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The Hunter (Chapter 11)

What's taking them so long?" Dee said.

Audrey and Michael had gone off to see if they could find Zach, who they figured must be around here somewhere. Or if they could find water-or a blanket-or something-for Jenny.

Jenny was in bad shape. She was slumped against the slanting mirrored wall opposite Summer's door -what had been Summer's door. There wasn't a trace of the exit from Summer's nightmare left, but Jenny wouldn't leave this place.

Jenny ached. All she could think of, in between waves of grayness, was Summer. Summer had joined their group in fourth grade, after she, Tom, Dee, Zach, and Michael were already friends. Tiny, muddled, and very sweet, Summer had needed to be taken care of, and taking care was what Jenny did best.

But not this time. This time Jenny had screwed up. And Summer was gone.

Jenny still didn't believe it had really happened. Summer would come walking out of that mirror any second now, all thistledown hair and dark blue eyes. Any second now.

Summer didn't.

Jenny let her head drop back against the wall.

"I'm going to look for them," Dee said. "They've been too long, they might be in trouble. You stay here, okay? Promise you'll stay right here." Her voice was slow and clear, the voice you'd use to talk to a child.

Eyes shut, Jenny made some slight motion with her head.

"Okay. I'll be back in a minute."

Jenny's mind drifted back into a haze. Summer climbing a tree at camp, Summer at Newport Beach falling off a surfboard, Summer at school chewing on a pencil. Summer laughing, Summer puzzled, Summer's blue eyes filled with tears.

She didn't have a mean bone in her body, Jenny thought. She was a good person. Something like this can't happen to a good person.

Can it?

She saw the flash even through closed lids.

Summer! she thought, opening her eyes. But the mirror in front of her showed only her own pale, anxious face and disarrayed hair.

Maybe it had come from the side. Which way? On her feet, Jenny looked to the right and left, dazzled by the multiple reflections. She didn't even know which way Dee had gone.

She went right, veering back and forth around the zigzag mirrors.

Turning a corner, she saw dozens of reflections of a round blue light bulb.

She caught her breath sharply. The blue light was on, the red button beneath it was depressed. Beside it was a dark rectangle-an open door.

Numb to caution, Jenny poked her head in. She could see only darkness inside. None of the light from the hallway seemed to penetrate.

Had Audrey and Michael gone in here? Had Dee? Could Summer –

With a click the button popped out, the door began to close. Jenny had an instant to choose: jump back or jump forward. She jumped forward.

The door slid noiselessly shut behind her, and she stared around, trying to see in the gloom. She could make out shapes like a row of shelves, something on a tripod, a tall lamp. Then she knew where she was. It was dim simply because the lights were off.

As her eyes adjusted she recognized a giant mural print on one wall. It showed cafeteria tables stacked in a glorious pyramid, one trash can on each end at each level-a marvel of engineering. Jenny knew that picture well. She, Tom, and Dee had spent an entire night stacking those tables and listening to Zach's imperious demands for "one more shot." It had been one of the more hysterical and terrifying adventures of their sophomore year.

This was her cousin Zach's garage, converted into a studio. It felt almost like home-but there was no one in sight.

The darkroom, Jenny thought, and followed the special L-shaped hallway Zach had built-a light trap, he called it-to the little room nestled within

the garage. She pushed aside the curtain at the entrance.

The amber safe light shone on a single figure's back, on a flannel shirt and a casual ponytail.

"Zach!" Jenny ran to him, but he didn't turn around. "Zach, it's me, Jenny. Zach-what are you

doing?"

He was gently rocking a tray full of chemicals with a print in it. His body was stiff and resistant, but Jenny turned him by force. Even in this light she could see he looked-tranced. The look she'd seen first in the living room when he'd insisted on turning more game cards, and then in the parlor when all the rest of them were freaking out.

"Oh, Zach, what's wrong with you?" she said and threw her arms around him. She'd been worried about him all night; she'd been planning to comfort him, to help. But now she didn't have the strength. She desperately needed help herself.

He scarcely seemed to notice she was there. He pushed her away and turned back to agitating the tray.

"Zachary, did Dee come in here? Have you seen Audrey or Michael?"

His voice was slow, dragging, but matter-of-fact.

"I haven't seen anybody. I was sitting out there. Where the mirrors are. Then I saw a flashgun go off. When I looked for it, I found a door. I pushed the button and went in."

A flashgun-of course, that was how Zach would interpret the bursts of light in the hallway. "But what are you doing?" Jenny said.

"It was all set up for me. The print was already in the developer." Somewhere a timer went off, and he pulled away from Jenny's reaching hand. "I have to rinse it now."

Jenny blinked painfully as he turned the white light on. She watched his careful, clever fingers as he rinsed the print and plastered it wetly against the wall, standing back to evaluate it, frowning.

"Zach, please. You have to listen." The numbness over Summer was wearing off. Zach was her blood relative, and right here, and in trouble. In this light she could see how pale his narrow face was. She could also see the fixed look in his clear gray eyes. "Don't you realize this is your nightmare? We can't waste time-we have to find a door to get out. Zach!"

He pushed her away again. "I have to finish this job. I have to …"

She was barely in time to catch him as he collapsed. But when she did he didn't push her away again. He clung to her like a frightened child.

"Jenny … sorry…"

"It's okay." She held him tightly, almost rocking him. "It's okay, I'm here. That's what cousins are for."

After a minute he tried to straighten up, but she still held him, encouraging him to hold her back. She needed comfort as much as he did, and Zach had always been there for her. Before their families had moved out to California, she and Zach had lived next door to each other. They'd played Indians in the cherry orchard behind their houses. That was in the days before Zach decided he liked photographs better than people, when Zach's gray eyes had been warm instead of winter-cool.

Her cousin's mind was obviously following the same track. "Just like when we were kids," he said with what was probably supposed to be a laugh.

"And you'd get all scraped up climbing trees, and we'd wash you with the hose so Aunt Lil wouldn't get mad," Jenny said. She laughed, herself, muffled against Zach's shoulder. It was almost like crying. "Oh, Zach, I'm so glad I found you."

"Me, too." He sighed. "I've been feeling pretty weird."

"Everything's been awful," Jenny said, and once again her voice was shaking badly. "I've been so scared-and now …"

She couldn't bring herself to mention Summer. The words stuck in her throat.

"It's okay," he said. "We're together now. We'll make things okay."

A hose and a Band-Aid aren't going to help this time, Jenny thought, but it was easier just to hold on to Zach. Tighter and tighter. Exchanging comfort without words. He was stroking her hair and it felt good-soothing. She seemed to feel strength flowing from his body to hers.

And something else. A warmth that surprised her. Zach was usually so cool. Now he was holding her and caressing her almost as if she were some toddler that needed pacifying.

Or-as if he weren't her cousin, but her boyfriend.

She pushed the thought away. Zach was just being kind. He wanted to help-and he was helping. She felt better, simply absorbing his sympathy, his affection. His-tenderness.

She leaned against him, letting him support her weight. Feeling secure. Cared for. Safe.

When he kissed the back of her neck, it was so tenderly it didn't disturb the safe feeling. Zach was nice. She loved him; she was happy to know he loved her.

When he kissed her again, an unexpected tremor ran through her.

Now-she wasn't supposed to feel like that. Not with Zach. He shouldn't-he really shouldn't….

But she didn't want to pull away from him or spoil the moment.

His lips were warm on the back of her neck. A shock of sweetness passed through Jenny, this time too strong to be ignored. That felt-she knew she mustn't feel that way. Her hands went up to his arms, to push at him.

"Zach," she whispered. "I think we're both-a little upset. We're not ourselves."

"I know," Zach said, as if it hurt him. "I'm sorry-I …" He straightened, loosening his grip a little, but then he kissed her hair. She felt his lips moving, felt his warm breath there.

"Zachary," she said. "It's wrong. We're cousins." The problem was that although her words were strong, her voice wasn't. She could barely breathe. And she didn't move away.

"Half cousins," he said. It was true, although Jenny seldom thought of it-her mother and his were only half sisters. "And besides, I can't help it. 1 can't help it." His kisses were coming faster.

His urgency caught Jenny in a rush of elemental feeling. She kept thinking, but there's something else-without remembering what the something was. Then she whispered, "But, Tom…"-and shock swept over her.

She hadn't thought about Tom since-since –

She couldn't remember when.

Zach was saying that he couldn't help Tom, either.

"He doesn't deserve you." The words came on a warm wave of breath in her ear. "He doesn't love you enough. I was always afraid to say it, but you know it's true."

Despite his slimness Zach's muscles were hard against her. Jenny tried to protest, but the words caught in her throat.

"And now I know you don't love him enough, either. You weren't meant to be with him." Zach's voice was soft and reasonable, his words running together in a velvet sound.

Then he was looking down at her. A clear light seemed to shine through his intense face. His winter-gray eyes looked almost pale blue.

"You can't fight something like this, Jenny," he whispered. "You know you can't."

Jenny shut her eyes and turned her face up.

He kissed her and her senses reeled.

They seemed to melt together. Jenny felt herself sinking beneath his embrace. So soft… kissing had never been so soft before. She couldn't think anymore. She was flying. She was deep underwater.

Pure sensation overwhelmed her. She was kissing him back as she had never kissed Tom. His hair was loose under her fingers; it must have come out of the ponytail. She wanted to feel all of it. It was so much softer than she'd realized. She'd always thought of Zach as having rather coarse hair, but this was so soft… like silk or cat's fur under her fingertips….

She heard the wild, whimpering sound she made, and she knew, she knew, even as she was pulling back. Even as she was jerking away, she knew.

Julian's eyes were like liquid sapphires under sooty lashes. Heavy-lidded and dark with passion. He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt like Zach's shirt, stone-washed denims like Zach's denims, and running shoes like Zach's shoes. But he had a languid, careless grace Zach would never have. His hair looked bright as sand in moonlight.

Jenny was scrubbing her mouth with the back of her hand. A purely reflexive and senseless gesture. She was too shocked to be angry.

Did I know? Did I know underneath before he kissed me or while he was kissing me but before I pulled away did I know could I possibly have known … ?

She still couldn't make out what reality was.

"How could you know… ?" she whispered. "You acted like Zach-you knew things only he would know-"

"I've watched him," Julian said. "I've watched you. I'm the Shadow Man, Jenny-and I love you." His voice was soft, mesmerizing, and something inside Jenny began to melt at the very sound.

Then she thought of Summer.

Anger, hot and bright, surged through her and gave her strength. She looked into Julian's liquid-blue eyes. Any softness she'd ever had toward him had disappeared. She hated him now. Without a word she turned and walked out of the darkroom.

He followed her, flicking the garage lights on. He knew, of course, what she was thinking about.

"She agreed," he said. "Just like all the rest of you, she agreed to play the Game."

"She didn't know it was real!"

He quoted from the instructions. " 'I acknowledge that the Game is real.

"You can talk all you want, Julian-but you killed her."

"I didn't do anything to her. Her own fear did that. She couldn't face her nightmare."

Jenny knew there was no point in arguing with him, but she couldn't help it. In a low, savage voice she said, "It wasn't fair."

He shook his head, looking almost amused. "Life isn't fair, Jenny. Haven't you learned that yet?"

Jenny was raging on. "What gives you the right to play with us this way? How can you justify it?"

"I don't need the right. Listen to me, Jenny. The worlds-all nine of them-are cruel. They don't care anything about you, or about right. There is no ultimate goodness. It's the law of the jungle. You don't need right-if you have strength."

"I don't believe you," Jenny said.

"That the world is cruel?" There was a newspaper on the bench; he picked it up. "Take a look at this and tell me that evil loses and good wins. Tell me that it's not the law of the jungle in your world."

Jenny didn't even want to look at the headlines. She'd seen too many in her life.

"Reality," Julian said, flashing a smile, "has teeth and claws. And since that's true, wouldn't you rather be one of the hunters than one of the hunted?"

Jenny shook her head. She had to admit the truth of what he was saying-about the world, at least. But she felt sick to her stomach.

"I'm offering you a choice," Julian said. His face had hardened. "I told you before that if I couldn't

persuade you I would force you-somehow. If you won't agree I'll have to show you what I mean. I'm tired of playing, Jenny. I want this settled-one way or another."

"It is settled," Jenny said. "I'll never come to you. I hate you."

Anger flared like a twisting blue flame in Julian's eyes. "Don't you understand," he said, "that what happened to Summer can happen to you?"

Jenny felt a wave of coldness. "Yes," she said slowly. "I do."

And she did, at last. She probably wouldn't have believed it before. Wouldn't have believed Julian was capable of it, or that she, Jenny, could be vulnerable to it. Dying was for old people, not kids her age. Bad things-really bad things-didn't happen to good people.

But they did.

Now she knew that emotionally. In her heart. Sometimes bad things, the worst, happened to people who didn't deserve it at all. Even Summer. Even her.

Jenny felt as if she had learned some secret, been initiated into some worldwide club or community. The community of sorrow.

She was now one of the people who knew. Strangely, it gave her a sense of comfort to know that there were so many others, so many who'd had friends die, or lost parents, or had other terrible things happen that they never asked for.

There are a lot of us, she thought. Without realizing it, she'd begun to cry. We're everywhere. And we don't all turn hunter and take it out on other people. All of us don't.

Aba hadn't. Jenny suddenly remembered that Dee's grandmother had lost her husband in a racial incident. And she remembered something Aba had taped to her bathroom mirror, incongruous among all the glass and marble and gold fixtures. It was a handmade sign that said:

Do no harm. Help when you can. Return good for evil.

Jenny had never asked Aba about the sign. It didn't seem to need explaining.

Now she felt the community of sorrow strengthening her from all over. As if they were sympathizing, silently. Bad things-the worst-might happen to Jenny, right now. Jenny understood that.

She said, "You're right. Maybe things are that bad. But that doesn't mean I have to give in. I won't join you willingly, so you might as well try force."

"I will," he said.

It started so simply. Jenny heard a whining buzz and a bee landed on her sleeve.

It was just an ordinary bee, dusty-gold. It clung with its little feet to her tissue-linen blouse. But then she heard another buzz, and a second bee landed on her other sleeve.

Another buzz, and another.

Jenny hated bees. She was always the one at picnics shrieking, "Is there one in my hair?" She wanted to shoo these bees away, but she was afraid to provoke them.

She looked at Julian. At his wild, exotic sapphire eyes and his beautifully sculpted face. At that moment, wearing Zach's lackluster clothing, his beauty was so unearthly it was frightening.

Another buzz and a bee was in her hair, its wings a blur of motion as it tangled and clung. She could see it in her peripheral vision.

Julian smiled.

Jenny heard a deeper sound, a thrumming, and she looked automatically for the source. A swarm of bees was clustered on one of the rafters of the garage, hanging down like some giant, pendulous fruit.

Jenny took a step backward and heard a warning buzzzzz from her hair. The ball of bees was moving, breaking up. Becoming a dark cloud.

Heading toward her.

Jenny looked once more at Julian, and then bees began to fall on her like hail. They clung to her arms, her shoulders, her breasts. She had to hold her arms away from her body in order to keep from crushing the ones on her sides. She knew that if she did that they would sting.

Then it simply became a nightmare, unreal.

They were heavy, covering her like a blanket. Too heavy. Jenny staggered. She shut her eyes because they were crawling out of her hair onto her face. She was inundated with bees, layer upon layer of them. They were clinging to each other now, because there was almost no part of her body clear of them. Her fingertips, some parts of her face. She felt their feet on her cheeks and wanted to scream, but she couldn't, she couldn't scream because if she did-if she did-They'd get into her mouth. And then she'd lose her sanity. But she couldn't breathe well enough through her nose. Her chest was heaving and their weight was crushing her. She was going to have to open her mouth.

She was crying silently, trying not to move, to disturb them more than she could help. Julian's voice came to her.

"Just say the word, Jenny."

She could only shake her head slightly. The barest minimum of motion. But what she could manage, she did. She was still sobbing without a sound, terrified to move, but she would not-she would not-give in.

You can do whatever you like to me, she thought. In the dark beneath her bee-covered eyes she tried to hold on to consciousness, but it was like a thin thread slipping through her fingers. She grasped at it, felt it being snatched away from her.

She was fainting. Falling. But she wouldn't give in.

When I hit the ground and crush them, they'll go mad. They'll kill me, she thought.

But she never said the word to stop it.

She felt the darkness come as she began to fall.

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