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The Forbidden Game book 2: The Chase (Chapter 5)

Jenny screamed.

Or got out half a scream anyway. The rest was cut off as something knocked her to the ground. It was the dark figure in front of her, and it was shouting something.

"Jenny, get down!"

Her brain only made sense of the words after she was down. There was a dull crashing and a thudding-and-rushing that might have been the blood in her ears. Then the crashing stopped.

"Wait, stay down until I see if it's gone," Tom's voice said. Jenny got up anyway, looking at him in amazement. What are you doing here? she thought. But what she said was "Did you see it?"

"No, I was looking at you. I heard it and then I-"

"-knocked me down," Jenny said. "Did you see it, Audrey?"

"Me? I was trying to get my door open, and then I was trying to get your door open. I heard it go by, but when I looked it was gone."

"I don't think it went by," Tom said. "I think it went over-it ran over the hood of your car."

"It couldn't have," said Jenny. "A person wouldn't-" She stopped. Once again a horrible image of Nori, scampering spiderlike, entered her mind.

"I don't think it was a person," Tom began in a low voice. "I think-"

"Look!" Audrey said. "Down there past that streetlight-some kind of animal-" Her voice was high with fear.

"Turn on your headlights," Tom said.

A wedge of white light pierced the darkness. The animal was caught squarely in the beams, eyes reflecting green.

It was a dog.

Some sort of Lab mix, Jenny guessed. Black enough to blend into the night-or the hedges. It stared at them curiously, then its tail gave a quick, uncertain wag.

Rustlings in the bushes, Jenny thought. That tail wagging! And the quick, panting breath.

"Dog breath," she gasped aloud, almost hysterically. After the tension, the relief was acutely painful.

Audrey leaned her auburn head against the steering wheel.

"And for that I lost my shoes?" she demanded, sitting up and glaring at Jenny, who was hiccuping weakly.

"We'll go back and get them. I'm sorry. Honestly. But I'm glad you're here, anyway," Jenny said to Tom.

He was looking at the dog. "I don't think-" he began again. Then he shook his head and turned to her. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Didn't you?" Jenny said, not meaning the knocking-down. She looked up into his face.

He ducked away to help Audrey pick up her scattered belongings from the sidewalk. They could only find one shoe.

"Oh, leave it," Audrey said in disgust. "I don't care anymore. I only want to get home and soak for about an hour."

"You go on. Tom can take me home," Jenny said. Tom looked at her, seeming startled. "You do have your car, don't you? Or did you walk?"

"My car's down the street. But-"

"Then you can take me," Jenny said flatly. Audrey raised her eyebrows, then got in her car and drove away with a "Ciao" settling the matter.

Tom and Jenny walked slowly to Tom's RX-7. Once inside, though, Tom didn't start the engine. They just sat.

"Well, you've made yourself pretty scarce today," Jenny said. "While the rest of us were working." That hadn't come out right. She was upset, that was the problem.

Tom was fiddling with the radio, getting static. "I'm sorry, Jenny," he said. "I had things to do."

Where was his smile-that rakish, conspiratorial, sideways grin? He was treating her politely, like anybody.

Worse, he was calling her Jenny. When he was happy, he called her Thorny or some other silly name.

"Tom, what the hell is going on?"

"Nothing."

"What are you talking about, nothing? Tom, look at me! You've been avoiding me all day. What am I supposed to think? What's happening?"

Tom just shook his head slightly.

"You really have been avoiding me. On purpose." Jenny hadn't quite believed it herself until she put it into words. "Not just today, either. It's been ever since-" She stopped. "Tom. It's not-it hasn't got anything to do with-" She couldn't make herself say it; it was too ridiculous. But what other explanation was there?

"It hasn't got anything to do with what happened in the Game, has it? With-him?"

She could tell from the silence that she was right.

"Are you crazy?" Jenny said in a sort of quiet explosion.

"Let's just not talk about it."

"Let's just not talk about it?" Somewhere inside Jenny hysteria was building up, ready to be released.

"Look, I know the score. Maybe better than you do." In the faint light from the instrument panel, she could see that his mouth was grim.

Jenny got hold of herself and said carefully, "Tom, I am your girlfriend. I love you. We've always been together. And now suddenly you've changed completely, and you're acting like-like-"

"I'm not the one who's changed," he said. Then, turning fully toward her, he said, "Can you look at me and tell me you don't think about him?"

Jenny was speechless.

"Can you honestly tell me that? That you don't think about him, ever?"

"Only to be scared of him," Jenny whispered, her throat dry. She had a terrible feeling, as if earthquakes and tidal waves were ahead of her.

"I saw you with him-I saw you looking at each other."

Oh, God, Jenny thought. Her mind was filled with panicked images. Julian's fingers in her hair, light as the soft pat of a cat's paw. Julian tilting her face up, Jenny flowing toward him. Julian supporting her weight, kissing the back of her neck… .

But Tom hadn't seen all that. He had only seen her and Julian together at the end, when Jenny's thoughts had been on getting her friends out of the paper house.

"I was trying to save us all," she said, safely on high moral ground. "You know that."

"And that means you didn't feel anything at all for him?"

Lie, Jenny thought. There was no reason she should have to lie. She didn't feel anything for Julian, But she was so confused-so frightened and confused-she didn't know what was going on anymore. "No," she said.

"I know you, Jenny-I know when something gets to you. I saw you-respond to him. He brings out another side to you, makes you different."

"Tom-"

"And I saw what he can do, everything he can do. He's superhuman. How can I compete with that?"

And there, Jenny thought, clarity returning, was the problem. If Tom Locke the Flawless had a flaw, this was it. He was used to always winning, and winning easily. Tom didn't do anything he couldn't do right the first time. He wouldn't try if he thought he was going to fail.

"Besides, you don't need me anymore."

Oh. So that was what he thought.

Jenny shut her eyes.

"You're wrong," she whispered. "I needed you all day today. And you weren't there… ."

"Hey-oh, Jenny, don't cry. Hey, Jen." His voice had changed. He put a hand on her shoulder, then an arm around her. He did it awkwardly, as if it were the first time.

Jenny couldn't stop the tears.

"Don't cry. I didn't mean to make you cry." He leaned over to grip her other shoulder with his other hand.

Jenny opened wet eyes.

He was looking into her face, and he was so close. The grim expression was gone, and in its place was concern-and love. Anguished love. In that instant Jenny saw beneath the smooth, polished exterior of Tom Locke's defenses.

"Tommy …" she whispered, and her hand found his, their fingers locking together.

Then one or the other of them made a movement -Jenny never could remember which-and she was in his arms. They were holding on to each other desperately.

Relief flooded Jenny, and she gave a little sob. It felt so good to have Tom holding her again. In a moment he would kiss her, and everything would be all right.

But then-something happened. The RX-7's interior was small, like an airplane cockpit, and the center console curved out. Tom pulled back a bit in order to kiss her, and his hand or elbow knocked into the radio buttons. It must have, because suddenly music spilled into the car.

It was a song Jenny's mother sometimes played, an oldie by Dan Fogelberg. She had never really noticed the words before, but now they rang out clearly through the car.

"… Like the songs that the darkness composes to worship the light…."

Jenny recoiled, heart jolting.

God, who had thought of that? Who had ever thought of that? What did some seventies songwriter know about darkness worshiping light?

She was staring at the radio, transfixed. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Tom staring at her.

Jenny reached out and jabbed at the radio, and the car was plunged into silence.

She had to say something-but her mind was blank. All she could hear was the echo of Julian's voice saying, "I want her for… light to my darkness. You 'II see-Tommy."

The silence became terrible.

"I'd better get you home," Tom said in a voice as empty and polite as he had started with. "It's late."

"It was just a song," Jenny burst out, but she knew the song wasn't the problem. The problem was her reaction.

"You've changed, Jenny."

"I'm so tired of hearing that!" Jenny got her breath and added, "If I've changed so much, maybe you don't want me anymore. Maybe we should break up."

She had said it to shock. Stunned, she realized he wasn't going to contradict her.

"Better get you home," he said again.

Jenny desperately wanted to take the words back, but it was too late. It was too late for anything, and her pride wouldn't let her cry or speak. She sat frozen as they drove to her house. Tom walked her in.

Jenny's mother was standing on the threshold of the living room.

"And just where have you been?" she demanded. She had dark golden hair and a quick temper.

"It's my fault, Mrs. Thornton," Tom said.

"It is not his fault. I'm responsible for myself," Jenny said.

"As long as you're home," Mrs. Thornton said, with a sigh. Her temper, like Jenny's, flared quickly and died more quickly. "Are you hungry? Have you had dinner, Tom?"

Tom shook his dark head. "I'd better be getting home," he said, avoiding Jenny's eyes!

"Yes, you had," Mr. Thornton said softly but pointedly from his armchair. Jenny's father was a small man, but he had a sardonic eye that could kill from across the room. "I'm sure your parents are expecting you. And next time, be back before dark."

As the door closed behind him, Jenny said with reckless energy, "There probably won't be a next time."

Her mother was startled. "Jenny?"

Jenny turned toward the kitchen, but not before she saw her parents exchange glances. Her father shook his head, then went back to Time magazine.

Her mother followed her into the kitchen.

"Dear one-you can't be upset because we want you home early. We're just trying to keep you and Joey safe."

"It isn't that." Jenny was struggling with tears. "It's just-I think Tom and I are going to break up."

Her mother stared. "Oh, sweetheart!"

"Yes. And I just don't know-oh, Mom, everything's changing!" Abruptly Jenny threw herself into her mother's arms.

"Things do change, sweetheart. You're at the age when everything starts happening. I know how scary it can be, and I'm sorry about Tom-"

Jenny shook her head mutely. She and her mom had talked about growing up before. Jenny had always felt secretly a little smug at how well she was handling it all. She'd had it all planned out: high school with Tom, and then college with Tom, and then, in some comfortably fuzzy future, marriage to Tom, and an interesting career, and a world tour. After the tour, babies. Boy and girl, like that.

She'd already conquered growing up: she knew exactly what it was going to be like.

Not anymore. Her cozy future was crumbling around her.

She drew away from her mother.

"Jenny … Jenny, there isn't anything you're not telling us-say, about Zach? Because Aunt Lily is really worried. She says he's been acting so different… . He even seems to have lost interest in his photography. …"

Jenny could feel herself stiffen. "What kind of anything?" she said.

"Of course, we know Zach didn't-didn't hurt Summer in any way. But he wasn't the one who made up this story, was he? And you all believed it because you care about him." It was phrased as a theory, and Jenny was horrified.

"No," she said. "First of all, nobody made up the story." Although Mrs. Thornton continued to face her, Jenny noticed that her mother's golden-brown eyes went shades darker at that, and seemed to wall over. It was how all the parents looked when the kids talked about the reality of what had happened that night. They were listening, but they weren't listening. They believed you because you were their kid, but they couldn't believe you. So they ended up staring at you like polite zombies and making excuses behind their eyes.

"Nobody made the story up," Jenny repeated tiredly, already defeated. "Look-I'm really not hungry."

She escaped to the family room, where Joey was playing a video game-but it wasn't escape. The phone rang.

She reached for it automatically. "Hello?"

Shhshhshhshhshhshhshhshhshhshh.

Chills swept over Jenny.

The white noise went on, but over it there was a whispering. "A … ishhshhshht…"

"Joey, turn the TV down!"

The breathy whisper came again, and Jenny heard the psychic's voice in her mind. Vanished…

"Van-ishhshhshhed," the voice whispered.

Jenny clutched the phone, straining to hear. "Who is this?" She was suddenly angry rather than afraid. She had visions of the frosted-blond psychic on the other end. But the voice seemed like a man's, and it had a distorted quality to it that went beyond foreign. The word sounded like vanished, but…

The phone clicked, then there was a dial tone.

"What's wrong?" her mother said, coming in. "Did someone call?"

"Didn't you hear it ring?"

"I can't hear anything over that TV. Jenny, what is it? You're so pale."

"Nothing." She didn't want to talk about it with her mother. She couldn't stand any more questions -or any more weird stuff-or any more anything.

"I'm really tired," she said and headed for the back of the house before her mother could stop her.

In the privacy of her own room, she flopped on the bed. It was a pleasant room, and normally its familiarity would have comforted her. Michael always said it looked like a garden because of the Ralph Lauren comforter in rose and poppy and gold and dusty blue, and the baskets on the dresser twined with silk flowers. On the windowsill were pots of petunias and alyssum.

Just now it made Jenny feel-alien. As if she didn't belong to its familiarity any longer.

She lay listening to the house. She heard the distant sounds of the family room TV cut short, and presently heard splashing noises in the bathroom. Joey going to bed. Voices in the hall, and a door shutting. Her parents going to bed. After that, everything was quiet.

Jenny lay there a long time. She couldn't relax for sleep; she had to do something to express the strangeness she felt inside. She wanted-she wanted –

She wanted to do something ritual and-well, purifying. By herself.

Then she had it. She went to the door and cautiously turned the knob. She stepped into the darkened hallway, listening. Silence. Everyone was asleep; the house had that hushed middle-of-the-night feeling.

Quietly Jenny opened the linen closet and fished out a towel. Still careful not to make the slightest sound, she unlocked the family room sliding glass door and eased it open.

A three-quarter moon was rising over the foothills. Jenny glanced toward her parents' room, but their Venetian blinds were dark, and a row of tall oleander bushes blocked their view of the pool. No one would see her.

She made her way stealthily to a block-wall alcove, where she turned a switch. The pool light went on.

Magic. It transformed a dark ominous void into a fluorescent blue-green jewel.

Jenny sighed.

Keeping well behind the screening row of bushes, she stripped her clothes off. Then she knelt by the lip of the pool, sat on it, easing her legs into the water. She could feel the porous concrete deck on the backs of her thighs and the cool water on her calves. She looked at her feet, pale green and magnified in the glowing water. With a careful twist and a slide, she dropped in.

A slight shock of coolness. Jenny boosted off the side of the pool with her feet and floated on her back, spreading her arms. The smell of chlorine filled her nostrils.

The moon was pure silver in the sky and very far away. Right now Jenny felt as distant from ordinary emotions.

So what do you do, she thought, floating, when you've sold your soul to the devil?

That was about the size of it. She had let Julian put his ring on her finger. A gold ring with an inscription on the inside: All I refuse and thee I chuse.

Magical words, inscribed on the inside of the ring so they would rest against her skin and bind her to the promise.

When they'd gotten back from the Shadow World, Jenny had put the ring in the white box, the one with the paper house, the one P.C. and Slug had stolen. Now she wished she had it back. She should have had it melted down or hammered flat.

The water slipped pleasantly between her fingertips. It cradled her whole body, touching all her skin. It was a very-sensual-feeling, to be embraced like this, to stroke out in any direction and feel the coolness flow past you.

Jenny-felt things-more these days.

She'd discovered it that first week after getting back. She'd realized, to her bewilderment and somewhat to her horror, that she found things more beautiful than before. The night air was more fragrant than it used to be, her cat's fur was smoother. She noticed little things-tiny, delicate details she had never seen before.

Something about her time with Julian had-opened her to things. To their sensuality, their immediacy. Maybe that was what people were noticing when they said she had changed.

Or maybe she'd always been different. Because she'd been chosen. Julian had chosen her, had fallen in love with her, had begun to watch her, when she was five years old.

Because when she was five she had opened a secret closet in her grandfather's basement, a closet carved with the symbol Nauthiz, a rune of restraint.

It had been a natural thing to do. Let a kid alone in a cellar where a bookcase has been moved to expose a secret door, and what would anyone expect? What would be the harm?

It depended. If your grandfather was like any grandfather, a sweet old guy who liked gardening and golf, no harm. But if your grandfather was a dabbler in the black arts, it might be another story. And if your grandfather had actually succeeded in his ambition to call up spirits from another world, to trap them … and if the door you opened was the one that held them in …

The consequences had been unimaginable.

Jenny had opened that door and seen a whirling, seething mixture of ice and shadows. And in the shadows-eyes.

Dark eyes, watching eyes, sardonic, cruel, amused eyes. Ancient eyes. The eyes of the Others, the Shadow Men.

They were called different names in different ages, but always their essential nature came through. They were the ones who watched from the shadows. Who sometimes took people to-their own place.

The thing Jenny remembered most about the eyes was that they were hungry. Evil, powerful, and ravenous.

"They'd love to get a tooth in you," Julian had told Dee. "All my elders, those ancient, bone-sucking, lip-licking wraiths."

Suddenly the water seemed more cold than cool. Jenny swam over to the steps and got out, shivering.

In her room she rubbed herself dry until she stopped shivering. Then she put on a T-shirt and crawled into bed. But the vision of glowing eyes haunted her until she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

She woke up very suddenly when the phone rang.

The alarm, she thought, confused, and reached for the clock by her bedside. But the ringing went on.

Her window was dark. The clock in her hand showed a glowing red 3:35 a.m.

The ringing went on, frighteningly loud, like a siren.

Her parents would pick it up any minute now. But they didn't. Jenny waited. The ringing went on.

They had to pick it up. Not even Joey slept that soundly. Each burst of noise was like white lightning in the dark and silent house.

Chills ran over Jenny's skin.

She found that she had been counting unconsciously. Nine rings. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Shattering the stillness.

Maybe it was Dee, maybe she and Michael had found out something important and for some reason hadn't been able to call until now.

Heart pounding, Jenny picked up the receiver.

"A isht," a voice whispered.

Jenny froze.

"A … isht…"

The formless electronic noise blurred the word. Jenny could only make out the vowel sounds and the soft shush at the end. A as in amble, then shht. It didn't sound exactly like vanished anymore.

She wanted to speak, but she couldn't. She could only clutch the phone and listen.

"A isht…"

Damaged? No, that was even farther off. A-isht. Am-ish. Amished.

Oh my God Oh God oh God oh God…

Sheer black terror swept through her, and every hair on her body erected. She felt her eyes go wide and tears spring to them. In that instant she heard, really heard what the voice was saying. She knew.

Not vanished. It sounded like vanished, but it wasn't. It was something much worse. The whispery, distorted voice with the odd cadence was saying famished.

Famished.

Jenny threw the phone as hard as she could across the room. She was on her feet, her skin crawling, body washed with adrenaline. Famished. Famished. The eyes in the closet. The Shadow Men.

Those evil, ravenous eyes …

The better to eat you with, my dear.

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