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13

11:45 p.m.

INTRUDER

Jessica lifted a corner of the shade to peer out, wondering if the movement could be seen from the bushes across the street. Her lights were off, of course, and shed draped T-shirts across the pulsing eyes of her bedside clock and snoozing computer. The only light in her bedroom crept in beneath the door: the faint glow of the hall night-light.

She couldnt see anything outsidenothing human, anyway. Just intertwined tree branches, fallen leaves, and a few pools of illumination gathered under porch lights.

Somewhere out there, Melissa was searching, sifting through the few waking minds for one thinking stalking thoughts. If she and Rex were actually in town tonight and not headed off to the edge of the badlands to tangle with monsters. Jonathan had told her the story as hed driven her home from schoolhow theyd stumbled onto a house where darklings gave orders to human followers in midnight s'eances.

Jessica shuddered, trying to imagine the half-thing that made this communication possible, the kidnapped midnighter somehow melded with a darkling.

Jonathan had also passed on Rexs assurances that Jessica would be safe for a while; something about a stolen domino, which hadnt been completely convincing. What if the man with the camera already had his orders? What if he had a spare set of dominoes? Didnt seem like much to bet your life on.

Jessica knew she wouldnt be out of danger until the blue time came, when she and Jonathan could soar above Bixby to safety. She glanced at her watch: only twelve minutes to go.

A noise crept into the room.

It was the sound of creaking wood. And it was definitely coming from inside the house. Jessica dropped the window shade, turned, and froze.

Along the dim strip of light creeping beneath the door a shadow moved, accompanied by the faintest of complaints from the wooden floorboards.

Mom? Her mouth moved to form the word, but no sound came out. She tightened her lips. If it was her mother, she would knock or say something, wouldnt she?

Jessica waited motionless for what felt like a solid minute, her heartbeat rising slowly into her throat. The shadow under the door didnt move. In the darkness Jessicas vision began to conjure stirrings in the corners of her room. The light under the door seemed to grow in intensity, and the moan of the wind outside kept getting louder.

Were they waiting for midnight? That wouldnt make any sense if they were normal humans. Unless they planned to attack in the last minutes before the secret hour came, to bundle her up all ready for the darklings. But why? To join her with some darkling body to do their bidding?

Jessica chewed her lip. She couldnt just stand here.

Slowly she knelt by the bed, sliding out her weapons box. Ignoring the flashlight and lighter, she pulled out Anfractuously, the bicycle lock. Made of heavy steel, it was suitable for both midnight and daylight threats.

She took slow steps toward the door, stood to the side, back against the wall, and raised Anfractuously above her head.

A loud thump filled the room; the bicycle lock had struck the wall behind her.

Jessica froze.

A whisper pierced the door: Jess?

Beth? She yanked open the door, revealing her tousle-headed sister standing there in pajamas. You little sneak! What are you doing outside my door? she hissed.

Beth walked into the room, looking around interestedly. Well, mostly I was wondering what you were doing here inside your room.

Shhh! Youll wake up Mom and Dad, Jessica whispered. Beth had spoken in a normal voice.

So close the door.

Jessica groaned and glanced at her clock, but the numbers were obscured by the T-shirt shed draped over it. If her little sister was still here at midnight, things were going to get tricky.

Beth followed her gaze. Interesting. Is that to hide the light?

Shhh! Jessica hissed again. She relented and closed the door. The last thing she needed was her parents joining them. What do you want?

I want to know whats going on with you.

What do you mean, Beth?

Well, the blinds are drawn, the lights are off, youre dressed, and youve got your bike lock in your hand. Going somewhere?

Jess looked down at Anfractuously. This was to bash your brains in with, actually.

Beth smiled sweetly. Who did you think I was?

No one, Jessica said. Just some retarded serial killer in pajamas. Now why dont you go back to bed?

You need to get your watch fixed, Beth announced. Its wrong every morning.

Jessica paused, although she knew that pausing was always a bad idea with Beth. It gave her little brain time to think it knew more than it really did. Yeah, I guess its running fast.

Yeah, but exactly an hour fast? Every morning?

I miss Chicago time, Jessica said, a trickle of sweat beginning to crawl down her back. Just how much had Beth noticed?

Nice try. Chicago time and Bixby time are the same.

Jessica sighed. Okay, Beth, you win. Every night I fly to New York on my broom to attend wild parties, and in the morning I sometimes forget to set my watch back to Bixby time. Satisfied?

Beth sat down on the bed, nodding slowly. Not completely, but at least were getting somewhere.

Where youre getting is into trouble. Leave. This is my room!

So call Mom.

Jessica took a breath and opened her mouth, but all that leaked out was another deadly pause, which was as unstoppable as Beths growing smile.

Didnt think so. On a related topic, Jess, I tried to wake you up Sunday morning. But mysteriously, I couldnt open your door.

Maybe I locked it.

Beth snorted. Your door doesnt have a lock. I am your little sisterI know these things. I suspect that you jammed this under it. She held up a doorstop, the one Jessica had secured her door with the night theyd spotted the stalker.

Thats mine.

Beth dropped it onto the bed with a smile. Yes, it is. And when I find out what youre up to, you will be mine.

Jessica glanced at her watch. Six minutes. If the darkling groupies would just burst in now, she could jump into her closet, and in the confusion they would assume that Beth was her and whisk her off to the badlands, where she could annoy the darklings until they were forced to escape into yet another hidden hour or perhaps another dimension entirely. A win-win situation.

Waiting for someone? Beth asked.

Yes you. To leave.

Someone whos coming at, oh Beth whisked the T-shirt off the bedside clock. Twelve?

Jessica just shook her head. Her heart was pounding too hard for her to say anything. Maybe if she stood very still and came back to this exact spot when the hour had ended, Beth wouldnt notice any minuscule changes in her position.

But Beth, it seemed, was noticing everything.

She sat on the bed, eyes sweeping the room. Youre majorly grounded, but theres always dirt on your sneakers in the morning. And rust and grease on your jeans. Its like you go out Dumpster diving every night.

Jessica ground her teeth together. Beth must have been spying on her for weeks, probably since theyd arrived in Bixby. All the time shed been worrying about her poor, friendless sister having trouble adjusting to the new town, the little sneak had been busy snooping.

It occurred to Jessica that she could really let Beth in for an eyeful. All she had to do was wait until midnight came and when it ended be standing just behind her or in another room entirely, vanishing before Beths snotty, superior gaze.

Of course, if Beth saw her disappear, she might start talking about it. Mom and Dad wouldnt believe her, but if she told someone at school, the story might eventually get back to the other midnighters. Rex wouldnt be very happy about that.

Even worse, instead of being terrified, Beth would probably decide to start showing up every night at midnight, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.

Did you think I wouldnt notice how love-happy you are all the time? Beth continued. Or were, at least until you got all paranoid Saturday night. And now youre waving that thing around. Beth pointed at the bicycle lock, still in Jessicas hand. That guy you got busted with, Jonathanhes been in trouble with the police a bunch, right?

Beth, you dont know what youre talking about.

Thats right, I dont. Ive never met this guy; he could be a total psycho for all I know. Her eyes fell to the floor. Jess, Im worried about you.

Jessica blinked. Youre what?

Worried. About. You. Beth pulled her knees up onto the bed and hugged them. The superior smile had faded from her face. You never got brought home by the cops before, or snuck around, or lied to me.

Beth, I dont

You lie to me all the time now, Jessica. I can tell. Beth looked straight at her, daring her to disagree. You werent like this before we came to this stupid town. I knew all your friends back then.

Jessica swallowed. It seemed so long ago, like another life, but she did remember. Before Mom and Dad had announced the big move to Bixby and the packing and goodbyes had turned Beth into a full-time whiner, the two of them had always talked. Teased and argued mostly, but never lied to each other.

Beth. I dont mean to keep secrets from you. Its just that Jessicas voice caught. Beths eyes were so full of longing; she needed something to cling to here in Bixby.

It would be so easy to tell her.

Guiltily, Jessica allowed herself to imagine the look of awe on her little sisters face. Beth wouldnt believe it at first, but Jessica could prove it in another two minutes, flitting from one spot to another in the blink of an eye. Beth would have to accept the truth, and Jessica would have an ally when she had to cover things up. There would be one less person in the world to deceive.

Beth

What?

The words didnt come, of course. She would hate herself if she said them. For years the others had kept the secret from everyonefriends, family, the police who enforced Bixbys merciless curfew. It wasnt convenient, but what else could they do? Rex said that lots of people used to know about midnight, but look what had happenedone day the midnighters had all just disappeared. Secrecy was their only real protection. Her shades were drawn and windows locked right now because someone out there knew.

And there were worse things than the man with the camera. Jessicas imagined vision of the half-thing came into her mind. Midnight wasnt just secret; it was full of horrors. She couldnt dump her nightmares on her little sisterit wasnt fair. The whole idea was stupid and selfish.

Jessica sighed and looked at her watch again. Forty seconds. Let me show you something.

Beths eyes widened. Really?

Jessica smiledjust one more lie tonight. Really. Come here.

She opened the door to her closet, pointing into the darkness. All she really had to do was distract Beth for a few seconds; as long as she wasnt looking at Jessica at the stroke of midnight, her little sister shouldnt notice a thing.

Beth stood and crossed the room, a little suspicious now. No ones in there, right?

Yeah, sure. I keep my new psycho boyfriend in the closet. Dont be a wimp. Look. Her watch said twenty-four seconds now.

Beth frowned warily but came. Turn on a light or something?

Sure. She flicked the overhead light on, but Beth only frowned harder, like this was all too easy. Come on. Jessica took her sisters shoulder and pulled her toward the closet. Fifteen, fourteen

What? Beth stared into the darkness.

Just look. Let your eyes adjust. Ten. Jessica took her hand from Beths shoulder, stepped back out of her view. Beth turned to track her movement.

You better not be pulling some

Look there! Jessica snapped. This was turning out to be trickier than shed expected; maneuvering Beth was like herding a cat. And her watch wasnt always perfect to the second. There was only one way to be sure

Jess, theres nothing in there but

Her little sister squawked as Jessica shoved her into the closet, stumbling against the hanging clothes with a clatter. She swung the door closed behind Beth until it clicked.

Jess! came a muffled roar. A solid thump followed, probably a kick.

Jessica leaned her weight against the door, watching the stroke of midnight come and go. That was the problem with quartz watches, Rex always said. They tended to lose a few seconds every day.

You are so dead! If you dont open this door in five seconds, Im going to scream.

Five seconds should be fine, Jessica thought.

One, two, thr

The familiar shudder came, a ripple in the wooden solidity of the floor beneath her feet and the door against her shoulder, a simultaneous choking off of little sister and moaning Oklahoma wind. A distortion passed through the room, leaving everything still and flat and lit from within by a soft blue glow.

Jessica sighed. The coming scream was almost certainly unavoidable, and her parents might have already heard the ruckus. But it was Beth who had invaded her room, after all, refusing to leave. In any case, explanations and recriminations were all on the other side of midnight.

She left the closet door closed, unable to imagine a worse sight than a frozen prescream Beth face, deathly pale and furious. Arming herself with Explosiveness and Demonstration and pulling on her sneakers, Jessica unlocked and opened a window, swinging one leg across the sill.

Looking back at the room, she was momentarily proud of herself for resisting the temptation to tell secrets. She had done the adult thing and protected Beth from the truth. Maybe she would even apologize when her little sister emerged from the closet.

See you in an hour, sweetie, Jessica called, and dropped to the ground outside.


12 2:58 p.m. PATIENCE | Touching Darkness | 14 12:00 a.m. ACARICIANDOTE



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