Instantly Mark saw what it was.
He felt cold all over. Small, furry creatures with dark wings furled were hanging from the ceiling. Hundreds of watchful eyes stared back.
“Mark!” Logan was in a frenzy. “You okay, buddy?”
Mark peered around the room. “Yeah.” He was the only one remaining seated. The others, he saw, all wore looks of alarm on their faces as they stood a safe distance from the statue and him.
That frightened him. He wanted to know what went wrong. But before he could ask, Logan was already pointing frantically at something above him.
The light around him dimmed all of a sudden and somewhere in the dark came the sound of flapping wings. The image of Diane blurred for an instant, out of focus, before it set itself right again. This time Diane was sprawled motionless at the bottom of a pit. Her face was pallid and twisted in anguish.
It gave Mark a jolt of fright. He grew aware of his shaky hands and gripped them together to stop the shaking. It was then he remembered where he was. The marble city. The octagonal room. Everything else came back to him like a shock wave. He felt a growing dread weighing down on his chest. He also felt someone shaking him by the shoulder.
Mark caught his and put it in his mouth. Unknowingly, he chuckled softly. The others began to chuckle, too.
Odd as it may sound, it was a fun game. Perhaps even the best one they’ve ever had.
Soon all of them collapsed on the grass and burst into laughter. Mark stole a glance at Diane, who lay on the grass with her eyes closed. He decided then that Diane wasn’t so bad after all…
When the three looked around the yard, Diane was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d she go?” asked Jason, panting.
“Maybe she’s chickened out,” Mark said between gulps of air.
“We’ve scared her,” said Corey with a crooked smile.
Mark grinned. “Told you.”
Just then, a familiar roar came from the old pickup truck behind them. Diane sprang out of her hiding place. “Gotcha!”
The boys screamed as they fell facedown on the grass. They begged her to stop.
Diane wouldn’t let it be. She raised an eyebrow. “So who’s better?” she asked. “Boys or girls?”
Mark stared up at her glowing cheeks and fuzzy hair. He held up his hands in an act of surrender.
“OK,” he said. “You’re better. You win.”
The other two nodded.
Diane smiled proudly. But that wasn’t enough for her. “And?”
Mark added hastily, “And faster. Satisfied?”
She smiled, then, fumbling with her pockets, tossed pieces of bubble gum to all of them.
Mark had a strange feeling that he was being chased. Sure enough, he looked over his shoulder to see Diane leaping over the shrub. She was heading this way and gaining on him. He screamed and stumbled.
Jason and Corey came to his rescue. “Let’s get her!” shouted Corey and the two charged madly toward her.
The tide had turned. Now the boys were dashing after Diane.
But now Diane was up to her own zigzag trick: a sharp turn to the left and then immediately to the right. And just when the boys thought they had her, she took an abrupt u-turn and zigzagged in the opposite direction.
Mark’s eyes widened. “What was that?”
Jason and Corey didn’t get a chance to reply. They’d both crashed into a nearby tree.
The three boys were not pleased. They glared at her, trying to find a way to refuse her.
“Because girls are annoying!” Mark said at last, thinking Diane would cry and leave. “Girls can’t run! And they’re nothing!”
Diane stood her ground, not budging an inch. She seemed very calm. It was as if she had gone through this plenty of times, and she was determined to play the game whether the boys like it or not.
Her eyes flashed. “You think so?”
The boys looked at one another. “Yeah!” they answered in unison.
Diane smiled instead, and then she did something totally unexpected. She stomped her foot like she was going to lunge at them, all the while roaring as fiercely and as loudly as a lion.
Shocked and confused, the boys scattered and ran in different directions. They haven’t any clue that the game had begun.
Corey and Jason greeted Mark but eyed Diane with suspicion.
“Come on, Mark,” Jason invited. “You’re on.”
“What’s the game?”
Jason grinned. “Hide-and-seek.”
“OK,” said Mark. “Let’s do it.” He pretended not to see Diane standing alone.
Diane decided to invite herself in anyway.
“OK,” she said. “Who is going first?”
Corey looked disgusted. He wanted to know who Diane was and where she’d come from. He threw an inquiring look at Mark, who shrugged and turned away. Jason spoke.
“You can’t play with us.”
Diane raised her eyebrow. “Why not?”
“Boys don’t play with girls.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because – well.” Jason looked at Mark and Corey, unable to think of an answer fast enough.
Diane, the daughter of his mother’s new friend, sure didn’t look like she knew what “fun” is. Mark kicked a bush nearby. He was angry with his mother, who insisted he make friends with a girl as bizarre as Diane. He didn’t even like the sound of her name.
A shrill cry, coming from the yard beyond the neatly clipped lawn, interrupted Mark’s thought. Two boys were running in their yard. His spirits lifted. Jason and Corey would know how to get rid of her, he thought. She probably wouldn’t mind getting back to her boring book anyway.
Mark walked quietly into the neighbor’s yard. He was surprised to see Diane tagging along.
Mark was left alone with a girl of his age in the yard. She was carrying a thick, dark brown book. One about Sherlock Holmes. Mark was surprised she didn’t wear thick, dark glasses like most bookworms do.
He studied the girl, who stared back, expressionless.
She was thin, very thin for her age. And small. Her oversized T-shirt and sweat pants made her look even thinner, smaller, and younger.
Her bright, intelligent eyes were interesting. But it was her hair…
The blond hair was woven into braids – if the wild, fuzzy tangles could be called braids. The loose curls gave her an unkempt appearance, as if she had her hair done last night and she had awakened this morning from a nightmare.
Mark looked away from the fixed stare of the snake and stared at his knees. He tried to let his mind wander. Yet everything he thought about somehow reminded him of what he was trying to forget.
He couldn’t help thinking about his parents; he would probably never live another day to see them again. He felt the tears welling up in his eyes and was glad that the others were sitting away from him. He couldn’t stop blaming himself for all the misfortunes he had put the others through. They didn’t deserve it. If it hadn’t been for the mission to track the missing heirloom, none of them would be trapped in here. And he couldn’t help lamenting over Diane, his best friend for as long as he could remember it. He couldn’t save her. Was she even alive?
Mark closed his eyes and allowed himself to do what he seldom did when he was afraid: to think of a warm and pleasant memory. The memory of his first meeting with Diane…
“Have fun, sweetie,” said his mother before she went into the house for a long chat and an afternoon tea.
It appeared that no one, including Logan, could make sense of what had prompted George to act so rude and what was wrong with him. They all knew very well that this wasn’t Mark’s doing.
He wasn’t like the George they knew.
“Pal.” Logan swallowed and eyed his best friend nervously. “Why don’t we all calm down and think about this for a while?” he said at last.
George threw him an indignant look but said nothing.
Mark sank down heavily on one of the round and flat stones that encompassed the burnished statue, shunning his eyes from the others. He hardly knew what to think anymore. Maybe George was right, after all. He was foolish enough to think they could get out of this place alive.
Mark let out a long sigh and stared at the statue in front of him.
The statue was a life-sized sculpture, an enrobed elderly man holding what appeared to be a serpentine scepter. The serpent had its head drawn back, revealing its hideous fangs. If it weren’t for the colorless, thin slits of carved pupils, Mark would have mistaken it for a real-life serpent. He knew it was ridiculous to feel this way, but he couldn’t help it – he was relieved to see the man holding the serpent firmly by the neck.
George said aloud what everyone else was thinking – though in a more dramatic way.
“What the devil?” He faced Mark with an angry frown on his face. His eyes flashed, then narrowed. “What’s going to be next? Sixteen passages?”
“Don’t be that way, George,” Becky said gently. “It won’t help us any –” But George turned around and growled at her.
“Quiet!” he bawled. “Who’s the one crying and saying that we’re all going to die?”
Becky’s face stiffened. Somehow she managed to control herself and turned away from George’s glare. Logan looked dumbstruck, his eyes darting back and forth between the two. The cowboy, however, had suddenly become very protective of Becky; he flexed the muscles on his good arm even though he knew very well that he wouldn’t stand a chance against George’s massiveness. Mark was relieved when he saw George turned his back.