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The Hunter (Chapter 12)

Floating in gray dimness, she heard a clock strike three.

Wake up, she thought, but she didn't want to. She floated for a while again.

No, wake up, she thought. That's the alarm. You have to go to school… or something. You have to go see Zach.

Zach.

She was awake.

She was lying on the cold floor of her cousin's garage, chilled and stiff but bee-less. She looked at her hands and bare ankles. Not a mark. Julian hadn't let it happen.

But now she was stuck in a garage without a door. The light trap had only a curtain. All the other doors-the large one for cars and the regular one to the house-were simply missing, their spaces filled in with blank walls.

She had no idea what she was supposed to do next, and it was after three in the morning and she was tired.

Jenny looked at the corner of the studio where Zach took pictures. Zach's camera stood on a tripod. The tungsten floodlamp was turned on. The backdrop was a sheet of seamless paper from a roll maybe six feet wide. Zach had done a lot of photos by painting paper like that black and throwing handfuls of white flour at it. The result had looked a little like the Milky Way-white splashes on infinite space. Very strange and futuristic; Zach loved that kind of stuff.

This backdrop, though, had a door painted on it, too.

A knob protruded from the paper.

The way out, Jenny thought as she went over to it, but something inside her wasn't so sure. For some reason this black-and-white door made her chilled flesh creep.

What choice have you got? her mind asked simply.

She turned the knob. The door swung out. She stepped inside.

It was like being suspended among the stars. The door closed behind her, but Jenny scarcely noticed. The sky seemed very low, more like a ceiling. It was black with glowing white splotches. The ground was a velvety black dropcloth that went on forever in all directions.

It was awful, this sense of infinity all around, pulling at her. It reminded her of a dream she'd once had, where the ground stretched on endlessly, but the sky was close and solid overhead. Did Zach have the

same kind of dreams? Was this Zach's real nightmare?

The only landmarks in the limitless, featureless darkness were lamps-tungsten floodlamps like the ones Zach used. They formed little islands of brightness here and there, some white, some colored, fading out into the distance.

Jenny pivoted, trying to get her bearings-and drew in her breath sharply. The door was still behind her. It hadn't disappeared. She could walk right out again.

But if this was Zach's nightmare, he must be in here somewhere. She couldn't leave without looking for him.

After a moment's hesitation she headed for the nearest floodlamp, a neon pink one. It took courage to step away from the security of the door, and once she did she kept her eyes fixed on the island of light ahead. The black velvet ground was perfectly smooth, without the slightest wrinkle. She could practically skate over it in her flats.

When she reached the floodlamp, she saw it had a pink filter just like the ones Zach used. He got them from the drama department when colored spotlights burned out. And the scene it illuminated was exactly like a print Zach had made-a cardboard silhouette of a neon-pink coyote in the grass. The print had been weird and high tech, like all Zach's photos, but Jenny had always liked it. Just now the coyote-shape standing alone with pink light blazing on it was unnerving.

Waiting for the photographer, Jenny thought. It gave the disquieting impression that it had been waiting there forever.

She headed toward the next floodlamp, a white one maybe forty feet away. It was hard to judge distance here.

This one was shining on a wall, a single wall standing alone, its windows broken out. Silver dots and swathes decorated the wall. Zach had gone into deserted houses in Zuma Beach and painted and photographed them. Vandalism, the police said, but Zach insisted it was art.

Jenny looked on both sides of the freestanding wall. It was unnerving, too. Everything was so quiet here… .

Just as she thought it, she heard a faint clanking noise.

The light from the pink floodlamp dimmed for a moment-as if something had passed in front of it. Standing rigid, Jenny strained her eyes in the darkness. She couldn't see anything moving. She couldn't hear anything, either.

Just your imagination, she told herself-but it was hard to make it sound convincing.

Glancing back frequently, she walked to the next lamp.

This one had a neon orange filter. A few years ago Zach had photographed baking soda thrown in the air under colored lights. The problem was that here the baking soda stayed in the air, a glowing orange cloud suspended-by nothing. Jenny could see individual motes in it twinkle and drift slightly.

God, get me out of here.

She backed away from it and set out for the next island.

When she got closer her heart skipped and she began to run. There were two blue floodlamps close together. Zach was under one.

Jenny opened her mouth to shout to him, but stopped at the last minute. What if it wasn't Zach? She'd been fooled once.

She approached cautiously and looked down at the figure in silence.

Same flannel shirt over same T-shirt. Same denims. Same hair in same ponytail.

He was holding a fist-size rock over a gray canvas painted with silver streaks. He put the rock down, looked at it, picked it back up. He put it down again in almost exactly the same place.

"I'm going to call it 'Rock on Water,'" he said. He looked up. "Because rocks don't really float."

"Zach," said Jenny. She knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder. His gray eyes were abstracted and a little glazed, just like the other's had been. But something told Jenny this was really her cousin.

A stealthy noise in the endless dark made her look up fast. The white spotlight winked out, went back on.

"Zach, we've got to go," she said and tightened her grip. "I'll explain later-but there's something out there, and we have to get back to the door."

Zach just gave her one of his absent smiles, the kind that didn't reach his eyes. "I know it's out there," he said. "It doesn't matter. It's all part of my hallucination."

"Your what? You mean your nightmare?"

"Whatever." He picked up the rock again, shifted it slightly, considered it. "I've known for a long time that this was going to happen."

Jenny was genuinely astonished. "You knew we were going to get kidnapped by the Shadow Man?"

"I knew I was going to go crazy." Then, adjusting the rock fractionally, he said, "Actually 'kidnapped by the Shadow Man' is a really interesting way of putting it. Really imaginative. I mean, what else is going insane?"

Jenny could feel her mouth hanging open. Then she shut it with a snap and took her cousin by both shoulders.

"Zachary, you are not insane," she said. "Is that what your problem is-why you were acting so strange before? Because you thought you'd gone crazy?"

"Brain kidnapped by the Shadow Man," he told her. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. It runs in the family."

"Oh, for God's sake, Zach!" She had no idea what he was talking about.

The orange floodlamp, the next one out, seemed to flicker.

"Don't worry," Zach told Jenny. "You're just part of my hallucination. It won't really hurt."

"What won't really hurt?"

Zach was gazing at the rock on his canvas. "It's about dimensions. See? The canvas is two dimensional and the-"

An arrow shattered one of the blue floodlamps in a shower of sparks and glass.

No, a bolt, Jenny thought, stunned. A bolt from a crossbow. She recognized it because Zach's father had made it to the National Crossbow Championship three years running. Bolts were even more lethal

than arrows-and this one was metal and looked almost futuristic.

Zach was brushing bits of glass off his canvas. "Zach, get up!" Jenny was frantic. Another bolt shattered the second blue floodlight. Jenny jumped away from the sparks. Zach hunched protectively over his rock.

"Zach, listen to me! This is not a hallucination, it's real, and you can die for real here, too! You can bring your rock if you want, but we've got to leave this minute-this minute!" Her voice rose hysterically at the end.

It got through to him. She could barely see him by the glow of the white-splattered sky, but he got up-still holding the rock-and went where she was pulling him.

Orange floodlight, Jenny was thinking. Orange, and then white, and then pink. The door should be beyond that.

The orange lamp shattered as they got to it. "Zach, who's after us? No, don't stop, come on!" Panting, Jenny tugged at his elbow. He'd turned around to look thoughtfully behind them. He didn't seem frightened. "Me," he said.

They reached the freestanding wall by the white floodlamp. Jenny felt somewhat safer behind it. She looked at her cousin. "You?"

"It's me. It's my hallucination and I'm chasing myself. Hunting myself."

"Oh, Zach," she said helplessly. Then: "Zach, it's not a hallucination. The same thing is happening to all of us-we're all here. Dee and Mike and Tom and

Audrey and me. And Summer was here, but her nightmare killed her because she couldn't cope. So you have to cope, because if you don't…" Jenny's eyes were wet.

Zach blinked. "We're all here? It's real?"

"It's real. It really happened, the Game and the Shadow Man and everything. It's not in your head. It almost drove me crazy, too, but you can't let it."

Zach blinked again, then looked through the empty window of the wall, out into the darkness. "If it's real…" he began slowly, and continued in a voice with more strength, "If it's real, then who's that?"

Jenny inched over to take a cautious peek. A-person-was standing at the very edge of the light that went through the window. His crossbow was futuristic-looking-and so was he. Cyberpunk, Jenny thought. He was wearing black body armor that hugged his lean body sleekly, and he had one normal hand and one that was shining steel and cables. There was some kind of high-tech gun strapped to his thigh.

He wore a helmet with a mirrored face mask that completely obscured his features.

Jenny leaned back against the wall.

"Oh, terrific," she whispered.

"I figured he was my dark side. The part of me that wants to destroy me," Zach said reasonably.

A bolt came through the window-Jenny felt the wind of it-and shattered the white floodlamp.

"Come on!"

This time Zach ran without prompting.

The Cyber-Hunter got to the pink floodlight before them.

He couldn't have, but he did anyway. He stood, backlit by the neon pink glow, a dark silhouette as they approached.

"This way! We have to get to the door!"

Jenny veered sharply, circling to get to the other side of the pink lamp. Zach followed her. But when she got to the place where the door should have been, it wasn't.

"It's gone!" Jenny turned to look back. The Cyber-Hunter was facing them now, facing the blazing pink glow.

And what on earth are we supposed to do with him? Jenny thought. Kill him? Bash him with the rock? I don't think so.

One thing she'd learned-the nightmares were fair. There was always a chance, a way to get out, even when there didn't seem to be. She supposed Julian considered that only sporting.

So what could they do with the Cyber-Hunter? How could Zach face his fear?

"Zach," she said hesitantly, "you haven't seen his face, right? You don't know if he looks like you."

"No, I just figured. He's like the high-tech stuff in my photos-come to get me."

And like some cyberpunk stuff I've seen, Jenny thought grimly. She said, "If you did look at him … If you pulled off his helmet, say-"

She could feel Zach recoil in the dark.

Jenny shut her eyes, feeling suddenly tired. "Then that's what you have to do, I think. It's your nightmare, and you have to face him. I'll go with you."

It was a risk. Whether the Hunter was Julian or just one of Julian's dream-creatures, like the dark elves or the small Visitors, he might very well look like Zach under the helmet.

"Zach, I think you have to-or we won't ever find the way out of here. I think, even if he looks like you, you have to know he's not you."

"But-if he is me … if you're not really here and this is all my hallucination …"

"Then I'll probably disappear or something!" Jenny said. "And then at least you'll know you're crazy. All I know is that Summer wouldn't face her nightmare and she died."

There was a silence. Zach turned toward her, but it was too dark to be sure of his expression. "Come on," he said and started for the light.

Jenny's heart rate kept accelerating as they got closer to it. The Cyber-Hunter could easily shoot them at any minute.

He didn't. He stood as still as a figure in the Movieland Wax Museum. He was exactly Zach's height.

Zach stopped when they were a few feet in front of him.

Jenny could hear blood roaring in her ears.

The Cyber-Hunter shifted the crossbow a little. Pink jewels of light slid up and down it, and over his black armor. Zach's face was reflected in the mirrored faceplate.

"Go on, Zach," Jenny whispered. "Take off the helmet. Tell him he's not you, whatever he looks like."

She wasn't nearly as confident as she sounded. Was it Zach's face under the helmet? Julian's? Maybe it was some hideous android-some kind of killer

robot. Maybe Zach would get shot before he could find out. Maybe …

The Cyber-Hunter stood waiting.

With a sudden gesture Zach reached out and grabbed the front of the helmet, pulling the face mask away.

There was nothing underneath.

No face, no head. Jenny, prepared for anything else, screamed involuntarily. The Cyber-Hunter's black body armor fell down empty, the crossbow clattering on top of it.

A door appeared beside the pink floodlight.

Zach was staring down at the empty shell of armor. He nudged the dismembered robotic hand with his foot.

Jenny gave a little gasp of relief. It had been so easy-but then she looked at her cousin. The real test was in his head. "I'm still here, Zach," she said. "Right? Right?"

He turned to look at her, pink light haloing his hair.

Then, slowly, he smiled. "Right," he said.

The awful dazed look had disappeared. He looked like Zach again. She could see the sanity return to his eyes. Relief flooded Jenny in painful waves.

Zach dropped the mirrored face mask on the pile of black armor.

"The rock I'll keep. I still want to do that photo."

They stepped through the door to the mirrored hallway.

Zach's slip of paper was on the ground. Jenny picked it up and frowned over it. She could vaguely make out what looked like a profile-a profile with a

beaky nose-but behind that was just a futuristic mishmash of colors, streaks and dabs.

"The things in my head," Zach said. He took it from her and tore it up. Jenny watched the colored pieces float down like confetti.

"Zach-what made you think insanity runs in the family?"

Zach just shrugged. The others had explained their nightmares, but it didn't surprise Jenny that Zach wouldn't. Zach protected his privacy.

An unseen clock struck four.

"I hate this place," Zach said, looking at his own gray-eyed reflection. "It reminds me of the fun house at that amusement park we used to go to when we were kids."

"Then you're the one who put it here," Jenny said. She'd forgotten the fun house herself-but then she'd forgotten a lot about her childhood, especially the years before she came to California. She didn't want to remember.

She felt a little twist of premonition in her stomach.

She also felt the heat in her cheeks. Now that they were out of danger, now that Zach looked like himself again, she found that her attitude toward him had changed. It was Julian's fault. Jenny knew perfectly well that her cousin had never thought of her romantically-but she couldn't forget what had happened in the darkroom. Every time she looked at Zach, she remembered seeing those gray eyes black with passion.

I'll forget eventually, she told herself. It'll wear off. Just as long as he never finds out.

Aloud she said, "We've got to find the others. Dee and Audrey and Mike are all wandering around here somewhere. I guess"-she hesitated-"I guess we should separate. But I'm afraid we might not be able to find our way back to each other. I know it seems as if the hall only goes two ways, but you can't trust anything here."

"Wait a minute." Zach pulled two crayons out of the pocket of his flannel shirt. "I took them because I thought the colors might work in a photo. Take your pick, cadet blue or Indian red. We can mark a trail."

Jenny chose cadet blue and made a pale, waxy streak on the nearest mirror. "Brilliant," she said. "I'll go this way, you go that way. Whoever finds them can bring them back here."

"Where the two crayons meet," Zach said and began a line of his own. Still drawing, he walked away. The first zigzag of the hall took him out of sight.

No thank-you, no goodbye. Well, that should help her forget the darkroom scene. Zach was himself again, all right.

She went her own way, leaving a crayon trail behind her.

The mirrored hallway seemed infinite-and completely deserted. It went on and on with no variations.

Until, to her astonishment, she came to the end.

It was a blank wall, gray as concrete. No mirror, no blue light, no red button.

It scared her.

On the ground in front of it was a white slip of paper.

Jenny approached the paper slowly. It scared her, too. Dee, Audrey, Mike, Summer, and Zach had had their nightmares. And Julian had said Tom was at the top of the house.

Nobody's nightmare left on this floor but hers.

She picked the paper up, turned it over. She recognized the formless doodle around the edges. The middle of the paper was exactly as she'd left it-blank.

Jenny looked up at the blank wall.

"Need any help?" Julian asked from behind her.

The paper crumpled in Jenny's clenched fist as she turned.

He was leaning against a mirror, wearing the sleek black body armor. No helmet, though. Instead, there was a splash of purple in the shock of white hair falling over his forehead and a triangular blue design on his cheekbone. It looked almost like silk-screening. More cyberpunk, Jenny thought. High-tech body art. Zach would love it-or maybe not.

Jenny looked straight into the strange cat-tilted blue eyes. Things had changed since Julian had set the bees on her. She had a new confidence at her core. Whatever he did to her, even if he killed her, he couldn't break her.

"So it was you shooting at us," she said.

"Personally, I think it was Zach's father. I think he has a little complex there. Rugged, old-fashioned dad; artistic, newfangled son, you know. On the other hand, I am a hunter." He pushed the lock of purple hair out of his eyes, smiling.

"Why don't you just go away?" Jenny said. "I'm trying to figure something out."

"I'm glad to help. I know a lot about you. I've watched you for so many years now. Hour after hour, day after day."

Jenny froze. He'd said similar things before, and she hadn't really listened. Or she hadn't taken it literally. But now, looking at him, she knew he meant it.

It was the most terrible thing she'd ever heard.

He'd watched her for hours on end? How many times in her life, when she'd thought she was alone, had he been there?

It was an appalling intimacy, and one Jenny didn't want.

"I'm in love with you," he said simply. "I think everything you do is marvelous."

"You-"

"There's no need to be embarrassed. I don't think the same way you do. Whether your hair's brushed -whether your makeup is on-I don't care. Besides"-he smiled at her-"didn't you know that I was there?"

"Of course not." But she had, Jenny realized. Somewhere deep inside herself she'd known she was being watched. She'd just thought everybody had that feeling.

Those times in the night when she woke up, certain that a tall shape was standing over her in the darkness. Usually when it happened she couldn't move, could hardly breathe. Sometimes she would actually see the shape, the outline black against lighter blackness, and she stared until her eyes ached.

If she kicked at it or turned on the light, it would disappear. But she'd sit there breathing hard anyway, choking on her own fear.

Her room always looked strange in that unnatural middle-of-the-night brightness. Subtly different than it did in the daytime. It was always a long time before she would be able to turn the light off again.

And underneath, in her heart of hearts, she would feel it had been real. Not just a dream. Her eyes had been open when she'd seen the thing above her, and it didn't matter if that was stupid and nobody could see in such darkness. She'd seen it anyway. It had been there.

Jenny had thought everybody went through things like that.

"I hate you," she whispered.

"I'd have thought you'd want my help right now." He nodded at the blank wall. "That's your nightmare, Jenny-but how are you going to get into it? And if you can't get into it, how are you going to get through it?"

He wants you panicked, Jenny told herself. He wants to scare you, to make you think you need his help.

But she didn't need it. She refused to need it.

She smiled suddenly. She could feel it was lopsided. She held up the cadet blue crayon.

"I'll get in with this," she said and smoothed out her blank slip of paper.

His eyelids drooped in amusement, and his voice was a caress. "But how will you remember. You don't know what to draw. You've spent all these years trying to forget____"

"I know enough," Jenny said. She wondered just how much Julian knew about her own private nightmare, the one she'd spent so long running away from.

She had the chilling feeling that she was about to find out.

"I know what it starts with," she said. "It starts with my grandfather's basement, when I was five years old."

She put the paper flat against a mirror and began to draw.

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