The Hunter (Chapter 9)

It was an abstract rendition of a forest, very heavy on green swirling lines.

"All right, so I did draw a forest," Audrey said. "I've always had nightmares about them, but I never knew why. I didn't even know what forest I was scared of."

"He picks up on our subconscious," said Dee.

"So what happened to you two after we got separated?" Jenny asked.

"Not much," Dee said. "They put us in that room, only there wasn't any door at first. Then we saw the door-and at that exact instant those corpses appeared and Audrey started screaming. What about you? Did you see the Erlking?"

Jenny looked away. "Sort of. It was Julian, playing the part." She hesitated, then blurted, "You do know that it's because of me you're suffering, don't you? It's me he wants. He told me that he'd stop hurting you if I-if I let him-"

"Don't you dare," Dee said, sloe eyes flashing.

"Don't even think about it," said Audrey with equal heat.

Jenny nodded, feeling warmth in her eyes. To cover it up she watched Audrey. While they were talking, Audrey had efficiently put her hair back up, fished a quilted pouch out of her jacket pocket, and deftly restored her cherry lipstick. Audrey had always seemed so cosmopolitan, so invulnerable-but now Jenny had seen beneath the facade.

"It must have been hard, living in all those different countries," she said slowly and glanced over at Dee.

Audrey paused a moment in the midst of fluffing her bangs. She snapped her compact shut with a click.

"Frankly, it was awful," she said. "You can't imagine the culture shock. The dislocation-the insecurity-and you never know when you're going to move again. Even now that Daddy's retired I still feel-"

"Like it's hard to make real friends?"

Audrey nodded. "I feel as if we might be picking up and going again any minute."

"You're not, though," Jenny said. "You're staying here with us." She glanced at Dee again. "Right?"

"Oh, naturally," Dee said, but there was no rancor in her voice, and she laid a slender dark hand on Audrey's back.

"You know, I don't understand," Jenny said suddenly. "Those guys in the forest seemed nice-so why did they do it? Why did they hand us over?"

"Well-elves are supposed to do people favors. Answer questions, do work for you. But they always

want something in return, and if you call them up and try to trap them, they sometimes trap you. Take you to their world. I guess those guys figured we were more expendable than they were."

Jenny nodded. "One more thing-"

"Always one more thing!" said Dee.

"-which of you did the door? I know I didn't put it there because I've never seen a door like that."

"I did, I suppose," said Audrey. "I saw doors like that in Germany-but I didn't put it there. It just appeared."

"You can't change things here by using your mind," Dee said. "You have to deal with everything here as if it's real."

"But where is here?" Audrey said bleakly.

"Good question," said Jenny. "It's nowhere on Earth; I know that from what I saw out the window."

"The Shadow World," Dee said. "Remember the instructions? A world that's like ours but different, that exists alongside ours, but never touches it."

" 'Some people call it the world of dreams, but it is as real as anything else….'" Jenny quoted. "Well, it touched our world tonight, anyway. What's wrong now, Audrey?"

"It just occurred to me. You know, in Norse and German legends there are supposed to be nine worlds-our world's just the one in the middle."

"Nine?" said Jenny.

"Nine. There's Asgard, which is a sort of heaven, and Hel, which is a sort of hell, and a world of primal fire and a world of primal water and a world of primal wind-but, listen. There's also a world of primal ice. It's sort of connected to Hel-and it's

also a world of shadows. It's called Niflheim, and nifl means 'dark, shadowy.'"

"Just what are you getting at?" Dee asked.

"I don't know. It's just strange, nicht wahr? God, I'm starting to think in German. But it is strange, isn't it-with him calling himself the Shadow Man? And I just remembered something else. The things that live in Niflheim are supposed to be terribly destructive, so they're under a rune of restraint to keep them from getting out of their world and into other peoples'. I don't remember which rune, though."

"You're not saying runes are real," Jenny said. "I mean, like the one Julian talked about-the one that 'pierced the veil between the worlds.' They can't really work."

"I always assumed they didn't, that it was just a silly superstition. But now … I don't know. They work in legends all right, to let you-oh, what do they call it? Fare forth between the worlds. Or summon up things from the other ones. The way those German boys summoned the elves."

The talk was making Jenny very uncomfortable. She didn't know why, and that made her even more uncomfortable. Something to do with runes, a long time ago. After all she had seen, why should it upset her that runes might be real? That day in her grandfather's basement…

"Look," she said abruptly, "we've been standing here gabbing forever. Don't you think we'd better start looking for the next person? There is a time limit, you know."

"Right," Dee said, always ready for action. "Do you want to split up again?"

"No," Jenny said quickly. "Let's stick together." By whatever weird laws operated in this place, she'd already yielded Julian the right to touch her hand, her cheek, her hair. And he'd made it plain that he wouldn't be satisfied until he got all of her, bit by bit. It was just a question of what kind of ruse or threat he planned to try next. Jenny figured her best chance was not to be caught alone.

They found Michael on the third sweep down the hall. He was wandering back and forth in front of a door, running his hands through his rumpled dark hair and muttering. He brightened considerably at the sight of the girls. "Audrey, at last! It seems like years!" "Oh, I've been counting the seconds we've been apart," Audrey said, raising an eyebrow and dimpling at the same time.

"Me, too. I only wish I had a calculator to keep track."

And neither of them meant a word of it. Lucky for them, thought Jenny. Love for Tom was like an aching bruise in her chest. If only she could see him, just for a moment…

They explained to Michael everything that had happened to them. He told them that for him the parlor had simply disappeared while Tom was cowering from the invisible creatures. Then he'd found himself in front of this door. He'd tried the knob, but it wouldn't open. He'd been pacing the hallway ever since.

"And you never saw a staircase?" Jenny asked. "No staircase, no other doors, no nothing. No people, until you came." "And yet we've been walking this hallway for hours, and we've seen three doors, and I came up a staircase," Jenny said. "It's just one more weird thing about this place."

"Which we don't have time to discuss," Dee said. "Let's move, people. Who wants to try this door?"

"This time let's try to keep it open after we go in," Jenny said. "That is, if we don't need to slam it shut fast."

"We can't go in at all-it's locked," Michael said.

Dee flashed him a grin as she took up a heel stance, ready to do a forward kick. "Bets?"

The door opened easily when Jenny twisted the knob, and no monsters jumped out. Dee caught it as it swung and held it against the wall. Through the opening Jenny could see dimness.

"Uh, you first. I'm a registered coward," Michael said.

Jenny took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and stepped over the threshold–into a hallway identical to the one she had left.

She looked up and down it in bewilderment.

"What's going on? This door wants to close," Dee called.

"It's-" Jenny gave up and beckoned Audrey and Michael in.

"It's the same place," Audrey said, looking around.

This hallway was the mirror image of the other. Same gloomy carpet, same creepy wallpaper, same candles in brass holders.

Michael went back through to Dee's side. "Look-the candles even have the exact same drops of wax running down. It really is the same hallway, not just another one like it."

No matter how many times they went back and forth over the threshold, they kept getting the hallway.

"For some reason it's not letting us into your nightmare," Jenny said. "We just keep getting bounced back here."

"Oh, too bad," said Michael. "I'm really going to miss facing it."

"All right, let me see this." Dee finally went through, the door swinging shut behind her. "Yep, same place," she said, looking around. "Like a revolving door to hell."

"Wasn't it Sartre who said hell was eternity spent in a room with your friends?" Michael asked grandly.

"Oh, quit showing off your A in world literature," said Jenny. "Unless-was that your nightmare, Mike?"

Michael deflated a bit. "Uh, actually, no. Mine was more of a kid thing, really."

"But what was it?"

Michael seemed to be blushing. Scratching under the collar of his gray sweatshirt, he shook his head.

" 'Each of you has a secret you would rather die than reveal….'" Dee quoted portentously from the game card. "I'll bet it was something really embarrassing, like the potty monster, huh, Mikey?" As she spoke she turned the doorknob. It wouldn't budge. "Oh, great, it's locked again."

"If we're stuck here again, we might as well sit down," Audrey said.

There didn't seem to be anything else to do. They sat, and Michael talked. One thing you could always

count on, Jenny thought-that Michael wouldn't run out of things to talk about.

"When I think," said Michael, "that I could have stayed home and watched 'Ren and Stimpy' tonight…"

"This isn't much of a game. No reset. It's win, lose, or die," Michael said.

"You heard the one about the bunny and the hair dryer?" he said.

"Michael," Audrey said scathingly.

While he was talking, Michael had taken off one of his battered tennis shoes. It had a hole in the toe. Audrey stared in genteel horror at his limp sock on the floor.

"I can't help it-I've got an itch. Ah … that's better," Michael said, scratching vigorously. "So what'd you say to-that guy-after we all got whooshed out of the parlor?" he said to Jenny. "I mean-" He fumbled for words as all three girls looked at him. "I mean-it was pretty obvious what he wanted-and you said he kept you there alone-"

"Whatever he wants," Jenny said shortly, "he's not getting it."

"Of course not," Audrey huffed. "What an idea." "She wouldn't give him the time of day," Dee said curtly.

"I don't even know what he sees in me," Jenny said.

The others all looked at each other. Then Dee snorted. "No, you wouldn't, would you? But everybody else does. Except Zach, probably, but then he's your cousin."

"It's not just looks," Audrey said. "You're good. Too good, sometimes. I've told you-"

"Aba would say your soul is straight," Dee interrupted.

"Just like a Girl Scout," Michael said helpfully. "Sweet and simple and honest."

"But he's bad," Jenny said.

"That's the point," Dee said. "Badness always wants goodness."

"And opposites attract," Audrey said grimly. "Look at Michael and me."

Michael said hastily, "So who do you think he is, anyway?"

"I think he's a Visitor," Dee said, to Jenny's surprise. "You know, an alien that abducts people."

Michael stared, scratching his chin. Audrey frowned.

"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "He's no alien-just look at him. And where's his spaceship?"

"I think he can look like whatever he wants to," Dee said, scratching her arm. "And maybe they don't really need spaceships. He's taken us to another planet, hasn't he?"

"Another world, maybe. There's a difference," Audrey shot back. "And according to him he did it with a rune. Which makes him-"

"What? The Erlking? I don't think so, dear. You're just saying that because it's what you're most afraid of."

"And Visitors are what you're most afraid of, dear," Audrey said, working her perfect nails over her palm. It was turning into a vintage Dee-Audrey feud.

"Girls, girls," Michael said. "Personally, I think he's a demon. Jenny's demon lover." He smiled ingenuously, digging under his collar again. Dee and Audrey both glared. Jenny just felt a chill deep inside.

"Look, I believe in demons," Michael said. "Why shouldn't they exist? And if they do exist, that guy has gotta be one."

Throughout this conversation Jenny had gradually become aware of a discomfort. The skin on her arm was tingling-no, itching. She scratched at it absently, but the itching got worse. And worse. She looked down.

Even in the dim light she could see the mark on her arm. A dark spot, like a strawberry birthmark. But she didn't have any birthmarks. And this spot wasn't strawberry-colored…… it was green.

At the same moment Michael, who'd thrust one hand inside his sleeve to scratch his arm, made a strange sound. His eyes bulged, his expression changed. He shoved the sweatshirt sleeve up.

Jenny gasped.

There was something growing on his arm.

A plant. There were leaves, fresh and green and young, looking like newly sprouted mint, growing from his flesh.

The next instant they were all on their feet, looking at themselves in the candlelight. Each of them was growing patches of green. Jenny's were like moss, Audrey's like mold.

Jenny gulped. Like Dee and Audrey, she was horrified. But Michael went hysterical.

"Get it off me! Get it off." He thrust his arm out blindly at Jenny.

Even gritting her teeth, she couldn't bring herself to touch the sprigs. Dee took hold of one and pulled.

"Ow!" Michael yelled. Dee stopped. "No, go on! I don't care how much it hurts. Pull it out!"

Dee pulled harder. The plant hung on. Jenny could just glimpse a network of thin roots like white threads connecting it to his arm. Blood began to ooze out of several pores as Dee kept pulling.

Michael was screaming.

Finally Dee swallowed, her nostrils flared.

"Mike, I can't keep pulling. I can't. It's taking your skin with it."

"I don't care! I don't care!" Michael still wouldn't open his eyes. He grabbed at the plants himself with his other hand. Jenny pressed a hand to her mouth to stop from gasping.

Sprigs were growing on his other hand, too. Growing even more luxuriantly than on the first.

"Mike, it's… it's all over you," she whispered.

Michael's eyes flew open, and he looked at his hands. "Oh, God. Oh, GodGodGod …"

In one frenzied motion he yanked his sweatshirt over his head, pulling his arms out. His chest and stomach were thickly covered with new leaves. They stirred with his breath, brushing one another lightly.

Michael's screams rang from the ceiling.

"Chill out!" Dee finally got him in a choke hold, preventing him from running raving down the hall. His eyes were wild and set, and he was breathing like a lathered horse.

"We've got to do something for him," Jenny said. She could hardly bear the moss on her forearm, but

she had to forget about that. Michael was so much worse off.

"Yeah-but what?" Dee was trying to keep Michael under control. He seemed about to go into convulsions, clawing at himself.

Audrey stepped forward. Jenny guessed that she was actually more upset by the growths than anyone but Michael-appearance meant a lot to Audrey. But Audrey had herself in iron control.

"Michael Allen Cohen, look at me!" she rapped out.

He turned wild dark eyes on her.

"You calm down now. Understand? Verstehen Sie?"

A glimmer of sanity showed in Michael's eyes.

"Right now," Audrey said severely, and putting her palms on either side of his face, she kissed him.

When she backed up, Michael had cherry lipstick all over his mouth. He looked a lot calmer.

"I live to obey," he said weakly.

"You live to kibitz," said Audrey.

"We've all got to stay calm," Jenny said. "We've got to think. How can we get rid of these things? We can't pull them out. So what else can we do?"

"Weed-killer," Dee muttered. There was some exotic red-and-green-leafed plant growing on her, almost harmonizing with her dark skin.

"We don't have anything here to work with," Audrey said. "Never mind anything deadly to plants."

Michael spoke up in a whisper-but a whisper with a new note in it.

"We've got fire."

Jenny looked up at the candle in its brass holder.

"You can let go of me, now," Michael told Dee. "I won't go anywhere. I want to see if that candle will come out."

Dee released him. He tried to take a step, then stopped. He squatted down to stare, his head almost at floor level. Jenny bent, too.

His bare foot was rooted to the floor by a mat of white tendrils.

They were growing out of his sole and into the black carpet. He could barely raise his foot an inch, and only by turning it sideways could he see the roots.

As Jenny slowly looked up, she expected him to go frantic again. But Audrey reached out and firmly took his hand, her fingers crushing the leaves on the back.

Michael was shaking, but he stayed rational.

"Get the candle," he said thickly.

Dee lifted it out easily. "I'm going to try it on myself first," she said.

"No. Me."

Dee slanted a sloe-eyed look at him, then nodded. She tilted the candle to apply the flame to a leaf on his arm.

The leaf seemed to melt slightly in a crescent where the flame touched it. There was a bad smell as the edge blackened. Nothing else happened.

"Try the roots."

Dee tried lower, very close to Michael's skin. Michael flinched away from the heat, but Audrey held him steady.

The plant started to shrivel.

"That's it!"

"Can you stand it?" Dee asked.

"I can stand anything to get these off. With the right kind of incentive, of course." He looked hopefully at Audrey, who was still holding him and murmuring encouragement.

Jenny smiled to herself. To be inane and lecherous when you're scared to death required a special kind of bravery.

Dee burned more roots. The plants began to drop off more and more quickly, shriveling at the first touch of the flame.

Michael was almost sobbing in relief. His arms and torso were clear.

"Anything-ah, lower?" Dee gestured with the candle at Michael's sweatpants.

"No! And watch where you're waving that thing. I plan to be a family man."

"Look," Jenny said softly.

The patch of moss on her skin was getting smaller and smaller. In a moment it had faded altogether. The same was happening to Dee and Audrey. Michael's feet came free of the floor.

And then they were all laughing, admiring their clear, perfect skin, touching it, holding it up to the others. Just exactly like the scene at the end of Ben Hur, Jenny thought, where the two women are miraculously cured of leprosy. Michael put his sweatshirt back on and kissed Audrey once more.

"You had some mold on your lips before," he said. "I didn't like to mention it."

"No, you didn't, Aud," Dee muttered in Audrey's ear. Audrey looked helplessly at Mike, but with some indulgence.

"So this was your nightmare, and we got through it," Jenny said. "This hallway is your nightmare room. Which means that if we go back through that door…"

The door opened under Dee's hand. They walked through into the hallway, apparently the same hallway they had just left. But with two differences, Jenny noticed. In this hallway there was no candle missing from the bracket. And there was a scrap of white paper on the floor.

A picture of a huge green plant, something on the order of a rubber plant, with arms and legs sticking out. No head.

"Ugh," Jenny said.

"My nightmare," Michael said, still looking embarrassed. "Turning into a plant. It's so stupid-I think it came from this book I read when I was in third grade. It had a story about a kid who was so dirty that things started to grow on her-little radishes and veggies. And it just freaked me out. i mean, it was this harmless story, but for some reason I just flipped. I kept thinking about that kid, all crusted with dirt, with green stuff sprouting from her-it made me sick."

"You're making me sick," Audrey said.

"And then the parents pulled them-the veggies -they pulled them off her-"

"Stop it," Dee commanded.

"Like I said, it was stupid, a kid's thing."

"I don't think it was stupid, I think it was horrible. And I think you were smart and brave, the way you dealt with it," Jenny said. Michael's soulful eyes widened at the unprecedented compliments, and he gave her a rumpled grin.

The unseen clock struck one. There was something

eerie about the way it echoed. Morning is coming, Jenny thought.

"We'd better get moving," Dee said, just as Michael made a stifled sound.

"What's wrong-" Audrey began, but then she saw it, too, in the darkness of the hall where nothing had been before.

A staircase.