(23) Role Call

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I'm convinced my brain runs on a completely separate program when I'm in crisis mode. Before I can register that I've moved from beside the bed, I've crossed the room and slammed the lock on the door shut again. I don't know what part of me remembered it was still open. A weaker lock than this kept a Sleeper out of the shed where I first kissed Ditzy, so if this doesn't protect us, I don't know what will.

Outside the door, there's a sudden, rapid creaking: footsteps from up the hall. The sentry. Light flashes under the bottom of our door as they flick a flashlight on. "Psy?" says a voice. "What are you—"

They scream. The Sleeper's footsteps lunge up the stairs. I recoil from the door as two bodies hit the floor meters away. Animalistic sounds fill the hallway. Another scream. Something bangs. More footsteps pound up the stairs, accompanied by shouting. I retreat to the middle of the room and grip my hockey stick with both hands. Even if someone calls us, I'm not going to open the door. Not until they've stopped whatever's happening outside. And maybe even then.

More shouting. I hear, "Stand back!" in Ember's voice just moments before a sickening crunch—like a bat striking a watermelon—echoes through the house. The animal sounds stop abruptly.

"Take him downstairs," snaps Oreo. Then he shouts to the whole house, "Everyone report to the living room for role call! Now!"

An explosion of footsteps makes the whole house shudder. We all leap back as a fist pounds on our door. "That includes you, too, Chestnuts," growls Oreo. "No more hiding."

He strides away. I turn to the rest of the room to find all three of my friends looking at me. Calico J has pushed Patrick into a corner and taken up a protective stance in front of him, Ditzy's old bat in hand. Or maybe Patrick found the corner on his own. He's frozen like a deer in headlights, both hands braced against the wall and eyes locked on the door. Calico J looks almost as terrified as he does, but my brain fixates on Ditzy.

I've only seen Ditzy scared—properly scared—once before. This makes a second time.

She's still standing in her pajamas beside the bed with her flail gripped in both hands, but despite her fighting stance, she's shaking. Her eyes are huge, and in the grey light from outside, I see a single shining line track down her cheek. I didn't know Ditzy cried when she got scared.

"I won't let them hurt you," I say. Well, that other half of my brain says. I turn to the others. "Any of you."

My voice is far too steady for how petrified I am right now. I sound like a leader. I don't know why I'm taking charge. But that isn't enough to stop me from continuing to talk like my voice is a mind of its own. "We need to go with them, or they're going to suspect us. But whatever happens down there, stay close. Okay?"

Ditzy and Calico J both nod. Another tear slips down Ditzy's face. I redouble my grip on my hockey stick, then realize I'm in pajamas without my headlamp or knife. I change quickly and retrieve both items while my companions do the same. When my belt is on, I unsnap my knife sheath so I'm ready to grab my sharper weapon the moment I need it. That makes me feel safer as I return to the door, unlock it, and swing it wide. Ember steps back. "Good," she says calmly. "I was about to come get you."

"We're coming."

She steps away. There's a clear message in her body language: we're going first.

"J, look after Patrick," I say. They're murmuring together in the corner, and it's a long moment before they join us by the door. Patrick walks like an automaton. His face is still fixed in that same stricken expression, but that's the thing about Patrick: he always obeys an order. Even if he's so terrified, he falls apart after. It's scary.

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