“There!” Jessica pointed with her free hand, the motion sending the two of them into a slow spin.
Jonathan looked down. “I can’t see Rex and Melissa anywhere.”
“Me either. Just the car. Kind of hard to miss it.”
Jonathan laughed. “Must take some kind of mindcaster voodoo, keeping an old piece of crap like that running.”
He tugged her closer, taking her free hand in his. Their drifting rotation slowed as they descended, somehow canceled out by his motion. A flash of annoyance went through Jessica. That equal-and-opposite-reaction thing again. Jonathan understood it automatically, though that particular law of motion always seemed to leave her adrift.
Her irritation passed quickly, though. The moment felt too good to stay angry—falling like this, her head resting against his chest. She closed her eyes, sensing when they were about to land from the tightening of his muscles. Their legs intertwined for a moment as the ground caught them, knees bending and bodies pressing against each other for support.
They jumped again, Jessica following Jonathan’s lead, keeping both of his hands in hers. She opened her eyes: the leap had been just high enough to clear the house between their last landing and the parked Ford.
As they reached the peak, he said, “You seem better tonight.”
“Better than what?”
“Oh, that.” There’d been a lot to digest, what with Darkling Manor and the half-being and something convoluted about Dess thinking that Rex and Melissa were… touching. “It’s just been a long week, that’s all.”
“It’s Monday night, Jess.”
“My point exactly. But yeah, I am better now.” Things were always better with Jonathan in the secret hour. “Anyway, it’s officially partly Tuesday.”
They landed in the street near the car, Jonathan’s clothes billowing a little as they corkscrewed down to a dead halt.
“Hey! I just realized… you’re wearing a jacket!” She stepped back to look at him in surprise, normal weight settling across her.
Jonathan shrugged. “In case I have to walk home. You know, if we find the stalker or something and I wind up following him.”
She smiled, looking into his eyes. Every night he was here, ready to protect her. Taking his hand once more, weightlessness rose in her like laughter.
“Jonathan, you don’t have to walk home. If you ever get stranded here in town again…” She turned half away. “It’s crazy to freeze to death. Just knock on my window next time.”
“Your parents would freak.”
“They won’t know you’re there.”
He laughed. “So you’ll hide me in your closet all night?” Jessica’s smile faded and she let out a groan. “Actually, my closet’s kind of… busy right now. Long story.” She dropped his hand and sighed. With Beth acting the way she was, Jessica was about as likely to get away with hiding Jonathan in her room as she would Melissa’s car.
The rusting Ford looked even more broken-down than usual tonight. One of the hubcaps was missing. “Where are they, anyway?”
“They probably haven’t gone too far.” He glanced at his watch. “Not in eleven minutes. Your closet’s busy?”
She sighed again. “You don’t have a little sister, do you?”
“No. But what’s that—?”
“Hey!” Rex’s voice called to them from across the street. He and Melissa emerged from behind a row of bushes, their black clothes almost invisible in the deep blues of midnight.
Jessica’s eyes widened. The two were holding hands, swinging them like ten-year-olds on a playdate. Melissa was wearing gloves, of course, but the sight of the mindcaster in casual contact with another human being was shocking. And she was actually smiling.
Jessica dared a quick glance at Jonathan.
“Ix-nay on the inking-thay,” he said softly, then called, “Find something?”
Rex shook his head. “Not a whiff. We’ve been driving around here since just after ten.”
“Nothing on the air but TV drones and wet dreams,” Melissa said.
“Oh,” Jessica murmured. “Thanks for sharing.”
Melissa giggled. Which was also a new and scary development.
“Looks like my grand theft domino has things on hold for the moment,” Rex said.
Jessica frowned. Leave it to Rex to be convinced the threat was over because he had his hands on the flamebringer domino. It figured. That was the way he saw the world: control the symbols, control everything.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Jonathan said. “All we really know is that they’re not hanging around tonight. And anyway, midnight’s not the natural time for them to pull something. If they really wanted to hurt one of us, wouldn’t they do it in the middle of the day?”
“True.” A thoughtful look crossed Rex’s face. “And with Jessica, they’re probably expecting her to come to them. An invitation to a party, maybe.”
Jessica frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Rex looked at Jonathan. “You haven’t told her?”
Jonathan looked down sheepishly. “Oh, Dess mentioned that to you guys?”
“Of course she did. Right away.”
“Mentioned what?” Jessica cried.
Jonathan’s dark eyes widened as he turned toward her. “Well, there was a lot of stuff to get through in one car ride. I was dumping so much on you already. Once I got you away from school, I figured you’d be safe until I told you tonight.”
“Told me what? Safe from what?”
“Well, Dess and I found out who owns Darkling Manor. There was a gas bill in the mailbox.” He swallowed. “It was addressed to Ernesto Grayfoot.”
Jessica blinked, dizziness welling up in her. “It must be a coincidence.”
‘It’s not exactly a common name, Jess,” Jonathan said. “And this is an awfully small town.”
“You don’t know that they’re related,” she insisted, her voice hollow in her ears. Constanza was her only normal friend in town… She couldn’t be one of the darkling groupies.
“I only found one Grayfoot in the Bixby phone book,” Rex said. “It’s the number for Ernesto out at Darkling Manor. But the place is empty. Constanza’s dad must be unlisted.”
“So maybe Ernesto’s from out of town!” Jessica cried. “From the other side of the country!”
“Or maybe he’s Constanza’s older brother.”
“She doesn’t have one.” Jessica paused, suddenly unsure. When she’d spent the night at Constanza’s house, she hadn’t met any siblings, but a much older brother who lived somewhere else might not have been mentioned. And it surely was just a coincidence that she’d run into Jessica in the parking lot and then offered her a ride home…
“Jess.” Jonathan took her hand, but she pulled away. “We’re not saying that Constanza’s one of them. Just that you should ask her about her family. Find out what you can.”
“We need to find Ernesto,” Rex said. “Melissa needs another crack at that woman we saw at Darkling Manor. She has some kind of plans in her head, about something being constructed out in the desert.”
Jonathan spoke softly. “Just tell Constanza you’re doing a report or something.”
“I’ve seen the name going back generations, even before the oil boom,” Rex said. “If you say you’re working on local history, it’ll make sense to her.”
“But it won’t make sense to me,” Jessica cried. “I don’t want to use her. Constanza’s my only friend…”
There was an awkward moment’s silence.
“I mean, besides you guys,” she added lamely.
Rex and Jonathan just looked at her. She tried to make her mouth work, to come up with something that would change what she’d said.
“We’re your only friends, Jessica.”
The three of them stared at Melissa, unable to believe that she’d really said the words. Even Rex was struck speechless.
“We’re the only ones who know how the real world is,” Melissa continued. “I mean, Rex and I barely made it out of Las Colonias. When you first got here, almost getting killed was a nightly thing.” She snorted, a measure of her usual contempt returning. “You think Constanza Grayfoot’s ever faced anything like that? Ever had a darkling come after her?” She turned away. “So we understand you like nobody else. We’re your friends.”
Jessica’s eyes fell to the street, where windblown leaves hovered a few inches above the asphalt. “I didn’t mean you guys weren’t my friends,” she said softly.
“Don’t sweat it,” Melissa said. “Rex and I will look into this. Maybe follow her around after school lets out, do some mind reading.”
“Sure,” Rex added. “No problem.”
“Thanks,” Jessica said. “And yeah, I’ll talk to her.”
“I wish you’d told me this afternoon.”
Jonathan didn’t respond.
“It’s just that I might not have been such a bitch in front of them if I’d already had time to think about it,” she explained.
“I’m sorry,” he said flatly. “For the tenth time.”
Jessica sighed. The way she felt, she wouldn’t have minded another ten. Not that it was his fault totally. Anyone who managed to look like a selfish, immature bitch diva next to Melissa had to take some of the credit herself.
They sat together on the gravel roof of the Bixby Shop Mart, surrounded by the black shapes of exhaust vents and industrial air conditioners.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Jonathan said, finally breaking the silence.
“About you. For you, I mean.” He picked up a rock and threw it out over the empty parking lot. After it left his hand, it slowed gradually, as if falling through an invisible foam in the air. The rock finally came to a halt, joining the floating galaxy of gravel he had tossed out across the asphalt plain. Jonathan was different than the rest of them when it came to gravity. Something about time and space warping… something about physics.
She sighed again. “I still don’t understand.”
Jonathan threw another rock. “I mean, it was one thing when it was darklings. I could help you with that. I could fly you away. But this time the bad guys come from Flatland.”
“Come from where?”
He frowned. “I thought you had Sanchez for trig. He makes all his advanced classes read this book, Flatland.”
“Oh, wait,” she said. “Dess showed it to me. Flatland’s this two-dimensional world, right? Where everyone’s a triangle or a square, and this three-D sphere guy shows up.” She threw a rock of her own, which soared through the others and crashed to the ground, skittering across the parking lot. “It failed to improve my understanding of trigonometry.”
“That’s the one,” Jonathan said. “So when I’m in normal gravity and I can’t fly, can’t jump, can’t see the angles…”
“Can’t look down on everyone?” she asked.
He threw another rock and snorted, his brown eyes flashing violet in the dark moon’s light. “Sure, that too. All that stuff is Flatland. It’s like being squashed down into two dimensions.” He turned to face her for a moment. “I can’t do anything to protect you from these guys. Melissa can still read their minds, Dess can still do the math, Rex can still… I don’t know, look stuff up. But I’m useless.”
“Useless?” She shook her head. “You’re not useless.”
“They could drive up to school tomorrow and haul you away, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Except possibly limp after their car.” He stood, favoring one foot, and threw another rock, flinging it so hard that it disappeared into the darkness.
“Thanks for the mental image.” Jessica frowned. “Is the Flatland thing why you never hold my hand?”
“What?” He looked down at his palm, which he’d been absentmindedly massaging. “We hold hands all the time.”
She shook her head. Darkling groupie or not, maybe Constanza had given the right advice. Maybe now, when things were all screwed up anyway, was the right moment to talk to him. “Not in normal time. Not in Flatland.”
Jonathan looked dumbstruck for a second, staring at his hand as if expecting it to confess something to him. “Really?” he finally managed.
He sat down again, still wearing a baffled expression. “Oh, great. Something else I suck at in Flatland.”
She groaned. “It’s not that you aren’t good at it. It’s that you don’t ever do it! It’s like we don’t exist there.”
His muscles writhed for a moment under his jacket, as if his clothes were too tight or if something invisible were binding him. “Sorry,” he muttered.
She lifted her shoulders. “That’s eleven.”
They were silent for a while, but at least Jonathan had stopped throwing rocks. The moon began to set before them, dark light glinting from broken glass on the parking lot and Jessica realized they’d have to start home soon. She still had an about-to-scream Beth to deal with when midnight ran out.
What a great night this had turned into.
Jessica stared at the dark moon until her head began to hurt. She didn’t want tonight to end this way. Taking Jonathan’s hand, she softly began to massage it.
“I like you all the time, Jonathan,” she said. “Twenty-five seven.”
He smiled back at her.
“Anyway,” she added, “if there’s a useless-during-daylight club, I’m the president. Unless you tremble before the mighty power of the flashlight carrier.”
He laughed, then looked into her eyes for a moment. She saw a decision flicker across his face.
He reached into his jacket. “I brought you something.”
“A present? Why? For complaining so much?”
“No. Because I knew you’d be upset about Constanza. And because I should have told you. I couldn’t think what else to do.” He pulled out a slender strand that glimmered blue, coursing fire in the light of the dark moon. “Like you and me, it has no powers whatsoever in normal time.”
He handed it to her, a delicate silver chain, its links so small that it came like sand into her palm. Charms dangled from it; she recognized a tiny house, a curled cat, praying hands…
“It was my mom’s. I took off a couple of… the miracles, those little charms, so there’s thirteen now.”
“Oh, Jonathan.” She drew it around her wrist, closing the minuscule clasp carefully. “I promise never to throw it at a darkling. What’s its name?”
“Um, say again?”
“Acariciandote. It’s Spanish. My dad doesn’t speak it anymore, but Mom always did.”
She tried the syllables slowly, wincing as they went terribly wrong in her mouth. “Does Spanish work on darklings?”
“Gringa.” He shook his head, smiling. “Spanish was kicking darkling ass in Oklahoma about four hundred years before English got here.”
“Oops, sorry. I never thought about that.” She tried to say the name again, getting lost after three syllables. “What does it mean?”
“Funny about that.” He took her hand. “It means ‘touching you,’ like when we fly.”
She smiled. “Like always, you mean.” She held the bracelet up to the light. “It’s absolutely…” Jessica paused, staring past the dangling charms at the moon.
It was already half set.
“We’ve got to go.” She stood. “I can’t be late. My little sister’s in my closet.”
She grabbed his wrist and pulled him into a dead run along the roof, heading for the edge. “I’ll tell you on the way.”
They sailed down Division Street, jumping low and hard, leaving sneaker prints on the long, flat roof of a north-bound eighteen-wheeler. A wrenching turn toward her neighborhood sent them thrashing through the canopy of a huge oak, scattering leaves and twigs to the frozen winds. Even though Jessica’s arms were covered with scratches, she laughed aloud, happy to be flying at speed again, just barreling along with the ground a blur below them. She felt her worries fall away for a few moments, stalkers and Grayfoots and half-darklings lost in their wake.
They just made it, careening to a stop on her front lawn with five minutes of midnight left, barely enough time for Jonathan to make it home before the freezing wind leapt up again.
Jessica spun him to face her, feeling better than she had since the stalker had entered her life. She lifted Acariciandote, which gave off a faint tinkling sound, the charms still spinning from their flight.
“Thanks for this, Jonathan.” She kissed him hard, pulling his feet up off the ground.
He smiled and looked away, shrugging.
“Now get home safe and fast. No walking!” She pointed him back toward town, giving him a push. “See you tomorrow in Flatland.”
He laughed and started running. His long strides became half-block jumps until one fantastic leap took him into the air and out of sight.
Jessica watched after him and grinned. Her normal weight wasn’t as crushing as it usually seemed when he left her. Maybe things would still be screwed up tomorrow in Flatland, but at least the cool metal of Acariciandote would be around her wrist, a reminder of midnight.
She took deep breaths, letting the thundering of her heart gradually slow while she knocked leaves and grass from her hair and clothes.
With thirty seconds to go, she climbed in through the window, remembering to kick off her shoes as she crossed the room.
“Okay, Beth. Do your worst.” She took another deep breath, placing one hand on the knob of the closet door.
Midnight ended as it had begun, late by Jessica’s watch, tarrying those same nine seconds before normal time rumbled up through the soles of her feet, blue light and silence draining from the world together.
“—ree, four…” came a muffled voice from the closet.
Jessica pulled it open, revealing Beth with red face and clenched fists.
“Okay, you win,” Jessica said, raising her palms in surrender. “Don’t scream.”
“I’m going to do more than scream, Jess!” she spat, pushing past Jessica and into the room. “When I tell Mom that you tried to lock me…”
Her voice trailed away, the look of anger fading into one of confusion.
“What the hell, Jess?”
“You look… You’re not…” Sharp eyes scanned Jessica from head to toe, then Beth reached out to pull a stray leaf from her hair. “What the…?”
“That’s a leaf, genius.”
“It wasn’t there. You look different. What did you do?”
Jessica swallowed. She realized that she was still out of breath from the dash home. Her face was probably as red as Beth’s. Her hands were scratched from the trip through the oak tree, and her hair had to be a mess.
And Beth was staring at the bracelet…
“Oh, this,” she said, hoping an explanation would reach her lips in time. “Yeah, this is what I wanted to show you. But I didn’t want you to see where I hide it because it’s a such a… big secret. Pretty, huh?”
Beth’s eyes swept to the open window, and Jessica groaned inside. It had been closed and locked a few seconds before.
“You hide that bracelet… outside?”
“Uh, yeah, okay. You got me there.”
Beth’s eyes squinted even further. “You shoved me in a closet so you could jump out the window to where you keep your bracelet? Are you totally cracking?”
“No. But you said something about Jonathan…” Jessica struggled to remember. That conversation had been an hour ago for her, but only a minute had passed for Beth.
“Yeah, that he’s been in trouble with the police.”
“Right! That’s it.” She held up the bracelet to the light. “But I wanted you to see this. He gave it to me.” The smile on her face was huge, idiotic, and beaming. “Isn’t it great?”
“Yeah, sure,” Beth said, her eyes still locked on Jessica’s. “It’s wonderful. And I’m glad that you hide it… outside. In the bushes.”
Jessica sighed. “Its name means ‘touching you.’ ”
“It has a name?”
“Sure.” Jessica shrugged. “Anyway, thanks for coming by. I’m glad I got to show it to you.” She hugged Beth hard. “See you tomorrow.”
Jessica opened her bedroom door, and her little sister walked out, casting wary glances back, totally at a loss as to how she’d wound up so confused.
“I’ll make sure you get to meet him soon,” Jessica whispered.
Beth nodded once and bolted for her own bedroom on scurrying, silent feet.