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The Forbidden Game book 2: The Chase (Chapter 8)

"What can we do?"

They were at Audrey's house, in the second-best family room where no adults would disturb them. Michael was looking at Jenny, his spaniel eyes glazed.

"Well, that's the question, isn't it?" Zachary said crisply. "What can we do?"

"I don't know," Jenny whispered.

The paper house-or rather its remains-sat on the coffee table. Jenny had brought it with them, to keep it safe. Although what they were going to do with it, she had no idea.

She'd taken both Angela and Cam by the hand before they left Angela's house. Scared as she was, she wanted to thank them-and to give them what comfort she could.

"I know it wasn't easy to help us," she said. "Now you need to forget all about this, if you can. We're the ones who have to take care of it. But I'll always remember what you've done-both of you."

Then she and Angela, the soshe and the Crying Girl, had hugged.

Outside, on Filbert Street, she and Dee had found Tom. His RX-7 was parked behind Dee's jeep. Clearly, he'd been following them, although Jenny still didn't understand why.

Now he sat beside Jenny, his hazel eyes thoughtful. "You know, I don't think they'll hurt you, "he said to her. The emphasis on the last word was slight but noticeable.

"What do you mean, they?"

"The wolf and the snake. What did Julian call them? The Lurker and the Creeper."

Everyone stared.

"Tom, what are you talking about?"

"They're out, too. It was the wolf that followed you and Audrey on Monday. The Shadow Wolf. I only got a glimpse of it that night, but it wasn't a dog."

Audrey choked. "I've got wolf scratches on my car?"

"And that snake-I think maybe it's been around, too."

Jenny shut her eyes, remembering the dry sliding on the computer room floor. The brush against her leg. The hiss.

"Oh, God-then it's all been real," she said. "And the phone calls-oh, my God, oh, my God. They were real. They really were saying-" She couldn't finish.

"Models in your brain, my ass," Dee said to Michael

Michael looked wretched. He bent his head, clutching his rumpled hair with his hands.

"And the dreams?" Audrey said thinly. "You think they were real, too? There was something-in my bed with me?"

"Sounds like," Zach said, with morbid satisfaction. "Or maybe Julian can just make us dream what he wants."

"We have to do something," Dee said.

"Like what?" Zach's gray eyes shone with devastating logic. "What can we do against Julian? Plus that snake and that wolf. Don't you remember what they looked like?"

"I think they're the ones who got Gordie Wilson, incidentally," Tom said quietly. "I went up to the place where they found him."

"Oh, great. We don't have a chance," Michael said.

"Look, we're all in shock now," Dee said. "Let's get together this weekend at somebody's house and make plans. We can spend all Saturday thinking."

"At Tom's, maybe," Michael said. "I'm going to be there anyway; my dad's going to New York for a week."

Audrey looked at Jenny, then at Tom. Her camellia skin was pink, and she rubbed at her spiky lashes with one hand.

"I hate to say this, but we can't," she said. "At least Jenny and I can't. You're forgetting about the senior prom."

Tom looked up. "… What?"

"Jenny and I," Audrey said helplessly, "are going to the senior prom."

"With Brian Dettlinger and Eric Rankin," Michael said, in a misery-loves-company voice.

Tom was staring at Jenny. His face was perfectly white, and the green flecks in his eyes seemed to flare. Something seemed to have gone wrong with his mouth-it was trembling. Jenny looked back at him in absolute horror, her mind a thundering blank.

Then Tom said, slowly, "I see."

"No," Jenny whispered, stricken. She had never seen Tom look like this. Not when his grandmother died, not even when his father had had a heart attack. Tom Locke the invulnerable didn't have a face like that.

"It's okay. I should have expected it." He got up.

"Tom- "

"You ought to be safe enough. Like I said, I don't think they'll hurt you."

"Tom-oh, God, Tom-"

He was walking out the door.

Jenny whirled on Audrey and Michael, lashing out in her misery. "Are you happy now? You made him leave!"

"Do you think that means he doesn't want me for the weekend?" Michael asked, but Dee spoke seriously.

"He wasn't really here, Jenny. He's not with us anymore, Sunshine, and you can't make him be."

Jenny waited a moment while Dee's words slowly sank in. It was true. There was no way to deny it. Jenny hadn't lost anything just now, because she had nothing left to lose.

She sat down and said dully, "Obviously not. And somehow I don't think going to the prom with Brian is going to help, either." She looked at Audrey.

Audrey, however, refused to be fazed. "Who knows? He might feel differently when he sees you actually doing it."

"I'm not going to be doing it."

"So you're going to call Brian and dump him at the last minute?"

"Yes." Jenny fumbled in her purse for her address book. She went to Audrey's gold-and-white antique phone and dialed.

"Hello, Brian? It's Jenny-"

"Jenny! I'm so glad you called."

Jenny faltered. "You are?"

"Yeah, I was going to call you-look, I'm so stupid. I forgot to ask you what color your dress is."

"My dress?"

"I know I should have asked before." His voice was full of eagerness and-oh, God-boyish enthusiasm. "It's not that I haven't been thinking about you. The limo's all lined up, and I made reservations at L'Avenue-do you like French food?"

"Oh…" Jenny felt limp as seaweed. "Oh … sure."

"Great. And your dress is what color?"

Audrey had come over and was leaning her copper head close to the earpiece. "Tell him gold," she whispered.

"Gold," Jenny repeated automatically, then looked at Audrey. "Oh, no, not that one," she whispered fiercely.

"What? Gold's great. I'll see you tomorrow."

Jenny hung up dazedly. She hadn't been able to do it.

"You see?" Audrey said grimly. "I'm stuck, too. Stop looking like that, Michael. I don't care about Eric-much."

Dee stretched. "When you get down to it, what difference does it make where you are? They can get into our houses if they want."

It was true. It wasn't much comfort. Jenny still didn't see how she could go-or how she could get out of it now.

"I can't wear that dress," she said to Audrey. "Tom wouldn't even let me wear it with him. If he hears 1 wore it with Brian, he'll have a fit. …" Her voice trailed off as new hope ignited suddenly in her chest,

Audrey smiled knowingly. "Then maybe," she said archly, "the prom will do some good after all."

Jenny picked up the handful of liquid gold, put it down again. She couldn't believe she was doing this.

On the other hand, Dee was right. What difference did it make where Jenny was? There was nowhere safe. At least the Monarch Hotel was a large public place. She and Audrey would be surrounded by people.

Last night and today had been very quiet. No dreams, no disturbances. The calm before the storm? Or maybe … maybe some miracle had happened and all the bad things had gone away. Spontaneously popped back into the Shadow World. Maybe Julian was going to leave her alone from now on.

Don't be ridiculous, Jenny.

She sighed and shook her head. Too much worrying had sapped her energy and put her in a fatalistic mood.

She picked up the liquid gold again. It was the Dress.

The material was gold foil, which showed a subtle pattern of flowers and leaves when the light hit it the right way-almost like tapestry. The colors were rich and shimmering, and the thin fabric was silky-soft. Audrey had been crazy over it, but Audrey only wore black and white.

"You have to get it," she'd told Jenny, tilting the shining fabric back and forth under the lights and ignoring the bevy of trailing saleswomen-saleswomen always trailed when Audrey shopped.

"But Tom-"

"Forget Tom. When are you going to stop letting him tell you what to wear? You must buy this dress. With your gold-y skin and hair it will be exquisite."

So Jenny had bought it. But she'd been right; Tom wouldn't let her wear it to the junior prom. It was too short, too clinging, molding itself to her like a shining skin. Her legs looked as long as Dee's underneath.

Now she put it on and reached for a brush. She bent over, brushing, then stood, flipping her hair back. She ran her fingers through her hair to fluff it.

Then she stepped to the full-length maple mirror. She had to admit it; the dress was a masterpiece. A glittering, shameless work of art. Her hair was a mass of dark gold around her face, different from her usual soft look. Her entire image seemed touched with gold.

She looked like a crown princess. She felt like a virgin sacrifice.

"Jenny." Her mother was tapping at her bedroom door. "He's here."

Jenny stared at herself for another moment hopelessly. "Right," she said and came out.

Brian's jaw dropped when he saw her. So, unfortunately, did Mr. Thornton's.

"Jim, now, Jim," her mother said. She led Jenny's father off into the kitchen, talking to him about how responsible Jenny was and how Brian's mother was a member of the Assistance League.

"Are those my flowers?" Jenny said, since Brian was still gaping at her. He held out the corsage box dumbly.

The plastic was clouded with mist, but when Jenny opened it, she saw an ethereal bunch of palest lemon miniature roses. "But they're beautiful!"

"Uh. Urn." Brian blinked at the flowers, then shook his head slightly. He took them out, looked at her low neckline. He reached toward her doubtfully, pulled back. "Uh …"

"I'll do it," Jenny said and fastened them on her shoulder. Then she put on his boutonniere and they left.

The limo was champagne-colored, and they weren't sharing it with anybody. Brian looked nice, blond and handsome, with a royal blue cummerbund and tie. All the way to the restaurant Jenny concentrated on the tiny shiny buttons on his tux in order to keep from crying.

She'd never been out with any boy besides Tom,

Dinner was uneventful. Brian was awed by everything she said and did, which made him easy to get along with. He wasn't smart like Tom, but he was a nice guy. A really nice guy.

Palm trees lined the private drive of the hotel. It was a beautiful and dreamlike setting, a cliff above the sea. Mercedes and Cadillacs were parked everywhere and bellhops in red uniforms were running around.

As Jenny got out of the limo, she began to realize something. The senior prom was like a junior prom some fairy godmother had waved a wand over. Everything grander, bigger, more glittery. More grown-up. It was scary, but kind of wonderful.

They walked between marble columns into an enchanted world. Acres of Italian marble. Huge urns of flowers-all arranged in exquisitely simple good taste. Persian carpets, silk wall coverings, Bohemian crystal chandeliers.

Audrey must be loving this, Jenny thought, stopping somewhere along the miles of hallway to look at an oil painting.

When they finally reached the ballroom, Jenny drew in her breath.

It was … fabulous. In the old sense, meaning like something out of a fable. Like a castle. The ceilings were incredibly high, with huge chandeliers in deep recesses. Potted trees-full-size trees entwined with tiny lights-stood here and there among the tables. At one end of the room poufy curtains were drawn back to reveal a balcony, which Jenny guessed looked down on the ocean.

"It's beautiful," Jenny breathed, forgetting everything for a moment.

"It sure is." When she looked, Brian was looking at her.

The tables were as incredible as everything else. There were fresh flowers in blown-glass stands that reached above Jenny's head when she was sitting down. At each place was a little metallic mask as a favor.

"The Midnight Masquerade," Brian said, holding a silver one up to his eyes. "Don't put yours on, though; you're too pretty without it."

Jenny looked away.

"These flowers are beautiful," she said hastily. They were. The roses had a pale gold shimmer unlike anything she'd ever seen, and they smelled so sweet it almost made her giddy.

"Yeah, well, I have to confess-I can't take the credit for them. I ordered white ones for Ka-I mean, I ordered plain white ones. The florist must have screwed up, but it turned out great."

Jenny stirred. For some reason prickles of unease were touching her delicately.

Just then some of Brian's friends came by. One of them stared at Jenny, blinked, then whispered something to Brian that ended with "I bet you're planning to stay out late!"

Brian blushed. Jenny leaned across him and said directly to the other guy, "Vada via, cretino. "Audrey had taught her that. It meant "Get lost, jerk," and it sounded like it.

The guy left, muttering, "And I heard she was sweet!"

Brian, still blushing was embarrassed and apologetic. A nice guy, Jenny thought, feeling sorry for him. A really, really nice guy… .

They talked. Jenny looked at the snowy-white tablecloth and the shining crystal glasses, she played with her prom program and her raffle ticket. She stared at the Oriental border of the carpet. Finally, though, there was no way to avoid the subject that was looming over both of them.

"You want to dance?" Brian said.

What could she say?

Okay, she thought as they walked onto the floor. It's not as if you've never danced with another guy before. But she hadn't, often. Tom didn't like it. Besides, she'd always been with Tom, and the guy had always known it.

Naturally, the next dance turned out to be a slow one. The room was just dim enough to be romantic. Brian's arms settled around Jenny's shoulders, and Jenny clasped his waist as lightly as possible. She rested her head on his chest and looked intently at the refreshment table.

It was a marble-topped buffet with huge urns of flowers on either side. Jenny concentrated on identifying the flowers, one by one. Then she saw a glimmer of burnished copper.

"Look, there's Audrey!" she said. "Let's go see her!"

Audrey was wearing a saucy little black dress with a pink satin sash at the back. Diamonds glittered in her ears. Her chestnut eyes widened at the sight of Jenny.

"Will you look at you! Jenny, you're sensational. Wunderschon!"

Jenny clung to Audrey and made wild small talk. Other people went by. She saw dresses in every color of the rainbow; she saw lime green cummerbunds and pink cummerbunds and plaid ones. But at last Eric and Audrey went out to dance, and Jenny had no choice but to follow with Brian.

When the next slow dance came, she rested stiffly in Brian's arms, staring at the dark wood of the dance floor.

He was too interested. Jenny had seen it all night: the look in his eyes, the way he held her, the way he talked to her. He was such a nice guy, so handsome, and she felt nothing.

"Later we can go down to the beach," he was saying.

"Mmm," Jenny said, thinking that she had to get away from the smell of his lime aftershave, and hating herself for it. She wished desperately that someone would rescue her.

Someone did.

It was another guy, and he wanted to cut in. Jenny tried to hide her gratitude as she transferred herself to the new guy's shoulder. He looked like a senior, although she didn't recognize him because he was actually wearing one of those thematic little masks. A black one.

Jenny didn't care who he was. He'd saved her from Brian, and from her guilt at coming with Brian under false pretenses. She saw now that she was going to have to apologize to Brian before tonight was over, apologize and explain everything. He'd probably hate her. He'd probably leave her stranded at the hotel. Jenny kind of hoped he would; it would make her feel better.

The new guy held her very lightly. Jenny floated in his arms and let her mind drift back to junior prom. She had worn ivory lace, soft and romantic and old-fashioned, the kind Tom liked. Audrey had worn a different classic black dress. Summer had been in pale aquamarine, with fringe all over, like a flapper. Tom had looked wonderful in severe black and white. Afterward they'd all gone to McDonald's in their fancy clothes, laughing and fooling around. It had been a wonderful night because they'd been together.

Now here she was in fairyland, surrounded by strangers.

That thought was a little disturbing.

She and the new guy had swayed a little away from the other dancers. He actually seemed to know something about dancing, or at least he was semimobile. It was darker here near the balcony. Jenny felt strangely isolated.

And-it was curious, but everything seemed to have slowed. The music had changed. The band seemed to have segued into another slow dance, a haunting melody by some female vocalist Jenny knew but couldn't put her finger on at the moment. Otherworldly. Weird of them to do that without giving people a chance to change partners.

Weird melody, too, but beautiful. It was music that got into your blood, that made you feel strange.

Jenny was feeling very strange.

Time seemed to be stretching.

She didn't want to look up, because that was bad manners unless you wanted to be kissed. And Jenny didn't, whatever kind of music it was. Safer just to keep her head down.

They were on the threshold of the balcony now, and Jenny could look out over it onto the ocean. It was even darker here, so you could see the ocean below. Spotlights reflected off the water, looking like a handful of moons.

Oddly, there was no one on the balcony. Jenny would have thought it would have been crammed

body-to-body, but there was nobody here-or at least nobody she could see in the dark. Her partner was leading her toward the darkest corner.

I shouldn't go. … Oh, God, I'm going to have to say Vada via, cretino again… .

But she couldn't seem to resist.

Here on the balcony she could feel the night air, just faintly cool on her arms and the back of her neck. The music seemed distant. She could no longer make out words, only single notes, pure and clear as drops of water falling into a still pool. Falling slowly. Jenny had the queer feeling that she herself was falling.

As loud as the music was the roar of the ocean. They were near the edge of the balcony now. The waves were hissing and crashing on the beach below. An eerie sound, Jenny thought, her mind strangely muddled. A formless, featureless, endless sound. Like white noise …

Shhshhshhshhshhshhshh.

All at once she was awake. Awake, with chills sweeping over her and icy terror in her stomach. Not only her little fingers but the sides of her hands were tingling.

Get out of here!

Then, at last, she tried to pull away. But her partner wouldn't let her. She was held in a grip of steel. One of his arms was trapping her arms, the other was holding the back of her head.

She couldn't move. There was no question of screaming. She was alone with him on the balcony, separated by what seemed like miles from the rest of the dance. She could no longer hear any music, only wind in the palm trees and the ocean crashing below. They were very close to a very long drop.

She could see a strand of her partner's hair now, above a shirt collar as black as his tux. She hadn't realized that before-he was all in black and his hair was blond. Blonder than Brian's, blonder even than Cam's. Almost white- -as white as frost or icicles or mist, as white as winter- -as white as death –

A voice whispered in her ear, "Famished."

Not like that. Longer. "Faaamishhshhed…"

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