Chapter Twenty-six

On both sides of the quiver, I could see the powder blue strings of Slim’s bikini top, her bandages and bare, tanned skin down to the waistband of Lee’s red shorts.

I was half lost in how Slim looked from behind, half dwelling on the summer she won the quiver and pretty much paying no attention at all to anything else as I followed her to the door of her bedroom.

One step into the hallway, she stopped.

“What?” Rusty asked.

As if he didn’t know.

Slim went, “Shhhh.” Then she walked straight across the hallway and into her mother’s bedroom. We went in after her, spread out, and stared at the mess we’d left behind. A puddle, prickly with broken glass, remained on top of the dresser. The carpet below the dresser now looked dry, but dangerous with shards from the demolished vase and perfume bottle. A few bright yellow rose petals lay among the remains as if they’d been blown there from somewhere else.

The flowers were gone.

For a moment, I thought that Rusty or I must’ve thrown them away.

Then I remembered that we hadn’t touched them.

A chill crawled up the back of my neck.

Rusty and I glanced at each other.

He, too, had noticed the roses were gone…

“We better get outa here,” he whispered.

Ignoring him, Slim stepped around the mess on the carpet and walked slowly through the room. We stayed with her. Since both her hands were busy with the bow and arrow, she stood by, ready to shoot, while I looked under the bed and Rusty opened the closet door. When she entered the master bathroom, I crept in behind her.

The bathroom held flowery scents.

No trace of the yellow roses, though.

And no trace of any intruders.

Turning around, Slim pointed her arrow away from me. Her eyes met mine. She gave me a quick, nervous smile. Then she came toward me and I backed out of the bathroom.

Rusty looked glad to see us.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes—or hour—we searched the house.

It was hard on the nerves.

In some ways, I felt major relief. Because of the real intruder, Slim would never have to know about our invasion of her home.

But the relief came with a large price.

Someone else had come into her house, roamed its silent rooms, stood beside Slim’s bed while neatly slipping the paperback copy of Dracula out of her headboard and chewing the book. Someone had stolen into her mother’s bedroom and made the yellow roses disappear.

Chewing the book seemed like the act of a madman.

Taking the roses seemed like something a woman might do. Or the Frankenstein monster, I suddenly thought, remembering Karloff’s smile when the little girl gave him a flower.

As we crept through the house, upstairs and down, entering every room, opening every door, glancing under and behind furniture, checking everywhere large enough to conceal a per. son, I prayed that we would find no one.

I was a nervous wreck.

Not a moment went by that I didn’t expect someone to jump out at us.

Julian Stryker, maybe. Or Valeria (though I’d never seen her). Or some of their black-shirted crew.

Maybe armed with spears.

I tried to convince myself that this was impossible, that they had no way of knowing where Slim lived, but it certainly wasn’t impossible. There were many ways to learn such things.

By following us, for instance.

I gripped the knife tightly. My mouth was dry. My heart thudded. Sweat dripped down my face, fell off my ears and nose and chin, and glued the clothes to my skin. I felt as if a cry of terror was ready to explode from my chest.

But we found no one.

“I want to finish changing,” Slim said when our search was done.

“We’ll go with you,” I told her.

If Rusty had said that, she would’ve answered with a crack. “In your dreams,” maybe. But I’d said it, so she knew I wasn’t being a wiseguy.

“Okay.”

We followed her upstairs. In her bedroom, she dropped her bow and arrow onto her bed. Facing us, she said, “You guys can wait in the hall.” Then she took off her quiver. Not paying much attention to what she was doing, she dragged the leather strap up against her left breast. It snagged the underside of her bikini and lifted the fabric. As the rising strap pushed at her breast, she realized what was happening, saw us watching, and quickly turned her back.

“In the hall,” she reminded us. “Okay?”

“We’re going, we’re going,” Rusty said.

I said, “I’ll leave the door open a crack.”

“Fine.”

We hurried out of her room and I pulled the door almost shut.

Rusty quietly mouthed, “Did you see that?”

I gave him a dirty look.

He mouthed, “Oh, like you didn’t look.”

Speaking in a normal voice, I said, “Why don’t you go to the bathroom and wash your blood off? I’ll start cleaning up the glass.”

He shook his head. “I’ll help.”

“You’ll get blood on stuff.”

He inspected his hands. They looked as if they’d been smeared with rust-colored paint. Palms up, he closed and opened his fingers. The stickiness made crackling sounds. “Maybe I better,” he admitted. “But you’ve gotta come, too.”

“You’re not scared, are you?”

“Up yours,” he said. He gave me the finger, then turned his back on me, marched to the bathroom at the end of the hall, and vanished through its doorway. A moment later, the door bumped shut. I heard a soft, ringing thump as Rusty locked it. Soon, water began running through the pipes.

I stood alone in the hallway.

And didn’t like it.

Even though we had searched the house, we weren’t necessarily safe. Separated like this, we could be picked off one at a time.

“Slim?” I asked.

“Yeah?” she said from inside her room.

“You okay?”

“Fine.”

“You almost… ?”

She swung the door open so quickly it startled me. She grinned.

She now wore a clean white T-shirt and cut-off jeans and a pair of old tennis shoes that must’ve been white on a distant summer when she’d been Dagny or Phoebe or Zock. Through the thin cotton T-shirt, I could see her bikini top.

Stepping out of her room, she looked down the hall. “Rusty in the john?” she asked.

The water still ran.

“Yeah. He’s washing up.”

She nodded. “Thought so.” Then she looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m sure glad you guys are here. This stuff would’ve scared me silly if I’d been by myself.”

“Are you kidding? Nothing scares you.”

“Everything scares me.”

“Yeah, sure. You’re the bravest person I know.”

A smile broke across her face. “That’s what you think.” She glanced toward the bathroom.

The door remained shut. The water still ran.

Tilting her head back slightly, she stared into my eyes.

Slim’s eyes, pale blue in sunlight, were dark blue in the dimness of the hallway—the color of the summer sky at dusk. Intense, hopeful and nervous, they seemed to be searching for something in my eyes.

She had never stared at me quite that way before. I wondered what it meant.

What if she wants me to kiss her?

Could that be it? I wondered.

Do it and find out.

But maybe that wasn’t what she wanted.

We kept gazing into each other’s eyes. Soon, I was sure that she did want me to kiss her. She didn’t just want it, she was waiting for it. Waiting for me to catch on and take her into my arms and put my lips on hers.

I wanted to do it, too. I ached to do it. I’d been longing to kiss her for so long, and now she was almost begging for my lips.

I couldn’t force myself to move.

Do it! Come on! She wants me to!

I stood there like a tump—except that lumps don’t sweat and tremble.

I felt more frightened than when we’d been searching the house, but this fear was mixed with desire for Slim and disgust with myself for being such a coward.

Just do it!

Making an excuse for myself, I thought, If I try to kiss her now, Rusty might catch us.

The water still ran.

What’s taking him so long, anyway?

Then I thought, Who cares if he sees us kiss? Just go ahead and do it. Do it now before she changes her mind….

A toilet flushed.

The sound of it came like a signal for Slim to shut down the power of her gaze. Whatever’d been going on, it was over. A mild smile lifted the comers of her mouth. With her eyes and smile, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, well. Missed our chance. Maybe next time.”

At least that’s what I think they were telling me. They might’ve been saying, “You dumb jerk, you missed your chance.” But I don’t think so.

Then she reached up and flicked my nose the same as she’d done to Rusty, but not as hard. Not nearly as hard.

Gently.

Then she said, “Want to help me pick up the glass?”

“Sure.”

We turned and entered her mother’s room.

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