Jessica stopped her bike and stared at Rex Greene’s house, which sat forlornly on the street, crowded by newer homes on either side, the front lawn reduced to dying patches of brown.
The place looked empty, as if it had been abandoned for years. But Rex’s father had answered the phone an hour before. He’d said that Rex was there and then hung up, not bothering to get him. From the other midnighters Jessica had gotten the impression that something was wrong with the old man, but no one had ever said exactly what.
She looked at her watch, still an hour fast from keeping time during the secret hour, and wished that Jonathan would show up already. She didn’t want to face the weirdness of Rex’s father alone.
She jumped, whirling to face the sound before realizing who it was.
“Man, Jonathan. You scared me.”
He emerged from behind the aging oak that cast an ominous shadow across most of the front yard. “Sorry.”
His voice was very scratchy. “I was kind of… hiding, in case your dad drove you. I didn’t want him to see me.”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “Not that he knows what you look like. Anyway, ever since he and Mom decided that I was only mostly grounded, he hasn’t been as paranoid.” Although as predicted, Dad had counted this visit as Jessica’s weekly get-out-of-jail-free card. She hoped that her mother would overturn the ruling after work tonight if she wasn’t too exhausted.
Jessica walked her bike up to the sagging front porch and began to lock it to the iron rail.
“You don’t really have to do that here,” Jonathan said.
Jessica threaded the chain through her spokes and snapped it shut. “Humor me. Big-city habits die hard. Besides, I like to have Anfractuously around.”
“ ‘Anfractuously’? That’s your bike lock’s name?”
“Thirteen letters. And because you’re about to ask, it means ‘snakily.’ ”
Jonathan blinked. “ ‘Snakily’? Did Dess come up with that?”
“Who else?” She clicked the lock into place. The way its metal links coiled through the frame of her bike did kind of remind her of a snake.
When she turned back to Jonathan, he stepped forward and gathered her into a long hug. She pressed against him, enjoying the warm solidity of his body. In the midnight hour Jonathan felt so slight, almost fragile in his weightlessness, as if he weren’t really there. Midnight might allow them to fly, but in some ways it cheated her of Jonathan’s substance.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Sure. Not much sleep. How about you? You sound like you’re getting sick.”
He shrugged. “Forgot to bring a jacket last night. It was a cold walk home.”
“Oh my God.” She looked up at him. “I forgot…” She hadn’t thought of Jonathan walking home—she never imagined him walking anywhere. “But it was freezing last night.”
He smiled and croaked, “Tell me about it.”
Jessica stared at the ground. She’d been afraid, but at least she’d been warm and inside. It was miles back to his house. She looked up into his brown eyes and said quietly, “You know, you could have come—”
The front screen door was wrenched open with a shrieking of rusty springs.
“Where are they? You seen them anywhere?”
They both turned to face the clamor. Emerging from the dilapidated house was an old man, his face weather-lined and unshaven. Hands shaking wildly, he spread his fingers and stared down at the porch, grasping at something invisible.
“They got away!”
“I’m sorry” Jessica spoke up. “Um, who did?”
His eyes swept up to her, squinting through a film of milky white. A look of confusion overtook his panicked expression, and a bright line of drool on his chin sparkled in the sunlight. Tufts of white beard poked out along his wrinkles, as if his razor couldn’t reach into the crevasses of his ancient face.
“It’s okay, Dad, I’ll find them.”
Through the screen door, Jessica saw Rex’s pale bespectacled face come into focus. The rusty springs screeched again as he reached out to take his father’s shoulder firmly.
“You just sit down in here and we’ll look for them.”
Rex pulled his father in through the door, the old man’s words reduced to mutterings at his touch. The screen door swung closed behind them, bouncing to a stop in a series of claps against its frame.
Jessica reached out and squeezed Jonathan’s hand. “Did I say thanks for coming, by the way?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he croaked.
Footsteps returned, and Jonathan dropped her hand.
“Was it you guys who called earlier?” Rex opened the door and stepped out, squinting in the sunlight. He waved them over to a trio of lawn chairs at the far end of the porch. He was dressed in the same uniform he wore every day to school: dark pants and a collared shirt so black that his pale face had seemed to hover in the air behind the screen door. His heavy boots clumped along the porch, the metal chains around the ankles jingling and flickering in the sun. He’d told Jessica the anklets’ names a few days before—tridecalogisms like Conscientious and Dependability.
“Yeah, that was me.” The wooden steps bowed slightly under Jessica’s feet as she climbed up onto the porch. She noticed that Jonathan waited until she was all the way up before following, not wanting to test the old planks with their combined weight. He seemed to be limping. What had happened to him on the way home last night?
“Sorry about my secretary,” Rex said dryly. “He’s a bit distracted lately.”
“Uh, sure. But he told me you were home. So we came over.”
Rex took off his glasses, looking into Jessica’s eyes with an intensity that made her look away. Without the glasses, she knew, the world was a blur to Rex in normal time. But the faces of other midnighters were different: he could see them perfectly, daylight or midnight.
“I thought you were still grounded,” he said.
“Yeah, but I can see friends once a week.”
Rex sat down and then glanced at Jonathan. “I’m honored.”
Jessica eased herself carefully into a lawn chair, half expecting it to collapse. Its aluminum frame was cold even through her wool skirt, and the arms were sandpapery with brown rust.
“Something happened,” Rex said simply. He knew they hadn’t come by for a chat.
Jessica looked up at the window next to their heads. It was open, chill gusts sucking the loose mosquito screen in and out as though it were some living membrane.
“Don’t worry about him,” Rex said, smiling faintly. I keep no secrets from Dad.”
“We saw something last night,” Jonathan said. He gave the word night the subtle emphasis they all used when they meant the secret hour.
Rex nodded sagely. “Animal, vegetable, or darkling?”
“Human,” Jessica said. “Frozen across the street from my house, pointing a camera at my window.”
Rex frowned, boots scraping along the porch as he drew himself up smaller in the lawn chair. Suddenly he looked the way he did at school: nervous and indecisive. His swagger only appeared in the secret hour or when midnighter business was being discussed. The mention of an ordinary human had deflated him.
“Like a stalker?”
“Nothing that normal,” Jonathan said.
Jessica glanced at him sidelong. Stalkers were normal now?
“I watched him after the hour ended,” he continued. “The guy was taking pictures exactly at midnight. He had one of those cameras that…” He held up an invisible camera in his hands and sucked his teeth, making a series of hissing noises. “You know, takes a lot of pictures in a row. I think he was trying to see if anything… changed at midnight.”
“You exposed the film, right?”
“Um…” Jonathan and Jessica looked at each other.
“No?” Rex smiled, put his glasses back on, and tipped back in his chair, as though on familiar ground again. “Well, it’s no big deal. The pictures might reveal a shift at midnight. I mean, you probably moved your curtains during the secret hour.” He shrugged. “People tried something called “spirit photography” back in the early 1900s. Especially here in Bixby. But it doesn’t really show anything.”
“How can you act like this is no big deal?” Jessica cried. “The guy obviously knows about midnight!”
Rex nodded, rocking his chair slowly. “It’s not unprecedented.”
“What do you mean?”
He stood, clumping to the screen door and opening it with a screech.
“Let me show you something.”
Even with all the windows open, the house had a smell. More than one, in fact. There was old-person smell, like the rest home outside Chicago where Jessica’s grandmother was quietly growing senile. And there was also the distinctive scent of spent cigarettes marinating in water-filled ashtrays. “It’s a safety thing,” Rex said when she raised her eyebrows at a bowl of soggy, disintegrating stogies. “Dad isn’t very good at putting his butts out. The water helps.”
Under everything else was the insistent smell of cat piss. A big tom splayed across a well-clawed couch watched them pass, managing to look bored, annoyed, and regal at the same time.
Rex’s father was stationed in a big wing-backed chair, his eyes locked on an empty aquarium with scratched glass sides.
“Where are they?” he asked feebly as Jessica tiptoed past.
“We’ll find them,” Rex called. “They must be around here somewhere.”
“What?” she whispered as they turned into a dark hallway. “His fish?”
Without looking back at her, Rex shook his head. “No, his spiders.”
She glanced at Jonathan, who shrugged.
Rex’s room was at the end of the hall and had a different smell from the rest of the house. The mustiness here was of old books and museum exhibits. Piles of notebooks and unbound paper were arranged precariously in towers, and rows of books covered every wall. One bookshelf blocked the room’s sole window—it certainly seemed as if Rex was more afraid of the light than the dark.
“Home sweet home,” he said.
As Jessica’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, a few titles came into focus. Pretty much what she would have expected, but more. There were histories of Oklahoma, settlers’ diaries and accounts of the displacements and the Trail of Tears, when Native Americans had been crowded into the Oklahoma Territory more than a hundred years before. Stretching farther back, there were books on prehistoric peoples of the New World and on Stone Age tools and animals. She and Jonathan stepped over stacks of paper handwritten documents bearing the Bixby town seal and old pages from the Bixby Register.
As far as Jessica could tell, Rex had photocopied about half the local library and piled the results in his room. Even his bed was covered with papers. On a few were inscribed the spindly figures that recorded midnighter lore. She recognized the torchlike rune for her own talent—flame-bringer. A few lunches ago Rex had tried to teach her the symbols for the other talents: polymath, acrobat, seer, and mindcaster. But she could hardly make anything out on the densely scrawled pages.
A backpack was slung on the only chair in the room. Rex took a seat and cleared his throat.
“Dess told you about Bixby, right?”
Jessica looked at the stacks and shelves around her. “Maybe not everything about it. What exactly?”
“The signs of midnight. The staircases with thirteen steps, the symbols.”
“Sure.” Dess had hinted about Bixby’s oddities the first time they’d met, before Jessica had realized that the secret hour was anything but a dream. Since then she’d seen the signs everywhere: the thirteen-pointed stars in the town seal, on the high school emblem, on the antique plaques that people hung on their houses. Even the words Bixby, Oklahoma, totalled thirteen letters.
“Did you ever wonder who put all those signs in place?”
Jess frowned. “Haven’t there been midnighters here for a long time? You said they’d been fighting the darklings for ten thousand years. Since the blue time was created.”
“True. But the struggle wasn’t always as secret as it is now. In the old days it wasn’t just us midnighters who knew what was going on.”
Jessica nodded slowly. According to Dess, the whole town had been built to antidarkling specifications. It stood to reason that a handful of midnighters would need help pulling off something like that. Unless there was some sort of architect talent that no one had told her about yet.
Rex continued. “Every small town has its secrets, things that outsiders don’t need to know. A long time ago Bixby was a much smaller town, with much bigger secrets than most.”
“It’s still a weird place, even if you don’t ever see the secret hour,” Jonathan said. “I could tell that the moment I moved here.”
“All you have to do is taste the water,” Jessica said.
Rex nodded and placed one hand on a pile of photocopies. “If you know what to look for in these old papers, it’s easy to read between the lines. It wasn’t just local superstitions that made this town the way it is. The building codes are designed to repel darklings, newspapers report strange animal sightings that could only have been made at midnight, and there are an awful lot of clubs and societies dedicated to ‘the preservation of Bixby.’ This one’s my favorite.”
He lifted a well-worn piece of paper from the top of the stack and handed it to Jessica. She read:
LADIES’ ANTI-TENEBROSITY LEAGUE
ICE-CREAM SOCIAL AND PIE AUCTION
5 CENTS ADMISSION
LEAGUE MEETING TO FOLLOW (MEMBERS ONLY)
Jessica lifted an eyebrow. “What’s tenebrosity?”
“It’s an old word for darkness.”
“Okay. But an ice-cream social?”
Rex smiled. “It’s one way to fight evil. They had bake sales too. Practically everybody must have known what was going on.”
“There’s always someone who doesn’t know what’s going on,” Jonathan said.
Rex looked at him directly for the first time since they’d arrived, peeking over his glasses to gauge Jonathan’s expression. Then he shrugged. “Yeah, you’re right. For most it was probably just a social thing, like going to church is for a lot of people. But back then midnighters were supported by the community.” He took the paper back from Jessica and muttered, “More than we’ll ever be.”
“But what changed?” she asked. “I mean, how could everyone just forget?”
“That’s a good question.” He waved his hand at the bookshelves, the stacks of paper. “One I’ve been working on. As near as I can figure, it all changed about sixty years ago. First there was the oil boom, a lot of new people coming in to work the fields. Folks who wouldn’t understand.”
“So the old-timers kept quiet about Bixby’s little darkling problem,” Jonathan said.
“Yeah. Wouldn’t you?” Rex picked up a stack of papers from his bed. “The town went from a few hundred to twelve thousand in ten years. Boom time. Hang on, I’ve got the exact numbers somewhere in here.”
Jessica and Jonathan waited silently while he leafed through the papers. She tried to imagine a town where a hundred or so people knew the truth about midnight while thousands more remained in the dark. Of course, even if someone leaked the secret, it seemed unlikely the newcomers would believe them, except for the few born at the stroke of midnight who could see it with their own eyes.
And sharing the secret with a hundred people would be a whole lot easier than being just one among five…
The tomcat pushed its way into the room and rubbed itself along Jessica’s ankles, slinking through the piles to disappear under Rex’s bed. She wondered where the old man’s spiders had gone, and her bare legs tingled.
Finally Rex shrugged, placing the papers atop a stack on the floor. “Can’t find it, but that’s pretty much what happened. The obvious part.”
Still tingling from imaginary spiders, Jessica asked, “What’s the not-so-obvious part?”
He pulled off his glasses and looked up at her. “The midnighters disappeared.”
He nodded. “There’s no lore after 1956. No marks or recordings of any kind that I’ve found. And when Melissa and I were kids, there were no midnighters older than us, no one to tell us what was going on. She had to find me on her own, back when we were eight years old. Before that night, I thought I was the only one.”
He sighed and lowered one hand almost to the floor. The cat emerged to sniff it, then allowed itself to be scratched.
“In the old days it was different. There was always at least one mindcaster, someone to find the new midnighters. When they got old enough to understand the blue time, there were initiation ceremonies, teachers. You knew you belonged to something.” He put his glasses back on. “But that all disappeared around fifty years ago, as far as I can tell.”
“So something happened to them?” Jonathan said.
Rex nodded. “Something bad, we can assume.”
“But the guy last night…” Jessica said. “Maybe he’s left over from the old days or something. Like he moved out of town way back then and just got back?”
“He looked that old?” Rex asked.
“I don’t think so.” She looked at Jonathan, who nodded.
“Young.” He shifted uneasily on one foot. “He jumped an eight-foot fence a lot easier than I did. Rich, too. His watch had jewels on it.”
“So how does he know?” Rex said softly. “Melissa’s never felt another midnighter besides us five, and she’s never tasted a daylight mind that knew the truth. Of course, she hasn’t been looking out for any lately. But when we were little kids…”
He fell into silence, and Jessica found herself gazing at the four walls of books surrounding them. The room was its own little world, an imaginary slice of the past. Suddenly she understood Rex a little better. No wonder he always seemed misplaced, unhappy with the world he found himself in. He wished he’d been born in the old days, when there were rules and meetings and initiations, even icecream socials. When a seer was probably the boss of the whole thing.
“I got the guy’s license plate number,” Jonathan said.
Rex smirked. “Maybe Sheriff St. Claire can help you with that.”
Jonathan’s face darkened, and he glared down at the cat, which was rubbing its head against his feet. “Well, it’s something, anyway.”
Jessica sighed. “So what are we going to do, Rex?”
“Melissa’s coming by tonight, after I get my dad to bed. I’ll tell her what you saw. Maybe she can do a little mindcasting and find out what’s new in Bixby. We’ll take a drive around your neighborhood tonight, see if we run into any stray thoughts. If your stalker’s there late, when most everyone else has gone to sleep, he should be easy to find.”
“What should we do?” Jessica asked.
“That’s it?” Jonathan said. “Be careful?”
Rex nodded. “Very careful. That’s what history seems to recommend. When the old midnighters vanished, it happened all at once, so quickly that nothing was recorded in the lore. Something got rid of them in one fell swoop.”
“Like darklings, right?” Jess felt the reassuring weight of Demonstration in her pocket.
Rex shrugged. “Maybe it was darklings… or maybe it happened in broad daylight.”