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The Hunter (Chapter 10)

Excitement bubbled up in Jenny. "Finally we can go somewhere."

"And get out of this freaking hallway," Dee said.

Michael was looking awed. "It's just like going up to the next level of a video game."

But Audrey pursed her lips. When Jenny asked why, Audrey gave her a sideways glance under spiky dark lashes.

"One thing about video games-the farther you go, the harder they get," she said. "N'est-ce pas?"

The stairs had rubber padding with the ridges worn almost to nothing. Jenny couldn't see the top from where she stood-the roof of the Haunted Mansion hall was in the way.

"What are we waiting for?" Dee said and vaulted onto the steps. Then she grabbed for the railing-as soon as her foot touched a step, the whole staircase had started moving with a jerk. It was a wheezing, groaning, shivering escalator.

"Oh, geez," Michael said. "I hate to tell you this, but when I was a kid I was scared of escalators. I was afraid they might catch the end of my muffler or something-"

"You don't wear mufflers," Audrey said and shoved him on.

"Mike, if you're scared of escalators, then this one is probably your fault," Jenny said, stepping on behind him. "Remember, he gets it all from us."

As they neared the top, Jenny found they were riding directly toward a mirror. In fact, she discovered when she looked down the hall-after helping Mike jump off the escalator at the strategic moment -there were mirrors everywhere.

The hallway downstairs had been dark-this one was exactly the opposite. Light bounced and rainbowed off the mirrors lining the zigzagging walls until Jenny saw colored streaks even with her eyes closed. In fact, the mirrored walls zigged and zagged so sharply that it was impossible to get a clear view for more than a few feet. You had to veer alternately right and left to follow the hallway's path, and anything in the bend before you or behind you was invisible.

"All right, who put these here?" Dee demanded.

"Are my legs really that short? Or are these trick mirrors?" Audrey asked, pivoting.

Michael made one effort to straighten his wrinkled gray sweats and then gave up.

Jenny's own reflection made her uncomfortable. She seemed to hear Julian's voice in her mind: "Eyes as green as cypress and hair like liquid amber. …"

That wasn't what she saw. Just now Jenny saw a girl with flushed cheeks, whose hair was clinging to her forehead in little damp curls, whose tissue-linen blouse was beginning to go limp, and whose flowing cotton skirt was dusty and grass-stained.

"Right or left-take your pick," she said, glancing up and down the hallway.

"Left," Dee said firmly, and they went that way, zigging and zagging with the acute turns.

The mirrors were disconcerting. Everywhere Jenny looked her image was thrown back at her, and thrown from mirror to mirror so that she saw herself coming and going, reflected to infinity on all sides. Stay in this place long enough and you might forget which one is really you, she thought.

As in the other hallway, there were no deviations from the pattern, nothing to distinguish any part of it from any other. It was especially nerve-racking not being able to see more than one turn behind you, and not knowing what might be waiting around the next turn ahead. Images of the Creeper and the Lurker went through Jenny's mind.

"Dee, slow down," Jenny said as Dee's long, light step took her out of sight for the third time. Dee was navigating the corridor like a skier on a slalom, plunging in and out of the sharp turns, while the rest of them walked with hands outstretched to help them tell reflection from reality.

"No, you guys hurry up-" Dee's voice was responding from the next bend, and then there was a flash.

It seemed to reflect from everywhere at once, but Jenny thought it came from ahead. She and Audrey and Michael stood frozen for a moment, then hurried forward.

Dee was standing, hands on her hips, in front of a door. It was mirrored like the walls, but Jenny figured it had to be a door because there was a red button like an elevator button beside it. When she looked hard she could distinguish the door's outline from the mirror around it.

Above the red button was a blue light bulb, round as a clown's nose.

"It just appeared," Dee said and snapped her fingers. "Like that. In that flash."

From the turn ahead they heard whimpering.

"Summer!" Jenny, Dee, and Audrey exclaimed simultaneously.

It was Summer, huddled in the next bend, her spun-sugar curls resting on her folded arms, her legs drawn beneath her china blue shirtdress. She looked up with a little hysterical cry at their approach.

"Is it really you?"

"Yes," Jenny said, kneeling. She was a little frightened by the expression in Summer's eyes.

"Really, really you?"

"Yes. Oh, Summer." Worriedly, Jenny put her arms around the smaller girl and felt her trembling.

"I've been alone here so long, and I kept seeing myself, and then sometimes I thought I saw other people, but when I ran toward them they weren't there___"

"Who have you seen?" Jenny asked.

"Sometimes Zachary-and sometimes him. He scares me, Jenny." Summer buried her small face in Jenny's vest.

He scares me, too, Jenny thought. She said, "There's nothing to be frightened of now. We're really here. See?"

Summer managed a watery smile.

"Poor sun Bunny, Michael said. I guess it must be your nightmare next."

"Good job, Mr. Tactful," Dee said under her breath.

They explained about the nightmares to Summer. She wasn't as disturbed as Jenny thought she might be.

"Anything to get out of here," she said.

"I know. I've only been here twenty minutes, and I hate the place already," Dee said. "Anybody for claustrophobia?"

In front of the door Jenny hesitated with her finger on the button. "I don't suppose you want to tell us what you drew for your nightmare," she said. She didn't have much hope; none of the others had told.

"Okay," Summer said readily. "It was a messy room."

"A messy room?" Michael said. "Oh, horror."

"No, really, Summer," Audrey said with a briskly adult air. "It'll help if you tell us."

Dee flashed an amused ebony glance at her.

"I did tell you. It's a messy room."

"It's all right, Summer," Jenny said gently. "Well deal with it when we get there." She pushed the red button. The blue light went on. The door slid open.

It was a messy room.

"You see," Summer said.

It was Summer's bedroom, only more so. Ever since Jenny had known Summer, her room had been messy. Summer's parents were refugees from the sixties, and everything in their house was slightly frayed or weathered, but as Michael said, Summer herself had clutter down to a fine art. When you visited her you usually couldn't see the handmade tie-dyed curtains at the window or the bright patchwork quilt on the bed, because of the things hanging from them or piled up in front of them or scattered on top of them.

In the room behind the mirrored door, Jenny couldn't even see the bed. There was a small clear space in front of the closet-everything else was obscured by piles of junk.

Dee and Michael were giggling. "Trust you, Sunshine, to have a nightmare like this," Dee said.

Jenny sighed, not nearly as amused. "All right, everybody, let's go in. I suppose we have to clean it up-there must be a door somewhere along one of the far walls."

"Hey, wait. I don't do the C-word," Michael protested, alarmed. "Besides, dust is bad for my allergies."

"In," said Audrey, taking him by the ear.

They all squeezed in between the closet and the piles. The door slid noiselessly shut behind them-and disappeared.

"Talk about claustrophobia," Michael gasped.

"Cette chambre est une vrai pagaille," Audrey said under her breath.

"What?" Jenny asked.

"I said this is one messy room. Summer, how can you stand it?"

Summer's delft-blue eyes filled with tears. "My real room isn't as bad as this. This is my nightmare, dummy!"

"Well, why this kind of nightmare?" Audrey said, not softening.

"Because my mom never yells about my room, but once my nana came to visit, and she almost passed out. I still dream about what she said."

"Don't make her feel bad," Jenny whispered to Audrey. "Try to clear a path around the edges," she said aloud, "and check every wall for the door."

The piles of junk were amazingly varied. There were heaps of rumpled clothes, year-old magazines, disjointed Ray-Bans, spindled cassette tapes, unstrung string bikinis, crushed frozen yogurt cups, bent photographs, mismatched sandals, dry felt-tip pens, chewed pencils, twisted headphones, musty towels, endless mounds of underwear, and a zoo of bedraggled stuffed animals. Also a dog-chewed Frisbee, a mashed Twister mat, and a futon that smelled like somebody's bottom.

"It's spider city here," Dee said, gathering up one of the heaps. "Haven't you ever heard of Raid?"

"I believe in live and let live," Summer said vaguely.

It really was a nightmare of sorts, Jenny thought-a nightmare of tedium. But Dee worked with tireless energy and Audrey with fastidious precision, and slowly they forged a path through the debris. Michael was no good at all-he stopped to leaf through every magazine he picked up.

They were getting to a different type of garbage-a type that made Audrey wrinkle up her nose. Blackened avocado husks, mildewed newspapers, and plastic glasses with the dregs of unidentifiable liquids in them.

Then Jenny lifted a box of odds and ends and saw something like a pressed flower on the hardwood floor underneath. But it wasn't a flower, it was the

wrong shape. At first she didn't recognize it, then she saw the little muzzle and the tiny curled-up feet. It was a flat and desiccated mouse.

She couldn't help gasping.

I can't touch that, I can't, I can't.

Dee scraped it up with a 1991 calendar and threw it in the closet. Jenny felt a whisper of terror inside her, unease that went beyond disgust at the mouse.

The garbage got worse and worse-like what you'd find at a dump, nothing that would be in anybody's bedroom. Food in all stages of decomposition. Every kind of refuse, trash, and litter.

No one was smiling anymore.

Dee picked up a tattered Easter basket, paused. An awful smell wafted from it. She stirred the cellophane grass with one long finger, and then her face convulsed. In the basket was a solid mass of white, writhing maggots.

"God!" In one fluid motion Dee threw the basket at the closet, where it hit the door and scattered a shower of white. Michael bolted up from his magazine with a yell. Audrey and Summer were shrieking.

Jenny felt the quick, cold touch of real fear.

"Summer-just what did your grandmother say about your room?" she said.

"Oh-she said things were growing in it," Summer reported, her eyes large and worried. "She said it would attract bugs. She said it looked like an earthquake hit it. She said someday I would get lost in it and never come out."

Dee, who had been staring at Summer, now cut a glance of startled revelation at Jenny. The tension in the room was palpable.

"Ana just what kind of nightmares do you have about it?" Jenny asked, trying to discipline her voice.

"Oh." Summer shivered. "Well-it's like I hear a scratchy noise, and then I look and it's these cockroaches-but they're big, big as … as sneakers. And then I see this thing on the floor. It's like fungus, sort of a column of fungus, but it's got a kind of mouth on the top and it's howling. It's howling fungus."

Summer's lips were trembling by now.

"It may not sound scary, but it was. It was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life."

A primitive warning was going off in Jenny's brain. She, Audrey, Dee, and Michael all looked at one another. "It sounds plenty scary to me," she said. "I think maybe we'd better get moving."

Michael's lips were puckered in a soundless whistle. "I think maybe you're right," he muttered. He bent to work without another word of complaint.

The closet was full by now, and they were just transferring things from before them to behind them, like digging a tunnel. The garbage kept getting grosser and grosser and scarier and scarier. Things Jenny didn't want to touch with her hands. She wore crumpled Tshirts like oven mitts to move them.

Then the bugs came.

It started with a rustle, a pleasant sound like a taffeta prom dress. Jenny stiffened, then turned slowly to look.

A cockroach, flat and brown. But it was huge, far larger than Jenny's foot. It crawled languidly out of the floor vent, squirming through somehow, its barbed back legs catching on the metal louvers. Its feet made soft ticking sounds on the paper debris.

Summer gave a reedy shriek and pointed at it. Then another one came out of the vent, and another. Summer's pointing finger became a shaky blur.

Jenny reached for a water glass to revive her and snatched her hand back. The glass was jam-packed with crickets, antennae twitching delicately.

Summer saw it. She stopped pointing and went still.

Smaller roaches emerged from a discarded candy box, the frilly paper cups crinkling as the bugs crept out.

Summer's face was so white there were blue patches under her eyes.

Iridescent green beetles the size of footballs began to climb the walls. They flexed their chitinous outer wings, their membranous inner wings hanging out like dragging petticoats.

Summer stood like a statue of ice.

Jenny looked up. A dozen brown moths as big as small kites were clinging flat to the ceiling, their dark-spotted wings outstretched.

"Come on, Summer, help us!" Audrey said in a fear-clotted voice as she raked at the trash. Disturbed ants swarmed out of it, forming thick trails like black waterfalls over the debris.

Summer didn't move. She was staring at one of the hard-shelled beetles like a witless rabbit caught in a headlight.

The ground rocked beneath Jenny's feet.

At first she thought it was some effect of the garbage shifting. Then she remembered: "She said it looked like an earthquake hit it…."

"We have to hurry!" she shouted at the same time as Dee yelled, "Go, go!"

They were clawing through the garbage now, tearing just enough away from the wall to reveal cracked and peeling wallpaper, to make sure there was no door. They climbed on the smaller mounds, wading through them.

The ground shook again.

The whisper of terror inside Jenny had become a scream.

"Hurry," she gasped, clearing refuse with sweeps of her arms. "Hurry, hurry …"

The towering piles of rubbish quaked.

They were all working frenetically, even Michael. Only Summer stood rooted in horror.

"The door!" Dee shouted, from the top of a pile.

Jenny's head snapped up. Relief flooded through her. Barely visible above a stinking pile she could see the rectangular molding of the door.

"It opens in," Audrey said. "We have to get all this stuff out of the way."

They scrambled over each other, ripping at the pile. A cockroach climbed onto Jenny's foot; she kicked it off. Time to scream later.

The room shook again. Jenny looked up and her breath hissed in. There were ominous cracks in the ceiling.

At that moment Dee and Michael cleared the last rubble from the door.

With a thankful sob Jenny helped them pull it open.

Then she turned to look back.

What she saw wasn't anybody's room. It was Hell. There were huge cracks in the floor with monstrous, mutant bugs crawling out. The ceiling was buckling and plaster was filtering down. The moths, disturbed, were fluttering through the air, their wings making a sound like huge cards shuffling. And sprouting like grotesque anemones among the refuse were objects Jenny didn't recognize. They looked like drooping sea cucumbers and they were green-gray.

Audrey and Michael had stumbled out into the hall of mirrors. Dee was holding the door. The earth rumbled again.

"Summer, come on!" Jenny shouted.

Summer turned toward her voice, her large blue eyes blind. She took a step toward Jenny.

One of the growths directly in her path straightened up. It became a column. At the top of the column there was an aperture that flared open and shut.

The aperture opened wide. A demented, obscene sound came out.

It was howling.

The other growths were straightening. The moaning siren sound doubled, tripled. They were between Summer and the door.

Summer turned and stumbled back toward the closet, shrieking.

"Summer, no! Come back!"

The ground heaved. The piles of garbage were toppling, falling into the clear path. The mutant bugs skittered around in a frenzy. They seemed to be heading toward Summer. The fungus howled.

Summer's shrieks gave way to full-throated screaming.

"Summer!" Adrenaline kicked in and Jenny plunged into the garbage, trying to climb it.

"Jenny, come back!" Dee shouted. More rubbish

fell. Jenny couldn't see Summer at all. The screams were fading.

"Jenny, I can't hold the door!"

The screams fell silent. Only the howling went on.

"Summer!"

The earth jerked violently.

"It's coming down!" Dee shouted, and Jenny felt a hand grab her, pull her backward.

"No-we have to get Summer!"

"We can't get anybody! Come on!"

"No-Summer!" Jenny screamed, turning again.

Dee ducked and caught Jenny around the waist. Jenny found herself flying over Dee's shoulders, out the door.

Michael and Audrey grabbed her. Through the open door Jenny saw the ceiling come down. Dee staggered out and fell beside them. Jenny didn't have the strength to stand up.

Then the door slammed shut as the toppling piles fell against it.

"Look," Michael said in a thick voice.

The door was disappearing.

It did a slow fade, like a still frame in a movie. It was a door, it was a slightly misty door, it was a transparent door with mirror showing through, it was a mirrored wall.

Jenny was staring wildly at her own image.

She could see the others in the mirror. Audrey was white as china. Dee's face was gray. Michael looked numb. They huddled on the carpet, stunned.

It had happened with such terrible suddenness.

Jenny whispered, "When Dee was late coming out of Audrey's nightmare, the door didn't disappear. It stayed there-and she came out. But this time …"

"God," said Dee in a very low voice.

There was a long silence. Audrey, finally, was the one to say the words.

"She's dead."

Jenny put her face in her hands. It was a gesture she would never have thought she'd use. At the moment it just happened. She wanted to hide from the world. She wanted to make everything that had happened unhappen.

"It's not fair," she whispered. "She never hurt anybody." Then she was standing, shouting to the echoing hallway. "It's not fair. It's not fair, damn you! She didn't deserve it! It's not fair!"

"Jenny. Jenny, calm down-come on, now. Jenny, please-just sit down, okay?"

They were all trying to hold her. Jenny realized she wasn't in control of herself. She was trembling violently, and her throat hurt from screaming.

As suddenly as it had come, the hysterical energy faded. Jenny felt herself falling.

They set her down.

"It's okay," Dee said, and Jenny felt a hand stroking her hair. At any other time it would have surprised her. Now she felt nothing. "It's okay to be upset," Dee said.

They didn't understand. It was Jenny's fault. She was the one who had gotten them into this. If she had kissed Julian in the Erlking's cavern, she could have gotten Summer out.

As if to mock her, an unseen clock struck two. But Jenny could only sit.

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