“Have you heard the excellent rumors?”
Jessica sighed. “Only the one that I crashed and burned on my physics test this morning. Of course, that’s more in the fact than the rumor category.”
Constanza Grayfoot frowned and pressed closer to Jessica’s locker, letting a pack of freshmen past. “Oh, Jess, that’s too bad. Maybe your mom will finally let you bail on some of those advanced classes.”
Jessica lifted the weighty tome that was her trig textbook. “Fat chance.”
“Weren’t you studying with you-know-who?”
“Yeah, I was. Except we kept… getting distracted.”
A radiant smile lit Constanza’s face. “Jess, you wicked girl! That kind of distraction doesn’t sound too bad.”
Jessica returned the smile, but the expression felt shaky. If the interruptions had been what Constanza was thinking, it might have been worth failing a physics test. But spending all last midnight looking for frozen stalkers around her house hadn’t left any time for the good kind of distractions or much studying. Rex and Melissa hadn’t even bothered to show up and help. Maybe Melissa figured a threat from a mere human being wasn’t worth her time.
“Well,” Constanza continued, “perhaps this morning’s rumors will distract you from your physics tragedy. So it turns out that someone’s mother works for the sheriff’s department She’s like a forensic expert, or a police psychic, or something like that. Anyway, there was some kind of demonic vandalism last night out in Las Colonias.”
Jessica shoved her trig book into her backpack, wondering what else she should bring to study period. “Demonic what?”
“Vandalism,” Constanza repeated, then added in a whisper, “but with weirdo rituals. What happened was, this family’s all asleep, and suddenly their burglar alarm goes off—right at the stroke of midnight.”
Jessica’s hand froze, the zipper on her backpack halfway closed. “Midnight?”
“Yeah. Someone broke into their house while they were sleeping—and did all this psycho stuff without waking them up.”
Jessica took a slow, even breath. “And this was last night?”
“Yes, last night,” Constanza insisted. “Pay attention, Jess. I’m getting to the spooky part. So when the burglar alarm goes off, the family wakes up and looks around, but the burglars, or demon worshipers, or whatever are already gone. It’s like they just disappeared.”
Jessica nodded slowly, getting the head-rush feeling she always did when midnight intruded on the daylight world. Constanza was the only real non-midnighter friend she had here in Bixby. Hearing her talk about events that could only have happened in the secret hour made Jessica dizzy.
“So what kind of stuff did they do?” she said.
Constanza looped her arm through Jessica’s and pulled her toward the library. “The weird thing is they didn’t steal anything. Just trashed the house and left all these psycho symbols. Like for one thing, there was this door with twelve knives stuck into it. And blood on one of them.”
“Twelve? Not thirteen?”
Constanza blinked. “Well, that’s what everyone’s saying. Why?”
“Just… you know.” Jessica shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant. “Thirteen sounds much more demonic than twelve.”
“Uh, I guess.” Constanza giggled. “Maybe they were demon worshipers who couldn’t count.”
“I hope not,” Jessica said softly to herself. It seemed pretty obvious where Melissa and Rex had been last night. The scary thing was, she hadn’t seen them at school all morning.
In the library Constanza’s table was already in full swing. Details of the previous night’s demonic vandalism were being traded and analyzed—silverware, pots, and pans arranged mysteriously in a computer room; spots of blood found on the carpet and on one of the knives; an upstairs window smashed from the outside or, alternatively, the front door broken down. But there was one thing everyone agreed on: there had been exactly twelve knives in the door. As Jessica listened to the gossip, she glanced at Dess seated in her usual spot in the corner. Jessica wondered if she knew what had really happened last night.
“Just the thought that they were sleeping while it was all happening,” Jen kept saying. “How creepy is that?”
“Maybe they were drugged,” Liz said.
“Maybe they did it themselves!” Maria suggested.
“What? The family?” Constanza looked dubious. “In Las Colonias? Those are some very nice houses out there. I think my cousin owns one. Not really a demon-worshiping neighborhood.”
Maria shrugged. “Sure, but it doesn’t make any sense if someone else did it. How could you do all that stuff in total silence?”
A voice carried from the librarian’s desk. “Speaking of total silence—don’t you girls have any studying to do?”
“Yes, Ms. Thomas,” Constanza answered, then rolled her eyes and whispered, “Speaking of demons.”
Jessica looked over at Dess. She was probably listening, her expression unreadable behind sunglasses. Come to think of it, Jessica had no idea what Dess had been up to all weekend. Did she even know about the stalker situation?
“Actually, I better get to work. Trig is my next big midterm.”
Constanza nodded slowly and glanced over at the corner. Jessica smiled faintly. Constanza had begun to notice how much time Jessica spent with Dess and the others, lunches as well as study periods, and was probably wondering what the appeal was. Except for Jonathan, the other midnighters were into the wearing-all-black thing, and their sensitive midnight eyes forced them to wear sunglasses whenever they could. They weren’t really the kind of people Jessica had hung around with back in Chicago.
She wished she could get to know Constanza better, but between being grounded and surviving the secret hour, Jessica hadn’t spent nearly as much time as she wanted with her. Like with Jonathan, midnight seemed to keep anything normal from happening.
“Dess isn’t really that bad,” Jessica said quietly, and immediately hated herself for putting it like that.
Constanza giggled. “Well, Jess, at least with her there’s not much chance of getting distracted.”
“You look like you’re in a good mood.”
Dess removed her sunglasses, revealing a serene expression instead of her usual Monday glower. “Had a really good weekend. Playing with a new toy, which is top secret, by the way—can’t tell you anything about it. And this morning is proving… interesting.”
Jessica looked back at Constanza’s table and lowered her voice. “You heard about the thing last night?”
Dess snorted. “Sure, but that’s nothing. Happens a lot in Bixby—rumors about kids doing random stuff, mostly based on the last bunch of rumors.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. What about the knives?”
“Twelve of them? Obviously a misprint. Anyway, who could it have been? I was busy. And Las Colonias is way out near the badlands. Weren’t Rex and Melissa in town, helping you guys look for your stalker?”
Jessica wrinkled her nose. “So you know about him?”
“Rex called me yesterday. Warned me to be on the lookout.” She shrugged. “Kind of weird, I guess.”
“Yeah.” Jessica leaned forward. “But here’s what’s weirder: Rex and Melissa didn’t show last night. And I haven’t seen them today either.”
“They didn’t? But Rex said…” Dess went silent, a faraway look in her eye that Jessica knew from doing trig homework together. It was Dess’s look of figuring all the angles.
“Well,” Dess said finally, “that means one of two things. Most likely, some moron along the rumor chain didn’t get the number right because most people don’t ever get the numbers right. So Rex and Melissa got into a rumble last night, got cornered, stuck thirteen knives in a door, and slept late this morning.” Jessica swallowed. “What’s the other possibility?”
“They got into a rumble last night, stuck thirteen knives in a door, and one fell out.”
“Fell out? What do you mean?”
“Well, that would mean”—Dess chewed her lip—“that they won’t be coming to school today.”
When the noon bell rang, Dess and Jessica headed for the cafeteria, making record time. Jonathan was waiting for them at Rex’s usual table. Alone.
“Martinez?” Dess said, obviously surprised to see him there. Jonathan hardly ever ate with the other midnighters. He must have heard the rumors too.
“Hi, Dess,” Jonathan said through a mouthful of peanut butter sandwich on banana bread. He pulled out a chair for Jessica but didn’t say hi, just smiled tiredly and kept on eating. His concern for Rex and Melissa evidently hadn’t affected his acrobat’s appetite.
Jonathan’s voice was still scratchy from walking home two nights before. Jessica had begun to realize that he never wore a coat, no matter how cold it got. He didn’t like anything (or anyone) that restricted his movement.
“You guys heard?” he said between bites.
“Yeah.” Dess’s eyes swept the cafeteria, which was beginning to fill with jostling bodies and the smells of cafeteria food. “And they definitely aren’t here.” She sighed, looking at the two of them. “Okay, I guess I have to go make the phone call. Got any change?”
Jessica fished in her pocket and found a single coin, the quarter she’d flipped two nights before. She’d been carrying it around, hoping its luck would change. So far, it had brought only trouble.
Dess swept it from her hand and stomped off, not bothering to say thanks.
Jessica watched the angry sway of her long black dress until it was swallowed by the crowd. “What’s she so grumpy about?”
Jonathan shrugged, as if it were obvious. “Me and you. Rex and Melissa. And then there’s Dess.” He bit into an apple.
“Yeah, I guess.” Jessica couldn’t disagree, although at the moment she was wondering whether Jonathan and she were worth being jealous over. She’d bombed her physics test, a stalker was trailing her, and Rex and Melissa were missing amid rumors of midnight blood and destruction. Yet Jonathan was sitting there, eating like a demon and, as always in normal time, not touching her.
In the secret hour it was always automatic—fingers brushing, the light pressure of shoulder against shoulder, or arms intertwined. But in daylight Jonathan didn’t seem to see the point of physical contact. As if he didn’t realize there was more to life than flying.
Still, Jessica told herself, it wasn’t like she couldn’t hold his hand, right now. Just reach over and take it. How lame was this? Waiting for him to do everything and hating him for not reading her mind?
Of course, if she did reach out and he pulled away, no matter how slightly, it would really, really suck.
She sighed, feeling selfish to be worrying about this with Rex and Melissa missing. Something awful had happened last night, and not too far from the badlands. She couldn’t get the image out of her head of twelve bloody knives stuck into a door. According to the rumors, no bodies had been found, but did darklings leave bodies behind when they… did whatever they did?
“So, you still think you blew it?”
“What? Oh.” Jessica groaned, remembering now what the demonic rumors had allowed her to forget. “Physics. I know I blew it. I drew a total blank on the formulas part. And the laws part. On the physics part, basically.”
Jonathan was still smiling; he was breezing through the class, as confident with the laws of motion as Dess was with numbers.
“Still, you must have gotten the extra credit.”
“No. Didn’t get that far.”
Jonathan laughed. “About what happens when you flip a coin? Give three reasons why it never stops, even right at the top?”
Jessica just looked at him and sighed.
“No answer at Melissa’s. And Rex’s dad picked up. Couldn’t get anything out of him; Rex must have doubled his meds.” Dess didn’t sit down, just folded her arms and stared down at them. “Waste of a good quarter.”
“What’s the deal with Rex’s dad, anyway?” Jessica said. “It’s so sad, the way he is.”
Jonathan cleared his throat.
“Him, sad?” Dess snorted. “It was sadder before the accident.”
“What do you mean?”
An unpleasant look crossed Dess’s face. “Well, all of it happened before I met Rex, but I know he wasn’t the world’s greatest dad.”
“Oh. Still.” Jessica remembered the drool on the old man’s chin, the lost expression in his eyes.
Dess shook her head. “No, really. Save your pity. Ask Rex about the spiders under the house sometime.” She turned to Jonathan. “You got your father’s car today?”
“Anything important happening this afternoon?”
Jonathan paused for a moment, then shook his head.
“Let’s go, then.”
Jonathan sighed, shoved his remaining sandwich into his lunch bag, and pushed his chair back.
“What? Now?” Jessica asked, wrenching her mind away from thoughts of Rex’s dad. “But there’s no way we’ll get back before fifth period.”
“Deeply tragic,” Dess said. “But if you don’t want to come, give Mr. Sanchez my heartfelt apologies. His little eyes get so sad when I skip trig.”
Jonathan rested his hand on Jessica’s shoulder, finally touching her. “You don’t want to come?”
“Um…” She did, but Jessica couldn’t ignore the trickle of fear in her stomach. Trumping the image of bloodstained knives was a vision of her parents’ faces, grim and in a grounding mood. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay, Jess. We’ll let you know.” He squeezed her shoulder softly. “See you tonight.”
They turned and walked away, leaving her alone.