Noises came from inside the hardware store, the clattering of falling metal and a million small things spilling.
"Jesus, Flyboy," Dess yelled in through the window. "It's good you're not a real burglar."
"Never said I was," he shouted back. Another crash erupted.
Even though it was the blue time, Jessica flinched a little at all the ruckus. It felt like they should at least try to be quiet, given that they were breaking and entering.
"Found them!" Jonathan's voice came.
She and Dess walked around the corner to the front of the store. Through the glass doors she saw Jonathan trying the keys from a big ring, one by one.
"Should have just climbed through the window," Dess muttered as the process stretched out.
"Some of the stuff on your list is too heavy," Jessica said, stifling a yawn and happy to be going in through the door. She could hardly keep her eyes open, and she still had to get back to Constanza's tonight.
Since Rex's demonstration out in Jenks, the five of them had spent every midnight gathering the materials they needed to bring the darkling invasion to a halt. Mostly that meant breaking into every store in town that sold fireworks and making off with the stock. The nightly burglaries in the blue time were getting tiring. And obvious too – the Bixby Register had run a story about the unknown vandals collecting a dangerous cache of fireworks. According to the article, the sheriff's office had actually figured out it was a bunch of kids planning something big for Halloween.
Of course, no one had a clue how big.
Tonight Rex and Melissa were knocking over the last fireworks stall in town while the other three picked up a few items from Bixby Hardware and Keys, after which, hopefully, Rex would let them get a few nights' rest. Halloween was only six days away.
Jessica scowled at the big paper skeleton taped to the glass door, swinging lightly from Jonathan's attempts with the keys. There were decorations up everywhere in school, orange and black bunting running down the hallways, pumpkin faces glowering at Jessica from the cafeteria walls. Every time she saw a witch or black cat on a classroom door, it reminded her of what was coming.
"Come on!" Dess said, just as the lock clicked.
"Ladies," Jonathan said, opening the door with a bow.
"Good, let's hurry," Jessica said, walking in among the rows of tools and appliances and paint cans. "Constanza thinks I'm in the bathroom."
Jonathan snorted. "That would psych her out, wouldn't it? If you just disappeared in there?"
"Yeah, very funny," Jessica said tiredly as Jonathan began to gather up a big plastic tarp.
On Monday morning, the day after tomorrow, Constanza was flying to LA. Supposedly it was only for a week. But as she mentioned to Jessica at least once every day, she might never set foot in Bixby High again.
Tonight could be the last time Jessica would ever see her.
Jessica pulled her coat tighter, wondering how many more people she would lose in the next week.
"Hey, check this out," Dess said.
Jessica turned. "An empty paint can?"
"Formerly a lowly paint can." Dess swung it by its wire handle. "But in its new incarnation, it will be a major explosive device."
Jessica swallowed. Some of the stuff Rex was planning was on the edge of crazy. But there was no backing out now.
She pulled Dess's list from her pocket and started walking among the blue-lit shelves, searching for nails and wires and metal tools – sufficient fresh, clean steel to make a hundred weapons.
Jessica wondered if it would be enough.
A half hour later Jonathan tapped her on the back.
"Come on." He offered his hand. "We should leave soon if I'm going to get back here in time."
"Thought you said it would be funny if I just disappeared."
"Sorry." He touched her hand softly, midnight gravity shivering through her body for a moment. "You could have stayed there. Dess and I could have done this on our own."
"Glad to help." She shrugged. "Slumber parties aren't much fun when your host is a stiff." Jessica looked into his eyes. "Plus I hate midnights when I don't get to fly."
He held out his hand, smiling. "Let's fly, then."
"Okay." She took it, feeling the connection take hold, her body light as the air. "See you tomorrow, Dess."
Dess looked up from the open front door, where she was piling the stolen merchandise. "Sure, Jess. And Flyboy? If you don't get back before midnight, I'm leaving all this stuff in your car with a big note to the sheriff."
"Don't worry, I'll be back."
They flew toward Constanza's, shooting down an empty stretch of highway to the colony of large houses on a circular road. Jonathan jumped with Jessica up to the roof, just outside the open window of the second-floor bathroom.
Jessica glanced at her watch; Jonathan still had plenty of time to make it back to the store before midnight ended. "Thanks for the lift."
"Listen, I know you needed to see Constanza tonight." He stood. "Seeing as how she's your only normal friend and everything."
Jessica looked up at him, wondering if he was being sarcastic.
"I mean it, Jess. It's okay to need somebody who's not a midnighter." He swallowed, looking uncomfortable. "And I'm sorry I never made friends with her."
"Thanks." Jessica sighed. "After what's coming, she won't be back, will she?"
"Yeah, I guess. But at least she'll be safe in Los Angeles."
"Sure." She sighed again. "I just hate goodbyes." Before she'd moved to Bixby, the last three months in Chicago had been nothing but farewells. And now she seemed to be losing everything again.
"Well, I'm not going anywhere," Jonathan said. "You can count on that."
Inside, Jessica changed back into her pajamas, waiting for midnight to end. When the blue light faded, the house shuddering to life around her, she flushed the toilet and stepped out into the upstairs hallway.
"So, as I was saying," Constanza began as Jessica opened her door. "This shirt can be retired, right?"
Jessica looked at the black pullover with red shoulder pads. "Yeah. Way too eighties."
"Eww." Constanza threw the shirt into the discard pile, then turned to the three giant suitcases that lay open on the floor. They were packed crushingly full of dresses, shirts, skirts, and what seemed like dozens of shoes.
"Won't your parents be suspicious? I mean, you're supposedly only going for a week."
Constanza snorted. "I always pack this much for a week. You wouldn't believe all the great stuff I'm leaving behind. But I think that's it."
"So… we're done?" Jessica said hopefully. They'd been packing pretty much all day.
"Done for tonight." Constanza stood up, surveying the wreckage of her room. "Thanks so much for helping me, Jess. I hate packing." She looked longingly into her huge closets. "All these clothes crying out to me. So many left behind."
Jessica felt herself smiling. The whole last week had been spent preparing for a battle that seemed unwinnable. It felt good to have accomplished something concrete, even as minor as packing Constanza's bags. And it was a relief to make a few choices that nobody's life depended on.
"Glad I could help you. It was fun, if exhausting."
"Ernesto said he was going to help, but he's long gone."
Jessica frowned. "None of your cousins are still around, are they?"
"No. And even if they were, Grandpa's being extra insane about anybody setting foot in Bixby before the move."
Jessica nodded. This close to Samhain, only Constanza's unlucky parents would still be here. Their house was on the opposite side of Bixby from Jenks but still in the path of the rip. If the darklings broke through, her folks would be in serious danger.
"Isn't it going to be weird?" she said. "Not seeing your parents… as much?"
Constanza shrugged. "I'm almost seventeen. I figure I'd be out of their house soon anyway. At least this way they'll be able to see me on TV."
Jessica had to smile.
"But you know, leaving them behind doesn't really make me sad," Constanza continued. "They'll always be around, one way or another. It's more my friends I'm going to miss. You especially."
"Of course, silly. I mean, sometimes I feel like I've hardly gotten a chance to know you. It's only been what? Two months since school started?"
"I suppose so," Jessica said quietly. It felt like years sometimes, but she'd only arrived in Bixby in late August. She sat next to one of the suitcases, staring at the profusion of clothes and shoes inside. "Two months can seem like a long time, I guess."
"That's so true." Constanza leaned closer. "In fact, my theory is that two months in friendship time is actually longer than a year, you know?"
"Um… not exactly."
Constanza bent and picked up a stack of shirts that hadn't made the cut. She took them to one of the room's huge, now half-empty closets. "Listen, Jess, I know you're all sad about me leaving. You've been moping around ever since I told you about LA. But sometimes these short friendships are totally the best."
Jessica raised an eyebrow. "They are?"
Constanza slid the shirts back onto hangers thoughtfully, one by one. "Sure! Didn't you ever have a best friend at summer camp or something? You make friends quick, and you know you're only together until the end of summer, so it's super intense?"
Jessica nodded. "Yeah, I guess I know what you mean."
Constanza reached over to brush a lock of Jessica's hair out of her face. "But those are always the people you remember for the rest of your life. At least I do. Even though I usually forget to write to them or whatever."
Jessica swallowed, a lump rising in her throat. She couldn't believe that tears had sneaked up on her and knew she'd feel like a total dork if she cried. She tried to focus her mind on Jonathan's words: Constanza was one of the lucky ones. She wouldn't be here for Bixby's big Halloween surprise.
Constanza sighed. "Maybe it's because when friendships end like this, instead of growing apart, you get ripped apart. So you never get to the phase where you don't like each other anymore."
Jessica blinked, and one tear traveled down her cheek.
Constanza reached out with an elegant finger and softly brushed it away.
"Come on, Jess. That's enough of being sad." She laughed. "I'll be back in Bixby whenever my shooting schedule allows. Still have to see the parentals, you know."
"Don't be sorry." Constanza turned her smile up to its full wattage. "But now that we're all packed, we've got to have some fun so I can remember you happy."
Jessica nodded, letting Constanza's mood lift her out of the sadness that had haunted her all week. Dess kept saying that her plan should work, that maybe they could save everyone in Bixby, or almost everyone. And after twenty-five hours of midnight, the blue time would retreat again.
Maybe once the darklings realized they had a fight on their hands, they wouldn't keep coming back every Halloween.
Jessica decided that tonight, at least, she would have a good time.
"Okay, this is me being happy." She forced a smile.
"That's the spirit," Constanza said. "We can still talk on the telephone, after all. It's not like it's the end of the world."