Jennifer Hart stood in the middle of her local thrift store and wondered at the phenomena that were fads. She had never pretended to understand most of them—Giga-pets and reality TV, Beanie Babies and Hello Kitty, emo music and World of Warcraft—but this newest one had to be the most inexplicable yet.
Across the aisle, three teenage boys were eagerly picking through a men's t-shirt rack. There was nothing strange about the shirts. They were your average thrift store fare. A little worn, a little outdated, neither eye-catching nor offensive. At first she'd thought they were just boys on a budget, making the best with the choices they had, but then she'd noticed the large, hairy mole on the neck of the shortest boy and realized she knew them all from school. T.J. Powell, Chris Ishtoff, and Jeremy "The Mole" Parks. Slackers, all of them, but with parents who were well off. There was no reason for them to be shopping here other than that they wanted to, and for someone who would've given anything to be at the Target down the street right then instead, Jennifer found their actions mind-boggling.
She wanted to chalk the whole thing up as simply the eccentric taste of an isolated few, but incidents like this seemed to be happening more and more lately. For instance, last Monday she overheard a cheerleader going on about how she was getting her grandmother's antique dress refitted so she could wear it to the prom, and yesterday, a guy hit on Jennifer while she was getting gas. His come-on line: that it was "real cool" that she was wearing Keds.
Jennifer shook her head, starting down the shoe aisle just as her thirteen year old brother came speed walking up it. Head low, a pair of sneakers clenched in his fist, he blew passed her muttering, "Okay, I found some. Let's go."
Jennifer rolled her eyes and reached out to catch him by the arm. "Hold it. Did you try them on?"
"And they fit okay?"
"Is there room for your feet to grow?"
He scowled. "There's enough."
"Put them on and let me see."
"Jenny," he whined.
"Jack," she whined back. "Mom said to make sure there was a lot of room. Shoes are expensive even second hand. We can't afford to come back here in three months when you have another growth spurt."
"Fine." He yanked his arm from her grip and flopped onto a nearby bench, swapping out his old sneakers for the less old sneakers. When he was done, Jennifer crouched down in front of him and pinched the toes to make sure there really was enough room.
She let go and rocked back on her heels, sighing. "I think you should go one size bigger," she told him.
"They don't have any."
"Liar." She cuffed him lightly over the head. "Props for tryin', though."
She pulled the sneakers off his feet and went to check. There was another pair a size and a half larger in red and white. When she returned with the bigger pair, Jack's scowl darkened.
"I'm going to look like a clown," he said as she bent down and slid them onto his feet.
"Don't worry about it. Your jeans are so baggy you can barely even see your shoes."
"And whose fault is that?" he snapped.
Jennifer fought back a smile as she tied the laces, knowing it would only tick him off more. Her brother was the only boy she knew who actually liked clothes that fit. No overlarge shirts, no baggy jeans. She wasn't sure if it was Jack's burgeoning sense of style or the need to have something he couldn't, since an early slam from puberty made buying correctly-sized clothes way too expensive anymore.
"Well, maybe if you'd stop growing like some kind of radioactive weed," she teased him.
Jack leapt off the bench as if he had heard the bell and it was go-time. Jennifer was knocked off balance and landed on her backside with a graceless plop.
"So it's my fault then?" he cried, hands clenching into fists. "Sorry. I didn't know growing was something I could control."
"Melodramatic much, little brother?" Jennifer quipped, going for flippant even as her nerves jangled from his outburst. The plastic tile of the floor was cold and slightly sticky beneath her hands, and she could feel the grit from all the foot traffic digging into her palms.
She rose with a grimace, swiping her hands across her jeans to dislodge the embedded dirt from her skin. "Relax. I was only kidding."
"Well you're not funny," said Jack, but his fingers uncurled and after a few seconds he slumped back down onto the bench, putting his shoes back on with agitated tugs and jerks. Jennifer watched in silence.
The second he was done, he snatched up the red and white sneakers and stalked off toward the register. Jennifer followed at a slower pace, worrying. It wasn't that Jack didn't have a short fuse, because he did. But lately it seemed that even minor things like her sisterly ribbing were setting him off, and she couldn't figure out why. Crazy teen hormones? Bad friends? Jack had always been a bit of a loner, but maybe he'd clicked with a tougher crowd since entering middle school. Jennifer might be a high school sophomore now, but she still remembered: middle school sucked.
It wouldn't have been that big a deal if her brother responded as he usually did, with a verbal bashing that could leave a person feeling dizzy and stupid. That could get embarrassing if he really got into it, but it was tolerable. This sudden shift to physical attacks was a recent development, and not tolerable at all. Jack was still grounded from his eruption at dinner last month. He'd been quiet all day—a precursor to a tantrum when he'd been a toddler—and when their mother had told him to finish his vegetables he'd just snapped. Now they had a mustard stain on the dining room wall, a crack in one of their plates, and Jack was eating from a plastic baby bowl their mom had dug out of storage. Now whenever he finished his green beans or carrots it was to see Winnie the Pooh giving him a thumbs-up.
Their mother had always had a wicked sense of humor.
As they stood in line, Jennifer picked through the fifty-cent bin set up beside the checkout counter. Some toys that smelled faintly like bleach, a couple kitschy pieces of jewelry. It was the store's version of an impulse-buy stand.
Jack noticed her digging and peered into the bin. "Anything good?" he asked. His tone still had a slight grumble to it, but Jennifer knew that making conversation was as close to an apology as he was going to give her.
"Not really." She glanced at the people in line ahead of them. The store wasn't very busy at such an off hour, but it was just their luck that the few customers who were there had decided to check out at the same time as them.
"I wish this lane would move faster. I want to stop by the library before it closes."
"Again?" said Jack. "You were just there yesterday."
But Jennifer wasn't listening. Something had flickered inside the bin, a moment of light over shadow, already gone.
"Did you see that?" she asked him.
Probably it had just been a trick of the light or some toy on the fritz. Still, she found herself reaching towards the corner where she'd seen it, moving aside a Raggedy Anne doll and a few tacky scarves until there was only one item left.
"What is it?" asked Jack.
Jennifer scooped it up. It was a necklace, and not the cheap plastic kind either. This one felt almost too heavy for it's size. The chain was made out of small, perfectly round links that looked to be brass or bronze. And the charm, while no bigger than her thumb, look like a perfect miniature of—
"An hourglass?" said Jack. "Who would want an hourglass for a necklace?"
Jennifer didn't answer him. Truthfully, she had a weakness for jewelry like this. Not the mass-produced Silver Circles of Eternity or Interlinked Hearts that stores were always advertising on television, but the unique, the handmade, the underground exclusive. It called to the artistic side of her, which her friends liked to tease was the only side of her.
"It's clogged," her brother pointed out.
She looked closer. He was right, unfortunately. Fine white sand filled the bottom like usual, but there was also a small pile of sand resting just above where the hourglass pinched together, and not so much as a grain was trickling down.
Jennifer shook it. Nothing. She flipped it upside down. Still nothing.
"Too bad," she said. "That's probably why it's only fifty-cents, huh?"
Jack shrugged. A clear don't know, don't care gesture.
The line moved up. Jennifer found herself reluctant to let go of the necklace. It wasn't like she needed it, but it only cost a couple quarters, and when was the last time she'd indulged in jewelry shopping, cheap or otherwise?
Her inner debate was a short one. When she gave the necklace to the cashier, Jack rolled his eyes but kept his comments to himself, a rarity she appreciated all the more after just having dealt with his little burst of temper. The shoes were bagged but she wore the necklace out. The weight of it around her neck was more considerable than she would've guessed; it was certainly the heaviest necklace she'd ever owned. But still, there was something comforting in being able to feel it there against her breastbone, tangible in a way that those other, more delicate pieces of jewelry were not. And durable too. She wouldn't need to worry about accidentally breaking it. This necklace had been made to last.
They left the store and cut across town, on foot since their mother was working late and had kept the car.
Gradually the traffic lessoned. Businesses became fewer with longer stretches of woods between them. The speed limit went up while the quality of the sidewalk went down, until they were forced to share the bike lane with the litter.
They reached the library just as the sun was beginning to set. Unlike back in the olden days when the wealthy and poor parts of a town where divided by a railroad track, in the county of Landen it was divided by a library. An old, small library made of pale yellow stucco that had a very small selection of books, most of which were out of date or damaged, and which more often than not carried within their pages foul odors, stray strands of hair, suspicious stains, food crumbs, or, sometimes, a single square of toilet paper pressed between the pages.
Passed the library, the streetlights stopped and the roads turned to dirt. Any signs were made of wood and nailed directly to the trees. Ones proclaiming "Private Property" and "Dead End" were the most common, but there were a few set up as address signs for visitors, of which there were very few.
Jack headed across the parking lot toward the narrow trail they used as a shortcut home, but Jennifer veered off towards the library's entrance.
It took her brother about a minute to realize she was no longer behind him. His shoes scuffed against the asphalt as he stumbled to change direction. "Aw, come on, Jenny. I'm hungry. Can't you do this tomorrow?"
"It will only take a minute."
He made a noise that sounded like Puh. Jennifer ignored him.
Inside it was cold and quiet as usual. There were a few kids at the computer station over in the corner and an older man reading a magazine in the lounge area, but no one else was visible in the main room. It was possible there were a few lurkers in the back, but on a Wednesday night at this library, she doubted it.
"I'm gonna go check my e-mail," Jack told her, swinging his bag of shoes in a lazy mockery of a pendulum. "Let me know when you're done staring at your statues."
Jennifer gave him the finger. Her brother stuck his tongue out at her, then strode off towards the table that had the computer sign-in sheet. Jennifer continued on, winding around the aisles of shelves stuffed with books in their crackly plastic dustcovers until she reached the very back of the building. Here the silence was absolute, save for the hum of the air conditioner and one rattling vent.
Ahead was a set of doors marked "Employees Only." She ignored the sign and pushed through.
The library always had a funny odor to it. Like the smell of paper, slowly aging. In the back, the smell was even stronger, with a good mixing of dust added in. Giant cardboard boxes lined the walls in bulky rows. There might have been a window hidden around somewhere, but there was so much junk piled up it was impossible to see. There were stacks of outdated books waiting to be sent off to wherever outdated books went, along with new books that still needed to be sorted, labeled and stickered.
Her table was in the back. Sculptures ranging in size from a foot to three feet covered the entire surface, except for a few empty spots where certain ones had been taken and put on display in the library. With her permission, of course.
"Back again already?" a voice whispered in her ear.
Jennifer jumped away with a shriek. She clapped a hand over her ear. "Damn it, Dustin! I told you to stop doing that!"
"Aww, but it's so much fun," Dustin said, rising from his stoop behind her, and as he straightened Jennifer was forced to look up, and up. It was to the basketball team's neverending despair that this six-foot-two sophomore had no interest in sports at all, preferring instead to hole up here at this sad little library with the excuse that he needed the community service hours. Not that anyone believed the gangly bookworm.
"Well when I finally keel over from too much fright you're going to have no one to tease anymore," she berated him, aiming a swat at his arm that he dodged easily.
"That would be terrible," Dustin agreed with mock solemnity. "So, what'cha doing here?" He smirked. "As if I can't guess."
"Just wanted to check on things, that's all."
"Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. Your lack of trust cuts me to the quick, girl!"
"It's not you," she protested.
"I know, it's Mrs. Garrett, right? Can't trust that woman with so much as a newspaper."
"Ha, ha." Mrs. Garrett was the head librarian, and the sweetest woman in perhaps all of Landen. She was the one who'd given Jennifer permission to store her artwork at the library in the first place.
"I have a show coming up next week," Jennifer told him. "You know how anxious I get beforehand."
"Anxious is too mild a word for it," said Dustin. "Relax. Nothing is going to happen to your stuff. I promised I'd keep an eye on it for you, didn't I?"
"Yeah, I know. It's just… we really need the money this month," she admitted. "And first prize is five hundred dollars. Five hundred, Dustin."
"That is a lot of money," he agreed. He lived on the other side of the library just like she did. There were very few people who lived on their side who didn't share her worries.
Jennifer stepped closer to the table to inspect her work. All of it looked as it should, and as mismatched as ever. She had yet to settle on a medium, preferring to use whatever seemed most appropriate for the idea of each piece. So far she had dabbled with various types of clay, metal, wood, and, in one regrettable instance, brick. And the subject matter was just as diverse. There was no theme to it. Here was the miniature bust of her mother, there an abstract twist of copper and wire that might be called a wreath by those with enough imagination. Mr. Cooper, her art teacher, was as bemused by her flighty creations as he was impressed by them. So long as he continued to accept them and enter her in competitions, she didn't much care.
"So," Dustin said after a few silent minutes, "dost the queen approve?"
Jennifer gave him a shove. "Yes, everything looks good."
"Good. Not get out of here so I can go back to 'admiring' you art in private like the good Lord intended."
"Perv. It's not that kind of art."
"I know." He slung an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close just long enough for her to return the hug before playfully pushing her away again. "But in all seriousness, you're going to do great. You have some wicked talent, Jenny."
Jennifer blushed and led the way out. When they were almost to the main area, Dustin, striving for casualty and failing miserably said, "So… how's Camille?"
Jennifer slid him a sly glance. "You mean since the last time you asked? Which was, oh, all of two days ago?" She watched in amusement as his dark skin grew even darker. Making such a big guy blush was immensely satisfying for some reason. "Why don't you just ask her out already?"
"Don't rush me," said Dustin.
"Rush you? It's been over a year, dude. Groundwork has not only been laid, they've finished building condominiums on it and are starting to design strip malls."
"Smart ass. "
They emerged from the stacks. Jack was immediately off the computer and hurrying toward them, scowl firmly fixed in place. "Finally. Let's go already." He tugged self-consciously at his too-big pants, which had attempted to slip off his hips as he'd run over. For all his new height, he had yet to gain any more width.
Dustin caught the action and he nodded sympathetically. "Been there, man."
Jack shot him a suspicious look, and Jennifer prayed he didn't try and start anything. She knew Dustin wouldn't engage him, but Jack lashing out in any way inside such a quiet place would cause a scene and be embarrassing. Fortunately, after taking in Dustin's height, her brother seemed to decide that the comment had been sincere, and after pause acknowledged the words with an awkward jerk of his head—a nod tripped up by pride.
"C'mon, Jenny, let's go." Jack snatched up her hand and began tugging her towards the door.
Jennifer shot an apologetic glance at Dustin as she was towed out. He just shrugged and waved, calling as loudly as he dared, "See you at school."
"Yeah. See ya."
By the time they reached the last stretch of road that led to their home, night had fallen fully. They stumbled over rocks and fresh potholes yesterday's rainstorm had drilled into the dirt, Jack complaining all the while.
"It's your fault for making us stop at the library," he muttered as he tripped over yet another rock and nearly did a face-plant before Jennifer managed to grab him.
"I know," she said, just to prevent the coming argument. "Sorry."
Jack shot her a look that said he very much doubted her sincerity, but let it go with a grumbled, "I wish we at least had a flashlight with us."
"I know, Jack—ah!"
Light flared from her necklace, a clear gold that cut through the darkness like a pure ray of desert sunlight. Jennifer's first crazy thought was that the charm had somehow caught fire, and she ripped it over her head so fast it was a miracle she didn't break the chain. It hung from her grip, the clogged hourglass swaying innocently, a glowing beacon of time frozen.
"What did you do?" asked Jack. He had also jumped at the sudden eruption of light and now stood several feet away, eyeing the swinging piece of jewelry warily.
"I didn't do anything."
Slowly, Jennifer reached up to touch the hourglass. It was warm, but a gentle kind of warm. Considering the strength of the light, she had expected it to burn. "It did this before, I think. Back at the store."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Did it? So it's just busted then. Nice." But he seemed relieved all the same. Jennifer shared the feeling. Having the necklace light up right at the moment he mentioned wanting a flashlight was a creepy kind of coincidence.
She started walking again. Jack followed—silently this time. When a few minutes had gone by and the hourglass didn't grow any hotter, she looped the chain back around her neck. Still, every so often she found herself catching it in her hand, inspecting it over again. Something bothered her about the light, something besides the timing that she couldn't quite put her finger on. What was she missing?
Jack was watching her, the question in his eyes. She shrugged and made herself drop it.
"Just making sure it's not getting hot," she told him.
They reached their driveway a few minutes later. Jack muttered, "Finally," and ran ahead, his shoe bag in one hand and the waist of his jeans in the other. Their mother's old Pontiac was ticking in front of the two-story bungalow whose prime had passed sometime in the sixties. The porch light was on. It was pale and weak compared to the hourglass.
Jennifer looked down at her necklace and felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle around the chain.
It was dark again.
Inside she found her mother in the kitchen, adding sauce to a pot of spaghetti. Jack had already dumped his shoes somewhere and was seated at the table, chewing on his fork and glowering down at his baby plate.
"There you are, Jennifer," said her mother, swinging up the pot and taking it to the table. "Grab that plate of toast for me, will you? Thank you. So, how was shoe shopping?"
"Okay." Jennifer brought over the toast and took her seat. Jack gave her a covert glance as he piled spaghetti onto his plate.
Probably wondering if I'm going to snitch about his attitude at the store, she thought and threw a piece of toast at him. He caught it and, with the briefest flash of a smile, started to chow down.
"I bought a necklace," she told her mom as she filled her own plate. "I hope that's okay. It was only fifty cents."
"That's fine. What about the shoes? How much did they cost?"
She handed over the change and it was counted out carefully. Jennifer watched the lines crinkle her mother's brow as she did some mental calculations. After a moment, she nodded to her herself and set the money aside, focusing back on her daughter with a tired smile. "So. Where's this necklace then?"
Jennifer held it up. Her mother made an "Oooh" of appreciation and leaned close to see it better.
Jack asked through a mouthful of food, "S'turned off again?"
"Turned off?" said their mother.
"It glows," Jennifer explained. "But only sometimes. And there doesn't seem to be a switch to it."
"It's broken," said Jack.
Their mother hummed sympathetically. "That's too bad. But you get what you pay for, I guess. At least it looks neat."
"By the way, I'm going back into work tonight, so I'm leaving the cell here in case you guys need it. Only use it if it's an emergency, though, okay? We're low on minutes. That means no calling me because you want to stay up and play video games, Jack."
Jack's scowl—which had lightened at the sight of food—fell back into place at that.
"You're going back into work?" said Jennifer. "Why?"
Her mother didn't take her eyes off the strand of spaghetti she was twirling around her fork. "This court case isn't going so well. Mr. Peterson wants all his paralegals on it. It will only be for a couple hours."
"Last time you said that you didn't come home until morning," said Jack.
He and Jennifer shared a look. It wasn't an exaggeration. And that hadn't been the only time either. But argument only went with their mom so far. Bottom line, they knew they could use the overtime money, and if the boss wanted her to be there, then, well…
They finished dinner in silence. Jack escaped to his room as soon as he was done, claiming he had homework to finish. That left Jennifer to do the dishes. Her mother collected her briefcase, then came over to giver her a hug before heading out.
"Remember, I'm just a phone call away if you need anything."
"I know, Mom."
That got her a smile and a kiss on the temple.
Her mother turned to leave. Jennifer fiddled with a dishrag. At the last second she called out, "Mom?"
Her mother reappeared in the doorway. "Yes, honey?"
Deep breath. You can do this. "Wouldn't it be easier… I mean, I know you said before you didn't want me to, but… I'm more than old enough to get a job now. And there are plenty of places hiring that I could easily walk to. I promise, I won't let it affect my grades at all—"
Her mother sighed. "We've been over this, Jennifer. I don't want you working while you're still in high school."
"But I want to help you."
Her mother's expression softened. She came over and cupped her daughter's cheek. "I love that you want to help me," she said. "And I appreciate you worrying about me. But it's not necessary. I'm fine. We're fine. This is your time to live how you want to, honey. Adulthood comes fast enough without you rushing to meet it."
When Jennifer didn't respond her mother said, "Okay?"
Jennifer forced herself to nod. Her mother smiled and patted her cheek. "Good. Now, goodnight."
Her mother left.
Once she was gone, Jennifer went to the sink and knocked the faucet handle over to hot with more force than was strictly necessary. It was frustrating having to sit around watching her mother struggle when she was perfectly capable of pitching in. And no matter what her mother said about not needing help, if she was running herself ragged over her toad of a boss, then obviously that wasn't true.
She had debated, briefly, with getting a job in secret, but had eventually dismissed the idea. Even if she could hold a part-time job without her mother finding out, she would have no excuse for why she suddenly had money to help pay the bills. And if she couldn't give her mom the money, what would be the point?
It's fine. There's still the art show, she consoled herself, rinsing suds off the last plate and putting it in the drying rack. All I have to do is win first place. I've done it before. I can do it again.
Although none of those other shows had been state level…
She tried not to think about that.
Once Jennifer was done cleaning up, she retreated to her room. The minute she was engulfed in the darkened space, her necklace flared to life again. It startled her as badly as it had the first time.
"What is up with you?" she said to it, and then felt stupid. She went over to her desk and turned on the lamp. Immediately, the hourglass flickered out. Coincidence again? Or did it work like one of those glow-in-the-dark toys, absorbing light then emitting a glow once it got dark? But those were usually pretty dull. The necklace's light was razor bright. Solar power, maybe? Jennifer thought, taking the necklace off and sitting down to inspect it more closely. But then—
She froze. She'd just realized what had been bothering her earlier.
The hourglass had no bulb.
So where was the light coming from?
Goosebumps broke out over Jennifer's arms. There's a logical explanation for it, she told herself as she turned the necklace this way and that. The sand looked like normal sand, albeit very white and fine. The glass, too, seemed normal. There were no hidden switches, no secret panels that might hide a small battery—and frankly, no space, in either the base or the top.
She shook the thing in frustration. "Aghh! How are you working?"
The hourglass bobbed and swung on its chain. The movement caught the light from the lamp, and that's when Jennifer noticed the etchings in minute hand around the side of the base, no bigger than a couple millimeters in height.
She squinted. Not just decorative etchings. It was a string of words in… was that some form of Arabic? Yes, it was. Having a father stationed in Iraq for almost fifteen years, she couldn't help but recognize it. He'd often mailed her and Jack little gifts he thought they might find interesting, and for her thirteenth birthday that had included several books in the country's native language. She had spent close to six months trying to teach herself to read it before giving up, leaving her with just enough skill to correctly pronounce what was etched onto the base of the hourglass without understanding a word of it.
Completely unhelpful, in other words.
It's probably a brand name or something, she thought cynically as she began sounding out the words. Or maybe a warning notice like, "This necklace will light up randomly for no apparent reason, so beware." Or, "Caution all epileptics." Or even—
She never got to complete the thought. Because at that moment she finished reading out the last word on the hourglass, and the world exploded around her.