Normal time came down on Jonathan like a lead blanket.
He lay flat on the roof, just above the man with the camera. Jonathan’s arms and legs were spread to gather more of the shingles’ friction, but as gravity returned, he slid for a dizzying second down the tilt of the roof. A scraping noise escaped from under him, and he cursed silently.
Then Jonathan heard the whir of the camera below, a string of insistent whispers that jumped to life as normal time began. The man had been taking multiple exposures, across the exact moment of midnight. That was bad news. But at least the camera’s whine had drowned out the sound of his slide.
Jonathan lifted his head painfully. It was hard even to breathe, squashed onto the cold expanse of slate by the suddenly crushing gravity. Below, the man lowered his camera and checked the time on his expensive watch, which glittered in the moonlight. He started to break down the long telephoto lens.
A shiver passed through Jonathan. The slate roof was cold now that midnight had fled, and the chill Oklahoma wind went straight through him. He’d expected to be home before the blue hour ended, so he hadn’t even brought a jacket.
Damn, he thought, imagining the long walk home. Moving silently, he drew his limbs closer to his body and blew into his hands.
Below, the man had gotten his camera into its case. Drawing his coat tighter, he crossed the backyard of the house in a low crouch and gracefully pulled himself over the wooden fence. The sound of footsteps faded down the alley.
Jonathan edged himself to the gutter and looked down, wishing he hadn’t picked the roof as his hiding place. A minute ago it had seemed the natural thing to do—natural when you could fly, anyway.
But here in Flatand, it was a nasty drop.
He lowered himself down, his fingertips clinging to the gutter, which creaked loudly. Then he fell like a sack of potatoes to the ground.
“Ow!” A sharp pain shot through his right ankle, but Jonathan bit the sound off, hoping it had been covered by the moan of the wind through the trees. The agony squeezed its way into his eyes, hot tears forcing their way out. He took a deep breath, ignoring the pain. The man had already gotten too far ahead.
Jonathan limped across the lawn and pulled himself up the fence to peer over. He could see a figure at the end of the alley, walking away fast in the cold. Jonathan hauled himself over, his muscles straining. It always took a while to adjust to normal gravity, mentally as well as physically. Midnight only lasted for an hour every day, but it was the only time Jonathan felt complete. For the other twenty-four hours he was trapped in Flatland, stuck to the ground like an insect in honey.
Dropping onto the hard-packed dirt on the other side of the fence sent another lash of pain through his ankle. He bit his lip again to keep silent, crouching in the shadows by the fence until the man turned a corner up ahead.
Jonathan limped after him.
A few moments later the sound of a car starting rumbled down the alley. Jonathan scuttled into a back driveway, barely escaping the headlights. In his mind he saw an easy jump that would put him just over the roof above and out of sight, but in Flatland it was all Jonathan could do to scramble into the shadows behind a parked pickup truck.
The car passed slowly in the unpaved alley, grumbling over loose rocks and gravel. Its headlights were blinding. Jonathan’s eyes hadn’t adjusted from the blue hour any more than the rest of him had. He tasted blood in his mouth, where a throb of pain beat in time with his frantic heartbeat. Great. At some point he’d opened up his lip.
After the car passed, Jonathan limped out from his hiding place and crouched in the red glare of its taillights so that he could read the license plate. Ducking back in the shadows, he repeated it to himself again and again, like some magic spell of Dess’s.
The sound faded, and Jonathan allowed himself a sigh of relief. At least the man had gone. For the moment, he had only been spying.
But why? As far as Jonathan knew, no one who wasn’t a midnighter knew about the secret hour. Silence had always been the unspoken pact among the five who had experienced the blue time.
But this man had to know something. What were the chances that this was just a coincidence? Did he pose a threat?
Jonathan headed down the alley, favoring his good foot. He’d have plenty of time to think about all this on the way home, in between trying not to freeze to death and looking out for Clancy St. Claire. The sheriff really had it in for Jonathan since busting him and Jessica for breaking curfew. And it was a Saturday night, Jonathan realized, not the best time to run afoul of St. Claire. He didn’t care to spend two nights in jail, bouncing off the walls in the secret hour and waiting for Monday morning to come.
He limped to the end of the alley and peered out carefully, then took a few steps into the street. No car, nothing.
He glanced back at Jessica’s house down the road. Her light was still on. She was probably scared to death, watching her windows and wondering what lurked outside.
Jonathan shivered, thinking about skipping the cold walk home. On the weekend his dad would hardly notice, and Jessica’s floor would be a lot warmer than some ditch. He could leave early in the morning, before anyone else in the house stirred.
Jessica had asked him to come home with her, he remembered. She’d wanted to show him something. Or maybe she’d just wanted to be with him somewhere safe and private. They’d hardly kissed each other at all tonight.
“Crap,” he said softly, wishing he’d thought of this before sending Jessica home. She probably would have said yes.
She’d probably be glad to see him at her window.
After a long, cold minute Jonathan sighed and let go of the frustrating thoughts. This wasn’t the secret hour anymore. This was Flatland. Even one tap on the window risked their getting caught, and Jessica would be blamed. Her parents would freak if they found him there. Jonathan was pretty certain that the cops had mentioned his name to them when they’d taken Jessica home. He doubted he’d be welcome at any time of day, much less in the middle of the night.
He turned and took the first few painful steps away. When he could fly, the trip home from Jessica’s took less than five minutes, but in normal gravity (and with a sprained ankle, he was pretty sure) it was going to take at least two hours.
He huddled in his thin shirt, checked the darkened road ahead for police cars, and headed home.