become like breathing. They hardly spoke, negotiating their course with a gesture toward an open stretch of road. Just before each jump, Jess tightened her right hand around his. She loved seeing the world as he did, looking down from the peaks of their arcing path onto Bixby’s grid of dusty streets and autumn-thinned lawns, frozen cars, and dark houses.
They didn’t head for downtown tonight; she tugged him into a winding course around the edge of Bixby. Without saying so out loud, Jessica wanted to test how close she could get to the badlands without attracting attention. Since she had discovered her talent (not as wonderful as Jonathan’s, but far more formidable), none of the things that lived in the frozen time had dared to challenge her.
The badlands were visible from here, a dark bruise stretching across the blue horizon, but she and Jonathan were alone in the sky, except for a lonely, motionless owl riding the stilled winds.
The darklings and their kin were still very afraid of her, Jessica told herself.
“Need a break?” Jonathan asked.
It was hard work, flying. Jumping with all her strength again and again, wrapping her brain around the strange rules of Jonathan’s midnight gravity. In physics they’d just learned about Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion. Jessica had four.
One: Jump at the same time as Jonathan. Otherwise you go spinning.
Two: Push off forward, not straight up. You want to get somewhere, not hang around in midair.
Three: Flat is good. Aim to land on rooftops, parking lots, and roads. Lawn ornaments can be painful.
Four: Never let go of Jonathan’s hand. (She’d learned that one the hard way. Two weeks later the last bruises on her knees and elbows were just beginning to fade.)
“How about up there?” Jonathan pointed toward a gas station sign that towered over the interstate. A clear view in every direction, no possibility of a sneak attack.
They landed on the gas station’s roof, then pushed off at a high angle, floating upward to the edge of the darkened sign, their feet alighting softly on the rusty metal. When Jonathan released Jessica’s hand, real-life weight pressed down on her. She swallowed and steadied her feet, a fear of heights returning along with gravity.
Something strange caught Jessica’s eye. Half visible in the open field behind the gas station, a hazy column rose from the scrub grass.
“Hey, what’s that?”
Jonathan chuckled. “That’s a real-life Oklahoma dust devil.”
Jessica peered through the darkness. Motionless, glowing fragments were scattered throughout the apparition, suspended on a blurry, crooked tower of blue. “It looks like the ghost of a tornado.”
“Dust devils are tornadoes, sort of. Really weak ones. When I first moved here, I used to go out in the desert and stand in them.”
“Hmm.” Jessica could see paper cups and a sheet of newspaper suspended in the vortex. “Looks kind of like a garbage devil, actually.”
“Maybe here close to town. Not out in the desert, though. Just pure Oklahoma dust.”
“Sounds… dusty.” Jessica glanced upward. The dark moon was just visible through the patchwork clouds. She sighed. The midnight hour was half over already.
They sat at the edge of the sign, legs dangling over the precarious drop. With her arm through Jonathan’s, his lightness filled her again, and the distance to the ground didn’t seem so terrible.
Another beautiful view, she thought. The highway to Tulsa stretched out before them, dotted with eighteen-wheelers pulling all-nighters. She saw another owl high above them, balancing on the air currents that fed the dust devil.
Jessica pressed her shoulder against Jonathan’s, realizing they’d only kissed once tonight, when he’d landed.
“We should probably talk about that physics test,” he said.
“Oh, yeah. Sure.” She looked at him and narrowed her eyes. “You actually like physics, don’t you?”
“What’s not to like?” He pulled a candy bar from his pocket and started to inhale it. Flying made Jonathan hungry. Breathing made Jonathan hungry.
Jessica sighed. “Uh, lots of formulas to remember, lots of homework.”
“Yeah, but physics answers all the important questions.”
“Like if you’re driving a car at the speed of light and turn your high beams on, what happens?”
Jessica shook her head. “Yeah, how did I survive without knowing that one?” She frowned. “And I’m only three months from a license. You think that’ll be on the written?”
Jonathan laughed. “You know what I mean. Physics is full of crazy stuff like that, but it’s also real.”
“With you it is.” Jessica pulled his hand to her lips. “Here at midnight.”
She thought of the quarter suspended in the air back in her bedroom and smiled. “So, here’s a physics question for you, Jonathan. When you flip a coin in the air, does it stop moving for a second right at the top?”
“That’s easy: no.” He sounded absolutely confident, annoyingly so.
“Because it’s on the earth, which is spinning and orbiting the sun, and the sun’s moving through space at like six hundred meters per—”
“Wait, stop.” She sighed. “Okay, let’s say the earth wasn’t spinning or any of that other stuff. Wouldn’t the coin stop for a moment right at the top?”
“Nope,” he said without any pause, staring into the frozen vortex of the dust devil as if seeing the answer there. “The coin would be spinning around its own axis and would probably travel in an arc.”
“Not this coin,” Jessica said firmly. “It goes straight up and down and isn’t spinning. So right at the top, there’s a moment where it stops moving, right?”
“Why the hell not?”
Jonathan said with maddening surety, “Well, there is a point right at the top where the coin’s vector is zero. When gravity cancels out its upward momentum.”
“So it’s not moving.”
He shook his head. “Nope. The coin is going up, then the next instant it’s going back down. Zero time passes when it’s not moving, so it’s always moving.”
Jessica groaned. “Physics! Sometimes I think the darklings have the right plan. All these new ideas can only give you brain damage. Anyway, you’re wrong. The coin does stop.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
She reached for his hand, lifting him to his feet. “Come back to my room. I’ll prove it to you.”
He frowned at her. “What about—?”
She pulled him closer and kissed him. “Just come.”
They sped straight across town, shooting across the dust covered lot of a derelict car dealership and down an empty stretch of Division Street. Jessica pulled Jonathan along in determined silence. She didn’t care if she failed the test on Monday or not. She’d spent so much of her time with Jonathan in motion, running for her life or avoiding the winged things sent to watch her. Even when they rested, she and Jonathan were always balanced on some dizzying summit—the top of a building, a grain silo, or in the cold, precarious struts of an electrical tower. She just wanted to be somewhere normal with him.
Even if it was her bedroom. In twenty-five minutes he’d have to head home anyway.
The familiar sight of her street opened up below them, wide and lined with oaks scattering their last few leaves. They made a turn from the house on the corner (black tar paper shingles gave the best friction). One last jump would carry them to her lawn.
She pulled him close.
“Jessica…” His voice was cold.
“Just come in for a few—”
He twisted his body, spun them in the air, his free hand pointing at the ground below.
Jessica looked but saw nothing. Her blood ran cold. She reached instinctively for Demonstration and brought it to her lips, ready to whisper its name.
They descended to the grass, and he clutched her tight and pushed off again. She didn’t know where Jonathan was headed; he’d taken over their flight completely, as if she were just baggage. Jessica scanned the skies for darklings, slithers, anything. But there were only clouds and the setting moon above them.
The jump was low and hard and sent them scrambling to a stop on the roof of the house across the street. Jessica felt a fingernail break as her palms rubbed raw against the slate. This was the first place Jonathan had ever flown her, she remembered for a moment, and like that first time, she was being pulled along like a balloon on a string.
They came to a skidding halt at the apex of the roof.
“Down there!” he whispered, pointing at the dense bushes that ran along the edge of the yard.
“A darkling?” A mere slither wouldn’t have alarmed him like this.
“I don’t know. It looked… human.”
A midnighter? she wondered. Why would one of the others be spying on them?
They crept forward and peered over the edge of the roof.
The figure was crouched in the bushes, a human shape huddled in a long coat against the autumn chill, holding some dark object up to its face. Jessica counted to ten slowly; it remained absolutely still.
“It’s just a stiff,” she said aloud, then realized she had used Melissa’s word. “Someone normal.”
“But what’s it… What’s he doing down there?”
They rose together and stepped from the edge of the roof into a slow, graceful descent.
From the ground she could see the ghostly pallor of the man’s skin, the unrealness of his frozen stance. He was young and handsome, but daylight people always looked ungainly here in the blue time, like the inexplicably dorky poses Jessica always managed to strike in photographs. His jeweled watch was frozen at midnight exactly.
The object in his hands was a camera, its lens jutting through the bushes like a long, black snout.
“Oh my God,” she whispered.
The camera was pointed at her house. At her window.
“Yeah, I see.”
“He’s some kind of stalker!”
Jonathan’s voice grew soft. “Who just happens to be here at midnight? Watching your house?”
“He can’t possibly know anything. He’s a stiff.”
“I guess.” He took a tentative step closer to the man, snapping his fingers in front of his face. No response.
“What do we do, Jonathan?”
He bit his lip. “I guess we go see Rex tomorrow and ask him what this means.” He turned back to her. “For right now, you have to go back in.”
“What?” She looked at her window. She’d left it open, protected only by a gauzy curtain. “I don’t want to go back in there with him… watching.”
“You have to, Jess. Midnight’s over soon. You don’t want to get caught out here. You’d be grounded forever.”
“I know, but…” She looked at the man. There were worse things than being grounded.
“I’ll stay right here,” Jonathan said. “I’ll hide and wait until midnight ends and make sure he doesn’t do anything.”
Jessica’s feet were rooted to the spot, normal gravity heavy on her.
“Go on, Jess. I’ll be watching him.”
There was no use arguing. The midnight moon was setting, and she didn’t want to sneak back in the window during normal time. Once the man unfroze, she was probably safer inside than out. She touched Jonathan’s arm. “Okay. But be careful.”
“Everything’s going to be fine, I promise. I’ll call you tomorrow morning.” He kissed her hard and long this time, giving her one last taste of featherlightness. Then Jessica crossed the street and crawled in through her window.
The obsessively neat room seemed cold now, unwelcoming in the blue light. Jess ran her fingers along the bottom of the windowsill, feeling the thirteen thumbtacks. In a few minutes they would be useless. Number magic couldn’t protect her from the man outside. Soon even Demonstration would be just a flashlight.
She shut the sash and locked it, then moved around the room, securing the other windows.
A glance at her watch confirmed that she didn’t have time to check the locks in the whole house, not without waking up her parents or Beth. But she had to do something. She went to the neatly organized drawer of scissors, tape, and computer disks, found a rubber stop, and wedged it beneath her bedroom door. At least if anyone tried to come into her room, they’d make a lot of noise.
Still, Jessica knew she wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.
Sitting on the floor, her back against the door, she waited, clutching Demonstration in her hands. It might not do its flamethrower thing in normal time, but with its heavy steel shaft, it was better than nothing.
Jessica closed her eyes, waiting for the safety of the blue time to end.
The jolt came again—softer, as always when the suspended moment of midnight finished. The floor trembled beneath her, the world shuddering as it started up again.
A noise reached her ears and her eyes jerked open, her knuckles white against the flashlight. Color had flooded back into the room. There were hard shadows and bright, sharp details everywhere. Jessica squinted through the suddenly harsh light, eyes darting from window to window.
Then she saw what had made the noise and let out a sigh of relief. The quarter sat on her floor where it had finally fallen, bright against the dark wood.
Jessica crawled over and peered down at it.
“Tails,” she muttered.