“What are you doing here? My mom said no visits!”
“Getting caught, if you don’t keep it down,” Beth whispered harshly. “Besides, your mom didn’t say anything about tonight. Specifically.” Beth cast a nervous glance down the short flight of stairs to the second floor landing.
Jack pulled his door open the rest of the way and ushered the girl in, nearly catching the hem of his old robe as he closed the door behind her.
“You’re supposed to be sleeping,” Jack said, leaning back against his door.
Beth glanced back and forth between his bed and the chair, and then chose the chair, sitting and pulling her feet up in front of her, tucking the robe around her legs.
“Are you cold?” Jack asked. “Are you getting those chills again?”
Beth stared at the star map above Jack’s bed, shaking her head absently. “No… But it is cold up here. I thought heat was supposed to rise.”
“It does. And the cold from the ice on the roof sinks. Guess who gets stuck in the middle?”
Beth hunkered down, resting her chin on her knees.
“So is there some reason you’re breaking my mom’s not-quite-explicit-enough rule about coming up here in the middle of the night?”
“You know, technically, it’s not the middle of the night.”
“And I didn’t come up here at midnight, either. I was already here then.” She stuck out her tongue.
“You tell that to my mom and see what she says. I dare you.”
“No way,” Beth said, her eyes going wide. “She made that case worker cry, Jack. And that lady was one of those who’d seen everything.”
“So?” Jack asked, after a pause.
“So what?” she asked.
“So why are you up here, instead of down there, sleeping like you’re supposed to? Beth, you need to sleep.”
“I can’t,” she said, and Jack saw the muscles at the back of her jaw bunch.
“Stop being so stubborn.”
“I’m not being stubborn, Jack! I’m so tired, I want to sleep. But I can’t. If I slip during the Witching hour….” She shivered, and hugged her knees tighter, under the robe.
Jack stepped over to his bed and sat on the end of it.
“You’ll Disappear,” he said.
“If I go, it’s in my power to be able to come back. Not that it’s ever easy…. But if They take me…”
They sat in silence, listening to the steady exhale of the furnace, the creak of the roof, the groaning of the house settling in the cold.
Jack rolled over, stretching across his bed, fumbling for his alarm clock. He started pushing buttons, the red numbers flashing as they ticked forward.
“What are you doing?”
“Look, you need to sleep. So I’m setting my alarm for 5 o’clock. Hopefully my mom won’t be up by then. Not on a Sunday; she usually sleeps in till seven or eight. Over there, in the bottom drawer of my desk, is my backup.”
Beth spun around in the chair, and rummaged through the drawer, pulling out an old fashioned brass wind-up alarm clock.
“Does this thing even work?” she asked, giving it a shake. She glanced out the window, her eyes going distant, and then she spun the hands on the clock, locked them in place, and started winding.
“How did you..?” Jack began. He’d been advancing his digital alarm clock, so she couldn’t have seen the time on it.
Beth smiled. “It’s a simple matter to calculate time of day based on the location of the moon.”
Jack shook his head. “Easy for you, maybe.”
“I’ve had 9 or 10 years to practice.” She gave the key on the back of the clock a few more turns, then let it go.
The ticking sounded louder to Jack. He hadn’t used the clock since last spring’s storms had knocked the power out once or twice a day for nearly the entire month of April.
“I still don’t—”
“You’re sleeping here,” Jack said.
Beth leapt to her feet. “No, Jack! I came up here to stay awake, not—”
“Wait, listen,” he said, pulling the covers of his bed back into place. “Whenever we sleep near each other, your dreams leak into mine, right?”
“Well… that’s not really the—”
Beth bit her bottom lip, nodding a bit reluctantly.
“So, you sleep here, and I’ll guard your sleep. Or… hold you here. Or… do… something to keep Them from taking you.”
“Jack, you don’t know—”
“No. I don’t. So you’ll have to teach me.”
She glared at Jack, and he glared back.
Beth finally broke the staring contest, glancing down at the ticking clock in her hands, took a deep breath. She set the brass alarm clock next to the digital one.
“I can’t believe I’m going to do this,” she muttered, and then sat next to Jack. She took another deep breath, like a diver on the platform, or a pianist on stage before a crowded theater.
“All right, we’ll start with some rules.”
Jack leaned close, listening carefully.