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The Forbidden Game book 2: The Chase (Chapter 11)

The kitchen was empty. A trickle of water ran out of the faucet, and there was an odd, sharp smell. Sitting grotesquely in the middle of the green linoleum floor was a paper doll.

It was folded to allow it to sit, and one arm was twisted up to give it a mockingly casual air. As if Audrey were saying: "Here I am. Where have you been?" It was obscene.

Tom's hands were on Jenny's shoulders, trying to calm her. She wrenched away from him and picked the macabre little figure up. It was the doll Audrey had used in the Game, her playing piece in the paper house. Audrey herself had drawn the face, had colored in the hair and clothes with Joey's crayons. Jenny hadn't seen it since she'd packed it up with the rest of the Game in the white box. She realized suddenly that it hadn't been in Angela's toolshed None of the dolls had.

The waxy face looked up at Jenny with a terrible cunning smile. A U of bright pink. As if this doll knew what had happened to the real Audrey, and was glad about it.

"Oh, God-God," Jenny was gasping, almost sobbing. The doll crumpled in her hand. Everything in the kitchen was wavering.

"I don't believe it," Michael said, pushing past the others. "Where is she?" He stared at Jenny, grabbed her arm. "Where is she?"

Tom grabbed Michael. "Let go of her."

"Where's Audrey?"

"I said, let go of her!"

Dee's voice rang out dangerously. "Cool off, both of you!"

"But how did she get out of the kitchen?" Michael said wildly. "We were right around the corner-we didn't hear anything. Nothing could have happened to her. We were right there."

Dee was kneeling on the floor, running her fingers across the linoleum.

"It's darker here-see? This whole area is darker. And it smells burned."

Jenny could see it now, a circle of darker green several feet in diameter.

Tom was still gripping Michael, but his voice was quiet. "You didn't see that thing on the beach-that void, Mike. It didn't make any noise at all. That's how she got out of the kitchen."

'"In the midst of the word she was trying to say,/ In the midst of her laughter and glee,'" Zachary quoted, behind them.

Jenny turned sharply to see him standing there.

With his thin, intense face and his dark-circled eyes, he looked like a prophet of doom. But when his gray eyes met Jenny's, she knew he cared. He was still holding the poem.

The last of the cloudiness in Jenny's head vanished. Tears and hysterics weren't going to help Audrey. They weren't going to help anyone. She looked down at the crumpled paper doll in her hand.

It was her fault. Audrey had fallen into a black hole, and it was Jenny's fault, just as Summer's death had been. But Audrey wasn't dead yet.

"I'll find her," Jenny said softly to the paper thing she held. "I'll find her, and then I'll rip you to pieces. I'm going to win this Game."

It went on smiling its cunning waxy smile, bland and malevolent.

Michael was sniffling and rubbing his nose. Dee was investigating the floor like an ebony huntress.

"It's like the marks a UFO might leave," she said. "When it lands, I mean. A perfect circle."

"Or a fairy ring," Michael said thickly. "She was so scared of that kind of stuff-legend stuff, you know?" Tom patted him on the back.

"The Erlking," Jenny said grimly. She reached across Tom to grip the sleeve of Michael's sweatshirt. "But we got her back from him last time, MichaeL We'll get here back now."

Dee stood in one fluid, graceful motion. "I think we'd all better stay together from now on," she said.

Zach had moved up behind Jenny. The five of them were together, standing in one connected knot in the center of the kitchen. Jenny felt herself draw strength from all the others.

"We can sleep in the living room," Michael said. "On the floor. We can push the furniture back."

They raided the bedrooms for blankets and mattresses and found sleeping bags in the closet. In the bathroom Jenny stripped off her golden dress and put on an old sweatsuit of Michael's. She jammed the shimmering material in the laundry hamper, never wanting to see it again.

It scared her to be alone even for a minute.

But we haven't had another clue, she thought. He can't do anything else without another clue. It wouldn't be fair.

"It wouldn't be sporting," she said through her teeth to the wall. It had suddenly occurred to her that Julian might be able to hear her. To see her, even-he'd watched her from the shadows for years. It was a disturbing thought, to know that no place was private, but right now Jenny hoped he was listening.

"It's no Game at all if we don't have a chance," she told the wall softly but fiercely.

In the living room she sat down on a mattress next to Tom. He put an arm around her, and she rested against him, glad of his warmth and solidity.

If there was one tiny comfort in all of this, it was that Tom was with her again. She snuggled into his arm and shut her eyes. This was where she could forget about Julian-forget about everything dark and terrible. Tom's strong warm hand clasped hers, held tightly.

Then she felt the pressure released and sensed the change in Tom's body. Tension flooding in. He was holding her hand up, looking at it.

No, not at her hand. At the ring.

The golden band which had felt like ice on her' finger earlier that night had warmed to her bodj temperature. She hadn't even noticed it for hours.

Now, horrified, she snatched her hand back from Tom's. She tried to pull the ring off. It wouldn't come.

Soap, she thought. She pulled frantically, twisting the circlet, reddening her finger. Soap or butter orIt was no good.

She knew without even trying. The ring was on to stay. She could do anything she liked, but it wouldn't come off until Julian wanted it to. If she could have gotten it off, she might have been able to change tie words inside-and Julian would never risk that He'd said that speaking and writing words made them true. He would never take the chance that Jenny might change the words and change her fate.

"We're going to win the Game," she said to the shuttered darkness in Tom's eyes. "When we win, I'm free of my promise." She said it almost pleadingly-but Tom's face remained closed. He'd gone away again, leaving a polite stranger in nil place.

"We'd better get to sleep," he said and turned to his own pile of blankets.

Jenny was left sitting there, feeling the inscription on the inside of the ring as if the letters were burning their way into her skin.

Nothing is as frightening as waking up and not knowing who you are, not knowing it's you waking. It happened to Jenny Sunday morning. She opened her eyes and didn't know which direction was which.

She didn't know her place in the world, where she was in time and space.

Then she remembered. Michael's living room. They were there because of Julian.

She sat up so suddenly that it made her dizzy, and she frantically looked for the others.

They were all there. Michael was curled almost in a ball under his blanket; Dee was sprawled lazily on the couch like a sleeping lioness. Zach was on his back on the floor, his blond ponytail streaming on his pillow. Tom was beside him, face turned toward Jenny, one hand stretched toward her. As if he'd reached out in his sleep, unaware of it.

Jenny took a moment to look at him. He looked different asleep, very young and vulnerable. At times she loved him so much it was like a physical ache, a pain in her chest.

Dee yawned and stretched, sitting up. "Everybody here?" she said, instantly alert and oriented. "Then let's kick Michael and make him get us some breakfast. We're guests."

Tom pulled his hand away when he woke up, and avoided Jenny's eyes.

"Do you really think we can get away with it?" Michael asked doubtfully.

"We've got to," Jenny said. "What else are we going to say to them? 'I'm sorry; your daughter's been kidnapped, but don't worry because we're going to get her back'?"

"It'll be all right as long as we get the housekeeper," Dee said. "I'll talk to her while you go upstairs."

"Then we'll go by your place," Jenny said, "and you can tell your parents you're staying with me. And Zach can tell his parents he's staying with Tom, and Tom-"

"But the question is: will they buy it?" Michael said. "I mean, we're not talking about just one night, here. It could be days before we find that base."

"We'll tell them we've got a school project," Jenny said, "and it may take a few nights of working on it. We'll make them buy it. We have to."

She and Dee and Zach went in Dee's jeep, while Tom and Michael followed in the RX-7. Tom hadn't said a word to her all morning, and Jenny tried to hide her left hand whenever she could. She felt as if the ring were a badge of shame.

They'd decided to go everywhere together from now on. Nobody was ever to be alone, and whenever possible all five of them were to be in the same place. They pulled up in tandem to Audrey's house, and Dee and Jenny knocked on the door while the boys watched from the sidewalk.

"Hi, Gabrielle," Dee said to the housekeeper who answered. "Are Mr. and Mrs. Myers here? Oh, too bad. Well, could you tell them that Audrey's going to spend a couple nights with Jenny and me at Jenny's?"

Meanwhile, Jenny speedily headed up the stairs of the stately house and came back a few minutes later with an armful of clothes. "Audrey just asked me to pick up a few things for her," she said brightly to Gabrielle, and then she and Dee made a fast retreat,

"Whew!" Dee said when they were back in the jeep. Jenny blinked away tears. Handling Audrey's clothes had brought the sense of guilt back. But it had to be done. Audrey would never go anywhere overnight without a few different outfits.

"We probably should have taken her car," Dee said. "She takes that everywhere, too."

"Maybe later," said Jenny. "I picked up her keys while I was in her bedroom."

"Next victim," Zachary said from the back seat.

Tom disposed of his parents quickly; he and Michael came out of his Spanish-style house with a bundle of clothes each.

"And a few textbooks," Michael said. "For authenticity."

Jenny's mother was at church. Jenny shouted her message to her father, who was bent over the pool, wrestling with the floating cleaner. "Gonna stay with Dee for a few days, Dad! We're working on a big physiology project!"

"Call us occasionally to let us know you're alive," her father said, pushing his glasses up by hunching his shoulder and not releasing his grip on the pool cleaner.

Jenny gave him one quick frightened glance before she realized it was a joke. Mr. Thornton complained a lot about being the father of a teenager with an active social schedule. She surprised him by running up and kissing his sweaty cheek.

"I will, Daddy. I love you." Then she ran away again.

It was at Zach's house that they ran into trouble.

They were giddy with their previous successes, and not prepared when they pulled up to the mock Tudor house on Quail Run. Jenny went into the garage with Zach while the others talked to Jenny's aunt Lily.

"You keep your textbooks out here?"

"The art ones. And I figure we might as well bring a flashlight." He took one off a hook on the wall.

Jenny looked around the studio Zach had made in the garage. Being here made her think about Julian, about the time in the paper house when he had impersonated Zach. Flustered, she stared at a print on the wall. It was a giant mural print showing school cafeteria tables stacked in a glorious pyramid, four high and four deep, almost blocking the exit. Zach had taken it last year after she and Tom and Dee and he had stacked the tables one night. They'd left the tables that way for the VGHS staff to find the next morning.

Jenny tried to concentrate on the fun of that night, her mind adding color to the gray tones of the picture, but a soft assault on all her senses had begun. She kept seeing Zach's face in her mind, watching it turn to Julian's. Feeling the softness of Julian's hair under her fingers.

"You okay, Jenny? You look kind of red."

"Oh, no, no, I'm fine." More flustered than ever, she added hastily, "So what have you done lately? You haven't shown me any new prints for a while,"

Zach's shoulders hunched slightly, and he looked away. "I've been busy with other things," he said.

Jenny blinked. That was a new one. Zach too busy for his photos? But she had to make conversation; she was afraid to let the silence go on.

"What's this?" she said, touching a textbook that lay open on the desk.

"Magritte," Zach said succinctly.

"Magritte? He was a painter, right?"

"A Belgian surrealist." Suddenly focused, Zach picked up the textbook. He looked at it almost fiercely, his features sharp. "Look at this," he said, opening it to a new page. "I was thinking about doing something that would catch the same mood. I just wish…" His voice trailed off.

Jenny looked and saw an extremely weird picture. It showed a brown pipe, the kind Audrey's father smoked, with the words This is not a pipe under it.

Jenny stared at it, feeling stupid. Beside her, Zach was tense, waiting for her response.

"But-it is a pipe," she said timidly, tapping her finger on the brown bowl.

Zach's gray eyes were still on the book. "No, it isn't."

"Yes, it is."

"No, it isn't. A picture of a pipe is not a pipe."

For a moment she got it-then it slipped away. It made her head hurt, but it also gave her a vaguely excited feeling. Mystical.

"The image isn't reality," Zach said quietly but with force. "Even though we're used to thinking that way a lot of the time. We show a kid a picture of a dog and say This is a doggie'-but it's not. It's just an image." He glanced at her sideways and added, "A paper house is not a house."

"Unless you have somebody who can make an image into reality," Jenny said, giving him a meaningful glance back.

"Maybe he's an artist, in a way," Zach said. He flipped to another page. "See this? It's a famous painting."

It was another extremely weird picture, but it took you a moment to see the weirdness. It showed a window in a room, and through the window a pretty

landscape. Hills and trees and clouds. Only-it was odd, but under the window were three metal things like the legs of a stand. The legs of an easel, Jenny realized suddenly. There was actually an easel with a canvas on it in front of the window, but the painting on the canvas blended in so exactly with the landscape behind it that it was almost invisible.

It left you wondering: Where was the artist who had left the easel? And who could have painted a picture that blended in so exactly with reality, anyway?

"It's bizarre," Jenny said. "I like it." She smiled at Zach, feeling as if they had a secret. She saw his expression change, and then he looked away, his gray eyes distant.

"It's important to know the difference between image and reality," he said softly. He glanced at her sideways again, as if considering whether to tell her another secret. Considering whether she could be trusted. Then he said almost casually, "You know, I used to think that imaginary worlds were safer than the real one. Then I saw a real imaginary world. And it was-" He stopped.

Jenny was startled at his expression. She put her hand on his arm. "I know."

He looked at her. "Remember how we used to play in the orchard when we were kids? It didn't seem important then to know the difference between what's real and what isn't. But it's important now, It's important to me."

Oh. All at once, Jenny understood. No wonder Zach had been so moody lately. His photography, his art-it wasn't safe anymore. It had been contaminated by their experience in the Shadow World. For the first time in his life Zach was having to face squarely up to reality.

"That's why you haven't done any new prints," she said. "Isn't it, Zach? It's-it's artist's block."

He hunched one shoulder again. "I just haven't seen anything I wanted to photograph. I used to see things all the time and want to shoot them-but lately I just don't care."

"I'm sorry, Zach." But I'm glad you told me, Jenny thought. She felt very close to her cousin just then. She went on in a low voice, "Maybe when this is all over-"

She was cut off by the bang of a door. The quiet moment was shattered. Zach's father stood in the doorway.

He said hello briefly to Jenny, then turned to Zach.

"So here you are," he said. "What's this about you taking off without telling anyone last night?"

Jenny had never been sure she liked her uncle Bill. He was a big man, and he had large hairy hands. His face always seemed rather flushed.

Zach's voice was cool and bloodless. "I just went to spend the night somewhere. Is that a crime?"

"It is when you don't tell your mother or me."

"I left a note."

Mr. Taylor's face got more flushed. "I'm not talking about a note. I don't know what's going on with you anymore. You used to spend most of your time holed up out here"-he gestured around the garage-"and now you're gone all the time. Your mother says you think you're going to spend another night away from home."

"I've got a project to do-"

"Then you can do it right here. You're not staying out overnight on a school night. If you think that, you've got another think coming."

Jenny's stomach had a falling-elevator feeling. She opened her mouth, trying to think of something, anything to say. But she could see by her uncle's face that it wouldn't do any good. He was as stubborn as Zach; stubborner.

The door banged again as he left.

Jenny whirled in dismay. "What are we going to do?"

"Nothing." Face turned from her, Zach slapped the art book shut and put it back on the pressed-wood shelf.

"But, Zach, we have to-"

"Look, if you argue with him, he'll just get madder -and he might start calling around. Do you want him to talk to your parents?" He turned back, and his thin face was calm, although Jenny thought his eyes looked a little sore. "Don't rock the boat, Jenny. Maybe he'll let me come tomorrow."

"But for tonight-"

"I'll be okay. You just-just watch out for yourself, all right?" He moved when Jenny tried to put a hand on his arm and added, "Tell everybody else what happened, will you? I think I'll just stay here a while. Do some work."

Jenny's hand dropped. "Okay, Zach," she said softly. She blinked. "Goodbye. I mean-see you later." She turned and went quickly out of the garage.

"Now what?" Dee said when they were back at the apartment. They were all quiet, their triumph deflated.

"Now we order some pizza and wait," Michael said.

"Mid think," Jenny said. "*We have to figure out where that base is."

Jenny woke up with a start and thought, iypnopompic hallucination? I think I'm awake, but I'm still dreaming.

Mian was leaning over her.

"Tom!" she cried, turning to see him lying on the floor beside her, his breathing deep and even. Her cry didn't wake him.

"Don't bother. It's only a dream. Come in the other room, where we can have a little privacy."

Jenny, who was wearing her own sweatsuit tonight instead of Michael's, pulled her blanket up higher. Like some Victorian girl in a lacy nightgown. "You're crazy," she told him with dream-calmness. "If I go in there, you'll kidnap me."

"I won't. I promise." His teeth gleamed at her briefly, wolflike. "Remember Perthro?"

The rune of gambling, Jenny thought, seeing in her mind's eye the lines he'd sketched in the air on the night of the prom. The rune of fair play, of sticking to the rules. Meaning he kept his promises, she supposed. Or that he would keep this. Or that he said he would.

But he might give me a clue about the base, Jenny thought She and the others hadn't had much luck figuring it out for themselves. And it was a dream, anyway. She got up and followed him to Michael's bedroom, where the clock radio said 4:33 a.m.

"Where's Audrey?" she demanded as he turned to face her. If this had been reality, she would have been frightened of him, maybe too frightened to speak. But it was a dream, and everything she did was governed by dream-logic.

"Safe."

"But where is she?"

"That would be telling." His eyes swept over her and he smiled. "I have to say it; you look equally good in grunge and high fashion."

It wasn't a dream. The way he disturbed and excited Jenny was too real. By Michael's bedside lamp she could see his eyes, which at the prom had been shadowed by his mask. She had finally figured out what color they were. It was the blue you see when you're washing your face in the shower and your fingers press on your closed lids. You see filaments of brightness etched against the black, more vibrant than electric blue. A color that isn't really in the wavelengths of light that the human eye can perceive. The color Jenny had seen in afterimage when the computer flashed,

Jenny looked away, simultaneously holding out her hand to him. "I want this off, please. Just until the Game is over, take the ring off."

He took her hand instead, stroking her palm with his thumb. "Is it making Tommy nervous?"

"No-I don't know. I don't like it." She looked at him again, trying to pull her hand away. His fingers were cooler than Tom's, but just as strong. "I hate you, you know," she said earnestly. She couldn't see why he never seemed to understand this. "You make me hate you."

"Is that what you're feeling? Hate?"

Jenny was trembling. Stubbornly she nodded.

Very gently he reeled her in by the captive hand, drawing her to him. She'd been wrong. He wasn't as strong as Tom; he was stronger. Fight or scream? Jenny thought. But he was so close now. She could feel the movement of his breathing. Her heart was beating in the base of her throat.

She could feel her eyes widen as she looked up at him. His expression made her stomach flutter. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to kiss you …"

Oh, was that all?

"… until you faint."

Then shadows seemed to fill all the corners of the room and close in about her.

But some part of her mind still had strength. She didn't faint, although her legs went weak again. She pushed him away.

"You're evil," she whispered. "How do you think I could ever love something evil? Unless I'm evil, too…."

She was beginning to wonder about this. But he laughed. "There is no good and evil, only black and white. But either black or white on its own is boring, Jenny. If you mix them you get so many colors-so many colors… ."

She turned away. She heard him pick something up, one of Michael's books.

"Here," he said. "Have you read this one?"

It was a poem, "The Human Condition" by Howard Nemerov. Jenny's eyes skimmed over it, not really understanding any of it. It muddled her.

"It's about world and thought," Julian explained. "World being the world, you see, and thought being-everything else. Image. As opposed to reality." He smiled at her. "That's a hint, incidentally."

Jenny was still muddled. She couldn't seem to focus on the poem, and she was strangely tired. Like the old hypnotist's saying, her eyes were heavy. Her whole body felt warm and heavy.

Julian put his arms around her, supporting her, "You'd better wake up now."

"You mean I'd better go to sleep."

"I mean wake up. If you don't want to be late." She felt his lips on her forehead and realized her eyes were shut.

She had to open them … she had to open her eyes… But she was drifting, somewhere dark and silent and warm. Just drifting … floating …

Some time later Jenny forced her eyes open. Blinked. She was lying on Michael's living room floor.

It had been a dream after all.

But beside her was an open book, facedown. Contemporary Poetry. Jenny picked it up and saw the poem Julian had shown her.

Now that she was awake and thinking clearly, the poem made more sense; it was even vaguely exciting, But she didn't have time to appreciate it; her eye fixed on certain words and her heart began to pound.

Once I saw world and thought exactly meet, But only in a picture by Magritte. …

The poem went on about the picture of a picture by Magritte-the one Zach had shown Jenny. The one of a painting that stood in front of an open window, matching the landscape outside exactly.

Fitting in like a puzzle piece, standing alone in an empty room.

Magritte, Jenny thought. Oh, God! An empty room.

Dropping the book, she seized Tom's shoulder. "Tom! Tom, get up! Dee! Michael! It's Zach!"

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