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37

12:00 a.m.

INTRODUCTION

It wasnt that hard, really. Dess brought her GPS thingie, so we knew exactly where the car was. Close enough, anyway.

And you drove it all the way back to Melissas?

No way. Just to the roadside. Melissa can get it home herself. Thatll teach her not to wear a seat belt. Jonathan smiled. Even in the blue time his dark face showed that hed caught some sun on the trek across the runway this afternoon. Driving back across the flats with no windshield was the worst part. He licked his lips. I can still taste salt.

Jessica laughed, gazing down into the backyard, regarding the frantic progress of her fathers gardening. She felt safe sitting up here on her own roof, staying close to home tonight. You guys didnt see Anathea, did you? He shook his head. We didnt go over there. The tugging pain shed felt all day shot through Jessica once more. Maybe we should have buried her.

Jonathan sighed. We didnt have a shovel, we didnt have time. And someone had to get Melissa to the hospital. Besides, the darkling groupies most likely took care of

He didnt finish the sentence.

Oh, I didnt get a chance to tell you, she said. Rex called. Melissa was released today. Her X rays didnt show anything. He said shes really in great shape.

Melissa, in great shape? Jonathan laughed. Whatever. Wonder how shes going to explain everything to her parents.

Jessica rubbed her arm where last nights slither bite had turned into a purple-yellow blotch. I dont think Melissa has to explain things to her parents.

Oh, right. Jonathan looked down.

Jessica had told him about Melissas powersthe truth about Rexs father and what shed done to Dess in the backseat of the Fordbut Jonathan didnt seem to have taken it all in yet. He only wanted to talk about what Dess had told him about Madeleine or about rescuing Melissas car, not about terrible things done in the past or even the night before or about Anathea, dead out in the desert.

How was Dess? she asked.

He shrugged. She was talking about darkling-proofing Madeleines house. She seemed good.

She wasnt good last night. After theyd finally gotten back to Desss house, shed slept, but only to have nightmares every hour, most of which had involved screaming the name of her Ada Lovelace doll for some reason.

Well, now that shes got a new project, shell be okay.

Jessica shook her head. You should have seen it, Jonathan. It was like Melissa She couldnt say the word. You just dont know.

I do know, Jess. Melissa touched me too.

She looked at him. What? A stab of something sickening went through her, a mixture of jealousy and disgust. When? Why?

The night you found your talent, I had to jump with her and Rex.

Jessica swallowed. She remembered them soaring across the desert together, into the snake pit, but shed never realized

God, thats right. I didnt even know back then.

None of us did, except Rex and Melissa.

She realized shed pulled away and reached out again for his hand. Im sorry, Jonathan.

He shuddered slightly. Dont be sorry for me. Be sorry for Melissa.

Ill save it for Dess, actually. She looked down into her dads garden again. I wonder if she ever did anything to our parents.

Melissa? Nah. I doubt shed bother with my dad. Hes never given me that much trouble.

She nodded. Yeah, but what about when my parents let me go to that party just when Rex needed me there.

But youre still grounded, Jessica, six nights a week, anyway. Jonathan spread his hands. Wouldnt she just get you off completely?

Unless she was trying to be subtle.

Melissa? Subtle? Jonathan laughed. Come on. We cant start being paranoid about every single thought in everyones head, you know?

I guess. She sighed. I dont know why Im this way. Maybe because She turned to him, and the tears that had been ambushing Jessica all day blurred her vision again. I just never saw anyone die before.

He put his arm around her. Me neither.

She was about the same age as Beth when they took her.

Oh, yeah.

She shook her head, repeated the words that had been in her head for hours. Im sorry.

For crying? Dont be. But Jonathan chewed his lip, which meant he didnt want to say the wrong thing.

Go on.

Well, it was horrible what they did to Anathea, but that was fifty-three years ago, like something in an old newspaper clipping. To me, its like the girl we saw last night was a ghost, and we finally put her to rest.

Jessica stared at the dark moon; it didnt hurt her head so much these days to look at it. Maybe she was becoming more of a midnighter. I guess thats one way to think about her, like a ghost thats free now.

And you saved Rex, so the same thing didnt happen again.

She squeezed his hand. I had some help with that.

He shook his head. Just imagine old Grandpa Grayfoot standing there when midnight ended. Looking down at the girl he kidnapped back when he was a boy. He probably died of a heart attack.

Jessica flinched, not wanting to imagine any such thing. She didnt want anyone to die, she knew now. Not ever. She was glad that the other three were over at Madeleines tonightMelissa hiding in the contortion to protect the secret of its location, Dess working to darkling-proof the house, Rex beginning the task of reading through its archive, adding to the lore, maybe one day finding something to keep them all safe at midnight forever.

Sorry, Jonathan said, having felt her pull away.

Jessica shook her head silently and looked across the street to the row of bushes where Ernesto Grayfoot had hidden with his camera. I cant believe its only been a week since my stalker showed up.

Yeah, really. Jonathan laughed. Shows how much you can get done with an extra hour every day.

She smiled weakly. Yeah. And what can get done to you.

They were silent for a while, the dark moon setting before them, before Jessica got up the nerve to ask. I dont want to be alone, Jonathan. I keep seeing Anathea, dead, where we left her.

He took her hand again. Im right here.

I mean tonight. Later.

Jonathan looked up at her. Are you sure thats a good idea? Your parents

Are sound asleep, Jessica said. Mom was at work all day, and Dad was digging up the backyard. Hes going to grow all our vegetables from now on, he says.

Jonathan laughed. Beats working, I guess. Sure, Ill stay with you.

Theres just one catch.

Hey, no problem. Ill sleep on the floor.

No, you wont, said Jessica softly. The catch is theres someone I want you to meet.


* * * * *


Ninety seconds before midnight ended, they alighted outside her window.

Jessica hauled herself in and extended her hand back to Jonathan. He was still limping from his slither bites and reached up to let her pull him in. But when he got inside, Jonathan stammered, Uh Jessica?

Thats the catch, she said. Just for a few minutes. Shes been wanting to meet you.

Yeah, but are you sure this is a good idea? Me just appearing out of nowhere?

Beth sat on the bed where Jessica had left her an hour before, hands over her eyes, an annoyed expression clearly visible on her motionless face.

Yeah, Im sure. Jessica smiled. Surprises are good for her.

But wont she wonder where I came from?

I already told her: Pennsylvania. Jessica giggled. She checked her watch, excitement building in her. Maybe this was a crazy idea, but she wanted to give Beth some small measure of the blue timeJonathan, here and now, just as midnight ended.

Jonathan stood still, looking at the open window as if contemplating a mad leap in the remaining seconds.

Listen, Jessica said, I told her I had a surprise for her, and she really did want to meet you. Just for a few minutes, then shell go to bed.

Finally Jonathan laughed nervously and sat down on the windowsill, one leg up as if hed just darted through. Okay, sure. Im glad to meet her. Just one question.

What?

What is it with you and your little sister, anyway?

Jessica smiled. Its a work in progress.

Seconds later the world shuddered. The blue light faded, and rich colors settled over everything. Her room looked alive again, set free from the arresting paleness of frozen time.

is so retarded, Beth finished.

Okay, Jessica said. You can look now.

Beth dropped her hands, a resolutely unimpressed expression already fixed on her face, one that lasted about half a second.

Jesus! she cried, half jumping up from the bed. Who the hell?

Jessica started to say something, but laughter snorted out of her instead of words. She struggled to suppress more giggles and felt her face turning red.

Jonathan smiled, holding out his hand.

Hi, Beth, my names Jonathan, he said politely. Its nice to finally meet you.


36 9:11 a.m. PARAGON OF SANITY | Touching Darkness |



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