At the kitchen door the next morning Jessica breathed a sigh of relief. She was safe for a few more minutes – Beth wasn't up yet.
"Morning, Jess. Toast?"
Jessica checked for signs of imminent re-grounding in her mother's expression but saw only sleepiness and the usual lines of stress. Apparently Beth hadn't raised any alarms last night.
"Sure, Mom. Thanks." Jessica sat down at the table. Maybe Jonathan was right, and the trick to dealing with Beth was to call her bluff.
Somehow, though, Jessica didn't think it was going to be that easy.
Her mother popped two slices of bread into the toaster, then turned her attention back to the coffeemaker gurgling happily on the counter. "Any plans tonight?"
"Um, no." Jessica frowned. "Hang on, was that question a subtle recognition of the fact that I'm not grounded anymore?"
"Not exactly subtle," her mother said. "I don't do subtlety before coffee." She splashed milk into an empty mug, her eyes remaining fixed on the black brew now dribbling into the pot.
"Well, you're tons more subtle than Dad. Yesterday afternoon he said he was keeping an eye on me."
"He is." Mom looked at Jessica. "But I'm just going to say that I trust you. How's that for good parenting?"
"It's great. But didn't you used to be the bad cop?"
"Yeah, I think so." Her mother gave the coffeepot a look of intense concentration. "Takes too much energy, though. At least your father's taking up the slack somewhere."
"Well, thanks anyway. I won't let you down." The words came out automatically, but Jessica felt a twinge of guilt as they left her lips. She had crossed a new line just the night before. It was one thing sneaking out during the secret hour, which hardly counted as breaking curfew; when every clock in the world was frozen, surely time was a meaningless concept. Plus there were darklings to slay and lost kids to rescue.
But last night she hadn't gotten home till about 2 a.m., cutting solidly into school-night real time. Crusty sleep still caked her eyes, and red Oklahoma dust had spun around the drain for a solid minute while she'd showered.
Not that she regretted it. Their visit to the motionless river had been worth any amount of lost sleep. Just like air during the blue time, the water had been as warm as a summer day. Jonathan said that you could go swimming in the middle of winter. With the current arrested, the broad river was like one big heated swimming pool. The water had seemed to wash away the pain in her slither-bitten hand, not to mention all the tension between her and Jonathan.
"That's Jessica, all right: Miss Trustworthy," Beth said from the kitchen door.
Jess wondered how long she'd been standing there. Maybe she had been waiting for the sounds of Jessica getting up and had followed her down the hall.
Not much fun, having a spy in your own house.
Jessica cleared her throat. "That's me."
Beth came in and flopped down on a chair, smiling sweetly at her sister. "Get it?" she asked. "Miss Trust?"
At the exact same moment Jessica's toast popped up and the coffeemaker's gurgling ended with a final sigh.
"I got it, Mom." Jessica jumped up and pulled a knife and fork from the drawer, wielding them like chopsticks to remove the toast.
"Put some in for me?" Beth asked.
Jessica glanced at her mother, who was giving Beth a puzzled look with her sleepy eyes, the pot in one hand, mug in the other. The coffeemaker let a last few drops fall onto its hot metal plate, which hissed like angry slithers as they boiled away.
"Be polite, Beth," Mom finally said. "Say 'please.' "
"I'm very polite. Aren't I, Jessica?"
"Amazingly polite." Jessica depressed the toaster's handle and stared down into its double maw, watching as the elements glowed red. "For example, you'd never hang around when you're not wanted."
"Yeah, and always on time. That's me."
"What are you two talking about?" their mother said.
Jessica glared at her little sister, daring her to go ahead and blab to their mother about everything: her sneaking out the night before, Jonathan, whatever she wanted. It gave Jessica pleasure to think that no matter how much Beth snitched about, she didn't know half of what was really going on.
And for that matter, what difference did being in trouble make? Yesterday Jessica had discovered that everything she knew could disappear at any time – maybe in a week, maybe this morning – her whole reality swallowed by the darklings. She definitely wasn't going to let a little twerp like Beth push her around in the meantime.
Besides, her boyfriend could fly. Grounded was a relative state of affairs.
She stared at Beth and thought, Go right ahead.
"Nothing," Beth finally said. "We're just fooling around. No big deal."
Their mother raised an eyebrow but then just sighed and looked at her watch. "Okay, whatever. I'm late. You guys try to have a good day." She looked at Jessica and held up her cell phone. "Call me and Dad if you do anything after school, okay?"
"Sure, both of you. No problem."
Beth's toast popped up, and Jessica carried it to her little sister on a plate. "Here you go."
"Thank you, Jess. See, Mom? Totally polite."
"That's nice, Beth. 'Bye, you two."
The sisters said goodbye, then waited silently as their mother hoisted her heavy bag onto her shoulder and walked, footsteps fading, to the end of the hall. The door opened and closed.
Jessica turned to her sister, who was chewing toast thoughtfully. "Thanks, I guess."
Jessica swallowed. "Not telling Mom about… everything."
"Like I said, Jess, I don't want you in trouble. I just want to find out what's going on here in Bixby." She gave her older sister a sweet smile. "And I will too… one way or another."