The Kill (Chapter 13)
Jenny wanted the others to go ahead of her partly because she was afraid, and partly because she didn't want any of them trying to save her if she fell off.
Heights. She had always hated heights. But she was damned if she was going to let this bridge stop her from getting to Tom.
It wasn't all that bad at the beginning. Steep, yes, and narrow, yes. And there were no handrails. If the whole structure had been six inches off the ground, Jenny could have walked it easily, without a chance of slipping. The problem was doing it twenty feet off the ground.
But if she looked straight down and concentrated on her own feet, she couldn't see how they were climbing.
Just then, though, something drifted past her
feet-a wisp of mist. Alarmed, she looked to one side.
No, they weren't cloud-height. They really were only twenty feet off the ground. But mist was rising around them.
"Oh, spiffy," Michael said from somewhere ahead, and Summer's voice said, "I can't see."
Dee's voice floated back from even farther ahead. "Reach back and hold hands with each other. I can feel my way along."
Jenny reached forward and took a handful of Audrey's nylon jacket-Audrey only had one good arm to use. She shuffled forward, gritting her teeth. Everything around her was white. She could barely see her own hiking boots.
In a few minutes, though, her head broke through the mist. She went on shuffling upward, inching out of it. Her legs were aching, and she hoped they were getting near the top.
It was only when Audrey stopped short in front of her, and gasped, that she looked around.
The mist was gone. What she saw beneath the bridge now was-unearthly.
It was dark, and arching through the darkness were other bridges, delicate and airy, some fiery, some that looked like ice. They led to clumps of land that looked like islands floating in space.
"Like Neverland," Jenny whispered. "A bunch of Neverlands. What are they? And where are we?"
"Oh, I don't believe this," Audrey said just as softly.
"I do," Dee said from the very top of the arch. Her
head was thrown back on the slim dark column of her neck. Faint light from the bridges shifted on the planes of her cheekbones, and her eyes glowed. "I do."
Some of the islands were brighter and more substantial-looking than any landscape Jenny had seen on Earth-sharper in detail, more exquisite in clarity. Others were dim and vague-as if they had been partly formed and then abandoned.
Between the clumps of land Jenny could see stars -but not normal stars. These stars rippled and waved as if she were looking at them through a clear stream, or as if they were studded on a flowing length of black silk. There was something incredibly lost and lonely about them.
"But what are those things? Those other islands?" she said again.
Audrey gave herself a little shake and seemed to focus. "I think-those are the nine worlds. From Norse mythology-Norse, like the runes. I told you about them once."
"You mean-we're above the Shadow World somehow?"
"I guess. Now that-that's probably Asgard, the one way up there. It's got to be."
Jenny tilted her head back. Far above them-the farthest away of any of the clumps-was an island world that seemed all silver and gold. She could just glimpse something like a shining mountain rising into a golden cloud on it. The bridge to it was very narrow and seemed to be on fire.
"That's where the gods live."
"The gods?" Jenny spoke to Audrey without looking down from the shining island.
"So the myths say. Hmm, and I'll bet that's Vanaheim. World of primal water and plenty, where some of the less important gods live." Audrey pointed to an island painted in jewel-like colors, dark blue and dark green.
"Vanaheim-any relation to Anaheim?" Michael murmured. Audrey pinched her mouth on a smile, but ignored him.
"And that's Alfheim, world of light and air," she said, nodding at an island that was much closer to them, shimmering in the colors of sunrise: yellow, pale blue, light green. "Home of light elves-like good spirits. I'm remembering all this, isn't that amazing? I must have been about eight when I learned it."
"What about those?" Dee said, pointing straight outward. Two island worlds were floating at about the same level as the bridge they stood on: one rocky and lashed by what looked like tornadoes, and the other so bright with orange fire that Jenny couldn't make out any details.
"The rocky one's Jotunheim-the world of primal storms. And the other one has to be Muspelheim, the world of primal fire. Nothing lives there but killer giants."
"What's that?" Michael said, staring downward and to the left.
Audrey looked. "Hell" she said simply.
"I always thought hell would be hot," Summer said, her eyes widening like cornflowers blooming.
"Hel with one l. It's the underworld, where everything sinks in the end. Ruled by Hella, queen of the dead."
It looked like a frozen lake, colder and blacker than the empty space between the worlds. Jenny had never seen such a lightless, joyless place.
The bridge to it was like a slide, broad and frosty.
"We definitely wouldn't want to go there. Or to that one-the one that looks like a cavern. That's Svartalfheim, the subterranean world."
"No more caves, thank you," Michael said.
There was only one island left. It was the one directly below them, and both ends of the bridge they stood on seemed connected to it. From here, the surface was obscured by dark mist and shadows.
Audrey said, "Niflheim, land of ice and shadows. The Shadow World." She shook her head. "I still don't believe this."
"Why not? It's no weirder than anything else we've seen today," Dee said. "But I only count eight worlds. Where's Earth?"
Audrey looked around, then shrugged. "Maybe we don't get to see that bridge until we finish the Game."
"Who cares? Look, we wanted to walk between the worlds, right?" Dee said, her eyes shining. "And now we're doing it. So-shall we?"
Jenny nodded. She felt very tiny and insignificant standing here, and her throat was tight. And she had the feeling that it was going to be harder going down than going up-because now the fall was so much longer.
They started moving. It was hard to walk in the place between the worlds-physically hard. After two or three steps Jenny began to feel muscle-burn in her calves and thigh muscles. She could hear Audrey panting in front of her.
And the barest glimpse of the fall on either side made Jenny's internal organs feel as if they were plunging out of her body.
Her legs wanted to freeze. She wanted to get down on her rump and scoot the rest of the way-no, get down on her stomach and slither. But that wasn't the worst.
She was afraid she would faint.
If I faint up here, I'll fall. Of course I'll fall. Nobody faints neatly forward. I'll slide off the side.
The moment the thought of fainting occurred to her, it blocked everything else out. She was going to faint. Just thinking about it made her dizzy. She was so scared of fainting, she felt like jumping.
Hysteria began to bubble up inside her. She shouldn't have thought about jumping. Now she was afraid she would jump, just because the idea had occurred to her. She had to try not to think about it.
Think of anything else. Think of Tom, think of getting to Tom. But the idea of jumping was now stuck in her mind. She started to picture it. She could get it all over with, turn to the side and just let go. God, no-she didn't want to, but she was afraid she'd go crazy and do it. …
The voice came from her own brain, but it was so harsh it seemed alien. You keep on moving, girl!
Jenny realized she was stopped, frozen. Staring down at her own feet in their brown leather hiking boots, and the white ribbon of bridge, and the formless darkness on either side.
Just put one foot in front of the other. The right foot. Put out your right foot.
I can't, she thought.
Yes, you can!
But if I faint-or jump –
You expect everybody else to face their fears, and you can't face yours? You're not your only master if you can't even control your own feet! You're just a coward!
The right boot jerked a little and stepped forward.
That's right. Now the other one.
The other boot came forward. Jenny was walking again.
She could do it-command her own feet. Just put one foot in front of the other. And one more step. And one more.
Don't look to the side. One more step. And one more.
There were only a few body-lengths of bridge in front of her. She could see where it ended. Ten feet. Five feet.
On legs that had suddenly gone weak as angel-hair pasta, Jenny stumbled and fell onto safe ground.
Dee bent over her. "You okay?"
Weakly Jenny patted one of Dee's hightops. "I'm terrific, thanks."
"I shouldn't have let you be last. I forgot."
Jenny sat up and wiped her forehead. "I did fine by myself."
"Yeah, you did. You seem to be doing a lot of that these days."
Jenny was very happy.
Then it hit her. They were across. They'd made it.
She looked up so fast her vision swam.
After the alien grandeur of the place between the worlds, it was something of a comedown. They were on the central island in the artificial lake at Joyland Park. The lighthouse looked the same as it had all night, white and shining. The park around them was a riot of lights-but ordinary lights, illuminating ordinary rides like the SuperLooper and the Tumble-bug. Everything looked very ordinary.
Behind her, the bridge arched gracefully over the lake water, and the water reflected a wavering arch back. There was no mist, and no sign of any other worlds. The top of the arch wasn't more than forty feet high.
"A hallucination, I guess," Audrey said slowly. "One of Julian's things. And I suppose it must have been from me, since I'm the only one who knew about those other worlds."
Jenny opened her mouth, then shut it again. She thought Audrey must be right-but she wasn't sure. And the truth was that they would probably never be sure.
She looked back at the lighthouse. "Come on, people. This is it."
When she got up her legs were shaky, but she took the lead and Dee let her.
The lighthouse looked bigger as they got closer. It
was life-size, with a widow's walk around the top and a weathercock. And it was attached to some broad dark building that Jenny hadn't seen before because it wasn't lit up. A restaurant, maybe, she thought.
There was a wooden door in the lighthouse's side, with a large iron handle.
"Monster positions," Dee reminded Jenny as she reached for the handle. Then Dee stood ready to kick the door shut if anything unfriendly was behind it.
"Tom and Zach will be at the top, of course," Michael said, resting with his hands on his thighs in anticipation.
But they weren't.
It was funny, how the end began. Jenny had been waiting for so long, working and fighting, and all the time waiting for the moment that she would see Tom. She was so used to waiting she wasn't really ready for it to end. She wasn't-prepared.
She almost couldn't deal with it.
But when it started happenings it happened fast, and prepared or not, she was thrown into it.
She pulled on the iron handle, and the wooden door swung open. There was no need for Dee to kick it shut. Everything inside was illuminated, and nothing came rushing toward them.
Black metal stairs curved up on Jenny's left, circling upward toward the top of the lighthouse. But straight in front of her she could see the interior of the broad building. The lighthouse had no back wall, and opened right into it.
It was a wonderful place, with a huge diorama two stories high as a backdrop. It looked like a movie set
of a wharf scene, but the numbered flags on poles betrayed its real purpose. It was an indoor miniature golf course.
"Treasure Island," Michael said, peering around her shoulder. "Pirates, see?"
It was pirates. The diorama featured a mural painted on the far wall of the broad building, a marvelously realistic mural with a volcano in the background. Painted smoke and little neon lights for sparks showed that it was erupting. There was also a mammoth storm in the painted sky, and forked lightning that really flashed.
At the bottom of the mural, just behind the golf course itself, two dinghies were landing on some fiberglass rocks. One boat was painted, with a pirate in an eye patch and hat, a lace cravat, and boots.
The other boat was real, with Tom and Zach.
Jenny touched her mouth. Then she was running.
There weren't any words for what she felt next. When she'd been separated from Tom in the paper house, it had been for hours. This time it had been days. She was exhausted, overstressed, starving, on the verge of collapse-and she'd never been so happy in her life.
Just the sight of him brought back everything that was good and homelike to her mind. It was like coming back to her own room after being away a long time with strangers.
It was where she belonged.
She threw her arms around him. And then she just held on, her heart pounding and pounding.
"Watch out, Jenny. He was here just a minute ago."
And Jenny, who had for so long associated Tom with protection, with safety and security and coziness, found herself feeling passionately protective of Tom. As if he were Summer. Looking into his dear face, handsome and rather brooding just now, and his wonderful green-flecked eyes, she said, "Don't worry. I'll take care of you."
"Just let me out, please," Tom said sharply, and then gave up and kissed her back. Jenny's solicitous feelings had thrown her into a perfect spasm of love for him, and it felt so good to kiss him again.
"If you two could tear yourself apart for just a minute…" Zach's voice said.
Jenny looked up. Her cousin was in the back of the dinghy, yes, the same cousin she'd lost, she thought a little deliriously. Exactly the same, with his wonderful beaky nose and his ash-blond hair pulled back in a casual ponytail and his keen gray eyes.
"I missed you, too," she said and scrambled back to hug him.
"We're tied up," Tom said briskly.
Jenny saw that his brown wrists were tied behind his back with some kind of thick cord. "No problem," she said, just as briskly, and pulled out the Swiss Army knife. I'll never go anywhere without one again, she thought, and, crouching by Zach's feet, she began carefully sawing at the cord.
"Hi, Dee," Tom said, calm as if he were meeting her Saturday at the ball game. "Hey, Audrey, Mi-" He broke off and bolted upright, and Jenny cut his hand.
"Sit down," she said.
He didn't seem to notice. "Summer?"
"Hi, Tom," Summer said shyly.
"She wasn't dead, just asleep," Audrey said.
Jenny said, "Sit down, will you? We'll explain later."
"Yeah-sure," Tom said weakly. He sat down. Jenny finished cutting the cord enough so that he could pull out of it. Then, while he was rubbing his hands, she turned to Zach.
"Are you both okay?" she added. "I mean-not hurt or anything?"
"We're fine," Tom said absently. "He just put us here a little while ago. We were in the lighthouse, before, and it wasn't too bad-except I was afraid you'd come."
"You knew I'd come. I hope."
"I hoped you wouldn't. I was afraid you would."
"Tom"-a strand on Zach's cord sprang apart- "you don't have to worry about me." She looked up to find him looking down at her, in that new way, the way he had since the end of Julian's first Game. As if she were something infinitely precious, something that bewildered him, but amazed him-something he didn't deserve, but trusted.
"Sure I have to worry about you, Thorny," he said simply. "Just like you worry about me."
"Nobody needs to worry right now. We've won the Game, Tom. We went on the treasure hunt and now we've found you. It's all over."
"I'll still be happier out of here," he said, and Zach said, "That goes for me doubled, tripled, and quadrupled."
Jenny glanced around. She supposed it was a spooky place in a way-if you were sitting and anticipating trouble. There were real cave entrances below the mural, leading to other parts of the miniature golf range. There were mock buildings holding the same thing-golf holes-with names like Lafitte's Black Powder Works. It was dark inside all these places.
"Don't tell me. You guys were afraid of the parrot," Michael said. Jenny followed his gaze to a section of the building beside the golf course, apparently an area for eating, because there were orange plastic tables and stools bolted to the ground. There was also a small stage with a sign that read: cap'n bill
AND SEBASTIAN, THE WONDER PARROT. AlSO a mounted TV showing Woody Woodpecker cartoons, mercifully silent.
"No, we were afraid of the eyes," Tom said, stepping out of the dinghy and over a length of thick rope that sagged between two wharf pillars.
Jenny's head snapped up. "The eyes?"
"The ones that sit in the shadows and look at you. And the whispering."
Jaw squared, Jenny sawed through the last of Zach's cord and rubbed his wrists. So the other Shadow Men were around.
Tom was staring at Audrey's arm. "What happened to you?"
"Believe me, you're happier not knowing."
"You guys all look like you've been playing with the Raiders-and losing," Tom said.
It was true, Jenny thought, following Zach over the rope. The prisoners they'd come to rescue looked fine, just as they had when they'd disappeared behind Julian's wall of fire. A little crumpled and stained about the clothes, but otherwise fine. Zach still had his 35 millimeter camera around his neck.
It was the rescuers who were bloody and battered. Even Summer looked wounded, like a broken-stemmed flower. Audrey, usually the picture of elegance, looked more like a young hiker who'd been in a bad accident. Dee's jeans were stained dark at the thigh. Michael looked as if he'd been ducked in swamp water and then tumble-dried.
"You've been through a lot," Zach said, and for once his gray eyes weren't cool or unreadable. "Thanks, Jenny."
Jenny waved dismissively, but she felt a glow inside. "What happened back there in the fire, anyway? One minute I was holding your hand, the next…"
"I fell," Zach said. "Pure dumb luck. I tripped, and when I got up, I didn't know which way to go. I stumbled around and ended up back in Julian's base."
"Out of the fire, into the frying pan," Michael said.
"And then Tom came back for me." Zach looked at Tom, and something passed between them without words. The introverted photographer and the star athlete had never been particularly close before, but Jenny had the feeling that that had changed now. She was pleased.
"Aww," Michael said.
Audrey said, "Shut up-mon cher."
Dee interrupted. "Here's a map of the park." The
map was wood, painted to look like parchment, with iron chains around it.
"It is an amusement park, then. We could see some of it out the lighthouse window," Tom said. "Okay, look, here's my plan…."
His voice trailed off. Audrey, Michael, Dee, and Summer weren't looking at him. Instead, they were looking at Jenny expectantly.
Tom looked at Zach, who was standing with his arms folded, something like amusement in his sharp-featured face.
"Okay, uh-why don't you tell us your plan?" Tom said to Jenny.
Jenny was fighting amusement, too. "I don't have one. We don't need one. We've won, and we ought to be able to just walk out of here. The only thing I don't understand is why Julian hasn't shown up."
They all looked at the various dark doorways and crevices.
"Do you think maybe-he's watching us?" Summer said.
"Of course I'm watching; that's what I do," a weary voice said.